Notes From a Tough Day
First, "God Bless America" went fine. As a matter of fact, it was a highlight. Before the service I was talking with the young man's mother. I suggested to her, since she wanted the song played that when she gave her eulogy part that she try to get everyone singing the song with her. I told her that I would be right there to pick up and keep it going in the case of her faltering.
She talked about the way she had come to this country seven years ago. With two children from El Salvador. Then two more children came along, the husband left and she has been raising the kids all by herself working as a maid at one of the many resorts in the Phoenix area that cater to the filthy rich. She talked about her son joining the army to get the educational benefits, but also so that he could send the bulk of his paycheck home every month to help her out. She talked about how joining had put her son on the fast track for citizenship. Then she said that she had become an American citizen herself. She said that she was proud of her family, and proud of her country.
All of a sudden the rah-rah bullshit I had been associating with "God Bless America" was beginning to look a little petty. I felt a wee bit good that I had managed to hold my tongue around her. She asked the people there if they would sing with her. I hit a chord, and we sang. It wasn't stupid. It was sincere. I might have been coming in to fake my way through it, she didn't, and in the face of her honesty, I wasn't able to fake it either.
The other thing that was notable I noticed right at the beginning of the service. I usually start something like that with a small 10 or 15 minute prelude type of thing. I just warm up and pluck out some classical and celtic stuff on the harp while people file in and take their seats. I was waiting for one of the ushers to give me the high sign to let me know that they were ready to bring in the casket with the young man.
The sign came and I picked up the pipes, I started in to play "Garry Owen." Although I was playing it very slowly, stately, with a rolling kind of rhythm. I watched the honor guard enter and saw that the Sgt. Major himself was in command of them. It was the first time we've met face to face. All of our interactions to this point had been on the phone. I didn't know that he was an african-american for instance. He's a big guy. Imposing and erect. I must say that today he certainly looked every inch a soldier. Of course, he's the kind of man that I think would look every inch a soldier first thing in the morning. He really gives off that lifer vibe.
After the final ceremonies at the graveside I shook hands with the mother and went over to introduce myself to the Sgt. Major. He was looking me up and down, sizing me up. We shook hands. He commented on my wearing an all black outfit. I said Jena 6, lots of people are wearing black today. He asked about the golden eagle feathers that I decorate the drones of my bagpipes with and I told him that the apache name for the golden eagle translates as "truth eagle" and that it's an expression of my cross cultural identity. He nodded gravely and said: "I know that if we were spending time having to be around each other there would be a great many subjects we would not see eye to eye on. I will say this. You have heart and style. I'm both grateful for the way you help us out with this, and proud to be able to call on you."
I said "Sgt. Major, I've been shoulder to shoulder with men I didn't see eye to eye with many times. We held our own and did our duty. Even if we didn't take long warm showers together we reached a place of respect and affection. I can see that you are a complete soldier. I do respect that greatly. Why did you choose to attend this particular funeral?"
He said "I know this family. We attend this same church. I helped to recruit this young man. There was no other place that I could be today."
I said "Tough duty indeed Sgt. Major." He said "Call me Larry."
I said "As you wish, Sgt. Major." (waited about four beats)
"Larry, please don't hesitate to call upon me anytime I might be of service."
He said "Thanks again."
I said "You're really into this whole last word thing aren't you?"
He said "Hoo-rah troop."
I left it at that.
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