The Potter’s Field

Hey, all. It’s been a busy past month, a lot of life events happening.

The image above is a section of a cemetery at the sprawling former site of an insane asylum located in Athens, Ohio. Note all the tiny white markers, most have a three-digit number carved upon them, the only identifier given to the poor soul who died while in institutional care.

Note the cluster of white markers- these were found randomly when they cleaned up the cemetery recently. The first time I saw this place, it looked like a hay field. I was walking the grounds looking for paw-paws, a banana like indigenous fruit, when I tripped over a marker. I asked my companion “WTF is this?” and she said “oh, this is a big-ass cemetery.” I had no clue. We did locate the small paw-paw grove, and the fruits were delicious.

However, I couldn’t get this place out of my head. A lonely place, full of forgotten people.

Well, at least they cleaned it up, as you can see. Note all the small US flags, there are a lot of them. The VA, the US Department of Veteran’s Affairs, went through the effort of identifying the veterans amongst the anonymous graves and they placed stone markers at some point in the past. I’d imagine there was a dusty book somewhere full of names next to the three-digit numbers on the graves.

It says something about how seriously the VA takes the care of the departed that they went through the trouble of ID’ing the graves of veterans in a place like this. It must have involved some real sleuthing to figure all of this out. But they did it, probably in the 1950s.

In the years since, I’d imagine the cemetery has gone through waves of neglect and then clearing. My bet is that this latest round of cleanup was done before Veteran’s Day, the eleventh of November. A day that used to be known as Armistice Day. A lot of times veteran’s organisations or perhaps the local chapter of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps do these types of cleanups.

The dead matter. They are our ancestors, even if they landed in such a bad situation in life that they ended up here, in this semi-forgotten potter’s field.

I took a picture of the above grave because it caught my eye. This soldier, or inmate, had served with the 122nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, or the 122nd OVI. They had an extensive service record in the US Civil War, and, as was usual in those days, more men died of disease than combat. It turns out that I had an ancestor with the 122nd, he served with D Co. as opposed to C Co, as the corporal above did. It’s possible they knew each other.

My ancestor was captured in 1863, in Winchester, Virginia. According to my Grandma, he spent time in Andersonville Prison. Strangely enough, this was related to me second-hand from Grandma, who had heard the tale directly from the veteran as a child.

As she lay dying, I thought to ask an odd question. As a child, I had always talked with old people, they had the most interesting things to say. For example, I spoke with a very old woman who was born in my childhood home in 1888. She told me of life back then. Stories about the end of World War One, the transition from animals to machines on the farm. But I digress.

I asked my Grandma if she knew any stories about the Civil War. It turns out, she did. And that’s how I heard the tale of a veteran of the 122nd Ohio, and his bad experience at Andersonville.

This is a big motivator for me as a storyteller. If you share the story, these people aren’t truly dead. They live on. Alive in living memory, their worlds brought to life for those of us in the age of the iPhone.

A time before electricity. A time when teamsters weren’t members of a union, but people who handled horses for a living. A time when a simple UTI could kill you.

Contrary to popular belief, those times weren’t good. There was <zero> social safety net, and most people had to work as hard as they could from sunrise to sunset just to make ends meet, then they died in their forties or fifties for the most part.

It was a time before recorded music, a time when a book was precious gift.

It was a time when people with the “Soldier’s Sickness” were sent to institutions by their families, who were driven by desperation to attempt to help their soldier who came home, altered forever.

If you look at the image of the potter’s field, there are a lot of little US flags. Each and every one was a soldier once, a member of the line.

There they lay, along with the others that society didn’t know what to do with.

Pretty crazy.

Be thankful you live in the age of the internet, anti-depressants and fast food.

I am, all the time. Especially so when I visit this potter’s field.

4 thoughts on “The Potter’s Field

  1. paw-paws! I had not heard about them until I moved to the Blue Ridge Mountain area. I have yet to try them, as their season is so short. We also have a lot of old cemeteries here, often unmarked. Lots of history in these hills.


    • Yeah re: history. Paw paws can be elusive. People around here are sketchy about paw-paw groves, they are frequently secret locations. I planted some last year, hope they come up. Usually they’re ripe in August, and yes, their season is very short and the fruit doesn’t store well. However, when you eat them it’s worth it. Sort of a cross between a banana and a mango. Don’t bite the skin, cut it open and spoon out the meat. If you get enough of them, try a paw-paw milkshake. Pretty memorable.


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