Monday, October 06, 2008

Uncle Hugh

We buried my Uncle Hugh this weekend.

Imagine being a young officer leading, let's say, a platoon of Marines onto the beach at Guadalcanal. Or Okinawa. Or Tarawa. Or Peleliu. Or some combination of all of them. My guess is that, unless you were there, you simply can't.

My father once told me a story about flying "The Upstairs Maid," his B-24, over Germany. Looking out his starboard window he saw the plane next to him take a direct hit from anti-aircraft fire and, more or less, vaporize.

"What did you do?" I asked.
"Kept flying," he said.

He said this to me from the bed in which he would die perhaps a month later, a skinny, 84 year-old man talking about stuff he did when he was 19. Me? When I was 19 I was reading Shakespeare at the University of Virginia and thanking God that my draft number was 303.

Anyway, fast forward to this Friday. As a young Marine sergeant handed my Aunt Betty that flag, folded into the familiar triangle, and spoke to her in a low voice while her shoulders trembled, there was a moment when I realized I couldn't see a damned thing--everything was blurred.

I looked around wondering what the hell was wrong. Then a tear rolled down my cheek and I knew.

The Marine's Hymn is the oldest song in the United States Military. It would, of course, be this:

From the halls of Montezuma,
To the shores of Tripoli;
We fight our country's battles
In the air, on land, and sea;
First to fight for right and freedom
And to keep our honor clean;
We are proud to claim the title
Of United States Marine.

Our flag's unfurled to every breeze
From the dawn to setting sun;
We have fought in every clime and place
Where we could take a gun;
In the snow of far-off northern lands
And in sunny tropic scenes;
You will find us always on the job
The United States Marines.

Here's health to you and to our Corps
Which we are proud to serve;
In many a strife we've fought for life
And have never lost our nerve;
If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven's scenes;
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States Marines.

A cousin of mine put it best. He said that the ceremony we saw at Arlington National Cemetery was notable for its absolute absence of irony. In today's world, that's saying something.

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