We buried him in his blue jeans. A folded American flag and a leather cowboy hat rested on his chest. On his feet were snakeskin boots.
By Ben Nadler
The Veterans Administration foreclosed on the house in Illinois where Uncle Dave raised the girls, so he slept in his truck until the repo man took it. Then it was my old room at my parent’s house in Philadelphia. That didn’t work out, and he ended up under a bridge in Las Vegas. Next it was an old soldiers’ home in Wisconsin, where after forty years he finally got some help. In the end, he had his own trailer in the downstate woods.
“You’d love it down here, buddy,” he told me. “You can take a piss out the front door, shoot a gun out the back door, and there’s always a cold beer on the icebox.” I was going to visit him down there, one day, but I never did.
We buried him in his blue jeans. A folded American flag and a leather cowboy hat rested on his chest. On his feet were snakeskin boots. Whenever we went to dinner with him when I was a kid, he’d sit with his back against the wall. When the check came, he’d pull a folded hundred dollar bill out of one of his snakeskin boots.
My mother wondered if the Agent Orange he was exposed to in Vietnam caused the cancer. I was surprised that he could die at all; I thought if you got shot three times and didn’t die, you could live forever. He had a dent in his forehead from a 7.62 mm AK-47 bullet. It didn’t seem like a disease could do worse than an AK bullet.
Dave’s friend Sam stood up during the funeral and said Dave was a true outlaw. He told a story about the two of them getting stuck out on the water at night during a hunting trip, without a working light. Dave just shrugged and started pumping rounds through his 12 gauge, illuminating the boat’s path with gunfire.
“Will The Circle Be Unbroken” played on the funeral home speakers. “Undertaker, undertaker, please drive slow. For that body you are carrying, Lord, I hate to see him go.” My mother fell to her knees, crying. We all started crying. Even the tough guys, in their Harley Davidson tee-shirts, leather vests, and cowboy hats, they all started crying.
As the service was ending, my second-cousin Edward came in wearing his dress greens and saluted the coffin. Edward hadn’t been back from Iraq very long, and there was something that was only between him and the fallen Marine.
Men from my family have fought in every war in United States history, from the American Revolution through to Iraq. Our ancestors came to Illinois from Kentucky in the 1840s primarily because of disagreements over whether Christianity permitted slavery. They lived in the same Illinois as Lincoln and Grant, and fought for the preservation of the Union and the cause of Abolition, but some of the cousins back in Kentucky owned slaves on their tobacco farms, and fought for the Confederacy.
I often feel meanly about myself (to paraphrase Samuel Johnson ) for never having served in the military. It would have been the right thing for me to do, on a personal level. But I didn’t want to hurt or kill anyone in another country; my family history wasn’t their problem. Instead, I stayed in New York in 2003 and participated in anti-war protests. I didn’t think any soldiers should go to Iraq. The police hit me with their nightsticks and threw me in the Tombs, but I still feel I didn’t take all my lumps.
We had the traditional gunfire at the graveside: three volleys of 5.56 mm blanks followed by an electronic recording of Taps. Afterwards, we went and got drunk at Dave’s favorite bar. It was a rough place, full of rednecks looking for a fight, but when the bartender heard we were mourning Dave, he made the whole room shut up while we toasted “a good man.” We drank our Wild Turkey out of plastic shot glasses. A few men came over to pay their respects. Edward bought a round of Budweiser. He said, “I want to go back to Iraq. It’s so much simpler there. Go here. Go there. Don’t get yourself killed.”
At the bar, Edward’s father, Buck, who was in the Army in the Vietnam era but never made it overseas, gave me my inheritance: An old twenty gauge Stevens side-by-side. Two triggers and no hammer. A birding gun. My grandfather — a game warden, who died when Dave was still in Vietnam — took the shotgun off a poacher in the ‘60s. To hear my relatives tell it, that was the kind of thing Grandpa Elmer did: walk up to criminals, unarmed, and take their guns from them. In London with the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, he dismantled unexploded German bombs with his bare hands. The bird gun had rightly belonged to Dave, but Buck had held onto it so Dave wouldn’t sell it for cash like he’d done with so many other guns. Now it was mine.
Later, I took the shotgun out of the towel it was wrapped in, and held it in my hands. The weapon must have been close to ninety years old, but it was in good shape. The words “Springfield, Mass.” were etched into the receiver, along with some detailing. I cracked the breech, listening to the two clicks of the firing pins, and peered down each of the smooth barrels. These old barrels were only meant for lead shot. Steel shot would crack them. No matter — I’m not going hunting.
This article originally appeared on Medium for Human Parts
Photo credit: Lewis Taylor/flickr