Good Life

Service with a smile marks Memorial Day preparation

Seth Balkey, 19, places flags on graves of veterans.
Seth Balkey, 19, places flags on graves of veterans. adrey@centredaily.com

It had finally stopped raining.

Actually “raining” isn’t the right word. It’s an overreaction, a disproportionate response to the intermittent drops of water that coated Bellefonte’s Union Cemetery early Thursday evening.

The clouds had been gathering for at least an hour, a little less than the time it took four Boy Scouts from the Nittany Chapter of the Order of the Arrow to weave through the paths of graves and tombstones leading from one end of the burial ground to the next.

Some of them had done this before — that much was obvious before they were even given an opportunity to confirm the suspicion. Despite the threat of impending rain, there was a practiced casualness to their approach, a feat made possible courtesy of eyes that already knew exactly what they were looking for.

The star-shaped markers posted in front of some of the graves didn’t call much attention to themselves. They were there if you were looking, a visual reminder that whoever was resting in this plot devoted at least a portion of their lives to their country.

But not everybody looks.

It really is a sacred honor to recognize those veterans who have gone before and who, in their time, served this great country, may have fought in a war and may well have placed flags in the same manner that veterans do today.

Michael Young

Every year, veterans from throughout Centre County visit the grave sites of their fallen brethren, adorning their burial plots with a small, American flag in recognition of Memorial Day.

“It really is a sacred honor to recognize those veterans who have gone before and who, in their time, served this great country, may have fought in a war and may well have placed flags in the same manner that veterans do today,” Michael Young said.

Young was a sergeant in the United States Air Force and a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy who served in the Vietnam War.

He was unquestionably the ringleader of a group of men representing American Legion Post 33 and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1600, the elder statesmen on site at Union Cemetery to lend the Scouts some of that famous military efficiency.

After all, they had a lot of ground to cover.

“The first time I was here, I was surprised,” said Cole Buchart, chief of the Nittany Chapter of the Order of the Arrow.

If pressed, the Order of the Arrow is best described as the National Honor Society arm of the Boy Scouts of America, with an emphasis on providing “cheery service” to others.

It’s difficult to rate cheerfulness on an objective scale, but Buchart, clenching a small grouping of American flags under his arm, was most definitely of service.

He estimated that the Scouts had placed flags on approximately 20 to 30 percent of the cemetery’s graves — an honest day’s work with a patriotic twist.

“It’s like that feeling I get whenever the national anthem is played,” Buchart said.

A couple of plots down, the Order of the Arrow’s vice chief, Zeb Smoyer, was waiting for Young after stumbling across a grave without a marker.

This happens sometimes — markers succumb to a wayward lawnmower or wear and tear.

It’s like that feeling I get whenever the national anthem is played.

Cole Buchart

Young was determined that not one veteran would go unrecognized. To him it’s a duty, one that becomes harder to execute with each passing Memorial Day.

“Over the ensuing years, there have been fewer veterans and many of those still living are unable to walk and place flags,” Young said.

On Sunday and Monday, members of the American Legion Post 33 and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1600 will speak at Memorial Day ceremonies throughout Centre County — but they can’t do that forever.

“I remember coming back and looking at all these old guys and now I’m one of them,” Young said.

Soon it will fall to the next generation, not only to serve, but to be mindful that their present — and their future — was built on the sacrifices of those who came before.

It was a lesson that Young was trying to reinforce with Twizzlers and Diet Coke.

The snacks came out after the last flag had been planted, Young’s way of acknowledging his gratitude for the efforts of the four Scouts.

“This country would be a hell of a lot better off if we had more people like you,” Young said.

Frank Ready: 814-231-4620, @fjready

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