The Saturday morning before Memorial Day is a busy one at the Long Island National Cemetery, Pinelawn. Dozens of people spend the morning putting small American flags on the 247,048 gravesites of our deceased servicemen and women, their spouses and children. I've done it four times in recent years.
Cars, vans and minibuses line up on Wellwood Avenue to wait for the gates to open at 7 a.m. Inside, you are directed to various sections of the 365-acre cemetery to place a flag by each tombstone. Boy Scouts fan out and solemnly do their duty. Scoutmasters stress reverence and decorum. Many scouts salute each grave with their small hands.
Some cars drop off groups of veterans. Most are 60-plus, a bit wobbly on the uneven ground, but nonetheless steady in salute.
The roar of 50 or more motorcycles breaks the quiet as the Vietnam veterans rumble in with large American flags flying proudly from their bikes -- sometimes with recorded patriotic music.
When I place a flag, I always speak the name of the person buried there. I feel a connection with someone whose name may not have been spoken for many years. I wonder at the varied home states. Why does a man from South Dakota or Oregon lie in Pinelawn on Long Island?
When people ask why I do this, I say it is a satisfying task that makes me feel good, although I have not really found the right words to describe the experience.
By 9 o'clock, all flags are placed. Some Boy Scouts play hide and seek behind the trees and gravestones; others stand for group pictures. Everyone has gotten plenty of exercise and fresh air -- and wet feet from the morning dew.
Last year, the Saturday before Memorial Day was rainy. I didn't have any wet-weather gear, so I reluctantly decided to forgo the flagging. Instead, I went the Saturday after Memorial Day to "unflag." I had never done it, but knew volunteers were needed.
That day was lovely and sunny. Pinelawn's gates were scheduled to open at 8 a.m. I was on Wellwood Avenue at 7:30 a.m., expecting to wait, but there was no line. There was no one to direct traffic, no vans or cars filled with scouts. The gates were open.
I went to a section where my grandparents, Mae and Michael McCarthy, are buried and began pulling up flags, row after row. I could hold about 30 in my hand at a time and then needed to carry them back to the car. When my trunk was full, I unloaded them at bins around the grounds. I said each name aloud -- and heard only the silence of a cemetery and the songs of birds. I unflagged about 600 graves.
At 9:15, a trickle of Boy Scouts arrived. My feet were soaked and I had a bit of a sunburn so I decided to go.
As I left, I felt truly serene. I decided to skip the flagging this year and do the unflagging instead.
The quiet, the grandeur of nature and the awesomeness of the hallowed place provided a spiritual experience. Being alone and alive among all those who have passed -- some in battle, some far too young, some alone, some elderly and in the embrace of family -- reminded me of the transience of life.
Look for the Expressway reader essay Saturdays in Newsday. Send your personal story about life on Long Island to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Expressway, Newsday, 235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville,N.Y. 11747. Please limit essays to 540 words. Some essays are published in the newspaper and newsday.com, some are used online only; publication is not guaranteed. Readers are not paid for essays. Essays will be edited and may be used in all media.