First posted in 2007, my annual tribute and reminder.
On Sundays, for over three years after my separation, I walked about a quarter of mile down the street to a Christian Church, in part because I liked the preacher, the son of an Army chaplain. And I liked the church itself. It was stranger-friendly. It was a rotunda, and the sanctuary was designed like an amphitheater, holding maybe 250. The back rows, the “sun pews” underneath stained glass windows, were called Bachelors Corner, although there were no corners in that church, and none of the men assembled there were bachelors…except me, sort of.
There were usually eight or ten of those men, widowers, and mostly vets from WWII, then still in their late 60s, early 70′s. As I got to know them I learned they usually came thirty minutes or so early and would swap stories under the sun glass, while Sunday school in the adjacent building was still in session. So that became my habit, as well. There was one fellow especially, Bill, who was probably the best story teller I’d ever heard. A smallish man, he retired an Army major in the 1960s. And he was from “back home”, east Kentucky. His national guard unit was called up en masse in 1942, and trained at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. Bill said he was promoted to corporal his first day in camp as he was one of only a few who could read. After camp they were sent, as a unit, to the Aleutians to fight Japanese. After some months they split the unit up and Bill was commissioned, and went to Italy, then onto Germany.
All those fellow’s stories were of camp life or slogging through mud, sleeping in water-filled fox holes, and the like. Bill Mauldin kind of stories. Cartoons almost. Never of fighting. And it was as a storyteller that Bill was at his best. He had pards named Lester, Abner, Mose and the like. His tale of Abner getting his first store-bought haircut outside Camp Shelby, and trying to teach him the etiquette of how to pay for it (“always carry nickels, Ab, never give ‘em a quarter and have to ask for change”…Abner wasn’t too good on his sums and takeaways”) was as funny a story I’d heard since Ring Lardner.
My first Memorial Day Sunday at that church I learned it had its own rites associated with that solemn day. The minister would come in, say an opening prayer, then ask the congregation to turn to page such and such and then come back to the sun pews and sit among the bachelors. The rest of the congregation stood the whole time. They went through the panoply of patriotic songs in the hymnal, “God Bless America”, “My Country Tis of Thee”, “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. For my life, even now, I still can’t get through the first stanza of “America the Beautiful” thinking about those men. I just can’t squeeze the words out. And then there’s the old Crusader hymn “Fairest Lord Jesus”? Oh, my.
And the bachelors would just sit and quietly weep, as bespoke their sense of dignity, their heads bowed, remembering lost comrades; Mose, who stepped on a mine, Abner who took a bullet through the head hunkered down right next to Bill, and others who went down at Leyte or Saipan or Anzio. In the congregation, one by one a few men would turn, veterans I expect, still with families, some my age, Vietnam, Korea, and come back and sit and weep and console these old fellows. Some brought their sons and their grandsons, so they could get some sense of this sacred rite, as well, and to show them how grown men cry.
For the better part of an hour this went on, then the preacher got up, wiped his eyes, blew his nose and mounted the pulpit, said a prayer and everyone left. He didn’t even pass the plate. Next week, 10:30 sharp, the bachelors were back in their corner, swapping stories.
I participated in this rite three times. Of course, those old fellow are gone, now. But I look down at my shoes and realize I’m nearly their age myself. I’m no longer a bachelor, but I hope in that church, and thousands more around the country, this Sunday and every Memorial Day Sunday, congregations will pause and consider all of those men sitting on the back pews, or anywhere else, or alone, especially, but all of us who served. And most of all I pray mothers will still send their men and sons back to those back rows to comfort those men and to learn from them.
In recent years memorial Day simply means an extra day off, and a trip to the beach or the lake, plenty of hot dogs and hamburgers and don’t forget to lay in an extra case of beer. But the recent VA scandal reminds us (I go to the VA hospital regularly) to tell you that those worn out old coots now my age, who used to shag and glide to Jefferson Airplane and Smoky Robinson back in the day, are now being pushed down the corridor in a wheelchair, pulling on an oxygen tube. And since 2003, millions more men and women have passed through the system, and many have never seen anything like what I just reported on Memorial Day, when it used to be Sunday only.
In these times it may be the only true commemoration we’ll get for some years to come. Find some way to remember them this Sunday.