Saturday, June 14, 2003

Memorial's their own labor of love

Cliff Radel's Cincinnati

They fly the flag for the same reason they cut the grass, trim the trees and plant the flowers.

They want people to remember.

Remember the sacrifices that keep the flag flying free.

Remember what the Stars and Stripes stands for.

So today, when you see Old Glory waving for Flag Day, think of Charles Barnett and his wife, Sheila Newman.

[IMAGE] Sheila Newman and her husband, Charles Barnett, tend to the Mohawk Honor Roll memorial that was erected after World War II.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
| ZOOM |
They are in the 15th year of owning and tending the Mohawk Honor Roll next to their home. For 15 years, they have kept the flag flying over this World War II memorial.

Made of brick, mortar, metal and memories, the memorial stands in the small neighborhood of Mohawk, stationed at the base of the hillside between Clifton Heights and Central Parkway.

Sheltered by five flowering pear trees, the Mohawk Honor Roll stands on a grassy triangular patch of ground. Cars fly by the memorial at the intersection of Ravine Street and West McMicken Avenue, a short block from the busy parkway.

Most drivers pay the memorial no mind. They don't know what they're missing.

Barnett, a self-employed window washer and tow truck driver, and Newman, a cafe owner, care for the memorial at their own expense. Flowers, trees, mulch and fertilizer set them back about $300 a year.

They could do what the city did when it owned the plot - shamelessly let it go to pot. Watch it fill with weeds and broken bottles while vandals tear down the flag and rip off the bronze tablets.

Those tablets once held the names of 598 GIs. Men and women. Black and white. Christian and Jewish. The names reflected Mohawk's ethnic mix of families with roots in Germany, Russia, Poland, Ireland, Great Britain, Italy, Greece and Africa. One of those names belonged to my dad, who left to go off to war in 1942.

Now, all of those bronze names are gone.

"They disappeared when scrap-metal dealers were paying a lot for bronze," Barnett said.

The tablets and their 598 names aren't the only targets at the memorial. Jerks regularly uproot plants and swipe the flag.

The neighborhood has changed since Sunday Nov. 18, 1945. On that day, the memorial was dedicated by the Mohawk Business Men's Association following a parade and speeches by several dignitaries, including the mayor.

Back then, Mohawk had a thriving business district. Now, the businesses and the association are long gone.

Many of those GIs, whose names once graced the memorial, moved to the suburbs after the war. Most of those old soldiers are gone now. The old neighborhood's in decline. Has been for decades.

Barnett and Newman, and others like them, are trying to reverse its fortunes.

That's why you'll see them tending to the memorial every Sunday. He cuts the grass - after picking up the broken glass. She plants flowers, digs up weeds.

Both keep an eye on the flag. Make sure it hasn't been stolen. Keep it flying.

"The storms we've been having keep knocking the flag crooked," Barnett said.

"You can bet I'll have that flag flying straight for Flag Day."

Still, the couple's dedication, despite all the odds, begs a question:

Why bother?

"For the same reason I give to the disabled veterans," Newman said.

"People forget. And they shouldn't. They need to remember."

This year, with the war in Iraq and America still reeling from the aftershocks of 9-11, there's been lots of talk about remembering and not forgetting, about flying the flag.

In April, President Bush spoke to Marines and their families at Camp Lejeune. He recalled an old Marine tradition: "No one who falls will be left behind on the battlefield."

Then he added: "Our country has a tradition, as well. No one who falls will be forgotten by this grateful nation."

Earlier this month, some joker calling himself a performance artist dressed up like a cop and stood on the flag at the grand opening of the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art. Three days later, the House of Representatives passed a one-sentence Constitutional amendment prohibiting trashing the flag.

None of these news items keeps Barnett and Newman from doing what needs to be done at the Mohawk Honor Roll.

They keep flying the flag.

And, they know people remember.

Strangers stop by while they are working at the memorial. They'll drop off flowers or a flag.

Depending on the weather and the thieves' fear of heights, the memorial goes through three or four cloth flags a year, at $35 a pop.

"People stop by to tell me how much they appreciate what we're doing," Newman said.

"Some grew up in the neighborhood. Some are veterans. Or their names were on the memorial."

The visitors remind Newman she's "not doing this for nothing. It's nice to know what you do is appreciated. It's nice to be remembered."

The visitors make Newman want to "win the lottery. Then we could afford to put the soldiers' names back in bronze on the memorial. Then we could afford to hire a guard to watch over the names so they're not stolen."

The guard could also watch over the flowers.

"I've planted all kinds," Newman said. "People just pull them out and toss them across the street."

She's had good luck with one variety. A thick crop of iris flanks the pedestal holding the memorial's plaque bearing the names of 10 soldiers.

"In memory of those who did not return," the plaque reads.

"Rest to their ashes; - Peace to their souls."

Weather permitting, Newman hopes to have the irises thinned out in time for today.

"I want them to look good in case anyone stops by," she said.

She calls the flowers by their nickname. Flags.


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