It was an early and unseasonably warm day on December 12, 2015, day when we arrived to begin our work with Wreaths Across America. It was the day I learned the meaning of Christmas, grief, sympathy, and humility.
Although I never served in the military, I come from a long line of proud soldiers and sailors on both sides of my family. In fact, I think we cover every branch except the Air Force. I am proud of, and honored to be related to such an amazing group of people and am so grateful for their service and the sacrifices they and their families have made. One of the people of whom I am most proud is my late grandfather Clayton Graybill. Until last weekend, I only knew that he served in the Army in the Pacific during World War II. I thought he was a member of a field artillery unit, but he died before I was old enough to know what questions to ask.
Pappy, as I always knew him, was a good man. He epitomized “The Greatest Generation”. He was a humble, hardworking, generous, loyal, kind man. He died when I was living out of state, and I was unable to return for his funeral. Never saying goodbye to him has haunted me throughout the years. As soon as I was able to get back, we went to visit his grave at Fort Indiantown Gap National Cemetery in Annville, PA. As I sat in the grass crying my eyes out, I looked up and right at the tree line was a huge deer, a buck, just standing there looking in our direction. At that moment, I knew my grandfather’s spirit was embodied in that majestic animal. Five seconds later, it was gone. It was Pappy’s way of saying, “I’m here, I know you are, thank you.” That’s the kind of man he was; simple and unassuming.
This day was designated as Wreaths Across America. A day for people across the USA to gather at National Cemeteries for a solemn ceremony and the laying of wreaths upon the graves of our nation’s fallen heroes. We attended the ceremony at Fort Indiantown Gap, affectionately referred to as “The Gap”. I cannot tell you how many tissues I went through. I cried when the Gold Star Mothers were presented, I had tears rolling down my face as the rider-less horse, an enormous, ebony colored steed walked by, and by the time they got to “Taps”, I was almost a slobbering basket case. I was there as a guest of a fine group of gentlemen, of which my boyfriend is a member; The Burt’s Knights Battalion of the US Army Brotherhood of Tankers (USABOT). They were there to honor one of their own, John C. Kowker, who succumbed to cancer in May. My boyfriend, Steve, was there to also honor his good friend and fellow tanker, Michael J. Plesh, who succumbed to cancer the day after Thanksgiving. An unfortunate series of accidental, and, eventually, humorous mistakes had us trudging through something like 25 miles of cemetery. We tried to convince the gentleman with the cemetery map that because John and Mike were cremated, they would not have headstones, but our suggestions fell on deaf ears, so we marched.
Our hike took us past rows and rows of headstones, some with a wreath, some with other decorations, some with nothing.
During our meander, we came across a tableau that almost made me faint with grief, sympathy, and humility. An elderly man in a hand-crocheted lawn chair sat in front of a grave. His weathered face said he was well into his 80’s, and from the cap he was wearing, I believe he was a Korean War Veteran. I took a few steps closer, not wanting to intrude on the conversation he was having with two obvious strangers. As I walked past, I turned around to look and realized that he was sitting at his wife’s grave. He had a small stringed instrument on his lap and a song book. I realized he was strumming this little instrument and singing an indistinguishable song. My heart almost broke. I so badly wanted to do nothing more than hug him, but at the risk of getting lost, I had to keep moving. I have been to The Gap many times, especially on Memorial Day, but I have never seen such a simple and poignant display of remembrance and honor.
Doubling back, on our way to where we were supposed to be, we passed him again. Once more, there were two strangers who had stopped to talk. As I slowly walked by, the woman leaned over and gave him a hug; he patted her on the back and went back to playing his little stringed instrument. Again, I wiped away tears.
Finally, we arrived at the burial repository for those who have been cremated. As we searched, first for John and then Mike, I came across another scene that gave me pause. An elderly couple, relationship unknown to me, were standing with their arms wrapped around each other’s shoulder, the man leaning heavily on a cane. They were overlooking a section of headstones, at least 100 in number, each with a simple evergreen wreath with a red bow, sitting at the base. I stood there for a few minutes, pretending to catch my breath and just kept glancing at them. The only movement was as the elderly man rested his head on the shoulder of his female companion and she kissed his forehead. I slowly walked away, again wiping tears, and caught up with the group.
The wreath was placed under John’s burial vault, some words and memories were shared, some pictures were taken. We then moved onto Mike’s vault. He and Steve had served together, and been friends for almost 30 years. As requested, I pulled a small flask from my pocketbook, poured a dram or so of whiskey into a shot glass that said “Armor”, and handed it to Steve. We all stepped back for a moment as he put a dab on Mike’s stone and said his farewell.
Things were winding down after a long and draining day, so I finally felt it was appropriate for me to slip away and head to the restroom. As I took my leave, I again passed the same couple that were still in the same place, in the same position, overlooking the same field of headstones. I silently apologized and snapped a quick picture of them because their pose, their reverence, their sole focus on that field of headstones epitomized and brought the whole day into perspective. It was an iconic moment for me.
An hour or so after we said our goodbyes, we made our way back to the car. Because of the sheer volume of people at The Gap that day, we were forced to return to my grandfather’s grave later in the day. We pulled over, I got out and was searching for his headstone, when I suddenly felt my knees get weak. I looked around and saw a lone wreath among many barren headstones. I stumbled over and realized that it was on my grandfather’s grave. I sank to my knees and sobbed like I have not sobbed in years. I did not know until later that a family member had sponsored that wreath and requested it to be placed on his grave. What I saw at that point in time was an amazing act of random kindness. I thought that with 9200 wreaths available, and 44,000 graves to cover how remarkable it was that one landed on Pappy’s grave. Operating under this assumption, I cried and cried and cried. My body was wracked with sobs and overwhelming gratitude. Eventually I got my breath and thought how odd it was that a circle of branches and a red plastic bow could mean so incredibly much. If a wreath on my grandfather’s grave meant so much to me, I cannot imagine how much it would mean to someone who has lost a child, a spouse, or a sibling. I could almost hear Pappy telling me to take the wreath off his grave and put it on a young person’s grave. That’s the kind of man he was.
I learned that Christmas is not about gifts, commercialism and hustle and bustle. Christmas is about doing things that matter for people who cannot repay you. Christmas is about remembering people who cannot be with us, for one reason or another. Christmas is about sharing and caring. The spirit of the holidays has been eluding me this year, but on Saturday, I felt like the Grinch down in Whoville….my heart was almost filled to bursting, and I realized how fortunate I am. Not because of what I have, what I own, or what I can buy, but because I can do for someone else. Because I witnessed strangers being kind to strangers, because I witnessed the best in humanity. Because, while I have seen unspeakable grief and sorrow, I have also seen honor, reverence, and respect. Many people choose to fight their battles in silence, but that does not mean they are not suffering. A simple act of kindness can often have the biggest impact. Put someone’s meal on your tab, buy a couple pairs of socks for a homeless shelter, fill a bag with canned pet food for your favorite animal rescue, take a bunch of flowers to a retirement home and request they be given to someone who never gets visitors, smile and hold the door for someone. Everyone is fighting a battle on one front or another, and your small gesture may just be the tipping point to restore someone’s faith in humanity, if only for a moment.
I learned this, and so much more, simply by being in the right place at the right time, and I will never, ever forget the man sitting by his wife’s grave and the couple embracing as they overlooked a field of fallen heroes. That is the spirit of Christmas that should endure throughout the year.
About the Author
Amanda was born in Harrisburg, PA in the aftermath of Hurricane Agnes. She was
raised with her younger sister Katie, a special needs child (and her personal hero). Amanda graduated from the University of South Carolina, Columbia with a B.A. in International Relations and a minor in Spanish. Along the way, she also studied French, Russian and Japanese. Amanda currently resides in central Pennsylvania, where she work in the Safety department of a mid-size trucking company.