Maybe I should clean the headstone, I thought. There’s lots of moss on it.
I always did have trouble finding it. Somehow I could never seem to commit to memory the letter of the row where Daddy was buried. No matter which memory tricks I tried—was it row “M” for Michelle, or “F” for father…? Up and down each row I drove, finally stopping to walk. And there I stood, in the familiar but foreign, like an allied soldier returning to Normandy after 40 years. The body recognizes what the mind has long since suppressed. Brown, worn leather clogs decorated my feet this day and seemed to pull me with a force of their own in the right direction; in a path the shiny black patent leather Buster Browns knew all too well from that infamous day in the summer of 1972, as this six-year-old approached the coffin. Rays from the sun burned hot as they bounced off the polished brass, blinding her for a moment to the reality of what she was about to see. Dirt. Lots of dirt in piles, but no, not the fun kind that I can play in, she thought.
The people—all these people—all over, with their handkerchiefs and tears, embarrassing her with their constant stares. And the guns—BANG! BANG! Over, and over, and over—“Mommy, make it stop! It hurts my ears!,” she cried. “Why are they doing this? What is going on? Why is Daddy in that box? Don’t put him down that hole. Gross!”
A bird flies by, wings expanded in flight leaving in its wake just enough noise to bring me back to the present. Cedar Lawn Cemetery is peaceful on this summer day in 2012 and really quite beautiful, with a serenity that belies its purpose. Off Cooper Lane, in the heart of East Hampton Village, it houses sons and daughters of the Town’s founding families. Lester, Miller, Edwards, Hedges and Topping—they’re all here. Baymen, farmers—even my first grade teacher, Mrs. Amaden’s spirit greets me as I turn the corner. And there’s Mr. Reutershan, who taught me to play the flute at the Springs School. No, I am not alone.
The soil is wet from the early rain, leaving footprints with each step that I take in my search of the elusive grave. And yet there, past the large green hedge, I am summoned by that old marble flat tombstone—once pure white but now weathered by that enemy, Time:
Fred K. Thompson
T Sgt US Air Force
WW II Korea Vietnam
April 30, 1927 July 14, 1972
The tiny flag sticks up out of the ground next to his name, like one of the many medals that used to blanket his uniform. Boy Scouts who placed it there remind me now of the Memorial Day that is a national holiday, that lives annually in this nation, and not just in the hearts of the survivors. War words seem to jump out at me, and they startle me today: WWII, Korea, Vietnam. Attempting to compute the mathematical probability of a 45-year-old man serving in three wars confounds me, but I chuckle as I bend down to touch the letters. My fingertips gently graze these engravings and evidence of a life only the person beneath that headstone will ever really know. Perhaps this is enough, though—this sensory exchange with this man of extraordinary purpose leaves me humbled and grateful. This marble testifies to words unspoken.
But my memories take me back to those days at the Montauk Air Base, walking with him hand-in-hand to the commissary for an ice cream. The big SAGE radar he commanded loomed in the distance as I wondered how my Daddy got all the way up to the top. I thought of our drives to Louse Point in Springs in that old blue Plymouth station wagon, watching the waves dance as the sunlight bounced off the water. And I remembered his taking an extra minute to drop me off at a birthday party that time. On Copeces Lane balloons marked the driveway to Doreen’s house as I was jumping out of my seat with excitement. The garage door was open to reveal the party decorations and picnic table replete with favors and treats. My friends were walking about and I said, “Bye, Daddy!” but he paused for a moment and looked at me, taking in every moment, as time seemed to stand still. The birthday girl greeted me at the car as I again bid my father goodbye, bounding happily up the driveway, stopping and turning once more to wave, on that summer day in July,1972.