The Silent Vigil
There’s a stone memorial with faded writing that’s hard to read even when the light hits just right. It says “The John Dodge Cemetery.” The road that takes a visitor to this cemetery, this half-forgotten place, is short but challenging. The two dirt tire ruts are set apart by a high middle hillock that will attack your muffler if you don’t maneuver just right. It’s untended terrain, and a crumbling stone wall borders a field that has long since turned into a weedy forest.
Dan Millea is in his pickup, and in the back he has a small bundle of fresh American flags that he’s about to place at the graves of the two veterans that have been laid to rest in this old cemetery. It’s the middle of the afternoon, the shadows are long, and the air has a sharp chilled edge.
The John Dodge Cemetery is a little rectangle about the size of the first floor of a small house. It’s fenced in by a strong, thick stonewall. In the back of the plot, in the corner, is an old grave that long ago split in half: the headstone of Samuel D. Rose, who died at the age of 31 on May 21, 1861. The top of the headstone leans against the bottom. It is an anomaly that this patch of land is called the Dodge Cemetery because almost everyone in it is named Rose — although there’s a Littlefield, and a Hull and a Smith or two.
After Millea places the fresh flag at Samuel’s headstone, he steps back and salutes. He then walks over to the gravestone of John R. Smith, born in 1907 and died in 1964. After the flag is placed, Millea, a former Army captain himself, salutes again and says, out loud, simply, “John,” by way of paying his respects.
Millea then gets back in the truck and travels over to Isaac’s Corner, bordered by immaculate stonewalls, the site of the island’s Indian Cemetery.
It’s another small patch of land, only this one isn’t hidden in the woods but looks over Fresh Pond. It’s dry and brown and a little shaggy on this afternoon, dotted by the nubs of the stones that serve as silent markers for the African Americans and the Native island people who are buried here. He places the flag in front of the marker for Charles R. Paine, who died in 1892, a survivor of the Civil War.
Millea stays a little while longer, a clutch of small flags in his hands, visiting some of the others in this quiet place.
It’s a little colder and the sun has dropped lower when he decides it’s time to leave. The shadows from the headstones and the trees are longer still. But these shadows are not longer than the shadows of the men from Block Island who served in this country’s armed forces. Dan Millea knows that. That’s why he comes back every year, twice a year, on this personal assignment, on orders from no one but himself, obeying nothing but his sense of duty and honor.