"Your Daddy's flag only has 49 stars, son," the man mumbled apologetically. "Flags with 50 stars won't be available till next summer."
I stood straight and tall next to my mother - or as straight and tall as a 9-year old can. I held out my arms to take the flag from the man, but the man laid the flag in my mother's arms instead.
I flinched from the report of gunfire as the battery of gunners executed the twenty-one gun salute. The man who played "Taps" was out of practice, or maybe he was crying - I don't know which. At any rate, "Taps" sounded as sorrowful and mournful as something played at a burial should sound.
The man who had brought the flag over to us was wearing a uniform, I don't know which branch of the service he was from. Mom said Daddy had been in the army during WW II, so that may have been the uniform he was wearing. I just knew it was the dullest green color I had ever seen, and that it looked like it was made from wool and probably itched a lot. I was too embarrassed to look the man in the eye, so I looked at his shoes instead. I missed the look of kindly compassion the man bestowed on me, but I was impressed with how shiny his shoes were.
After the man cast a glance of silent condolence at my Mom, he stepped back into the line of other men wearing their uniforms.
I reached up to touch the flag that moments before had been draped over my Daddy's coffin. It was made of some kind of stiff, scratchy cloth, but I didn't care. Mom handed me the flag and I folded my arms up and held the flag tightly against my chest. It smelled faintly of roses and formaldehyde, and the dry, sterile smell of the church sanctuary.
Under the leaden gray sky of that chilly November Saturday, my body suddenly shook with an involuntary shiver. And then it began to shudder as I began to sob. A tear dropped off my cheek onto the flag. It landed on a red stripe, and the color bled onto a white stripe, causing a little pink stain. I looked up quickly to see if Mom had noticed what I had done, but her eyes were closed, and she was shaking too.
I'd never seen a flag up close before. Always before when I'd seen the flag it was at the top of the flag pole in front of our school building, or the principal, Mr. Miller, was putting it on the rope to run it to the top of the pole.
Friends of mine who were in Boy Scouts always helped fold the flag at the end of the school day, and I had watched the ritual they went through to do it. The soldiers had just gone through the same ritual a moment ago before handing the flag to Mom. Since I was a farmboy instead of a townboy, I couldn't belong to Boy Scouts. I was afraid maybe there was some special way I should hold the flag, but didn't know what it was, so I quickly handed it to my brother before someone noticed I didn't know what I was doing.
As we were leaving the cemetery, a man came up, gave my hand a well-meaning shake and said, "Well, Paul, you're the man of the family now." I knew I should look brave and solemn, so I put that look on my face as I gave a determined nod. My heart, though, was turning to jelly as I wondered to myself "What does a man do?"
Who would chop the wood for our stove? Who would milk the cows, and fill the silo, and shuck the corn, and grind the feed, and sharpen the sickle on the mower, and how did you hitch the mower to the tractor, and how did you drive the tractor? Who would drive the truck to the elevator with the freshly harvested wheat? And...and...and...and.......
I'm 62 now. And faced down dangers, both real and imagined, many times over. And loved. And lost. And raised a child. And became a grandfather. And worked. And earned.
And still - every day - I wonder...what does a man do?!?
Ariel's Note: Paul Porter is "a peripatetic pilgrim...eclectic, didactic, but not pedantic...a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction. He began his journey on a dairy farm in
Kansas, and now rests his head in Pele's fiery bosom on the Big Island
He's always looking forward to tomorrow and the new things tomorrow will bring.
- Ariel Murphy