Oron flanks left with the small platoon of formally dressed sailors, all in ceremonial blue wool, all armed with parade M-1 rifles. The overcast sky is ashen on this mid-November day, and the wind pulsates bleakly over this little land of the dead. Heads held high and white hats glowing, the sailors march through the wrought-iron gates, over which Oron notices the words: Barrancas National Cemetery.
The weather is not yet cold; still, it is cool, and Oron expects more from Florida. He has heard so many tales of warmth and sunshine during his nineteen years — nineteen as of this week — yet the climate is no warmer here than in his native Louisiana. Everyone makes a big deal of it when he says he is stationed in Florida, but he has seen nothing to rave about.
The seven men of the platoon, otherwise known as the funeral detail or firing squad, march down the paved lane of the cemetery, while Stokes, the commanding petty officer, counts cadence at their side. Above the cadence, Oron hears the haunting wind rustle the grim red of the sycamore leaves. Flat green grass lines each side of the lane, and the tombstones form faceless pickets under the trees. The residents of Barrancas lie in harmonious democracy where the quest for equality ends in unheroic triumph; all men are equal after their final breaths.
Cemeteries always make Oron wish he were more religious, in a way he can never clearly define. He has many problems with religion, particularly after an upbringing that may have poisoned his faith for life, but he has problems with death and dying, too. Religion, for all its faults, at least makes death less frightening.
He marches straight ahead with his comrades from Barracks Division. The platoon follows the lane westward, and Oron now sees the grave, the canopy, the tell-tale pile of fresh dirt, and a green carpet that covers the plowed-up earth. The artificial greenery affects a semblance of neatness. Corpses must be ushered into the earth and infinity in absolute tidiness. Survivors demand a sense of order.
The sycamores are behind them now, beyond the wall. Only oaks grow within the national cemetery. Their leaves shake without sound as the wind ruffles their branches; their silence provides an illusion of tranquility.
“Platoon, HALT!” Stokes shouts loudly, dispelling the illusion.
The sailors will stay here under these trees, about fifty yards from the grave, and Stokes will allow them to remain at ease until he catches sight of the dark caravan heading for the gates. Then they will stand at attention among the oaks as part of the background scenery, while today’s guest of honor arrives; and soon thereafter they will render the twenty-one-gun salute.
“You got the time?” Stokes asks Dalton.
“Two-fifteen,” Dalton says after a quick glance at his watch.
The young men wait idly, with rifle butts propped flat on the grass, their hands encircling the long barrels. All guns — known as “pieces” in the Navy — point upward, in keeping with the rules learned recently.
“This your first time?” Oron asks Venegas, the boot who just arrived from El Paso via San Diego. Oron has been in Pensacola two months and no longer considers himself a boot.
“Yes, I didn’t even get to practice,” Venegas says.“This guy Stokes called me in and said he needed somebody. Then he told me I was too pudgy, so I didn’t show up for practice today.”
“Too pudgy! What is this, anyway, a beauty contest? Nobody in a coffin’s got 20-20 vision, Venegas.”
Stokes, oblivious to the conversation just a few feet away, calls to Dalton. “Run to the road and see if you don’t see something.”
Dalton takes off in a trot. He looks toward the cemetery gate. “I don’t see anything from here,” he shouts back.
“Well, just stay there and keep your eyes open,” Stokes replies.
Oron looks down at his loaded gun. He hopes his firing has improved since the last funeral, which was his first. It was a nightmare. The twenty-one-gun salute actually was eighteen loud blasts in unison (six guns firing together three times) and three tiny, feeble cracks that sounded like echoes. BOOM: bang. BOOM: bang. BOOM: bang. Stokes had been unhappy about it. Oron never asked to be on funeral detail, but he had no desire to be the platoon screw-up either. Stokes evidently had been unable to determine from which rifle the belated, whimpering salutes had come, and he made the entire platoon practice during time off. Oron still has not admitted to anyone that he was the culprit, and nobody has guessed. Anyway, nobody seems to care much one way or another. Everything in Barracks Division is like that. The days pass uneventfully; some people move in while others pack up to leave.
Oron knows he is not composed of what might be precisely defined as good military material, and the tardy firing of his gun last time was but another manifestation of his slight deficiency. He went through pains over the simplest maneuvers during basic training. About-face was a real struggle, although everyone else seemed to pick it up easily. One day, he was singled out for his sloppy about-face, and he had to stand in front of the company and about-face again and again until the company commander was confident that he had learned it. Folding his green wool blanket for morning inspection would have been another insurmountable obstacle if a very nice farm boy from North Dakota had not folded it for him. Once, the bristles on Oron’s regulation toothbrush were facing east instead of west, and the disgusted inspectors tossed all his possessions out the third-floor window. Oron does not complain. After all, he is in Florida, not Vietnam. Still, it has not been an easy cruise.
“They’re coming!” Dalton shouts. “They just turned the corner.”
Dalton rushes over to join the others, and Stokes calls attention. Each sailor hoists his rifle over his right shoulder, and all stand by stiffly as the hearse appears on the horizon, followed by a short parade of cars.
A chilling wind blasts Oron in the face as he holds his military posture. He watches the hearse enter the same gates the platoon walked through just minutes before; the hearse is white, not black, as death is supposed to be. Oron can see the white without moving his head. He remains statue-still in formation, as the parade slowly approaches the waiting wound in the crust of mother Earth, a wound that soon will swallow what only last week was still a person. The Earth will heal its small rupture and leave the hint of a mound as a scar.
Oron already sees the end of the procession and notes with surprise (and disappointment, for the dead man’s sake) how short it is. Any passing man deserves the dignity of a ceremony that testifies to the genuine sorrow of many people. Sadly, few people bothered to accompany today’s guest of honor to his final home.
A great multitude came to Oron’s grandmother’s funeral. He remembers a long line of cars to Greenwood Cemetery when he was ten years old. Death was new to him, then. A brother had died, but since this was before Oron was born, it had not touched him. His grandmother’s death gave dying a new dimension. He was frightened and depressed, but found solace in picturing her in heaven, as the adults described her. It took faith for Oron to believe his grandmother was in the sky, because he couldn’t see her there, and no one could produce any physical evidence; but everyone else seemed to believe it so strongly that he was able to imagine her beyond the clouds.
The pallbearers place the flag-draped coffin over the gaping hole. The decorous, loaded box rests there like a cork on a bottle, and Oron wonders what prevents it from crashing to the bottom. What marvelous technology keeps the weight in magical suspension?
He wonders if the unseen body inside the box is that of a man. Women belong to the military, too, but what self-respecting woman would want to lie here forever among all these men? It was probably a man — an old man, by the looks of the few mourners. Only one middle-aged woman is weeping visibly, and Oron reasons that she is the old man’s daughter — not his wife, who is probably dead herself. The dead man must be a World-War-I veteran, his comrades either dead or too old to attend the funeral.
Oron looks at three pretty young girls and decides they are the granddaughters. Their summer dresses are too flimsy for the November wind. Obviously, these are not rich people. That explains the free military burial. The girls express no grief. Perhaps they barely knew their grandfather or knew him only as old and tired. They never saw him as an active, handsome and heroic warrior, the man for whom their mother weeps. Instead, they remember him as pitiful, perhaps even disgusting. Perhaps he was sick a long time, and people were relieved when he finally died.
The preacher moves forward with his prayer book. The small band of well-wishers waits patiently through the reading. The platoon waits at attention. The preacher quotes some encouraging words from the Bible: “Come unto me, . . . and I will give you rest.”
The wind carries the words across the gray gravestones to the waiting platoon. The people stand very still as the preacher talks, all a safe distance from the flag-draped coffin under the gray canopy.
The preacher finishes his part. The time has come for the grand climax. Oron wonders if it is really fair to call it a twenty-one-gun salute, when actually seven guns shoot three times. Would it be the same for a general or an admiral? The important thing, he tells himself, is to fire just as soon as Stokes gives the order. A repeat of his delayed salutes would be a final injustice and insult to the old veteran.
This time Oron is tense and ready when Stokes delivers the order. His reaction is like lightning. His finger pulls the trigger while the first vibrations of Stokes’s command are still in the air.
bang: BOOM, the seven guns roar, with a single shot in advance of the other six. Oh, no! Oron moans inside. “Fire!” Stokes shouts again, and again a light bang precedes the loud boom. One more shot at getting it right, Oron says to himself. Just one last chance. “Fire!” Stokes orders, and this time a unified BOOM rolls across the graves of the cemetery, but Oron has been hit in the process! He has been hit in the hat. The gun to his side has ejected its empty, hot shell inside the rim of Oron’s white hat. The shell burns his head through the fabric, as an unseen sailor from another corner of the cemetery plays taps on a bugle. The hot shell continues to burn as the preacher folds the flag from the coffin and hands it to the old man’s weeping daughter, but Oron is determined not to break ranks to remove the source of pain. He is so happy about his final shot that the burning is insignificant. The old man has at least had one tiny moment of dignity before disappearing forever.