Column: They’re not just caretakers at this cemetery

(Credit: Jo Ann Kirkland)

One morning last week, Glenn Addario left his home in Coram and got to work about 7:45 a.m. His first task of the morning was digging a grave.

At Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale, Glenn checked in at maintenance headquarters and picked up a “dig slip” that told him where he’d start his day. The paper had coordinates he’d follow to locate the gravesite within the 365 acres, where more than 346,000 veterans and their close relatives are buried. 

Glenn checked out a backhoe and drove to the site along part of the 14 miles of roadways and narrow lanes. Row after row of white headstones carved from Vermont marble were shining between the morning shadows.

It takes a while, but then a visitor realizes that the thousands upon thousands of headstones are all exactly the same height, standing 42 inches from the grass. You see no monuments, obelisks or elaborate mausoleums. Even the headstones of the 20 veterans buried here who received the Congressional Medal of Honor are precisely the same as all the others.

Around the time Glenn was setting out to find his site, Tony Thomas, director of Long Island National Cemetery — one of 131 across the country, including Calverton National Cemetery — was just settling in at the administration offices for the day’s work.

Tony is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of more than two decades. “Everything that happened in the last 21 years, I was there,” he said. Not long after retiring from the Marines, Tony attended a funeral at a national cemetery in San Diego for a buddy who had been killed. In the days and weeks that followed, he said, “I found myself going back to the cemetery all the time.”

After knowing only one life for so long, he was at a crossroads, not sure which path to take — until he got a friendly suggestion. “I was at the cemetery so often,” he said, “someone finally told me, ‘You know, you can get a job here.’ ”

He completed a college degree and worked at several national cemeteries before taking the helm as director at Long Island National three months ago.

“What more admirable thing could you do than work here?” he asked.

Out on the grounds, Glenn found the spot he was looking for and began preparing to dig a perfect rectangle, five feet by 10 feet. A former U.S. Army infantryman, he was asked how long he’d been a caretaker, which is what all workers on the cemetery grounds are called. He paused for a moment and said, with a slight shake of his head, “Twenty-five years, is that right? Yeah, I started in 1995.”

Not sure what he wanted to do after being mustered out, Glenn had worked at a few jobs, including a stint as a security guard at the now-defunct nuclear power plant in Shoreham, until he found his place here.

“This is better, “ Glenn said, with a smile.

“And safer,” added operations supervisor Arthur Perkins, who had joined Glenn at the site, now a hole with metal tracks on either side to stand on next to a pile of sandy dirt and large stones.

The two men discussed the job — Glen would dig, or “open,” six more graves before quitting time — and how their work at the cemetery rewarded them every day.

“This is not about digging a hole in the ground,” Arthur said. “It’s about dignity, respect and compassion.”

Driving a golf cart among the graves, he noted that every headstone was level with its mate, and all were gleaming “like a box of Chiclets you just opened.” Keeping the stones clean and “plumb” from every angle takes constant maintenance, so that not even a hint of shoddiness is allowed to break the sense of order, completeness and pride.

Arthur is a United States Air Force vet from the Vietnam era. Back in civilian life, he had kicked around, “a bit lost and misguided,” working for a carnival for a while and some other jobs until finding his place.

“My grandfather is buried here,” Arthur said, looking out at the grounds, remembering family visits when Memorial Day was called Decoration Day and was devoted to tending the graves of veterans. “If you have Long Island roots, you have someone here.”

The crews he leads are all dedicated and pulling in the same direction, Arthur said. Speaking of the cemetery’s mission, he added, “Some people grasp it right away. Some you have to spoon feed. Some you have to hit over the head with the idea of what we’re doing, but everyone eventually gets it.”

He’s trained caretakers at national cemeteries across the country and been involved in coaching homeless veterans to apply for work in the national system. One major technique, he said, to use with the veterans down on their luck is “conflict resolution,” to solve individual and work problems. He praised President Obama for his successful initiative, beginning five years ago, to get homeless vets off the streets and into meaningful work.

Working alone in the rows of white marble, Roberto Gonzalez had just hoisted a 240-pound headstone from a grave with a winch attached to the bed of a small truck. The headstone leaned against the tailgate. It read “Antonio Goretto” and noted that he had served during World War II.

Roberto was on cleaning duty today and had already washed and polished three headstones at their sites. But stones that have seen too much weather and age have to be taken from the ground altogether and carefully power-washed back at the shop.

A Vietnam veteran, Roberto said that when cleaning, “I like to do it by myself. Do it right.”

Asked where he would be this Memorial Day, he answered, “Here.”

Caretakers don’t take long weekends, because by law the cemeteries can’t close for more than 48 hours at a stretch.

“People say, ‘Memorial Day, oh, a day off, great beach day, shopping,’ ” Roberto said. “But you know, most people don’t know why they got this day.”

He pointed to the grass at his feet. “This right here is why they got it.”

Roberto loaded Antonio Goretto’s headstone in the back of the truck and headed to the shop get it cleaned.

AMBROSEAmbrose Clancy is editor of the Shelter Island Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected] or 631-749-1000.