In the fall of 1964 a slow, black procession wound its way from the Community Methodist Church to the cemetery on West Road. It was midday when the hearse arrived and deposited its passenger atop the piled loamy soil near a giant oak tree. In the fields that surrounded the hilltop burial ground the earth was browning. On that day the frost had melted in the sunshine that came and went in slim, dim rays.
The moment held the weight of an ending. For his shivering mother and bent father, whose brown felt Stetson shadowed his face, and his two blank-faced older brothers, all was winter darkness. As the Marine Corps sergeant presented the Silver Star medal to the mother of Private First-class Donald Wagner, most stared at the shiny closed coffin. Donnie was not known to be still. He had won the steer wrestling contest at the Spring Festival rodeo four years in a row. That last time he had circled the middle of the arena running his horse full-out, his chaps flapping, his arms raised high in the whoops of a winning young cowboy.
In fourth grade he brought a photograph of himself at three, astride a huge horse. He had two ponies, too, he said, and he had been entering rodeo competitions since he was six. To watch him with a horse was like watching a sunrise, the smooth arch of horse and boy, one against the hills and sky. For years he led the Riding Club equestrian drill team in the Spring Festival parade, now and then leaning in to speak softly to his horse, the animal’s eyes perking up, his head turning back toward his rider, his plaited mane threaded with shiny, thin brass tassels. The Quarter Horse was beaded with sweat, skittish in the heat and raucous crowd, Donnie controlling him with slight movements of his gloved-hand. He loved ceremony, our graduation ceremony too, where he was the first to throw his mortar board, to race back to the cafeteria whooping and shouting, kissing and hugging young and old—adding to the charged party atmosphere. And I suppose that is why he loved the idea of the Marines so much, the uniform, the parades, the regimentation. The whirring helicopters.
The sergeant emphasized that Donnie was a fine Marine. He had engaged all the way, as with his horses, the festivals, his work on the ranch with his father and brothers. Being a Marine was important to him.
Standing by the open grave, listening to taps, the bugle seemed to reach into my chest and wring my heart. There was not a dry eye. When finished, the marine playing the bugle laid his instrument atop the flowers that blanketed the closed casket. It had remained closed throughout the service at the church and now at the cemetery, too, because the helicopter had burned after being shot down and getting the bodies out of the combat zone had taken days. Rationally, I understood that. But he was the first of our class to die, and without seeing his body, gray and inanimate, I couldn’t really believe any of this was real. I was eighteen; he was still nineteen, astride a horse, in my mind.
He would have loved this ceremony, I said under my breath, hearing his mother, eyes puffy and red-rimmed, repeating over and over, “No . . . no . . .no . . . .” He loved even low-level ceremony, high school football teams running onto the field, and certainly the parades when he pranced his old Appaloosa, raving “Far out!” for days.
The red-white-and-blue American war ceremonial routine was renowned, an ageless pageantry, and somehow cinematic. A newsreel, perhaps. There was not, otherwise, the slightest sign of the war in Vietnam visible outside these few square feet of rural earth. Taps, the flag folded over the beautiful mahogany coffin, the presentation of Donny’s Marine dress cap to his mother, the reading of the letter from President Johnson.
I’d awakened at dawn trying to imagine what was in his mind as the helicopter lifted off next to that rice paddy, the copter filled with injured Marines, young American men like him. How did he react when someone screamed that one blade had been shot off by automatic weapons fire? What did he feel those lost moments when he knew they were going down? Did he say anything, call out for his mother? What would Donnie have done, he who could control a thousand-pound horse with the flick of a wrist? Did he feel what I feel now, disbelief? The Marines folded the American flag so artfully, then handed it to his father, along with a photograph of Donnie in his dress blues.
Had this dead young man really graced me with my first real kiss that meant something? That day, watering the horses at Brush Creek, after his teaching me what he could about riding a horse, the horses moseying into the creek, shaking mane and neck to rid themselves of flies, had he really wiped the tear from my cheek? I tried desperately not to cry when I caught my favorite red jeans on a branch and tore them, exposing my leg, but also my shyness, my embedded shame. Torn jeans were not worn in 1964. Woodstock was still in the future. Standing at his grave, I could still feel the wonder and tingling of those brushing kisses, one to my cheek, one to my lips.
He was a John Wayne cowboy, tall, handsome, sinewy, gently but strong. A Remington bronze cowboy on a galloping horse, mane streaking the wind. He will remain that now. Taps moan away through the oak branches to stillness. Across the way, three Marines stand at strict attention, ready for the gun volleys.
Donnie’s mother falls to her knees, reaching out toward the coffin, her peach-chintz dress crumpled beneath her knees and buried in the ditch-digger mud, her moans light as dove calls. His father and brothers grab for her, wrap her body into theirs.
Two years later. Summer. Hot. The lab assistant seems distracted, poking me hard, twice, without much consciousness. Ouch. “Give it three days,” she says. She hands me a note with the phone number on it, says, “If the rabbit dies you can pick up the certificate here, at the front desk.” Knowing her cliché referred to the fact that pregnancy tests were somehow processed by using rabbits, I nod. “Has your husband had his induction physical?” She asks this while looking away, not turning back for several seconds to secure an oversized cotton ball to the microdrop of blood on my wrist. I nod, again, that he has.
On the way home, I know the rabbit will die. I understand now why women say they know these things. I’ve heard it said that a rabbit’s purr is like the sound of a distant helicopter. My car turns into the cemetery parking lot. I don’t argue. I pluck two pink wild roses from the bush threading along the rusty wire fence and breathe them in as I walk to Donnie’s plot. I lay them on the narrow grave that has gone flat, and don’t allow myself to imagine what that means below. The government-issued headstone has finally been installed: Donald R. Wagner, PFC, U.S. Marines. Vietnam.
I press my hands against my soft belly. If you had stayed, Donnie, this might have been….