A tombstone in Arlington,
And a faded Polaroid or two
Are all I own
To remember you, dear Father.
--And your last name too.
In July 1976, our local Boy Scout troop—Frackville troop 91, traveled to Washington, D.C for a week of sightseeing and adventure. We rode charter busses down to the Capital, and stayed in barracks on a local Army base. It was a an exciting experience for the boys from the Mountain City; we were roused each morning by a real Army revelry, and each day before we began a new adventure, we experienced breakfast in a genuine mess hall.
Among our stops that week was Arlington National Cemetery, a place I hadn’t visited or really thought about much since my father’s funeral in February 1970. I was six when that happened, and by that July of 76, my age had doubled to twelve. Somehow one of our scoutmasters, “Chief” Bulcavage, knew that my father was buried there. Maybe my Mom told him, or maybe I even told him myself. I don’t really remember.
Chief, as everyone addressed him out of respect and admiration, was a great man and good person. As a boy growing up in a small town, I can remember seeing him around just about everywhere. He worked at the post office for many years; Chief officiated or coached just about every type of athletics, and he even found time to be an inspiring scoutmaster. I could always sense that he genuinely cared about young people, and all the scouts worshiped him. Chief seem to have mastered the balance between toughness and tenderness, and everybody in the community appreciated his dedication.
The evening before we visited Arlington, Chief called me out of my room at bed check. I stepped into the dimly lit hallway and waited for him to speak. He looked at me for a few seconds, and I was afraid I was in trouble for something—I wasn’t always a “model” Scout. I am scared. Then, he gently, yet firmly, put his hand on my shoulder and spoke.
“Alex, would you like to visit your dad’s grave when we go to Arlington tomorrow?
For some strange reason, I hadn’t even thought about this, and his question took me by surprise. My father was the stuff of stories and folklore in my mind, and we all know that stories come and go, somewhere between a dream and a memory.
I looked up at Chief, and I saw security and strength in his eyes; I felt comfort in his hand on my shoulder.
“Yes Chief,” I answered. “I would really like to do that.” He tussled my hair, winked at me, and smiled.
“We’ll take our own little private side-tour to see it, Okay Alexander?” I smiled back.
The changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is one of the most impressive events of decorum, discipline, and honor that I have ever witnessed. It really caught the attention of the Scouts from Schuylkill County, and even though we may not have completely understood the significance of the ceremony, we all were deeply impressed by it.
Later, at John F. Kennedy’s grave, many Scouts posed for pictures with the capital shimmering in the background. It was a very bright and sunny July summer day. While I stood staring at the eternal flame, I felt the familiar hand of Chief grip me on the shoulder. He quietly told me to follow him, and we set off down the steps from the JFK grave site, unnoticed by the rest of our sightseeing troop.
“Do you know where his grave is Chief?” My voice cracked a little bit, and I realized I was nervous.
“Yes, it is not far away” he answers, pulling a map out of his pocket as we strode down the path. He hands it to me and continues talking.
“Now, You’re the Boy Scout Alex. Why don’t you see if you can show me how you got a few of those merit badges you’re sporting.” He chuckled at his little joke, and I looked at the “X” on the map.
We were only about fifty or so yards or so down the hill to the east of Kennedy’s grave when I located it on the map as my orientation point. Quickly, I realized the “X” that marking my father’s grave was just west and north of the road we had now reached.
“Yup scout, it is just around the corner.” He pointed in the direction of a gentle rise in the landscape, and we left the road and stepped onto the hallowed ground. Gingerly we tiptoed around the tombstones that lined the land, and now I followed Chief as he checked the numbers on the backs of the graves. Finally, he stops. Grave number 2222.
“This is it,” he said, and we both looked down.
“James H. Alexander” I said is a voice just above a whisper. I look around for a moment at the surroundings, and suddenly the memories of his funeral are there with me. I started to feel strange and warm. I was not sure what to do next, but my natural reflex was to say a prayer. I dropped to my knees and make the sign of the cross. As I closed my eyes to pray, a wave of sadness sweeps over me and tears began to roll down my face. I was not sure why I was crying, but slowly I feel the bottom dropping out. The last thing I remember with any clarity about that particular moment is Chief, kneeling next to me, with one arm tight around my shoulders.
As I close my eyes and try to reach back to the past, I think I can almost...barely remember crawling in my father’s lap. I’m not exactly sure, but I think he’s wearing a khaki uniform, and his hat is off. We—my mom and I—might still be living in the small walkup apartment in Hazleton, but again, I’m not exactly sure. My mom claims it is possible, and at the time, I would have been between two and three years old.
There is one other recollection from a time in Indiana. I am standing on one side of the gravel road that circles the barn lot of the family farm, and my father stands on the other side; it seems he is urging me to come to him. Again, I swear he is wearing a uniform, and I recall the brightness of the sun is almost blinding. I see his outstretched arms, and it seems he is beckoning me to cross the road to him. His arms are stretched out to me and inviting. Yet even with the clarity of the surroundings, he still seems almost like he is a ghost. Then the memory fades away while the feelings of pain, emptiness and anger remain. I open my eyes. This is not going to be easy.
That’s it. Two memories, and truth is, I don’t even know if they’re really memories. That still bothers me, and it frustrates me as I try to force my way back into the past to make sense of the present, and desperately try to understand what the future holds.
I close my eyes again and move forward to a place where definitive cognition takes root in me. There is no mistaking these apparitions, and blurred lines melt into sharp clarity.
In February of 1970, I had just turned six, and my mom and I were now living with my grandmother in Hazleton, Pa. Most of my mother’s family was congregated in a 3-block radius in that section of the mountain-top town, and there seemed to be family around every corner.
One night, we were visiting with my Great Uncle Michael, who lived just down the alley and around the corner in a small second floor apartment. Urgent steps could be heard sharply climbing stairs to the apartment. I can remember the door opening, and there stood my grandma. She wore a black coat and scarf, and she spoke excitedly of something urgent…I wasn’t clear what though.
We’re going through the dark alley, my mom is pulling me along at a quickened pace; I can remember how cold it was that night, and then I’m in the house, talking to my Grandma from Indiana on the big black phone in the parlor. She is crying, but I don’t understand why; everyone is excited but I’m not getting it. My father is dead. It took me many years to understand it.
Of all images conjured by my father’s death, I best remember his funeral and the events surrounding it. I am excited to see everyone. I recollect my Grandma Alexander there and my Aunt Ann, Uncle Donald, and cousin Wesley, and there were others. I pulled Wesley--a grown man, up and down the breezeway of the hotel. He was entertaining me, and I can remember his big gentle hands and his warm comforting smile on that day. Perhaps he found some solace in my company.
Memories melt to the gravesite. I still have a vision of the casket, resting on a black wagon; drawn by black horses. The American flag drapes over it, and the steeds come to a stand still as the procession reaches us. It is a very cold day and the sky is gray. I remember the leafless branches reaching restless arms out over rows and rows of white tombstones.
The casket is brought forward to where we are standing, and everyone is quiet. I’m still not sure of the deal, but then I remember people crying. As smartly uniformed soldiers remove the flag from the coffin, they ceremonially fold it into a small triangle. One of them turns to an older woman with grayish-blonde hair who stands off to the side. I turn to my mom and ask her, “Why is that lady getting the flag?” My mom looks down at me with teary eyes and says nothing. She can only shake her head.
I see the soldiers, dressed in their best blues, raise guns to their shoulders and take aim at the sky. I am enthralled by the twenty-one-gun salute, but I also cringe at the sound of the reports. I can still hear the sound of crying behind me, but I don’t turn around to see who it is. I can’t take my eyes off the casket.
“My Daddy is in there,” I think to myself, but I don’t understand what that means. I don’t know him, and I still don’t get it. None of it clicks and none of it makes sense. I don’t know or understand what I’m missing, so I miss nothing. I’m just a kid on a field trip.
As I look back on pictures of that day, I see myself smiling for the camera, tightly bundled to keep out the frigid February air. The other people posing with me in the various Polaroids, Grandma, Aunt Ann, Uncle Donald, they all stare blankly at the camera. They know the truth of this day and smiling is not an option…they look through camera and beyond. Shadows of reality cross their faces; the innocence of youth colors mine. I’m not sure who is better off at that moment.
The funeral is over and I am in the back seat of a car. Somehow, in the confusion of grief and sorrow, I am with the lady who received the flag. She holds it in her hand, and I remember looking up at her face; she is sad and tears stream down her cheeks. She notices me gazing up at her, and she turns her head to look down at me. She says nothing, but a small smile crosses her face. I smile back and look down at the flag. The triangle it forms is sharp and colorful, and I reach out to touch one of the razor like points.
I’m not sure how long the Chief and I were at the gravesite; it seemed like a long time—I know I cried for a long time. Finally, Chief whispers something in my ear, then we both stand at attention and salute, then we turn and move back down the hill.
Chief and I take a slow stroll through the cemetery back to the main entrance. There, we will meet the rest of the troop and head to Mount Vernon, our final stop for the day.
“Alex, take a look around you. There’s an important lesson here.”
“What’s that Chief?”
“Freedom isn’t free. You should be proud that your father is buried here among our nation's warriors. He died so that we can live. By keeping their memories alive, we honor the dead and keep them alive forever. Do you understand that?
“Yes Sir…I do. Thank you Chief…for taking me to see my Father.”
“Alex, I was honored. Be proud.”