“It’s 3:45 am, California time! Time to get up and get dressed!!” I yelled. My nephew, Matt, had arrived from California the night before, for his father’s funeral. The plan had been to be on the road to Arlington by 7:00 and arrive by 10:30. But the trip included about 20 miles on the “beltway,” insanity’s gift to the American public. It was 6:45 eastern time and he was still asleep.
The drive to Arlington was as nerve wracking as I’d been afraid it would be. It included a change of vehicles for Matt and a mad dash to the beltway only to sit in traffic for long periods of time. The 35 minute trip took about 3 hours, including a wild run down the George Washington Parkway.
Things began to change the minute we turned onto Memorial Drive. The guard at the gate checked the name, George Roberts, and guided us to the administration building. We were directed to a “family room.” Two of George’s four brothers were waiting for us.. That made 10 of us in all: my sister-in-law, her son, Mathew, her stepsons, Mark and George III; my wife Marge, Sue (a family friend), the two brothers, myself, and waiting for us, Richard Holmes, a long time family friend.
Soon more people began to show up. Most were from the DC law firm where my sister-in-law, Phyllis works, Covington-Burling. Soon the room was filled with lawyers and law secretaries. The lawyers all looked to be under 30 years of age. A wide screen TV showed a live feed of the guard at the tomb of the unknowns. Eventually the Chaplin showed up and tried to answer questions. We’d already turned in the urn with George’s remains and the flag that would be used in the ceremony.
Then the French representatives showed up -- one from each of the French services.
The French were there because George went ashore on Omaha Beach with the 29th Infantry Division, the afternoon of June 6th, 1944. He was a D-Day survivor. He felt that he was a part of France and that France was a part of him. The French agree. They remember having their country occupied by the Nazis.
Eventually, the service director showed up, the French and the Chaplin disappeared and we were directed back to our vehicles, heading for “the old” section of the cemetery. Because the wife and one of the sons were in my car, I was directly behind the service director’s car which carried the urn and the flag. As the service director approached the grave site, the honor guard, the Chaplin and the French (standing at a respectful distance) all saluted. The Old Guard used the slow cadence that is used for ceremonials – raise the right hand until the tip of the forefinger touches the lower part of the headdress or forehead just above and slightly to the right of the right eye, fingers and thumb extended and joined, palm down, upper arm horizontal the elbow inclined slightly forward, with the hand and writs straight. They used the slow cadence, the one reserved for ceremonies. The French saluted palms out.
Dress blues. White gloves. Off to the left, the firing party, to the right, the bugler.
We lined up behind my sister-in-law, her son and stepsons and Richard Holms, who was unable to stand for the service.
I was interested to see how they’d handle the lack of a coffin. They did it very nicely. With great respect they had moved the urn to a small stand that was located on the grave. Then the escort slowly unfolded the flag and held it over the urn for the service. The Chaplin read a short statement about the Old Guard -- the 3rd Infantry Division whose job it is to handle services at Arlington. Then he said a few words about George from what he had learned from Phyllis when they’d talked a few days earlier.
Then he requested those of us who could stand, do so for the final honors. I placed my hand over my heart.
“Ready, Aim, FIRE!
The rifles came to “present arms”, the Chaplin and the NCOIC saluted and the bugler played that saddest of melodies, Taps. The rifles came to “order arms.”
The honor guard headed out to the next funeral. We milled around for a while. George, the son, was looking for the graves of his children. (Twins, dead after only a few days of life, had been buried not far from George, the father’s, grave. Yes you can have civilians buried in Arlington, if they are the wife or child of a person who can be buried there. I could be buried there; all it takes is a purple heart.) Mathew took a moment to reflect. Eventually the service director herded us into our cars because a rather large funeral party was on the way from the Chapel and if we didn't ’t leave, we’d be stuck until they completed their grave side services.
The flag was slowly folded into its three cornered hat shape and handed to the NCOIC who first saluted the flag for 3 seconds then took it from the escort.
The escort saluted the flag for 3 seconds and turned back to face the grave. The escorts faced away from the head of the grave and marched off.
The NCOIC did an about face and the Chaplin saluted the flag, and then took it from the NCOIC.
The NCOIC saluted the flag.
The Chaplin knelt and presented the flat to Phyllis
shook my sister-in-laws hand. One by one he moved to the sons and gave them his condolences.
Then it was the French services turn to express their appreciation.
One by one they passed to the seated family.
To each my sister-in-law replied “Merci France.”
A soldier escorted one of the Arlington Widows to Phyllis. The widow presented Phyllis with with the traditional packed of information abut Arlington.
So we left Arlington.
Back in the civilian world things didn't’t go so smoothly. Traffic was light, but partly because of that we were ahead of schedule. We weren't’t expected at the restaurant for another hour, so we sat outside and talked until they opened.
Marge and me outside Mealey's.
The family had their picture taken
(From left to right: George, Phyllis, Mark and Mathew)
Mark and I play
road guard for Richard.
Eventually we were seated. By chance the sons and the brothers were seated at the same table. That was a good thing. Stories and lies were shared across the generations.
Phyllis had asked that I say a few words. I was honored, but felt that I probably knew George least of all. But she seemed to want me to do it. I stumbled through my part.
She’d also ask the longtime family friend, Richard Holmes, read a poem that George had written (a copy of which is in Saint Laurent Sur Mer, France.) Richard, who’s an actor, did his usual great job.
After dinner it was time to say goodbye to those who were leaving, pay the bill and head back to the house, where we sat around the kitchen drinking the remains of the wind and talked of the day’s events. Matt would go back to California, the next evening. It gave me a chance to take a picture of him and his mother.
Two days later Marge and I were on I-95, making the 1000 mile drive home.
(WWII vets are dying at an average of 1000 a day. Of the 28 services given 10 Oct, 2007, almost all were veterans of prior wars or the wives of veterans. As far as I know only one service was for an active duty serviceman. A Command Sergeant Major, who had died of natural causes while exercising in Baghdad, one morning.)
(The honors given at a military funeral are for the fallen comrade, not the family.)