On Memorial Day, I ask my friends to remember a young man buried at a ghost town’s edge in Columbia County, Pennsylvania.
John B. Carmitchell died, twenty years of age, on 15 November 1942 aboard the USS South Dakota, in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. We don’t know the exact circumstances of his death, but we know that in the pre-dawn hours the ship was under attack from the Japanese. An error in the engine room left the South Dakota without power and radar. Enemy fire destroyed her radio. In the dark of night and the fog of war, she had neither eyes nor ears, and suffered considerable damage.
Though back in March the flag was tattered, the grave evinces the pride John’s family had in him, his patriotic sacrifice, and his musicianship. They buried him next to his younger sister who had died eight years before. It appears that our sailor-musician grew up in the mining town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, in Columbia County’s southern tip.
Centralia no longer exists. The black tube you see in this photo, in front of the open cemetery gate, is a smoke stack that vents a progressive underground coal fire. Considered too unsafe for habitation, the town was condemned and purchased by the state under eminent domain. The cemeteries and streets remain, and all but a handful of houses are gone.
Did John’s parents feel that coal mining was the best way he could contribute to his nation’s livelihood, or did they encourage his musicality? Was he passionate about music? Living in a world that values industrial activities like coal mining over the arts, did he feel he should hide this passion? We will never know.
We do figure for sure, even if only aboard the USS South Dakota, John brought joy to people’s’ lives through the shared culture of music. That night in the South Pacific, as he and his fellow sailors fought to keep our country safe, his music was silenced. I choose to remember John as one who gave his life for my freedoms at large, and for my liberty in creating culture in particular.
In a song about saying yes to music and creativity that quickens me when I doubt my path as an artist, I hear: “If music be the fruit of life, then let my music play.” Music, visual arts, philosophy, the press, and on, are all fruits of human life and experience; without them, we go hungry.
The photo above and the stories attached remind us life can be too brief and that chaos resides too close. In the face of these things, the non-industrial facets of human culture create meaning and joy. John B. Carmitchell made a sacrifice that helps us enjoy these fruits today, with great liberty.
I resolve to you, good John, and all you men and women who gave their lives so that I may have a free voice as an artist, to sing my song of Columbia, and to share this fruit with my brothers and sisters. Thank you for your sacrifice. I hope John, that while you were here, you did let your music play, joyously.