I’m a veteran, and this fall, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the VFW Honor Guard who worked at Memorial and Veterans Day ceremonies in my home town when I was growing up.
They were World War Two guys… No longer young, but not yet old… A little post-prime, I guess you would say… With a bit of a middle aged slouch.
This would have been in the early 60s, and it was obvious that the 50s had been good to them. Each man sported a paunch of some sort, and each man dealt with his paunch his own way.
Some of them chose to go up a pant size or two. Others just buttoned their trousers lower. Others still resorted to using their white, ceremonial web belts as a surrogate girdles, cinching everything up two notches tighter than it ought to have been.
Our services were always at the cemetery or at the park in the middle of town, and the men would come ambling up, one at a time, trailing their rifles, hats at jaunty angles, cigarettes hanging from lips here and there.
The commander would line them up, make a quick inspection, straighten hats, and pass out clips of blank ammunition for the salute that would occur near the end ceremony. Every kid in the crowd strained to get a glimpse of those bullets before the Honor Guard guys shoved them into their pockets and resumed slouching and smoking.
Eventually, the commander would drill them just a little—left shoulder arms, right shoulder arms, present arms, and parade rest—commands that old soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen never forget.
They’d flip their cigarettes away and straighten up. Time had tarnished their brass a little, though. Their moves weren’t always crisp or in synch. But they did their best. Those guys always did their best.
And when they fired their salute at the end of the ceremony, you could see it meant something to them—and to the other vets in the crowd—something more than it meant to the rest of us back then.
They’re gone now, for the most part, but it’s Veterans Day, and wherever they are, I hope they know that, well, it means something more to me now, too.