Henry Slayton stood quietly under gray rain clouds looking down at the grave of one of his many friends in the Chattanooga National Cemetery.
It was the last of 50 graves he'd bought flowers for, to place on their tombstones.
It's something the 1966 Howard School graduate has done to mark every Memorial Day and Veterans Day since 2007.
When he calls the roll, it gets longer every year.
Slayton got the job mostly done on Tuesday this year. On Wednesday, he was still having trouble finding neighborhood friend Freddy Jones' grave. Jones' death was recent, 2018, and he's been buried in the cemetery's newer section. It's hard sometimes for Slayton to find his friends easily.
"This is the guy I was looking for all day yesterday," Slayton said as he stood before Jones' final resting place on the eastern edge of the cemetery. He'd run out of flowers because, when he couldn't find Jones' grave, he had placed his last bouquet on another friend's grave.
Jones would have his flowers by Memorial Day, Slayton promised.
In 1969, Slayton was drafted into the U.S. Army. He served in Vietnam until 1970 at sites including an installation at Cam Ranh Bay.
However, the graves he visits aren't those of people Slayton served with. They're friends from childhood, adulthood and those he's made along the way who have served their country in the military.
During the last week, as Slayton placed his red, white and blue flowers, he sometimes said a few words before standing at attention and saluting before the grave of each name on the roll. Those he was closer to, he might spend a few moments talking to them, sometimes even heckling them a little.
Many were classmates from Howard High School's class of 1966, the year before desegregation, Slayton said.
Someday, Slayton said, he'll take his place among them. But until then, he'll keep calling the roll.
A lot of energy
Amvets Post 36 commander Marcus Ford said Slayton is a former commander himself who gives selflessly to his fellow veterans and helps others in his community, too.
"You don't have to ask him," Ford said, "he just does it."
Regarding Slayton's faithful placement of flowers at the cemetery on Memorial Day, he said Slayton wouldn't accept any money to help fund the effort.
"He does it religiously," Ford said. "He always does stuff. He's got a lot of energy to do all that."
Slayton's twice-yearly ritual got its start with a trip more than 40 years ago when he came to the cemetery to visit family.
Slayton said he had only one uncle on his mother's side, and his father was an only child. Both men served in the military and are buried at the national cemetery in Chattanooga. When his uncle died in 1998, Slayton decided to visit his grave and, while he was there, realized that his veteran grandfather and grandmother also were buried there. He found their graves and put some flowers there, too.
Slayton's best friend and fellow veteran Gerald Jackson had died in 1986, and Slayton said that became the next name on his roster.
"So it started from there, and then I joined AmVets Post 36 in '03," he said, "and as we went on, those guys started to die."
Around the same time, more than a decade ago, Slayton's Howard High class of '66 classmates began to die, too. There were so many that by 2007, Slayton said, the names on the roll had to be split into two annual missions to honor their military service.
Just before the class of 1966 graduated, Slayton said, some U.S. Marines visited the school wearing their dress blues. He and a few others made a verbal commitment to join up.
But not long after, an older Howard classmate who was a Marine was killed in Vietnam.
"Somebody I knew," Slayton said. "I said, 'Fellows, that's it for me, I'm not going in the Marines.' But still a lot of them went."
By fall of 1966 many of his former classmates were in Vietnam, and four had been killed, Slayton said. Slayton was drafted into the Army in 1969.
For those who didn't die in combat, there was something else lurking in the background.
Vietnam exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange started taking a toll as Slayton and his Vietnam veteran friends aged, he said.
"That was around '07, so that's when I really started doing the folks I knew that had died," he said. "That's what got it started.
"Now, it's taken off," he said. "Since September, there's been eight to 10 guys added to it."
Slayton believes his friends are better off having not lived through the stress of the coronavirus pandemic.
"They're at peace," he said.
He keeps them informed when he visits.
"I talk to these guys when I put these flowers down and I say, 'What's going to happen when I'm gone?' Because a lot of these guys, nobody comes to visit them. Nobody puts flowers on their graves."
He admitted a few did get flowers from family and friends, "but the majority of them don't."
"So, I guess we'll just be out of luck," he laughed, adding that he hoped he'd get a card on Mother's Day from someone who said it was "because sometimes you're a mother."
Slayton wants to think he's appreciated and that he's among friends.
"I think when I come out here, maybe you can't hear it but I think maybe these guys are glad to see me," he said. "That's what I think, because they know I'm coming to see them."
Years ago, before his ritual started, Slayton said he told a best friend and fellow veteran that "'When you die, I'll probably come out there and put some flowers on your grave.' He said, 'Man, I don't want no flowers on my grave. You can't put no flowers on my grave.'
"So every time I put flowers on his grave — he's over on the back side," Slayton laughed with a wave to the west, "I say, 'I'm putting these flowers on here, and there ain't nothing you can do about it, so shut the hell up.'"
In good company
Slayton looks ahead to the end of his time with no trepidation.
"Most folks are afraid of death. I'm not afraid of it. I've made my peace," he said. "It's God's will."
Slayton said tough times right now are God's doing, and he's not worried much about his destiny.
"With these guys, it don't matter which way I go — up or down — I've got friends in both places," he laughed. "Whichever way I go, I'll be in good company."
Slayton said he hopes young people in the future recognize the sacrifices of their country's veterans.
"We've got to teach them what happened and how we got where we are," he said. "You can't know where you're going unless you know where you've been, huh?"
Overhead, as the 72-year-old Chattanoogan stood reflecting on his last stop, the first large raindrops started to fall, a slow, solemn drumming among the pale white markers.
As Slayton walked to his truck, some of his words seemed to hang in the air.
"It's all about life and stuff."
Contact Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.