Sunday, May 25, 2014


This field of wooden crosses is part of an old cemetery about 30 miles northeast of Ruidoso, not far from historic Fort Stanton.

They're arrayed in a parched, windblown field of patchy wild grass, set off from the surrounding prairie and scrub juniper by an old hurricane fence. The gate is fastened with a rusty lock and chain, but there's enough slack in it for visitors to duck and squeeze through.

There are no names or dates on the markers, just a small rectangle of cement hidden among the dead weeds at the base of each one, etched with a small cross and a number.

Fort Stanton has had many missions since its founding as a frontier cavalry post to protect settlers from the Mescalero apaches who lived in the nearby Sacramento Mountains and still do.

For a while the place served as a TB sanitorium for merchant seamen, and later it was also a mental hospital. Some of the patients were indigent with no known family. The Fort Stanton Merchant Marine Cemetery was created for those who died in the hospital's care.

These humble resting places only occupy a fraction of the property set aside for them. There are smaller sections with rows of stone monuments placed by the families of sailors who chose to be buried here, probably because it was closer to survivors than their other choices.

In the past 10 or 15 years, local veterans have obtained access because the nearest military cemeteries are hundreds of miles away, and it's now known officially as the Fort Stanton Merchant Marine and Military Cemetery.

Pam's dad spent his last 20 years or so in Ruidoso and died here in 2004. John Mauldin is buried at Fort Stanton. He served in World War II and was called back with the reserves for the Korean War. A staff sergeant, he was wounded at Guadalcanal, and at the Chosin Reservoir he saw two thirds of his platoon killed in a fighting retreat from the exposed position where incompetence and lethal miscalculation had sent it.

In his honor I answered an ad in the paper several weeks ago for volunteers to do maintenance work at the cemetery. I thought I'd be handed a litter bag and spend a couple of desultory hours looking for paper scraps while others operated lawnmowers and weed whackers.

But they pointed me to a trailer load of new crosses, handed me a posthole digger and told me to look for broken or overturned markers to replace. It was harder work than I've been used to in some while, but it was very satisfying.

The cemetery got a formal designation last year as a state-operated veteran's cemetery, but the status was conferred without any budget to speak of for maintenance or improvements. I learned that a small handful of volunteers have kept the place up as best they could for the past quarter century.

They've mowed and trimmed and they've replaced every cross more than once, just because there was nobody else to do it and, I suspect, because they felt that a large institutional burial ground abandoned to neglect and ruin doesn't do credit to whoever lives anywhere nearby.

There were about a dozen people working on the day I showed up. I read that a class of high school students came out a couple of weeks later and painted some of the many markers stripped by snow and wind of their thin coats of white paint.

The first time I saw the place, I thought it looked unspeakably bleak and sad with its sun-baked, weedy grounds, its hundreds of nameless graves and the vacant distances from any living community.

But I've changed my mind. The setting is spectacular, in the valley of the Rio Bonito which meanders between Sierra Blanca and the rest of the Sacramentos looming in the west and the Capitan Mountains covering up the entire eastern horizon. It is a classic western landscape under open skies. John was born and raised in Arizona and made his home on or near the range for virtually all his life. This was his kind of country.

Nobody leaves flowers beside the anonymous markers in the section where I was working. But it was a sunny spring day, and much of the ground was carpeted with dense clusters of the tiny blossoms of some kind of small but brilliant wildflower.

Perpetual care if ever there was.


  1. Great story, Dave. And very moving. Thanks for sharing your keen observations in a way that few can.

    In this part of the rural South, this holiday is still called Decoration Day, but the objective is the same -- to honor fallen warriors. Families plan reunions around this holiday and they come prepared to clear away a year's worth of vegetation and faded plastic flowers and then they go into reunion mode to retell stories of loved ones laid to rest there.

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