(Originally posted May 31, 2018) I first met Eben Bradbury Jr. on a gloomy Sunday in February 2015. An academic publisher had recently announced a World War I project based on first-person documents, and I eagerly signed up for sixteen chapters. On this particular Sunday, I was researching and writing about the Battle of Belleau Wood, a bloody battle that began on June 6, 1918, and took the lives of more American marines than any other engagement up to that point. It was hard-going, and I spent hours reading descriptions like this one, from a young man to his mother: “The first sight that struck my eyes when our little platoon started through the Woods was a place where the Germans had shot liquid fire and the ground and woods all around were scorched black. In the middle of this were men’s bodies all charred and some of their faces almost burned off. A little farther on, I stumbled over the body of a man who must have been killed a month before. I tell you such scenes as that gives you a sick feeling. I have seen nothing like it before.”
After hours of reading and writing this strenuous stuff, my eyes were burning and my neck ached, and I decided to take a break and run an errand at the drugstore around the corner from my house. On my way to CVS, a trip I have made hundreds of times, two important things happened. First, I absentmindedly missed my turn and had to turn into the far side of a triangle that led back to CVS. Second, I looked to my right as I waited at the stop sign. There, next to my car, was a boulder with a green plaque on it, reading: “Eben Bradbury Jr. Triangle, named in honor of Eben Bradbury Jr., 55th Company, 5th U.S. Marines, who was killed in the Battle of Belleau Wood(s), France, June 12, 1918.” I felt a physical reaction to this, one of those moments where you are reminded that death, history and grief are all around you all the time in a place like Newburyport.
Later, after I was so deeply involved in Eben’s family and their story, I learned the story of the rock, and it became a poignant reminder of the profound grief of his parents. From A Newburyport Marine: “Though they had managed to avoid any of the myriad church, school, camp and social events in honor of their son, Eben and Lizzie felt compelled to attend the dedication, on July 4, 1921, of a giant boulder with affixed tablet, placed in the newly named Eben Bradbury Triangle at the corner of the Bartlett Mall, whose paths, pond and fountain were a favorite leisure walk for the good people of Newburyport. Eben and Lizzie rode in the procession and sat in the hot sun listening to Mayor Hopkinson sing the praises of the “young sons of Newburyport. So brave. So patriotic. Their souls…have joined the ranks of the immortal.”
The rock, now imbued with such meaning, seemed worthy of a little research project of its own. I imagined Mayor Hopkinson, so fond of his inflated rhetoric, must have hauled it up from the bottom of the sea or had it shipped from France or some other such grand gesture. The rocks, one for Cornelius J. Doyle, and one for Eben, were found in Seabrook, as it turned out. Two similar glacial “erratics” were found in the neighboring town, the bronze plaques were cast, and the neighbors watched with great interest as they were hauled into place and affixed on July 2 and 3. It is, perhaps, fitting that the rock that first introduced me to Eben is from close by. Eben Sr., a well-known local pharmacist, would take his son on long, rambling walks when Eben Jr. was young, on several occasions venturing as far as Seabrook, still very much a rural, pastoral community. Eben’s father left town soon after the dedication of the rock. Since Eben’s grave is far away in France, it is comforting to know that his name is here, a short walk from his Bromfield Street house, on a piece of Seabrook stone.