published Monday, May 26th, 2014

Feeling a part of something bigger

  • photo
    Chattanooga National Cemetery contains the graves of some 50,000 people, the body of them emblematic of the history of the last 150 years of the United States.
    Photo by Doug Strickland /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

If there's ever a place to feel small in Chattanooga, it's the National Cemetery.

Surrounding you are the graves of around 50,000 people, the body of them emblematic of the history of the last 150 years of the United States.

Most of them served in the armed forces.

They faced their first cousin at Chickamauga in the Civil War, they were part of the Great Locomotive Chase; they charged up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War; they were gassed in Argonne, France, in World War I; they lost a limb at Midway in World War II; they suffered through the bitter winter at Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War; they fell at Hamburger Hill during Vietnam; they ran across a land mine at Fallujah, Iraq; or they were attacked at Kabul, Afghanistan.

The conflict itself doesn't heap glory on each fallen veteran. All wars are hell. But their service, voluntary or otherwise, does.

And the Chattanooga National Cemetery, on any day but particularly on this Memorial Day, makes it easy to appreciate that service.

Large and billowing American flags line MacArthur, Eisenhower and Nimitz, the cemetery streets. At each grave is an individual flag planted by a Boy Scout, Cub Scout, Girl Scout and Brownie Scout.

You remember what that was like when you and your son placed one at the grave of your father that your son never met. You were amazed at how so many graves were covered so fast by so many small hands.

You remember your father telling stories about his days in the South Pacific and rolling your eyes, but now would hear the stories told in momentous detail if you could.

The top of the hill in the middle of the 120.9-acre cemetery, where a flag at half staff bows its red, white and blue for the individuals it overlooks, offers unparalleled views of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge.

You glance at the Memorial Circle of Honor there and see the inscribed stones set there by groups that had particular reason to remember the likes of the Vietnam Wall, Dec. 7, 1941, the Sixth Calvary and submarine veterans.

You remember being there at some of those placement ceremonies, talking to veterans affiliated with the groups and knowing the words you'd write for the newspaper would never measure up to the sacrifices that were made.

Beneath the oak, elm and magnolia trees -- above, below and around the limestone rock outcroppings -- are headstones of various sizes, the small and larger rectangles the homes of the earlier inhabitants, the latter rounded tops marking the bulk of the burials.

You remember being there for the commitment ceremonies of a former mayor, a judge, your father, your eyes wet as the American flag was folded and presented to the widows. And hearing the mournful found of "Taps" played by a bugler just off to the left.

You remember accompanying a German woman to the grave of her father, a prisoner of war who died at a camp in the United States, and telling her story for incredulous local readers who didn't know of such interments.

A lake to which geese and ducks flock and the grand Armed Forces Pavilion, ringed with flags of each branch of military service, are relatively new additions to the cemetery.

You recall the Easter sunrise and Memorial Day services you have attended there and how the sometimes crisp air seemed the perfect salute from the hallowed thousands to those in attendance.

And you can't help but remember the shivers you got as the Salvation Army brass band launched into a patriotic tune to start the ceremony.

The headstones across the grounds are a work of art themselves, seen from one perspective as perfectly straight columns and from another as perfectly diagonal rows, each face turned just so to catch a glint of sun.

Even the individual marble markers in the columbarium challenge the eye, appearing blank when gazed upon at an angle but perfectly inscribed close up.

So, in the midst of such history, surrounded by the final resting place of Christians, Jews, men, women, black and white, it is easy to feel small. But when you consider their service, their combined might in the defense of the country in places from just blocks away to thousands of miles across the ocean, you feel a part of something much bigger, a force for good unlike any other in the world, an America worth preserving.

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