In the late 60's, like a lot of young men, I spent my Fall days walking through the underbrush of Southern New Jersey, training to be a soldier. The colors of the trees were bright, yellows and greens, reds and purple hews; the smells were intense, pine needles and dark soil, the sweat of men working long hours; and the weather couldn't have been better. There were crisp mornings in which to stand formation, watching the bright autumn sun come up, warm days in which to steal naps under the foliage, and brisk nights in which to perform rituals of storytelling and challenging physical exercises. All underneath bright great moons that lit the sky, surpassing all imagination. And each night at ten o'clock, taps would play throughout the tents, reminding us of the history of it all, the inevitable logic surrounding the enterprise of men at war.
On Fridays, some of us were chosen to return to the barracks for hot food and a shower. We would dress in our new green uniforms and the sergeants would parade us in small formations, teaching us the tricks necessary to stand in line for long periods at attention without passing out, and the importance of acting solemn and professional. For we would be pall-bearers on Saturday mornings for other soldiers who had died in Vietnam. Soldiers recently graduated from high schools throughout Southern New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania, too young to have children and too disconnected and unimportant to gather large crowds.
The funerals were themselves small plays, reflecting the colors of their times. Generally, the players were few, parents, a girlfriend, perhaps a few buddies from a high school class who were not themselves away in uniform, a small contingent of veterans there to fire a salute, a young officer to hand the folded flag to a bereaved mother and a sergeant, keeping us young charges in line and out of trouble. What I remember most from those bright shining days was the sadness of it all, how hard us players worked at making the ritual real, even in the embarrassment of a world with few answers and very little wisdom; the loneliness and confusion in the eyes of the parents and the resolve we all had to perform this one last act with dignity and grace.
In the bright sunshine of this particular Fall so many years later, I have had the privilege to march in formations of pipers and drummers, present to bury the memories, and sometimes the bodies, of other young men caught up in the responsibilities of duty and honor and country. Like their counterparts so long ago, these are the ones who have stepped up, taken oaths, and sacrificed much while the rest of their countrymen went about the business of living long and fruitful lives, unencumbered with the burdens of citizenship and public safety. These men and women have shown up routinely; they have been the first to respond often, and they have been the last to complain. Their brothers and sisters come to the memorials from twelve hour work days; their families and friends perform the rituals of folded flag and military salutes, and their neighbors stand in the back of houses of worship witnessing the great tragedy of it all.
When we play Amazing Grace, the drums rolling and the pipes reverberating off the walls as if to Heaven itself, it is a prayer of community, a prayer of contrition, and, for many, a prayer of defiance. For it is a grand recognition, often too small and always too late, that these are the best of us; that for all our sins we are capable of producing royalty of spirit and that there is, in the world, inescapable good .
In the bright sunshine of these Fall days, I am reminded to listen for the good and follow their example.
Richard M. O'Meara