Ed. Note: This piece was written both as catharsis on the loss of my grandfather, and as ethnographic research paper for Dr. Marvin Sterling‘s ANTH-E393 World Fiction and Cultural Anthropology class at Indiana University. It is both biographical and fictional.
The sky is a brilliant blue. There’s a warm breeze drifting up over the hill from the river below. The beauty of this late summer day betrays the solemnity of such an occasion. I’ve always thought so. Some might complain about duty in the cold or rain or snow; to me, it always felt like the weather should match the mood. It’s as if the warmth of the sun is a slap in the face to a family in mourning.
Slowly, cars begin to arrive. They pull up behind the hearse, lining the drive next to rows and rows of grave markers. Mourners begin making their way up the hill. Behind them, silently, stoically, a small group gathers. A band of brothers, smoothing jackets and loading rifles, prepares to carry out this last military honor… this is the Honor Guard.
I have served in the Honor Guard for… well, I don’t really remember how long. Most recently, probably about twenty years, give or take. I first did funeral honors years ago as a young man, back when I was military police. Volunteering again, now, just felt like the right thing to do. Honor guard wasn’t a big a deal for a long time, but then President Clinton passed some new law that stepped up funeral honors for veterans. When the VA and DoD started running low on people to honor the fallen after the start of this so-called “War on Terror”, I knew it was time to step up. Arthritis and age may have kept me from a lot of things, but spending a few minutes to lay a fallen brother to rest here in town? That’s a small price to pay for something so important.
Still… when I first joined up 70-some years ago, honoring the dead wasn’t really on my mind. I was a hot-headed thing looking for a fight. There was never enough action to suit my temper up in the company towns of Ontario. Growing up in the Great White North was cold, and paper mills were boring. Back then, the family company that eventually became Abitibi Power and Paper was king in those parts. The little company towns that sprang up around the mills were enveloped by a stench that hung in the air and permeated everything; it even clung to your hair, so you could never really shake it. My old man was a foreman in the mill at Iroquois Falls. He was a mean old cuss… drank too much and liked to show off his temper. By 16, I’d had enough. One afternoon after getting in a fight with the old man again, I took off and never looked back. I headed west to see what I could find. I eventually made it all the way out to British Columbia before finally realizing I needed to find some steady work. So I lied about my age and joined the Provost Corps. I hadn’t yet finished high school… but I was big and strong and mean, perfect for the job of an MP.
That’s where it started, this military life of mine. The corps taught me discipline I’d never known I needed. That discipline, combined with training opportunities I had never even dreamed of, put me in the cockpit of a Westland Lysander. “Lizzies”, we used to call them. That’s where I learned to fly. The Lysanders were British made planes. Didn’t look like much, but they could take off and land on a dime. The Canadians were using them in the 40’s for recon operations up and down the west coast.
After I left the Royal Air Force in Canada, I took on odd jobs here and there before I ended up in the States and enlisted for them, too. Flying for the US Army was a whole different animal. My DD-214 says I was an “aircraft mechanic”. What a load of horseshit. But what I’d really done was classified; we were sworn to secrecy… not that any of us really wanted to talk about what we’d really been doing anyway. Back then, I was unattached… no wife or kids – exactly what they look for – and, I had a “particular” set of skills. I could fly a plane, work a camera, and was a damn good shot. That’s when the OSS came calling.
For you young’uns, the OSS was the predecessor to what you’d now call the CIA. They used my skills as they saw fit. I flew surveillance missions. I sat hidden in the jungle with my scope trained on whatever I was told… sometimes I shot pictures, other times I took other shots. I’m not proud of being a sniper. I don’t think anyone really ever is. A human life is a human life. But I was a young man on the low end of the totem pole, and the world was at war. We did what we had to do. As a kid in Iroquois Falls, I had grown up around Inuit and German and British and French folks. Hell, I didn’t speak the same language as my two best friends; one of them was Dutch and one was Iroquois. But it didn’t matter. We were pals. We worked it out somehow. Skin color didn’t matter to us. That’s the terrible thing about war – it turns people against each other and draws lines where there never should have been any. But when you’re in that situation, it’s eat or be eaten. You begin to understand real survival instinct.
Years later, after D-Day, VE-Day and VJ-Day, the world finally started to seem normal again. After I was discharged, I was back to being an arrogant young man who was out to seek his fortune. Around ’54, me and a buddy of mine were hitchhiking across the States, working odd jobs for cash as we traveled from town to town. I was headed for California. Little did I know that Fate had other plans for me.
One afternoon, I walked up and knocked on the door of the house of a man named Tom Riddle. Before I could spit out the words to ask if he had any jobs for hire, I saw her. The most beautiful sweet young thing I’d ever laid eyes on. Brown curls and incredible blue-gray eyes stacked on top of denim jeans. Can you imagine? A girl in work pants. But that was Anna Lee. She was something else. A bit of a tomboy, that one. Oh, she liked to kick up her heels and wear pretty dresses just like the rest of the girls, but she also didn’t mind getting her hands dirty. Whip smart and curious and not afraid to speak her mind… we could just as easily go dancing as beat around an old truck engine together. That was it; I was done for. One Friday afternoon in June of ’55, I took my lunch break to go pick up Anna Lee, her mother and father, and we went down to the courthouse and made it official.
After we got married, I told my Anna Lee what I’d really been up to down in the South Pacific… but I never told another soul for another fifty years or more, not until I started hanging out down at the Post with the other fellas, like Danny. He got it. He’d been there, too. By the 90’s, the DoD had unclassified a lot of those old mission files. That’s when it was finally safe to say something, I guess. That’s when my kids found out… their dad wasn’t a mechanic in the army. He was OSS. A spy. A sniper. We never really talked about it much, really, but I got the impression that it explained some things to them. Like why I didn’t like to be touched by anyone but their mother. And why they could never come up on me from behind. Even after all that time, all those hours of sitting motionless in the Pacific jungle, wary of every tiny sound, clung to me like a second skin.
That’s what binds us… this “band of brothers.” That’s what people don’t understand. There are so many clichés about old men sitting around telling war stories. The young kids laugh at us old timers spending our afternoons at the Legion or the VFW, drinking and talking about the old days. Those old days, learning what it meant to survive… those things scar a man. They are an unspoken truth. Some guys did better than others recovering from shell shock, but we all had it. That’s why Honor Guard matters. We served. We hurt and bled for those wars. We risked and sacrificed. We took lives even when it went against everything we knew because we believed in a greater good. That’s why, years later, those of us who were lucky enough to make it to old age still cling to each other. We’re the only ones who really understand.
There’s something sacred about the funeral rites. I served as post chaplain for a long time, so I ought to know. I read something once – I think it was written by Richard Holmes – that said that “a degree of formalized mourning is more necessary for those who die in battle” than it is for normal folk… that it’s “useful for the dead soldier’s comrades to have some sort of focus for their mourning.” I couldn’t agree more. While some of these rituals are pretty new, the tradition of honoring a fallen warrior goes back a long, long time.
Being a bit of a history buff myself, I know that this type of ritual isn’t constrained to modern rites for contemporary soldiers. One of my sons-in-law is an anthropologist, and we used to sit and talk about that kind of thing all the time. Looking all the way back to the early explorers, you can find stories of how different peoples honored their fallen warriors. Ancient Norse tribes – you know, the Vikings – believed that their warriors earned a place in the halls of Valhalla. Something akin to the Christian version of “heaven”, that’s a special place where only the truly brave and honorable would spend the afterlife celebrating in the halls of Odin.
When I spent time in the South Pacific, I met some folks who were Maori. The Maori have an entire procedure of traditional mourning rituals that they still observe today. It’s called tangi, if memory serves me correctly. I remember being told the story of how death came to the Maori – it went all the way back into their folklore and the story of a goddess who ruled over the realm of the dead. The mourning rituals were for all their people, but in the case of a warrior, there was a special haka – a ritual dance – to be performed. Nowadays, each branch of the New Zealand military forces has its own version of the haka. The meaning behind it is to convey, with chants and actions, the emotions that sometimes words can’t. Since the Maori believe that the spirit doesn’t leave the body until after it has been buried, the funeral haka is believed to be witnessed by the deceased. So, it’s really a big deal to perform this centuries-old custom for a fallen warrior – an ultimate show of respect.
Back after WWII, the Japanese honored their war dead in some shrine – Yasukuni, I think it’s called. It’d been around for over a century at that point, but I guess it’s for all who died in service to that country. I don’t recall that anyone is actually buried in it; I think it’s more akin to our Vietnam Wall, with names and dates and such. I suppose you can probably find those kinds of war memorials, regardless of what form they take, in places all over the world.
I knew about some of these practices just from my time in the service. These days we’re still burying guys like the Navajo Code Talkers who served alongside us in the Pacific Theater. When a tribal member who served passes on, the Native American tribes incorporate military tradition into their own rituals. But that’s not all us old timers, you know. Just a couple years back, I remember reading about a young Marine killed in Iraq who was granted not just military honors, but also the honors of a Sioux warrior when his remains were returned to his tribe in South Dakota. The wake lasted something like three days. I saw some pictures from his funeral; they had him lie in state inside a traditional tepee there on the reservation, and his people held a ceremony where he was bestowed with a traditional Lakota warrior name. They then placed an eagle feather in his hands in the casket. The news said that “he earns the flag from his government, but he earns his eagle feather from his people.”
I learned so much more during my time as chaplain for the Post. Not sure how I really ended up in that role, other than just being the only one of the Post regulars at the time who went to church. Serving in a chaplain’s role after 9/11 meant brushing up on what I knew about other faiths during a time when people were suddenly terrified of Islam. The onslaught of new vets in this multicultural world brought to the post young men and women – just kids, really – from Judaism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and all sorts of different beliefs. Some may say that the Post Chaplain in a small town like ours doesn’t need to worry about that stuff. But I was raised Anglican, after my British mother. Anglicans – and Episcopalians, as they’re known in the States – practice a faith that values not just respecting another man’s traditions, but asking questions and trying to find common ground, so I felt it my duty to understand as much as I could.
It’s pretty interesting, as an older man – to have served for two countries, to have lived through all this history – to see how here in the States we’ve become such a salad bowl of tradition. They say that people are practicing religion less and less these days, doing away with ritual. I suppose I see that even in my own life. After Anna Lee passed on, I stopped attending church here in town. My kids and grandkids don’t really practice their faith as much as they used to, either. Even carrying out family rituals like birthday parties and such ebbed after Anna Lee left us.
But when it comes to honoring the military dead, the pomp and circumstance blazes on. That is one form of ritual that I feel most strongly must not be allowed to burn out. Those who served earned that honor and distinction, and it is on us to grant that one final act of recognition.
Which brings me back to today.
The breeze wafts past the magnolia tree here on top of the hill as my comrades line up with their rifles. Danny, Cocky, Bill… the guys are all here. Garrison caps stand stiff on top of graying heads over blue blazers and uniform trousers. White gloves cradle time-polished rifles as they glint in the sun. But this time, it’s different. Today, the fellas seem more sullen.
This time, I’m watching from a distance that I can’t put into words. The mourners under the tent carry in their faces vestiges of my own. Those blue eyes, streaked with tears, are their mothers – the ones that I gazed into so many times over fifty beautiful years.
My children. My grandchildren. My great-grandchildren.
Mine and Anna Lee’s legacy, lined up on this day.
The column aligns itself behind the
makeshift statuary of a soldier’s rifle,
boots, and helmet – the Battlefield Cross.
They’re crying. Lord, I hate that. I wasn’t an emotional man… not in public, anyway. But I know they weren’t ready for this, either. They thought I was invincible. Hell, I probably did, too. Getting old, watching friends die, losing a wife… I knew it was coming one day. But even though I’d been planning for this, making arrangements, getting things settled, I don’t think even I was ready for it.
“Detail, present arms.”
The commander walks toward my two oldest with folded flag in hand.
“On behalf of a grateful nation, I present this flag…”
My eldest son takes the flag. He’s a veteran like me. Usually he and I are standing in that company together, honoring the life and service of another. Not today. Today he is but one of the mourners… the dozens gathered under the trees to weep for the loss of one they loved.
“Comrades, let us salute our departed brother.”
I see my oldest daughter catch her breath. She’s strong like her mother. She will keep it together for the rest of them, no matter how deeply she hurts. My heart twists.
Danny steps forward to give the infantry order. White gloves lift rifles to the sky.
“Ready… Aim… Fire.”
The rifle volleys echo off the surrounding hills. Suddenly Roger appears next to Danny, and raises his trumpet to his lips.
At the sound of the bugle, I see more tears. My youngest son wraps his arm around his wife as she buries her face in his chest. One of my great-grandsons, normally a fidgety ball of energy, stands stock still, his eyes glistening in the sun as he holds his mother’s hand. Even the youngest grandbaby, not quite a year old, is solemn in this moment. Behind them stand two of my closest friends, the only non-family members invited. I smile, knowing that my daughters did that on purpose. No public announcement, no big crowd… just family: the way I always said I wanted it.
One of the highest honors in the service is laying another soldier to rest. It is unhurried and precise, performed with a deliberateness to match the spirit of the occasion. But this sacred ritual means something more when you’re on the receiving end. It is the final acknowledgement of dignity, the last “thank you for your service.” Here at the pinnacle of Veterans Hill, as the last notes of the trumpet call float off over the hill and down the river, I am laid to rest. Here I am finally reunited with my Anna Lee under the magnolia tree, a simple granite bench bearing silent witness to our fifty years together on this earth. As the veil between worlds grows more opaque, a sense of peace rushes through me. In my ears echo the words underlined in our family Bible all those years ago:
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race,
I have kept the faith.
Now there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness,
which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day.”
~ II Timothy 4:7-8