Dana Anderson has small cuts and callouses on her hands from pulling weeds — 22 hours in one weekend alone.
For weeks, she has been fanatical about cleaning up around the little American flags planted in the grass near the entrance to the Tennessee Riverpark on Amnicola Highway.
Meanwhile, Vicki Baross, her helper, resolves to go home every day after her shift ends as a surgical tech at Erlanger hospital, but something — some force — keeps pulling her back to the Riverpark, day after day, until dusk melts into dark.
For seven weeks and counting, Anderson and Baross — strangers before the shootings of July 16 that killed five servicemen — have become women on a mission. They have been the unofficial keepers of the little shrine, a flag garden near the U.S. Naval and Marine Reserve Center where the men were shot.
For the most part, the two women have shunned publicity, not wanting to deflect attention from the dead servicemen and their families. "Remember the survivors" is their mantra.
There are no rules of etiquette for spontaneous shrines like the one that became the focus of grieving at the Riverpark and across town on Lee Highway. But Baross and Anderson decided to treat the Riverpark site like a sacred place — a reaction that seems deeply genuine and entirely appropriate.
In addition to pulling weeds, Baross and Anderson dried off rain-soaked balloons with towels and laminated precious paper posters left on the side of the road by schoolchildren. Tending the artifacts, treating them as treasures, became an everyday ritual for the two weeks after the national media and mourners had moved on.
"It's my way of coping, of settling my fear," Anderson said in an interview last week.
"People have traveled from all over the country to come here," Baross noted.
Both women are young mothers who feel accidentally enmeshed in the shooting narrative.
Anderson was at work at Grainger Industrial Supply across the highway from the Marine Reserve Center on that fateful Thursday morning when gunfire filled the air like an unending string of firecrackers.
"Shots were echoing everywhere," Anderson remembers. "We thought we were dead."
Baross was sucked into the drama when she realized that her child was on the way to the Riverpark that morning as part of a summer camp outing — only to be diverted by police.
In the days following the killings, a little patch of grass, maybe 100 feet long and a few yards wide, on the side of Amnicola Highway became a museum of mourning visited by thousands.
Along with the flags and hand-lettered signs were some items that gave Anderson and Baross goosebumps: a Miami Marlins jersey signed by all of the Major League Baseball team's players; countless military insignia patches and medals, including a set of Army dog tags from 1967; and perhaps the most memorable of all, a Marine officer's gleaming sabre staked into the ground — a warning perhaps to anyone else thinking of taking up arms against U.S. Marines on American soil.
Baross and Anderson say that nine days from now they will begin the solemn task of "honorably disassembling" the shrine. They cannot bring themselves to say "taking it down." Some of the artifacts have been shared with the victims' families, and others have been archived for future showings. The two vow to return every July 16 to set out some of the flags and posters.
When I talked to Baross and Anderson it became apparent that it was their interactions with visitors to the Riverpark that will be their most durable memories.
* The man, his body wracked by tumors, who stooped and pulled weeds until the pain simply crumpled him.
* The teary World War II veteran in his 90s who rolled through in a wheelchair on a punishingly hot day in July.
* And, most strikingly, a small man who collapsed at the shrine one day — overcome with emotion because he was scheduled to do repair work at the Marine Reserve Center on the day of the shootings before being called away.
Anderson consoled him: "God has his reasons," she said.
Anderson says working at the flag garden has helped her cope with the tragedy.
"Strangely, the gunshots echoing in my mind seem to have gotten a little quieter," she says. "Not gone, but quieter."
If you are a person of faith, it's hard not to see these two women as the agents of angels.
For that: Thanks be to God.
Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.