by Anthony Ventre
It’s always the same. You march to a spot just off to the side, where you can see the open grave, cut square and precise to military specifications, and you stand at attention in your group of seven. You’ve polished your brass until the tips of your fingers grew numb. You’ve polished your boots with spit and boot wax until you can see your reflection well enough to shave your face. It’s always the same when you stand straight with your rifle, your white gloves, your face the same stony mask.
The path to a soldier’s rest is marked off with thick velour rope the color of wine and fastened with metal links to polished brass stanchions. It’s always the same.
The long gray hearse with the darkened windows rolls to a stop as the guard commander steps forward to order the soldiers, silent and grim, into position beside the casket which they raise to their shoulders. What are they thinking? Is it the same thing you are thinking? That it could be you locked in the box covered with an American flag to be carefully folded and handed to your mother?
You stand at a spot far enough away to where the rifle shots won’t damage the eardrums of the people attending. But even from that distance you can see the tears leaving trails on the cheeks of the people sitting in the shade of the canopy.
You see trembling hands holding white handkerchiefs dabbing at the watery eyes. You see the proud, noble faces of the old women weeping. You see the strain on the faces of old men refusing to cry. You see young girls letting go of themselves, shoulders heaving with grief, sobbing without shame. You see fresh-scrubbed children in Sunday suits sitting like angels before a hole in the ground.
The mourners sit beneath the canopy in the summer heat or the winter rain. The mother and father always in front, sitting with the wife or the fiancée or the girlfriend, beside the sisters, the brothers, the uncles and the aunts. Behind them are the friends, the teammates, the former sweethearts, the people from the neighborhood where he grew up, the people who knew him as a boy, the people who lived in the houses built upon the lawns he mowed, the teacher who stood out amongst the others.
Sometimes the barber who cut his hair, or the kid who clerked in the 7-11 and looked up to him when he’d gone away to be a soldier. The crossing-guard at the middle school, she would be there too, and the bartender from the dive where all the young soldiers went for cheap beer and a few laughs before they were shipped off to war.
But there are no more laughs as the chaplain prays over the flag-draped coffin on the stand in front of the hole. The laughter is all done for him and for the others who preceded him and for the others who would follow. The laughter is all done for the father and the mother and the sisters and brothers and for anyone sitting beneath the canopy under the hot burning sun, the snow swirling sideways, the cold rain falling.
It’s always like that when you bury a soldier. It’s always like that when you think of it later. It’s always the same when you dream of it at night with your fists full of roses instead of rifles and bullets. It’s always like that when you wake in the morning with an empty feeling in your gut and get on with your duties.
The honor guard stands silently with rifles at port arms, waiting for a soldier standing far away in the grass with his trumpet raised as a breeze stirs the tips of the grass between the tombstones. That’s the way it is and why should it be any different? It’s always the same and a good thing it is. Because if it’s any way different, the order of things breaks down, the delicately balanced pieces of the world come apart, and even if you should scream to the heavens at the top of your lungs it would only make your suffering greater.
The chaplain moves forward to the casket and the perfect rectangular hole that is waiting. You hear his low voice intoning those words that are always the same. “This courageous young soldier has died in God’s grace and in the service of our nation.”
And the colonel from headquarters who walks with a limp because he’d taken some shrapnel in the knee rises from his chair to stand beside the chaplain. It goes on like that and it doesn’t ever change. It’s always the same when the soldier by the flag post fiddles with the mouthpiece of his trumpet while the colonel says what he needs to say: “This brave young soldier has sacrificed himself to the cause of freedom and honored his country.”
The mother never speaks and the father never speaks. If they did, maybe they would speak of the birth of a child and the death of a soldier and the time between those things filled with love and pain, the sameness in the emptiness of rooms, a sameness in the space left vacant, a sameness in the quiet of a voice never again heard.
The soldier with the trumpet purses his lips and works his jaw getting ready to play. The guard commander calls port arms and you stand rigid at attention and wait for the command. “Prepare to fire! Ready! Aim! Fire!”
There is a sameness in the rifle blasts as if all seven of us are one person and it is the same for the second and third volleys and the intervals between them. A dead silence hangs before the trumpeter and the twenty-four notes of a soldier’s passing. He plays the tune always the same, as if it’s the first time he’s played it, and it’s always sadder than any tune you can imagine, and from where you stand you can hear sharp cries of anguish.
The honor guard commander strips the flag from the casket, sees it folded with care. The colonel places it into the hands of the mother whose delicate thin fingers grip it tightly, her eyes half shut. The casket is lowered and hero returns to earth, the same way the next hero will return tomorrow and forever.
You march off with your white gloves, your brass shining bright, your rifle on your shoulder, hearing the monotonous dull thump of your spit-shined boots beating on the road as you march from the cathedral of stones.