Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Cub Scout

The Cub Scout
by Robert A. Hall

A few years ago, Milt "Pappy" Gore dragooned me into a VFW rifle squad for the annual Memorial Day service in Westmont, NJ. Pappy is a retired Marine tanker who served on Peleliu and Okinawa in World War II, and in Korea. I had my doubts, but he's a hard guy to turn down.
It was a typical Remembrance Day. While the majority of residents were enjoying a long weekend at the shore, perhaps a hundred gathered to listen to speeches by local politicians and watch aging veterans honor fallen comrades. The master-of-ceremonies was "Sarge" Ulsh, a "Chosin-few" Marine Korean vet, who also serves as the VFW's caustic-tongued bartender.
The squad sweltered in the sun while the speeches dragged on and wreaths were laid. There were six of us: Pappy and two other World War II vets in khaki, two present day soldiers in Army green who happened to be husband and wife, and myself in dark trousers, white shirt and an old Marine utility cap. All we needed was Norman Rockwell to paint the scene.
The squad commander was an Army vet, who crisply snapped out orders. Of course, World War II was awhile ago, so he was winging it on some commands (ordering "Turn-ABOUT" instead of "About-FACE"), which hurt our parade-ground precision a bit. As such small-town ceremonies often go, it managed to be both comic and touching.
I'm a sharp critic of rifle squads, but our three volleys weren't bad, considering we had never practiced. While kids scrambled to pick up the empty shells, we turned in the old M-1 Garands and thought about getting a cold beer at the post before heading home for the obligatory barbecue.
Drinking my beer, I found the funny-sad ceremony had put a lump in my throat. It brought back sharp memories of the last time I served on a rifle squad honoring our dead, over 40 years and 40 pounds ago.
I was a young Marine PFC, full of "hot sand and ginger" in Kipling's phrase, working my way through a year-long electronics school at Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. This was the Spring of 1965, and Vietnam was heating up. My best buddy, Ron "Count" Pittenger and I had already gone to our commander and volunteered for the infantry in Vietnam.
We didn't know we were volunteering for a war the politicians would have neither the will to win nor the will to end. Television pictures the sixties generation as flower-power, long-haired hippies, smoking pot and protesting a terrible war. Rarely do you hear that tens of thousands of kids from that generation believed in America, believed communism was a great evil and volunteered to fight in that war.
Lucky for us, in those days the Marine Corps sent you where it wanted to, and it thought we should be studying electronics rather than carrying a rifle through a rice paddy. The skipper thanked us and sent us back to our duties. Vietnam would wait. I think we were equal parts disappointed and relieved.
A few weeks later, we had another chance to volunteer. We were between schools, and while waiting for classes to form, were assigned various unpleasant duties. One morning the company Gunnery Sergeant asked for volunteers for burial duty. I grabbed Count's arm and dragged him forward. We reported an hour later to the sergeant in charge.
I'd like to tell you we were motivated by a deep desire to honor the dead. The truth is, I was desperate to avoid another round of long hours walloping pots in the chow hall, where my most memorable accomplishment was cracking 120 dozen eggs for the cooks one morning. And I'd heard that burial detail was "skating" duty.
That's how the Count and I participated in over a hundred funerals in the next month. It was easy duty, especially for the rifle squad. The big guys were assigned to be body bearers, carrying heavy coffins. All we had to do was stand straight, look sharp, and fire three tight volleys from our seven rifles.
We worked at the national cemetery at Point Loma, CA, sharing the chore with a Navy squad. The Navy preferred to sleep late, so we'd take the early funerals, and get early liberty. For some reason there were no Friday funerals, usually giving us a three-day weekend.
Most of the funerals were for old veterans, guys who had served in the first or second world wars. Often there was no one to see them off but the funeral director, the minister and us, rendering last honors on behalf of the nation.
When you're in ten or fifteen funerals a day, it quickly becomes routine. We took it seriously-we were Marines-giving every vet our sharpest effort. But we quickly stopped feeling sad. You can't grieve endlessly for strangers.
Then we buried the cub scout's dad.
We were told to look sharp, because the next funeral was for a Marine who'd been killed in Vietnam. With the family was a Marine staff sergeant, perhaps a buddy, assigned to help. The large crowd of mourners included the young widow and the son of the dead Marine, a cub scout in full uniform. He was perhaps eight years old.
When we fired our volleys, the seven rifles making a single crack, people in the crowd began to weep. The rifle fire always seemed to signal how final death was. Then we stood at present arms while our bugler played taps.
He was a lance corporal permanently assigned to Point Loma, and had blown taps at several hundred funerals. No one has ever made it sound sadder.
While the bugle notes rolled down the hillside and the family wept, the staff sergeant and the cub scout stood at the foot of the casket at rigid attention, saluting the tautly-stretched flag. The contrast between the tall Marine in dress greens and the small boy in blue giving his dad the cub salute tore at our hearts.
And then the boy turned his head slightly, looked up at the Marine, and changed from the cub scout salute to the open-handed Marine salute, honoring his dead father as best he could. And if there is a God, somewhere his dad saw him.
We held our position, but I wasn't the only Marine weeping openly. Finally taps ended, the notes dying out over the sobbing of relatives. The body bearers folded the flag into the traditional triangle and passed it to the staff sergeant.
He presented it to the cub scout and saluted. The cub accepted the American flag from his dad's grave, and sharply returned the salute-Marine style.
Slowly the family and friends drifted away, and we marched off. Another funeral was waiting.
But I've carried that moment burned in my heart for over thirty years.
Former Marine Staff Sergeant Robert A. Hall is a Vietnam veteran who later served five terms in the Massachusetts State Senate. Currently he manages associations. This column was published in the Camdon County NJ Courier Post and in Chicken Soup for the Veterans Soul. (c) Robert A. Hall.

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