I like cemeteries. They’re peaceful, the older ones have interesting gravestones (not to mention occasional antique roses), and they’re full of stories. As a casual observer, I can only guess at most of the stories, but it’s easy to be moved by memorials to deceased children, or to smile at the humor in some people’s final messages to the world. There are so many stories, though, that are in danger of being lost in the passage of time.
Here’s one. In November 1917, the U.S. was racing to get troops overseas to join the Great War, and many young men enlisted or were drafted. Two of those were Guy Alexander and Claytor Preston of Logan, Utah. They were best friends, playing in the city band together, getting married on the same day, and enlisting together to play in the military band in support of the U.S. troops fighting in World War I. As they were heading to the East Coast, their train stopped on the tracks, and another train slammed into it, killing Guy and Claytor, and injuring several more Utah men.
The deaths of Guy and Claytor hit Utah hard. They were among the first Utahns killed as part of World War I, and were the first from Logan. They never fought, but they died in the service of their country, and they were given a huge memorial service in the Logan Tabernacle, with many local and state dignitaries in attendance. They were then buried near each other in the Logan Cemetery.
Jump ahead 99 years. There’s very little left of their story. My co-author, Jeff, and I only happened upon one of the few remaining mentions of them because we were reading intensely in newspapers from the time period while working on our World War I novel, No Peace with the Dawn. As far as we know, Guy and Claytor had no children, and their young wives very likely remarried. Here are their tombstones today, on Memorial Day 2016:
Claytor’s tombstone is part of the Preston-Thatcher family plot, so all he gets is his first name on a stone. At least he’s near family, and the American Legion hasn’t forgotten him, so he has his flag (the irises are from my kids and I). Guy’s tombstone is nearby, and difficult to read, so it looks like even the American Legion overlooked him. The graves were very lonely looking this busy Memorial Day, especially Guy’s, so far from any family. He is close to his best friend, at least, after they went through so much together, but still an awkward satellite to Claytor’s family plot.
This was once the scene of great drama and mourning, a focus for the community as Logan and the rest of Utah found itself stepping onto the stage of the First World War. But World War I is largely forgotten, and without any living relatives, these men’s grave sites are now overlooked (though I’ll be visiting again). They serve as a reminder that we all play our roles and have our stories. Events that seem large in the moment fade as time rolls forward, but each life still left its mark, a thread in the tapestry of human existence. One of the joys of writing historical fiction is finding those faded threads and shining a new light on them before the stories are lost forever.