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Family tradition holds that the name inscribed in pale stone in the columbarium at Arlington National Cemetery above my daughter’s grandfather’s name was the alias used by George Sohl during his service as a naval intelligence officer .
The truth is hidden in a filing cabinet in the Pentagon, where it has disappeared in the past, except for the tantalizing mystery it offers whenever I have the honor to visit Arlington.
It takes a bit of effort to find the columbarium with its name-filled stone walls. It’s not on any of Arlington’s main roads to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier or the hill where the Kennedys are buried.
My wife and I wandered past the columbarium one September morning 20 years ago and came across a simple monument at the edge of the cemetery where visitors had hidden notes in the stone joints of the monument.
Across the Potomac River, the Pentagon stood squat and solid, and it took me a minute to realize that the monument was a tribute to the lives lost a year earlier on 9/11.
We found ourselves in Section 60 of Arlington on a wet June afternoon 15 years ago and saw people, many of them young people, huddled in front of graves. Some were holding flowers, others had brought balloons and personal keepsakes, and we realized that Father’s Day for these people meant visiting the graves of fathers, sons, husbands and fiancés killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I had the honor of being present for William Manning’s funeral in Arlington. His service to our country spanned World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He shared an affinity for military life with my late stepfather and he was captured on Wake Island in December 1941. The Japanese put him to work in a mine and I’m told that was an experience he had rarely, if ever, spoken of.
The funeral was carried out with distinct military efficiency and I couldn’t help but feel that Bill Manning was not buried under a veil of sadness, but rather that he was welcomed to Arlington by thousands silent comrades.
I think of my visits to Arlington in the days leading up to Memorial Day, and I’m glad that every day I walk down Monument Avenue in Swampscott is Memorial Day, if only for the time it takes me to recite the oath of Allegiance once the big city flagpole pops up, then mutters four words as I walk past the memorials saluting Jared Raymond and Jennifer Harris.
“Freedom is not free,” I tell myself as I see parents walking their children through Linscott Park on their way to school and seeing the banner of inclusivity wave in the breeze in front of First Church.
I walk without fear of missiles and artillery shells pushing my family into a cave to hide. A painting in my den commemorates the defense of Wake Island and makes it easy for me to remember Bill Manning’s service.
I’m late to visit Arlington again, and maybe my granddaughter – George Sohl’s great-granddaughter – will be with me on my next trip. She will look at the letters carved into the smooth white stone and ask, “Who was he?” I will answer: “He was the brother of all the other people whose names you see here.”
I can never repay the debt of gratitude I owe to those we remember on Remembrance Day; but I never forget that the debt is due.