The little cemetery sits alongside a dirt road about a mile north of Belvue, surrounded by soybean and corn which aren't faring too well due to the terrible drought and heat of this unique summer. All the crops look pretty bad except those gaining the benefit of a huge irrigator arm in the field next to the cemetery. It's obvious which of the beans are getting the moisture and which are on the periphery gasping for it. But today is a unique day in that this day, of all the days over the past few months, is graced with overcast skies, cool breezes, and a drizzle in the air. It's a little damp but we don't mind after all the dryness. It actually feels good. And a little moisture won't bother us as we gather to honor the Wingman.
Even the army honor guard isn't bothered as they stand waiting for the Wingman and his family to arrive. They're about a half hour late but for all the he has done, no one cares. I sit in my car, peering in the rear view window through the detail towards the rock wall gates waiting for them to arrive. It's obvious when it occurs because the detail suddenly comes to attention and gives due respect. After they park, those of us waiting get out and slowly make our way past the detachment to the covered grave.
After everyone settles, the detachment, in their very military way, marches to the hearse and crisply move the Wingman to the grave site, his coffin properly draped in the national colors under which he fought. They retire and we give ear to hear the hospice chaplain recount to us comforting words from The Word-reminders of the One larger than us and His comfort and care for us. Frankly I'm not one much for women preachers but she did a nice job. As if on cue, out of south, came the distinctive whistle of a steam engine. Of all days for an old steamer to come down the UP tracks, it was this day-and time. A coincidence? I don't think it was planned to coincide with the Wingman's ceremony but a coincidence it wasn't. It was so significant, even the chaplain paused to take note of the uniqueness of the event. She then continued on, recounting the Wingman's exploits which I matched up in my head from what I had learned from his book.
As they flew over France, the Leader took some German fighters under his guns and in the swirling fury of a WWII dogfight, P-51s up against ME-109s and FW-190s, the Leader managed to down three and the Wingman two. As they limped for home the Wingman noted the Leader's plane was a bit worse for the wear. In fact, he barely made it back. The Wingman wasn't so lucky. The oil temperature went up, the engine died, and flies began coming from under the instruments, burning off the Wingman's wool socks, He tried and tried to get the canopy off, but to no avail, until he remembered some words from training. Suddenly the canopy, and the Wingman were away. His parachute barely opened, an apple tree breaking his fall. He was now a resident of France. For the skills he used that day, he helped the Leader get home and won for himself the Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart.
|The Wingman and "Kansas Aggie"|
I met him many years ago through his brother Larry with whom I worked. George was kind enough to allow me into his world, showing me his plane and sharing with me his memorabilia. He shared with me his book, videos of his interview as a veteran, and his memories. It was my privilege to call him my friend and I tried to remember each year on his birthday (February 14) and Veteran's Day to send him a card again thanking him and his family for such a sacrifice for me and my family. It was a small thing. Which is why I had to rearrange my schedule and show up today.
With the chaplain's part done, she turned the service over to the army detail who, in classic format, just like the movies, they carried out their duty. Only it was different this time. This was no movie. They lined up and gave George the required ritual for a hero-three volleys of seven shots and the mournful notes of Taps. It was a struggle to stay composed but a necessary duty. They then marched to the coffin, removed the flag, and so very precisely folded it, working every crease, to make it perfect. They handed it off to the command Sergeant who checked it over again, dug into his pocket and placed within the folds an item unknown to me, and walked to George's widow.
I've seen it a hundred times but the motions, the words, "from a grateful nation" churn my heart, as it obviously does others who openly weep, all restraint having been lost. But that's ok. Times like these are reserved for such emotional carnage. Thankfully, for me, the moment passes. Composure is gained, the chaplain says a final blessing and I wander back to my car. I look out over the bean field and listen to the gentle whoosh of the misters and the chup-chup of the sprayer on the irrigator. It was nice. This is the land for which George fought and was willing to die at such a young age. It was good we remembered him this day.
Rest in peace gentle warrior. You stood your post with honor. Thank you, from a grateful nation.