Memorial Day

May 26, 2009

By Jacob Quinn Sanders
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

The responsibility for all 22,203 American flags — one each for every grave in the Little Rock National Cemetery — belonged to two men clad in muddy work boots and jumpsuits with their first names stenciled on the breast.

Charlie Phillips and Anthony Hood were the only two cemetery caretakers working on Memorial Day. The wind would blow flags down into the mud and they would set them back up or replace them. If someone needed to find a grave in the 31.7-acre cemetery, they’d show the way.

Phillips and Hood make between $13 and $14 an hour for this work. Both are veterans.

Phillips, 57, said he served in the Navy during what he called the “Vietnam era.” He’s worked at the cemetery since 2003.

Hood is 49, an Army veteran of Desert Storm, and has worked there for a month and a half.

“I just feel like this was my destiny, man,” Hood said. “Like I was supposed to come here, supposed to have this job. I’m very blessed.”

Hood was one of 500 people who lost jobs when Target Corp. closed its massive distribution center in Maumelle at the beginning of April. He heard about the job from a friend in the service.

“I thought they’d have me just come out here to cut grass,” he said. “But we don’t cut grass. We have a contractor for that.”

Phillips arrived after getting transferred from another federal job at the John L. McClellan Veterans Memorial Hospital in Little Rock. With a gold tooth and an easy manner, he’s worked at the cemetery long enough to point visitors to the right place from memory.

“Section 14?” he said to one visitor Monday morning. “You’re in Section 14. But you’re at about No. 500 or No. 700. You need No. 1760; that’s going to be up the hill right there.”

Hood just shook his head.

“Charlie has a whole map of this place in his head,” he said. “He can find anything and anybody.”

Caretakers at the Little Rock National Cemetery open and close graves before and after burial, carry urns and sometimes caskets, and place and clean headstones. Most of the graves are chronological from the date of death.

The cemetery is closed to new graves, Director Deborah Kendrick said, but will inter family members in plots either already assigned or on top of relatives in existing graves.

Jobs at the cemetery get posted first to veterans groups.

“We have a strong preference for veterans in those positions,” she said.

In job interviews, she tries to find out whether soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines working around deceased servicemen will be an issue.

“I am always sure to ask an applicant, ‘Do you have a problem with that?’” she said. “It is obviously a concern. But in reality, there’s never a problem. They treat these people and their family like they would their own brothers, with that much care. It’s a very strong connection they feel.”

The connection becomes even stronger on days like Memorial Day when cemetery traffic increases, bringing more families. An average day will see anywhere from 50 to 100 visitors. On Memorial Day, cemetery officials expect at least five times that.

Boy Scouts and students from Horace Mann Arts & Science Magnet Middle School helped the caretakers set the flags out beginning Thursday.

“Usually we’ll start the Friday before,” Phillips said, “but this year, with the weather, we needed to get a jump on it.”

Just before the sun came out as Monday morning turned into Monday afternoon, Hood reached down into a puddle and picked up the small flag in front of the headstone belonging to Allen William Knutson, from Missouri, an Army private first class and World War II veteran who died April 21, 1967.

A few rows down the hill, he did the same for Kirk Vaughn, a native of Arkansas, a mess sergeant and veteran of World War I who died May 4, 1967. Then he did it again for Ulyses Charles Cook of Mississippi, a World War I Marine Corps private who died Jan. 14, 1967.

“These are all my brothers,” Hood said.

Deeper into the rows of headstones, Phillips worked briskly resetting flags into the mud as he walked past names — Whipple, McDaniel, McGhee — he did not pause to read.

The hard rain left the white headstones splattered with mud. When it dries, Phillips and Hood will come out with brooms and sweep off the dirt.

“That’s the least we can do,” Phillips said. “If they ain’t earned that much, I don’t even know what to say.”

  1. […] have Charlie Phillips and Anthony Hood. They make it real for me. Posted by JQS. Filed in Uncategorized Leave a Comment […]

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