William Berry, Revolutionary War Soldier, 1763-1842
The early morning fog hung over the Leo cemetery, and in the distance I saw him, waiting beside his grave like Lazarus. The old soldier waved as I approached.
“William Berry, private in the Continental Army, reporting for duty,” he said, saluting sharply.
Still astonished that this could really be happening, I grasped his bony hand in a firm shake and replied, “Good morning, sir, it is my honor and pleasure. Welcome to 21st-century America.”
We walked together past time-worn headstones to my car, and I held the door open as he climbed in. “Prepare yourself for an adventure,” I said as I put the key into the ignition and started the engine. He was sitting ramrod straight clutching the door handle for dear life as we crossed over the bridge, heading toward Grabill.
A few miles down the road, I sensed him relax and begin to enjoy the ride. “Sure can cover a lot of territory!” he mused.
The sun was shining on this sparkling spring morn, and he watched the Amish plowing their fields as we sped by.
“We settled here when it was all wilderness. Clear streams, thick forests. Tulip trees 200 feet tall. Elk, mountain lions, wolves. All manner of fish and clouds of birds — pigeons, Carolina parakeets, doves — and mosquitoes. In time, we cleared a small plot.”
“Want to see how it’s done today?” I asked.
At the Amstutz barn he climbed on the tractor like a seasoned veteran, and a few minutes later, gazing up at the twin Harvestore silos, all he could do was shake his head and repeat, “Such plenty, such plenty.”
It was then an airplane flew over, and I knew where our next stop would be.
Across town, in their camouflage and sunglasses the reservists of the Air National Guard stood in stark contrast to the warrior of yesteryear in his faded blue coat and muddy breeches.
“Spirited lads! Volunteers, as we were!” William shouted as an F-16 thundered down the runway drowning out further explanation. “Like the explosion of 10,000 muskets!” he hollered, grinning ear to ear.
William nearly lost his composure at the GM plant where he got his first glimpse of an assembly line. At that instant a burley team leader stepped forward and placed his strong hands atop William’s, helping him set an engine on its frame.
As we passed the regional hospital, he remarked, “Got a lot of sick folk these days, don’t ya? Treated our ailments with vinegar and honey and bit the bullet. Ever heard of it?” Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a bullet and showed it to me. “See those teeth marks?”
Finally, we arrived at our destination, Homestead High School, where 2,000 students stood and cheered as William entered the auditorium. The wild applause continued on and on until finally the old man stepped to the microphone. Silence descended as he confronted his audience.
“Some say time blurs reality, but that ain’t true. It purifies what’s important. I was born in the golden dawn of our splendid Republic. I joined my countrymen in a noble cause. I marched with General Washington, who saw a better way. I crossed the mountains and found my destiny. Oh, young wild ones, you have not known hardship or sacrifice. But if that day comes, look to the heavens and know you are the sons and daughters of liberty. We lit the flame. Now we pass the torch to you.”
On our return trip down Coliseum Boulevard at dusk, we passed the huge Stars and Stripes, lit up, rippling against the purple sky.
“How many stars now?” William asked.
Back at the cemetery, we walked across the soft grass, hand in hand, to his resting place. Reminding him of Memorial Day, I wondered, “Sir, how can we honor your service?”
“Reflect and remember,” he solemnly replied, “and lay a flag across my grave.”