Redwood Nine Ch. 08byRoyceConnors©
21 Guns and a Flag
The grey morning sky, set the mood for the day of Lester's burial. It couldn't have been written into a script any better than nature had done. Familiar faces gathered together, but a pall hung over them and smiles were hard-pressed to find. Little was said, no one really sure what to talk about, in worry of showing any disrespect. Cigarettes were gladly smoked, giving a reason not to talk, as they stood in the front yard of the Winston house. Piney, JT, Lenny and Jake, all chose to wear their dress uniforms for the occasion, while the others found the best they had and tidied it up.
Each vehicle had been washed and cleaned and a funeral sign put on each one, including the bikes. An Army car pulled up and the same captain at the airport, got out and walked past the group and up to the front door. Stan answered and invited him in. Piney was curious and went in to see what he was there for, not having any idea what it was about. He came in, as the captain was explaining the details of the ceremony and what would take place. Stan held back his tears, thanking the captain gratefully. The captain shook Lorelei's hand and then stood in front of Piney and held his hand out to him. Piney shook it and then smartly snapped to a salute. The captain knew it wasn't demanded to salute indoors, but under the circumstances, he smartly returned it to Piney and put his hand on his arm and squeezed it, then walked back to the car and left.
Piney looked at his dad, who was happily grieving, holding his mom's hand.
"What did he say, dad?"
"Your brother will get funeral for a hero, with full honours."
Piney's loss was eased with the knowledge his brother's life was being honoured, medals being awarded posthumously, for his bravery and valour. Piney went out to relay the news and that brought heartfelt congratulations, knowing it was a little bit more, to make up for the loss, such a high price to pay for metal and coloured ribbon.
They let the time tick away, waiting until there was none left to postpone the inevitable, as they got into the cars and the bikes began leading the procession to the funeral home. Faces showed sympathy and forgiveness to them, as they passed, the citizens of Charming showing their respects to one of their own. The procession stopped at the funeral home, parking in the designated area for them. The shine on the hearse reflected the attention to detail paid to it, as it sat in wait to play its part.
The small room was filled with guests already, many being some of Lester's friend's and school mates, while a large contingent of soldiers stood together in the waiting area. The guys recognized the soldiers from the airport and went to them, introducing themselves to them. It wasn't long before they were outside talking and sharing stories about Lester. Stan came out and told them the ceremony would begin shortly, ending the moment of lightness and returning them to the heaviness of rites and passages of the dead.
With the ceremony and speeches done, pall bearers took their place. On the one side, Stan, Piney and JT, raised the coffin to their shoulders, while three of Lester's unit, stood on the other side and raised him up as well. In synchronized movement all six walked as one, carrying the body of the fallen to the hearse. They lowered him down and transferred him onto the rollers in the hearse, sliding him inside for his last ride above ground.
The quiet click of the door was louder than anything, as it signified the beginning of a parting. A parting of mortals and a welcoming to the spiritual. Everyone started up their vehicles and formed the procession that would take them to the cemetery. Wayne Unser was waiting in his patrol car and led the procession with his lights flashing, clearing the road ahead of traffic. They travelled the route unfettered, many paying respects and bowing, while others had hung flags along the route.
Lester wasn't the first to come home in a box, Charming already laying five of its sons to rest. The elders knew this wouldn't be the last procession they saw, before this war was over, but the young ones took it hard, seeing someone their age, falling in contradiction to their belief they were invincible. They slowly pulled into the cemetery and drove along the lane to the grave site. The people at Dubrowski's had set up the site and had everything ready for their arrival. The bearers once again raised Lester up to shoulders and carried him to the site and laid him on the elevator stand. For now, it would hold him up with everyone, keeping his place among the living, but only a button to push and he would descend into the earth and rest forever, among those that had passed before him.
Reverend Madock of their church, Charming United, took over the proceedings and said all the words he knew to say on this occasion, adding in many personal moments Lester shared with others in his life. When he finished, he passed his position to Captain Geoffrey, who stood at the podium and gave his own eulogy. Stan and Lorelei were proud and honoured, to know they had raised a fine son, the captain's words expressing his own pride in leading Lester. Even the stalwart faces of his colour guard, were hard-pressed to remain unemotional, as they stood at attention and listened.
With speeches and last words over, the honour guard were readied and the captain had them readied for salute. The seven white rifles were loaded with blanks, but as each command was given to fire, bodies shook with shock, at hearing the reports. When the third volley was finished, the echoing sound faded, leaving the scene cloaked in thick silence. A lone piper stood away from the site, the skirl of his pipes sounding, as he filled the bag with air. In moments, the haunting sound of the pipes began playing Amazing Grace, filling the emptiness of space with the melody.
Tears fell and were wiped away by some and proudly displayed by others, as they listened. It was the voice of Lorelei singing along, that soon had the others joining in and singing with her. The piper moved forward in step towards them, hearing their voices unite with him. When the last chorus was sung and voices went silent, he played the last chorus solo, fading slowly away and holding the last note in sustain, then the silence blanketed them again. Some began to weep at the beauty of their last rendering to Lester, then a lone corpsman stood near the foot of the grave and blew Taps on his bugle.
Every word, every note, brought a further finality to Lester's time with them above ground. The honour guard came forward and stood three to a side along the coffin. Following the captain's order, they began lifting the flag and tri-folding it, shaping it into a traditional triangular shape. Pristine white gloves passed it man to man, until it was given to the last and tightened smartly into shape, then presented to the captain. He placed one hand under it and one hand over, then walked with ceremony to Mrs. Winston and stood before her. She looked at him, her eyes awash with tears and emotion, as he bowed to her and presented the flag to her. Stan held her shoulders tightly, partly in comfort, partly in support. The captain stood and saluted her, then turned slightly to Stan and held it, then snapped his hand down and turned on his heel and stepped back to his men.
As a cohesive unit of one, they marched slowly from the site. finishing the last of their offering of ceremony. One by one, white rosebud stems were laid, everyone taking the last moment to say farewell. Stan and Lorelei watched the small procession of people pass in a line, taking a rose and placing it atop the gleaming wood of the coffin. A young woman, was standing with the soldiers and they were comforting her. One took a letter from the inside pocket of his jacket and gently handed it to her, as if it's worth was important to handle it that way.
JT stood and watched and then motioned to Piney to check it out. The soldiers were comforting her, as if she had suffered a loss at Lester's passing. He didn't recognize her and neither did Piney, the black veil over her upper face blocking the view, but she was being helped by a couple of soldiers, as she came forward and took a rose and kissed it softly, before placing it on the coffin. She let her hand rest on the top of it for a moment, then began walking away, with the soldiers.
JT and Piney went over and stopped her, asking who she was. The soldiers seemed protective of her, so they used as gentle a manner in how they talked to her. She raised her veil and neither knew who she was, by recognition as a local. She was very attractive and slim, her looks putting her in her early twenties. Her blue eyes were paled with sadness, but sparkled with the tears she shed. Piney felt his place was to ask her and introduced himself to her. She took his hand gently and held it, looking at him like he was someone to her.
"My name is Rachel Underwood. I was dating Lester and we were going to get married, when he came back."
Piney was floored, never having heard his brother talk about her once, or his parents mentioning anything about her. Piney had a look of disbelief on his face, as he digested her words. She could see it and took the letter from her purse, that she had been handed earlier. She gave it to Piney to read and he took it out and began reading his brother's last words to anyone.
The more he read, the more her words were truth to him. For two years, Lester had been dating a girl from his college in Stockton and had fallen in love with her. He had felt the same as Piney towards his father, siding with his brother, but keeping his life personal, never saying anything about himself to his parents. Now, he was meeting someone who had shared something with his brother, had grown close enough, that they wanted to share their lives together. She looked at him and he looked at her, at once the strangeness of being unknown, became a closeness of family.
His arms opened to her and Rachel knew what he was offering to her. It wasn't the comfort in sorrow he gave, it was the recognition of wanting to be part of his family, that he offered. Rachel accepted it and folded herself into him, his large frame dwarfing her petite one, as he held her to him. Mary saw the interaction and without knowing what was happening, took offence and strode over to them. JT caught her before she made it half way and stopped her. He told her who she was and her face immediately took one of sad compassion for her instead. She had JT let go of her and assured him she would be okay, then went and stood beside Piney.
He noticed her presence and let go of Rachel and introduced them to one another. They hugged in solace and shared in her loss. Stan and Lorelei noticed the incidents and wondered themselves, who this young woman was. Stan left Lorelei sitting with the flag in her lap and went over to his son and the soldiers gathered around them. It was Rachel looking at Stan, that had everyone turn to him, as he approached. Piney took the lead and took a couple of steps to him and stood with him, as he looked at Rachel.
"Dad, this is Rachel Underwood. She was dating Lester in college."
Stan held his hand out and offered his condolences, based on his belief they weren't that close.
"Dad, Rachel and Lester were going to get married, when he got back from his tour."
Stan looked at Rachel differently, seeing her in the new light shone on her. Her eyes were filled with tears, looking at him, hoping the man that Lester had told her about, wasn't the one before her. He held both hands to her slowly and she looked at them, seeing the acceptance of her in their offering, the truth of his heart, the purpose of his act.
Rachel took his hands and stepped towards him, their eyes focused on each other. Emotion spoke out, as words failed them and they hugged, comforting and sharing their loss, now knowing the two of them could just as easily be family, if fate had allowed it to happen. Stan cradled her to him, as he walked over to Lorelei, who sat with anxious desperation to know who she was. Stan sat her down beside his wife and watched as they looked at each other, then told Lorelei who she was.
Piney stood with JT and his friends, as he watched his mom break down and hug Rachel to her. They held each other tightly, Lorelei clearly bonding with the last remnant of her son, in an earthly form. Piney went over to the soldiers and began talking to them about Rachel and how they knew her. More and more, he saw another side of his brother, one he thought he was close to and saw that even he didn't know things about him and his life. That knowledge found its way to his conscience and he knew the feud between him and his father, had also affected they way his brother acted towards his father, as well as himself.
He looked at his mother and father with Rachel, treating her more like a child of their own, than a stranger. He held Mary to him and she accepted his comfort and leaned into him. JT could sense a communal desire to finish their business there, standing amongst the graves was beginning to creep them out. He tapped Piney's shoulder and whispered the desire to go and he nodded, understanding the duty to respect had been paid by everyone and asking more, was taxing their personal freedoms.
They went over to Stan, Lorelei and Rachel, sharing stories of Lester that they didn't know about. Piney told them they were heading back to the house and would meet them there, as guests were wanting to leave the cemetery. They all hugged the parents, many accepting Rachel as a family member as well, as they made their way from the site, everyone taking one last moment to touch the coffin as they went by.
The serene stillness of the grounds was fractured over and over, as one bike after another was started. Lester's unit stood at attention and saluted Piney and the others, respecting the brotherhood of men, as they all shared one in kind, the bikers and those in the cars flashing peace signs with their fingers. The bikes pulled out of the grounds and began the journey to Piney's parents house, Wayne standing beside his cruiser and holding his hand up to them, showing his recognition to them. JT bowed his head to him, the others following suit, as they passed him and slowly rode through town.
The gathering at the Winston residence was a crowded and somber event, as some shared thoughts of Lester, while others could do no more than offer condolences. It surprised them all, when Stan and Lorelei walked in with Rachel, who had agreed to join them and brought Lester's best friend, Corporal Mark Underwood, Rachel's older brother. So much of Lester's unknown life was coming out, that Piney's parents were rapt with them both, hearing so much more of who Lester was. The cane and severe limp, told of injuries sustained and healing, but his smile told them he was forgetting the reason he got them and was moving forward.
The guys knew they had done all they could, as well as the girls and they quietly went outside and left Piney and JT to let Stan and Lorelei know they were going. Despite the new attachment to Lester's life, the couple came out and said goodbye to each and every one, thanking them for everything. Mark and Rachel came out and said goodbye as well, hoping they could all stay in touch. Promises were made and fate would decide if it happened to come to pass between them.
The ride to the clubhouse was slow and easy, everyone feeling the drain in emotion and how it took so much joie de vie from them. The rumbling growl resonating throughout the compound died, as bikes were backed in a line against the railing and Wally pulled to the clubhouse and parked close to the doors. They congregated in a group under the overhang, sitting on the picnic table. Jake opened the door and went in, then opened the loading door. Everyone walked over and to their surprise, several chairs and a couch were sitting just inside.
"Thought you guys could need some seating in there. I saw them sitting there at the curb and asked the owner if he'd hold on to them for a minute and I'd get a truck and pick them up. Clay got his grandfather's Ford and we loaded it up and brought it over. They said if we want the tables, they're buying new ones and said they'd phone and let me know. So, if you don't mind used, you got yourself some seating to enjoy."
JT shook Jake's hand and hugged him, then looked at Clay. Clay gave him a look that said he was sorry for not telling, but hoped it was worth it, holding his arms open to him. JT accepted the offering and thanked him for his contribution, confirming his place in the club and a patch to wear when he got back from his tour. The standing rule still applied, no matter how much he did for the club, he has to ride American iron and JT said he would keep his eye out for a good one, if he spotted it.
Jake went over to his office and came back out with a paper bag. He took JT by the shoulder and led him along, the others following behind. He stopped at the front gate and opened the bag for him. JT looked in and then back at Jake, then at the flagpole beside him. He unravelled the rope and lowered it, so the snap rings were at his hands. He reached in and took out the flag, attaching the rings to it and then raised it to the finial, then tied it off. He turned to see faces looking at the Stars and Stripes waving in the breeze, a look of pride showing on each one. They all looked up at the flag, then JT felt Jake's hand on his shoulder and he put his hand up and hung off his, as they knew that moment was significant in remembrance, as well as a dedication to commemorate.
Lester's body going into the ground that day, was also the day that the building was no longer derelict, it was a living thing again in his honour, something coming back from the ground. That act on its own, spoke more about Jake, than anything they could hear, or read about him from any source. He was someone they could believe in, someone who represented a character of truth and understanding in their being.
Wally went to his car and opened the trunk and took out a small paper bag. He waved it at the group and waved them over. Once they were around him, he handed the bag to Jake.
"Sorry, I'm a little late on getting it, but my guy came through for me, finally. Hope you like it, it's supposed to be good stuff."
Jake knew it was a bottle of liquor and as he took it out, he looked at Wally, seeing the number twelve and then, that it was a single malt scotch. He looked it over, staring at the dark, amber liquid inside.
"I haven't had a drink in fifteen years. I think today is a good day to have one. We need some glasses."
Wally waited until everyone was trying to come up with an alternative and opened his trunk again. He took out a sleeve of plastic cups and began passing them out. Jake shook his hand strongly, thanking him for his gift, but more the show of honouring his word to him, that made him the grateful man he was. Jake cracked the seal and poured a good shot into every glass and despite the objection to the taste, they all drank down several gulps, in toasts to Lester, to Wally, to the club, to the clubhouse and finally, the most heartfelt, to Jake. The girls went to the pop machine to get sodas to drink instead and Jake used his key to open it up and let them have what they wanted. Baggies were unrolled and makeshift tables of boxes and drywall were used to roll joints. Everyone went inside and Wally pulled his car up as close as he could, to play the radio. One thing they said quietly, that was going on the list for Tom, was a new radio and speakers for Wally.
Despite the crackle and fuzzy sound, it was enough to change minds and attitudes back to the free spirits they were. Jake was serenaded by them, as they sang along to songs played by the likes of, The Strawberry Alarm Clock, The 13th Floor Elevators and more of the sounds of the west coast rock scene. What caught all of their attention, was the announcement of a new British band making its debut in the USA. Despite the poor sound quality, Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin, came out of the speaker and captured them with its driving beat of the guitars and drums, the singer's voice, a constant stream of energy coming from within him. The Brits had invaded with something worthwhile this time, the way they heard it.