Sunday, June 10, 2012

Army of the Night

I’ve been thinking about a Ray Bradbury story I read as a teen-ager ago about a man who wakes up in a future where there is no fear.

All I remember is that people weren't afraid of the dark, didn't believe in ghosts or anything supernatural, and the main character, who has no place in this strange land, meets a grisly end that is straight out of Edgar Allen Poe.

I grew up reading Ray Bradbury and his death last week was so upsetting. I can remember getting happily lost in such works as “Fahrenheit 451,” “The Martian Chronicles,” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”

It seems like every other week I was heading down to the Brooklyn Public Library in Bay Ridge to take out another one of his books.

When my seventh grade teacher was trying to encourage us to read, he said that we could go anywhere with books. Ray Bradbury proved that by taking us to places that didn’t even exist.

But this particular Bradbury story came to my mind after I went for a moonlight walking tour of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Founded in 1839, Green-Wood Cemetery is the final resting place for such notable figures as Boss Tweed, Horace Greeley, Leonard Bernstein, as well as baseball players, Civil War generals and many artists. There are a total of 560,000 “permanent residents” buried at the 478-acre property.

As usual I had to force myself to break out of my routine and sign up for this tour. And once again I was pleasantly surprised.

This was a Saturday night, so I thought I’d be taking the tour with three little old ladies on walkers. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

There must have been 80 people or more on this tour. We all had flashlights and as it grew darker we looked like a small army walking through this magnificent place.

Green-wood and offers some fantastic views of New York and they looked so much better under the beautiful full moon.

Gonna Lay Down My Sword and Shield

We had an accordionist accompanying us along the way and he set the mood perfectly, playing everything from “Down By the Riverside” to “New York, New York.”

Our tour guide was extremely knowledgeable as he took us around this city of the dead. I think one of the most touching stories involves Clarence MacKenzie, a 12-year-old drummer boy with Brooklyn’s Thirteenth Regiment during the Civil War.

His mother didn’t want him to go off to war, but Clarence said “Mother, who would shoot a 12-year-old boy?”

You know where this is going, don’t you?

While camped in Annapolis, Md., Clarence was accidently shot and killed by another boy who was drilling with a rifle that he thought was empty.

Our guide told us that when Clarence was laid to rest, his dog lay down on his grave and refused to leave. If you can hear that story and not cry you’re a lot tougher that I am.

We heard so many emotional stories during the tour. There was the man who had a scene depicting the last time he saw his wife, who had died suddenly while he was at work, carved into her tombstone.

The Italian immigrant who carved the monument is also buried in Green-wood—except his grave was unmarked.

Another man—I would’ve taken notes but it was too dark!—had an inscription on his headstone that told how he “faced life with philosophy and death without fear.” That sounds like a good way to live.

And there’s actually a Confederate general buried in Green-wood. One of the first generals—if not the first—killed in the Civil War, this man was secretly brought up to Brooklyn, to be buried alongside his wife, who was a New Yorker, and their son, who had preceded him in death.

The tombstone wasn’t updated for years because the cemetery staff feared angry Northerners would have desecrated the grave if they knew the general had been buried there.

Walking around a cemetery at night may sound a bit eerie, but it was a great experience. The tour guide made all that history, all those stories come to life.

I looked into another world on that night and I came away with a different view of the one in which I live.

I think Ray Bradbury would’ve been quite pleased.


Ron said...

What an utterly fascinating post, Rob!

"Walking around a cemetery at night may sound a bit eerie, but it was a great experience."

Not eerie to me, because I have such an attraction to walking through cemeteries, I kid you not. We have so many old cemeteries here in Philly (much like the one you mentioned in this post), that date back to the Civil War. I love to sometimes walk through them and spend time reading all the tombstones; trying to imagine who they were and what they looked like.

"Our guide told us that when Clarence was laid to rest, his dog lay down on his grave and refused to leave. If you can hear that story and not cry you’re a lot tougher that I am."

I got teary-eyed just reading that.

Great post, Rob. Thanks for sharing!

Have a wonderful week, bud!

P.S. I had no idea Ray Bradbury wrote "Something Wicked This Way Comes." I saw the movie and loved it!

Rob K said...

Yo, Ron, thanks a lot! I'm glad you enjoyed the post. It was really quite an evening and I came so close to not going--so glad I went. Cemeteries can be fascinating places because they are home to so many stories. And btw, I never saw the "Wicked" movie, but I'll make sure to keep an eye out for it. Take care, buddy, and have a great week!

Jay at The Depp Effect said...

Like you, I read nearly all available Ray Bradbury's books when I was young. I loved them. They had just the right mix of fantasy and horror for me,and they were the weirdest thing I had ever read! I loved Something Wicked.

The tour of the cemetery sounds wonderful - this is just the sort of thing I'd love to do while visiting places abroad, and it's often the sort of thing which is missing from the tourist guides.

Rob K said...

Another Bradbury fan--excellent! It's funny, but Green-wood was a major tourist attraction for years. I think the surrounding neighborhood's decline (it has since bounced back) cut down on the tours. Plus some people might be turned off by going to a cemetery. But you're so right--they rarely appear in tourist guides, yet they are definitely worth visiting.

Calamity Jen said...

That sounds like a fascinating tour. My yard backs onto a great big cemetery. Perhaps I should hop the fence one night and take a tour on my own.

Rob K said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rob K said...

Hey, Jen, thanks for stopping by. The tour was great. I think you should definitely check out that cemetery behind your yard. You may have some very interesting neighbors.