Thursday, April 10, 2014


I just got back from DC on the train, where I tried to write this from, but the Wifi on Amtrak isn't what they promise. I was down there for the funeral of my sister-in-law I posted about weeks ago. The service and burial took several weeks because she was interred at Arlington National Cemetery as the widow of a WWII veteran.

I had flown in from L.A. for that brother's funeral and burial in 1994 and was thoroughly impressed by the ceremony. Because he was a WWII vet who had served on Okinawa when combat was still occurring, the ceremony had more pomp than usual. The 21-gun salute and precision, by-the-numbers, short step ritual of carrying the coffin down a hillside to the grave with the coffin held steady and level despite the incline seemed almost like great theater.

As I remember that ritual, there were members of all the services represented, but maybe I'm not remembering correctly. At any rate, they were in their dress uniforms and were the best I'd ever seen. When the bugler began taps from within a few nearby trees that took a moment to locate at the very bottom of the hill, I gave it up. In the car back with my two still living brothers, now gone, I turned to them and said "Well, Buddy obviously wins." And we all laughed.

We called that brother "Buddy" because his name was James, like our father's. He was a hip swing musician when I was a kid, an amazing talent, capable of playing any instrument, though he started out on the reeds: sax and clarinet. When I went in the service after a short stint playing upright acoustic jazz bass, not very well, having been a piano player since I was little, he bought the bass from me and was playing gigs on it within weeks.

He lived in DC and then Maryland and backed all the stars when they played the Capital. As I remember it he was the godfather to Pearl Baily and Louie Belson's child. I know he backed Pearl several times, as well as Sammy Davis Jr. and others. He went to college in DC after the war on the G.I. Bill and then married my sister-in-law, an accordion player in a WWII all-girl band and they toured still partly war-torn Europe (picture THE THIRD MAN) with some sort of traveling show to return home and settle down.

He became the music director for poor high schools, and turned his kids into the best in the country, marching in Miami in The Orange Bowl New Years Parade and New York in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. All the time playing gigs at night when he wasn't going to night school, which he did for many many years, earning an MA and PhD in education, moving on from his Mister Holland period to being a high school principal in the '70s and beyond, still calling teenage girls "bobbysoxers."

He and his wife Catherine had many children, but lost one little boy, Tommy, as an infant. At Catherine's burial yesterday there was no 21-gun salute or bugler, and the eight sailors (in classic sailor uniforms, those hats etc.) laid her coffin at the top of the hill to be carried down after we left for the actual burial. But the lady running the show said we could walk down the hillside to the grave site if we wanted to.

I wanted to. And once there was surprised to see on one side of the typical Arlington headstone (at least typical in the 20th Century, not before) the name of the infant my brother and his young bride had lost. I remembered being at that burial too, and the dramatic grief my sister-in-law expressed. But did not remember it being at Arlington. It moved me that my brother had thought to bury him where he too would end up, and that his wife would now be with them both.

Then I walked around to the other side of the gravestone, and there was my brother's name and dates. I was stricken with grief myself then. And surprised by how deep it was. "Buddy," had been gone for twenty years. But though I was at his burial, the gravestone obviously hadn't been carved yet. Yesterday had been emotional enough already, including the funeral service and on the way from the chapel to the grave site passing two Marines in dress blues holding a saddled horse with no one on it and the boots turned backward in the stirrups. It was for a stranger's burial, and we passed the four horse open carriage with the coffin a little way beyond the lone riderless horse, but nonetheless, I choked up as if it had been for my sister-in-law or brother or their little boy Tommy.

I'm not crazy about the ways the military has become less democratic and universal but more mercenary and rightwing, or the ways in which the mostly chicken hawk Republican politicians who never served have identified themselves with being the military's champions, despite their record that proves the opposite. But I have to admit, the military's rituals, especially honoring the deceased (they're obviously often terrible at honoring the survivors who still suffer) are impressive.

My brother "Buddy"was the second oldest and followed the oldest (originally called Tommy but after the war he became a Franciscan friar and missionary to Japan renamed Campion) into WWII. But whereas Tommy had graduated high school, Buddy joined out of high school toward the end of the war, when the country needed men so badly it offered instant high school diplomas to juniors and seniors who joined the service. Buddy entered the Navy and was immediately assigned to a Navy band because of his great musician's chops. But his little band joined the armada sailing to Okinawa to finish taking over that island and prepare for the invasion of Japan.

He told me stories about his experiences when I was young, including being cured of sleep walking when he did it one night on board ship and was jumped and beaten by men who'd been frightened out of their fearful sleep by it, worried about Japanese torpedoes or Kamikaze pilots. One incident he recounted involved a young sailor who shot craps with some city sharpies and couldn't make good on his debts so they threw him overboard.

I always wanted to include that scene in a movie, and then Clint Eastwood did it in his IWO JIMA flick. My brother played for officers and for ceremonies right behind the front lines. He heard the sounds of warfare and saw the dead and wounded, but the closest he got to the active violence was when two guys in the tent next to his tried to make a souvenir ashtray out of a mortar shell they thought was a dud but it exploded and left my brother cleaning human remains off his tent.

He shared other things that weren't as bad as relatives who were at The Battle of the Bulge or other WWII struggles (or in combat in other wars for that matter). But they were still pretty traumatic, I would think, for a 17-year-old to experience. I guess all those stories, and the years when I was a boy and he was the hippest and funniest person I knew, crystallized in my heart when I saw his tombstone.
Whether it was "the best" or not I'll leave to others (as some Roman said, "Comparisons are odious"—only he said it in Latin) but it's clear that WWII generation is disappearing. Here's to them.


Anonymous said...

You do your family proud with your lucid writing, Michael. Very moving
& beautiful, filled with grief &
love & remembrance.
Harry E. Northup

Lally said...

Thanks Harry. I feel the same way about your poetry about your family.

William McPherson said...

Really a lovely remembrance, Michael. It made me think of my two older brothers, both of them in the military. The eldest was a gunnery officer on a troopship. He was at Anzio, in Italy, and virtually every major battle in the Pacific after that except for Okinawa. All those young soldiers they loaded into landing craft and sent off to a Pacific beach where so many of them died. It all seems incredible now.