I’m always early to assignments. Always.
I need time to prepare, scope the place out. And usually, the best moments happen either before or after an event.
Today, I shot the Memorial Day program at the Chattanooga National Cemetery. I spend quite a bit of time shooting there – it’s an all-else-fails for feature photos, a high spot to get a good mug of Erlanger Hospital, and they’re always having some event or tour.
Even though I arrived almost an hour early, the place was already packed out for the day’s events. I thought about making my way closer to where the program would take place, but I noticed out of the corner of my eye an elderly man walking slowly through the sea of identical graves with a yellow rose held by his side. Curious, I approached him and asked who he was searching for.
He explained that he’d been wandering the site for almost 20 minutes now looking for his Aunt and Uncle Ledbetter because he wanted to place the rose on the grave.
“My mom died giving birth to my brother when I was only one,” he said, patiently walking down each row with the yellow rose still by his side. “My aunt raised me. She was my mom.”
It soon became less about making a good photograph and more about helping this man find his aunt’s burial site. I managed to snap a dozen or so frames, but nothing newspaper worthy. We walked together for nearly half an hour, looking for the headstone, while he told me about his Uncle’s time in the Army and how he decided to enlist when he was only sixteen.
“I’m Charlie, by the way,” he said quietly.
I finally took out my iPhone and used the online registry to find the number of the burial site. By that time, the ceremony was starting. I explained that I needed to head over and begin shooting, but that I enjoyed meeting him, talking with him and that I’d help him look more once I was done.
He held out the yellow rose.
“I’m gonna keep looking, but I want you to have this.”
I don’t think a flower has ever meant more to me than the yellow rose that’s sitting on my coffee table right now.
Happy Memorial Day, Charlie.