“ALVIN! THAT’S CRAZY!” Thelma Monroe collapsed in a kitchen chair and put her head in her hands. Her proud, beautiful frame seemed to shrink in terror.
Her husband pulled a chair next to her and hugged her.
“Darling. That man is the reason I am here today, and that Tony has a father!”
“I know, but –” she circled the bottom of the obituary with her finger. “That’s a white church in the West End. They won’t let you in.”
“I have to try. And I have an idea.”
“I’m going down to Chuck’s Canteen to put the word out. Cookie will see that the right men come with me.”
“Your pals from the war? What good would that do?”
“Trust me, Thelma. Some blood is thicker than hatred. Trust me.”
“Oh, Alvin. Please don’t come back from the war just to die at home.”
“I won’t, dearest. I won’t.”
“Commander Norwood, sir. It’s Peter Hale.”
“Pete! Good to hear from you. Where are you?”
“Pete, call me Mike. We’re both commanders now. I hope you’re not paying for this call. I’m on the West Coast.”
“Thanks, Mike, and, yes, I am. I think it’s important.”
“Jason Lockhart died. It was in the obituaries in the Virginian-Pilot this morning.”
“When is the funeral?” Pete told him. They rang off quickly. Long-distance phone calls could dent even a Navy commander’s budget.
Mike Norwood went to the kitchen. Margery was just starting breakfast…
“It’s General Puller, sir.” The lieutenant answering the phone spoke in hushed tones, never having ever expected in his life to hear the voice of the living legend.
His boss rose and picked up the receiver, unconsciously standing at attention…
In the Embassy of France on Reservoir Avenue in Georgetown, the direct line rang in the ambassador’s office. The conversation was in French. The caller was the consul in Richmond, Virginia.
“Jason Lockhart has died. His funeral is next week.”
“No one knows. He turned ill a week after returning from the Congo.”
“Mon Dieu! That was only six months ago. I never knew.”
“I think I should attend. He—”
“Georges, give my secretary the details. And order a floral arrangement from the Republic of France. I will drive down Friday.”
“Very well, Excellency. Please be our guest.” …
“Hello, sergeant, how are you?” Matthew Arnold smiled as he approached the cash register in the diner across from the Broad Street Station.
The owner of the diner gaped, then stood at attention.
“Colonel Ardwood! What can I get you?” They shook hands and held the gesture until the urge to cry passed.
“How many of the 27th do you know around here?”
“I’d say maybe a half-dozen, sir. There’s not many of us left, you know, but we meet at the VFW every month.” Most of Matthew’s unit was wiped out at the Battle of Guadalcanal.
Matthew saw the Richmond Times lying on the counter. “Have you checked the obituaries today?”
“Not yet, sir.”
“My son-in-law is in there. Read between the lines, and you might want to join us at the funeral. And if there are any veterans of Operation Torch or Anzio at the VFW, you might want to let them know.” …
“Joe, you don’t have to go. You can stay here with Mrs. Paterno.”
Nancy hugged her six-year-old son for the third time since dawn, when they had both awoken from nightmares.
“No, Mommy. I want to go. I’ll try not to cry.”
Nancy took him by the shoulders, and held him out so they were staring into each other’s eyes. Tears ran down their cheeks.
“It’s okay to cry. In fact, I don’t want you to hold back. I will cry, too. This is not a time to be tough.”
“But Daddy never cries.”
“Yes, he did, dear. We soaked each other’s shoulders many times, before and after you were born.”
“Really. But you might want to cry quietly. Just let the tears flow and breathe normally. Do you think you can do that?”
Joe thought for a moment, then nodded solemnly. He reached out, gave his mother a hug, and stood back. He took a tissue from her dressing table, and wiped his eyes.
“Where is everyone else?”
“Uncle Frank and Aunt Carrie are downstairs with Grandmaman. Grandpa went to the church. He’ll be back before the limousine gets here. Then we’ll all go together.”
Meanwhile in Charlottesville, a dozen Army soldiers lined up to board the bus to Richmond. The driver thought they looked a little old, but they held themselves proudly. Their chests each boasted no less then three rows of ribbons. A veteran himself, the driver recognized the Purple Heart on every man.
Without a word, they moved to the back of the bus, until the bus was three-quarters full of Negroes, with four empty rows up front.
Patrick O’Grady had been an usher at Saint Mary’s ever since coming back from the war. It was comfortable. It was home. It was safe: from the Protestant kids who had bullied him in school, from the dark-skinned kids who lived on the other side of Richmond, from a wide range of strangers and enemies. He had survived two years in Europe by shooting faster than anyone who moved, and the reflexes had never completely left him.
Coming up the street, Patrick saw a double column of men in uniform, marching toward the church. Most were Black, in Army and Marine uniforms. A Navy commander. A Marine general.
His first reaction was to move forward to bar the Negroes from the church. The general looked him squarely in the eye, as if daring him.
For the first time in his life, Patrick O’Grady backed down. He stood back, handing service bulletins to the men as they passed him. When they had filed into the church, Patrick stood in the door.
The military men filed to the right, down the side of the church, and filled in the pews. Patrick saw the officers take the last pew, except for the Navy commander, who sat in the next to last pew. There seemed to be no order to the others. What the hell? he thought.
He waved at an altar boy lighting the candles, then sent him to the sacristy to get Father McMahon.
“What is it, Patrick?”, said the priest. The usher pointed to the right side of the church. The priest said, “oh, yes. I’m sorry we did not get the word out, but I only found out yesterday. Relax.”
“But Father —”
“I said relax, Patrick. I’ve prayed for something like this for years. Too bad it has to be at Doctor Lockhart’s funeral.” The priest patted him on the shoulder, and walked over to the last pew. He spoke a few words in the ear of the general, then returned to the sacristy.
Patrick saw the stretch limousine coming from the West End. The men from the funeral home were already at the curb, ready to open the doors. He only knew Nancy and little Joe, so he was surprised when an Army colonel and an elegant woman also got out of the car. The woman could only be Nancy’s mother, the colonel her father. No wonder “little” Joe was already as tall as a third-grader.
The other couple had to be Jason’s brother and sister-in-law. The man was not an older version of Jason, but close enough.
The family went into the church, where they were met by more funeral home people and escorted to the front pews. The general exchanged a nod with Matt Arnold as they walked by.
As they passed the casket draped with an American flag, Joe reached up and ran his hand along its shiny surface. Then he kissed his hand the way he had seen pilgrims do in Europe two years before. The last time his father had taken them on holiday before he took ill.
The organist moved from background music to the prelude, an organ arrangement of the “Air” from the Orchestral Suite Number Three by J.S. Bach, familiar to most as Air on a G-string.
The congregation rose when the liturgical procession began from the back of the church. The sudden, single motion of three dozen men rising to attention caused many parishioners to glance to the right.
After a pause while the altar boys deployed to their positions, the priest began, “Requiem aeternam dona eius…”
Father McMahon’s homily lasted less than five minutes, then he invited Frank Lockhart to deliver a eulogy. Frank broke down after two paragraphs, and looked through his tears at his wife, and then to the rows of soldiers, sailors and Marines to his left.
“Please, sir,” Frank choked, looking to the back of the church. The general was already standing. He moved to the lectern, and embraced the grieving brother. While Frank went back to his pew, the officer turned to the lectern. A few gasps among the congregation signaled belated recognition.
He did not take out any notes. In a deep voice that carried easily to the back wall, he said,
“‘Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord: Lord, hear my voice.’
“We heard these words of the psalm a few minutes ago, and I have heard them more times than I want to remember.” He paused, letting his words reverberate.
“But if there is any proof that God answers prayers, and that He does so through the hands of His servants, it is in this church today.” He nodded to Matthew in the front row, then extended his hand to his left.
“Almost every man in uniform here was pulled from the brink by the man whose life we honor today. Hundreds more, in war and peace, owe their lives to Jason Joseph Lockhart, in North Africa, in Korea, in Equatorial Africa, and here in Richmond.
“And while his death leaves a hole in our lives, let us fill that hole with the love and devotion that he showed us in bringing us back from the deep.”
With that, he turned sharply to the center of the stairs and returned to the rear pew.
© 2021, JT Hine
(Author’s note: my short stories are fiction. To my knowledge, General Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller never attended the funeral of my character or uttered the words I give him here, but I like to think he would have. In war and in peace, medical personnel are front-line heroes.)