We met in the parking lot of the old village church. Everyone was on time and after exchanging pleasantries we made our way over to the cemetery for the service. Our veterans group is small, there may be a dozen men in all, most of them Viet Nam era vets, a few guys from the Korean war and myself, although middle aged the youngest of the group. We have taken on the maintenance of the local Veterans Hall, a simple yet stately building that went up after the Civil War that serves as a gathering place for community wide functions. We see to it that there is an annual service for both Memorial Day and Veterans Day, that the flag is always flown and serviceable and when a local veteran is laid to rest, like today, that they are honored for their service. Old men with quaint ideas about community and loyalty marking rituals and traditions with their presence.
It was a quintessential Indian Summer day; deep blue skies, a soft warm breeze from the south, white fluffy clouds moving leisurely across the earl Autumn sky making there way to some other place like the flocks of birds that have passed through all week. Saturday marked the peak of leaf season, bright swaths of forest set alight with crimson, pumpkin orange and blinding yellow foliage. Today marked a re-interment of two local men, a father who served in the First World War and a son who served in the next. They had been laid to rest in a family plot years before, but the property had sold and now the family was moving them to the local cemetery for their final resting place. The site is situated between two small mountains in one of the few flats in the area. By the time we arrived the family had gathered near the gates dressed in funereal colors and due to the nature of the day there was lack of gravity. Sorrow had been replaced by reflection and time and in its place there was a sense of respectfulness and honor.
The color guard was formed, those with rifles took their place, the bugler wiped the brass bell of his horn and when the command was given men who hadn’t been in the military for over half a century snapped on command like young recruits. We marched into the cemetery, took our places and as the minister read his words of remembrance the family stood together, generations of relatives bound by blood and love clustered around the graves.
It’s been a while since I have been to church. There are parts that I miss and the passage that the minister read- the 23rd psalm- is one of them. He made a special point of reference to the line, “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures…” stating that it was in fact a command. That all of us are limited by our mortality to a specific amount of time here on Earth and that when our time is over, our service complete, we find a final rest in a place evocative of tenderness and warmth. Green pastures. As I stood there at parade rest, in ranks with men who would at some time in the not too distant future be on the other side of our formation, I felt like I could see it all. The great sweep of my life, from playing army as a little boy to serving my country as a soldier, all the way to the grave beneath a headstone marked by a small American flag that represented a time of service. Time sped up, compacted into a singular moment that all of us share. The brilliant hues of fall foliage contrasted against the azure sky, the caress of sweet breezes reminiscent of a Summer that was already gone, the sound of the flag snapping methodically against itself and at last after the pastor had finished, the cracking report of rifles fired three times on command echoing between those mountains…
When the bugler began to play taps those first three notes welled up inside of me a flood of memories. The brassy sound played with solemn precision as a coda to the lives of real men with loyal families, forever absent from the world filled the air with a sadness I cannot explain. The final note carried for a moment and then was gone. We were called once more to attention, marched past the family gathering and were dismissed back into our lives.
Later, as I walked back up the driveway to the house my youngest son caught site of me and with the dogs came running down to meet me. The joy of that moment filled my heart back up and we went about our day- and it was an exceptionally beautiful one- with all the ardor and enthusiasm we could muster. We split wood, pulled carrots, grilled steaks, painted the pickets on the fence between the house and the barn and by nightfall we drifted indoors to find rest, albeit temporary, from the service of living.
I wonder how much longer it will continue, these rituals, the small flags adorning the graves of those who gave of themselves for something greater, the men gathering in solemn remembrance of other men bound by a brotherhood not of blood but of common beliefs when the transformation is complete. There will never be a final demarcation between one country and another just as there is no definitive border between seasons- one thing slowly becomes another until the past is but a memory. I do know that somewhere out there that final note of taps has yet to become completely silent even as I lay my head down to sleep. As long as someone remembers, nothing is ever really gone.