They Shall Not Grow Old As We That Are Left Grow Old*
by Linda B.
This year, the sky is blue and clear. The autumn air is crisp in the dawning day, not like the cold, wet morning of last year. Only the brave-hearted ventured out last year to be subjected to cold, wet misery. That day everyone soldiered on.
The sea of elderly faces parades along the crowd-lined street. Children, restrained safely behind striped wooden barricades, wave red, white and blue flags clutched in small fists. Their parents do the same, smiling, cheering even louder and waving frantically as they recognize someone familiar, someone still alive.
The four flags of red, white and blue design fly high, leading the procession. Last year, he carried the Stars and Stripes, but this year the honor has been passed to a sailor from The Pennsylvania. To the right of the sailor march three more servicemen. A Kiwi carries aloft the New Zealand Blue Ensign; beside him a Tommy holds the British Union Jack and the third, an Australian Digger, the Land of the Southern Cross.
The service men and women stride in time with the band. Trouser leg seams pressed to perfection swish from side to side as the shoes, polished so bright that if one stood close enough a reflection would gaze back, crunch on the asphalt, the noise drowned by even louder noises of voices, engines and musical instruments.
Pinned on the left side of the chest is the fruit salad. A single medal here and there or rows and rows of ribbons, all meticulously clean and metal polished to a dazzling gloss glisten and flash as brilliantly as the sun reflecting on the smiles.
The shoulders are stiff and held proud, clothed in immaculately ironed jackets, dotted here and there with a khaki or navy uniform.
The hair - mixes of brown, grey, pure white, some none at all - and even more tucked neatly under hats of varying description.
Younger men and women, many not old enough to have served in any war, and boys and girls march beside their heroes. Their medals, pinned on the right sides of chests, are worn just as proudly to remember their fallen relatives.
He’s not in the marchers this year. Is he possibly at another ceremony, or is he no longer of this earth? Don’t even think he’s dead, keep searching. There he is! He rides the first American WWII jeep with the consummate practice of a dogface. He lounges back in the leather seat as his right boot rests on the mudguard. It’s not difficult to imagine him in grubby fatigues and helmet, his weapon butt resting casually against his hip as the jeep roars down a dusty dirt road.
His fruit salad is impossible to miss. Five medals - one purple and white; one that looks like a bright rainbow with a splash of red in the middle; red with white stripes; light blue with thinner red and white stripes; and one more with wide olive green stripes and thinner colors of red, white, blue and brown. This year he’s added a metal pin, smaller than a matchbox. His is the American flag. Each veteran wears one beside his medals, making it easier to identify to which force he or she belonged.
Smiles fade briefly to see he’s not marching, but return as he seems happy and comfortable. In the cold, heavy rain last year, he struggled with his weary body, forcing it to keep in step, but he paid the price. At the end of that parade, he could barely walk to his vehicle, the agony of growing old must have been bitter on his tongue.
Today he waves to the cheering mass, smiling, his ever watchful eyes peer into the crowd, but there is no danger. The face and body may age, but the eyes remain the same. He keeps his hair shorn in a longer version of a serviceman’s cut and it looks freshly tidy. He may be a civilian now, and you can the soldier out of the army, but you can’t take the army out of the soldier.
He leans towards his driver to speak to him. The vehicle glides closer to this side. The cheering becomes louder and the camera shutters click faster. He snaps off a salute and smiles wider. “Thank you,” he says graciously.
“No, thank you,” voices respond from people even more grateful for his and all the other marchers’ past deeds.
The parade ends at the cenotaph where the marchers gather in a semi-circle. Their faces are somber, the smiles now gone.
He stubbornly refuses helping hands as he climbs out of the jeep to ‘stand to’ with his fellow servicemen. He leans heavily on a walking stick as his right leg threatens to buckle. A grimace flashes across his face. Is it old age or war injuries causing him pain? Did he win his purple heart after being wounded in that leg? Was he a man who would have put himself in danger to protect his fellow soldiers? Did he? He looks like he would have done just that. It would be too intrusive to ask and today is not the day for such memories. He has the right to remember the camaraderie, not the suffering and agony.
The Last Post echoes in the silence, as tears gently slide down his cheeks to fall onto his jacket. They soak into the fabric as blood would have done during battles.
He always arrives by himself and leaves by himself, but he’s never alone, at least not on this day, not at this moment.
LEST WE FORGET
*FOR THE FALLEN
By Laurence Binyon
thanksgiving, a mother for her children
England mourns for her dead across the sea,
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.
Solemn the drums
thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
And glory that shines upon our tears.
They went with songs
to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eyes, steady and aglow,
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not
old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
They mingle not with
their laughing comrades again,
They sit no more at familiar tables of home,
They have no lot in our labour of the daytime,
They sleep beyond England’s foam.
But where our
desires and hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the night.
As the stars shall
be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.
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