Promises to Keep: You Will Never Be Forgotten

by Rebecca D. Higgins

On Sunday night of Memorial Day weekend 2011, I paused to sit down and watch the National Memorial Concert from Washington, DC on my local PBS station. As the stories of brave men and women were told interspersed with musical numbers, I found myself reaching frequently for the box of Kleenexes sitting on the coffee table nearby. Outside my living room window the gentle snap of my flag as it caught the evening breeze served as a reminder that I am still able to fly that symbol of freedom proudly as a result of the sacrifice of so many brave men and women throughout the years.

As I went to bed that night to sleep peacefully, I said some prayers for those families who have paid the ultimate sacrifice so that I can enjoy the freedoms this country holds dear.

The next day I had several at-home projects that kept me busy and away from the official Memorial Day observances, but later in the afternoon, I needed to get out of the house. I headed the few miles down the road to Camp Nelson National Cemetery, deciding to have my own quiet moments to remember the price paid for freedom. I drove my car back as far as I could in the cemetery, parked, and began to make my way quietly and respectfully along the rows of white markers and American flags that adorned each grave for the Memorial Day. A few other families were also visiting the final resting place of loved ones and friends.

Mike Tarter bugleSuddenly the plaintive notes of a lone bugle interrupted the hushed quiet of that sacred place as the familiar strains of Taps floated over the rows of markers and flags. I swallowed hard over the lump that formed immediately in my throat and wiped the moisture from the corners of my eyes. “Where were the notes coming from?” I wondered as my eyes scanned the cemetery. Then I saw them–two figures some distance away from me. Even though I had to squint to see and their backs were towards me, I recognized that they were wearing some type of uniform. As the notes of Taps died away, the arms of the taller of the two figures lowered the bugle to his side, and then his free right arm performed a slow, deliberate salute.

I had started moving in their direction as soon as I had determined the source of the music. I wanted to thank them for their service and for that poignant Memorial Day observance to which I had been a witness. Someone else who had witnessed the tribute reached them first, and I waited respectfully as a veteran from the Vietnam era talked about places and shared experiences that the bugler had also known. When I had opportunity, I shook the hands of the husband and wife duo and thanked them. I then heard their story.

Mike and Gerry Tarter are from Goshen, Ohio, where they both serve as VFW local honor guards at military observances and funerals. Mike served in the army as a helicopter gunner in Vietnam. While he is thankful to have made it home, seven of his high school buddies from Goshen did not. Their lives were cut short when they were still in their teens and early twenties while serving in the military. For over 40 years Mike has kept a promise that they would not be forgotten. After his stint in the army, he served in the Air Force for the rest of his career. Since he retired in 1990, every Memorial Day, he and his wife Gerry make a pilgrimage. Following their participation in their local Goshen Memorial Day observances, they head out in their truck, making stops at national cemeteries in Kentucky and on down the road to Tennessee where Mike’s buddies have been laid to rest. At each of their graves he plays Taps, salutes, and spends a few moments talking to his friends, always reiterating the promise that they will not be forgotten and that he will be back next year. They had two soldiers to honor at Camp Nelson and I listened as they pointed out the trees that helped pinpoint the location of the second soldier’s marker. And again I was moved as Mike performed his ritual–Taps and a salute and a wipe of the eyes to dab away the tears.

As I talked to the couple, Gerry (Mike’s wife) asked me if I had seen his truck. “It’s one of a kind,” she told me. As they headed to where they had parked it, I tagged along so that I could see the pictorial tribute on wheels they had created to remember those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice and to honor all veterans who have served. Even though it was around 5:00 p.m. when I encountered them at Camp Nelson National Cemetery, their day was far from over. They still had miles to go and more heroes to honor before they closed their eyes in sleep.

Mike and Gerry Tarter 1

As I watched their truck pull out of the cemetery and head south on state road 27, Robert Frost’s words appropriately came to mind as they continued their long Memorial Day journey:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
(from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost)

They are keeping the promise that those who have served and paid the ultimate sacrifice will not be forgotten.

Many years before them, one of our nation’s greatest presidents also stood in a cemetery that had been the site of a bloody battlefield. At Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln eloquently urged the nation to remember:

 Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. 

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. (“The Gettysburg Address” by Abraham Lincoln).

So I have come to learn that on these national days of remembrance and throughout the year it is important to take the time to acknowledge that freedom isn’t free and be one who makes the promise to ensure that freedom will continue to ring–not only from sea to shining sea, but in the hearts of all those who humbly bow before Almighty God, the true giver of all freedom.

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Postscript:  On March 3, 2016, I received a message from the daughter of Mike Tarter informing me that her dad was in his final battle with cancer. A few days later I heard the news that after a lifetime of keeping his promise, Mike’s journey had come to an end. On March 15, 2016, I traveled to Goshen, Ohio, to attend Mike’s memorial service. As I told his family, it was the least I could do to pay my respects to someone who had traveled thousands upon thousands of miles over the years to honor the memory of others. Mike, you will not be forgotten!

Mike Tarter's flag resized

Mike Tarter’s wife Gerry receives the flag presented in Mike’s honor.

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A Fourth of July Pledge: Our Lives, Our Fortunes, and Our Sacred Honor

by Rebecca D. Higgins

DSC_0004 7409 Wilmore Color Guard resizedThere’s something about a parade that brings out the kid in all of us. Perhaps it’s that festive atmosphere that comes with a big-party celebration. And the Fourth of July is exactly that–a party, a big birthday bash. Now, I have a confession to make. When I was a little kid, I somehow thought all of the hoopla surrounding the Fourth–the parades, the picnics, the fireworks–were all about me. It was MY birthday, after all. NO KIDDING!

But then my father, a high school American history teacher, made sure I understood the significance of its being a national holiday. I knew that it was on July 4, 1776 that the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. I knew that those men who boldly affixed their signatures to that parchment did so with a tenacious resolve as they penned their concluding sentence: “And for the support of this Declaration with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

Those were no mere idle words. Those American forefathers understood that the dream of freedom–freedom not only for themselves but also for their posterity–such a freedom came with a price tag. It meant that they would have to give of themselves. For some it would cost their very lives; for others, their fortunes. And yet for all, it was with a sense of sacred honor that they declared some truths to be self-evident–that all men are created equal.

The terms liberty and equality are woven into the fabric of our American lives. We use them a lot, but like other words in our vocabulary their meanings can change depending on the viewpoint of the one speaking. Those who have seen the passing of a few years, well recognize that ever-changing meanings of words and expressions can be confusing and block true communication. For instance, I’m not so sure that my over 80-year-old mother would understand American Idol judge Randy Jackson’s exuberant assessment of a performance: “That was the bomb, Dawg!” For her, “the bomb” is atomic in nature and very destructive, and a “dog” is that four-legged furry friend that greets you at the door. So while we still use the terms liberty, freedom, equality–do they mean the same thing in our generation as they did to our forefathers?

Some eight- to twelve-year-olds were asked to define what freedom meant to them. Eight-year-old Randi summed it up this way: “I don’t have to go to school, and I can watch the Cartoon Network when I like. Oh, and it also means that I can have as much ice cream as I want.”

We smile at the answers of children, and yet those of us who are a bit older are not so different. If we were honest, many of our definitions would reflect our own skewed understanding that freedom is somehow connected to an indulgence of our wants. In a book on American cultural history, David Hackett Fischer explores the various meanings of liberty and freedom from cultural perspectives. In his research Fischer discovered that even though we use the words “liberty” and “freedom” interchangeably, they come from different origins. “Liberty” came to us from a Latin word that implied separation and independence, but the root meaning of “freedom” had the connotation of attachment: the rights of belonging in a community of free people. And therein lies the source of conflict in our definitions. Too often today we use both words to describe our independence that is often a code word for self-indulgence. However, freedom by its very nature comes with responsibility–responsibility to work that others may also experience the blessings of freedom.

In a Fourth of July address at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall in 1962, President John F. Kennedy remarked: “As apt and applicable as the Declaration of Independence is today, we would do well to honor that other historic document drafted in this hall–the Constitution of the United States. For it stressed not independence but interdependence–not the individual liberty of one but the indivisible liberty of all.”

The famous preamble that U. S. history or civics teachers frequently ask their students to memorize, does not begin with a singular pronoun. But it begins with a collective declaration: “We, the people.” And we, the people come from various cultural and ethnic backgrounds–a fact that too often seems to be forgotten.

“We, the people” included a young Scottish immigrant who, in 1927, stood on board a ship as it steamed into New York Harbor past that famous lady with a torch, on to Ellis Island. Ten years later that same man was invited to become the pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. Special guests in his congregation included Franklin Roosevelt and other Washington leaders. And in 1947, Peter Marshall became the chaplain of the US Senate. He was known for his memorable invocations before the start of Senate sessions. In one such prayer Marshall stated, “Teach us that liberty is not only to be loved but also to be lived. Liberty is too precious a thing to be buried in books. It costs too much to be hoarded. Help us see that our liberty is not the right to do as we please, but the opportunity to please to do what is right.

Those words reflect a sense of sacred honor. They strike the same chord as that oft-repeated maxim that we know as the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Sometimes we say those words with no thought for the context of their first utterance. You see, they were spoken as part of a body of teachings from none other than Jesus himself. The Bible records these words in the Gospel of Matthew in a section commonly referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. For three chapters, Jesus fleshes out a Golden Way of Living. He talks about how we are to treat our brothers and even our enemies. He describes what it means to be people of integrity, who honor our word. He addresses the importance of helping the needy–not to receive accolades of others, but because it is right. Jesus describes what relationships within community require. To paraphrase it in the words of our founding fathers, there is a mutual self-giving of ourselves, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.

Betsy RossAnd so we come together as a community for this celebration of the Fourth with our hometown parades–a celebration that is in a very real sense in recognition of us all. It includes our veterans who have defended and protected the cause of freedom at great sacrifice. It honors our civil servants who hold public office, our emergency workers, our educators, our laborers, our businessmen and women, our students, our families. Unlike such professional parades as Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or the Tournament of Roses Parade, hometown Fourth of July parades are not so much about being spectators. We ARE the parade! That’s our son marching in the Scout troop. That’s our daughter playing clarinet in the marching band. That’s our brother proudly driving his convertible with his whole family–including the dog–decked out in red, white, and blue. That’s our new friend who speaks with a different accent waving her flag in celebration.

As this parade passes by, some of you hoist your little ones onto your shoulders to give them a better vantage point. May each of us follow the example of those youngsters and clamber onto the shoulders of those who have gone before us. May we gain an understanding of where we’ve been as we honestly assess our history with its successes and its failures. May we gain a vision for the future that inspires us to battle humanity’s common enemies such as poverty, racism and the abuse of power. In the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood, may we reach out our hands and our hearts past our private security fences to grasp the hands of our neighbors, until our reach stretches from sea to shining sea. But may it not stop there, for as President Kennedy reminded us in his inaugural address, we are not only members of the American community, but we are also citizens of the world. We join together to work for justice, equality, and freedom for all people wherever they are. As members of a vast community, recognizing our interdependence, may we here today mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.

Happy Birthday, America. Be good to each other!