Thinking about Memorial Day

Headstone of Lt. Col. Willam H. Tuttle

6/5/21- Sun, Clouds, Rain all moving through today. Cooled off a bit. BBQ last night and light until nearly 10 pm. Bike ride home in the early evening breeze. Fantastic. Freedom.

As I was strolling through Lone Fir Cemetery on Memorial Day, of course I noticed the American flags dotting many of the graves. I figured I might honor the sacrifice my countrymen had made in service to our nation by taking a closer look at some of the headstones along the beautiful pathways for which I’d found new appreciation during quarantine. Get some details, imagine the lives, the circumstances, the challenges. Fortunate enough not to have lost anyone too close to me in armed conflict, I did have a great aunt whom we called “Sister” who had lost her first husband, Jesse, to artillery fire in World War 2. No one ever really discussed him or her loss (considered poor manners in the South), but I recall even as a teen just beginning to feel the pull of desire, of love, that the thought of losing one to whom I might be attached so strongly was unbearable. It must have had singular effect upon her life. I felt for her.

As I walked through the graveyard, more inviting than intimidating with its spread of heritage Cedars, Oaks, and Firs, I noticed in particular the grave of one William H. Tuttle, born 1837, deceased 1885, 1st Lt. Col. Infantry, California Division. The lettering still intact on the headstone situated over 135 years ago, initially I wondered what Portland must have looked like then…perhaps much like the cemetery in which these remnants of old growth that used to blanket the entire city remain. When did William finally arrive in Portland? What was his journey across the Western landscape like at that time in North America? Vast, wild, unsympathetic. Almost 50 years was a significant lifespan then. Times were much tougher all around, especially after the cataclysmic American Civil War. I contemplated a battered war survivor on the Lewis and Clark trail struggling to build a new life upon the destruction of his old.

But then I recalled the California Division listing, and I began to wonder if he weren’t part of the post war, rough-riding rangers of the Western frontier throughout Reconstruction. What lands had the California division secured for Westward expansion, for the Southern Pacific Railroad? What Natives had they exterminated for settler comfort, freedom? What liberties taken upon the heads of others in service to this notion of American freedom? My mind jumped to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and to consideration of whether this William Tuttle was a man of either the Kid’s or the Judge’s disposition, or somewhere in between. Was he a man disingenuously led and without much in the way of post-war alternatives joining ranks with a new division for a brighter future, for any future? Was Tuttle beneficiary to an early iteration of the GI Bill? Was he an evil son of a bitch who was all too happy to be afforded the opportunity to wield the decisive sword of God over lesser beings? Or… was he a man molded by rough circumstance and motivated by hunger to clear the land of whatever might stand in the way of his Gold Rush dreams for some type of better life? All possible.

I thought of the beautiful day again, my freedom to enjoy it, and my intention to pay respects, accentuating my commitment ironically by imagining life trajectories some might criticize harshly. I pondered the oft repeated notion hurled defensively at any less-than-laudatory comment upon the military’s contribution to freedom, that there would be no freedom without military sacrifice. I very much appreciate the dedication many men and women have shown to protecting American freedom as represented to them by our nation’s military. Yet, time has surely revealed the military’s many abuses of that implied promise of protecting freedom, both towards civilians worldwide and within its own ranks. I must then realistically consider that these freedoms bespoken, and for which I am very thankful, are conditioned upon grievous harm inflicted across many populations. I would not deny that armed conflict as a last resort can be necessary, and those who stand the front lines are to be praised for selflessness, sacrifice and bravery. But often these matters are not so clearly presented, and the dogma behind them disingenuously applied by those who sacrifice little and stand to gain much from the suffering of others.

And then there was Sister, like so many across our nation today I believe, emphatically pro-American right and might, her a proud DAR & UDC member, never missed a day of work at Fort Rucker for over 25 years. I think that this consistency might have been her greatest happiness, her unacknowledged definition of freedom. She never thought much of me; told me as much before she passed. The excess and entitlement of the 1980’s which I represented to her through the ease of my life in comparison with hers must have seemed ridiculous and unfair to her. Then again, she never really got to know me, nor I her. The generational divide over race, among other things, hindered open, honest conversation. Still I still wonder if she might have made a greater attempt to know me, to have been kinder generally, if she hadn’t lost her first love in service to the freedom that she never seemed to emulate. Thoughts of Memorial Day.

Published by Theron W. Wells III

Voiceover Artist and Actor. Southern Drawl and Infectious Grin. Portland, Oregon.

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