Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Small Town America At Its Best – Appleton, Maine Honors A Fallen Son

My holiday weekend travels had me experiencing a wide range of landscapes – of both the emotional and the topographical variety. Between Friday and Monday, I spent time in Harlem, Union Square, Westport, West Point, Boston’s Bay Back, Quincy, and Mid-coast Maine! I had the chance to visit with friends and family – sometimes celebrating, at other times mourning recent losses – and to reconnect with an amazing array of special people.

My mother’s sister, Arlene Champoux Spearin, lives in one of the smallest towns in the State of Maine. Tiny Appleton, population 1,272 souls, is nestled in the lee of a granite ridge that runs north and south about 15 miles west of picturesque Camden Harbor. If you were to look in the dictionary under “bucolic,” you might find a picture of Appleton. I don’t get to visit Aunt Arlene as often as I would wish, so I sometimes will take advantage of a holiday weekend to make a mad dash up the Maine Turnpike for a quick visit of 24-36 hours. I arrived at my aunt’s home around 11:00 on Sunday evening. We spent an hour catching up on family news, and turned in around midnight.

After a hearty breakfast of blueberry pancakes, we headed for the Memorial Day ceremonies at Appleton’s Pine Grove Cemetery. The service was presided over by the pastor of the Appleton Baptist Church, and by the ranking military officer present – my cousin, LT COL Stephen Spearin of the Maine National Guard. At 11:15, we heard the sound of a lone bagpipe wheezing and wending its way from Sennebec Road and up the dirt pathway that leads to the historic burial ground. The air was redolent of pine needles and Skin So Soft, the latter having been liberally applied to prevent the swarming black flies from picnicking on the assembled Appletonians. Following on the heels of the Pied Piper came a steady stream of representatives of the Appleton School and the Appleton Little League. They joined a handful of military veterans and several soldiers recently returned from Iraq, along with what looked like a couple hundred of the town’s citizens.

After an opening prayer, we were treated to a stirring rendition of the National Anthem, sung beautifully by members of the church youth group. Students from the school shared poems and songs. The crowd listened attentively to brief and impactful words of greeting by Appleton’s representatives in the Maine House of Representatives and State Senate. Both women spoke from the heart about the meaning of the occasion - for them personally and for the community.

Members of the Appleton Little League came forward to make a special presentation to the family of Joshua Humble. While serving in Iraq, Josh was killed by an IED, and had been buried a few weeks earlier in a grave just down the hill from the site of Monday’s ceremony. A family of children, whom Josh had taken a special interest in, sang a heart-felt “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” As a young boy growing up in Appleton, Humble had played baseball, so the Appleton Little League presented the family of Specialist Joshua Humble with a framed baseball jersey that read: “Humble – 21,” twenty-one being Josh’s age when he died. Two soldiers who had served with Josh and who had recently returned from Iraq spoke about Josh and the circumstances of his death. Josh’s mother and stepfather spoke briefly to thank their neighbors for all the support they had offered since learning the news of Joshua’s death far from home. A cannon salute was rendered in honor of the fallen soldier, and the ceremony ended with a moment of silence.

As the crowd dispersed, individual conversations broke out throughout the cemetery. I heard my cousin’s wife, Cindy Spearin, asked the following question of one of the returning soldiers:

“What did you miss most while you were in Iraq?”

“I missed the clouds that come in the afternoon sky here in the summer. Even on the hottest days, you can count on a quick thundershower to cool things off and clear the air. In Iraq, with the sun beating down and the temperature close to 130 degrees, there are no clouds.”

This 45-minute slice of Memorial Day in the rocky hills of Maine served for me as a snapshot of small town America at its best. The community put on its best face to remember and honor those who had served and died. They turned out in droves to sing and recite and cry and remember. The community’s major institutions were all represented – church, school, military, government, and Little League - in a cohesive and colorful patchwork of neighborliness and caring. This urban-dweller, who most often prefers the “sophistication” and bustle of the big city to the quietness of the countryside, was humbled by the scene and by the ceremony, and all that they signified. Appleton, this living piece of Americana, is more real than Thorton Wilder’s Grover’s Corners, immortalized in his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Our Town.”

In bidding a fond and eloquent “farewell” to its fallen son, Specialist Joshua Humble, little Appleton, Maine stood tall in demonstrating just what it is that America’s sons and daughters are fighting and dying to protect and preserve.

God bless America!


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