The Final Journey, Part Two

Bob Weiss was never consciously late for any appointment, so it was no surprise to discover that he’d arrived in Washington, DC months in advance of his funeral party.  His ashes had been sent on ahead to a historical funeral parlor north of the city, and his son, Charlie, picked them up and brought them to our hotel on the day before Bob was scheduled to be interred in Arlington National Cemetery due to the Silver Star he was awarded for his valor on Hill 314 above the village of Mortain, France during World War II.

Charlie had rented a large bus for the trip to the cemetery, and 50 or so civilians climbed on board at the hotel.  Each of us was either a member of Bob’s family, a friend of a member of Bob’s family, or, like Helen and me, one of Bob’s friends.  Charlie was the last to board, carrying a back pack.  He announced the details of the bus ride, telling us that we would stop first at the Arlington National Cemetery administration building.  He had some important business to conduct before the services could begin, he said, but he was purposely vague about the nature of his errand.  I connected the dots between an earlier conversation in which he’d told me about the funeral home and his announcement, and realized Bob was riding on the bus with us.  His ashes were in the backpack slung insouciantly over Charlie’s right shoulder.  I took immediate comfort from this, as I was once again traveling along with Bob on his final journey.

Bob’s sister, Mary Ann, was on board.  She looks remarkably like Bob and shares his sardonic sense of humor.  Her husband, Tom, and her two sons and two daughters were also there.  One of her sons, Danny, is even more like Bob than his mother. His similarity isn’t limited to appearance; it extends to demeanor, stance, hairline, and mannerisms of speech.  Because of all the strong family resemblances present on the bus, it seemed as if Bob was present too, not just his ashes.  The bus seemed to become a lava lamp of swirling ashes, speech cadence, and mingled similarities of personality, stature, and appearance.  I felt that if I squinted just hard enough through the mix I might be able to see Bob watching us with approval for joining him on such a day.  A day he’d long anticipated.

At the Arlington National Cemetery administration building, Charlie and his daughter, Julia, walked hand-in-hand across the grass and up the front steps, Bob dangling from Charlie’s shoulder.  The bus passengers could see them through the windshield.  It was the last we were to see of Bob for a while, but he would soon reappear.

We waited for Charlie’s return for several minutes, long enough for me to be reunited with another of Bob’s law partners.  As the two of us chatted on the asphalt in front of the bus, Charlie and Julia finally reappeared, this time followed by a troop of 30 soldiers from the 30th Armored Brigade Combat Team, the designated successor to the 30th Division in which Bob had served during World War II.  The soldiers were members of the 30th Brigade’s Honor Guard, and would accompany us civilians on the bus ride to what the cemetery official termed the “transfer point” – the spot among the endless graves where Bob’s ashes would be put into the caisson that was to be his final means of transportation.

Civilians and soldiers alike exited the bus at the transfer point and gathered to watch the transfer.  A black Cadillac was parked next to a caisson drawn by six horses and led by a mounted officer, and surrounded by a U.S. Army honor guard in full dress blues.  A seven member rifle squad and a full military band stood in the grass alongside the caisson, and the band played God Bless America before the transfer began.  We, civilians and Honor Guard alike, watched as the intricacies of the transfer were performed in the slow motion of ritual military respect.

When the transfer was complete, the cemetery official gave us the option of riding to the gravesite in the bus or walking behind the caisson.  It was a quarter-mile to the gravesite, he said, and all of it was uphill.  No one accepted his offer of a bus ride, not even those who found the walking difficult due to age or infirmity.  To walk was to show respect, and respect was the order of the day.

The procession started up a paved road winding among the endless headstones that adorn Arlington National Cemetery and give it an aura of peace and depth of meaning.  We were led by the band.  Behind them were a squad of soldiers carrying rifles, the caisson, and the civilians.  The 30th Brigade Honor Guard brought up the rear, making certain to watch over both Bob’s remains and those civilians who moved the slowest.  Its members were of all color, gender, and rank (from a two star general to sergeants), each spit polished, bemedaled, and somber in dress uniform.  The videographer Bob’s nephew, Danny, had hired to film the service was heard to say that he’d never seen a unit to which a World War II veteran had been attached send an honor guard to his funeral.  Unprecedented, was his succinct summary.  I wasn’t surprised; Bob had that effect on everyone.

The service at the gravesite was again performed in the slow motion of ritual respect.  An American flag was first unfolded and held over the box containing Bob’s ashes, now sitting on a rug laid on the ground underneath a tent.  The family sat in two rows of chairs while the rest of us, including the 30th Brigade Honor Guard, encircled the tent.  The band stood 100 yards away and, on signal, played My Country Tis of Thee.  Twenty-one shots were fired by the rifle squad in a traditional volley, and a lone bugler played Taps.  Then the flag was refolded and presented to Charlie by the kneeling officer who commanded the Army’s honor guard.

The sky was grey, but the rain held even if my tears didn’t.  Planes arriving and departing from nearby Reagan National Airport were the only disturbance.

We adjourned to the gravesite itself, a few feet away.  The gravesite is nestled on a grassy knoll in a treeless field, and was surrounded by the dirt left over from the work of digging Bob’s grave.  The box containing his ashes was placed on a rug of artificial turf overlying what appeared to be a steel plate covering the grave itself.  A front loader waited far down the road to complete the work of Bob’s interment, honoring his service by means of the distance it kept from the mourners.

Charlie had chosen not to have a chaplain preside over the final affair, so the 30th Brigade Honor Guard began things by marching one-by-one to the gravesite, each kneeling and laying 30th Brigade badges next to Bob’s casket in turn.  They saluted before turning to walk away through the raw earth to stand behind Helen and me.  The two star General led the way, followed by the colonel in command of the Brigade, the other officers, and the sergeants until all had given their respect.  No one spoke; only the jets disturbed what would otherwise have been a profound silence.  When the Honor Guard finished, Charlie spoke for several minutes about how proud his father had been to serve his country.

When Charlie finished, I turned to shake the hand of as many members of the Honor Guard as I could in order to thank them for their attendance.  I ended up next to the Brigade’s commanding officer, Colonel Vernon Simpson.  The Colonel had met Bob by chance on top of Hill 314 in Mortain during the week of ceremonies celebrating the 70th anniversary of D Day.  He’d gone there to see the site where Old Hickory had turned back a German counterattack that might have broken the Allies had it been successful.  He told me about finding Bob there on the hilltop, and of their subsequent discussions and friendship; he told me about his profound respect for Bob and of having an autographed copy of Bob’s book about the Battle of Mortain, Fire Mission.

And then it was over.  Helen and I had to hustle to get back on board the bus.

This time, Bob stayed behind.  He seemed to say goodbye as Helen and I walked away. He’d finally arrived at the place among his fellow warriors for which he’d seemed destined, and he was content to stay behind and let us go.

For those interested, pictures of the service may be found here:

About Gavin Stevens

Humptulips County is the wholly fictional on-line residence of Stephen Ellis, a would-be writer, an avid fan of William Faulkner and his Yoknapatawpha County, and a retired lawyer.
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