Also unbeknownst to us area firefighters had been on the very same ground hours minutes before our arrival doing a very important 'mitzvah ' (good deed).
The very flag photo I posted on Memorial Day from a past ceremony was the very subject of this mitzvah.
My friend Sue, captured the story to share with local news sources but alas they were all busy doing other Memorial Day activities. Read on to learn the entire story.
Something Important Happened During Memorial Day Musing
by Susan T. Hessel
I know enough to not say Happy Memorial Day to others. It’s a holiday not just for sales, barbecues and time off from work. Tracing its origins back to just after the Civil War when it was called Decorations Day is meant to remember those people who died supporting our American values like freedom, respect, equality and much more..
That’s why what happened Memorial Day in the Jewish Cemetery was so important. Two weeks before the holiday, the rope used to raise the 35-foot flagpole at the cemetery was so frayed it had to be replaced.
To have a Memorial Day at the Jewish Cemetery in La Crosse without an American flag was simply unthinkable to Rabbi Saul Prombaum of Congregation Sons of Abraham. 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.
Instead of maybe holding small flags, Prombaum said a “chain of dedication against the backdrop of the importance of Memorial Day” made it possible for that flag to fly.
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 that company would not do the job, after all, it simply bailed from the project. Running, a dedicated caretaker for years at the cemetery was upset. He knew the flag’s importance.
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 was 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 in minutes 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 has 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 firefighters to first keep raising the ladder to see if it could get high enough to do the work. Firefighting ladders go up in sections. In this case the ladder was raised more than 35 feet.
“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,” Prombaum 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 founded as the first Jewish cemetery. Ansche Chesed means people of kindness in English. The larger burial ground adjacent to it is for 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.”
Also impressive was those coming for the ceremony had no idea about what happened moments ago. The firetruck was gone as were the fighters. It looked like it did on any other Memorial Day. The 14 members of a local Civil War reenactors came as usual, performing a 21-gun salute and playing Taps.
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.”
How many firefighters does it take to change the rope? Seven, each dedicated, determined and deliberate in respecting those who came before them.
The following photos show the ladder parallel to the flag pole with the firefighters holding up the ladder to see if it would work
followed by the people holding tether lines and the brave firefighter who climbed that ladder held by the firefighters and Leigh Running, the cemetery caretaker.
The final photos show the preparation for putting the flag on the new rope and the flag flying at half mast -- for Memorial Day. Later, it was raised to full staff.
Kudos to all those who made this happen. A huge thank you from our community.