This Monday is Memorial Day in the United States, a day to remember the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. I have invited one of my classmates at Goucher to share her experience of burying her father at Arlington Cemetery. Tracey Emslie has been a journalist for many (many, many) years. She is a Navy wife and an Air Force mother. Her Dad was an Army PFC.
Day is Done
The Chaplain closed his book and stepped to one side. The six members of the honor guard remained immobile, holding the American flag stretched taut above the urn as soft rain dripped from the overhead canopy. It was peaceful, if you didn’t mind the hum of traffic on the other side of the niche wall. Eight more soldiers stood at attention on the green, grassy rise to our right. Seven of them held rifles. One stood apart. A crisp rifle volley cracked the quiet; three rounds of seven simultaneous shots producing the traditional twenty-one gun salute.
When the after-echo of the shots fully died away, the eighth soldier put a bugle to his lips and produced the twenty-four traditional, haunting notes of Taps, letting them drift over row upon row upon row of starkly simple, white markers inscribed with the name, rank, and dates of birth and death of those interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Composed by Civil War General Dan Butterfield, the bugler’s soft lullaby to the setting sun—and death—may be the only truly lovely sound to come out of a war.
There are restrictions concerning who can have full burial rites at Arlington: those killed in battle, those awarded major medals, Presidents and the like top the list. Most of the others are “inurned” in the niche wall or Columbarium. The common link for all is significant service, but despite the elegant uniformity of the markers, all their stories are unique and often complex; like my Dad’s, for instance.
He enlisted in the army as soon as he turned eighteen. A year later, he was driving an ambulance; a medic dodging artillery barrages in the snow and fog of the Ardennes Offensive without enough food, clothing, or medical supplies during that largest, bloodiest battle of World War II. 89,000 American casualties. 19,000 killed. He was again behind the wheel of his ambulance, 14th in line to cross the Ludendorff Bridge over the Rhine at Remarge, the 9th to arrive at the other side. Five vehicles ahead of him were blown up, including one immediately in front of him that was being driven by a friend. Not long after he returned from the war, his mother committed suicide and he had to identify the body.
He drove race cars. He became a brilliant engineer. His “doohickies” that enabled the creation of F-111 fighter jets made the cover of Aviation Weekly. Twice. Eventually almost totally deaf, he actively welcomed social isolation. He could drip charm when he chose, but was a supremely absent father and grandfather who managed to alienate three successive wives, any number of family members, and all of his subsequent caregivers as Alzheimer’s took its brutal toll.
After the playing of Taps, the honor guard folded the flag once, twice, then into a triangle of white stars on a blue field. It was presented on bended knee to my brother, with “appreciation from a grateful nation.” An Arlington Lady, one of a cadre of volunteers who attend every funeral to ensure that no one is buried alone, presented a condolence card from the Secretary of the Army and his wife. Dad’s ashes were placed in the niche wall. I put a modern postcard from Bastogne featuring a poetic tribute from Belgian children to the Ardennes veterans alongside it. It said they were the children those who died never had. The marble cover was screwed back on. The honor guard went on to another funeral.
We walked up the hill to pay tribute to the Tomb of the Unknowns, where a solemnly marching guard helped a group of schoolchildren lay a wreath. On our way back down, we drew aside for seven dark, gleaming horses clip-clopping their way up the hill. One was saddled. Six were in harness, pulling a caisson bearing a flag-draped casket as another rifle volley and another rendering of Taps played in the distance.
|photo by Tracey Emslie|
400,000 starkly plain, white gravestones. 400,000 stories; some long, some tragically short. They perform thirty funerals a day. There are now so many dead that there is a three to six month waiting list.