The guy was 16 maybe and his girl was about the same age.
They wore blue.
They walked toward the chapel. They walked slowly. It was a beautiful morning. He touched her hand. She laid her fingertips in his.
So young, so fresh. Too young for a funeral, too fresh to mourn. They came to a friend's funeral yesterday. Jon Walsh would have been 17 in two weeks. He died Monday running a routine mile and a half before football practice at Robinson High School. No one knows why. A doctor says it was most likely a heat stroke.
Only a month before, Walsh had run a mile carrying a guy on his back. You looked at Jon Walsh, you saw a powerful young man. He was 6 feet tall, 185 pounds. He was a wrestler. He was an offensive lineman. Everyone says he was a wonderful guy. "The Lord took the best first," his father said the other day.
The paper carried his picture. You could see the football player in him. The bull's neck. The strong chin. You could see, if you knew about football, the purpose in him. You could see he had made up his mind about something. He wanted to be good at what he did. You could tell. Just as you could tell at the chapel yesterday which ones were the football players.
They're the ones who stand up straight and true, like Marines. They're also the ones who have outgrown the shirts Mom bought last year. The shirts Mom buys are always too small at the neck. So they leave the top button undone. Then the guys don't pull their neckties up all the way. They pull them up twisted, and the knot is off to one side. It pops the collar out over the suit. They wear this suit once a year.
The guy in the blue suit, touching his girl friend's fingertips, might have been a wide receiver. He was tall. He was blond. Maybe next month they won't speak to each other. Young love happens a lot. This beautiful morning, they walked slowly toward the chapel. They nodded to friends, who nodded back. They didn't say anything.
So young, forever young. "Forever young . . ." the preacher would say in the chapel. "Why death? Why the death of one who was young and gifted and graceful?" The casket sat by the family. The father is a commander in the Navy, the mother a strong woman who stood in the chapel and said to her son's friends, "Don't be afraid to cry." For everything there is a season, the preacher said, a time to be born, a time to die.
The night Jon Walsh died, the television carried a show, "Quincy," in which a high school football player drops dead when a cyst breaks loose in his brain. The show damns football. It says the boy's father cared only about vicarious stardom. It says the coach cared only about winning at any cost, even the risk of a player dying.
Surely what "Quincy" says is true, for as darkness has come even from the White House, so too is there evil in a child's game. The darkness is only a tiny part of it, though.
Young men who hold their girl-friend's fingertips don't think of dying, because they have so much living to do they have no time to think it will end. And a child's game is everlastingly lovely because it brings so much life to our kids.
"Been here four times now," Ed Henry said. He stood in Arlington National Cemetery. For 31 years, he has coached high school football around here. "Two of my players were killed in Vietnam. Jon's the first one . . ." The first one to die on his practice field, the coach would have said. He stood in a cemetery and couldn't finish the sentence.
At 9:30 yesterday morning, Henry's football players piled off three school buses. By habit, they gathered around the coach, who told them they could be mad about this, they could be mad as hell it happened, they could be bitter for a long time, not understanding why someone so young, so fresh, had to die.
"Or we can go up to the chapel with class," the coach said. "And that's how we're going. With class. Okay, senior captains up front. Two at a time to the chapel. Let's go."
You find strength in these young people, the coach said. He said an old coaching buddy, now in Florida, called to say he knew Henry might be thinking of quitting. The buddy had thought of quitting when one of his players died. He thought of it until his wife asked, "Why do you coach?"
And Henry's buddy said to his wife, "Because I love it."
And the wife said, "Then if you quit, you've been living a lie for 25 years."
Ed Henry told this story and then blinked against a tear, as he had a little while earlier when the preacher, at the grave, told the people they were invited to Bob and Carol Walsh's home that afternoon "to share fond memories and happiness."
Bob Walsh sat at the graveside in his commander's uniform. His little daughter, maybe 7 years old, climbed onto his knee. She wore blue ruffles and white stockings. She said something to her daddy. He whispered in her ear. She reached back with both hands and messed up his hair. He kissed her. She is so young.