Members of northern Pocahontas County communities gather at the Arbovale Methodist Church and Arbovale Cemetery in observance of Memorial Day each year. Lost loved ones and service members are honored with a ceremony, complete with military rites performed by the Pocahontas County Veterans Honor Corps.
This year’s speaker, Arbovale native and Navy veteran Mike Crist, talked about how important Memorial Day is to him and to the country as a whole.
“I started thinking about all the folks who gave their lives – all the veterans – the folks that gave their lives for the service of this country and of those who are still with us today who had a lot more sacrifice in their duty for their country than I did,” he said. “It left me pretty humble.”
Crist cited the first Memorial Day speech, given in 1868 by General James Garfield at Arlington Cemetery.
“He began by asserting the poverty of his speech in comparison to the deeds of the fallen,” he said. “That’s exactly how I feel today.”
The importance of Memorial Day was solidified in Crist at a young age when he worked as a groundskeeper at the Arbovale Cemetery.
“I worked that cemetery,” he said. “Bob Beverage and I mowed that cemetery with push mowers and trimmed it with hand shears. I tell you, nothing gave us more pride than being prepared for Memorial Day. We wanted that cemetery to be stellar Memorial Day, and we took such pride in that. That started my devotion to Memorial Day and the pride that I had to serve my country.”
When Crist was old enough, he enlisted and joined the Navy. His first service to the country as a member of the crew of the USS Hammerhead was very special and moving to him. It again, reminded him to always honor those who have served and fallen for their country.
When he arrived at base in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1973, the USS Hammerhead was at sea, so he was assigned to barrack duty until he could join the crew.
Five years earlier, in 1968, the USS Scorpion sunk off the Azores, claiming the lives of 99 crew members. The submarine remains at the bottom of the ocean to this day.
Crist explained that when the crew goes out the sea, single crewmen place their personal belongings in a cage in the attic of the barracks. When he was assigned to barrack duty, Crist was given the task of cleaning out the USS Scorpion cage.
“In 1968, the Scorpion sunk and that cage was still full of all the single guys’ belongings in 1973,” Crist said. “Whether the Navy drug their feet or whether they forgot about them, I don’t know, but there was a tremendous amount of Congressional pressure to get the belongings back to the loved ones, so my first job was to go into the cage – me and several others – and identify whose belongings belonged to whom and put them in a box, and get them ready to ship.”
Going through the belongings, Crist was moved by the task and honored to help the families of fallen comrades.
“You’re looking at people’s moms and dads and girlfriends, grandfathers,” he said. “All their belongings. We had to get it done before Memorial Day, so it just cemented my devotion and respect for Memorial Day and the things you need to do in and around supporting veterans.”
Crist closed with stories about his time serving on a nuclear-powered submarine.
Names of individuals who passed away between May 2015 and May 2016 were read as family members and loved ones placed flowers in two arrangements. The flowers were taken to the Arbovale Cemetery and placed at the flag pole during the military rites ceremony.
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org