By Paul Gremmels
I helped to bury my 4th grade teacher the other day. The circumstances that brought me to the cemetery were that we are both veterans. He, of the Navy, and me, of the Marine Corps. He was buried with full military honors, and I carried the American flag for our local color guard.
I have served on color guards in one position or another for over forty years. Dozens of funerals, in places as grandiose as Arlington National Cemetery and as remote as a rural, small-town cemetery; parades, community festivals, Memorial Day programs and athletic events, so many that frankly, they all seem to blend together. What I remember of them most, is that the demeanor of myself and that of my fellow color guardsmen is always the same. These veterans are everyday citizens that walk amongst us, going about their days without notice. Prior to the service or event we gather and go over our commands and movements in order to remind ourselves of them, and so we do not bungle a solemn occasion. We chit-chat about what we’ve been up to since we last gathered and joke about how it appears that our uniforms have shrunk a bit since the last time we donned them. Then, when the official time draws near, the joking ends and a stoic and somber mood comes over us.
It was a beautiful day, the day that we buried my teacher. After the long winter we had and the not-so-great spring, this day was a Godsend. Clear blue skies, warm sunshine with a light, intermittent breeze. The cemetery that we gathered at was in an open meadow surrounded by oak trees that were just beginning to show a hint of green from their budding leaves. The family huddled close to the gravesite and we, the color guard, stood in an oblique formation a respectful distance away.
I can’t hear, word for word, what the pastor is saying. I do, however, recognize the pace and flow of her tone. I stand at rigid attention, looking straight ahead, the waving flag sometimes blocking my view. I see the son and daughter of my teacher kneel by the grave and place the urn with their father’s ashes into the ground. I see the daughter’s light blue dress and think that we should have put a blanket down for her to kneel upon. I notice the son gently help his sister to her feet. I see that the Navy Petty Officers in their dress white uniforms, who have traveled a great distance for just this moment, are folding the official burial flag. They present it to the family, and I hear quiet words spoken about the gratefulness of a Nation. I brace myself, knowing what comes next.
Our guard commander, a County Commissioner, calls the first order.
“Color guard! Present arms!”
Our local barber slowly lowers the Naval flag. The riflemen prepare to shoulder their weapons.
“Ready! Aim! Fire! – Fire! – Fire!”
There is a pause as the rifle fire fades. An echoing that has completely shattered the quiet of our gathering, reminding us that this peaceful space and moment was paid for at great cost.
Then the first notes of “Taps” come crisply and cleanly from a silver trumpet played by my high school band teacher, an Army veteran, standing alone, out amongst the tombstones.
Paul Gremmels is a freelance writer, essayist and a columnist. He lives with his wife, Ann, in rural Pope County. His column is published in the Pope County Tribune on the last week of each month. He welcomes and responds to all correspondence. He can be contacted at: