Burying people is never fun. Take it from me, I did a lot of that work back in the '60s. It's worst of all when the guy going into the ground is a kid, 19 or so, who ran out of luck somewhere beyond Dak To. If you're on the casket team that day and hump the box from the hearse to the grave, and fold the flag that goes to the widow or the mom, you get to see the smeary face of pain and it's never pretty.
But it's a different kind of misery when the man going into the ground is a president, and the ceremony is a festival of ritual and remembering, speechifying and saluting, spread over long days and nights, and -- most miserable of all -- you're the Pfc. at the bottom of the pyramid of official grief.
So when former president Ronald Reagan's death was announced Saturday, unlike most of the rest of America, I did not think of history or politics, of then and now, of wars lost and won, of walls fallen, arguments waged, scandals flashed. No, I thought of the Pfcs. in the Old Guard, the Army's ceremonial unit. Their world had just turned intense. Even as I thought of them, they were being called in from a weekend off, back to duty at Fort Myer where they are stationed. That would be the 1st Battalion (Reinf.), 3rd Infantry (the Old Guard), my old bunch, but there are others in the city as well: at the Marine Barracks and the Washington Navy Yard and at Andrews Air Force Base, where each of the services stations its equivalent batch. At each of those places, young men were suddenly getting ready for the show.
That was me, 35 years ago, and I remember it as if it were 35 years ago. I had enough hair to shave into something called white sidewalls, which exposed my ears to the world like tiny pink mice caught in a flashlight beam. Why did they think that was so cool? Anyhow, the president being buried then was named Eisenhower. A friend, hearing I'm to re-create my part in this great event, e-mails, "What did you do in the ike funeral? were you with the horses? the flags? the drums?"
Yes, that's what people remember, the horses, the flags, the drums. Me, they don't remember, in which I can take some pride: I was supposed to be unmemorable. It was my job to be unmemorable.
I was the anonymous boy in the dress blue uniform standing at parade rest with 11 pounds of unloaded M-14 leaning against my right leg on Constitution Avenue for approximately 138 or so hours. It was March 30, 1969, a drizzly day in the 40s, damp, with that kind of slowly penetrating chill that is so bracing over minutes and so numbing over hours. The body of former president Dwight Eisenhower was carried by caisson from 16th Street (it had been moved there by hearse from Washington National Cathedral) to the Capitol, where it was to lie in state with full military honors. I was part of the full military honors aspect of the event and during each of those minutes in each of those hours, no one was supposed to notice the me part of me. I was the only one noticing me. But officially, I was a symbol of the theater of government, an extremely small cog in a giant ceremonial machine that official Washington occasionally becomes. I and my 600 or so fellow Old Guardsmen, together with men from the other ceremonial units, represented not only the respect of the military for the general and president, but also its professionalism, its honor, its institutional memory. Our pageantry had a specific point: to solemnize, dignify and ritualize the passing of a great man.
But the larger point is that none of us then, and none of the boys out there today when the weather is especially murderous, really wanted to be there. Who on Earth would? It's not fun, but then it's not supposed to be fun. It's that terrible adult thing they call duty. Ugh. Bummer.
To begin with, when something big like a state funeral happens, immediately the military's general live-and-let-live post culture transforms into something far more psychotic. It becomes a hothouse of pressure and paranoia. The Pfcs. know the sergeants will be watching, the sergeants know the junior grade officers will be watching, the juniors know the field grade officers will be watching, the field grades know the generals will be watching and the generals know the civilian bosses will be watching. The ratchets are tightened, then tightened again. Of course you know what flows downhill, and it all lands on the Pfc.
This is the part where he thinks, Why me?
And the Army explains -- oh, this is so Army -- "Shut up."
If you're a ceremonial soldier, you're already part of an anal-retentive culture of physical perfection, of detail-fetish carried to the extreme. It's a world of elbow grease, Brasso, Kiwi black shoe polish, barracks bays that look like the studio of the Bolshoi so bemirrored are the walls, so professionally narcissistic are the young men who pose and preen before those mirrors as if they were readying for the opening of "Swan Lake." Take that steam bath, then turn up the temperature a thousand degrees.
As a ceremonial soldier, your brass is bright, your tie is straight, your chin is smooth, your eyes are blank. You are inspected, inspected again, then, just for the hell of it, inspected a third time. How white are the gloves? Son, they better be whiter'n a movie star's teeth. Your face better be smooth as a baby's butt. How much Brasso you use, son. Better use it all. Damn, you have to shine out there or the old man'll have my ass, and his old man will have his ass, and his old man will and on up to the oldest old man of them all.
You sit at attention in the buses that drive you there, because we don't want any wrinkles. Maybe there's time for a last cigarette, a last stretch, but maybe there's not. Nobody cares about the individual because at moments like these there are no individuals. You just do what you're supposed to do and if you faint (it happens) or collapse in a cramp, that's the price you pay.
Then they march you out, distribute you along the roadway and then there's nothing to do but feel the slow tick of atoms through the air as the waiting begins.
What I recall about the long, long March 30 wasn't the waiting, but the waiting. I mean the waiting. You are at a posture called parade rest. It's doable. It's not a crucifixion in muscular agony. Still, to stand absolutely motionless for hours -- I guess it really was about four or five -- is exquisitely unpleasant. The feet ache, the knees ache, tingles, shoots of pain, tickles, itches, bladder pressure, all these things register on your own private radar screen. The true professional achieves Zen nothingness and time ceases to exist as a force in the universe. Your humble private first class was not so lucky. For him, time was a scuffle of tiny rat feet across his forehead that lasted through several centuries.
The worst part is the sense that just out of your peripheral vision the world is changing. It's having a blast, it's reinventing itself -- women no longer wear clothes, someone is handing out free money, love is bustin' out all over and you can't see it. You'll never see it. The weight of curiosity is far more devastating than the weight of the rifle or the cramp in your toe or the memory of a beer enjoyed what seems geologic epochs ago. You ache just to crane your tight neck two inches to the left . . . but you dasn't. Even I never did, and I was a hopeless amateur; the guys today won't, either.
Time passes, the world keeps happening. Will it ever end? No, never, ever, this is now and forever. The visor of my hat occluded my vision so that what I saw before me was about six feet of curb across Constitution Avenue as I worked through the hours against that moment when the Great Man's cortege finally passes and you can briefly come to present arms and jack some blood through your dead arms and legs.
And here's what I'm thinking, here's what gets me through the long day: It is an honor and a pleasure to serve my country in this moment of national tragedy. Oh, wait, no, that's what all the other guys were thinking and that's what I thought many years later. What I was thinking was, The girl Mouseketeer I would most like to have sex with is . . . .
I think I'd gotten all the way to Doreen when the cortege finally arrived.
So it is with Pfcs. in the U.S. Army or any other. And while most great national moments turn on the performance of the Pfcs., somehow they're never interviewed, their names are never written down, and they pass anonymously into history. This, I suppose, is no tragedy, not in the larger scheme of things.
Yet perhaps we should for just this brief unprecedented moment salute the boys who will serve by only standing today. Guys, when the buses get you back to the barracks after the long day's work, hoist a beer to yourselves. Great men come and go, but they can't be great without the Pfcs. doing the grunt work, and this is another day in history when you made that point in pure, silent eloquence.