“It’s a major award…”

No leg lamps here. Instead, I present my original story that won the grand prize in Highfield Press’s Autumn 2015 contest. Here is “Connection”…

The crack of the first volley chases tiny black birds from the treetops. Squirrels scurry toward those places where squirrels tend to hide. I too jump, even though I knew it was coming. I just didn’t know when. But now, at least, I know where they are in the service. Notable words of commendation have already been spoken. The flag folded and presented. It’s all very ceremonious and dignified. My grandfather would have been proud.

The second round of gunshots echoes the first. Seconds later, the third and final volley sounds and reluctantly fades. One last brass button on my wool overcoat, and I turn toward the source.

The sound of autumn beneath my highly-polished shoes fills the void as I amble through the cemetery. Pleasant as it might be, the familiar crunching of dry leaves being returned to the soil isn’t my focus. The opening notes of Taps beckons me to make an appearance. The solemn bugling billows up from just over the next hill, bringing with it my pride. As I make my way passed row after row of granite headstones, I know I’m late. I’ve almost missed the ceremony entirely. But for reasons that are solely mine, I’m in no hurry to join the show already in progress. My spiritless gait reflects my motivation, or lack thereof. It can’t be feigned.

“They’re playing your song, Grandpa Joe.” I’m on the fence about whether he can hear me. But I don’t yet want to give in to doubt, so I speak the words as if he were walking broadside. Our connection had always been strong, but circumstances have never been as they are now, and I’m not sure where it stands.

Take away the stone markers, clumps of dried flowers and miniature American flags poking up from the ground like patriotic dandelions, and the cemetery would look very much like the property where we used to hunt upland game. When I was younger, pheasants were my grandfather’s nemesis, and the weather on the best days was just like this. The air crisp. The sky filled with shades of orange against a blue backdrop as trees let go of their summer green.

“You know, Josh,” he would sometimes say as we hiked the hills and valleys, shotguns cradled in the nooks of our arms, “you don’t have to follow in my footsteps. There are safer places than the Corps to hang your hat.”

Even now, as the familiar words are replayed, my mind remains unchanged. There was no other path for me. I was always going to follow in his footsteps whether he wanted me to or not. I was not going to be deterred. Not then, and not now.

The final note of Taps fades out over the valley. When it’s gone, the crinkling of leaves takes up the soundtrack to my stroll. I imagine the pastor offering the final prayer, wanting to send folks away with hope in their hearts instead of despair, but he’s still out of earshot. My plan is to get there just in time to see everyone, but not a moment sooner. Relatives not seen for years will have come from several states away. Hugs will be doled out like charity pamphlets as everyone rises from the rows of chairs setup uniformly beside the coffin. Respects will be paid. It won’t be long before the tears will be drying up and tissues tucked away for the next occasion warranting a dry eye.

A large maroon canvas emerges beyond the crest of the hill. My pace slows even more, and the next breath I take is edged with resolution. The tent’s shadow comes into view, and within it, the crowd is clad in blacks and dark greys. All familiar faces, solemn, yet staunch. My aunt Gweneth is there with her teenage girls. They’ve gotten so big. It’s good to see my father’s cousin, Richard, and I wish the circumstances were different. Even my grandfather’s younger brother, Bill, who’s been confined to a wheelchair since a grain silo accident in ’98, has made the trip. My parents are in a corner, huddled in quiet conversation with the pastor.

Five men dressed in various military regalia stand with their rifles against their chests. My attention is drawn to them, and I recognize two from my grandfather’s VFW post. I think another man is from the recruiting center in the strip mall beside the bookstore downtown. Ironically, he’s the one that recruited me, as if I needed recruiting. The faces of the other two men look vaguely familiar, but their names escape me.

I make my way toward the crowd.

No one stops me as I approach the tent. No one even notices, and it’s a strange sensation. I move through the crowd until I reach the foot of the casket, its glossy finish a steel blue, its handles polished silver. It’s a casket worthy of a decorated Marine back from Afghanistan, early and against his will. My grandfather would be proud.

My enlistment photo, where I’m seated full of determination in front of Old Glory, my cover a brilliant white and my navy blue jacket tightly pressed, sits propped on an easel beside the coffin. It’s a larger version of the one gracing my parents’ mantel, perched beside the encased flag from my grandfather’s funeral. I suppose a second wood and glass triangle will be joining it soon.

My eyes trail to the headstone marking the grave beside mine. Five years of wind, rain and snow have softened the slab’s rough edges, smoothed its finish. Seeing my grandfather’s name etched in the formidable stone brings out a modest smile. It’s when a hand comes to rest on my shoulder that a wave of relief cleanses me. I feel his touch for the first time in years, and I know everything’s going to be okay. The connection is still there.

 

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This story is dedicated to the bravery, sacrifice and memory of LCPL Joshua B. McDaniels. Rest in peace, soldier. Your work is done.

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