The fellow who passed away, his name was Richard and he'd lost a valiant battle with cancer. Most of the family has moved away south, as older midwesterners often do, fleeing the brutal winters. I went because I know Ruth and her other son. Family was returning home to bury one of our own in the fertile Illinois earth and even though the occasion was sad, with so much family coming, it would have been wrong of me not to attend. Family is family and a chance to see family you haven't yet met is a supreme privilege.
It was a brisk day, but sunny. We drove an hour and a half, to the place where my grandmother was raised. We found the cemetery an hour early and drove slowly around it, looking at the family names carved into the stones. Trees becoming bare and maple leaves swirled a bit by the wind.
We drove some more in town and then came back to the cemetery and found the cars gathering. As we parked, we noticed that the veterans had gathered. There were men, all gray-haired, in jackets and hats with emblems. The veteran group was going to do a tribute. I learned then, that Dick had been a Marine Viet Nam Veteran. Guns would be fired.
"Taps" would be played.
Family soon arrived and hugged, with tears, and greeted each other. It turned out that a few unexpected cousins had come from far away. Grandma was elated to see nieces and nephews that she did not know would be there. She comforted her sister. No one should have to bury a child and my grandmother has buried two of her three sons.
There IS a military tradition in my own family. My father was in the Army. I believe he was at Ft. Leonard Wood when a man walked into the barracks and said, "We just lost our butcher...can anyone cut up chickens?" This is kismet in retrospect, because I come from a family of butchers. My dad trained at his father's side and both of my other uncles did, too. There was no war when my father served, so he did his service cutting meat.
His grandson, my nephew, has not been as fortunate. He is Army and has fulfilled two tours of duty in Iraq. We are proud.
So imagine if you will, family gathering from far and wide at a cemetery in middle America. Pleased to see each other, but sad from the circumstances.
There were about fifty in total, my uncle said. He counted. We formed a standing semi-circle in front of the urn. The preacher began the service. She began with a heartfelt reading from Ecclesiates 3.
|1||To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:|
|2||a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which isplanted;|
|3||a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;|
|4||a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;|
|5||a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;|
|6||a time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;|
|7||a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;|
|8||a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.|
|9||What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboreth?|
|10||¶ I have seen the travail, which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it.|
|11||He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.|
|12||I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life.|
|13||And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labor, it is the gift of God.|
|14||I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him.|
|15||That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past.|
“‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!”
I think that it was about at this point I realized that the moment was transcendent.
One of Dick's brothers could not be there, but he wrote a perfect tribute and it was read by his niece. He wrote about his brother's keen sense of humor. He wrote about Dick's patient understanding and about Dick's faith...which had arrived late in life. All those present were moved by his words, and rightfully so. Dick's other brother Bob was going to say something, and the minister asked him to, but after the other message had been read, Bob said, "I think it has all been said."
Dick's son then stepped forward with his contribution. He is a firefighter and paramedic and he said, "In my line of work, I see a lot of people crying and in pain, so I wanted to share this poem, which means a great deal to me." Then he read:
This is one of my favorite poems...and the impact of hearing it when my family was gathered together at the grave, to worship and pay homage to a Viet Nam Marine Veteran, in the moments before we all knew that the veterans were about to do their salute was throat-tightening. Many where certainly in tears.
I think it was at this moment, that I had the blast of clarity. I have certainly seen funerals. I have buried my own father. But this was a moment when an epiphany happened, perhaps descending from the heavens and falling on a solid foundation within me that I didn't know was ready for it. This is right.
This is as it should be.
And along with the moment of certainty came a question. What is wrong with people today? We too often hear about all of America's wartime transgressions, not the good America has done in the world. People are angry at Christians, but what better spiritual message than the one today? When "family values" are talked about, society has come to scoff at the very idea, but what's MORE awesome than family gathering in a sacred and sublime fashion like this...to do what service they can to the memory of a good man?
And, like a shot, I was reminded of the phrase..."This, we'll defend."
Family, faith and patriotism...like a divine shot of expresso to the system. Or, depending on your view...everything that is so maligned and despised by a certain contingent nowadays. Food for the soul of an American matriot.
This was right...and then it came. The old veterans did their formation, some kind of clumsily, which only made it sweeter. The first gunshot gave us a little start, but we stood together for the rest.
Taps was played. Tears flowed.
The veterans gathered the shell casings and gave them to Dick's son. I found a stray one and later gave it to Ruth.
After the service was over, I approached one of the veterans and thanked him. He said, "We went through a time that was pretty spare. We couldn't get enough guys together, to do this. We're kind of rusty, but we're pulling together now."
He was like one of the old men you see at the corner cafe getting together to shoot the breeze in the morning. Your uncle, your dad or your grandpa. Uncomplicated and friendly. I expressed the hope that the next generation would join them in doing this service for the bereaved. He said, "I sure hope so."
Afterwards, we all went to a local restaurant and enjoyed a buffet. I met Roger Bauer in the parking lot. He was Dick's high school buddy, but he hadn't been in touch as much lately as he should have. (Not all his fault, Dick was pretty sick and in and out of treatment). He said, "We used to have the best time. We chased the girls in Spring Valley together." He wanted to talk. He said, "This just makes you realize how fast life goes and how much changes."
Inside, he was sitting alone, so I invited him to our table, where Grandma and Ruth were. It turns out that Roger worked his whole life at the cement factory under the management of Chuck Bartram. Chuck was Grandma and Ruth's brother. It's a small world after all. We had a nice time at the lunch and when we tried to pay, we were told that Dick had made arrangements to pay for the lunch before he passed away.
As you can imagine, it was a powerful day. Despite the circumstances, maybe it was the perfect day. I met new family, but the great thing is that when you know relatives, you can look into someone's eyes and recognize the genes of your forebears. It was familiar.
When I got home, I remembered, "This, we'll defend."
I looked it up.
It's the motto of the US Army.
Thank you Lord for the day. Thank you Lord for the lesson. Thank you all for reading.