Henry stood before the bathroom mirror tying his dark tie. He fiddled trying to get it to lay straight. Virginia would have managed it with a moment’s tug but she was gone now for many years.
Another Memorial Day Ceremony, he thought with a sigh, there had been so many. Everyone brought back so many memories, so clearly. The men he had left behind and the friends he had lost since.
His daughter that he lived with had tried to tell him that he should not go. He had not tried to explain to her that he could not stay home. He had simply put on his VFW hat and waited for Johnny.
Johnny was his grandson and had done his own tour overseas. Johnny’s war had been the first Gulf War, but of course that didn’t matter. He understood his Grandfather’s insistence. In this matter the generation difference was irrelevant.
“Are you in trouble with your Mother?” the old man asked as they got in the car.
“Probably, but she’ll get over it,” Johnny shrugged as he drove to the Veteran Memorial.
The younger man dropped Henry off at the curb near the Memorial before going to park. The old man walked straight backed to the row reserved for the older Veterans despite his cane. The other men there were his junior, from Korea and Viet Nam.
It reminded him sharply of his wife Virginia, these younger men and their wives. She had been his age and understood, joining solemnly in the ceremony. Fifty-six years had not seemed enough, but she was gone too now.
He was the last of the Veterans from World War II in town and the distinction made him sad more than proud. The men he had served with in Europe were almost all gone now.
It didn’t feel like almost seventy years since Normandy. He could see them all laughing and joking the night before. Nobody laughed in the heights above Omaha Beach or in the hedgerow country for a long time.
They had looked like old men then but weren’t. With the resilience of youth they had kept going. As probably all wars they had fought for each other, brothers in blood if not family. The hard pride of men who had faced the line felt too dearly bought.
One fire fight after another took its toll and empty places in the ranks. Replacements came and went with the cold efficiency of an army at war.
He still often thought of those men. Some as the aging friends he had known since the war and some forever the young men who never had the chance to age having fallen far from home.
He could still see most of his platoon, and all of his squad as those youngsters of 1942.
Jefferson, Giovanni, and Young lost that first day. His Corporal, Warenski, ‘Ski’ lost in the fight for Hill 400 in the Hurtgen Forest. Harris lost in a nameless firefight before they crossed the Rhine. He could even see many of the replacements that died before he had really known them. Warren and the others who came back with him had all gone before him leaving him the last man.
The Reunions after the war through the years the ranks grew thinner and thinner. Accident and disease took one after another, and in the end just age seemed enough.
Why was he the last? He often wondered in moments like the ceremony. Not through any special virtue or skill he knew. At times it made him feel guilty having outlived them all. He felt he had not done anything different from what they all had done. He had smoked with them, drank with them and had all the petty vices of men at war. But they were gone and here he sat waiting for some politician to finish his stock speech. It wasn’t fair. But then it never had been fair.
The officials added one more name. A young man from town lost in Afghanistan. It would just be another entry to many of the town citizens. But he knew the cost despite his war being seventy years ago. He felt for the family and wondered about the young man’s squad mates still in harm’s way on foreign soil.
The ceremony drew to its end on the warming morning.
He wondered what Ski would have made of this business.
“I dunno Sarge,” the Corporal would shrug, “What do these politicians and such know about what some GI goes through?”
“Watch it Ski, “Henry would have to tell him, “there are men here that know.”
“Yeah, I know,” the tough New Yorker would admit, “they’ve all been there too haven’t they?”
Everyone rose for the closing prayer, and the traditional triple volley of shots.
Then taps began played by someone out of sight, slow and plaintive. His eyes shone with unshed tears as it drew on. There was something about it that even in camp before he had been in combat that had made that tune so sad.
Now he saw old friends not the rostrum, or even the flag.
Henry was tired when the bugle faded away and sank into his seat.
“Come on, Sarge,” said Ski, patting his shoulder, “the squad is waiting. It’s time.”
Corporal Warenski was right it was time.