By Gerry Goldshine
Three ounces, that’s what my badge weighs. I shared in common with those around me, a three-ounce piece of polished metal, whether it is a star or shield. Some wore uniforms in shades of blue, others tan and a few, khaki. Soon, they had filled all the seats. Yet, more filed inside, civilians and officers alike, lining up against the walls. More of them stood outside, uncomplaining. I saw few familiar faces among those assembled. Many showed the strains of unimaginable grief.
I finally looked to the stage in front. A small group of Marines, resplendent in their dress uniforms and stood at attention on both sides of a casket covered with an American flag. A single spotlight shined on it, bathing it in a bright white light. Photos taken during more serene and happier times lined a table to one side. On the other side, in front of many ornate floral displays, hung the dress uniform of a United States Marine Corps Major. There among the many decorations pinned to the tunic, I recognized a Silver Star and the Purple Heart.
The officer was experienced, with more than seventeen years of service. He had gone into one of the half-dozen McDonalds in the small city where he worked, for lunch. Nothing heroic, nothing dangerous, he just wanted lunch. He never knew that the man sitting in the corner, next to the soft drink dispenser, had just shot and killed his wife.
Looking around the auditorium, I glanced at some of the people in uniform. Was I the only one there wondering if a similar fate awaited me?
When the police chaplain began the service with a prayer, we bowed our heads. Friends, family, coworkers and a few city dignitaries then came forward to tell of the impact this officer had on them or the community. Some of those speaking could not finish before their anguish overwhelmed them. A Marine Brigadier General, his eyes red with tears, spoke of the officer’s heroism while serving with the Reserves in Iraq. The Chief of Police, his voice breaking, next spoke of not only the community’s loss of a dedicated police officer but also of a family’s loss of a son, a husband and a father. When he introduced the widow, many of us were surprised to see she wore the same blue police uniform as her husband had. She stood there, tears running down her cheeks, unable to utter a single word. She finally broke down, sobbing and needed the Chief and General’s help to move from the podium. Then, as if her tears were silent permission, most of us also lost the tight grip we had on our own feelings.
An eerie silence fell when the color guard moved out, marching together up the center aisle in step to a trained silent cadence. The American flag went first, followed by the California State flag and that of the US Marine Corps. Following them was the honor guard, consisting of four police officers and three Marines, each of whom carried a ceremonial rifle. We stood as the pallbearers walked past, carrying their sacred burden and my eyes started to water. I struggled not to surrender to the grief I felt for this man I’d never met. This was not the time, not yet.
None of us spoke much as we filed outside to our cars. I took my place in a motorcade dominated by black and white police vehicles that officers drove there from police departments all over the state. Behind the dozens of police motorcycles leading the way were six camouflaged Marine Corps Humvees. Driving out of the parking lot, we passed beneath a huge American flag, hanging from the top of the raised ladders of two fire trucks. Black bunting hung from each of them. The hundreds of flashing red and blue lights drew attention to the orderly procession that stretched out for more than a mile. How strange this all must have appeared those we passed, to those who did not know. If only they had an inkling of the emotional turmoil within us. I imagined the disruption caused by our little convoy annoyed more than a few, as we worked our way to the cemetery, some miles distant. I’m also certain, not one of us cared.
I marveled at the skilled performance of the motorcycle officers, leapfrogging from intersection to intersection so we could pass unhindered. We drove under a bridge from which hung dozens of handmade signs honoring the fallen officer. I felt my eyes tear up yet again as car after car drove past two disheveled homeless men standing motionless, at attention, presenting a salute as smart as that of any active Marine. The officer had been a regular visitor to their shelter.
Silently, we walked to the gravesite, the creak of our polished leather gear the only sound anyone could hear. For some odd reason, I couldn’t help noticing how the gray of the granite headstones starkly contrasted with the vivid green of the freshly mown grass. Soon, we could hear the distinctive sound of helicopters approaching and a flight of five passed overhead. As they did, one peeled away, leaving a vacant space to create the traditional missing man formation, honoring a fallen comrade. As those sounds faded, a sharp and precise command rang out a short distance away.
“Honor Guard, Attention!”
With practiced precision, the seven people, each with a ceremonial rifle, snapped to obey.
Most of the civilians present flinched when seven shots rang out simultaneously, shattering the solemn quiet of the cemetery. Twice more the commander gave the order to fire; a twenty-one gun salute.
As the sound of the last fusillade resounded across the grounds of the cemetery, someone else called us all to “Attention” soon followed by the order “Present Arms”. Those of us in uniform rendered a hand salute and held it. Moments later, two buglers, one a police officer and the other a Marine, began to play “Taps”. Hauntingly, one echoed the other. Several more of us lost the struggle to hold back our tears. The command “Order Arms” rang out just before the pallbearers removed the American flag from the casket and folded it with military precision. One officer then handed it to the Chief of Police.
Though I couldn’t hear what he said, I could well imagine the Chief’s words of solace as he presented the tightly folded flag to the widow and her young son. Finally, the mournful sound of a lone bagpipe playing “Amazing Grace” tore at our already aching hearts; aching for someone, most of us there never knew. Everyone around me was crying unashamedly. I felt no shame at the tears running down my own face.
The ceremony had ended. We had lain to rest a brave soul and a fellow law enforcement officer.
I shared with those present and the one now gone, three ounces of polished metal.