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Andy Leheny

School trip took on new meaning after unlikely visit to veteran's grave

School trip took on new meaning after unlikely visit to veteran's grave

We all have a favorite ghost story.

Mine, however, does not involve chains clanging in pitch-black hallways, the spirits of girls cruelly detoured from senior proms, or headless former queens who walk the fog-draped English landscape.

My favorite ghost story is almost beautiful in its simplicity. Because nothing goes "bump in the night," or surprises one at the top of a staircase; the matter-of-factness of the story conveys its sincerity.

It is also a good ghost story because it is true.

Perhaps all ninth-grade students have the opportunity to go on a three-day class trip. At Aliquippa High School, ninth-grade trips to Washington, D.C., were as common as bland school cafeteria hot dogs and cheerleaders named Debbie.

Another universal ninth-grade fact, or of any grade for that matter, was The Best Friend. Every boy or girl had at least one, a confidant who shared all your secrets. My Best Friend in ninth grade was Mike Kachmar.

Mike was not going on the trip and acted as if he didn"t really care. It was no big deal. But being his best friend, I knew money was the real reason Mike wouldn"t be going.

Mike"s dad was a serious, no-nonsense man who saw nearly everything in black-and-white terms. The money wasn"t readily available for Mike to go, so he didn"t get to go. That was all there was to it.

Because he couldn"t go, Mike asked me a favor. Handing me a roll of film, he asked me to take pictures of the trip for him. I agreed, telling Mike at every stop I would take two photographs, one for him and one for me.

The trip was pretty much as any reasonable person, or parent, would expect -- teenagers being led in and out of national monuments by chaperones with fading levels of patience. Very few of us appreciated what we saw and experienced until years later.

But there was one visit that did make an impression.

Even a ninth-grader stops and thinks at Arlington National Cemetery. We read about war in our history books. We almost regularly saw pictures from Vietnam on the nightly news. But only then, with thousands upon thousands of real graves before us, did war assume some form of reality.

After leaving the bus, I walked down one long row of graves. I remember thinking how they all looked identical, like rows of blockhouses.

I was nearly three-quarters down the row when I remembered my promise to Mike. I stopped, turned to my right and walked to the nearest tombstone.

The name on the grave read Paul Kachmar. It said he had died in 1943.

The name of Mike"s younger brother was Paul. I was amazed by the coincidence and took a photograph of the tombstone.

When we returned home, I took my rolls of film in the same day to get them developed. Although it was difficult for me not to tell Mike, I wanted him to see the picture when I told him what happened.

Back then, it took nearly a week for film to be developed, and after I finally paid the drugstore and got the pictures, I rushed to Mike"s home.

I showed him the picture of the grave first, and pointed out the name on the tombstone.

Mike stared at the photograph for a moment, then led me into the kitchen where his father and mother were drinking coffee. He handed the photograph to his father, asking him to look at the picture I had taken.

His father stared at the photograph and for the first and only time in my memory the seriousness on his face vanished. The closest word to describing his look then would be bewilderment.

He set the photograph down on the kitchen table and turned toward Mike and me.

"That"s my brother"s grave," he said. "He was killed in World War II."

Have you ever met someone in an unfamiliar place and it turns out they know, or are related to, one of your closest friends? Just as you"re about to walk away, they tap you on the shoulder and ask you, by the way, to say hello to that friend or relative they haven"t seen in years.

One time, when that happened to me, the request came from farther away than I ever imagined.

Freelance writer Andy Leheny of Preston, Iowa, is a graduate of Aliquippa High School and Duquesne University. He can be reached at andy.leheny@yahoo.com.
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