I saw them some 30 years ago at Riverside Cemetery in Saugus, almost invisible in their khaki colors, atop gravestones in the various veterans sections, war remnants atop war remnants: 100 or more small plastic or metal soldiers not much more than 2 inches tall, decorating many sites, most likely glued in place, for none of them had fallen or been blown down. Small enough that my eye had to search them out in the midst of fallen leaves and brown grass. Small enough to catch at my heart. And numerous enough to say a great big thank you for what had transpired and transpires daily on foreign soils.
Salutes of a special kind, it was as though they stood at attention in the ranks, row upon row to the keen eye.
I like to think it was some youngster, perhaps 9 or 10 years old, who accompanied his father or mother or a grandparent, locked up by memories, into the veterans’ section, where each gravesite was also decorated with a small star-spangled banner. A youngster who had a most remarkable sense of where he was and what this flag-waving that surrounded him was all about.
I like to think it was that youngster who, in his own way and of his own choice, decided to add his specific decoration to each stone, a youngster who had apprehended a sense of devotion and duty that calls for obligation and thanks, and who, with a special grace, had donated his collection of toy soldiers to a greater cause.
I picture him at recess in one of our schoolyards, or in one of his classes, or thinking of people he had never met but knew all about. I picture him growing strong and brave and never having to know the weight of a rifle on his shoulder, a trigger at his finger, a deadly craft in his hands, but someday ready if he is called.
As the veterans’ names were being read at the memorial in front of the old high school site on Veterans Day that year, I thought of that youngster as comrades and teammates and classmates by the dozens were announced to those who had come to pay their respects. I projected this youngster onto Stackpole Field, World Series Park, the Kasabuski Brothers Memorial Rink, in a few years’ time, getting stronger, becoming proficient in his efforts, being ever a part of this town, and still remembering what had impelled him to graveside decoration.
Again today, I thought of him, and then, in a still moment, wondered if it had been some old man, older than me, who in his special way was saying hello again to old friends, old teammates, old comrades.
Either way, he was a winner.
Tom Sheehan is in his 95th year and is the author of 53 or 54 books. He lives in Saugus, where he was named Man of the Year in September.