in a small cemetery

Nineteen years ago on Memorial Day, I spoke on behalf of my father at the cemetery in Delafield Township of Jackson County, Minnesota, amid the farm fields where he spent his youth.

Every year, neighbors and relatives gather for a ceremony that is much like it was when Dad was a boy almost a hundred years ago.  I have only been in attendance a few times.  But my cousins, who grew up on the family farm nearby, have been steadfast in helping to keep the tradition alive.

Less than four months after I spoke at the cemetery, the attacks of September 11 would lead to another wave of young people going off to war, a war that drags on almost two decades later.  Four more months and my father — a veteran of two foreign wars — would pass away.

The story of one corner of the world is told in that small cemetery.  Here are my remarks from that day:

Delafield Cemetery, May 28, 2001

I come here today as a descendant of those buried in the cemetery.  I speak on behalf of my father, Willis Brakke, who grew up hunting and farming in these fields, and then went off to war.

For those of you that know him, it’s probably hard to believe that he passed up a chance to share his opinions with you.  In any case, it is an honor for me to stand in his place on this important day.

This cemetery is special for him, and on this day in particular.  As a boy, he always got excited about having the National Guard from Windom come out to the cemetery.  Then, the men were only a few years removed from World War I — the war to end all wars — and had on the leggings characteristic of the period.  At the end of the program, they would come to attention and march out and through the gate to the cemetery.  After they lined up in formation, the commander would order the firing of the volleys.  The bullet casings would be ejected from the chambers, and the children would scramble to collect them from around the feet of the men.  They were great prizes to be shown off to all.  The ceremony would end with the playing of “Taps.”

Back then, this day was called Decoration Day, as the graves would be decorated in respect for those that lie beneath.  Later, it became a national holiday, called Memorial Day, and so it is right that we come here to remember.

In the cemetery, there is a plaque that lists the pioneers of Delafield Township.  In many cases, they were young people who left their homes in Europe, realizing that they might never see their families again.  Searching for a new life, and for the opportunity to farm their own land, they came here, to this place.  Perhaps they lived in a sod house, cut from the prairie that surrounded them on this land that was devoid of trees except around the creeks and rivers.  Through hard work and perseverance they broke the land, unleashing its abundance, planted groves, and built homes.  Soon there were churches and schools — and cemeteries.

My great-grandfather, John P. Brakke, came to this country when he was seventeen, and on his twenty-first birthday, 130 years ago, homesteaded land in Delafield Township.  If you look at a picture of the first grand jury in Jackson County, you can pick him out instantly as a Brakke.  The pose was identical to one of my father’s.  An accomplished man of intellectual ability, musical talent, and political leadership, he rests here forever.  And his is but one story that we remember today.

We also come to honor the veterans.  As with the pioneers, they were young, and went off to distant lands, also never knowing whether they would see their families again.  Some didn’t return alive, others were maimed physically or psychologically, and, thankfully, many came back to live full and — due to their own efforts — free lives.

After my father had earned his wings, and before he was to go off to the South Pacific, he was in Atlanta, and went to see a friend from Lakefield, Kay Beardsley.  She was working in a hospital, in a unit that cared for the amputees.  During the visit, he was wearing his Marine Corps uniform.  When he entered the unit, the men started singing the Marine Corps Hymn.

You can imagine the mixed emotions that he had:  the pride of wearing that uniform as the song rang out, and the humility of knowing that those singing had given of themselves in defense of a dream that was shared by a nation.  From a child playing with casings, he had grown to a young man faced with the reality of war.

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln spoke at the cemetery at Gettysburg.  Not far away was Cemetery Ridge, where four months before the 262 men that remained of the First Minnesota Regiment had fixed their bayonets and run down the hill toward 1,600 Confederates.  Had they not done so, the Union lines would have been breached, and most experts think the battle, and probably the war, would have been lost.  Within five minutes, 82% of them were dead or wounded.

Of the cemetery, Lincoln said, “. . . we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground.  The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”

And so it is with us.  Those pioneers, those veterans, all of our relatives and loved ones buried here have, through their efforts, consecrated this ground.

We decorate, we honor, and we remember them, and the choices that they made that gave us our lives and our way of life.

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