Monday, May 30, 2011

Going Home – Thanatopsis

Shawn decided to jump ahead so he kind of set up a precedent. I decided to jump backward to the Going Home topic as my first post, because of the resonance with today… Tucker

The combination of sunny and cold was something I'd grown up with but long since become unaccustomed to. The air was that dry, brittle cold that cuts through warm clothing and made my dress pants seem to provide no warmth at all. The realization that it wasn't even very cold by Indiana standards for January should probably have made me thankful, but the possibility of greater discomfort provided little consolation. In a couple of hours the warmth of the sun would make being outside more tolerable, but the sun was too low on the horizon to provide any appreciable warmth and hadn't even driven away the frost that crunched underfoot. I'd forgotten that, the sound of frozen grass crunching underfoot.

The cold colored every aspect of the morning. Our pace, which should have seemed both reverential and considerate of the age of many of our party, instead seemed glacial and agonizing; a brisk walk would have at least warmed my freezing legs. Avoiding the desire to trot and the overwhelming urges to let my teeth chatter or to let my arms and legs tremble violently drove most thoughts from my mind. The only thing I could really think of was how wrong the blue skies and fluffy clouds and the crisp, clean air seemed. A lifetime of movie and comic book clichés made it seem like the monochrome image of dark overcast, dreary rain and a sea of black umbrellas were the proper thing. Instead our Sunday-clothes-clad group trudged through the morning sunshine and frosty cold with the only the silent and solemn pace in common with those clichés.

At the graveside, next to the flag-draped coffin, waited three elderly men dressed in dark suits and VFW hats, holding rifles at port arms. They gave my mother a grim smile and nodded slightly to her, but otherwise remained unmoving. It made me ashamed of being so concerned about my comfort, seeing them standing there, uncomplaining and unshivering, clutching rifles in hands knobbed by arthritis.

As we took our positions by the coffin, I glanced at the headstone and had to suppress a laugh. I remembered when my mother and father had bought the plot and the headstone. It had been delivered with "19__" carved where it would show year of their deaths. My mother had been unwilling to die in the twentieth century to make their job easier and had insisted they remove it. Dad and I had laughed at her outrage then. Now the "1995" carved by his name made the humor seem more sardonic than it had at the time.

The minister read the twenty-third Psalm, my father's favorite, and some other scripture I don't recall, no doubt assuring us of a divine reward and our eventual reunion. I wasn't really paying attention. I don't recall whether he said any other words before turning to face the honor guard.

Taps was watery and slightly off-key, but moving in the way it always is. As the old men fired their three volleys, the sun had risen enough that its heat was making a fine steam rise from the melting frost and from the shoulders of their dark suits. The weight of the rifles made them tremble slightly, but they fired precisely in unison and held a long count between rounds. It was only as they lower their rifles and moved to the coffin that their age began to show in their gait and in the the effort it took to remain precise in the practiced ritual of folding the flag. As one of them walked to us, a white-gloved hand above the flag and another below it, I was surprised when he offered it, not to my mother, but to me. I looked at my elder sisters, expecting them to disapprove at this surprise, but the looks on their faces told me that it had been discussed in advance.

As I met the eyes of the aging soldier the moisture there showed the significance this act had for him. I realized that in many ways, despite all that had happened in his life, my father was most defined by that time when he was risking his life in Pacific. I realized that even though he rarely talked about it, that time nearly a decade before I was born when my father struggled alongside men who fought and died as part of the "Greatest Generation" was very much the core of who both he and this man handing me the flag were. I recalled the last serious discussion we'd had, when Dad told me that in those final days of Viet Nam, when it was a race between my draft number and the end of the draft, he had hoped that if I was called I would go to Canada and refuse to serve. And as I took the flag, I realized just how complex and confusing being a patriot can be.

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