It takes just a year for sunlight to fade a flag.

The dead fade, too, if they're not remembered. And so, with flags in hand, a crew of volunteer firefighters made its way early last Sunday through Medford's three largest cemeteries, honoring the graves of those who once fought the nation's wars and the township's fires.

"Is that Willits?" Butch Merefield, a past chief of Union Fire Company, asked his son as the two made their way under gray skies along the south side of Odd Fellows Cemetery.

On Monday, the 125-year-old cemetery will be the site of Memorial Day ceremonies honoring all who served in the military.

"Yup," replied Jay Merefield, 38, who leaned down and pulled a 12-by-18-inch American flag, its once-scarlet stripes faded now to dull brick, from a bronze disk by the headstone of a Larry Willits.

As his father checked "Willits" from the list on his clipboard, the son tucked a new flag into a bracket on the back of the disk. Its weathered, green front bore the image of a spread-winged American eagle.

"World War II," it read. "1941-1945."

Since 2005, men from Union Fire have devoted the weekend before Memorial Day weekend to replacing American flags at about 600 veterans' graves around town, and planting 140 red-and-gold flags at those of its deceased firefighters.

'We'll do it'

"We've done our own [firefighters] for quite a few years," explained the senior Merefield, 63. "But about eight years ago, we were going through and discovered the veterans didn't get done.

"That upset me and a couple of the other guys," he said. "We're all veterans."

When the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post explained it could no longer field enough members for the task, Merefield said, he told them: " 'Just get me the flags. We'll do it.' "

VFW Post 7677 continues to provide the new flags each year, and takes the old ones back for proper disposal, which is burning.

"Hey, Butch," Mike McFadden, 28, called out. "I need six or seven more."

"American or fire?" Merefield called back.

"Fire," answered McFadden, who took a handful from a stack loaded in a child's wagon and strolled west, searching for such former colleagues as Clarence Shover, Dick Woodhall, Leon Foulk, and Milan Nesko.

A name known well

The fire flags, which remain in place until Flag Day next month, bear the image of a gold helmet, pike, ladder, and horn on a red field that reads "Loyal to Our Duty."

"Here's an oldie but a goodie," murmured Bob Merefield, 66, Butch's cousin. "Frank Johnson. He owned the men's clothing store on Main Street. His brother had the meat shop across the street."

Moments later, he paused at a marble headstone that had turned charcoal gray, its carvings weathered to blur. "That's my grandmother," he said. "I can't read it no more."

Later, he and Dave Rambo, 58, spotted flags by a headstone not on their list, then saw none at the grave of a name they knew well.

"The markers get knocked over by the lawn mowers. Sometimes they get put back wrong," Merefield explained as he switched the markers to a grave bearing the names of a husband and wife.

The plot was the resting place, too, of the couple's son, also a Medford firefighter, whose ashes had been sprinkled here.

"He was a great firefighter," Rambo said. "He wasn't scared of going in."

They asked that the name not be printed because the family preferred privacy.

The mood was generally somber, but there was some laughter, too, as the men worked their way along the rows.

"This guy won't let go," exclaimed Larry DeVaro, 80, as he tugged at the American flag at the grave of Charles Simpkins. Swollen by rain and snow, its pencil-thin shaft was stuck in the bracket.

"Let go, buddy," DeVaro hollered, "and I'll give you a new one."

About 5 percent of the wooden staffs were stuck in the markers and had to be broken or pulled out with pliers.

Some bronze markers showed signs of age as well. Dave Ballinger, 67, emerged from his truck bearing a tall World War I marker he found broken last May.

"I brazed it up," he said, pointing out the weld and then glancing around. "Now I can't find where it goes."

About a dozen firefighter graves also proved elusive.

"We've still got to find Paul Gerber," Butch Merefield announced, and they all fanned out.

About 10 minutes later, a man by the northern fence called out. "Got him. Got Paul," he said, and Merefield checked the last name off his list.

It was now 9:40 a.m. In less than two hours, the men of Union Fire Company had planted nearly 750 flags, and the effect was striking. The drowsy, bygone air most graveyards wear like an old shawl was gone, banished by the crisp reds, bright whites, and deep blues that now saluted from every corner.

"We remember everybody," Bob Merefield said, as he and his buddies headed for the Baptist and Methodist cemeteries two blocks away. "I just hope they remember me when I go."

"Yeah, that's all I ask," said Rambo, with a laugh. "Just remember me."

Contact David O'Reilly

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