The first thing that hits you are the flags.
Midwestern towns don't have suburbs. You'll be driving past corn fields, sometimes beans or wheat, then *click* just like that you are in a town. Today, the second you enter the town, there are the flags. From tiny ones to a mammoth one flying from the extended boom of the fire company's ladder truck, they are everywhere. Some people have planted rows of small flags on the edge of the lots, others are on poles. Some have flags hanging from buildings. There are dozens of hand lettered signs,too.
Turning North, the flags become even more numerous. One Church has so many large flags out front it's hard to see the building itself. A bit further along, though is the church where you need to go. You can tell by the ranks of white cars lined up. More flags there. Parking is difficult unless you go down a side street.
The long walkway to the doors of the church have ranks of men and women positioned almost shoulder to shoulder. Each has a flag, snapping in the brisk wind. These people wear leathers, most have designs on the back. Patriot Guard Riders or Legion Riders the lettering says. You pause, almost afraid to walk that gauntlet, it seems almost sacrilegious. But they wave you in and you walk past calling your thanks to them for what they are doing, what they are standing for. You can't say it to each one, your voice keeps choking.
You enter and a woman asks you to sign the register. She tells you there is no more room on the main floor, you'll have to climb to the balcony. You notice the long, flag-draped shape on a sort of a wheeled cart. You look at poster boards filled with pictures. Then you climb the steps and find one of the few remaining seats.
You stand when they ask you to, you sit when requested. You answer the responsive readings, helping the lady next to you decipher the Green Book since she is obviously unfamiliar with the Lutheran services. You sing, and you sing your very best to try to honor the occasion. Then it's over and it's time to join the procession.
This time it's the people that you notice. The flags are still there, of course. In fact, they have multiplied, because people are holding more of them. In fact, they are almost a continuous line, sometimes a few in a group, sometimes many ranks deep. Many, if not most, hold flags. They range in age from babies to stooped, old people. They line the entire route of the procession. Surely some have come from other places, this place isn't that big, is it? One person holding a sign say "Thank you Ben", makes your eyes burn.
Then the long, long line of cars reaches the cool, green shady place. It's obviously old for the trees are mature. It's a very pretty place, on a nice rolling piece of ground that slopes down toward a small valley. You park where they point and get out and join the throng. After a while, the flag-draped shape emerges from the car, borne by young men with studied stiff-lipped seriousness. Some words, seven rifles fire three times each, then the lost and lonely sounding bugle.
Then it's over, and you drive home.
His name is SPC. Benjamin James Slaven and he was 22 years old.
© Gaius Arbo, 2006. All rights reserved.