Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Anguish of Taps

In the spring of 1966, I was drafted into the US Army during what was referred to as the Vietnam Conflict. They never did call it a war – apparently, they didn’t want to alarm the civilians.

I did my Basic Training at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, fondly referred to as the armpit of the world. I was taught the basic Army skills, like standing in line, doing squat thrusts, cleaning toilets and obeying psychotic drill sergeants with bad breath.

After eight irritating weeks of Basic, I was stationed at Third Army Headquarters at Ft. McPherson in Atlanta, Georgia.

Ft. McPherson was a fairly pleasant place, primarily a golf course and an Officer’s Club. The office complex was occupied by throngs of senior officers, including an assortment of generals, no doubt making key decisions like deciding what color to paint the new squash courts and how many soldiers it should take to screw in a light bulb.

I had four years of college and had been a computer programmer when I was drafted so I was assigned to the Third Army Data Processing Company where I was issued a blue pencil and given the title of Data Processing Analyst. I was even given a Top Secret security clearance because I would have access to sensitive information and spent the remainder of my two-year commitment working night shift, along with a few other analysts, for a civilian employee.

My duties consisted mainly of coding certain data items on classified documents that were subsequently forwarded to another department where the coded information was then keypunched onto IBM cards. The IBM cards were then fed into a large container of vacuum tubes, laughingly referred to as a computer, which took a great deal of pleasure in consuming IBM cards and spitting them out the other end as mangled debris.

Basically, events in Vietnam had little effect on my fellow analysts and me. We just did our jobs and counted the days until we could go back into the civilian world and utilize all the wonderful skills the Army taught us.

But every now and then, we were required to perform extra duties. One such duty was funeral detail. The family of every diseased soldier is entitled to a military funeral and requests were frequent in those days.

It takes 17 soldiers to perform a military funeral. Six soldiers carry the casket, two of whom fold the flag draped over the coffin and hand it to an officer who then passes it on to a family member. Seven soldiers stand at attention off in the distance, waiting to give a 21-gun salute, along with a sergeant to give the orders. Finally, a bugler lingers nearby to play Taps, often out of sight, while the driver usually waits at the bus.

I participated in many funeral details, each one a supremely sad ordeal.

One was in a tiny family graveyard, in the middle of the woods, in the Great Smokey Mountains in Tennessee. We were the first to arrive, about half an hour early. The area was totally deserted. At first, we thought we were in the wrong place. There were often occasions where there were more soldiers performing the ceremony than people in attendance.

But soon, spectators began to trickle in.

By the time the proceedings started, there must have been over three thousand people crammed in the small clearing, all mourning the loss of one of their own. We wondered where they had all come from since we saw very few signs of civilization on the way in. Whoever we were burying would certainly be missed.

The most gut-wrenching experience took place on top of Lookout Mountain, outside of Chattanooga, in an old Civil War Cemetery. Several hundred people attended. It was an incredibly quiet day, not a breath of wind. The whole place seemed almost haunted.

The service was performed flawlessly, the flag folded and presented to the family.

As usual, I was one of the seven soldiers standing in line, waiting to give the 21-gun salute. Even though we were at least fifty yards away, we could hear a tremendous sorrow overtaking the audience. Several women began to wail uncontrollably.

We went through our paces and fired off three volleys, a 21-gun salute, then stood at attention.

After a couple of seconds of silence, the bugler started playing Taps. It was the most beautiful version I had ever heard. It sounded like it came directly from heaven. A shiver went down my spine as I tried to remain at attention.

In the background, the sound of mass anguish became overwhelming. It seemed like the entire audience had burst out crying. Some moaned loudly as if they too wanted to die.

When Taps ended, there wasn’t a dry eye on that mountaintop, including those of us putting on the show.

To this day, I can’t listen to Taps without dwelling on that moment of grief and wondering how many others like it mankind must endure before we learn to live in harmony.

War is hell.

So are conflicts.

Especially to loved ones back home.

November 11 is Veteran's Day. Take a few moments out of your life on that glorious day to stand at attention, in silence, to honor all those who died on your behalf.


Quote for the Day – "As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them." John F. Kennedy

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