It was early enough in the morning that the light was still soft and the breeze was still cool. The sun on our backs was warm, but gently so. The white stones filled the rolling hills, white against not-quite-yet-green grass, row after row after even row. The March morning was new and fresh and full. We were few, and I stood at the back.
From over the next hill they came marching in. The escort platoon and band, perfectly in step. Perfectly in time with the click of their heels and the lonely percussion of the drum. The silence was marked out in drum beats that could have been measuring decades instead of footsteps. They carried the flags and the names of those fallen on brightly colored ribbons. All at the perfect moment they stopped, as decisively as they had been approaching, overlooking the grave site. Occasionally a plane would fly overhead, noisily climbing high over the bare trees, departing Reagan National, full of people oblivious to us.
The caisson with the flag covered coffin arrived on the road just down the hill, on the other side of the grave site from the escort platoon. The draft horses stopped and stood as still as their strong muscles and young animal natures would let them. The urn was lifted from its place at the back and carried, raised to eye level, with the flag to where the small group was assembled.
The band played. The music was neither somber nor celebratory. It was beautiful.
There was silence again while the service was said. The remarks were short, standard and heartfelt. She was a good woman, a loving mother. A skilled and dedicated pilot who served her country well.
The first volley came from the seven riflemen standing on the opposite hill, across the road. No one was looking at them when the first shots went off in unison. The noise was deafening, the echo disjointed as each white stone sent a small piece of the thunder back to our ears. As they raised their rifles for the second volley I was watching. They aimed low over the grave site. From a distance it seemed the rifles were pointed at us, at me.
Unbidden, extra electricity ran through my spine. I squared my shoulders, leveled my gaze back at the riflemen. There were seven rifles pointed more or less at me. I am mortal. I do not know how many breaths I have left to breathe. If it is not these riflemen that cause my end, then it could be something else at any time. There is no basis for the superiority that I feel for not being the one in the urn. There is no difference other than time. The amount of time is like the rhythm of the drum, definite yet of duration unknown.
The second volley goes off; I am still alive as the disjointed echo answers again. I have survived an unabashed look at my own mortality. My chest fills with air, my chin rises. The breath feels strong and sweet in my lungs.
When the third volley is leveled and fired over our heads there is no fear, no thought of death. There is only the knowledge that there is so much more to be done. That there is work left to me, inherited by me because I am American, because the woman we are here to honor did not have time to complete it, because it is never done. It is my strength, my breath, my blood that must do the next thing. Then she will not have died — and I will not have lived — in vain.
The last round fired and the echo gone, a solitary bugle waits for the silence to settle before beginning.
“Day is done, gone the sun,
From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky;
All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.”
One note at a time. Haunting, clear notes, wavering with the breath of the bugler, savoring each phrase as the music turns to familiar words inside each of us. How far beyond our little gathering do they carry? How well these stones know the song.
The flag is folded. Deliberately. Not slowly, not quickly, but simply in the amount of time it takes to get every crease right. There is no rush just as there is no time to the march of the escort platoon as the colors are hoisted back vertically to shoulders and the boots start to click again with the drum. Time progresses unstoppably, at its own solid, steady pace. We are but along for the ride, unable to hurry or slow its march, our march, as it carries us onward.
The soldiers return over the hill from whence they came. We are left, alone in the rolling hills of rows of white stones, to receive our benediction and place flowers. The sun is just ever so slightly higher in the sky. Soon it will wilt the roses. The planes continue here and there overhead. Tears are dabbed away with tissues and stuffed in our pockets. Life, like the march, goes on, and we must leave this place so others on different hills can mourn.
It is fitting we should do this for those who have done so much for us. It is fitting that having looked on death we should leave these hills and these stones and get back to the honor of living. It is fitting that while tears have been blinked away, tissues discarded, I am forever changed.
In March of 2010 the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) were honored with the Congressional Gold Medal. I was honored to be in attendance for the medal ceremony and for a funeral at Arlington for one of the fallen WASP that followed. In addition to their service, I will always be grateful to the WASP as they taught me to stand up straight. More on the WASP