The old man stood peering down orderly rows of white marble. Matching in color with the rectangular monuments, wisps of his thin, white hair fluttered in the breeze. Two birds chirped from the branches of a distant tree, and in the distance, he could hear a crow. Couching gingerly on sturdily worn knees, he read the names etched in the headstones on either side of him; one he knew, the other, based on sparse, chiseled information, he felt he could have. He stepped back, looked up and down the crisp row of stones, turned on his heel, and stepped between the two, coming to swift attention.
Passersby would have found it a strange sight; an old man, standing at attention between two graves, facing the cleanly polished, unadorned side of other headstones. He would have appeared to be facing the wrong way to read anything on them. He was not.
The idea had just come to him to stand, one more time, in formation, with comrades. He had never done, or even thought of doing it, before today, before right now.
He thought back to the fateful end of his basic training as a paratrooper, his last jump from a plane, one final practice jump before his unit was shipped out; the jump where he landed awkwardly, shattered his left leg, ending his dreams of combat, nearly ending his career in the army. Only the intervention of an influential friend of his family kept him from getting the deserved, but loathed, honorable, medical discharge. One week to the day before his release from the hospital, his unit had jumped behind enemy lines for the first – for some, the last – time.
For three of his old unit, including his best buddy, it was their only jump that counted. Now, here they were, back in formation. It all came back to him.
Three weeks in traction, followed by grueling physical therapy, and he was bound not for discharge, but for a desk job, somewhere. A hard-to-swallow, better-than-the-alternative option. He had hoped to go back to some sort of active duty role with a combat unit, but his leg was too badly damaged for any of that. He could walk just fine, not totally without pain, but the puzzle pieces that were his left leg would balk at much more extensive rigor. The thought of sitting behind a desk held little appeal, and there were no other logical options. Then, nearing the end of his hospital stay, he overheard someone in the mess hall mentioning mortuary duty. Unsure of what that meant, but pretty sure it did not involve a desk, he decided to investigate his prospects there.
The colonel in charge of the unit he was assigned to was skeptical at first; very few men eagerly volunteered for the duty, and of those that did, many couldn’t hack it. The washout rate – even more than in paratroop school, he learned – was high. He quickly came to understand why, though he never once thought of asking to transfer out. The work was, in almost every regard, as fear-laden, emotionally controlled, as jumping out of a plane had been. Just as difficult, too.
But, more than he felt would ever be the case behind a desk, it was humbly rewarding.
On his first assignment, on a train, escorting a fallen soldier to a small town he had never heard of, he encountered a Navy Chaplain, a slightly older man than he, who was on the same mission as he, for one of his own; a seaman, killed in battle. The two men spent precious hours talking about their respective jobs – their ‘calling’ the chaplain termed. He also said it was their ‘missionary field’ – to serve, spiritually as well as militarily which took the young soldier by surprise. As a boy, he had heard stories in church and had helped collect pennies for, church members doing missionary work – carrying out their ‘mission’ – but he could not bring himself to see his new job in the same light.
Until now, meeting the chaplain, he had considered himself just a soldier, carrying out his orders. As he was soon to learn first hand, this duty was, to be sure, not just an assignment. Where once he had dreamed of being assigned to dangerous missions, and the potential to be a hero, the young soldier eventually came to refer to his work in the same vein as did the chaplain – this was his mission, in every sense of the word. As the train rumbled through the night, the two men found they shared many a common bond; big city boys, amused at the naivete of many of their more countrified, fellow raw recruits they had encountered, and whom they now counted as friends unlike those they would ever find in their respective cities. They shared many of the same experiences growing up; major league baseball games, gritty neighborhoods, subway trains, and cosmopolitan outlooks. They were kindred spirits, and the young soldier laughed at the similarities the two men shared, the stories they told each other. With the exception of one story the chaplain told him that the soldier could never push out of his mind, even if he had wanted to.
The chaplain told the younger man of his despair in not knowing what to say to a grieving family disappointed that their son died in a simple training mission, and not in the perceived glory of actual battle. The young man had served honorably and had earned promotions earlier than most of his peers, yet the family, for some reason the chaplain couldn’t grasp, felt cheated. Though it had been a year since he had brought the sailor home to his final rest, the chaplain was still troubled by the family’s reaction, their outright disappointment, and his lack of answers for the man’s family. He wondered, he whispered repeatedly, if time had lessened their disappointment in the fate of their son.
As he listened intently to the chaplain’s story, the young soldier thought he knew something of what he family meant about disappointment, though he could never articulate that at the time. Nor could he tell the chaplain how he came to be there, on that train, escorting home a soldier who had died in battle. Nor could he say anything of the envy he felt – had felt until that moment – until the chaplain’s story of the disappointed family. Suddenly, he felt a little guilty for his misplaced jealousy for a dead man. In the years since, he had thought often of the chaplain, and of that story.
He thought about the chaplain again, standing here, amidst the fallen, grateful for having met him when he did, the first time he had escorted a young man home. He stood there, in the breeze, and let the memories come; the chaplain, the train ride, the young corporal he brought home to his grieving, but appreciative family. The first, nowhere near the last.
Time, and the soldier’s experiences in the graves registration unit had softened, then eventually erased, his frustrations with never having jumped in combat.
One-hundred-thirty-seven times he had escorted a fallen serviceman home to a family. He had been one only two men in his thirty-man platoon to request to stay in graves registration when his tour was up. The rest had enough after one go around – those that didn’t transfer out early; it was difficult duty, impossible to describe until you had done it – something not for anyone or everyone. There was no animosity or derision directed towards the men who left, silent admiration for those who stayed.
Bringing the dead home was not something every man was equipped for.
One-hundred-thirty-seven times. Big cities, small towns; the Northeast, the Midwest, the south and the mountain west. He had seen it all, through train windows, and mortuary sedans. He had stood at attention at gravesides in small family plots alongside country churches, and in obscure corners of gritty, urban cemeteries that seemed to be cities themselves. He had become well-versed in services simple and profound; high masses and elaborate, afternoon-long prayer services. He knew of being an outsider – the only person in attendance of his skin color, the only one in the room not of the denomination, not versed in the way they sang their hymns, how they said their prayers. He had seen somber eulogies and been an invited, at times even honored, guest, at a variety of wakes, reviewals, and repasts. The routine for any and all of them came naturally to him, and he was determined that every wooden casket he escorted was treated with proper respect. At every destination stop, he was the first one off the train. The short hop from top step to station platform was just like the step out of a plane as a paratrooper.
Only for this duty, he never had a parachute.
After ensuring the dignified removal of each casket from the train, he would meet with the local mortician and escort the soldier to the mortuary. Sometimes the family had gotten word of their arrival and would be at the train station; at other times he carried out his duties in anonymity, contacting the family only after arriving at the funeral home. Over time he became conversant in the routine of the local mortuary staff; identifying the remains, preparation of the body for initial viewing by the family. The decisions laid out for each situation: open casket or closed, dress uniform or favorite suit for interment. Every situation different, every situation the same. No matter where, no matter who.
Death, especially in combat, knew nothing of the victim: black, white, rich, poor, city, country. Death was death, grief was grief. There was a finality as universal and as individual as each soldier he escorted home. The longer his mission, the deeper he felt his duty a calling. Just as the chaplain had said that first night on the train.
He came to know intimately the unchanging, never-the-same-twice, liturgy of saying goodbye to a soldier: Protestant, Roman Catholic, Hebrew, atheist – every variation of each. He had heard the 23rd Psalm spoken in more than a dozen native, immigrant languages, and knew who would favor lengthy oratory, who would quickly move through a few prayers and simple readings. Ironically, having no musical talent whatsoever, for years, he could impress friends and family with his uncanny ability to recognize most any Christian hymn by its first four or five notes.
There were standing-room-only crowds, audiences in name only and times of hastily recruited, unknown, volunteer pallbearers.
High church, tent revival, ten-minute graveside homily – he had seen them all. Men of various cloths; elaborate robes, simple, white collars, plain brown suits, and bib overalls. He knew which model rifle an honor guard was using from the clattering of shell casings hitting cemetery grass in the unison of the salute of a graveside volley, and knew instinctively when the trumpet player had never before played ‘Taps’ in public.
He remained, through his life, amazed at the gracious thankfulness expressed by grieving families.
There was often a family gratitude – a realization – that, as tragic as the situation was, at least their soldier, their loved one, was coming home. He lost count of the number of times that family members would tell of another family they knew, who received word of the death of a soldier who was now at rest on some foreign battlefield somewhere, or of a sailor lost at sea, or an airman who went down with his plane. Those families would never have the opportunity, to say goodbye, to have a place, right there in their hometown, to physically grieve.
It never ceased to amaze him that so many of these families that he met in their darkest hours, were aware that they, in a great many respects, were among the fortunate ones. That, he always felt, was the most humbling thing of all. The wind picked up, the chirping birds had taken flight from shaking branch. The day was growing cooler, and he smiled.
That was all a long time ago, he reminded himself. He smiled for a moment, remembering his sixtieth birthday, and the atonement gift from his wife and children; a free fall skydive, strapped to a young Marine.
He thought back to his last jump in uniform, and the excruciating pain of his rehab and shattered leg. He thought of the despair known only by a young man who had his dreams suddenly, irrevocably altered by events, and reflected with the wisdom of an old man on how those changes had worked out.
Though he had never fired his weapon at an adversary, he had fought many, sometimes brutal battles; the dignity of returning a fallen soldier was not always smooth, rarely without some sort of unexpected incident or reaction. Ill-fitting uniforms, incorrect insignia, stuck-in-traffic or lost-on-a-country-backroad honor guards were recurring obstacles. There was dealing with the pain, bitterness, or denial of families; the blank faces of young widows whose dreams and plans were now gone and the uncomprehending-the-magnitude small children, fascinated by the pomp of death, confused at the sadness displayed by the adults.
He often thought of a chaplain on a train, and myriad other travelers who, seeing his uniform, would engage him in fascinated conversation until their discomfort of his assignment came into play.
He came to old-man, near-parade rest for a moment, before turning to the headstone of his old friend, where he snapped off a lingering, still crisp salute. He had escorted his buddy only briefly; the walk from the front of the church to the hearse, then from hearse to gravesite. he valued every moment as no one else could.
There was pride, and great honor in what he had done for all of those years. No, there were no ribbons, or medals to share with children, grandchildren – none of the stories of heroism that his friends got to tell, that other children and grandchildren got to hear. But the stories he did have to tell, that he did share with family, friends, were told with solemnity and grace. With dignity and honor. He told people, quietly, and without personal pride, how he did his duty, and why each and every soldier he escorted was deserving of all the respect he could give them in death.
He knew more about finality in all its forms than most anyone and was grateful, thankful of the opportunities he had been afforded, the chance to serve in a special, meaningful way, his fellow soldiers. His fellow man. Hoping he had been the warrior he needed to be, at the time people needed him, he stood quietly, nodding his head. He was proud of the work he had done, he could admit that to himself. And so he did, for the first time ever.
Then, turning on his heel, he walked steadily between two rows of symmetrical marble stones, and went home.