To all of those who have served and continue to serve, thank you.
When my father died, the Army was there. There was a 21-gun salute. They played “Taps.” When my father died, the government dispatched two young soldiers to his funeral. At the cemetery, after the prayers had been said, the men removed the American flag draped over his coffin and carefully, ceremonially, folded it into a precise triangle. Before then, I’d only seen this done in movies and on television. I remember thinking my dad would have appreciated the effort, the precision, even if he wouldn’t have considered it particularly necessary.
The young men then gently placed the flag, the wedge of stars on a blue field, into my mother’s hands. I think they saluted. They may have expressed their gratitude and their condolences on behalf of the United States. I’m almost certain they called her ma’am, but I can’t say for sure. I don’t remember all of the specifics of that moment.
Here is what I do remember: I remember watching my mother’s graceful and gloved hands take hold of the flag–one on top, one on the bottom. Even in this moment of grief, I remember her face was a mix of gratitude and compassion. I sensed she felt a bit sorry for these two young guys responsible for such a grim task. I remember forcing my shoulders down and my chin up–setting my jaw and steeling myself against the cold of the midwinter’s day, willing some shred of strength to prevail over my tears for my mother’s sake–a woman who had, after more than 50 years, lost the absolute love of her life. Mostly in that moment, though, I remember thinking, “my God, these boys are so young.”
My father did not identify as a military man. Yes, he’d been in the Army but he talked about it the way people talk about going to college–which he’d also done and the Army had helped pay for it–but that was about the extent of it as far as you could tell. He was part of a generation when that was what a lot of young men did. They served. From what I understand, my dad’s service came courtesy of a not-so-gentle suggestion by my grandfather, who had served himself, and thought perhaps my dad could use a bit of discipline and direction.
He got both and rose to the rank of Captain. His Army days were like all of his days in that they shaped him but did not define who he was and they gave rise to an endless stream of unforgettable stories.
Okinawa, Japan was the backdrop for many of those stories. I kick myself when I remember sitting at the breakfast table one morning in my 20s as he began to tell some of his more entertaining Army tales. I wish I had a tape recorder or at least took more than a few mental notes.
My favorite story involved a soldier with a pet monkey. How these things come to be, I have no idea. Anyway, the short version is: things had started to disappear around post–a watch here, a pen there. No one really thought much of it–chalking it up to human forgetfulness or some other reason. Who knew? Life went on.
The story went that the soldier was eventually reassigned. I don’t know if the monkey went with him or what, but my dad said that after they were gone a small stash was discovered–the monkey’s stash. He’d been stockpiling the men’s things–one shiny object at a time.
I think of stories like this and so many others–my dad influencing the brass to keep a guy around who was something of a gourmet chef and would make special meals for the enlisted guys–special enough that the officers wanted a place at the table too.
I think of these stories and then I remember the faces of the two young men in uniform, carefully folding his flag. They’d never known him. They’d never hear these stories. But when I think of them, I pray that they will be able to live his Army life.
My dad would tell you he was lucky. He served in a time of relative peace. He served and then he came home. He went to college. He got a job. He got married. He had children. He spent his life teaching and sailing and enjoying himself as much as possible. He taught his daughters the value of a well-shined pair of shoes and the importance of appreciating the sacrifices made for the luxury to care about such things.
It is a different day now.
I think about those two young soldiers–tasked with the responsibility of honoring veterans in the way they honored my dad. I think of how struck I was by their presence–models of discipline and strength–showing the greatest reverence and gentle kindness. It seemed to me, in many ways, beyond their years or experience.
I am so thankful for them. I am thankful for them and all those who choose and have chosen to serve our country in an effort to keep it the way we have all come to enjoy. I particularly appreciate it in what can be such dangerous times.
Someday, the Army will likely extend those two soldiers the same courtesies they extended my father. It’s what they do. When the prayers have been said, two other soldiers will take hold of their flags, reverently folding them into a wedge of stars on a blue field. They will present them to their families accompanied by what is, or what was for us, both a first and final salute.
I am ever hopeful for those men that when their time comes it will come as my father’s did–after a very long life filled with love and happiness; many, many funny stories and maybe, just for good measure, a mischievous pet monkey.