Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Memorial Day at Oxford

Cemetery visits were curtailed this year, what with one thing and another, but I did make it out to Oxford early Monday --- something I had planned to do before those plans were reinforced by a serendipitous  mission.

Oxford is just a little ways northeast of Chariton, on a ridge east of the Little White Breast valley --- a pretty drive out. Although not a huge cemetery, it served (and still does) families that lived in northern Lincoln and southern English townships, including generations of my mother's Miller family (my Miller grandparents are buried down at Columbia, however, because that's were Grandmother Jessie was from).

Morning there is not an especially good time to photograph tombstones since the principal view is to the east and that involves shooting into the sun. I was so preoccupied with the view that I ended up with a sunstreak through the photo up top and clipped the edge of the tombstone at far right, marking the graves of great-great-grandparents, Jeremiah and Elizabeth (McMulin) Miller. That's Uncle Harry and Aunt Carrie Miller to their left; Aunt Cynthia (Miller) and Uncle Charlie Abrahamson, a row beyond and between them.

The great-grandparents, Joseph Cyrus and Mary Elizabeth (Clair) Miller are buried under that first tree in the distance with Uncle Clair and Aunt Vesta Miller beside them. The sun turned the larger Miller stone into a silhouette, however. Still kind of pretty.

Oxford Church and Oxford School once stood just across the road west of the cemetery and although I remember both buildings, they've been gone so long I'm no longer sure exactly where they were at. Oxford Church, and its neighbor to the southeast, Beulah Church, were just too close to Chariton to have any long-term chance of survival. Consolidation took care of Oxford school.

There are several notable family enclaves at Oxford. This is "Carson Corner" up near the road looking southwest. Here, the peonies were farther along than those out at Salem and suffering more from the weight of their blossoms, rain earlier in the week and wind (the wind just wouldn't let up Monday).


My granddad used to talk about digging one of these Carson graves, perhaps in the teens or 1920s when it still was a neighborhood custom, when death occurred, for the men of the community to gather to dig the grave. In this instance it was memorably cold and the ground was frozen hard. With no equipment other than shovels, the men lighted a grave-sized bonfire among the Carson tombstones, then dug the grave afters its heat had penetrated to the frost line.

The "Swede" Millers, so-called because they were of Swedish descent while my Millers were Scots-Irish, are buried in the far northwest corner of the cemetery; and the almighty Johnstons, now sadly diminished, have their own little hill to the northeast.

The big old Johnston family home, second place south of the cemetery and last occupied during the span of my memory by Johnston Prior and his mother, still is hanging on. I usually stop by Johnston's (aka Charles's) grave to see if anyone else remembers him these days. No one seems to. This snowflake-ish detail, which seems to me fairly unique, is from one of the oldest Johnston tombstones.

At Oxford, as at most cemeteries across southern Iowa and elsewhere, small U.S. flags marked the graves of all veterans. This is a fairly amazing effort, when you think about it, involving teams of volunteers who map their strategy then set out in the days before Memorial Day to place the flags, then return in the days after to collect them. Since Oxford is near Chariton, a few Chariton Volunteer Fire Department flags were scattered, too. That department still tends the graves of all its former members --- back to the beginning.

The mission, mentioned at the start here, involved a young man named Matt Moul, who lives in California. Had World War II-related circumstances been different, his surname would have been Bingaman. Matt had happened upon this blog on Sunday and e-mailed.

Matt's grandfather was Mark D. Bingaman (above), son of Robert and Elsie, husband of Marcella, and father of Robert Lee, not yet a year old when Mark died on March 19, 1945, aboard the U.S.S. Franklin near the Japanese mainland when it was struck by two armor-piercing bombs dropped by a single Japanese bomber. Although the ship survived, barely, 836 members of its crew were killed. Mark, with the others, was buried at sea.

In the years that followed, Matt's grandmother remarried and Robert Lee was adopted, assuming the surname "Moul." And a memorial stone for Mark was placed here at Oxford alongside the graves of his parents.

Early Monday, I was able to find among papers related to Mark at the museum a moving letter to his mother from a former commanding officer, scan it and send the copy off to California; then drive out to Oxford to photograph Mark's memorial stone. And that was an absolutely amazing way to spend a little time on Memorial Day.

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