My sincere intentions were to continue with the “My Brother” series this week but, as fate and life would designate, I instead found myself sitting in a chapel attending the farewell service of someone of whose family I lived directly across the street when I arrived in California. Our family connections have crisscrossed over the decades and the neighbors we were became the family we are. That simple reflection caused me to tumble back into the decades and brought to mind another memorial service almost 60 years past.
This recounting is of a shadowy but persistent memory which had followed me like a specter in a dream who always stood sentry but was forever just out of reach. From 1962 until July 2017 I battled with myself wondering whether I was chasing a dream or memory. It was truly as if all of the participants of this particular memory conspired with my dreams to keep me from forgetting. It had become so pervasive that I was often surprised when I would awake without having dreamed that same dream.
Fifty-five years of guarding an uncertain retrospection had taken its toll so, it was in July 2017 when I sought to find the truth of the matter, to find whether my memory was of a fact or just a hauntingly beautiful dream, No one had ever spoken of the event in my presence and although I didn’t doubt the details of my memory/dream, I wasn’t certain if the event had actually occurred or if it was a conglomeration of someone else’s spoken recollection that I had somehow adopted as a memory of my own. It was at the end this time period when a dear and precious cousin provided me the framework on which to hang one of the most beautiful tapestries, sewn together by my memory and which had fought ferociously against Time to prevent it from being ripped apart at the seams.
October 1962: Wiergate High School’s gymnasium seemed overwhelmingly large and quite literally filled to the rafters. There was a slight autumnal chill in the air, but most of it had more to do with the occasion than the weather. The bleachers were completely filled on both sides of the gymnasium and row after row of folded chairs had been patterned neatly across the highly waxed and polished basketball floor, where generally no one wearing anything other than Tennies or Basketball shoes were allowed.
I felt as though we were attending a funeral of a family member, but if so, it was no one of whom I knew personally, therefore the only pain I felt at the loss of the deceased was felt because of the pain I saw on the faces of those I did know. I recognized one person immediately as we entered the gymnasium and that person was the Head Cook in our school’s cafeteria, she was also my grandmother’s niece. As their eyes met, the pain on her face had reflected upon Mother’s face. In fact, every face in that great crowd had a solemnity which surpassed that which was shown upon the faces at other funerals I had attended. However, being only seven or so did not allow for much expertise in matters of obsequies.
I have absolutely no recall of the actual ceremony, i.e., what songs were sung, which scriptures were read, or what eulogy was offered, all of that to me, have been lost to modern-day antiquity. My memory seemed capable of reserving space only for the final viewing and for what came later. As the program portion of the funeral ended and as the mortuary attendants approached the flag draped casket, audible but quiet weeping spread like a wave from the front rows of seats to the back.
As best as I can remember, Mother and I had been seated a few rows further back than center. We stood and followed an usher’s direction when It was our row’s turn to fall in line behind the row immediately in back of ours and we marched a slow progression toward the final viewing of the decedent. Person after person shuffled along wordlessly, unashamedly wiping tears from their slightly bowed heads and it became more than apparent to this seven-year-old, that whoever occupied this coffin, was deeply loved.
Shockingly, I discovered there were a few people in attendance who showed no emotions at all! They wore looks of complete detachment and serious concentration. They stood tall, erect and wore amazingly impressive uniforms. I had become totally absorbed by their mode of dress and deportment. They were a master study in dignity and self-assuredness; they stood in sharp contrast to the people in line with slightly bowed heads. These men who stood with their heads held high and their shoulders squared had just planted fresh seeds of hero worship deep within my core. They, with their crisp, fresh pressed uniforms had more than my respect, they had me! There and then was born my infatuation of men in uniforms! It didn’t matter if it was Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine, Coast Guard or City Trash Collectors…sharply creased, starched and ironed uniforms were my new standards of manhood.
Because I was the shortest person in line, I couldn’t see what was taking place directly in front of us, but I was completely willing and content to keep staring at the handsome uniformed men standing at attention near the foot of the coffin to my right.
Approaching the funeral dais was usually a frightening, knees-knocking prospect for me, one that I would not have undertaken unless I was being pulled along or pushed ahead by firm adult hands. This time though, there was something propelling me which had nothing to do with guiding hands. This was different, curiosity had replaced my fear because there, just in front of me stood a sealed glass coffin. The heart-rending cries of anguish were all but banished from my hearing as I beheld something of which I had thought existed only in fairytale books, Snow White specifically. It was almost exactly as I had envisioned when my sister first read the story to me. The sparkling beauty of the casket contrasted achingly against the still, quiet form lying inside. Wildly rampant floods of emotions washed over me; I had so many questions I wanted to ask immediately, but I knew not to behave in any manner which would have drawn attention away from the family and upon myself. Mother would not have looked kindly at such a show of disrespect, so I closed my mouth and willed my mind to accept and hold onto each new occurrence.
I was fascinated by the scene now directly in front of me, I wanted so desperately to reach out and touch the glass box, to make sure that it was real and that it wouldn’t disappear as Snow White’s did when my sister closed her book. But again, two unmovable forces prevented me from touching the glass: the distance everyone was wordlessly warned to keep as we momentarily paused to pay our respect and the unyielding force of nature, I called Mother. Since I was not allowed to touch the glass my attention was turned to the person inside. A man, also in uniform, a white uniform. WHO WAS HE? I looked up at Mother hoping to maybe whisper my question to her, but I saw an unstaunched flow of tears and knew instinctively not to speak, so I tucked away my question for a better time, of which, as it happened, never arrived. As we followed the slow but orderly processional out of the gymnasium, I picked up snippets of conversations being held all around us but nothing that led to the identity of the soldier in the glass casket. I heard but did not see who had made a comment that the young man had been lost at sea. I quickly discounted that comment because how could he have been lost if he was lying just inside? But the words, “lost young man” made an impression upon me. I added those words to the list of other things I wanted to ask Mother later.
At the Shankleville Community Cemetery, some five miles or so away, the “Lost Young Man” was to be laid to rest. This answered one of my questions, he was indeed family because only family members were allowed to be buried there, at least that was the case at that time.
There seemed to be even more soldiers in attendance here than I’d seen at the school. Perhaps, they were all in the gymnasium and my height disadvantage had shuttered them from my view, but here now they all stood together. I counted 8 unmoving, unwavering and completely focused servicemen.
Mother and I had been in a latter position in the funeral procession from the school to the cemetery and therefore were among some of the last to enter. The graveside service had already begun, and Mother and I had necessarily stood near the back of the crowd. The incessant buzzing that attends a crowd was suddenly hushed when someone at the front of the crowd yelled a command. Although, I had been gratefully holding onto Mother’s hand since we exited the car in which we rode, at the sound of that command, I wiggled my fingers free from her grip and bolted toward the outermost edge of the crowd to my right! I knew there would be a price to pay later but I was compelled to find a spot from which I could see what was happening up front.
I reached a spot near the East facing fence and found that I had an unobstructed view of the action taking place. Just as I arrived, a second command of “Honor Guard, Attention” was given by a soldier standing slightly apart and to the left of the seven others and for the first time I noticed that they were not all wearing the same type of uniforms. I didn’t know what all the different uniforms represented but two of them matched the uniform worn by “the Lost Young Man,” Sailors, that much at least, I was certain. Despite the difference in their uniforms, they all exhibited the same deportment. At the utterance of the next command, “Stand by-Ready,” there was an in unison clicking of rifles, (no self-respecting Texan would call these weapons, guns). The next command given was “Ready” and was executed by each of the soldiers removing his weapon from the safety position. The “Aim” command had them bringing up the butt of their rifles to their shoulders so that the handgrip rested in the palm of their left hand and their right hands grasping the small of the stock with their fingers entering the trigger guard. My unguarded mind immediately noticed that they were all right-handed and wondered off point, as to whether a left-handed person would have been excluded from this particular ceremony.
My wayward thought was riveted back to what was happening when the next command given was “Fire!” all weapons were discharged in ear-splitting unison and they stood awaiting for the next command which followed almost instantly on the heels of the first order to Fire and then the final command to Fire! The last command to “Present Arms,” caused the group as one, to place their rifles with both hands vertically in front of their body, holding the muzzle upward and the trigger side facing forward.
The ceremony was stunningly poignant, and my mind captured and held unto every minuscule detail. I watched as one of them, the one who had given the commands, approached my Grandmother’s seated niece but was too far away to hear what was being said or what exactly was being done. I still didn’t know her connection to the “Lost Young Man.” I made my way back to Mother’s side and suddenly another command was issued, and it seemed that command was taken as the dismissal call for all who were in attendance.
Even though I had rejoined Mother, my attention was still riveted on the men in uniforms. They were the most gorgeous, perfect (in my limited experience) depiction of manhood I could have ever hoped to witness. If clothing made the man, these men were well-made indeed! As I stood drinking in all that was in front of me, staring openly and unapologetically from one serviceman to another, one of them walked toward Mother and I and STOPPED! He squatted down to my level and taking his still gloved hand, cupped my chin, lifted my face and told me how pretty he thought I was. I was struck completely speechless and hopelessly in love! No one had ever told me that I was pretty. I’d been told my shoes were pretty, my dress was pretty and aw hell, even that my sister was pretty – but never had I been told that I was. I didn’t know if I believed him or just adored him, whatever the case, he was intricately and forever linked to my soul, my heart and my memory and in that moment, he became “My Soldier.” He was also irrevocably linked to the “Lost Young Man.” After he stood upright again and left my immediate space, I tried to filter out all sounds except his voice, but I heard another soldier ask him where he was headed next and My Soldier answered, “D.C.” I had no idea where or what D.C. was but what I did now know, was that I wanted to go here too! In that moment I made a childish but sincere vow that one day I would go to wherever or whatever that D.C. was, and I would find My Soldier. My world which had expanded to include this soldier mere moments before had just as suddenly deflated as he walked away. I was crushed but yet, still hopeful.
Five short years later, my own mother would find rest in the same red clay as the “Lost Young Man.” No military honor guard saluted her passing and I was whisked almost 1800 miles away, in the opposite direction of the travels of My Soldier.
I had moved far away from the foundation of my memories and no longer lived amongst people who had shared my day to day memories and therefore could not help bolster or prevent my recollections from becoming milky and doubtful. After so many years, this particular memory was definitely headed toward the land of uncertainty and would have taken root and stayed there had it not been for the advent of Facebook and a Friend request from a distant yet direct family member.
It was an early afternoon in Mid-July in 2017 when the remnant of a recurring dream fought its way to the forefront of my consciousness. It was an especially slow Thursday afternoon so; I took advantage of the lag time and of Facebook and sent my Cousin a message similar to the following:
Hello Cousin…I hope you can help me because there is no one left to whom I can turn. I have a vivid memory of someone who I believe to be a relative of ours, yours and mine. A young man who was either killed or died at sea. My memory is that he was a sailor who drowned. I don’t know if he was a son, grandson or nephew to Cousin Elouise. I was very young, but Mother took me to the funeral which was held in the Gym at Wiergate High and I would swear but can’t be positive that he was buried in Shankleville. Can you please help me fill in the missing parts?
The young sailor’s name was Willie Lee Bryant. Yes, my Grandmother’s Elouise Bryant’s son. Your memory is perfect because the military funeral was held at Wiergate High School and he was in a glass casket. He is buried in Shankleville next to my grandmother and grandfather. He drowned while serving in the Navy at a very young age, trying to protect his ship. What made you ask of him? No one ever ask me about my mom’s brother. I hope this helps you. Love you Cousin. Beverly.
What followed was a conversation that took place over several hours. No one, not even Beverly could have understood the momentousness of her confirmation. What had been an uneasy, uncertain echo was given new voice and meaning. What I had begun to suspect was simply a persistent nightmare had become a beautiful fulfilled recollection. I could not have been more grateful. Everything could have simply ended there and I would have been completely satisfied, but my dear cousin, Beverly J. King-Perkins, went one step further and there in front of me, on my laptop screen appeared a face that I had never known but recognized instantly. What I didn’t tell Beverly then but will reveal now, is just how very much my eldest grandson, (whose Father and Mom both served in the Navy), resembles her Uncle and my Cousin Willie.
I was beyond excited that after decades of referring to him as such, I needed no longer refer to him as “the Lost Young Man.” Here now I will repeat something which has more meaning to me than it could have ever had otherwise and it is something of which I’d heard uttered many times, by our elders: “Blood will out! Blood will always out.”
Cousin Willie, it is so very lovely to have finally met you. Thank you for not allowing me to forget you or the circumstances that brought you to me. I have to admit to you Willie that I have not yet made it to D.C. nor have I ever again met “My Soldier,” but Wille, because I have aged well beyond the years you were allowed to age, because I have been blessed with recollections which have proven to be pure, innocent and detail accurate and mostly because I would now be considered grandmotherly to most young soldiers serving today, I am able to look at every young man in a military uniform and think of them all as “My Soldiers.” I adore each of them. Thank you for those precious gifts Cousin and now continue to rest easy, (I have, ever since your niece Beverly revealed your name to me. You no longer occupy my dreams but you are now and will remain a part of each one of my waking moments). Good night sweet Sailor, Good night. HOOYAH!!!!!!!
One thought on “My Soldier”
Great article. Your memory is amazing. I think of my uncle often, and I always remember sitting outside the school during recess crying as I reflected on the bad news my grandparents had received from the Military Chaplain and other accompanying service member. One of my teachers came out and asked me what was wrong, after telling her my uncle drowned while serving in the Navy, she sat with me for a while. During this grievous time I was about 6 yrs old. Thank you for authoring Uncle Willie’s funeral service. It was a sad time for our family.
Brenda Gail King- Small
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