WHITEHOUSE, TEX. -- The war came home to Whitehouse yesterday with mothers weeping, with bagpipes playing "Amazing Grace" in a woeful dirge, with a chaplain telling a gymnasium filled with mourners that "this is the worst that life gets," and with six United States Marines carrying the flag-draped coffin of their fallen comrade, Lance Cpl. Daniel Byron Walker, to its resting place in the back row of a country graveyard.
Walker was only 20 when he died on Jan. 29. He was among 11 Marines killed during the first ground combat of the Persian Gulf War, when the vehicle he was in was hit by friendly fire. He is the first young man from this part of east Texas to come back from war in a coffin since the last Vietnam casualty returned in October of 1970, two months before Walker was born.
Whether he is the first of many, or the first and last, is one of the many unanswerable questions the people of Whitehouse struggled with on this brilliant but subdued winter day.
Nearly half the town's 2,172 residents came out for Walker's funeral at C.L. Nix gymnasium at Whitehouse High. There were young boys in white shirts, girls in floral print dresses, old veterans wearing American Legion hats, teachers with "We Support Our Troops" lapel buttons. Row after row of long hair and short, of white people and black, some folks who knew Daniel Walker and more who did not, most brought to tears by the indescribable pain evoked by death at an early age.
"There is something within our biological structure that screams out and says it is morally wrong for the old to outlive the young," said Marine Corps Chaplain Wayne Rhodes. "This is one of the times when God doesn't seem to make sense."
In the front row of the gymnasium sat Walker's family. His mother, Robin, who lives in Irving, wept uncontrollably. His little sister, Alicia, clutched one white rose. His grandparents, cousins, uncles, aunts and stepmother wiped their eyes with handkerchiefs as the sound system played "The Wind Beneath My Wings." His father, Bruce Walker, sat upright in his chair, his face reflecting a profound sense of loss.
Father and son had fought at times during Daniel's adolescence, but since the son joined the Marines in August 1989, the bond between them had changed from man and boy to man and man, Bruce Walker said, and now "the glory of Daniel's spirit shines like an oh-so-bright star in the darkness of my despair."
From the school gymnasium, the mourners rolled in a mile-long caravan down Farm Road 346 through the piney woods to the cemetery on the edge of Flint, the final resting place of many Walker descendants and dozens of military veterans, including three men who fought in the Civil War. An honor guard of 13 Marines dispatched from Marine Aircraft Group 41 at the Dallas Naval Air Station performed the full military service: presenting the flag, a 21-gun salute and taps sounded by Sgt. Patrick Bowie.
Dan Walker was not the golden boy of Whitehouse, never a star athlete or scholar. Not many students knew him before he dropped out of school in his junior year. He was a shy boy who lived in a tan brick house on Corey Street down near the bottom of town. He liked to stay in his room and listen to the heavy metal sounds of Poison and Motley Crue. He was short and stocky with the big, innocent eyes of a first-grader: not even the Marines could harden those eyes, the ones that glowed on the front page of newspapers two weeks ago when he was listed among the dead.
When the people of Whitehouse buried Walker yesterday, they were mourning not only the loss of one young man, but the fragility of all the young men of their community. His struggles were peculiarly his own, and he died as an individual soul, yet the trials and triumphs of his short life -- perhaps more than those of a football star or class president -- reflected life as it is really lived in the small towns of east Texas.
The military, especially the U.S. Marine Corps, is not only revered here as a symbol of patriotic glory, but also seen as a way for young men and now women to work out their personal anxieties and improve their economic positions. The Marine recruiting office up the road in Tyler is one of the 10 busiest per capita in the nation. Every year, dozens of seniors at Whitehouse High pre-enlist in the armed services.
They go with the full support of the Whitehouse community, whose heart and soul is the high school. It was at the high school stadium that thousands of townspeople gathered at midnight on the last Friday of last October for a ceremony they called "A Thousand Points of Light." As names of area soldiers serving in the Persian Gulf were called over a loudspeaker in the press box, students stood in rows on the playing field. With every name, another candle was lit, until a thousand candles flickered in the smoky darkness.
After that ceremony, teachers at Whitehouse High began an "Adopt a Hero" program where every class at school adopted an area soldier, providing a steady supply of letters and cookies. On the Friday night of Jan. 18, two nights after the war started, the high school gym -- the same one where Dan Walker's flag-draped coffin stood yesterday -- became the site of another patriotic display. Members of the Whitehouse Wildcats basketball team raced onto the court waving small American flags, then stood somberly holding them aloft as the band played the national anthem.
The Whitehouse Wildcats beat rival Athens that night, and 16-year-old junior Jeff Holley was among the leading scorers. It was his last good night. He was Dan Walker's best friend.
They lived in the same neighborhood during their childhood and teenage years, and were inseparable despite the four-year age difference. The day Holley moved to town at age 7, Walker knocked on his door and asked him to play. They spent countless hours shooting hoops at a basket that faced the street near the corner of Corey and Stacy, and playing tackle football in the Walker's yard.
Last night, on the eve of the funeral, Jeff Holley sat alone in the bleachers of the high school gym, looking down at the rows of purple seats that would be filled with mourners. On his left wrist he wore a red, white and blue bracelet. In ballpoint pen, bead by bead, he had etched the name Dan Walker on it. He had done that in early January, a few weeks before he learned that his best friend died.
"It all happened so quickly," he said. "I think about us shooting baskets in the street. It was like yesterday. Now he's dead. You can go so quickly; I guess you need to get the most out of life. But if Daniel was going to die, this is the only way I'd want him to die -- fighting for his friends, his family, his town, his country."
When the funeral was over in the gym this afternoon, Jeff Holley and his mother joined the long caravan to the cemetery in Flint, graveyard of so many soldiers, old and young. The casket holding his buddy disappeared into the ground amid the grave sites of Dr. G.M. Walker and Wilma Walker and Charles Walker and Martha Sue Walker and Barbara Walker. Daniel's grave was closest to the back fence, under an old oak tree whose dead gray branches creaked slightly in the soft wind.