June 22, 2017

Memorials to the Past and Future

Air Force pilot Michael Young memorial

Late in the evening of November 30, 2011, I decided to just keep going. This old lighthouse at the top of Michigan’s thumb near Port Hope was several miles north and I was already late going home, and home was south and west. The park was closed and a pack of maybe fifty deer ran around my car. You could hear the waves from a long way off. Three pictures from that evening became my “signature” photos. My favorites that expressed my attitude. The lighthouse rising above the trees and facing out to the harsh elements; the waves rolling in at shore, unrelenting; and the third one as I was leaving, a front picture of the lighthouse with a small cross and tiny flags in the yard. In the lonely, harsh environment, there was a whiff of defiance to the cross and flag. We got licked but we haven’t quit. We’re still here. ┬áThere was just enough to make me curious for more.

I got there too late to see why the cross and flag. Earlier in the day on November 30, 2011, the squadron commander for the 180th Fighter Wing flew his F-16 from the Ohio National Guard Base in Swanton, Ohio to the lighthouse in Port Hope to commemorate twenty years. Air Force pilot Lt. Michael Young of the 180th Fighter Wing had crashed his plane near the lighthouse on November 30, 1991. He ejected and the strong fifty mile an hour wind blew his parachute far into the freezing water of Lake Huron. Rescuers fought Mother Nature to reach him but the wind was too strong. After chasing him in the water for twelve miles, they lost him. Lt. Michael Young, age 28 with a wife and two month old baby, was never found. The memorial’s for the pilot with the Bible passage of going out on the wings of eagles. I searched his name in Google and found the article in the Air Force News:

“To mark the 20th anniversary of Lt. Young’s passing, Lt. Col. Tim Moses, 180th FW Operations Support Squadron Commander, carried with him an American flag and a United States Air Force flag and flew up the coast of Lake Huron and over the crash site, where a memorial in Lt. Young’s name now stands. The Air Force flag was presented to the Young family in honor of their sacrifice all of those years ago.

The American flag will be presented to the members of Amvet Post 115 on behalf of the 180th FW for their unwavering support of the Young family and for keeping the memory of Lt. Young alive for the last 20 years. The Amvets maintain the modest memorial in Young’s honor and conduct a small ceremony each Memorial Day, near Port Hope, MI., ensuring that he is a hero not to be remembered every 20 years, but every day, forever.”

Every day is a lot. Forever is a long time. A lieutenant in the Air Force isn’t English royalty and Amvet Post 115 in Port Hope isn’t Hilary Mantel. The old vets at the Amvet Post 115 are losing friends and family who will remember them. But I’ll remember.

A New Yorker article on Hilary Mantel last fall gushed the dead are real. Flannery O’Connor said it better about the dead, and the living, with The Violent Bear It Away, the last word in strangers passing through the centuries of violence, shattering the silence of the dead. The boy Tarwater finally throwing his face in the dirt of the uncle’s grave, the last word singeing his eyes and becoming a seed in his own blood. The past, like the dead, can’t be buried deep enough for the living to escape its seed. The corpse of royalty from a distant century might become this century’s pothole in a strip mall but the world was made for the dead more than the living, and the great pen of Flannery O’Connor and Hilary Mantel.

While driving through farms and small towns the other day, Fort Custer National Cemetery suddenly appeared in the windshield. All the flags were gone and dozens of deer were running in the snow, their mutiny against the military’s imaginative names like Army Street. Michigan native George Armstrong Custer was in command of the Michigan Calvary Brigade, known as the Wolverines, and fought at Gettysburg and Appomattox. Custer isn’t buried at the Fort Custer National Cemetery near Battle Creek, or Custer’s National Cemetery in Montana where the Battle of the Little Big Horn was fought,or Arlington, or Fort Leavenworth. There is some confusion about where Custer was buried. His last fight left enough body parts for multiple grave sites. After the Battle of the Little Big Horn, most of his mutilated remains were transported to West Point at request of his wife. German prisoners of war from World War Two are buried at Fort Custer National Cemetery. Abolitionist Sojourner Truth is also buried in Battle Creek. I didn’t find a street named “Unknown,” like the military put on the sign over the remains of the privates at Little Big Horn.

In Detroit, where “cemetery porn” is ruin porn for the dead, scrappers are plundering the graves for something to sell. Just like writers and historians.

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