A funeral at Long Island National Cemetery on Pinelawn Road...

A funeral at Long Island National Cemetery on Pinelawn Road in Farmingdale. Credit: NEWSDAY STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER/David L. Pokress

I drive past Pinelawn on the way to the office. You say “Pinelawn” and people know. It’s where our heroes lie.

As you go by, you note the rows of perfectly spaced graves. You look through that iron fence and in whatever direction you cast your gaze you see those rows stretching out evenly in all directions, like spokes on a wheel from the center.

I’ve wandered through these sacred stones, struck by the simplicity of the words they bear. Name, state, rank, service branch, war they served in, date of birth, date of death. All nouns, no adjectives. Just the facts, but not all of them. Bare outlines of lives lived but none of their richness, none of the stories they have to tell, and they all have a story to tell. Increasingly, the story is of a cadre that is aging.

These austere blocks of stone at Long Island National Cemetery in East Farmingdale stand in a sea of verdant green, like another assemblage of stones out east, in Calverton National Cemetery. Both places are stubborn reminders of the high price paid over and over again by those who stood in our stead.

We pride ourselves on the notion that our nation was founded on an idea, even as we have struggled to live up to it. These graves remind us if we stop to think about it that ideas alone are often not enough. Ideas, we have discovered, might be capable of birthing a republic but often they cannot triumph on the strength of their virtue alone. Blood must be shed for ideas to thrive, much to our detriment as a species.

When I was a child, the honored elders of this weekend’s parades and ceremonies of commemoration were the doughboys and their peers who survived the brutal primitivism of World War I. But the last of their number, Frank Buckles of West Virginia, died in 2011 at 110 years old.

For decades, the most prominent honorees have been the members of The Greatest Generation who fought in World War II. Records show only California, Florida and Pennsylvania have more of these veterans than New York, but the youngest among them is now around 94.

In a decade or so, maybe a little longer, the elder mantle will pass to the Korean War vets who are now in their 80s. Behind them, a decade or two younger, the souls who fought in Vietnam, many of whom did not receive a hero’s thank you for your service when they returned. And then, those who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever else duty called and probably will again.

As a group, they’re getting older. Long Island is, too, as we were reminded this past week in a Newsday analysis of Census Bureau data. And as the years spin past, the numbers of veterans will keep shrinking, but not the poignancy of the losses.

When you walk through Pinelawn and Calverton, you find yourself hoping that the cemeteries at some point cease doing business — not because they have run out of space but because they have run out of customers. It’s an empty dream, though, one based on yearning, not reality. History suggests that we always will need someone to fight on our behalf and that someone always will answer that call.

This weekend should be at least touched with solemnity in recognition of those dwindling numbers and the burden they have already borne. But it more often is viewed as a gateway to summer, a call to good times, and perhaps that could be taken as evidence that our veterans did their job well and kept the rest of us safe. But don’t look away too quickly from this portal to history, this window on pride and bravery and pain and heartbreak.

Each stone is a story that never ends — unless we stop listening.


 COLUMNIST MICHAEL DOBIE’S opinions are his own.

Newsday LogoCovering LI news as it happensDigital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months