By Jeffrey Bishop
Tell Time: 6 minutes
Scare Rating: 1 of 5 Ghosts
It was the kind of a day better spent curled up in a blanket with a book and a cup of tea than on an outing — especially an outing to a national cemetery to visit the final place of rest of a beloved grandson.
Besides the bitter mood that the task presented, the palpable drear was due to the rain; or what some might call “not rain:” a fine, cold, ever-present mist that consumed the space between the molecules of air and made it as dense as any real body of water. This was made clear to Doug and Gloria Hammerschlicht as they hustled from their car to the stone pavilion just inside the Veterans Cemetery gate. The short trip had soaked through the couple’s clothes, and, it seemed, through their flesh, to chill their very bones.
“It does look like it wants to stop,” remarked the woman with purposeful good cheer. “The sun is trying to peek through the clouds!”
While she examined the skies optimistically, Doug strode to the electronic kiosk against the pavilion’s solid stone rear wall. He ignored his wife’s comment by pretending to be fully engaged with the touch-screen kiosk’s gravesite locator application. He was focused on a single purpose: finding his grandson’s place of eternal rest.
“Here it is: Adam Hammerschlict, PFC, U.S. Army. Born May 18, 1991. Died in Service to his Grateful Nation Sept. 7, 2013.”
Gloria had caught up to her husband, and held his arm for support; support for whom, it wasn’t clear.
“Just 22,” she whispered. “Too young.”
Doug cleared his throat and wiped his eyes with his out-spread thumb and middle finger. “He’s at plot A117 PQ,” he said as he whipped his smart phone from its holster on his hip and scanned the QR code on the screen. This action captured the location and a map with GPS coordinates.
“Let’s go.” He started to turn, to lead the way toward their grandson’s burial place.
“Pardon me, Sir, Ma’am,” came a quiet but clear voice. The elderly couple jumped with surprise; they had thought themselves alone under the pavilion. “Can you help me find something?”
They turned toward the voice to find a tall, sturdy young man in full Class A military uniform standing before them. The clothes fit well and were in inspection order, but were drab in color, perhaps owing to the bleak lighting. They also, to Doug, seemed to be of an older style than that which their grandson had worn. But Doug had never been a military man, so he couldn’t say for sure if it wasn’t because they represented a different branch of service.
“How can we help you?” Doug offered. He seemed grateful for a diversion from their present heavy task.
“I’m trying to find a gravesite. Do you know where Private Henry Arnold’s body rests?”
Doug whistled between his teeth as his eyes passed over the thousands of identical white marble tombstones in perfect formation across the somber hillsides around them. Of course he didn’t, but he could find it the same way he’d found his grandson’s.
“Private Arnold, y’say?” he asked as he turned back to the kiosk. “I don’t have a clue, but this thing will tell us.”
The older gentleman deftly maneuvered his spry fingers across the screen. He briefly puzzled over why his younger contemporary hadn’t bothered to use the technology himself. “Either too lazy or too stupid,” he muttered to himself. One of those two answers resolved the matter to his satisfaction, and he refocused his full attention on the task at hand.
“Found it. It’s in A98, just over the next hill,” said the man. He looked up and saw that the information seemed to have lifted a heavy burden from the weary young man’s shoulders. Doug’s heart softened at the sight; the lad was really only a boy. Just like their grandson.
“Anyway, we’re headed just beyond that way, if you’d like to join us,” he offered.
“Oh Doug, the sun is out. We should walk!” Gloria interjected. The man looked out across the soggy fields; the sun shot shafts of blessedly bright sunlight into the otherwise depressing scene before them. The mist evaporated from the air, and the rolling fog, still heavy on the rolling meadows, glowed softly against the dark background of the surrounding woods and distant clouds.
“Okay,” Doug agreed. The soldier was silent and compliant, and fell in behind the couple, as if in formation again.
The walk to the soldier’s stop was short, but seemed eternally long due to the awkward silence. Gloria — but not Doug — might have wanted to talk, if only to fill the space between them that the silence created. But she had her own grief on her heart, and besides, she didn’t know what she might say to the boy about his loss. The boy also showed no desire to engage in conversation; he seemed intent upon his mission: to find and visit the gravesite of Private Arnold.
“There it is,” Doug said. He stopped in the road and pointed to the row of tombstones one row up and on the left. “Third one over.”
“Thank you Sir. Ma’am,” the young soldier said. The formerly somber face now seemed to beam, as if joy had descended upon him at the opportunity to complete his errand.
The soldier wheeled away from the couple with a sharp military facing movement. In the emerging sunlight, the woolen uniform seemed drab and all the more out of place. Or perhaps, out of time. Doug shrugged subconsciously and resumed walking up the path, with Gloria on his arm.
“Polite young man,” she remarked
“Mmmhmm,” muttered Doug. There was something about the lad. They topped the rise of the hill, and he stopped. He turned back quizzically. The soldier stood before the grave, with fog shrouding his lower half. He was apparently reading the headstone.
As the couple looked on, they saw the soldier’s figure walk forward, and also, it seemed down, as if on a staircase into the grave itself. The fog rose and swallowed the scene, briefly, rendering the boy invisible. In the very next moment, a strong breeze blew between the rows of tombstones, scattering the last remnants of fog that the sun hadn’t yet burnt off. In its wake, the soldier had disappeared.
The couple, in awe, looked at each other to verify what they were seeing — or rather, no longer seeing. The young soldier had plainly disappeared into the grave. He had returned to his rightful place of eternal rest.
The couple lingered a bit longer, considering the implications of what they’d experienced. Then they turned to finish their own important errand, at peace for the first time in a long time, knowing by what they’d seen that their own beloved lost soldier surely also would eternally rest in peace.
Click the link to access the Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration’s digital gravesite locator, OR click the smartphone image below to access the site it on your mobile device:
Inspiration: Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, St. Louis, Mo.: