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Flag-draped coffins
The Body Escort
by Robert Golling, Jr.

Down the street," the mortician said in a voice at once firm and soft. "On the left, here, just a minute," he continued as he turned the car so he could park in front of the house. The trees on either side of the street had grown so large they touched each other to make a canopy over the street. The houses, too, had been there a long time. Tidy places that many families had lived in and loved since the 1920s and 1930s. The Raffertys' house stood farther back on the lot with a well-worn lawn on either side of an unadorned, straight cement walkway leading to the front door. The house was painted dark gray with white window trim. The roof stood tall and sloped steeply toward the street. Looking up, I noticed two dormers indicating upstairs bedrooms.

"This is the family's home," I concluded, half demanding that the last twenty-four hours be over, and half realizing that whatever was going to happen next was going to be harder than anything I had ever done before.

"Oh yes," said the mortician, seeming to understand that I needed reassurance. "Yes, I've been to their house before."

The mortician had picked us up, the casket and me, at Logan International Airport and transported us back to the deceased's hometown, forty-five minutes from Boston. He had verified, much to my relief, the identity of the body in the casket, the body I had been ordered to escort home, the body I had been ordered not to lose. After taking the casket to the mortuary, we were now at the dead boy's home.

I straightened my white hat and started up the walk. Images of a band of kids (boys mostly) playing football and baseball on the front lawn flashed across my mind. Was this the lawn of my youth, or was this the lawn right in front of me? They seemed remarkably the same. At the front step, purple hydrangeas flanked the small porch. The mortician knocked and the door opened slowly, but immediately. I stood split, half of myself playing football on the front lawn without a care in the world, the other half in front of this strange house that seemed so familiar.

"Hello, hello, come in, please," said a smallish man, maybe five feet six inches in height, compact, no extra weight. As he shook my hand, I noticed the muscles and the calluses on his palm. This man, I thought, knows how to work. He was past middle age, maybe the grandfather. "I'm Michael's father," he said. "Call me Pat."

I removed my white hat as we entered the house. Off the small entry to the right was a parlor with half a dozen people in it. I stood slightly at attention and introduced myself, holding my white hat just in front of my belly, like a shield. In turn the people introduced themselves. Two of Michael's aunts sat on a sofa with crocheted doilies draped protectively across each arm; his oldest uncle was in the recliner; another gentleman and a lady were sitting in folding chairs close to a glass-topped coffee table. Remnants of a buffet-type luncheon littered the table's surface, coffee cups with saucers, plates with sandwich crumbs and potato salad leftovers, and a candy dish with little pastel mints.

Another lady, younger than the others but still older than me, stood in the middle of the room clearing the things from lunch. They looked like my own family, my own aunts wearing their flowered dresses draped over large soft bosoms and smelling of body powder.

I was about to sit down when yet another lady walked into the room. Pat Rafferty introduced his wife, Dorothy. In her late forties, she was large, but next to her husband, she seemed shorter and even stouter, and complemented his leanness. They were obviously a pair. Her dark hair with a soft glow of gray at the temples swept back to a large loose bun in the back. A slight redness only enhanced the brightness of her dark brown eyes.

"Thank you, Bob," she said.

"Ma'am?" I questioned.

"Thank you for bringing my son home," she said as she gave me a hug. It was a hug that lingered in lavender even after she'd sat down across the room.

"Bob, do you like pastries?" she asked.

"Yes, ma'am," I said. Though hungry, I hadn't thought of pastries, but how could I say no?

She was up immediately and into the kitchen, returning with a dinner plate loaded with an Italian whipped-cream pastry.

"Here you are, Bob. Michael so loved these," she said.

We sat, and between mouthfuls of the richest pastry I'd ever eaten, I tried to explain how it was that it was I who had brought their relative home. "Yesterday morning I was cleaning out this barrack at N.T.C. Treasure Island, and the master at arms came by looking for a Roman Catholic. 'I'm Roman Catholic,' I said. Now I'm here." I didn't tell them about the anxiety I'd had about catching the plane, the worry that I'd had about losing the casket, the terror I'd felt about having the wrong body in the casket. We were here; they didn't need to know the rest.

"Michael was a good boy," his mother said. "He was thinking of making the Navy a career. What about you, Bob, is the Navy your career?"

I'd never thought about any career, let alone the Navy. It seemed strange to me that Mrs. Rafferty asked about my career while she was about to bury her son.

"I don't know," I said. "I was in college for a year after high school."

"Michael tried a semester at UConn, but it wasn't really for him. He was so restless," she said.

"Yes, ma'am." I thought I knew what she meant. Things were happening in the world, Viet Nam was happening. "There is the GI Bill. I could go back to college after the Navy." I paused and remembered that her son couldn't take advantage of the GI Bill.

"Yes, Bob," she said wistfully, "Yes." And was quiet.

"Bob," his father said, "have you ever tried fried oysters?"

"No, sir," I said.

"Oh, you've got to try our local oysters and chips."

"Sure," I said, needing a change of scene. "One thing though: I need to find a place to stay."

"He'll stay here, now, won't he, Dot?" he said, speaking to his wife.

"I won't have it any other way. Please stay here with us tonight, Bob." She reached out and put her hand on my arm.

"Yes, ma'am." I smiled.

Leading me upstairs, Pat showed me his son's room. "Put your bag in here, Bob. Have you brought civvies? I'll wait for you downstairs then."

I changed quickly into a sport shirt and khaki slacks. Except for my short hair and spit-shined dress shoes, I looked just like a civilian. On the way out of the room, I looked back. My uniform was folded and neatly placed on the end of the bed, Michael's bed. I closed the door. Meeting Pat at the bottom of the stairs, I followed him out through the parlor. He led me outside and down the front walk. Walking quickly, he said, "Ugh, I'm glad to get out of there. How about you?" "Oh, I don't know," I said helplessly.

"You're doing fine, Bob, just be yourself. You sure gave us a jolt though, when you came up the walk. You looked so much like Michael coming home. Even the way you walk."

"I, I'm sorry, sir."

"No, no, don't worry about it. It's not your fault. Let's go find those oysters."

We continued walking down the street on a sidewalk that looked as aged as the one in front of my grandmother's house in Oakland, California.

Pat told me all about his family. How he and his wife were older when they married and were able to have only three children: a son, a daughter, and their youngest, Michael. As he said "our youngest, Michael," a kind of a gulp or gasp lurched up his throat; his eyes welled up with tears. He shook his head as if to say, No, no, I'm OK, it'll be all right in a moment, but no other words came out. We walked on. It seemed so strange at the time; Pat had been the gracious host back at the house. He had made sure that I was introduced to everyone, calling on his daughter for more tea and refilling everyone's cup. Warmly, almost cheerfully, he engaged in any conversation that seemed to lag. But here, away from his family, alone with me, a stranger, he was all choked up. Finally he said, "I'll be all right in a minute."

I doubted that he'd be all right in only a minute. After a little while he did regain his voice. Soon, we approached a frayed and worn-looking 1950s red-and-white hamburger stand. No more than half a dozen cars could park in front, so it could barely qualify as a drive-in. One car in the lot looked like it had been parked there since the '50s. Inside, stand-up tables lined the front windows; the order and pickup counter faced front. All was neat and clean with well-ordered bottles of catsup, mustard, vinegar, salt, pepper, and napkins awaiting our attention.

"Bob, you've gotta try the fried oysters."

"Yes, sir, I will," I said, not knowing how I would swallow anything I'd put in my mouth. "I'll have a Coke, sir," I choked out, as Pat ordered for us. I found a couple of stools at the front window counter. Pat joined me a minute later.

We gazed out the window. "You may not believe this, but Michael and I didn't always agree."

"Yes, sir." I did know. My father didn't want me to join the Navy, but I wanted to see the world.

"I always thought he joined to get away from me," Pat said and sipped his coffee. "I think I was too hard on him. I wanted so much for him." Then after a long moment he said, "Now it doesn't matter."

Looking at his face I could see little muscle movements ripple and tighten around his mouth and eyes. His eyes glistened and closed, holding back the tears. Then our order of fried oysters and chips arrived.

Pat loved his fried oysters and was anxious that I too would like them. In all truth, I had to admit, "They're the best I've ever had."

"Ah, Bob, they're the only ones you've ever had."

"Yes, sir. That's true thanks to you, but I do like them." They tasted just like French fries.

We ate looking out of the window. The traffic on the street moved, starting and stopping, with a life of its own. The late-afternoon sun flashed off chrome and glass, dancing across the scene in front of us. The breeze kicked up dust, leaves, and old newspapers. The Frank Sinatra song "September" started to play on the jukebox. Pat and I swallowed in unison though we hadn't been chewing anything at that particular time. Pat was afloat in a sea of sadness, and I was on the shoreline with no lifeline to throw him. We sat without saying anything for a good minute. It seemed like an hour. Then I put my hand on his shoulder, and the corners of his mouth tried to make a smile, well, sort of.

"Ah, Bob, go on with ya," he said with a lilt in his voice. "Finish your oysters."

After we had finished eating, we walked back the way we had come. The evening sun lingered among the clouds and lit up the leaves of early autumn. The air was cooler now and felt good on my skin. Pat took a loud, deep breath. It didn't seem like either of us wanted to go back to the house. We seemed to be in a bubble of mixed feelings. I was not sure what I was supposed to do.

Pat Rafferty knew all too well what was going to happen in the next two days. He surely had buried other people-parents, friends from the war, perhaps a neighbor. He knew the steps to take. These would be the last ones he would take for his little boy this side of the burial. Later, in the years to come, he would go with his wife on the appropriate anniversaries and whenever she wanted to leave flowers and small gifts. But his true memorial to his son would be private. In his remaining years he would keep his son's headstone clean and polished. He would do this on his own, in his own way. He did not know this at the time, nor did I. I did not know this until my own sons came of age to go off to war and not come home alive. It was just there in front of us.

The last of the day's light flickered through the trees surrounding the house. As we approached the walk to his house, Pat stepped back and let me go forward, just as I stepped to the side. We laughed and walked up together, half on, half off the cement walk.

At the front step Pat reached for the front door with his right hand and very naturally reached his left around my shoulder and guided me into his home. Inside, the ladies of the family, Mrs. Rafferty, her sister, and Michael's sister, sat quietly, as at the end of a story. They seemed to be waiting for a new story.

"Bob, tell us about yourself," Michael's aunt requested.

"Well," I sighed, "I have an older sister," looking at Michael's sister, "and four younger brothers. I did have a younger sister, but she only lived a few days. She never came home from the hospital. No, I never learned what caused her death. We just never talked about her. At least I don't remember anything about it."

"You're Catholic, Bob?"

"Yes, ma'am, eight years of Catholic school, and I was even an altar boy."

"So was Michael," Mrs. Rafferty said.

They told me stories of their family and the things their kids had done.

"Michael and the neighbor kids would play football on the front lawn every Saturday afternoon this time of year," his mother recounted.

Then I would tell a story that somewhat matched, and on and on we talked. I didn't want it to end because the next step I had to make loomed so dark and huge in my mind that I couldn't approach it. The clock on the mantel kept ticking. Finally Mr. and Mrs. Rafferty got up.

"Well, we have a lot to do tomorrow," they said simultaneously.

"Bob, I'll show you where the bathroom is."

"Yes, sir, I found it this afternoon."

Boom, just like that my next step was there in front of me, a step on the edge of a cliff. I had to take it to get to the end of my journey.

"Good night, sir, good night, ma'am," I said at the foot of the steps. The stairs were dark. Halfway up Pat remembered, "I'll get the light for you, Bob." Light from the top of the stairs, too bright, lit the hallway and the stairs. Two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs, I remembered where I'd left my overnight bag and opened the door. Slowly, with a creaking, the door swung in. I turned on the bedroom light. The room before me was much like one I would have liked to have had myself. Old furniture (hand-me-downs?), windows facing the street, bedstead with matching chair in the corner, and a chest of five drawers next to the closet. Bedspread with cowboy motif-horses, hats, and branding iron-smoothly tucked in.

The nightstand with a lamp was next to the lone twin bed. Next to the door on the right as I walked in was an old wooden box with the implements of boyhood carelessly awaiting their master. Baseball glove, tattered baseballs, tennis balls, a football, and a basketball, well used, still full of dirt and dried sweat. Maybe some nephew or niece would borrow them for some future game, but not now, not for a while.

My black overnight bag and uniform sat on the end of the bed. I grabbed my toothbrush and retreated to the bathroom, taking as long as I could. Returning to the bedroom I faced that step again. What was I going to do? The rest of the house was beginning to quiet, but I was perfectly awake. Could I read in bed till I fell asleep? In bed! In Michael's bed! That is the next step. How long had he been gone from this room? He'd been overseas nine or ten months; I think they had said he had been on leave just a short time before that.

It didn't matter. It was still his room. Now I was here walking up his walk, eating his Italian pastries and fried oysters, turning down his crisp, clean, and cool sheets. I took off my civvies and hung them on the back of the chair. Standing there in skivvies, I felt the night coolness press on every square inch of exposed skin. I stood without moving for three or four minutes; it felt like hours. Goose bumps rose all over me and I shivered.

OK, I thought, I can't stand here all night. I turned off the light. The street lamplight jumped in through the window, casting a cold edge on all the objects in the room. I looked around at each and every thing without thinking. Each in turn said nothing but waited for some careless touch of its owner. Atop the chest of drawers, a comb and brush still with hair, his daily missal, Catholic prayer book that looked just like mine, a baseball autographed by Ted Williams, ticket stubs.

Quietly, quickly, a peek in each drawer saw socks, underwear, and cigar boxes of childhood treasures. The bottom drawer held sweaters and a shoebox of baseball cards. To the left was a stack of comics. Should I look deeper beyond MAD? Nah, I thought. The PLAYBOYS would be in the closet, beneath something his mother wouldn't touch. I returned all the drawers to their original positions. I'd only touched with my eyes ever so slightly. A guest will look, will look to find the familiar, he will try to be at home. But still I felt strange. I couldn't put my finger on it. I can barely see it now, thirty-nine years later. It was like seeing a life that was not my life, but was my life. His life cut short, while mine was still in front of me. Michael was at rest, and I must sleep, too. Could I sleep in the chair? No! Slowly, I pulled back the covers further. I turned and sat slowly, very slowly. Trying not to disturb the sheets, I lay back, tucked my legs beneath the sheets. The sheets now cold around me, more goose bumps, alone, cold, I closed my eyes, not moving. I too, lay at rest. Sleep would come sometime.

< Previous: Shattered Dreams

Reprinted from VETERANS OF WAR, VETERANS OF PEACE, © 2006. Reprinted with permission of Koa Books.

References and Reading:
For nearly fifteen years under Maxine Hong Kingston's guidance, members of the Veterans Writing Group have told, written, and rewritten their stories. Many of the works have been collected in VETERANS OF WAR, VETERANS OF PEACE. Read excerpts from the book online.

THE AMERICAN NOVEL: Maxine Hong Kingston
Profile of Maxine Hong Kingston from PBS' 2007 series THE AMERICAN NOVEL. The Web site contains an extensive interactive timeline of works from 1826 to today.

Related Media:
WATCH Maxine Hong Kingston from WORLD OF IDEAS: Watch Bill Moyers' 1990 interview with Maxine Hong Kingston from the WORLD OF IDEAS series. Kingston and Moyers discuss Kingston's works THE WOMAN WARRIOR, CHINA MEN and TRIPMASTER MONKEY as well as her work with veterans.

In 2003, on NOW with Bill Moyers, Bill Moyers spoke with poet Susan Sontag about her experiences with war.

Published May 25, 2007

Also This Week:

Bill Moyers sits down with Chinese-American author Maxine Hong Kingston to discuss poetry, war and the transformative power of stories.

Read excerpts of writings collected from Maxine Hong Kingston's workshops with veterans and their families.

Learn about how to contribute to a national veterans archive project, view information about veterans' benefits, rights and programs in your area, and visit veteran-related program pages from other PBS shows.

D-Day Vets. This special edition of Bill Moyers Journal features D-Day veterans in the poignant D-Day Revisited, which explores the sometimes painful memories of their wartime experiences.

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