Oakwood Cemetery, Troy, New York 22 March 2014
My wife’s father passed away after a long battle with dementia. His life was no picnic. Nor was it a tragedy. He worked hard his entire life only to be let go just before he was able to retire. It was a classic case of age discrimination. He kept working at other jobs until he was seventy. Both his wife and his only son died years ago. Like us all, he was a sinner and a child of God. His daughter cared for him from our home in Virginia. It was practically a full time job.
He enlisted in the Army at the tail end of WW II, serving in the Army of Occupation in Japan and in Korea prior to that little dust up. Returning home, he began a career in the New York Army National Guard. He served in a tank battalion in Troy and ended his career in a Special Forces unit in Schenectady as a sergeant first class. He was always proud of his service.
He had a simple funeral mass at Saint Mary’s Catholic Church in Halfmoon, New York. Before leaving the church, the religious vestment was removed from his casket and replaced by an American flag. We arranged for military honors to be rendered at his burial because we thought he would appreciate it. We expected this to be two American Legion members who would render the honors to the best of their abilities with a recording of taps. We placed his flag draped casket in the hearse and followed it across the still frozen Mohawk River and the already thawed Hudson. We made our way through the weathered streets of North Troy and to the ancient Oakwood Cemetery. The morning snow flurries had stopped with no accumulation. It was still overcast and the wind was bitterly cold. We were grateful the dreaded wintery mix did not materialize.
We turned off the paved road through the park like cemetery onto an icy, muddy gravel path to the family plot. As the hearse approached the burial site, we were shocked to see a full Army burial detail in their service blue uniforms and service caps. I heard some of my wife’s relatives wonder who were these soldiers. Were they cadets from the nearby La Salle Institute? My reply was, “No, these are regulars.” Two young sergeants and and an even younger PFC bugler stood at attention at the crest of a slight knoll to our right. The casket team removed the casket from the hearse and made their way to the grave site. The deacon from Saint Mary’s Church led the small gathering of relatives, neighbors and my wife’s friends in a short interment service and final prayer.
The icy wind calmed into a cold breeze and the sun made a valiant effort to brighten the scene. From the crest of the knoll, three volleys of rifle fire rang out. The lone bugler played Taps. She performed admirably in spite of the cold air. The detail began folding the flag precisely and slowly. The reverence and devotion to duty were plainly visible in the young soldiers’ actions and faces. The slow, solemn salutes as the folded flag was passed to the young NCOIC of the honor detail caused me to think of all those who had fought and served under that flag. My wife took a few steps forward herself to spare the NCOIC those steps over the muddy, icy slope in his dress shoes. That’s the way she is… always thinking of others. The young sergeant approached my wife, bowed forward and began those familiar words.
“On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army and a grateful nation…”
All the emotions I was feeling welled up as I heard those words. A tear came to my eye. Bless those young soldiers giving their all on this Saturday afternoon. Bless my father-in-law. Bless all those who have served and died, as well as those still serving and living. What a brotherhood!
General George Henry Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga, is buried close by in the family plot of his Lansingburgh, New York born wife. General Thomas was born and raised a Virginian, but found it necessary, by personal conscience and honor, to remain in the Union Army. Sergeant Rice Cook Bull, a soldier of the 123rd New York Infantry, who served under General Thomas and wrote of his experiences in the book, Soldiering, also lies nearby. These two old soldiers would recognize the oh so very young soldiers of the burial detail dressed in blue as brothers. They certainly recognized the three volleys of rifle fire and the melancholy playing of Taps.
“And forever, brother, hail and farewell.” The words in the title of this post belong to Catullus, written in tribute to his brother, who was buried far from home near the ancient city of Troy. Catullus talks of the sad tribute of the burial rights in the ancient custom of ancestors.
Thank God for those ancient customs of our ancestors.
(Note for 2023) With the passing of the years, I look back on what struck me so profoundly on that day. He was my wife’s father so of course it was important to me, but we were not particularly close. We now know that the burial detail was New York National Guard soldiers who volunteered for this duty under a NYAG program. They are specially trained, given a small stipend to upgrade and maintain their uniforms and are awarded only retirement points for their efforts. A remarkable program. This took place within sight of General George H. Thomas who, over the years, has become my favorite Civil War leader. I now know that it was a unique juxtaposition of place, the company, the weather and the history that struck me so profoundly. I find a retelling of this tale most appropriate for this Memorial Day.