When I was looking for unique narratives for a book called Cemetery Stories, I sometimes had to persuade people to trust me. Often, the tellers weren’t sure I’d believe them, let alone handle their tale with sensitivity and respect.
I quickly learned to listen without judgment and just let the story be whatever it was. That’s how I acquired a few nice surprises. I think this blog is a good place to share one. In fact, it's all about listening.
Andy Saal, who played tuba in a high school marching band, described a time when a friend of his named Sharkey had decided that they ought to practice their instruments in the cemetery. They agreed to meet at the gates at midnight, when no one would be around. It seemed like an appropriately quiet and isolated place.
After he arrived, Andy prepared his tuba. "I tightened the last of the screws," he said, "and then looked up to scan my surroundings. The dim moonlight shadowed the trees and headstones. A low-laying fog seemed to be flowing in from the woods. I hoisted the tuba over my shoulder and wandered towards the woods. We found an open area with only a few graves along the perimeter.
"We respected the dead. No way either one of us wanted to march over someone’s grave!"
Silhouetted by moon and misty fog, the two tuba-players stepped off in unison to the thunder of an imaginary marching band.
"When the imaginary drums rolled off the introduction to the school’s fight song, I snapped my tuba to attention and bit into the opening chords. Our high school had chosen for its fight song the 'Notre Dame Victory March.' The pulsing rhythm of the piece that night was almost spiritual. In fact, I swear that I heard the trumpets soaring overhead with that recognizable chorus.
“Suddenly I stopped playing and spun around. And for just a few seconds, lingering on the cool night breeze, I was sure I heard a solitary trumpet playing the final lines. Its sweet perfect resonance slowly evaporated in the moonlight. For just a second, I felt as if someone somewhere was happy.
"I looked around. Sharkey stood silently in the fog nearby.
"'Did you hear…?'
“He nodded almost imperceptibly. I could tell that tuba practice was over.”
They left the cemetery without saying another word.
The next day, Andy went searching for a likely prankster among other band members, but found no one who would admit to being in that part of town the night before. He returned to the cemetery during the day, when he could see better. Walking through, he looked around. He noticed a military star on one of the gravestones, so he stepped closer.
"The gray-tinged stone,” he said, “bore the name of James Patrick Sullivan. Born February 8, 1926. Died June 6, 1944. The stonemason had delicately carved the Notre Dame ‘ND’ symbol onto the headstone. Puzzled, I slowly walked off."
He encountered an elderly woman, Mrs. Eagan, who lived near the cemetery and who'd been a town resident her entire life. Andy asked her what she might know about this guy, James Patrick Sullivan.
She smiled sadly. She remembered him, she said. He’d left Notre Dame during his junior year to serve in World War II, and he'd died storming Utah Beach on D-Day.
"Almost as an afterthought,” Andy said, “Grandma Eagan looked straight into my eyes and asked, 'Did you know that he played trumpet in the marching band?'”
Now that’s the kind of 'cemetery story' I like to hear.