By Betsy Kunstel
When my Dad and I drove through the old weathered gates of a cemetery seemingly forgotten by time and by the eroding neighborhood that had once anchored it heavily to Cleveland’s South Side, I had a gut feeling that we were going to find him. While many Northeastern Ohioans were bound for deals and door-busters on Black Friday morning, my Dad and I were on a mission. We had done some research, made a few plans, and headed out into the sunny, glaringly bright but chilly land that hugs the Great Lake.
Just the day before, on Thanksgiving morning, I had found my Dad manning his usual coffee, sweet snack, nine o’clock post at the computer, browsing the news sites, and Googling away his wonders. On Memorial Day he had sat down and decided to look for some of his friends who hadn’t made it back from Vietnam with him. He had entered a few names into the search engine, and had found a handful of web sites that helped complete their stories. When he had searched for Mike Hrutkay, he had found a memorial page with Mike’s official picture, a few short and generic details about his “just barely started” life of twenty years, and a comment that had left my Dad wondering.
In Mike, my Dad had found a new friend, a buddy with whom he shared a sad and uncertain departure, heading for the jungles of Southeast Asia, and whose body would be carried from a plane, in a casket, just five short months later – to be buried somewhere in Calvary Catholic Cemetery – the same cemetery where a good portion of my father’s own family is laid to eternal rest and remembrance.
We could not find him online. We searched one database after another, hoping for a plot number, a section number, any confirmation that he was in fact, there. Nothing. Nothing other than a simple comment left on a web site saying, “He is buried at Calvary Cemetery.” After searching and searching, we headed out in the car, south and west, toward one of Cleveland’s rougher neighborhoods.
The graves range by age and size and convenience, some behemoth monuments to a family name, some headstones set up like rows and rows of dominoes, and some flush with the ground, a prairie of granite.
Founded in 1893, and standing like an island in a sea of dilapidated houses, ghosts of their once prosperous pasts, and just a block away from one of Cleveland’s major arteries, is Calvary Catholic Cemetery.
The graves range by age and size and convenience, some behemoth monuments to a family name, some headstones set up like rows and rows of dominoes, and some flush with the ground, a prairie of granite, ideal for mowing and maintenance. The sun was shining, but like most November days in Cleveland, the lake is unforgiving, and rattled us with wind, never letting a seasoned Clevelander forget its constant presence.
Mostly quiet on the day after Thanksgiving, the cemetery office was a stately brick structure, old-fashioned in decor, with photos of the pope, the bishop, and the cardinals adorning opposite facing walls, in an endless staring contest. We explained to the woman working behind the computer that we were looking for a plot number. I spelled the last name for her. Just a few minutes later, my Dad and I emerged from the office with a little green note card bearing the plot number, a two-sided map, and a small American flag from a bin of tributes, free for the taking.
I had saved one flower from the bouquet we brought because I knew we would find him. I placed the red carnation at the head of his stone, and my father pushed the tiny, waving flag into the ground behind it.
We drove back down the same path from which we had come, retracing our steps. We parked the car in front of a monument we estimated to be roughly in the area of the plot. Marching in great steps, we counted, one, two, three, four rows up from the road, we set out in two directions, bending down and pushing the gathered clusters of dried leaves from each sunken stone, hoping to see the telltale “HRU…” of his last name. After probably twenty stones and great anticipation, I heard my father say, “I’ll be darned. There he is.”
Michael Hrutkay had died just twenty years and exactly six months to the day from when he was born into this world. The stone itself was being reclaimed by the grass, and my father and I pulled tufts of turf to expose its face, the last remaining remnants of Michael’s eternal story, to the light. I had saved one flower from the bouquet we brought because I knew we would find him. I placed the red carnation at the head of his stone, and my father pushed the tiny, waving flag into the ground behind it. For just a few seconds, my Dad saluted the stone, and said nothing more than, “Good job, Mike.” And moments later we were walking back to the warmth of the car, starting the engine, and driving past the blowing flag, the lone flower, the good soldier.
I am grateful every single day that my father’s name is not on the wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial – if it were, I wouldn’t be here. As my Dad and I sat down just an hour later at a West Side bar to share a beer and a few stories, I could not have felt more proud, yet more humbled by our great fortune, and the opportunity to spend a few hours on memory lane with my Dad.
Betsy Kunstel says that her writing is “really just a hobby,” but she’s written for at least one newspaper, and now for our magazine. She works as an academic advisor, and is the daughter of a Vietnam veteran.