A pause before a neighbor’s headstone

The older section of the cemetery in Lincoln, Vermont is accessed from Quaker Street, and bordered by an unas suming chain-link fence that seems to be comprised of equal parts metal and rust. But the modest markers and tomb stones run in parallel lines along the top of the ridge, and the views of the sur­rounding hills and the channel with the New Haven River are among my favorite in the village.

I was there the other day because Monday is Memorial Day. And since the Lincoln Community School always makes an effort to bring the entire student body there this time of the year to remember the dead, it seems to me that one middle-aged man can find the time, too. I get there annually in May and wander aimlessly for a few moments, pausing beside different markers.

For most of the country, Monday’s holiday is more about barbecues and beer than remembrance. It is the pistol shot that sets in motion the bacchanalian race we call summer. There’s nothing wrong with that and no one should writhe in guilt or self-loathing because they spend part of Monday flipping burgers or gardening. I promise you, if the weather cooperates I will be riding my bike.

But once upon a time, the day was called “Decoration Day.” One of my favorite stories that Vermont novelist Dorothy Canfield Fisher left us, “Memorial Day,” follows a group of small children in 1913 who are decorating the graves of the Civil War dead, while the soldiers in the ground below them are trying — and failing — to warn them that their sacrifices should not be glorified: “The soldier in his grave groaned ‘Misery! Misery!’ straining to be heard, till the blades of grass growing over him shook.”

Fisher, who worked with blinded soldiers in France in the First World War, knew well what the Vermont Civil War dead accomplished; she understood that their sacrifices mattered. But she also understood that war is hell and dying isn’t pretty.

And that is why Monday is not merely a day to light the briquettes in the barbie.

Among the Lincoln dead in that section of cemetery off Quaker Street is a fellow named Alden G. Babcock. Babcock died on Aug. 14, 1863, at the age of 21 — two weeks shy of his 22nd birthday. Beside his gravestone is a small American flag and an American Legion marker. He enlisted in the Union Army in September 1862, a part of Company G, the 14th Vermont Volunteers. He was one of 952 officers and enlisted men. He agreed to serve for nine months and did precisely that, mustering out on July 30, 1863, in Brattleboro. Among the action he likely saw were days two and three of Gettysburg; he may have been among the Vermonters who helped defend the Union lines against Pickett’s Charge.

And yet two weeks after he finished his tour of duty, he was dead. My neighbor, Elliot Fenander, lives across the street from the cemetery and grew interested in the mystery. He solved it. The cause of death on Alden G. Babcock’s death certificate, signed by Lincoln Town Clerk William W. Pope? “Camp fever” — the all-purpose term used for typhus and malaria in the 1860s. Roughly two-thirds of the Union dead died of disease.

Did Babcock know he was dying when he was mustered out? Or did he expect to recover at home on the family farm? Perhaps he imagined he would help with a second cutting. Instead he died after barely one score and change on this earth.

The Lincoln cemetery, like most Vermont cemeteries, has a great many men and women like that from wars spanning two and a half centuries. Fathers and mothers, daughters and sons. Neighbors.

And so while I will enjoy my day off from work Monday and savor the start of my favorite season in Vermont, I will also take a moment to bow my head in gratitude for the generations of Alden Babcocks among us.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on Sunday, May 29, 2011. Chris’s next novel, The Night Strangers, arrives on October 4, 2011.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.