In Memory Of...
The Ghosts of Arlington
by sarAdora

~~~

When Johnny comes marching home again, Hurrah! Hurrah!
We'll give him a hearty welcome then, Hurrah! Hurrah!
The men will cheer, the boys will shout
The ladies they will all turn out
And we'll all feel gay
When Johnny comes marching home.

~~~

"I don't want to go," I told him, my voice soft as I leaned against his chest.

"I know," he whispered, holding me close with an arm around my back, his other hand entwined in my hair.

"I'm not good at these things," I explained as I shifted on his lap. "I always cry."

"I know," he murmured as he rubbed his lips across my brow, the warmth of his mouth easing my restlessness.

"I'll embarrass you," I added, knowing full well that an officer's wife is expected to be as stoic as her husband is.

"Your tears will not embarrass me," he assured me, the words spoken softly but firmly.

"I'll be the only one crying," I reminded him.

"Your compassion will be comforting," he said. "There is no shame in tears."

"Will you still go if I decide not to go?"

"Yes," he murmured. "It is an honor to salute those who gave their lives for our country. It's the least I can do."

I lifted my tear-filled eyes to his face... looked at the man whose commanding presence would be strong for others and who would hold his own grief in check until he was home again. I might cry, but I would stand by his side.

"I'll go with you," I said.

"Thank you, my love," he murmured as he held me tighter. "You make me proud."

~~~

The old Church bell will peal with joy, Hurrah! Hurrah!
To welcome home our darling boy, Hurrah! Hurrah!
The village lads and lassies gay
With roses they will strew the way
And we'll all feel gay
When Johnny comes marching home.

~~~

Our nation considers the burying of our military dead as a solemn and sacred obligation. The customs and traditions of a military funeral are set in stone... there is no deviation in the rituals. There is comfort in tradition... it makes us feel like we belong to something precious... and we do.

I look at the raised casket of the marine who fought in the Gulf War, our flag draped on its cover. The Stars and Stripes symbolize the marine's service in the Armed Forces of the United States. I didn't know this man, but no matter... he died to give someone else the freedoms that we enjoy... the freedoms we so often take for granted. I take deep breaths... feel the tears building... waiting.

A visitor to Arlington sees hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of gravesites. White crosses mark most of them; interspersed here and there you can see the Star of David and some have symbols of other religious faiths. These are the final resting places for the fallen men and women warriors. If you pause to think about where you are... on sacred ground... then you know that these simple plots are more than gravesites...

There are ghosts at Arlington... thousands of ghosts. The first time I saw them I knew they were just images in my fertile imagination and I easily accepted that explanation. Many visits later, I realized that they were *always* there... a greater profusion in attendance at fresh burials. Always... they are in the uniform they had worn proudly. Always... they are whole...

If my husband sees them, he doesn't tell me. When I ask him, he says he sees memories in his mind's eye and the memories are filled with ghosts and more... He won't share those memories with me... He says recollections of those events are best left to the photojournalists and others who report these things. He says that warriors on the front lines of battle have lived the events and that it is not necessary to speak of them in order to bring each excruciating detail to the forefront of one's mind. I will not pry. He says I should be comforted that the ghosts share themselves with me... that they recognize me as an accepting soul. This is a man who has seen the ugliness of war and its ravages... up close and personal... I wonder at his words but I don't question them.

If you meander through the rows and rows of graves... and you remember why they're there... shadows of buried souls touch you as you pass their final resting places... A soft breeze skimming the back of your neck... a feeling that gentleness has touched the sleeve of your garment... and now and then... a kiss of memory on your cheek and the fleeting touch of a hand palming yours. Some ghosts will let you see them. They died in service to our country... They died for us.

A few sit on their burial plots and nod as we walk by; occasionally, one stands and salutes the squid. The young ones... frequently sit on an arm of the cross and sun themselves, their faces lifted to the rays, an arm oft raised as a hand shields skin from the heat of the day. They often wave and smile at me as I walk by; I make it a point to smile back. A few... who probably did all they could to disrupt the good order and discipline of the service... drop down from the occasional tree branch or headstone... mischievous even on another plane. They talk to me.

I was a carrot top... the freckle-faced boy
that sat behind you in 4th grade
and pulled your pigtails.
I laughed when I did that; you were so mad at me!
And I kissed you at the school dance at the end of the year.
Do you remember?

I was every boy that died...
in a war...
on foreign soil...
I was someone's son...
someone's brother...
someone's friend... and lover...
and much too young to die...
Remember me.

~~~

My husband doesn't flinch when three rifle volleys are fired but I gasp... then swallow hard as I stand beside him. The precision-folded flag is delivered to the deceased's family... the presenting officer giving heartfelt thanks from a grateful nation, his respectful salute long enough to penetrate their grief. I watch the bugler lift his horn... when he plays "Taps," I am undone. The haunting notes mark the beginning of the marine's last, long sleep and is meant to express hope for the final reveille to come. I can barely see through my tears.

The ghosts stand at solemn attention through the ceremonies... a few share my tears, others as stoic as the man by my side. I watch them shroud the burial site... and wonder if the freshly shoveled earth overwhelms them. They stand ready to comfort the newly buried soul... setting their grief aside that another of their own has died... ghostly mentors in waiting.

I am trying to remember to breathe.

~~~

Get ready for the jubilee, Hurrah! Hurrah!
We'll give the heroes three times three, Hurrah! Hurrah!
The laurel wreath is ready now
To place upon his loyal brow
And we'll all feel gay
When Johnny comes marching home.

~~~

We stay long enough to express our condolences to the grieving family. My husband, the commanding officer, says the right words, offers his warm hand and a strong shoulder to lean on. I hug the man's wife, mother, sisters, and children and am awed at their words of thanks and their composure.

I am a basket case.

We attend two more final farewells at Arlington that day... war is a terrible thing.

We have a ritual of our own when we go to Arlington. No matter the hour, Cowboy insists that we always stop by the Tomb of the Unknowns and pause to remember the unknown warriors that sacrificed all to preserve our nation's freedoms.

~~~

Here Rests In
Honored Glory
An American
Soldier
Known But To God

~~~

The Tomb at Arlington National Cemetery stands atop a hill overlooking Washington, D.C. Neo-classic columns surround the white marble sarcophagus. Sculpted into the panel that faces our nation's capital are three Greek figures representing Peace, Victory, and Valor. The ghosts have accompanied us and nudge me to listen to what the unknown warriors have to say. I can hear them clearly.

Peace, Victory and Valor.
We're at peace now.
That's what people say when they visit the Tomb of the Unknowns.
They say we were brave...
that we showed courage in the face of our country's enemies.
As for victory...
Is war ever something that is victorious...?
Or was it a tempest of madness
that reduced us to bone fragments and ashes?
We don't know.
We only know that we are dead.
Remember us.

I want to remember them. I want to remember that men and women of courage fought battles I will never know. They preserved freedoms I need to remember to cherish. Because of them... you and I... who live on American soil... have much to thank them for.

I heed the ghosts' advice and listen to the Unknowns. They speak to me... tell me who they are... tell me who they were... and how they and others... died.

I was dredged out of the Rhine... the Sea of Japan... the Pacific... I was recovered from the debris of Anzio... Bastogne... Hiroshima... Leningrad... I was charred past recognition in a gas-drenched tank... blown to bits in a minefield... snuffed out by the blast of a torpedo... destroyed by surface to air missiles.

I went down... was MIA... failed to return... was reported lost... and was entered missing in the morning report. Later... I was just another entry in the overnight fatality report.

And a body in the image of God lay on the scarred Earth.
The maggot arrives first... casting dice for it...
warring with the bluebottle...
carrion circling low for their cut.

Hello... Can you hear us? It is one minute past time and we are dead. We waged war that was legislated... and died. We arrived in heavy traffic... from the four-corners of the world... and entered the infinite dimension.

Politicians in their chambers...
rehearsed the words they'd orate to their constituents.
Photo opportunities in front of Old Glory...
the lens aimed at just the right angle...
pomposity turned somber...
sincerity ringing as true as "have a nice day" ...
rhetoric at its finest.

We didn't get a chance to rehearse our dying... one take... that is all that is allowed. We had hoped to die in adagio movement, heroically, our souls at peace... dying with honor for God, duty and country. Have you seen men die in war? Not all death is noble; most is shock... bewilderment... solitary... alone... and without the Last Sacrament or a fond farewell.

Exhausted angels trudged in...
wings drooping...
as they surveyed the masses waiting for escort into eternity...
shaking their heads at the folly of man
men with piety in their eyes and guns in their hands.

~~~

One Memorial Day weekend, we came to Arlington to remember and to honor our military dead. As we walked the endless aisles of buried souls, the ghosts quietly walked beside us. Their silence was both familiar and welcoming. In my mind, I told them the squid would soon be deployed again. They seemed to know... they crowded closer as if to comfort us. As we walked, the silence of the gravesites gave way to distant prayer.

"Hear Oh Israel, the Lord thy God, the Lord is One..."

"Our Father who art in heaven... Hallowed be Thy name..."

"I am the Resurrection and the Life.
Whosoever believeth in Me shall never die..."

"Hail Mary! Full of Grace... The Lord is with Thee..."

Four fresh burials... four different prayers... four different portals to heaven... more ghosts...

I have been to Arlington too many times.

~~~

When Johnny comes marching home again, Hurrah! Hurrah!
We'll give him a hearty welcome then, Hurrah! Hurrah!
The men will cheer, the boys will shout
The ladies they will all turn out
And we'll all feel gay
When Johnny comes marching home.

Remember them.

~ End ~

Return to Spanking Fiction - Main Menu.