Memento Mori Revisited

On this Memorial Day weekend, I decided to look back at some of the things I’ve written in the past. This brings me to a favored veteran of mine: Captain Henry Metcalf. When looking up the post I wrote about him, I came upon something that caught me completely off guard. Something, in fact, I never thought I would see: Henry’s face.

I’ve known about Capt. Metcalf for many years now, but the only image I’ve had of him is one I’ve made up in my mind’s eye and that of his head stone. Today however, I found this…

It’s great to see you at last, Henry. Very, very good indeed.

And now… Here’s the post from May, 2008 where I introduced him to the rest of you. I hope you’ll help me remember him on this Memorial Day weekend.

Nothing fun or or humorous today, I’m afraid. Just a post about a day and a man, very important to me.

Memorial day, in my mind is second only to Armistice day. What ever your feeling are on the topic of war and regardless of what ever war you are thinking about, this is a day to remember those who, as Mr. Lincoln put it, “Gave the last full measure of devotion.”

What ever your thoughts are about the conflicts this nation has seen, this is the time to remember them and their passing.

And so, I will tell you the briefest story of a man whom I never met and know only a little about.

His name is Henry Metcalf and he was born in Keene, New Hampshire, in 1833. At the out break of the Civil War, he signed up with a volunteer outfit that was assembled in Cheshire County and left his trade as a printer to fight for the North. He rose to the rank of Captain and was one of the thousands who found him self on the fateful battle field at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. On the second day of the battle, he was ordered down into the Peach Orchard with his men, far from the union lines. It was a foolish order from a glory grabbing general that got them there. It was an exposed position with little cover, but those were the orders and so that’s where he was.

As Captain Metcalf and his men came under heavy fire from the Confederates, the battle line became disjointed and broken. A lower ranking General than the one who sent them down there, ordered Captain Metcalf to straighten up his line. Henry moved along and through his men and repositioned them to better hold their ground. Once the men were where he wanted them, he turned to his commander and spoke these words: “How’s that, General?”

It was the last thing he said. A moment later, a bullet struck him in the head, killing him instantly. Soon after, the Peach Orchard position was abandoned as unholdable and the remaining men retreated back to the Union lines.

Captain Metcalf’s body was returned to Keene and he was buried in the Washington Street Cemetery. His resting place is marked with a stone made of white marble. If you go there looking for it, you could easily miss it. Time and acid rain has scrubbed at his name and most markings on its surface. Many are blurred into total obscurity. Some are still just legible.

I know what it says though. When I was younger, it was easily readable and my father and I found it one day. My Dad spent a lot of time researching Henry, and found out everything I just told you. Later, we went to the Peach Orchard in Gettysburg and stood near the spot where he spoke his last words.

He was a soldier, doing his duty. He never came home to live a happy life. His work went on with out him, as did his family. He wasn’t anyone of real historic note. Just a man doing what he felt was his duty.

I feel that it’s my duty to remember him. So today, I’ll talk about you, Henry. I never knew you. You are not kin to me, but you are not forgotten. I’ll visit your resting place and make sure that you have a flag on your marker this Monday. We owe you that much.

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Standing on Tradition

There is no point in me denying that I’m a hopeless romantic. Freely, I will admit to having a rose tinted view of things that I have done or seen in the past. Hind sight might be 20/20, but perception can be heavily altered when viewed through the filter of nostalgia. The bad times fall away and only the interesting and fun tend to float to the surface; especially if that reflected time is of the simplicity of youth, now being viewed from under the worries of adulthood, covering us like a heavy bearskin on a hot summer day.

Such are my memories of primary school. I was fortunate enough to spend the first seven years of my scholastic life at Saint Joseph’s, a fairly small, private, Catholic school in south western New Hampshire. The building its self matched pretty closely to what most of you are thinking when I say “Catholic School”. Built of red brick with concrete, decorative touches, the structure was two stories tall and monolithic in appearance. Inside, the rooms had impossibly high ceilings with plasterwork that rounded flawlessly down to the vertical and became walls, creating a beautiful vaulted feel. The windows were of the type that were so common in the schools of old. Huge expanses of glass made up of dozens of individual, leaky panes with an opening portion at the bottom. These are never seen in public buildings anymore, all having long since been bricked up or covered over with depressing slabs of plywood in an effort to reduce heating bills with the added effect of sentencing the occupants to life under blinking florescent tubes.

The steps leading up to the massive, oak double doors are huge slabs of granite and though the thousands upon thousands of small feet from generations past barely shows, the black internal stairs are deeply rutted on either side, looking for all the world like they have been shaped by two endless waterfalls, now run dry. I can clearly recall walking them and wondering how many others had climbed them. Even as a little kid with the requisite lack of enthusiasm for all things scholastic, I had a very special fondness for this place. There was a lot to feel good about when it came to my attendance. My Mom had gone here as did all her sisters. Not only that, but this was my Grandfather’s school as well. The impossibly old and venerable man who I revered as the head of the extended family had been just another small boy here, walking these exact stairs just like I did. It was a fantastic thought.

There were no uniforms to wear, but dress code was closely adhered to. No jeans, no sneakers, No shorts and undershirts were just that; to be worn under a shirt. Decorated t-shirts were not acceptable attire. For what it was, the code was quite lax, really. Ties were not required for the boys and skirts, though often worn by the girls, were not mandated over slacks. Every kid simply had two drawers in their room: school clothes and play clothes and never the twain did meet. We thought nothing of it and to my knowledge, no one ever chafed under the rule.

The first floor contained the smaller grades, going from kindergarten up to second. Even with the expansive rooms and unreachable ceilings, it was a friendly place and made you feel safe. Every morning after attendance we would pile out into the hall way and sit down on the floor, one small butt per linoleum square, and the teachers would start the daily program. This was usually made up of announcements for upcoming special events, kids birthdays, or simply talking about the changing seasons. It was always concluded with songs and heartfelt prayer. That was my morning routine. Quite a nice way to start the day, if you ask me.

Upstairs, were the higher grades. Third and fourth, a small but well run library, the music room and the principal’s office took up the space. I believe that the administration for the entire school was simply the principal and his secretary. As I recall, the secretary also doubled as the receptionist and school announcer. No councilors, no vice principals, no department of redundancy department. It was all overseen by one principal, the school secretary and the teachers. I might also add that it ran very, very smoothly.

The central hallway off the second floor let to the “big kids” wing. There were swinging, double doors to this hallway and they were always closed. We feared it. They might as well have scrawled, “Here be giants!” over the doors. Little kids had no reason to be there and we craned our necks in tense curiosity to get a peek through the glass when walking single file, to the library. When they opened with a groan, we jumped and moved faster.

The day I was finally old enough to walk through those squeaking gates was memorable. It was a very literal right of passage. Nothing remarkable was down there of course. Just fifth and sixth grades, but it had grown huge in our imaginations over the last five years. Below these class rooms on the first floor was our double duty gym/auditorium where I had the chance to humiliate my self both on the basket ball court and the stage. It was a place for equal opportunity childhood embarrassment. Ah, the memories.

The last important part of this place was the church. Across a shared parking lot is the cornerstone Catholic church for the city. Every Wednesday, we would line up and head over for an hour or so for a private… well, I was going to say lesson, but it was somewhere between a lesson and a mass. What ever it was, it meant that I didn’t have to go to spend my precious Sunday afternoons in a classroom, and for that, I shall always be thankful.

With one exception (there’s always one, isn’t there), I had wonderful teachers there and over all, received a really top notch education at St. Joe’s. The school was never wealthy and I vividly remember cracks in the plasterwork and a finicky boiler that sometimes didn’t heat the place as it should have, but I never minded that. The tuition was not expensive but it was there and need to be paid. It was a sacrifice which all of our classmate’s parents made and I think it made us better students in the process.

There were no school vouchers, there was no support from the government and I firmly believe that it made the place better. They were beholden to no one except their beliefs and the parent’s of the students. If a student was a bad behavior, they were gone, and gone permanently. I wonder what ever happened to Shawn “The Toy Smasher”? He was history by second grade. Elitist? No, I don’t think so. It was a place of rules though, and if a kid couldn’t follow them, well… That was your problem, not theirs.

A lot of things have changed as time has marched along. First, there was my own personal break from The Church. A decision that was not made lightly. I harbor the institution no ill will but it no longer fits my world view. I do, however, miss the place it occupied in my life, though. I’ve also moved away. This is something that really eats at me sometimes because I would like nothing more then to see my own children get dressed up and head off to this wonderful place. They would be the fourth generation to do so in my family and the missed opportunity leaves me sad sometimes.

The last change is a happy one though. Not only is Saint Joseph’s School still there, but it had expanded to seventh and eighth grade as well. I have no idea where they have made the rooms, but it pleases me to know that it’s healthy and vibrant. On an impromptu visit I made a year or so ago, I noted that much is the same and much has been improved. The peeling paint and cracked plaster has been repaired beautifully and the stage where I had stood in school productions long past has seen a complete refurbishing. The massive and leaky windows were replaced with equally massive, brand new expanses of glass and steel, changing the look not one bit.

I will be sure to bring the kids there someday, just to show them where Great Grandpa, Grandma, and their Dad spent so much time in their youth. I doubt very seriously that they will ever have the chance to attend school there but hey, you can’t have everything.

Every tradition meets its end sometime and from that end, new ones begin.

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