I watch the man edging toward a large marker in a family plot.
Clutched in his fist are pristine — dowels holding bright, crisp, napkin-size renditions of the Stars and Stripes. They’re a contrast with the flags wedged under his arm, mere remnants of their past glory — dowels broken and warped, cloth edges shredded, stripes torn, and the once-blue fields of stars sun-faded. He handles them all, new and old, with the respect they command.
Around the big marker in the plot there are smaller stones bearing mere initials. There’s nothing to indicate a war veteran is interred here, but Farrell W. “call me Sal” Salgueiro has been here enough times to know. He pushes the dowel of a new flag into the ground next to one of the small markers. Before Memorial Day, he will have done this again and again and again, at about 400 graves of East Providence war veterans.
At 72, Sal knows he won’t be able to do this forever. He’s a Vietnam War veteran who spent 1966 as an Army motor-pool records clerk in that ravaged country halfway around the world. About 17 years ago, he began joining his father-in-law, a World War II veteran, on these flag-replacing rounds. Eventually Sal and a few other guys, veterans like him from VFW Post 5382, relieved the older men. The post closed down some years ago and Sal outlived his buddies, so these days it’s just him and his flags.
“This is the toughest part,” he says, pointing off to the right, “the old part” that is Newman cemetery, one of three cemeteries — Newman, Hunt and Rumford — in the perimeter that he tends. “These are tough. They are slate and hard to read. You got some [graves] that go back to the 1700s in there. You got some old stones, old soldiers.”
Across the street, in the larger cemetery next to the Newman Congregational Church, Lions Club members replace flags for the veterans holidays. The Rhode Island Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Exeter has offered up Cub Scouts to help Sal, but he’s declined. “They don’t know where the markers are,” he says. “They wouldn’t know how to find them.” He’s concerned that some who served their country would be missed.
Slowly, Sal heads back to his SUV to carefully slip the old flags into a bin for a proper decommissioning in Exeter. He’s placed about 140 flags and he’s done for the day. He’ll come back again soon to finish, to make sure he didn’t miss anyone just because their grave was hidden or so old that the name has faded away. By Memorial Day there will be a new flag at each grave, old and new, of every veteran here, all of them treated with the respect they deserve.
copyright 2018 / Kris Craig / The Providence Journal / 2 Much Time design