Ed Grisamore

‘24 hours a day, seven days a week.’ Former Tomb of the Unknown Soldier guard from Macon dies

One day last week, there were only six obituaries on page 4A of The Telegraph. They barely took up half the page.

Two days later, there were 28 spread across two pages. That was unusual. It has been a long time since I’ve seen that many.

Like many of you, I open my newspaper every morning not knowing what to expect on the pages that announce death and mark life. Often, I am shocked and saddened. There are many days when I leave the house with a heavy heart.

I don’t always read the comics. I skip over parts of the sports pages and hardly ever look at the TV listings.

But I rarely miss the obits.

It is not so much a morbid fascination as a rite of passage. It is rare when I do not recognize a name or two. I either knew the person or one of their children. They might be the friend of a friend. Or a retired teacher, business leader or community volunteer. Or just someone who got up every morning and went out and made a difference in the world.

There are times when I recall having written about them, which made me a part of their lives.

It happened a few weeks ago, when the names of Fay Nicholas and Marion Collins appeared side-by-side across the top of the page 8A. I had written about Fay and her more than 40 years of working at Nu-Way with her husband, the late Johnny Nicholas. His parents were among the first Greek families to settle in Macon, and he worked at Nu-Way until he was 91 years old. Fay also worked at the with Macon-Bibb County Convention & Visitors Bureau at the rest stop between Macon and Forsyth at the I-75/I-475 split.

I later went back and found my column about Marion Collins from 2002. After re-reading it, I thought it was appropriate to share some of my remembrances, especially with Veterans Day approaching next week.

Collins grew up the son of a sharecropper in the rural community of Cobbtown, which is near Metter. In 1951, his family moved to Macon, and his father went to work in the cotton mills.

He attended Lanier High, which had one of the largest ROTC programs in the Southeast. He joined the Army in 1959 — 60 years ago this year — and was one of three soldiers from Fort Benning selected to try out for the Honor Guard, the Army’s official ceremonial guard based in Washington, D.C.

The Honor Guard, sometimes known as the “Old Guard,’’ serves in military parades, ceremonies and funerals. One of its most noted responsibilities is guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.

When he first got to Washington, Collins was assigned to the unit that serves as pallbearers for military funerals. In 1961, he marched in President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural parade and took part in several formal ceremonies on the lawn of the White House.

Beginning in the fall of 1962, Collins spent almost a year as a guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which has been patrolled without ceasing — 24 hours a day, seven days a week — since 1930. It bears the inscription: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.’’

Collins told me about how he would pace 21 steps, which is symbolic of a 21-gun salute — the highest honor that can be bestowed on any military or foreign dignitary. He talked about silently counting those steps, then turning at the clicking of his metal heel plates and retracing them.

His gloves were kept moist to prevent him from losing his grip on the rifle, which was always carried across the shoulder pointing away from the tomb. He could never speak or show any emotion.

I have been to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier twice in my lifetime — once in the summer before I went into the fourth grade and again in 1998, when we took a family trip to D.C. to visit my sister.

Collins was only 23 years old when he guarded the tomb.

As powerful as the emotions were for him as a young man, he said they affected him more as he grew older.

He reflected on them all the time.

Ed Grisamore teaches journalism at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.