Every December for the past fifteen 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 twelve 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 fifty 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 who felt as I do.'
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.
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 hundreds 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:
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 thirty to forty 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.
One night, Sherry Scott, the office manager, was working late, trying to get caught up, when the phone rang:
It was an elderly woman from Texas. She says, 'Tell me you're the company that lays the wreaths at Arlington.' When I said we were, there was silence. Then she started crying. She says, 'My Dad's buried at Arlington.' Then I started crying.
Thank you, Mr. Worcester, for helping us not to forget.
(Thanks to John Cooper for steering me to this at Michelle Malkin’s site.)