27JUN08 – It’s 3 p.m. on a rainy Friday afternoon in June and they just put Joe in the ground.
The cemetery was hot and still at high noon, and the three of us who’d been tasked with this duty made small talk while we waited for the procession to arrive. The YN1 would stand about twenty yards off and hold an electronic bugle that played a mournfully perfect version of taps at the touch of a button, while the MST2 and I tended to the flag. No gun salute, no fighter jets roaring overhead. Just an administrative specialist, a marine science technician, and a journalist. We were all the send off Joe would get.
The ground was uneven, and the folding metal chairs at the gravesite were covered in sagging green velvet cloths. The tarps covering the mound of earth were ragged and torn, and I saw a clump of fresh chewing gum stuck to the leg of one of the chairs. I can’t believe they put a human being into the ground with so little fanfare. I suppose it’s because it happens so often, but that doesn’t mean it should feel so mass produced. I peeked down into the crypt before the mourners arrived and it gave me the chills. ‘So that’s what it all boils down to,’ I thought. ‘A tiny bedroom in the ground.’
I don’t even know Joe’s last name. I only know that he was a WWII vet, that a lot of people came to see him off, and that some of them cried. Eight strong men carried his coffin downhill from the hearse to the site, and I heard some of them grunt as they struggled to lock it into place on the rollers. That’s a funny thing about guys – we find mechanical devices in the damndest places, and there’s always that impromptu conference of the best way to go about the job.
The heat rained hard as I stood next to the MST2, waiting for him to give the quiet command to salute as the casket passed us by, carried by members of Joe’s family. I brought my hand up slowly, feeling sweat trickle down my arms and back. The thermometer in the car said it was 95 degrees outside. My eyes found a spot about twenty feet ahead of me in the grass and I stared at it while listening to the remarks, which were brief. When the last pre-recorded notes of taps faded away into the trees, I walked slowly toward the coffin and took my place at the foot. I was nervous, but determined to do this right. Joe deserved at least that.
The flag was new and stiff like burlap, and the white ceremonial gloves I wore gave me no sense of touch. Hands up and together, thumb down along the groove. My hands did all the work, keeping the shoulders stiff and unyielding. Flip and repeat, until I was looking at nothing but red candy stripes. Here comes the hard part.
I managed the cheat fold OK, but the first triangle resisted me. I thought for sure I was going to drop it, but I managed a second and a third, pausing to smooth and adjust along the way. Complete a triangle, take one step forward. I had to stop my glasses from sliding off my nose at one point, and I felt bad about that. Things didn’t quite match up with the field of blue the way they should have and we had to work hard to stuff everything in properly, all the while maintaining some sense of military bearing and somber airs. But it looked OK, and according to the laws of military tradition there was no red showing.
I don’t think Joe’s widow cared one way or another. She was a tiny little thing in a purple dress who lacked the strength to look at up the MST2 who presented her with the flag after I’d folded it, offering the thanks of the president, and the gratitude of the nation. I barely heard her murmur her thanks and I was only four feet away. I can’t imagine what was going through her head as her trembling hands accepted that flag. The first time she and Joe met? They last time they kissed? I thought about how her best friend of many decades wouldn’t be there when she got home, and they’d never share a bed again. A lifetime’s worth of inside jokes were now lost. It no longer mattered how he took his coffee, or whose side of the bed belonged to who. Never again would he call her that special name. There would be no more anniversary cards. Maybe she’d follow him soon after as the victim of a broken heart.
Once she’d accepted the flag, we marched slowly off to one side, turned and waited for the ceremony to end. As the crowd broke up, some of the attendees thanked us for doing a good job. Afterwards, the MST2 drove to an old school Italian deli on Pennsylvania Avenue and bought us lunch. Just like that, we were swimming in the river of life again. A pan handlers gave us hard luck stares outside the deli, and we talked about the funeral on the drive back to the office. Soon it began to rain.
But Joe is in the ground now, and that’s where he’s going to stay. I’m in an air conditioned office sipping a bottle of water and listening to music of my choice. In an hour, I’ll catch the train home. Meanwhile, the body of Joe, total stranger, war hero, late husband and dear friend lies in a tiny subterranean bedroom in the earth, waiting for whatever religious or spiritual event he believed would happen next.
I don’t know how else to end this story, so I will.