I was watching a movie the other day about a reunion of World War II veterans. Midway through the film, one of the squadron leaders began to tearfully reminisce about fallen buddies. As he raised his glass in a toast to their memory, my eyes, too, became teary. But instead of focusing on what he was saying, my mind flew off into the wild blue yonder, and I could clearly see five airplanes soaring into the sky in the “Missing Man Formation” – three in the last row. One in the second row (which should have had two), and the lead plane at the top.
I saw it as clearly as I do when I go to a Memorial Day parade or a Veterans Day celebration. And even though I was only seeing it in my mind, it broke my heart.
Sometimes during a patriotic event, all six planes take to the air at once, and only when they are directly overhead does the plane in the second row peel off dramatically and disappear. Everyone watching gasps, as if they personally are witnessing a hero’s demise, and as the remaining planes streak across the sky, the Missing Man Formation is a poignant reminder of all we have lost.
The symbolism of these flights got me to thinking about other traditions that honor those who were valiant in life and honored in death.
And that brought me to the devastation after the World Trade Center attack on September 11, 2001. Before I met my late husband Charlie, he was a fire fighter in Ladder Company 105 in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. When the death toll became known – 2,753 in total, of whom 343 were firemen, 23 police officers, and 37 Port Authority officers – Charlie, then almost 70 years old, wanted to go down to his old firehouse to pay his respects.
Ladder 105 shared quarters on Dean Street with Engine Company 219. Between the two, they lost seven men on that day of terror. Charlie, like all former firemen after 9/11, felt that in some way, he should have been with them at the time, and he didn’t know what to do with his grief.
I was honored to accompany him that afternoon as we walked into his old firehouse, and he introduced himself to the captain. After a few minutes of conversation, the younger man said to Charlie, “You know, most of the men who work here now weren’t even born when you retired.”
Then he pointed to a narrow balcony running around the second floor above the area where the fire apparatus were parked. Hanging on individual pegs along the back wall were the bruised and battered turnout coats and helmets of each of the seven fire fighters from Ladder 105 and Engine 219 who died trying to save civilian lives after the September 11 attack.
It was a haunting sight.
I have never attended a funeral at which a soldier was given a 21-gun salute, but when my friend Al, a veteran, was buried, a tape recorder played “Taps.” While tinny bugle music filled the air, my mind took another one of its sabbaticals, and suddenly I was hearing and seeing the scene in the movie “From Here to Eternity,” where Robert E. Lee Pruitt, tears streaming out of his eyes, is playing ”Taps” in honor of his murdered friend.
James Jones describes it this way in his book: “...he stepped up and raised the bugle to the megaphone ... the last note of the first phrase rose triumphantly from the slightly broken rhythm ... on an untouchable level of pride ... The notes ... hung above the quadrangle. They vibrated there, caressingly, filled with an infinite sadness, an endless patience, a pointless pride, the requiem and epitaph of the common soldier.”
Three more memorial rituals can’t help but touch the heart.
The first, “The Tradition of the Riderless Horse,” goes far back in American history to George Washington. In describing the former president’s funeral procession, the Pennsylvania Gazette noted that the general’s boots were reversed in the stirrups, signifying that the fallen leader was looking back at his troops for the last time.
I have seen the second, “The Battlefield Cross,” only in mesmerizing photographs, with the bayonet of a rifle piercing the ground, and a helmet covering the rifle stock – a tragic reminder that the soldier died in combat.
And the last, delivered with great solemnity, is a folded American flag presented after death to whoever is considered the chief mourner.
I remember receiving Charlie’s flag with a perplexed sort of reverence, because it seemed then and seems to this day, too sacred to use. And so, 20 years after he died, it sits respectfully folded on a shelf. Unforgotten but still unfurled.
And so ends my musings about memorials. Nobody I love has died recently. It isn’t a national holiday, and nothing has happened in my life to make me particularly sad.
I was just watching a movie.
The Missing Man Formation popped into my head.
And it wouldn’t let go.
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2023. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com