By Marc Fisher
Sunday, December 3, 2006
E very year for more than a decade, at the height of the season, Morrill Worcester would pack up a truckload of his Christmas wreaths and head down from Maine to Arlington National Cemetery. Without fanfare, he and a dozen or so volunteers would lay red-bowed wreaths on a few thousand headstones of fallen Americans.
There was no publicity. No crowds gathered. The gesture was one man's private duty, born of a trip to Washington he won as a 12-year-old paperboy. Of all the monuments and memorials he saw, it was the visit to Arlington that stuck with him -- the majesty and mystery, the sadness and the pride, the sight of all those neat rows of government-issue white headstones.
Years later, after he had started his Christmas products business, at the crunch point of one season Worcester asked some men who were building his new factory to find some wreaths and buy them for him.
They went a bit overboard: When Worcester heard that he was the proud owner of 4,000 wreaths that couldn't possibly be sold by Christmas, he called a friend who owned a trucking company, contacted his senator in Washington and, two weeks before Christmas 1992, was at Arlington, laying wreaths.
It seemed like the right thing to do. So he continued the ritual each year, honoring those who had died so that he and other Americans might live as they saw fit.
Then, a few months ago, the e-mails started. Maybe you got one: a heart-wrenching yet elegant image of Worcester's wreaths, each adorned with a simple red ribbon, resting in front of seemingly endless rows of identical gravestones on a snowy day at Arlington. Beneath the photo, a few lines of poetry:
"Rest easy, sleep well my brothers.
Know the line has held, your job is done.
Rest easy, sleep well . . . "
And then just a paragraph about Worcester's annual pilgrimage.
The e-mail became an Internet phenomenon, forwarded so many times that the professional skeptics who spend their time checking out urban legends at Snopes.com mounted an investigation. Sure enough, this was the real deal.
A week from today, Worcester will leave Columbia Falls, Maine, to lead the trailer full of wreaths down the coast. This time, it won't be just the trucker, Worcester and his wife, Karen. This time, there'll be an escort of a couple hundred Patriot Guard Riders, a national group of motorcyclists who take it upon themselves to display their respect for fallen service members.
This time, Worcester and friends won't barrel down the interstate; they're taking the slow road, Route 1, so that more motorcyclists -- perhaps thousands more -- might join the caravan.
This time, the wreath-laying won't be a private affair. Instead of the 10 or 12 volunteers who had been rounded up in past years by Wayne Hanson, a retired federal law enforcement officer who lives in Springfield, at least 500 people will be ready to help lay the wreaths Dec. 14 -- and maybe many more.
There will be a busload of school kids from Skowhegan, Maine, a Civil Air Patrol unit from up that way and all manner of Washington-area volunteers, too.
They're still calling, every day. "It's the e-mail that did this," says Hanson, 62, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War. He got involved with the wreaths in 1993, when Worcester sought help from the Maine State Society, a Falls Church-based group of transplants. "I had a man call from Iraq, a civilian contractor who got his company to give him R&R so he could come back and lay a wreath."
Every year, the superintendent of the cemetery assigns the wreath brigade to a different part of the grounds. Last year, the volunteers completed their circuit of the cemetery, and this Christmas, they start all over again.
Every year, Worcester makes certain to reserve a few wreaths for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the John and Robert Kennedy gravesites, the memorial to the USS Maine and the resting place of Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine.
Even as his personal ritual morphs into something much larger, Worcester, 56, wants to ensure that its original purpose remains. "It's just my way to say thank you," he says. "I've got a lot to be thankful for." When he started Worcester Wreaths in 1971, he sold 500 wreaths. This year, that number will top 500,000, mostly to the Maine-based retailer L.L. Bean.
This time of year, the wreath company employs more than 600 people in Harrington, about 45 miles up the coast from Bar Harbor.
Worcester has always returned the checks that people send him. The wreath-laying is his personal statement: "This is the least we can do."
Everyone connected with the wreath project takes pains to note that it has nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with anyone's opinion about Iraq or terrorism.
"It's just a way to pay respect," Hanson says. "When I came home from Vietnam, well, it wasn't the best time to be in the military, or to be coming home. But this -- it brings tears to my eyes to see 5,000 wreaths laid out across those white government headstones. You can't think about anything but that ultimate sacrifice these people made to give us our freedom."
This year, the interest in Worcester's project has exploded to the point that he had to find some way to extend the tribute, so he has launched http://wreathsacrossamerica.org, a Web site that coordinates similar rituals at more than 200 military cemeteries around the country.
"The veterans are going to get their due," says Worcester, who never served in the military. "It's going to be quite something."