All photos/art by Tom Wolff
Wreath escort is underway: wreathsacrossamerica.org. The next ceremony will take place on December 10, 2011 at 12 Noon E.S.T!
Yankee Classic from November 2007
Come with me into the center of the major media event of this day, Thursday, December 14, 2006. It’s 7:30 in the morning, and we’re at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, just outside the nation’s capital.
The sun has not yet broken through the gray sky,and you can see the breath from the reporters and photographers huddling in clusters along the leafy drive.
All the major networks are here, including CNN and Fox, as well as newspapers from as near as D.C. and as far as France and Australia. Everyone is waiting for Morrill Worcester and his 5,200 handmade balsam wreaths from Maine.
Cars are lined up outside the cemetery as far as you can see, as if awaiting entry to a big game. Beside me, a photographer from the Associated Press packs up his gear. “This will be impossible,” he says. “I can’t work like this.” He leaves.
At 8:30 the sea of media and volunteers parts, and here comes the truck, “Wreaths Across America” emblazoned on its sides, stacked floor to ceiling with the greens for the gravestones of the military dead. And now here comes the white van, with red, white, and blue stripes, carrying Morrill Worcester, his wife, Karen, and their children.
Alongside is a motorcycle escort, the Patriot Guard Riders. They’ve ridden with the Worcesters from Harrington, Maine, 750 miles down U.S. Route 1, through small towns and cities. Morrill Worcester will call the last four days “the world’s longest veterans’ parade.”
He never asked for this. He never asked for the cameras or the reporters. But Morrill Worcester will end up doing 38 interviews this week — all morning standing patiently in front of one camera or another — a ruddy, solid man of 56 wearing blue jeans and a leather jacket, quiet and unassuming, telling over and over how he came to be here.
He was a boy of 12, but already full of the entrepreneurial spirit that today has made him owner of Worcester Wreath Company, the world’s largest wreath producer. He’d won a subscription-selling contest at the Bangor Daily News, and his reward was a trip to Washington, including a visit to Arlington National Cemetery. The stark beauty of the headstones never left him. Years later, late in the Christmas season of 1992, he found he had a surplus of 4,000 fresh wreaths. He remembered Arlington. A call here, a call there, red tape was cut, and Morrill Worcester and a few volunteers trucked the wreaths to the cemetery, leaning them against the stones. It took more than six hours.
Although he wasn’t a veteran, Worcester vowed that he would never forget the sacrifices of these men and women. “Every stone represents a life and a family and a story,” he said. He’d tell people that the average age of a fallen soldier here was 21 — the age at which he’d begun his wreath business — and that he’d lived a life they never could.
He came with wreaths the next year and the next and the next, never missing a December, always without fuss or fanfare. Then a snowfall and a photo changed everything. At the end of the wreath laying in 2005, an Air Force photographer took a picture — the green wreaths, the single red bows so brilliant against the stones, the snow like a whispered prayer. Someone saw the photo and wrote these words: “Rest easy, sleep well, my brothers. / Know the line has held, your job is done. / Rest easy, sleep well. / Others have taken up where you fell, the line has held. / Peace, peace, and farewell …” The author e-mailed it to friends and family. “Pass it on,” the e-mail said.
The photo and the poem flew from one computer to another, across the country. Morrill Worcester’s quiet task of never forgetting became an Internet sensation. Phone calls and e-mails poured into Worcester Wreath. Messages from parents telling of children who’d gone to war and never returned; messages from wives, from veterans — each of them saying, Thank you. Thank you for remembering.
So many requests for memory wreaths that on this day, wreaths from Maine are being placed at more than 200 veterans’ cemeteries across the country. And right here at Arlington, 800 people are lined up, each waiting to receive a single wreath to place against a stone: the media’s photo opportunity of the day.
But let me take you away from the crowd. The smell of balsam covers all of us; our hands are sticky with sap from holding the wreaths. Here is Nancy Cox from Virginia. She has come to Arlington for the past four Decembers. On a quiet knoll, she places her wreath and says to the stone, “Thank you very much. ”
“I say the names aloud,” she says. “I say to myself, ‘When is the last time someone said this soldier’s name out loud?'”
Here is Gabriel Roy, who served in Korea. He’s standing alone with tears in his eyes. “My brothers are here,” he says. “I’ll be here one day soon.” He places his wreath beside a small headstone. “Put them by the small stones,” he says. “They were the nobodies.”
I speak with Theresa Whitehead, who came on one of three buses from North Carolina. “That man must get a lot back,” she says of Morrill Worcester, “because he gives so much. I think now we have to say thank you to him.”
I meet a man whose son died in Bosnia, and a Connecticut man who hasn’t heard from his son, a soldier stationed in Iraq, for more than a month. They’re all here, each one finding a headstone, placing a wreath, each marker saying, “In memory of … In memory of …” And for a few moments on a day in December, the words come alive.
The wreaths go from truck to stones in an hour. Morrill Worcester never sought a platform, but it found him. This year, on December 15, two trucks will bring 10,000 wreaths to Arlington. Thousands of people will line the route from Maine to Virginia to see them pass. The wreath laying will be on a Saturday, when the schools are closed. Morrill Worcester expects “5,000 people, maybe more. Who knows how many?”
Wreaths will be placed again at U.S. military cemeteries around the world. Navy ships will drop wreaths into the sea. They will flow like a river beyond sight, and it matters not what my beliefs, or yours, may be about the war in which we are engaged today, or about the wars of the past, or wars ahead. For this day is about an idea that began on a tree farm in Maine, a gift that says simply to the dead: We remember.
For details on the 2009 wreath laying: wreathsacrossamerica.org