Honor Guards and Toothpicks
“A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing”. - George Bernard Shaw
I smiled the moment I saw them. Scattered around the funeral home were little white ceramic containers filled with toothpicks…yes, toothpicks. Of all the funerals I’ve attended, I’ve never seen toothpicks in any of them and probably with good reason. Except this funeral called for them…almost begged for them.
When you met my father-in-law Jim, you were sure to meet him with a toothpick in his mouth, working on it like it was alive and he had to tame it. So it was fitting that my sister-in-law placed several of these little honor guards in key places, ready to offer a small tribute to Dad to whoever so chose.
My sons did, along with their cousins, who considered Jim a father figure having lost their own dad many years ago. (BTW Guess who was the first person on the scene the tragic night their dad died? Yep, you guessed it, Jim was.) So here was this group of young men, proudly marching around the funeral home with toothpicks securely in their mouths knowing Jim would laughingly approve of the salute. It was quite a sight…Yes…I had one wrestling in my mouth also.
Friday night at the wake, an honor guard of fireman (around 20) came to honor Jim, a fellow volunteer fireman who served as chief and even Chaplin for the Valhalla Fire Company #1. Their dress uniforms matched the one Dad wore in the coffin as did the honor they shared as public servants. Crisp salutes and a prayer by the current Chaplin would set the stage for the next day; this honor guard would give way to another.
Jim’s final resting spot would be in the Orange County Veterans Cemetery in Goshen, NY, in an area called Hero’s Way. Dad served in the Navy during Korean Conflict on the USS Lake Champlain and this day the Navy would honor him. The Naval Honor Guard, 4 young sailors, would march, salute, play taps and fold an American flag in a simple moving ceremony which reduced most to tears. Another salute…more honors to share…the paying for respects now over.
Or is it?
I started to write this post not quite sure where I was heading with it. I was reading my father-in-law’s obituary today and had a thought. An obituary is a small post note of a larger story, memories contain the larger tale. I see the effect of Jim’s story on my children, each one taking a step of maturity during this season of sorrow. The memories of their grandfather will help shape many decisions going forward and guarding honor will be part of their journey.
After the funeral I went back to the funeral home with two of my sons to pick up the family belongings. In the middle of the large room was a chair with Dad’s Fire Chief Hat; in it was all the medals he was awarded during his time of service. (The funeral director removed them from Dad’s uniform prior to burial). Here were the remaining symbols of Jim’s honor I thought, gathered in a small velvet bag in his hat. It seemed trivial and small for it to be sitting on a fold up chair in an empty room, when it called out for a pedestal and spot lights. Then I remembered the man behind the honor…the man who didn’t like fanfare, who served because it was the right thing to do.
I picked up the hat, grabbed a toothpick and left…with a huge smile on my face.