From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

The Cub Scout

It was a typical small-town Remembrance Day. While the majority of residents were enjoying a long weekend at the shore, perhaps a hundred of us gathered in Westmont, New Jersey, to listen to speeches by local politicians and watch aging veterans honor fallen comrades.

I had been dragooned into the VFW rifle squad. We stood sweltering in the sun while the speeches dragged on and wreaths were laid. There were six of us: three World War II vets in khaki, two present-day soldiers in Army green who happened to be husband and wife, and I in dark trousers, white shirt and an old Marine utility cap. All we needed was Norman Rockwell to paint the scene.

The squad commander was an Army vet who crisply snapped out orders. Of course, World War II was a while ago, so he was winging it on some commands. He ordered “Turn about” instead of “About face,” for example, which hurt our parade-ground precision a bit. And as such small-town ceremonies often are, it managed to be both comic and touching.

I’m a sharp critic of rifle squads, but our three volleys weren’t bad, considering we had never practiced. While kids scrambled to pick up the empty shells, we turned in the old M-1 Garands and thought about getting a cold beer at the post before heading home for the obligatory barbecue.

Drinking my beer, I found the funny-sad ceremony had put a lump in my throat. It brought back clear memories of the last time I served on a rifle squad honoring our dead, over thirty years ago.

It was in the spring of 1965, and Vietnam was heating up. I had been a young Marine private first class, full of “hot sand and ginger” in Kipling’s words, working my way through a yearlong electronics school at the Marine Corps recruit depot in San Diego. My best buddy, Ron “Count” Pittenger, and I had already gone to our commander and volunteered for the infantry in Vietnam.

We didn’t know we were volunteering for a war the politicians would have neither the will to win nor the will to end. Television pictures the ’60s generation as longhaired hippies preaching “flower power,” smoking pot and protesting a terrible war. Rarely do you hear that tens of thousands of kids from that generation believed in America, believed communism was a great evil and volunteered to fight in that war.

Lucky for us, our commander decided we should be studying electronics rather than carrying a rifle through a rice paddy. The skipper thanked us and sent us back to our duties. Vietnam would wait. I think we were equal parts disappointed and relieved.

A few weeks later, we had another chance to volunteer. We were between schools, and while waiting for classes to form, we were assigned various unpleasant duties. One morning, the company gunnery sergeant asked for volunteers for burial duty. I grabbed Count’s arm and dragged him forward. We reported an hour later to the sergeant in charge.

I’d like to tell you we were motivated by a deep desire to honor the dead. The truth is, I was desperate to avoid another round of long hours walloping pots in the chow hall, where my most memorable accomplishment was cracking 120 dozen eggs for the cooks one morning. And I’d heard that burial detail was “skating” duty.

That’s how the Count and I participated in over one hundred funerals in the next month. We worked at the national cemetery at Point Loma, California. It was easy duty, especially for the rifle squad. The big guys were assigned to be body bearers, carrying heavy coffins. All we had to do was stand straight, look sharp and fire three tight volleys from our seven rifles.

Most of the funerals were for old veterans, guys who had served in the First or Second World War. Often there was no one to see them off but the funeral director, the minister and us, rendering last honors on behalf of the nation.

When you’re in ten or fifteen funerals a day, it quickly becomes routine. Of course, we took it seriously—we were Marines—giving every vet our sharpest effort. But we quickly stopped feeling sad. You can’t grieve endlessly for strangers.

Then we buried the Cub Scout’s dad.

We were told to look sharp because the next funeral was for a Marine who’d been killed in Vietnam. With the family was a Marine staff sergeant, most likely a buddy, assigned to help. The large crowd of mourners included the young widow and the son of the dead Marine, a Cub Scout in full uniform. He was perhaps eight years old.

When we fired our volleys, the seven rifles making a single crack, people in the crowd began to cry. The rifle fire always seemed to signal how final death was. Then we stood at present arms while our bugler played “Taps.” He was a lance corporal permanently assigned to Point Loma, and he had blown “Taps” at several hundred funerals. No one has ever made it sound sadder.

While the bugle notes rolled down the hillside and the family grieved, the staff sergeant and the Cub Scout stood at the foot of the casket at rigid attention, saluting the tautly stretched flag. The tall Marine in dress greens stood motionless, his eyes fixed straight ahead. The small boy in blue gave his dad the Cub salute—the first two fingers of his right hand close together, just touching his eyebrows.

As they saluted, the boy turned his head slightly and looked up at the Marine. Then he quickly extended the other two fingers of his right hand as he turned his head back to gaze once more at the flag-draped casket. The young Cub Scout was now giving a perfect, open-handed Marine salute to his fallen Marine dad, honoring him as a soldier honors a soldier.

We held our position, but I wasn’t the only Marine weeping openly. Finally “Taps” ended, the notes dying out over the sobbing of relatives. The body bearers folded the flag into the traditional triangle and passed it to the staff sergeant. He presented it to the Cub Scout and saluted. The boy accepted the American flag from his dad’s grave and sharply returned the salute—in the open-handed Marine style. The mantle had been passed.

Slowly the family and friends drifted away, and we marched off. Another funeral was waiting.

Robert A. Hall

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