Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day, 2007

The Library of Congress Veterans History Project was featured on an NPR clip yesterday. As I listened to interviews, comments and observations, I couldn't help thinking how public broadcasting is vilified by an ignorant segment of the population whose information sources know more about spinning news stories than is dreamt of in the world of NPR. This story dropped in my lap just in time for Memorial Day weekend. I cannot supply a link because the program was Bob Edwards' Sunday, a two-hour program from XM Radio aired on public radio. I have just recently become aware of this program and it is some of the finest radio journalism being produced today.
(I am considering becoming an XM Radio subscriber because of this program. I got hooked by Showtime years ago by John Houseman's The Paper Chase which I dearly miss. The series was gone after a couple of seasons while the rest of Showtime's unfiltered detrius continued. A subscription to XM Radio for me would be like buying a whole banana split just to get a cherry.)

Among the "staff favorites" of this project is a first-person record of Edward J. Bayon whose solemn civilian duty after the First World War included transporting the remains of 952 casualties from the places where they died to a Belgian port where they could be shipped home to their final resting places. Rather than read a synopsis of the story, I was able to go to the primary document from which it came, a hand written account of the man telling in detail what happened.

This is a true story of three canal barges loaded with 952 American soldiers killed in battle on a voyage from Toul, France to Antwerp, Belgium on their way to the U.S.A.

In 1919, having married a French girl, I was mustered out of the army in France and obtained a job with the American Graves Registration Service which was just being organized in Paris. I worked in the field with Section #1, covering most of France and Belgium until 1921 when I was assigned to help establish a railhead at Toul, France under Captain Glandon. After three barges had been loaded with 952 caskets, I was selected as Chief Convoyer for the trip to Antwerp, Belgium.

The trip took three weeks, twenty-two days, to be exact, as three barges had to be maneuvered through a network of waterways to the next leg of the trip home. It's easy to forget in a time when airplanes move even the dead over great distances, often in a refrigerated environment, that moving human remains in 1921 was a slow and tedious duty. In this case the remains were being shipped about two years after they died.

Toward the end of the trip they experienced a moving display of gratitude on the part of the Belgian towns through which they passed.

April 22 we left Waulsort at 7:30 AM and reach Riviere at 1:30 PM. Up until now not much attention had been paid us but now things began to happen. We had passed unnoticed all through France, the French being inured to War and its terrible results but here the whole town had turned out to meet us with flags and flowers, the Mayor, the Conductor de Ponts et Chausees, school children dressed in their best & the village priest. The Mayor made a short address and flowers and wreaths were placed on the barges which were covered by huge tarpaulins. The word of our passing had gone on ahead and at every village where we had to pass through locks it was a repetition of Riviere. This slowed us down greatly. We reached Namur at 5:30 PM where a beautiful wreath was placed on the leading barge by the Federation National des Combattants de Namur and we tied up here for the night.

The next day April 24 we took on coal at Jemeppe and did not get away until 1:30 PM. We reached Avroy, which is near Liege, at 3:30 PM and here crowds were beginning to line the banks and a small motor boat met us to inquire if we would stop at Liege long enough for homage to be paid to the dead. On entering Liege a salute of cannons was fired and a cavalry regiment met us and escorted us on both sides of the canal into the city. Bugles sounded the Belgium taps as thousands of people lined the banks and bridges over the canal. At the last lock, before the center of town was reached, a Military band boarded the first barge and played dirges soft & low. Everyone was uncovered and many women were kneeling praying and weeping. It was very impressive. At the quai was the governor of Liege, the American Consul and his wife, the commander of the garrison of Liege and many other persons of distinction. The governor made a speech after which I was pushed up on a box to thank the people for theIr kind reception given our dead, in my poor French. The barges were then literally covered with beautiful wreaths and flowers. The band then played the American and Belgium anthems as we proceeded to the next lock with the cavalry still accompanying us. At this lock a repetition of the reception occurred with school children, boys dressed in blue and girls in white lined along the banks with flags.


On April 30 we left Vorssilaire at 7:00AM and, after going through that maize of waterways and canals that surround Antwerp, we finally pulled into our quai at 3:30 PM—22 days after we had started from Toule, France—where I turned over the three barges and papers into the care of the officer in charge. As long as I live I will never forget this trip and the kindness, courtesy and thoughtfulness of the Belgium people and the sympathy they exhibited to our American Dead.


As I read Mr. Bayon's account echoes of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying played in the background.

We live in a time and culture where death and dying have been separated from the hard, simple realities that death represents. Yesterday I watched with morbid curiosity as C-SPAN's Book TV showed Thomas Craughwell addressing a group of people in Springfield, Illinois, talking about his book, Stealing Lincoln's Body. Having delved into the historical accounts of the time, he was able to describe in detail how death and the handling of human remains in the nineteenth century differed from our own time.

My cyber-friend Jim Gilbert tells how he and his family have faced and accepted death (among other things) with a grace that only comes from deep spiritual roots.

And I also remembered the death and funeral arrangements for my own father, much more peaceful and carefully orchestrated in today's world than in the Nineteenth Century. My sister, mother and I were choosing a suitable casket for a man who worked as an auto mechanic and was rewarded with a retirement avocation finishing and creating furniture, shelves, clocks and other creations of fine wood. When we saw the casket used for Orthodox Jewish funerals we knew at once that we needed to look no further. The elegant simplicity and spiritual aesthetics made a perfect choice.

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