ARLINGTON, Va. The rows of gravestones stretched out before him like time itself. But when John Lechler saw the date on one particular tombstone, he knew where to lay his wreath. And for a moment, Army Air Corps 2nd Lt. Gordon H. Sterling Jr., who died on Dec. 7, 1941, lived again.
The balsam fir wreath was from Maine made by hand, decorated by hand, wrapped, boxed and loaded on a truck by hand, then driven 750 miles to Arlington National Cemetery.
This is the miracle of Arlington. "When you first look at that sea of stones, you don't get the impression of individuality," says Tom Sherlock, the cemetery historian. "But if you stop for just a moment and look at the name on the stone, in that moment they're thought of again, and they live again."
Lechler was one of about 600 volunteers at the cemetery Thursday for what has become a new holiday tradition: placing Christmas wreaths supplied by a Maine businessman who never got over his first sight of the cemetery on more than 5,000 veterans' graves.
"It's great that we came together to show our gratitude, considering how tough it is for everybody with this war going on," says Lechler, 42, an Ashburn, Va., resident who runs a sports training business and who never served in the military.
Every December for the past 15 years, Morrill Worcester, owner of one of the world's largest holiday wreath companies, has taken time in the midst of his busiest season to haul a truckload of wreaths to Arlington from his small Downeast Maine town of Harrington.
For years, he and a small band of volunteers laid the wreaths in virtual obscurity. But in the last 12 months that has changed, thanks to a dusting of snow last year at the cemetery, an evocative photograph, a sentimental poem and a chain e-mail.
And this year, Worcester went national. A new program, "Wreaths Across America," shipped a total of about 1,300 wreaths to more than 200 national cemeteries and vets' memorials in all 50 states.
Worcester, 56, says he wants to help Americans remember and honor deceased military veterans, particularly at Christmas, when they're missed most. On the Wreaths Across America website, he makes this comment: "When people hear about what we're doing, they want to know if I'm a veteran. I'm not. But I make it my business never to forget."
On Thursday he looked at the crowd of volunteers five times as many as last year's and said, "I didn't realize there were this many people that felt like I do."
This year, Worcester's wreaths got to Arlington in a red, white and blue semi-trailer that followed U.S. Highway 1, escorted by a military veterans motorcycle group. In some towns, flag-waving crowds turned out to welcome the convoy as it passed through.
The wreaths were placed in a hilly, wooded section of the cemetery that has the graves of forgotten doughboys and GIs, as well as those of astronaut moonwalkers, Dr. Walter Reed and the general at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge who told the Nazi commander demanding his surrender "Nuts."
"We want to honor the veterans, and we do it with the products we make ourselves," says Worcester's wife, Karen. "We're like the Little Drummer Boy. He had his drum. We have our wreaths."
Awestruck by Arlington
He was 12, an impressionable age to visit a city filled with unforgettable sites. What struck him most was the national cemetery now the final resting place of more than 300,000 and its endless lines of perfectly aligned stones:
"That stuck with me all these years, the enormity of the cemetery," Worcester says. "And the fact that everyone buried there had a personal story, and aspirations and plans for the future, like we all do."
Years later, as a sophomore at the University of Maine, he realized there was money to be made in Christmas wreaths. He could buy wreaths that local people made at home and take them to Boston to sell to a wholesaler. That first year he sold 500.
It was the beginning of the Worcester Wreath Co., which in 1982 became a supplier for Maine's mail order giant, L.L. Bean.
In 1992, during one of his company's periodic expansions, Worcester got a call in December from one of his warehouses. "We're up to our knees in wreaths," his foreman announced they'd overproduced several thousand.
"I said, 'Well, I'm not just gonna throw them away,' " he recalls. "That's when I thought of Arlington." He called Washington for permission to lay his wreaths. To his surprise, he got it.
But when he arrived at Arlington, Worcester was stunned by the size of the area to be covered. It was just Worcester, his son and about a dozen others. It was raining. It took six hours. Afterward he was wet, tired and exhilarated. There, buried in the Virginia soil, he had found the cost of freedom.
A tradition builds
Every December after that, Worcester, his family, his employees and his friends gathered on a Sunday to decorate wreaths and load them on a truck provided by a local company. Worcester and a few others drove to Arlington, laid 5,000 wreaths and were back at work within a few days.
Each year, Worcester was assigned a different part of the cemetery, usually an older section whose graves received less attention. Every stone got the same simple 20-inch wreath, adorned only with a red bow. Before leaving, the volunteers laid wreaths at the graves of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, the USS Maine memorial and the Tomb of the Unknowns.
When Worcester started his business in 1971, he was 21 the average age, he would point out, of U.S. servicemen killed in World War II. He had a college draft deferment, but he never forgot the sacrifices of those who did serve.
"I'd been lucky," he says, "and I wanted to give back."
Christmas wreaths had made him rich. Now, he felt he was reclaiming the true meaning of a wreath, showing it as something more than a glitzy holiday ornament: "We wanted to get back to the simple idea of what a wreath represents respect, honor, victory."
This was a different kind of victory, though a victory of remembrance, a victory over death itself.
But, he is asked, what was the point of their sacrifice? Did the doughboys make the world safe for democracy in World War I? Did the Spanish-American War keep America free? And what about Iraq, a war which has steadily lost public support?
"This is non-political," Worcester replies. "These people died for us. If they died in vain, I don't know. But they all deserve our respect."
The tradition grew slowly. Every year there were a few more volunteers in Harrington to load the truck and a few more in Arlington to lay the wreaths. Every January there'd be a few more calls, e-mails or letters. Worcester says that apart from a newspaper story here and a broadcast report there, "it was almost a private thing."
Until December 2005.
Buzz on the Internet
When the day was almost over and all the wreaths had been laid, it started to snow. Around the same time, an Air Force news photographer covering the event went back for a final picture before heading back to the Pentagon.
Master Sgt. James Varhegyi had shot hundred of images that morning. In accordance with photojournalistic convention, almost all had people in them.
But this time Varhegyi took a picture that had no people, just rows of graves, decorated with bowed wreaths, on snowy ground. White, green, red the colors of Christmas. He didn't think it was anything special.
When the Worcesters returned to Harrington, things quieted down as usual after Christmas. Except that instead of declining in January, the appreciative calls and e-mails began to increase.
Varhegyi's photo had been posted on an Air Force website, from which someone the Worcesters don't know who had lifted it, put it in an e-mail, and added a poem:
Rest easy, sleep well my brothers.
Know the line has held, your job is done.
Rest easy, sleep well.
Others have taken up where you fell, the line has held.
Peace, peace, and farewell
"Please share this with everyone on your address list," the e-mail read. "You hear too much about the bad things people do. Everyone should hear about this."
The e-mail became an Internet sensation. It spread like a virus, so far and so fast that Snopes.com, a website devoted to exploring myths and rumors, investigated and confirmed its existence.
More and more people contacted Worcester Wreath Co. with questions, thanks and requests. By February, the company was getting 30 to 40 e-mails a day. People sent checks, which were returned. Company staffers found themselves devoting more and more time to phone calls about the Arlington effort.