I have a sister who would gladly tell you that her birthday is July; not just in July, but during the entire month, as she zealously celebrates the festive event for a full month every year. Veteran's Day, now 17 days passed at this writing was celebrated again today in Milford, Connecticut for a Revolutionary War Veteran returned to a proper place of rest. It is after all, never too late to honor and remember our veterans.
Arriving ten minutes early for the 10 a.m. funeral and burial service, this confused Catholic frantically ran around the Congregational Church, yanking on each locked door handle and befuddled as to why all was so strangely quiet. Referring to my trusty and ever present pocket calendar, I confirmed the correct date and time. Now exasperated, I encircled the empty and locked church once again. Only upon completing my second lap did I then realize the church in question was about one block up the street. The flashing lights of the police cruiser blocking the road and the honor guard of roughly three dozen American flags provided and attended to by The Patriot Guard Riders in front of the church was probably a pretty good clue.
As told in Brian McCready's November 6th New Haven Register piece ("Revolutionary War Soldier's Remains To Be Laid To Rest"), a skull was unearthed when a railroad bridge was built around 1840. That skull is believed to belong to a Revolutionary War soldier who was possibly set ashore along with other POWs from a British prison ship docked off the Milford coast in 1777 because of a small pox epidemic on board. Despite the heroic efforts and compassionate care of local townspeople and Captain Stephen Stow, 46 of the prisoners, and Stow himself, succumbed to the small pox.
The skull's journey included stops along the way to the New Haven Museum and Historical Society, a Connecticut archaeologist, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D. C, and finally back to Milford for a proper reburial by the concern and efforts of several local generous residents and organizations.
Not wishing to interrupt any courtesy or protocol, I asked one of the Riders if it was OK for me to cross through the flag line and enter the church and he said it was. As I entered, a young woman dressed in colonial garb and speaking in time greeted me, handed me a program, and instructed me that "All civilians are to be seated to the right."
Shortly after I took my seat in a pew, several historic militias in parade dress filed in, including The 2nd Company Governor's Foot Guard of Connecticut, the Artillery Company of Newport, Rhode Island, and the Kentish Guards of Rhode Island. They all sat to the left of the aisle and the coffin before the altar.
After Rev. James Cronin of St. Mary's Catholic Church completed the prayers and invocation, William MacMullen (per the program) gave the eulogy, which I found striking. The names of at least some of the dead were called off. Some were from various towns Connecticut, and generally from the greater Hartford area. Some from other states, or "colonies." One soldier was from Spain. Other soldiers were known by first name only, and without known residence. One soldier's residence was sadly, simply and only partially called as "# 4." Other listed soldiers were unknown, and from no known location.
A member of the 2nd Connecticut Company Governor's Foot Guard then spoke, and reminded us, name by name, and place by place of all the wars we have fought in our nation's history. He then reminded us that in 1775, it was the famous (and later, infamous) New Haven resident, Benedict Arnold, who led 47 men to Lexington, but only after first acquiring the key to the local powder house. Since then, this historic regiment has placed a symbolic key onto the coffin of every veteran they have honored, and this one was no exception.
The militia groups filed out at the end of the service, escorting the plain wooden coffin (crafted by local carpenter, Charles Roy) with rope handles, which appeared to be possibly a replica of the colonial time period. Behind the police escort, with other officers on motorcycles blocking side streets leading into the procession route, the militias filed in with the coffin, with the Patriot Guard Riders carrying large, beautiful American flags behind. The Riders (all on foot) instructed the rest of us to follow in behind them. Also marching in the group were fife and drummers, playing their instruments. Several press and media reporters were also present throughout the event, plying their trade, writing, videotaping, and interviewing various people of note with this cause.
Representatives of local historical societies and groups were also present, including the Daughters of the American Revolution. Noticeably absent to me, however and much to my chagrin, were representatives of local, state and federal government, unless they somehow missed my eye. One definite exception being a noted former state senator, activist and radio personality, now a private citizen and local business man, whom I instantly recognized, and one man whom I only caught only a mere glance of, but was possibly a local and former high ranking state Representative, or if not, certainly a close look-a-like.
The procession crossed on foot through the city's historic district and into Milford Cemetery. The burial site was ironically at the edge of the cemetery, near the railroad tracks. As Rev. Cronin led us in prayer, a New York bound commuter train hurried by, followed by two more soon afterward. The irony struck me as I looked upon this colonial era coffin with the remains of this Revolutionary War patriot inside, and these 21st century trains rushing by it in the immediate background. I reflected upon another young man, the son of a long time and dear friend, now serving his country in Afghanistan. "Mankind," for lack of a better term, has learned nothing in 300 years of alleged progress, and still, our precious liberty can still only be protected by bloodshed, be it potential or worse yet, tragically realized. As Thomas Jefferson once supposedly noted, "Vigilance is the eternal price of liberty." Indeed.
After the prayers, pall bearers in period dress buglers cautiously and respectfully lowered the coffin into the ground with ropes. Buglers sounded Taps. No sooner had they finished, a strong and sudden gust of wind (weather forecasters predicted some between 40-50 mph on this otherwise sunny day today) came up from behind the protective encirclement thankfully provided by the Patriot Guard Riders and simultaneously unfurled all of their flags. My heart skipped, and this sad moment suddenly also became a poignant and proud one, as all of us beheld this magnificent display of these three dozen or so flags flying and flapping in the wind. It was truly a precious American moment, and I believe, one brought about more by Divine intervention than meteorological coincidence. I think I can speak for all in attendance when I say that sight of Old Glory truly enraptured us all, and was perfectly fitting for the occasion and this gallant patriot whom we were honoring and laying to rest.
Next came a 21 gun salute, provided by our modern day soldiers. Another ironic reminder. Only the uniforms and weaponry have changed. The need has not. Thankfully for all of us, however, neither has the courage and patriotism of those whom so willingly sacrifice all to defend and protect us, a concept clearly grasped by the few, the far too few, of those of us attending this very important event. One of the militia members then folded an American flag, I can only presume, of the colonial era, and presented it to a woman unknown to me, and dressed in colonial garb. Much of this sequence of events was all too familiar to me, as my family and I buried my father, a World War II Navy combat veteran to rest, also with full military honors, just slightly less than six months ago.
The burial service concluded with members of the various militias called upon to come forward and scoop a handful of dirt from the nearby pile into the ground and onto the coffin. Then by company, they were called upon and filed out, the first group having to part it's way through the crowd. (It's amazing how quickly distracted people comply and step out of the way when uniformed men, regardless of era, come toward them at a determined pace while bearing muskets and bayonets.) Lastly, members of the public were then invited to also come forward and scoop some dirt onto the coffin and symbolically assist in the burial of this true patriot. I declined, as I have not served in our nation's military. By attending the service, I felt I had already paid my respects, and that this gesture was a better one solely reserved for those who have or still proudly wear the uniform. I did note, however, one man, who held the hand of a young boy, presumably his son, as they approached the coffin and partook in this ceremony. I had noticed this father previously pointing out and explaining various things to his young son, on what I am sure will be a day both of them will always remember and cherish as father and son, but especially, as Americans. I instantly thought of the story of the young boy who was also brought by his father to see the reburial of President Lincoln, now encased in cement in Oak Grove Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois after a foiled plot to kidnap the dead President's body for ransom from its previous burial site. Like that young boy, this one was also certainly witnessing not only history in the making, but in one of its rarest forms.
I then turned around and started to walk away, turning back and looking over my shoulder a couple times to give a final gaze at the second and hopefully final resting place of one of our very first patriots. As I hoofed it back to my car, now several blocks away (and still parked behind the wrong church), and through this very historic cemetery, I read the names and dates from past years and even centuries on the various gravestones that I passed, giving me an even further sense of history. I had quite a walk yet ahead of me, but it was well worth it. For our guest of honor, his journey has now hopefully and finally actually ended, but the message he left behind via his sacrifice should live on forever. And that's why we were here today. For those otherwise available, and who knew of this event, yet still chose not to attend, particularly our so-called political "leaders," shame on them.
As Billy Crystal and Danny DeVito kept reminding each other in the movie, "Throw Mama From The Train," "Writers write." I soon knew shortly after this service began that I was soon destined to hit the keyboard when I got home. A recent string of serious personal events in my life has unfortunately slowed down my forte', but not my passion. I immediately came home, began brewing a pot of coffee, and prayed the Rosary, in which I asked the Blessed Mother for her intercession and assistance in writing this piece. This one in particular, must be written.
Today is the day after what is known as "Black Friday," the day after Thanksgiving in which retail merchants kick it up a notch as their harried shoppers flock to their stores in droves. Christmas after all, is now but a mere 27 days away, and our ever increasing commercialism less than subtly continually nags, if not, reminds us, that we have little time (and for that matter, money) to accomplish all the supposedly necessary tasks of this short and fleeting season. And like everyone else, I also allow myself to foolishly fall into that trap, and like everyone else, I had other tasks planned for today, but for now, they will have to wait.
This now newly reburied patriot, after all, while unknown, is not at all forgotten, nor should he or any of his comrades from any other generation ever be. Like them, he is far too important to forget. May you now finally rest in true and uninterrupted peace, brave soldier and dear patriot. Lest we ever forget to tell you, thank you, and oh yes, Merry Christmas as well.
(Writer's Note- To all the many individuals and groups, named and unnamed in this article, who in any way contributed to this funeral and burial service today, thank you. And in particular, to all members, past, present, and future of our armed forces, and to our first responders, all of whom continually ensure not just our liberties, but our very safety and security as well, from this very grateful citizen, thank you, and may God always bless, comfort, and protect you and your loved ones.)