The old soldier came ramrod-straight to attention, one hand steadying the rifle he carried on his shoulder. He stared ahead through silver spectacles, mouth grim and every hair in place.
He wasn’t in dress blues, but his good suit was blue and he’d festooned its lapels with an intricate wealth of ribbon and brass from the War. His cap read “Post Commander, VFW,” and he and his white-haired mates proudly flanked the young Marine bearing colors in their midst.
Five of them, four soldiers carrying flags and rifles, and a leader calling cadence, strode down the hill. They marched past the small American flags dotting some of the hillside graves; VFW members and their wives had spent most of the morning identifying and marking the graves of dead ex-soldiers. They passed us, reached the low stone wall at the entrance and turned.
The audience was small, maybe 20 in that tiny cemetery, watching these men honor their dead for Memorial Day. I can think of better things to do than stand in a graveyard, rain-soaked and freezing, watching old soldiers. But my nephew Morgan was being honored, too–he’d designed and built the low stone wall as an Eagle Scout project–and so I was there as the official event photographer. And I stood, shivering in the wind, waiting impatiently for the ceremony to end.
I couldn’t see the young Marine behind his enormous US flag but the other three old men in the honor guard seemed relaxed, as if the beloved ritual didn’t need their full attention. A sudden gust blew the wet into their faces and they grimaced a bit.
The old soldier on the right never wavered. Wind and water made a mess of his homespun uniform, but he stood stock-still, eyes front, at attention.
The leader pulled a sheaf of papers from his pocket, opened them quietly and began to read. “124 of our comrades have passed on, 124 men who fought for their country. Some of them died there; thanks to them the rest of us came home. These are the men who fought, and lived, and died…” and he began to read names. Abbott. Anderson.
The road outside the cemetery was busy, and the farmer across the street made an occasional clatter with his tools. Whenever the noise threatened to swamp his words the leader would stop, and wait. Fisher. Garrett.
The old soldier listened, and slowly closed his eyes. I saw his fist clench at his side and he nodded slightly, in time with the names. He gathered himself, like a runner in a relay, as the voice patiently counted down. Morgan. Morrison. Then the old man mouthed one name, in perfect synchronization with his leader, and I saw tears slide down his cheeks. He swayed suddenly, and I thought he would fall, but he drew himself up and steadied. He extended a thumb from his clenched fist and jabbed it up, once.
It’s easy for others to forget what happened in strange, violent places where nothing made sense except your comrades and an aching need to finish the job and go home. It’s maybe simpler to ignore those chapters and get on with the life you fought so hard to live. Or for the rest of us to pretend these things are best left in the past.
Then you look at your father, who fought in Korea and now stands in the rain watching an old soldier, and realize that these memories are part and parcel of the people you love. And that, whether or not you agree with the reasons for war, the ceremony must be kept for the sake of those who died.
And for the sake of those who lived.
The leader reached the “Ws,” and the old soldier opened his eyes. A tape played taps, and the honor guard marched back up the hill.