Sunday, May 30, 2010

Thank You, Secret Dead...

Justice/Civil War Brevet Colonel Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr:

"I shall go out to Arlington tomorrow, Memorial Day, and visit the gravestone with my name and my wife's on it, and be stirred by the military music, and, instead of bothering about the Unknown Soldier shall go to another stone that tells beneath it are the bones of, I don't remember the number but two or three thousand and odd, once soldiers gathered from the Virginia fields after the Civil War. I heard a woman say there once,

'They gave their all. They gave their very names.'"

Of course, that lady was wrong- their names exist, on muster rolls, monuments, letters, books, and family Bibles.

But those without marked graves aren't the secret veterans I'm talking about today.

In the United States, peacetime military service- especially enlisted service- has been a social disgrace among big swathes of the population, especially those worried about their appearance of gentility. For some it still is. The ranks were full of foreigners, criminals, drunks, and other wrecks of society. "Join or jail" was not an exaggeration.

Which meant that the services were full of people hiding out. The services were a refuge for the hunted. Not just those fleeing warrants, but failed family providers, black sheep, unintentional fathers, and disappointing sons.

In those days before fingerprints, the army and navy didn't care what name you chose. The whole thing was a foreign legion. Thousands of men- ashamed of something, sometimes most of simply being in uniform- enlisted and served under false names. Some finished their hitches and resumed their original lives. Some took advantage of the fresh start to live better lives. Some went just as awry as they did the first time.

Some were killed. They sleep forever under aliases borrowed from friends, books, or whisky labels and saloon signs.

Which brings me to this First World War honor roll tablet. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of them all over the country on court houses, schools, churches, factories, and purpose built monuments.

But none are like this one. It doesn't have a single name on it:

It's in the central rotunda of Eastern State Penitentiary, in Philadelphia. (Thank you, BLC!)

No one but convicts and guards was ever supposed to see it. It's not a proclamation, it's a memorial- reminding them the dead, the noble levelling of sacrifice, the power of redemption and the meaning of a new chance.

Thank you, secret dead. This is your day too.

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