A Memorial Day Tale

Posted on May 30, 2011


After more than a week of overcast rainy weather, you appreciate the sun. But out on the Lynnway, the sound of rubber on asphalt seems to supercharge the heat. The sun bleaches everything, including the white concrete overpass. On a late May afternoon, it is relentless.

At first, I was just going to cycle to Red Rock Park and back, but a still small voice said forge ahead, follow the drive to North Shore Community College and ride through Lynn Heritage State Park. In hindsight, such innocent decisions always leave us wondering about the influence of fate.

So it was by chance I met Frank. As I approached the overpass on my bike, I noticed an American flag and a rake standing sentinel above the flow of traffic. Progressing up the ramp, I saw small piles of pine needles, leaves and sand spaced at regular intervals. The ramp doubled back, and I saw a shopping cart parked at the top. In the cart was a car’s side mirror fastened to a mop handle sticking up alongside the rake and flag. What else was in the cart, cleaning supplies perhaps?

An elderly gentleman slumped in a canvas chair, as if asleep. “Hello,” I ventured.

“Life sucks and then you die,” he declared rubbing his eyes and stretching. He had a tan, cracked face, short grey beard and deep set eyes. His thin frame was clothed with baby blue blue-jeans, black long-sleeve shirt and a orange day-glo vest. A single white feather stuck up from the back of his green cap which was also decorated with a colorful array of military pins as if holding hands and marching in a circle round his head.

“But there are some good parts,” I countered.

“You’re right,” he conceded. He struggled to pull off his work gloves, revealing blue latex gloves underneath. “These damn things won’t come off,” he said, pulling at them, making them rip, disgustedly throwing one in a pile of muck, the other almost over the side of the overpass. Magenta nail polish focussed my attention on his weathered brown hands.

Frank was a 70 year old veteran, an engineer in the army. He would not tell me where he lived, though I tried a few times to get it out of him. He spoke highly of JFK. Recounting the Cuban Missile Crisis, he admits to being petrified and is grateful Kennedy was President. “Some other asshole woulda blowed up the world. All Khrushchev wanted was our missiles out of Turkey.”

His duty today was to take care of the overpass. “Nobody takes responsibility for it,” he said. “The city says it’s not theirs. The State say it’s the city’s responsibility. This drain hasn’t been cleaned out for 12 years.” At his feet lay an open storm drain. He picked up a foot long piece of wood and plunged it in. He handed me a similar piece of wood. “Here, use this.”

The stick had a spoon attached at the end. I started scooping out muck.
You engineered a shovel!”

“What else am I going to use,” he said. “How do you think the cavemen got by? They didn’t have what we have today.” I considered this.

When I had reached the limit of scooping with the makeshift utensil, Frank knew and said “That’s enough.” We talked a little longer. He assured me he was well hydrated. I’d been wondering what was in the plastic cup he had in the chairs cupholder; unfortunately it turned out to be beer, which was better than water for keeping you hydrated. I wondered how and when he would make it off the overpass as he was still slumped back in his chair and didn’t look like he’d be moving anytime soon. Later I would ask the police to check up on him.

As I took my leave, he mentioned that he was getting married “to a Spanish girl. We’re gonna have the wedding up here. You know when? . . . On the Fourth of July.”

“Maybe I’ll see you then,” I said and continued over the bridge and through Heritage State Park. I reflected on Memorial Days past. Frank continued to fight the good fight, even though he was probably homeless. He had answered the call of country and now he was mobilized to tend to this forgotten overpass. I hoped that his work would at least hold up until his wedding day.