Friday, January 19, 2007
We buried CDR C. Chase Porter, USN (Ret., Greatest Generation) yesterday. Arlington National Cemetery. Military honors. He now lies next to his wife Dorothy, who died years ago.
It was an utterly lovely ceremony. They really lay the Nation's Heroes to rest in style. The funeral cortege was met by six sailors in impeccable peacoats and Dixie Cup caps. As we emerged from our cars, these men began the most amazingly formalized... I think dance would probably not be a word they'd approve, but that's the thing it most closely resembled to this civilian. Not a movement did they make that wasn't accompanied by some ornate flourish of hand or knee or ankle, motions of ceremonial, formalized theatricality, all of course in absolutely perfect martial unison. I was utterly transfixed by these flourishes -- which, I think, is their intended effect.
They formed two rows of three, crowhopped into formation an arm's length apart, surrounded Chase's coffin and, with glacial deliberation, carried it to the gravesite and laid it carefully, reverently, on the bier, suspended over the grave. They then began another stanza of the dance, this one centered on the flag that draped the coffin. Their hands and elbows began extremely slow, deliberate movements that were punctuated by snaps of sudden, violent motion, accompanied by more theatrical gesticulations. Military Kabuki.
They stood with the flag suspended between them over the coffin. The chaplain, a gentle, kind-looking soul, made a few tailored remarks, and recited the 23rd Psalm, which even to an old reprobate existentialist like myself is a mighty powerful bit of poetry: "...Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever."
We stood for Military Honors. I noticed off in the distance, perhaps fifty yards off, a Naval detachment that I at first thought was on some other task. But no: "Aim! Fire!" Seven rifles reported. "Aim! Fire!" Seven more. "Aim! Fire!" The last cracks reverberated into the distance, and a bugler, a similar distance away in the other direction, played "Taps."
At this point, there wasn't a dry eye graveside -- my own certainly not excluded.
More Military Kabuki: The flag is folded into its triangular shape. The sailors look as though they're playing an incredibly ornate, formal game of Cat's Cradle, their arms interweaving in their martial, snapping dance. The flag, now in its tightly packed, lovingly folded bundle, is now presented to my sister-in-law -- and the dance is over.
We walked slowly back to our cars, in varying states of bewilderment, grief, relief. I looked at the graceful, rolling Arlington hills, covered with their precisely planted white rows of stones, thought about how many times, how many hundreds of thousands of times, this tightly scripted piece of theater had been played in this place, how much raw grief, like torn flesh, had spilled in this place. Ours was a mellow grief; Chase lived a long and full life after his military service, raised a family, enjoyed his grandchildren. But on our slow walk out, as I conversed lightly with the chaplain, he gestured toward another part of the graveyard not far off, nearer the river, only half filled with stones, and said simply, "The Iraq fallen are over there."
I can't even begin to imagine the anguish that ground has seen.