The hum of traffic recedes as you drive into the heart of the cemetery. Then the stillness takes over, and you’re alone amid a vast sea of headstones.
They stretch, endlessly, in every direction, row after row, laid out with such precision that no matter from which angle you look, you see long, perfect swaths of grass between them.
Long Island National Cemetery is a good place to spend some time, and not only as Memorial Day approaches. I drive past the East Farmingdale site every workday morning and evening, on one side or the other. When traffic is flowing, you whiz past, the headstones a blur of white. When it’s not, you have time to gaze and contemplate this vast compendium of bravery, sacrifice and loss.
Each grave is a story, or a hundred.
A small American flag flutters in the breeze at the grave of John D. Mitchell, killed in the waning days of World War II, a few months after his 23rd birthday.
Over there is Alice Elizabeth Packard, a Navy reservist from Ohio who served in World War I.
Turn down another row and you find Henry Budzinski lying next to Walter Budzinski, both from the same building on East 11th Street in Manhattan’s East Village, both Marines, both killed in the Pacific theater in epic battles less than three months apart in 1945 — Henry on Iwo Jima, Walter on Okinawa. Henry was 10 days shy of turning 20. Walter was 21.
This is a good place to think — about the days not lived, the children not sired, the dreams not achieved, the memories not created. And about the country served and the duty fulfilled.
In the quiet, I imagine pain and pride lying side by side.
The dates chiseled in stone remind you that war is largely a young man’s endeavor. But it’s also true that many of these veterans survived and went on to live long lives. Like Angelo Joe Spirio, an Army technician fourth grade in World War II who died in 2010 at age 91. His wife, Josephine, is buried with him. A sprig of curled red ribbons rises from the ground beside their headstone.
To wander among these souls is to embrace the mosaic of America. You see it in the names — Minniti, Lehman, Ramos, McDougal, Grover, Klein, Lopez, Levy, Waleskewicz, Schramm. You see it in their hometowns — New York and its surrounding states, sure, but also Mississippi, Georgia, West Virginia, Puerto Rico, Minnesota, Maine, the British West Indies, the Canal Zone. And you see it in the wars, from World War I to Vietnam and beyond.
You arrive at the cemetery thinking there’s a special poignancy this year with the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion coming in just a few days. But as you walk along the rows, it’s hard to imagine feeling different degrees of sadness, regret and respect.
Flowers of all types dot scattered graves, messages from those still living. A robin swoops in and perches on a headstone, like a watchman, its head moving in quick bursts as it surveys the area. The trees stand silent guard, their roots gathering the deceased and offering comfort.
This is a place of serenity, an eternal refuge from the chaos that engulfed so many in their final moments. The dates in stone tell a story of loss, yes, but the inscriptions also tell us how to mark that loss.
Forever in our hearts.
Gone but not forgotten.
They remind us that this precious nation of ours was not founded, preserved and strengthened by words alone. Nor by mere actions. It also was forged with blood.
On a recent visit, one small plot of ground between several headstones was roped off. It was being prepared for another burial.
Time passes. Lives are lived and given. But honor never dies.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.