Unusually, I am going to tell a story, rather than give reasoned arguement. This story is woven together from the death of two service folk that I knew, one who perished with his lovely wife quite recently, and one who fell in a training accident years ago. The military gets lots of practice with grief, we do it well, even if those who do it seldom are horrified at our ways. They would put the dead on pedestals, forever beyond our reach and lost to us. This makes every memory of them a wound we must carry, rather than a scar we bear. There is a difference, and no I can’t explain it to you. I can however, let the story do so. As we approach Remembrance Day, perhaps we should look at how we remember them.
You’re doing it wrong!
The funeral was over. In our ranks we gathered in uniform to stand one last time for our brother. All honour was done him, and he received our final salutes, that his community, his family know the esteem with which he was held. At the funeral were two pictures of Terry, one in full dress with his medals on, and his wedding photo.
This is the public face.
At the memorial in the bar later were two photos; one in combats, posing with rifle held casually at the ruined farm house where his patrol had held out during a long skirmish that at one point saw a T55 used as a door knocker. The second photo was him wearing his uniform, with a cheesy paper crown on his head, born aloft on a pole supported throne, he was carried by the remainder of the rifle team wearing the crown of the champion, service rifle in his right fist, and a case of beer sitting on his lap.
The old man behind the bar was a grumpy old bastard, and hardly ever spoke beyond a grunt. As the night progressed the beer flowed freely, as did spirits of more potency. The crowd grew raucous and the stories grew loud.
Tom was recounting the great kit roast of 94, when Terry decided he was too cool to take off his ruck, he was going to pull his quick release and let it drop off. The move looked pretty fly, but when the straps of ruck and webbing caught and hung, he stripped the pin off a smoke grenade that tore free and his rucksack landed on the freshly ignited blue smoke marker which quickly ignited his rucksack and all the contents of his drybag. The entire unit was laughing so hard they cried as those who were there mimed his frustrated dance in the blue smoke as his issue kit went up in flames!
The youngest waitress was furious! How could they show such disrespect to the dead? She complained bitterly to the barkeep who was watching the drunken soldiers and he smiled, turning his good eye to her long enough to wink, and pass her another tray of fresh drinks. She whispered “This isn’t respect. They are doing it wrong!”
The old man’s laughter followed her to the table
Cheryl looked over at Rita, Terry’s widow and saw the beginnings of a smile catch at the corners of her mouth and decided to add her own tale to the telling.
“I remember the night in the armoury” She began
“Don’t you dare!” squeaked Rita in protest
Roars of encouragement from the unit, some of which had heard rumours of the incident and others who had heard only that there was something, but they didn’t “Need to Know” were all that Cheryl needed to encourage her. Gesturing wildly Rita mimed shooters to the older waitress, clearly asking for some emergency protective booze. The head waitress herself grabbed a bottle of vodka and tray of shot glasses and cut through the crowd, pouring as she came. She proffered the tray as the widow snagged two and the story began.
“Well this was a month before Terry and Rita announced they were getting married. They still weren’t an official item”
A certain amount of snickering went around the table, as some secrets just don’t keep.
“We were all supposed to be sleeping out in the armoury, but Janice and I had fire picket during set up, so we dosed down in the vehicle shed rather than shine our flashlights around to find a space to set up when we came off shift. I guess Rita was going to miss Terry or something, because she managed to get past the gate guard and meet Terry for a little goodbye……in the vehicle shed!”
A chorus of oooooohhh and aaaaahhhh and a certain amount of wolf whistling went around the bar as Rita gestured madly for another protective shooter.
“We were on the far side of the Deuce and a half, so we didn’t see each other. Well Janice and I were beat, so we were out cold until SOMEBODY started getting really loud”
Rita was now hiding her face and blushing bright enough to qualify as a heat lamp.
That was when the Warrant Officer went looking for Terry to go over some questions about the Recce that came up during the O group. He stuck his head in the vehicle shed and yelled out “Mcpl Gale in here?”
To which Janice shouted back “Yes Warrant, but he’s in the middle of something!”
The warrant, unaware of who he was in the middle of yelled back “Tell him to stop fucking around and come to the office!” to which Rita replied………….”
Rita looked up at the sky and waited for what was coming next
As one, the senior half of the unit who knew and LOVED the story chanted “Can he at least finish first?”
Now the Warrant who was actually present was laughing so hard tears were streaming down his face, and the whole unit was laughing too. The senior waitress, blond hair matching the bright gold of her necklace reached over to pour a refill on Rita’s glass. Looking her straight in the eye, she asked her
“Did he finish?”
Rita looked the waitress straight in the eye and with a smile that would shame the Cheshire cat answered “Hell yes!”
The two women clicked shot glasses and shot together. The waitress touched her shoulder and said simply “You were lucky. It sounds like you found a hell of a man!”
There were still tears in Rita’s eyes, but there was laughter as well. His loss would be with her to the end of her days, but so too would the memory of the times they shared together, the good, the bad, the weird. It is all right to put the fallen upon pedestals to honour them in public, but if that is where you keep them, you are doing it wrong.
Keep the memory bright with all the parts of them that you knew. To place your dead upon a pedestal is to place them forever beyond your reach, when to remember them in all the colours of their foibles and folly is to ever have them near you. Without laughter, we cannot reach past the pain to remember them.
John T Mainer