"You look fine and we have plenty of time." MaryBeth's voice has the soothing tone she uses to counter my agitation as she `adjust' my blue blazer. "Ft. Myer is just down the road."
She gives me a hug, but doesn't let go when I try to break free. We stand together for another moment. I am again grateful for finding MaryBeth.
We are out the door at 1235 hours. Racing through the gears of the small Toyota station wagon, I try to `make-up' the lost time. MaryBeth says nothing but reaches out and squeezes my right thigh. I slow down.
Fifteen minutes later I ask the gate guard at Ft. Myer for directions to the Lewis Puller funeral. My first inkling that something is amiss is the empty parking lot in front of the Post Chapel.
"I'll go ask." I tell MaryBeth.
Leaving the car, I walk into the Chapel and am faced with one of the biggest soldiers I've ever seen in uniform.
"Excuse me," I begin. "Can you tell me where the Puller funeral is being held?"
"Yes sir," he responds, "They've moved it to the large Chapel. Go back out the parking lot, bear left. You can't miss it, it has a real tall steeple. Right in front of the PX."
Thanking the young soldier I head back to the car and we move out to find the `large' Chapel. We find it right were it is supposed to be but the entire parking lot is blocked off. An MP is setting out orange traffic cones.
"I'll go check." I tell MaryBeth as I park in front of the Chapel and get out of the car. But MaryBeth knows the answer.
"Never let a dyslexic check the time or address." I here her say as I close the door. We've done this before.
So I talk to the MP and he tells me this is indeed the place; but the funeral is at 1500 hours. He is putting VIP reserved signs on the orange cones.
"Expecting many folks?" I ask.
Standing from his chore, he turned to me and said.
"Yes sir, about 2,000 I think."
I look at the four handicapped parking slots with their blue signs.
"You could probably use more of those." I say pointing to the handicapped slots.
"Yep," he replies with a sweep of his hand, "these six are for VIPs; the others are now handicapped."
Another twenty orange cones mark the special parking slots for the veterans.
"Any place around here to get something to eat?" I ask him.
"Right across the street sir." He points at the PX.
"I don't have PX privileges." I tell him.
"That's OK, sir," he says earnestly, "there's a snack bar just inside the door."
"Do you eat there?" I ask.
"Uh, no sir," he responds sheepishly, "it's not very good."
"Son," I ask with a smile, "why would I want to eat at a place that even a GI won't eat at?"
I am rewarded with a laugh and a big smile. I thank the MP and walk back to the car and MaryBeth. Starting the car I drive away toward the PX parking lot across the street before I tell MaryBeth.
"The funeral is at..." I don't get to finish.
"1500 hours." says the woman who knows the workings of her husband's mind better the he does himself. "Let's get a coke at the PX."
I will get the shot about the time later. We kill almost an hour with the coke and small talk about Puller and us and vets and our war. I buy two roses in the flower shop with the idea of putting them on the grave site. We run into a woman from our town who we have worked with on CADRE, the Youth Commission and the PTA. Typical small town stuff even around DC.
Walking back to the car we see people congregating around the entrance to the Chapel with `the tall steeple'. Driving back across the street we park in the second regular handicapped slot. Suddenly I feel like the roses are a stupid idea and throw them into the backseat; we get out and walk slowly to the small crowd. We stand around for a while watching the gathering crowd of middle aged movers and shakers.
It is obvious this is no gathering of hangers on and wanna-be's. These are serious men and women. Here and there I see small lapel pins of green yellow and red. Rosettes of the Silver Star, Bronze Star with V device.
I spot Jan Scruggs by the door with a clip board and earnest look. As the VIP's arrive Scruggs or one of the others directs them into the Chapel.
"I'm going to say hello to Scruggs." I tell MaryBeth, "Coming?"
"I don't have anything to say to him today." She replies.
So I give her a quick kiss and walk over to where Scruggs is standing.
"Scruggs," he says, sticking out his hand.
I smile and extend my hand in turn for a quick clasp.
"Hello again, Jan." I say. "You did a good job on Nightline."
"Thanks, I'm on muckety muck watch," he responds. "It was a hell of a shock to get a call at 2 in the afternoon for the program that night."
He stops scanning the incoming people for a second and looks directly at me, and says,
"That was you at the beginning..."
"Yep; got tagged a couple of times that day." I tell him. "I was coming back from the shrink Rod Kane and I share, and there they were at the Wall."
He laughs at the reference to the Rod and our mutual Doctor. We spend a few more moments in idle chat and I say goodbye and walk away. I always like saying hello to Scruggs, because he never remembers meeting me previously. To my surprise just after I leave Jan we are allowed inside the Chapel. I was prepared to stand outside and we were sitting six rows back from the altar, just behind the VIP seats.
For the next 40 minutes I watch the Great and near-great arrive in drips and drabs. I see faces I have names for; Warner, Robb, Kerry, not-Kerry, Moran, Hull; Colonels, Majors, Captains, a Marine General, a couple of Navy Captains. I see faces I know and have no names for; earnest in Washington power suits and the studied casualness of real power in blue blazers and gray slacks. It is an impressive gathering.
The Senators and Congressmen sit behind the family on the left side of the Chapel. I notice Kerry give Mrs. Robb a warm embrace, but I don't see him shake hands with Robb who is behind her. The VIPs are very intent on getting into the right VIP seats. I watch senior officers drift back to the sides and edges of the of the Chapel, men secure in their power and positions and not so concerned about the seating.
A Marine Sergeant Major comes in with hash marks that cover his right forearm, a Vietnam service ribbon on his chest. It seems that only Colonels and above and senior NCOs have the ribbon, a reminder in military terms how far back the Vietnam war was; three conflicts now.
The service is perfect and moving.
Lew had been cremated, and the folded flag was almost bigger than the small mahogany box. In my mind the comparison between the small boxes of remains from Vietnam and this small box of ashes from Arlington is compelling.
Struggling with my emotions, I lose.
The feelings of loss and lack of understanding are as great as my feelings at my grandfather's funeral when I was 17. After that was Vietnam, and I stopped crying at funerals. Tears flow down my cheeks for the first time since I was seventeen at my own grandfather's funeral.
Filing out of the Chapel, we, in our hundreds, follow the President's Own Marine Corps Band, Marine Color Guard and Marine Honor Platoon as they escort the Caisson carrying the flag-draped remains of Lt. L. B. Puller to his final resting place.
As we wind our way through General Lee's backyard the sound of the band playing comes faintly to our ears. We catch glimpses of the Honor Guard and their flag-draped companion through the trees and headstones.
When the Honor Guard halts, there is an unseemly rush of civilians through the headstones and the Honor Guard, to jockey for a better view of the Box and the Padre. MaryBeth and I content ourselves with a place behind the Marine Honor Platoon.
We can't see or hear, but it's not necessary; we've done this before.
Standing behind the Honor Platoon, I count twenty four young Marines standing in three rows by eight men; but what I see is young men who are the children of our generation. Born at or after the action than brought us to this day.
"And what will young men do when old?" The end line of one of my poems comes to mind, what indeed.
The first volley tightens my gut, and I flinch even thought I know it's coming; it is a single shot, as are the next two volleys. The firing squad honed to perfection and acting as one Marine.
Taps echoes after the last volley report fades. The young Marines before us at attention and unmoving.
Then the President's Own Marine Corps Band plays slowly a few haunting bars of The Marine Hymn letting it fade on the wind in the trees.
The Sergeant Major, with his gleaming saber, salutes his Officer and assumes command. Executing a text book about face he issues his first order.
The young march away, leaving old warriors to their fate.
We wait quietly for the crown to disperse so we may move forward to see for ourselves that Lew is in fact gone. The Box sits on low green covered dais, its mahogany color in sharp contrast. Next to the Box lies a single rose. I turn away and wait for MaryBeth.
Walking slowly back to the Chapel MaryBeth and I talk about coming back to visit her uncle. A highly decorated Army Air Corps Pilot, alcohol killed him too. We walk through rows of headstones dated 1948 and 1941.
As we approached the gate out of Arlington we were passed by a fellow I had seen at the wall many times, he has the classic persona of a `Vietnam Vet'. Chest length white beard and long white hair. He is wearing a black leather scooter cap, white shirt and neat slacks. Incongruously he is wearing black wingtip brogans.
Leaning toward MaryBeth, "If the media is here," I say in a low voice. "They're going to tag him."
MaryBeth nodded in agreement.
We walked through the stone gate, leaving the dead behind us.
I saw her blue suit, notebook in hand, as she arced toward us with a determined look on her face. Like a laser guided bomb from Desert Storm, she scored a direct hit on Mr. Brogans.
"Excuse me Sir," She said in an earnest voice, "I'm from the `newspaper', are you a Vietnam veteran and would you talk to me?"
They stop and we walk around them continuing on to the car. Catching up with the Padre and the Navy chaplain at the Chapel we stop for a moment.
"You did a good job Padre." I say. He sounds pleased when he says thank you. I turn to the Navy Chaplain and see a Vietnam Service ribbon on his chest.
"When were you in Vietnam?" I asked the Chaplain.
He paused for a second before answering.
"1970," he began, "but I wasn't really `in' Vietnam, I was on the Coral Sea, an aircraft carrier."
"Yankee Station." I interjected.
"Yes!" The Chaplain also seemed pleased I knew about Yankee Station.
"Well," I told him, "close enough. I'm glad a Chaplain with Vietnam service participated today."
We shook hands. MaryBeth and I walked on to the car. There we see another young reporter who is talking to another middle aged vet, this one in a wheelchair.
We drive away leaving Lt. Lewis B. Puller, Jr. buried in the backyard of General Lee; holding the high ground forever.
"What are we going to do with the roses?" MaryBeth ask.
"Give them to Jennie," is my short answer.
"Ok," She replies, "One, let's give the other one to Jack."
"Ok." I answer.
We stop at the Oakwood Cemetery (established 1789), in Falls Church City. Parking on the road we are right next to Jack W. Walters, Staff Sergeant, USMC, Vietnam. December 30, 1992. Agent Orange in the guise of lung cancer. Mike 3/7.
I jam the plastic rose holder into the soft ground next to Jack's headstone. There is a small American flag that stiffens as the breeze picks up; the rose is bent down by the wind and brushes Jack's stone engraved name.
We walk back to the car, a few short feet.
"Your a good woman, Lieutenant Sefton." I tell MaryBeth.
"You love me and you know it." She replies as we drive away.
As we drive away, Simon and Garfunkle are singing on the car radio, FM 100.3 the oldies station.
"I am a rock. I am an island...."