“Relax … we’re just folding a flag.”
Mooch spoke quietly over my shoulder to calm what was obviously becoming another loss of concentration, another moment, given the matter at hand.
But we were not just folding a flag.
We finished another improving, but still sloppy, repertoire of handling the colors, and I stepped into a windowed corner of the empty banquet room at the hotel to collect myself. Once again.
We reconvened over a flag-draped folding table and took our positions, once again. We started from the top and, with quiet corrections from Mooch and Wilson, went through the entire procedure, once again. It was another improvement. Less sloppy, becoming more refined, more deliberate. More purposeful.
It would be perfect. None of us would have it any other way. We would be up all night, if necessary, to hone, refine, sharpen until muscle memory responded to almost inaudible commands.
And perfect. Tomorrow was the day.
Mooch is an integral part of the process. A born leader, his recent retirement from the Marine Corps as a gunnery sergeant epitomized his level of dedication and devotion to not only our country and its valued traditions and history, but, equally important, to the bond of brotherhood that we all shared.
Several hours and now-darkened windows later, our refinement was complete, our movements sharp. We went through the process perhaps a hundred times, and while we may not make the cut for duty at Arlington, we had it perfect.
The detail was dismissed, only to gather again in the banquet room. Several of us sat in scattered chairs, while the rest of us sat on the floor along the walls. Almost everyone retrieved a beverage from his room, under the strict admonishment from both Mooch and Wilson to not “get shitty,” lest we lose our edge for tomorrow.
Wilson’s career in the sheriff’s department led to his participation with, and eventual command of, the Honor Guard for the department, a job he takes seriously. There is no margin of error in his eyes, which pierce your soul until … you do it correctly. Perfectly. Period.
We told our favorite stories of John Primerano—and remembered the stories he told endlessly, if ever once, yet we never grew tired of them. We had gathered around him and listened to his tales as if it were the first time we had ever heard them. This night, gathered to pay respects, we looked up YouTube videos of him various people had shared and toasted him with a bottle of scotch that made its ever-waning journey around our circle.
We missed him but were better people for having known him. We felt cocky about the way he accepted us as his own comrades now lost to time, a view he shared with us often. As mere reenactors of what he had actually experienced during his service in World War II, we felt there was no higher compliment. It was one of the main reasons I turned my love of history and quest for brotherhood toward our group.
No, we did not just fold a flag—at least, I didn’t.
Some years ago, I found him on the other end of my telephone line nearly in tears. He spoke of the birthday card I had sent. In it, I explained how weary I had grown at the misuse of the word “hero.” What constitutes a hero? Why should your hero be my hero? How, at the zenith of vulgarity, could a children’s program so grossly abuse the sacred word “hero” by referring to … a babysitter? I wrote that my interest in history had never been grounded in the stories of tactics and maneuvers, equipment and developments, or of the famed generals who led the common soldier into the breach and almost certain death.
The soldiers themselves were my heroes.
In that card, I told John he was my personal hero. His shaking response: No one had ever said that to him before, followed by the soldier’s admonition that he, like all his comrades in arms, merely performed his job.
I did not just fold a flag.
I folded the flag my hero served under. The flag he pledged his life to protect, the flag that represented everything he stood for.
The flag that would drape his casket tomorrow.
The sun rose as we pinned the last of our decorations on our best uniforms and checked the shine on our boots. John was always a stickler for shiny boots. Ties were straightened, gig lines were checked.
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As the morning progressed, we all stood watch at John’s casket, relieved smartly by the next sentinel. Mooch delivered a eulogy of John’s accomplishments that sent a gasp through those in attendance, followed by blessings delivered by our padre, who John seemed programmed to call “Father Sam.” With emotions on the rise, Padre Steve related the story of how John accepted communion for the first time since the war only a few years ago. Feelings spilled over for the large audience gathered, every one of them touched deeply by John’s presence both throughout their lives and now in these moments.
Casket closing brought a flood of memorial accoutrement: a pair of wings, a challenge coin, a photo.
We left quickly, to be in formation to receive John at the cemetery. Everything was in place. Everything we worked so hard to accomplish. Everything that would send John off with the grandest of fanfare. So engrossed in our own work, the casket detail was in awe of the array before us.
The Color Guard. The rifle detail. The bugler.
Then muscle memory, led by quiet, almost inaudible commands. But this time, we did not carry a flag-draped folding table.
We carried John. Our friend. My hero. Draped in his flag.
When he uttered the words in the banquet room—Relax … We’re just folding a flag—I knew Mooch tried to distract my own remorse to refocus attention on our mission. It was always mission first. I have encountered few mission-oriented men who embody their jobs as Mooch does. So much so that the change of command ceremony he organized for our unit was one of the most emotionally charged nights I have ever experienced: an atmosphere of pure brotherhood, a blood oath of love and camaraderie.
An entire barracks of grown-ass men in tears as Mooch told us, sometimes with quivering breath, of his own hero. How the recent loss of his hero overwhelmed him. The guidon was presented with more tears. An earth-shattering regimental toast and the torch was passed to Wilson.
We snapped the flag taut over John’s casket. A final prayer. We stared unflinchingly to the man opposite. We heard nothing but silence when the first volley cracked the morning air. Then the second. And third.
What came next would mean certain doom for me. There would be no conceivable way I could prevent tears welling in my eyes. The bugler raised the instrument of my inevitable demise to his lips and began to sound Taps.
“Relax … we’re just folding a flag.”
Chad and I locked into a stony gaze across from each other, thoughtless but for the attention to John’s final muster call.
The last note of Taps drew out.
A gentle yank on the corner from Chad told us it was time to complete our mission. Fold one. Snap taut. Another gentle tug. Fold two. Snap taut.
As the man at John’s right foot, it was my job to perform the remaining eleven folds into knife-like creases and tuck the fly. Chad cradled the colors while my eyes moved about its edges for any appearance of red, just as Wilson trained us. When the inspection was complete, I stared directly into Chad’s eyes, signifying my approval, just as Wilson trained us. Chad handed the flag off to me to be passed up to Mooch, just as Wilson trained us. Mooch saluted it, received it, and presented it to John’s grieving family.
“On behalf of a grateful nation …”
Some months later, I hoisted the colors at my own home for Memorial Day. It was an interment flag I had rescued from a thrift shop, cast aside thoughtlessly by an uncaring family or oblivious movers. I have several, acquired by those unfortunate circumstances, and I always fly them on Memorial Day. Mostly because they are not just flags.
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When I returned to the basement, I folded my daily colors to keep until the next day, when Memorial Day would end. I burst into tears so violently and immediately that I shocked myself.
Then I realized …
It was the first flag I had folded since John’s.