Goodbye, Grunts

By Don Rollins

Like most people in my line of work, I hate officiating at funerals and memorial services. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve done weddings, gay and straight, that felt like somebody died. But, all things being equal, I’ll take marryin’ over buryin’ every time. You see, a body can get out of a nasty marriage, but once you cross over the rainbow to see Dorothy and Toto, that’s pretty much that. You ain’t got to go home but you can’t stay here.

But there are shades to hating this funeral thing. I was but a green seminary student when asked to do a memorial for stillborn twins. I was in my first parish when asked to officiate at a service for an AIDS victim, sadly, the first of many. Suicides are always tough. Car crashes. Overdoses. Yes, when Granny goes face first in the oatmeal, tears will be shed. But my colleagues who have lost church youth to gun battles and drive-bys will tell you that there are worse things than an aneurism at the senior center.

That said, there’s an exception to the rule about the Denture Cream crowd: the vanishing veterans of the Big War. We’ve been burying them for the last two decades, and now we’re just about out. This Veterans’ Day, it’s time to give them some cred.

They were gamers, the (mostly) men I’m talking about. Sure, some rode the GI Bill to management, but the ones I’m talking about were grunts – enlisted men who smoked filterless Camels and Luckys, drank more Black Label than they ought, and weren’t always the best husbands or fathers.

The vets I’m burying came home and carried lunch buckets to work. They spit and cussed as they worked on their own cars and trucks, mostly Fords and Chevys.

They were FDR Democrats and serious baseball fans. They joined the Masons and volunteered on weekends. They bowled twice a week. Some might have been happy.

But some of these fast-fading, old-school vets — from the paper-shufflers to the three-tour regulars — never got over the nightly newscasts featuring their Flower Children children getting high, taking to the streets and burning their flag. We hurt them, you know. We hurt them when we declared their world null and void. We had to do it; we had to take our shot at changing things, and, for all our naiveté, the nation is the better. But along the way, we confounded them. Then we angered them. In some cases, we even lost them.

And now we’re losing them for real. Like the son in Steve Goodman’s song, “My Old Man,” we’re gonna miss those crusty old men as they fade into the haze of history.

But, we are, ourselves, parents and grandparents now. Most of us lost sight of the dream long, long ago; we donned wing tips and designer purses, becoming for all the world the solid citizens our parents hoped. But none of that matters now. Not really. What matters now is that we lay to rest the citizen-soldiers whose hearts we had to break in order to be true to our own. With respect. With care. And, if at all possible, with love.

Rev. Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Spartanburg, S.C. Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2009

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