Thursday, March 10, 2011

An act of violation

Before turning southward onto a road that seemed more liquid than gravel I saw a kid barreling toward me on a four-wheeler, chunks of mud shrapneling the air and the vehicle yawing back and forth as if skating on ice. I pulled over and waited for him to pass. The nearer he came the less human he appeared, a mud creature spawned from the earth itself, his face and clothing clotted and dark, goggles streaked, teeth stained. Studying the trajectory and elevation of the sludge generated by his passage gave me second thoughts about my destination, but I had no choice in the matter. After he blasted past I nosed into the center of the road and gunned the engine. The things we do for news, I thought.

It’s a funny business. For the most part reporters cover coma-inducing meetings, talk to people they’d rather not talk to, scramble for information that is never forthcoming, try to breathe life into stories so dead they’re decomposing, explain statistics that nobody can understand and, occasionally, touch on tragedies so nightmarish that they threaten to upend their sanity. Maintaining a safe distance between the exigencies of the job and one’s self requires a careful balancing act. It also helps to have a morbid sense of humor and a caustic view of the human race. 

Rural reporters rarely deal with high-profile cases. The closest I ever came was when researching the farflung activities of BTK, the Wichita-based serial killer. Court transcripts proved so horrific that I suffered debilitating nightmares for months. Gradually returning to stultifyingly boring meetings was almost refreshing.

This excursion was simple: document overturned headstones in the Hanover Cemetery. Reports said there were at least 20, some of sizable stature.

The cemetery was at the end of the mud road, shadowed by a fringe of trees and the sun a few degrees above the horizon. I drove slowly past orderly rows of headstones until coming to the southeast corner where most of the vandalism had occurred. Smaller headstones had been tossed aside while larger monuments had been toppled like dominoes. It was no small feat and would have required several people, I figured. Whoever had done it was thorough, had time to kill and cared not a lick about the emotional response that would be unleashed. 

With almost clinical precision I framed several photographs to show the worst of the damage. This was the professional part of me, disengaged from the scene and, for now, content to have the place alone. Grieving or angry relatives would have introduced a completely different atmosphere, and one I had no intention of experiencing. 

It might have ended at that, a photo grab and off to the next meeting, were it not for something that caught my attention.

I saw it from the corner of an eye, a bloody splash fiery in the lowering sun, highlighted against a glaze of ice. It was a plastic flower, broken off from a larger bunch and carelessly tossed aside. Looking back toward the shattered headstones, I saw several bunches of flowers ripped free of their vases, scattered about like so much flotsam. Something about it seemed almost ritualistic, as if the violation was meant to be a symbolic erasure of memory.

The broken flower tugged at me. Compared to the headstones it was trivial, easily replaceable, almost corny in its artificiality, but on a deeper level it seemed a violent response to  the honoring of the dead. Its very insignificance transformed it into a priceless representation of endearing, if not enduring, memory. Destroying it was meant to inflict wounds deeper than the soul. Such hatred seemed unimaginable in this quiet, restful place. The names on the broken headstones meant nothing to me, mere letters carved in stone, but the act held a universality that made it personal. 
I remembered decades before when vandals struck several Jewish cemeteries in Denver. It became something of a plague, with headstones smashed to rubble, smeared with fecal matter or spray-painted with swastikas. At the time much of my work involved dealing professionally with the Jewish population, not only the wealthy liberals but the Hasidic minority whose enclaves seemed throwbacks to the Middle Ages and a smattering of Messianic Jews. What most struck me was the sense of collective anguish, followed by simmering resentment and a sense of outrage. For a while, against all odds, secular and religious Jews were united in a common bond centered solidly on the memory of the Holocaust. 

Some in the community dismissed the acts as childish pranks. Maybe so. Maybe the perpetrators were fine, upstanding young men just out for a little nocturnal entertainment. Maybe they inadvertently chose Jewish cemeteries for their targets, and maybe they really didn’t understand the depth of misery associated with the reviled Nazi swastika. All in good fun, right?

No. There are lines that are not meant to be crossed. Desecrating burial places is not entertainment or sport. Tombstones are not mere markers like road signs or historic monuments but  are symbolic representations of memory itself. 

I wondered how I would feel if the headstone were familial, that of my grandmother, Lois Smith, say, whose smile never wavered or dimmed and whose poundcake brought boundless joy (until it was gone, that is), or my wife’s mother, Catherine Whiting, her headstone a simple granite block in a simple rural cemetery. Inviolate, one and all. And, here in this quiet place, violated. 

All that was asked of me was to take a photograph or two to grace the newspaper. And I’d done that. But I was surprised when I got back to the truck to find my hands shaking.

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