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Quiet Walker

Ashes to Ashes

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Today was one of those rare days when, without my express desire to do so, my naturally cynical and questioning mind shut down, and I was left practically slack jawed, marveling at the wonders of humanity. A fairly precocious beginning to my first blog, but this experience did leave me wanting to say more than a simple post would allow. So with your kind permission, allow me to flesh out the narrative.

My life of late, at least for the last seven months or so, has been constantly muddled by the specter of mortality. Towards the end of last year, my father-in-law passed away. Then in literally the space of 8 days, we lost my wife's favorite aunt, and then the mother of an ex brother-in-law who had stayed a dear family friend, as well as her son, even after the rather bitter divorce.

Then, earlier this week, my wife's uncle passed away. The only brother of her father. The two of them were born 11 months apart, orphaned at a very early age, and raised by their maternal grandparents. The bond between them was stronger than any sibling bond I have ever seen. What they shared was truly unique, and beautiful in a most understated way. There were many times I wondered just what secrets and nightmares the two of them had shared in their early lives that had made them as they were, but even if I had asked, I do not think either of the would have been able to tell me. It simply was the way they were. And now, sadly, both of them are gone.

It was at her uncle's funeral today that life decided to slap me upside the head and demand I take notice. During his life, this uncle had raised a large family. He was not an overly religious man, he had is beliefs, not sure if he ever attend church. The man had been a US Marine in Korea. He was a combat hardened soldier in a war that so many have literally written off as a simple footnote to military history. But as a veteran, he was allowed a military honor guard, and to have his coffin draped in the flag of the nation he fought for. So as the eulogy was finished, and the prayers had all been said, silence fell over the room. From out in the hall, unseen, a commanding, yet not harsh voice was heard, "Honor Guard, Atten--shun." Even at the distance they were from the room, you could hear the sharp, unison click of their heels as they snapped to attention. Then, slowly, in perfect, absolutely perfect step, three young Marines, in full dress uniform entered the room, stopped on command in front of the casket, turned again in absolutely robot like rhythm and faced the dearly departed. There are few sights in the world that can stir the heart of most anyone. However, the sight of one of your own, bedecked in full dress military uniform is one that can draw pride and emotion from even the most jaded soul. I might be a bit biased, but few uniforms the world over, can compare with the splendor and beauty of the United States Marine Corps Dress Blue. But as I said, that is simply my particular preference. Two of the young Marines, on command, moved forward, and took the flag from the casket, stepped back, always in perfect cadence, and stretched it out between them. Then they stopped, and the Office called out, "Honor Guard, Salute." From outside the building, after a few seconds delay, there was a volley of rifle shots, followed by another, and then a third. People in the room who had been holding back wept openly as the report of the last volley echoed outside. As soon as the echo had died, the mournful sound of "Taps" echoed down the hall. Once the bugler had finished, the Marines slowly and deliberately folded that flag into a tight triangle. The last one holding the flag turned to the Officer and handed it to him. The Officer knelt before the widow, holding the flag out for her, and recited, " On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Marine Corp and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation of your loved one's honorable and faithful service." He then stood, turned to the coffin, did a slow motion salute, and left the room. There were few, if any unmoved in the room. The funeral director then walked up from the back, and softly said a few words, and then started the final walk by, before the procession.

After walking by the casket for the final time, we walked outside, and to me at least, were greeted with one of the most powerful and nearly overwhelming sites I have ever seen. You see, this man, aside from being a Marine, had also served for more than 50 years with his local Volunteer Fire Department, including more than 20 years as it's Chief. Lining the street, and stationed in front of the hearse, were fire trucks and rescue vehicles and ambulances from 8 different cities in the area. Surrounding them, and blocking the street and intersections as far as the eye could see, were squad cars from at least 12 different municipalities, including two counties and two states. It was one of the most awe inspiring scenes I have ever had the privilege to be a part of. Though I was near the middle, I could see on a few hills and at a curve or two the immensity of the front of the procession. Being lead by the fire truck from his home department, draped in black, followed by at least ten other emergency vehicles. It amazed me that as we went, the number of people who were on the curbs and sidewalks in this little burg. Some I am sure were just watching for the spectacle, but a vast majority of them were crying, or holding their hats over their hearts, some were obviously praying. As we made the final turn onto the street where the Fire Station is, we saw they had set up the crossed ladders. Two aerial fire trucks, their ladders fully extended, over the street so the procession passed directly under them. And hanging in full glory between the two outstretched ladders, hung a billowing American flag.

I am certain many, if not all of you have seen the movie "Backdraft." In it, they have a fireman's funeral where the "Last Alarm" tradition is enacted. Allow me to tell you, no matter how well that part of the movie was portrayed, it bears but a sliver of the gut reaction of the real thing. There on the drive of the Fire House were set on a chair his boots, his protective coat, his pants, and his white Chief's helmet, pointing outwards, or backwards. We all assembled, more than 200 of us, near one of the open overhead doors, where the new Chief made a simple eloquent speech. He explained that when the fire departments all used to use bells for alarms, they also used bells to end the alarm, and that as a tradition, when a department loses one of it's own, they give him the proper send off buy signaling a "Last Alarm" for him. After this short explanation, he turned to the assembled fire men, and called them to attention. Men dressed in dark blue from eight different communities stood rigid as the Chaplin called out his name and rank, and rang the heavy brass bell in three slow rings of three. As he struck the bell the final time, the loudspeaker at the station made the now common electronic tone. After three tones, a disembodied voice came over the airwaves, announcing an all county alarm, that the Chief had received his last alarm after 50 years of service. He ended the call with "End of alarm, all is well, Rest in Peace." There literally was not a dry eye in the station. Whatever emotions and memories the Marine Color Guard had brought to the surface in this crowd was minuscule compared to the raw, unabashed grief that these people felt. They had lost their Chief, their one time leader, their friend and co-worker. They had lost a man who may have at one time saved their life, or just as possibly, they had saved his. And as I looked about the crowd, through my own tear filled eyes, I truly began to see what these people were feeling. They had not lost an uncle, or a father, or a husband. They had lost a leader, a pillar, a founder and a guide. I heard one of the younger firemen say, it wasn't that he was around, it was that he was always around, always there to help, to guide, to call you out when you were wrong, and to praise you when you did well. The man had touched a lot of lives, he had saved some, he had lost others. He had been there for an entire community when they were at their worst. And he never gave up, he never quit, he never forgot, but he often forgave.

So on the short trip home, I actually began to ponder, and with me that is usually a pretty frightening thing. I thought of my own mortality, my goals, my accomplishments, my dreams and my failures. I wondered if, when I am called to rest, there will be a ceremony to tell people how I lived, how I helped, how I tried. And suddenly it came to me that it doesn't matter. No matter who you are, you can never compare yourself to anyone else. To do so is like suicide for your soul. I am never going to be the man my wife's uncle was, I never wanted to be. To be brutally honest, I am a bit jealous of him that he could inspire such loyalty and dedication. But I think that maybe, on a smaller scale, I may inspire just a few myself, in other, more subtle ways. I will never be able to claim I froze my behind off defending a hill at the 38th Parallel. I will never be able to claim I went into a burning house and saved three children. I will never be able to claim I pulled an ambulance over to the side of the road and delivered a baby. Well, ok, I did do that once, but it was in the back seat of a squad car and not nearly as dramatic. But I am happy with what I am, with what I have accomplished and what I have given up to get there. So when I'm gone there's not going to be a huge procession with a thousand flashing red and blue lights and uniformed men and women weeping at my loss. I'm OK with that. All I really hope is that someone says "He helped me when I needed it." I think I'll be able to rest easy with that, but then again, I may never know.
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  1. princesspink's Avatar
    Very thought provoking. And you are so right. We only get one shot in this life. We cannot compare ourselves to others because it would only promote envy and competition. Well done.