A dozen flags bundled under his arm, Ralph Rovere went searching Thursday in the wet grass for the 12 men he’s known nearly all his life.
He’s never met any of them. He doesn’t even know their names.
Yet the 86-year-old still considers them brothers.
They are the fallen veterans buried at Pioneer Cemetery in South Amherst.
Rover grew up in the house across the street from the Pyle-South Amherst grave yard. After returning from U.S. Navy service in World War II, the seaman took it upon himself to care for the fallen heroes year in and year out.
For more than 60 years, he’s planted flags and stood a silent, solitary watch over the graves each spring leading up to Memorial Day.
“I bond with them because they’re servicemen,” Rovere told the News-Times.
“Everybody that I grew up with is all gone,” he said. “Time’s gone by and I’m the only one left of all my friends, in the service and out. To me, doing this is a respect and I’m going to continue to show it.”
In his visit to the cemetery last week, Rovere hunted high and low to find the proper graves, their faces long since washed clean of inscriptions by the rain and wind. Grass has crept upon others, while some stones have been cracked and crumbled.
Two flags were placed to the rear of the graveyard in an unmarked area where Rovere said two Civil War veterans are buried, their markers long lost to time.
Rovere is a past commander of American Legion Post 197 in South Amherst and today serves as sergeant-at-arms. He’s been a member of the organization for six decades and counting, active the entire time.
He said veterans share a special connection that is different from any other.
“It’s more than friendship. You might not even like the guy next to you, but there’s still that deep, deep bond,” he said.
In his mind, it’s about dedication to the memory of those who risked their lives.
But the band of brothers is dwindling. The South Amherst posts’ membership is down to 28 and their hall has been for sale for quite some time.
Rovere said he worries about who will stand watch at Pioneer Cemetery once he is gone.
He also helps decorate graves at Evergreen Cemetery on Rt. 113 and said those volunteers have slowly fell away as the years have gone by.
Whereas 50 years ago an army of veterans would turn out to make light work of the 400-flag job, now it’s fallen to a dedicated core of five, Rovere said.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or on Twitter at @EditorHawk.