My neighbor, Gary, died a few weeks ago. When last we visited Gary on this fair blog, he was a fifty-something mailman who lived with his mother and rode his Harley for an hour each week. In the time since I penned – with very questionable sentence structure, I might add – my piece, Gary retired, sold his bike, and buried his mother.
Last weekend, we buried him. Figuratively, of course, since he was cremated, but I want to tell the story of his funeral because I’d hate for my lasting memory of his life to be a vague and fading recollection tucked away in the recesses of my mind. So, here it is.
I remember the night Gary died. It was a Saturday in January. He had only been really sick for a week, and I took that at a testament to how he liked to do things: efficiently, without making a big production of things. Only a couple days before, I came home from school in the afternoon to find hundreds, if not a thousand, large black crows flying in the crisp winter air above my block. I don’t think this was necessarily an omen, but later that day the ambulance was called out to his home for what would be the second-to-last time.
It arrived again long after nightfall that Saturday. I, like the nosy neighbor from Bewitched, watched as the anticlimactic drama unfolded. All in all, a small army of emergency response vehicles showed up: an ambulance, two large fire rescue trucks, a fire rescue pickup truck, and three police cruisers that stayed until after I dozed off. After all, I had church in the morning.
The service was on a Saturday a couple of weeks after he died. Given his lifetime of public service and his tendency to be an old school kind of guy, it was held at the local VFW post, only a couple of blocks from where we live.
Now, I had never been in a VFW before this. As a kid, I would always pass by the building and be amazed that a gigantic cannon could sit outside, exposed to the elements, and no one would try to fire it. It was a mythical place: I had no idea what went on inside there, but it must have been important.
The lodge is split into two main rooms: a hall where Lt. Dan can win a four corners payoff on his bingo card, and a canteen where he can invest his hard-earned winnings in the finest American beers. Late in the morning, everyone arrived and was ushered into the canteen, since student speakers of some sort were speaking to representatives from the State Department. I wish I could have listened to what they had to say.
As we stood in the corner of the smoke-filled canteen, I noticed that behind the veil of coziness, the canteen was in many ways a product of the protocol-driven forces that inhabited it. There were no barstools in this place; the bar itself sat no higher than a common desk to accommodate wheelchair-bound veterans. On the walls (and bar, and windows, and hanging from the ceiling) were signs declaring the bartender’s authority: “If the bartender asks you to leave,” one read, “you have five minutes to comply or 30 days to think about it!” Near the entrance of the canteen hung numerous postings of the rules of the house – chief among them the fact that you must be a member to purchase alcohol. The carpet was the industrial, textureless kind that you see in government buildings. The ceiling tiles were stained yellow from decades of smoking. This was the most American place in which I had ever been.
I’m not sure if it was a response to the smoky atmosphere of the canteen, but as we waited for the State Department to clear out from the bingo hall, some people migrated to the parking lot. There, Gary’s coworkers from the post office gathered, many of them wearing their USPS uniforms, as they were merely taking a break from the never ending postal delivery cycle. Gary’s biker buddies also showed en masse (they were the ones who looked like varying degrees of Santa Claus). After nearly an hour, we were corralled into the bingo hall for the service.
Now, the only funerals I had ever been to were in churches. So when I entered the hall, I was expecting to see some makeshift pew system, perhaps composed of a couple hundred chairs in rows. What I encountered was almost the polar opposite: rather than a bunch of chairs assembled facing the front of the room, there was a large, open area in the center of the room, presumably for when the VFW holds its heavily-anticipated singles dances. (I’ve always wanted to see how these events go, but since I’m not a veteran I assume they will remain a great mystery for the rest of my life. A pity.)
Around the periphery of this open space were old wooden tables, each with four plastic chairs. Beyond these tables were long banquet tables arranged against three walls of the room. This was no setup for a funeral, I thought, but who was I to complain? It’s how they did things here, after all.
As the crowd milled about, the service began when the local VFW Chaplain (who, by sheer coincidence, was a family friend) queued up a recording of Taps on the large wooden console at the front of the room. Then, Gary’s brother Steve was asked to say a few words about the man who has always cared for him and his family. There, below the large, unlit bingo board that hung on the wall behind him, Steve broke down.
One letter carrier got up to speak to the room full of grown men drinking bottles of beer and smoking their fifth cigarette. “I sure hope no one is waiting for their mail today,” he said, “because you’ll be waiting for a while. We’re all here.”
While we listened to the service, the color guard shuffled in. A geriatric militia complete with white gloves and black berets, this group of septuagenarians displayed an amazing amount of respect for a ritual they had undoubtedly practiced hundreds of times. We marched back out to the parking lot for the last part of our goodbye to Gary.
One member of the guard, rigid with respect and sincerity, presented a crisply folded American flag to Steve. Another member, after fiddling for a few seconds with a phony bugle that played the same recording of Taps we heard in the bingo hall, stood with the instrument to his lips for a half minute. Three members of the firing squad then shot forth into the suburban sunlight three shells each.
And Gary was gone.comment (0)