The crisp white uniforms glowed against a backdrop of trees flush with the brilliant green only seen in spring. I could hear the chirp of birds as the breeze, still tinged with coolness, rustled the nearby trees. Mother Nature was working her magic of revival one more time. In contrast, the finality of death and endings was all around me as I stood amidst the gray granite markers of a cemetery. Beginnings and endings. Birth and death. New and old. The lesson was never more clear…life is full of circles…if you wait long enough, the circle will eventually close.
This day would mark the closure of a circle for my family after seventy-five long years.
I was here today to say good-bye to a young man I never knew. He’d grown up just down the road from where I now stood. As I watched the red, white and blue draped coffin emerge into the arms of young sailors, faded photographs flitted through my mind, like the pages turning in a book. Images of a tall, lanky young man, with wavy hair and incredibly long arms, stares back at the camera with a lopsided grin. Surrounded by his sister and best friend, he looks like he is ready to take on the world. The idea of beginnings and endings plays through my mind again as I realize his sister and best friend are here today too…each buried under a granite marker. Neither alive to witness his return home.
Seven guns are raised against the stark blue sky in unison. Bam! Bam! Bam! Three rounds are fired in rapid susession. A twenty-one gun salute, signaling eternal rest for a fallen warrior. Honor. Duty. Country. Ira Novis “Buck” Slaton, my great uncle…..a warrior who was just a young man doing his duty. A young man who died violently on a ship a world away from everything and everyone he knew. Losing the opportunity to meet his nieces and nephews gathered here today or the chance to have children of his own. Losing, not only his life, but his identity for over seventy years. Leaving a gaping wound in the heart of a family that would last lifetimes.
The faint smell of gunpowder drifts across the cemetery as the lonesome sounds of a bugle permeate the silence. Twenty-four mournful notes express the gratitude of a nation. As they play, I look at the faces of those standing around me and realize only one of the dozens of people here today even knew Buck in life. His last remaining sibling slowly makes his way to a graveside seat, leaning heavily on a walker – eight years old when Buck died, he is now in his eighties. In a moment, that realization floods me with emotion as I am reminded of my grandmother who missed this day, passing away a few years ago. How she would have relished being here to see her big brother finally come home.
All I know about Buck came from my grandmother and the scrapbook of old memories she left behind. A Purple Heart certificate. Sympathy cards. Letters from the Navy with only scattered bits of information. Responses to pleas for some kind of closure….a return of his personal effects, a military tombstone, a folded flag…anything that would make Buck’s death real, tangible. In the end, nothing. No closure. No answers. No marker. No closure for a family broken by loss. Meanwhile, a world away, in the Philippines, Buck rested in a grave marked “unknown but to God.” He would rest there for over seven decades.
I’m brought back to the present by silence. Only the sound of singing birds and rustling trees can be heard as the flag that covered Buck’s remains is carefully folded. After all these years, closure has finally come, but unfortunately his heartbroken parents aren’t here to witness it. Nor are six of his seven siblings, including my grandmother. As the Navy Chaplain respectfully hands the folded flag to Buck’s sole remaining sibling, I remember the others. His sister Boots, with her cheeky laugh and ready smile. Brothers Billy and Bruce…both tall and lanky like their brother, one a lifelong military man and the other with a reserved, but uncanny sense of humor. Fannie, the oldest sister with a sharp mind, even when she was in her nineties. Corine, the sister who moved away. And finally, Sue, my grandmother – the one I knew best and miss the most…Buck’s baby sister, who, along with the others, never forgot him.
As the coffin slowly lowers, Buck’s granite marker comes into view. Sitting on top of an empty grave for three quarters of a century, it was put there by his parents. Like all grave markers it indicates the facts of Buck’s life – his birth, his death, his service on the USS Colorado, but it is the etching at the bottom that is most telling. “Altho he sleeps, his memory doth live.” No truer words were ever uttered. This reminds me of a story my grandmother often told about Buck. There was nothing he liked better than milk and bread. I imagine him now, bounding into the old farmhouse just down the road. Hot and tired from a long day working the fields, he settles down at the table, reaching for a pone of leftover cornbread. He grabs a piece and crumbles it into a bowl, covering it with milk. “I reckon this is good enough for the President,” he says to his mother as he gobbles down the remainder.
In the end, so was he.
All photos by Heather Bean.