As I think of our soldiers and the sacrifice they and their families have made in service to our country I want to offer respectfully The October Country to honor the American soldier, living and dead, and his family. It is an intensely personal chapter from a book I will shortly publish, My Country Tis of Thee.
I am still a child, and so I hold my mother close. She wears, as all mothers wear this crisply cold morning, a plain black dress. Some also wear black hats with veils that cover their eyes and cheeks. The men wear dark suits, ties, and felt hats. Some are as old as Grandfather Charlie. Others are much younger, and look perhaps, much like Dudley, the one Uncle I never knew. We stand together by a freshly dug grave. I can smell the dark and rich turned earth.
There is a deep stillness here I do not yet understand. The morning is cold, the sun bright; everything is acutely luminous. I can see clearly Uncle Jim’s prickly, unshaven face, his crumpled suit, and tie too much askew. A gentle breeze blows across a well-cut lawn and rows of modest headstones. But in a distant section of the cemetery where once at another funeral I played among marble saints and angels, I can just see the mortal monuments of past generations. A marble angel, grandly sculpt, and bigger then life, seems to beckon us, with a gesture of its hand, to witness, with respect, the remains of a departed soul at rest. Here, Corinthian columns flank a massive head stone upon which is writ in Latin, hopeful peons to God or gods. And there a once beatific angel, the worse for a century of winters, her smile now a bit cynical, points a broken finger uncertainly to Heaven as if to set the soul of the deceased upon its way to glory.
An immaculate American flag, high upon on a flagpole, takes up the wind, furls and snaps crisply. Her colors are proud and bright, in the dawn’s light of this October sun there by the maple trees alive with scarlet, leaves.
Grandfather stands beside a line of uniformed soldiers who for all their youth are resonant with Roman gravitas. They hold in their arms, a rifle ready, perfectly poised. Grandfather wears the indestructible Scottish tweed overcoat he wears in all autumns. And beside him, quiet, Dad in his only suit, a dark blue, pin stripe gabardine shiny with wear, and Uncle Dave who owns a barroom in New Haven called the Hitching Post, and serious Uncle Don and Uncle Jim, whose potent, whiskey breath smells always of fragrant, dying roses.
My dad told me once in a solemn moment that his father Charles did not and would not weep, that neither he nor his brothers had ever seen him shed a single tear, though he had lived a long and sometimes tragic life. Dad smiles, kisses me on the forehead. “Bobby,” he says, “Tears could never dishonor him.”
He told me that Charles was a man of iron, a good man who before his retirement worked thirty-five years as a lineman for the New Haven and Hartford Railroad. He did not finish high school but even so, taught himself to read, one book at a time, until at long last, he was able read the works of the great thinkers of ancient Greece and Rome: Plato’s Socrates, the noble Marcus Aurelius, Rufus, Virgil and Thucydides, and as much perhaps, for the enticements of bloody drama, the terse gossip Tacitus. I saw these old and well-worn books stacked next to his collection of pipes.
It is true that Grandfather does not weep, even as the soldiers ready themselves to lower into the earth the body of his youngest son Dudley, contained now within a plain kaki metal casket, there to rest, Mother tells me, until the Day of Judgment.
Grandfather is startled, shaken as a bugler blows the weeping notes of Taps, even as the morning thunders three times to the hard crack of rifle fire. I can recall his face and think of the winter days when laughing, having fun, we would engage each other in snowball fights. He did not show that face today. His face is pale, his tall body stooped. He rests upon his cane. Suddenly, he is tired, old, and wrinkled, his frail body still, still as the graveyard’s winged angels. I think that he hardly breathes. I can see the veins running blue along his temple. I see in him disbelief. He looks to the earth and shakes his head. There is a question on his lips unvoiced. He radiates dignity as a soldier takes from Uncle Dudley’s casket the American flag, folds it reverently, marches solemnly across the grass and presses it into Grandfather Charlie’s hands.
I remember that Grandfather owned a special Morris chair, one he told me that you could rock or lay back on for a good nap. He set it by a window from which he told me that years ago, long before I was born, he could look out upon a grassy lawn and oak trees older even than his good self and from his Morris Chair watch his children play and grow and all the world pass by. I remember that he kept a rack of pipes in a special holder together with a blue package of Edgeworth tobacco. I would listen as he talked to Dad of things above my head, of eccentric people I did not know. He talked of war, and birth and death. He talked about ordinary things. My father listened carefully, never interrupted, and often asked Grandfather’s advice. When he looked at me, he smiled; he would always smile. Sometimes, I would find him sleeping, with an old book held upon his chest, one finger marking his place.
The women keen. Mother begins to weep, and then, of course, so do I. The soldiers disburse. Men and women walk slowly to their cars. My father and Uncle Jim lay hands on Grandfather’s arm, as he sways to the autumn grass. He shakes them off, stands straight and walks slowly to the base of a fiery maple tree. There, he kneels to the earth and gathers the brass casings left by the honor guard. He looks at them for a while, rolls them about in his hand, and looks up at the sky and the flag. And all that I am able to see, all that exists in this earth, framed by sun and incandescent autumn leaves, is my Grandfather, unbowed by grief, still and fixed forever in an October country all ablaze.
He makes his way to me at last, presses three of the still warm casings into my hand, and closes my fingers upon them. He smiles, “I love you Bobby.” His voice is hoarse. I fly into his arms and hug him for all that I am worth. He picks me up and hugs me back. I shout, “Oh, I love you Grandfather! I love you!”
And so, out of my love for him, I pledged myself to silence. I did not tell anyone, not even Dad that I felt the trembling of Grandfather’s old and weary heart. I did not tell of the tears I saw falling from his cheeks to mine.
I would learn many years later that we did not lay to rest in the Rhode Island earth the body of Grandfather’s youngest son. Dudley, a tail gunner in a B 29, was shot from the sky over Japan. Pilots nearby saw parachutes but none of the plane’s crew survived. Dudley’s casket was empty but still, there is in us the need to perform the rites of grief and death.
For in this ritual of death and life is peace, in the firing of lethal rifles, solace, in the taking of this immaculate, this unblemished flag, an integration with all that is good in the certain realization that we are all of us, our soldiers, our flag and country, sacred and imperishable.
For this, I have kept these brass casings. I will not let them go and in autumn when the maple leaves turn scarlet, I hold them in my hands and live with Uncle Dudley, Grandfather Charlie, Dad and Mom and all those I love whose spirits rest with the angels in the October Country.