Today is April 10, 2020; the
To have a Memorial Day at the Jewish Cemetery in La Crosse without an American flag was simply unthinkable to Rabbi Saul Prombaum. But it looked like that would occur within 90 minutes of the annual observance that includes prayers for the dead and prayers for our government.
What he found instead was a “chain of dedication against the backdrop of the importance of Memorial Day.” That flag flew, thanks to work of the La Crosse Fire Department.
The challenge began two weeks ago when the cemetery’s caretaker, Leigh Running, discovered deteriorated rope lying in a heap at the base of the flagpole. This was odd for a rope replaced just the year before. He searched for and found a local company willing to replace the rope. Instead of telling Running they decided not to do the job, on Friday, that company bailed from the project.
When no other solution could be found, the rabbi reached out to Lieutenant Colonel Arieyeh Austin, a member of Congregation Sons of Abraham for the two years he was commander of the 1st Battalion, 310th Infantry at Fort McCoy. A few weeks before, his daughters had a shared Bat Mitzvah at the synagogue, which is a calling of age ceremony for girls comparable to Bar Mitzvahs for boys.
Austin, whose next assignment is at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, was actually at that fort for Memorial Day. But he made phone calls, seeking help to get that rope changed. He asked an engineering company in the area for help, but it not able to respond quickly. Who next to call? He tried the La Crosse Fire Department, which was there within minutes from its station on Losey Boulevard.
They came via a fire truck and were led by Lt. Bee Xiong, acting La Crosse Fire Department chief on Memorial Day. The first thing they did was to raise the ladder parallel to the pole to where it eventually was higher than the 35 feet.
The firefighters knew it was not as simple as balancing that ladder against the pole as they had no idea whether the pole itself was stable. Also, the soil in which the pole is implanted had many holes and tunnels made by moles, which might affect its stability. Would it bend against the weight of the firefighter at the top of the pole? Also, how hot would that pole be on a 95 to 100-degree heat index day?
“This had to be done without endangering the life of the firefighters or anyone else on the cemetery grounds,” Prombaum said. Firefighters instead made the decision to hold a ladder up parallel to the pole without touching it.”
That required them to first keep raising the ladder to see if it could get high enough to do the work.
“It took them about 35 minutes. They were good at what they did. It was like a bunch of guys had trained together for an event just like this,” he said. “Once the firefighter got up there, it didn’t take long.”
There was a snag – literally – coming down, however. Two tethers were caught on the flag pole. The firefighter who replaced the rope, together with the four firefighters manning the lines, had to raise the ladder to a height which cleared the top of the pole and gently coax the ladder away from the flagpole. The dedicated firefighters looked a little like that iconic photo of the soldiers raising the flag on Iwo Jima in World War II.
The Jewish Cemetery actually includes a section called Ansche Chesed, which German immigrant Jews as the first Jewish cemetery. Ansche Chesed means people of kindness in English. The larger burial ground is of Congregation Sons of Abraham, which is now responsible for both sections. About a dozen of the 150 or so graves there are of veterans.
All of those who worked on the flag pole could be considered people of kindness, according to Prombaum. “They were a serious bunch. It feels good to see good people doing a good thing.”
Prombaum said he is grateful to Running, the cemetery caretaker for many years, because he felt personally responsible for getting that flag up the pole; and also for Lt. Col. Austin. Both men are problem solvers who “didn’t let it go.”
A cemetery is a place of contemplation on Memorial Day, the rabbi added. “A cemetery is holy ground that becomes even more holy on Memorial Day. The flag had to be up on the pole as a symbol of why these people served.”