Memorial Day came early this year, crashing into my day on the way to my health club as I chanced to drive by Green Lake.
I am a news junkie and an old peacenik from the ’60s. But nothing prepared me for the gut-wrenching impact of Arlington Cemetery Northwest, quietly under construction in a light drizzle by Veterans for Peace and other local groups.
On May 15, rows and rows of simulated graves, cut from white cardboard and looking eerily like the real deal, created a sacred space on a crescent of lawn sloping down to the path along the lake.
There were neat rows of crosses and plain headstones. I noticed one lone Muslim crescent and a couple of headstones with Jewish stars. A dignified woman behind a canopied table asked me if I wanted to make a name plaque. “Pick a name not yet checked off from one of the names in these books,” she said, gesturing toward two thick volumes listing the Americans and Allied forces killed in Iraq. There were pictures, birth dates, hometowns and causes of death next to each name. She handed me a marker pen, cardboard, plastic sleeve and rubber bands.
“My” soldier was a handsome, fresh-faced 21-year-old. Had he lived, he would be the very same age as my eldest daughter. Only she is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, just starting out her post-college life. I made the marker, said a prayer and went about my day, carrying with me the memory of this private from a small Louisiana parish who died from an explosion next to his jeep. Would it be OK to try to contact his family, so they would know that on this day in Seattle his name was not forgotten?
I returned that afternoon to revisit his simulated grave, but couldn’t find it. Arlington Cemetery Northwest had grown too vast. I chose a fresh cut flower from a bucket provided for that purpose and put it on another grave. “Not to be disrespectful or anything,” a father with his young daughter said to the woman behind the table, “But what is this, umm, for?”
“Memorial,” she said calmly. “Memorial.” And wake-up call, I wanted to scream. “Would you like to make a name plate for a grave?” she asked. He hesitated, then agreed. “We’re making a marker for a guy who just died in the war,” he told his 6-year-old. I watch her bending down to fix the name to the grave with the solemnity of children.
Dustin Sides, 22, Yakima; Beau Beaulieu, 20, Lisbon, Maine; Michelle Witner, 20, New Berlin, Wis., Kyle Codner, Wood River, Neb., just a teenager, for God’s sake. Casual passers-by walked through the rows, looking at names.
“What about the Iraqis?” a passing jogger demanded. “We don’t have their names,” the organizer said in her patient voice. “They would stretch twice around the lake,” someone else added. “And it is over two miles around.” The next day I return. Nothing remains of the graveyard. Just Washington’s busiest park again, with shade trees perfectly placed by Olmsted, and back to business as usual. Except for a lone bench strewn with cut flowers.
Diane Ray is a writer and psychologist living in Seattle.