~ Riceland Meadows ~

Old Soldiers
by Ralph Rice

A monotone voice drifting on the warm breeze speaks of freedom and sacrifice, death and honor, men and time gone by. A lawn mower drones in the distance. Restless children play on the courthouse lawn while parents struggle to control them. Both sides of the street are lined with people reflecting, mourning, and celebrating Memorial Day.

Children in the marching band shift from foot to foot and fidget with their instruments. Horses stamp their feet and nod impatiently, waiting for the parade to start. We are lined up next to a group from the VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars]. My team will follow these men in the parade. Our cargo is a local Boy Scout troop, the boys now whispering to each other as they quietly wait for the grand event to begin.

The color guard posts onto the courthouse lawn and gathers at the flagpole to raise the colors. The band plays the "Star Spangled Banner" and a lump forms in my throat. World War II vets raise their rifles to fire a 21-gun salute, and goosebumps run over my body.

A lone bugler sounds the plaintive strain of taps. Looking proudly at our flag, I place my hand over my heart and am thankful for the men who died that I might live free. A second bugler echoes the taps and a hush falls over the crowd. Even the children are silent.

Out of the corner of my eye I see a man standing as straight as his old body will allow. His right hand, swollen and bruised with painful arthritis, snaps to his brow to salute Old Glory. A single tear rolls down his weathered cheek when two veterans place a wreath at the memorial on the town's square. The old soldier's tears flow freely, as do mine, as he remembers friends and sons of friends, and I witness his.

The high stepping band marches off, signaling the start of the parade with a rousing rendition of "She's a Grand Old Flag." I gather my lines and check my precious cargo, then take one last look at the old man. His hand is back at his side and a smile creases his face as he marches down the street. Today he is young. He is a soldier. He is proud. He and the other vets wave, and the crowd acknowledges with cheers of grateful appreciation.

My team steps off behind the honored veterans. I am thankful for my freedoms and this day. I am proud to have served my country. I am grateful to have cried with this unknown soldier, as we both pay tribute to so many for giving us so much.

Ralph Rice's column "Reflections" appears regularly in Rural Heritage. This column appeared in the Spring 2004 issue.

22 January 2005