THE DEMOLAYS meet with the minister and the undertaker early to plan the time for their ceremonies. They have a ritual, a beautiful one according to the minister, filled with reverence for God and the wonders of His world, and today they gather to bury one of their own, dead at twenty in a town called An Pho in Cambodia.
The boy's name was Anthony Blake, good AngloSaxon name from a good Anglo-Saxon background in the heart of suburban America. He enlisted out of high school, because he had never been a bright boy and his high school counselor thought it best that he get his military service out of the way. No one knows whether the counselor will attend the funeral. They do know Anthony was a good boy, if a little careless behind the wheel of a car, and so the lamentations have begun in the homes of Anthony's friends and family.
When the friends and family make it to the funeral home they find the De Molays already arrived and the undertaker in full mourning clothes at the door, wearing his grief like a tight-fitting hat, his face pale, his eyes drawn tight almost in a squint. When people see the body they remark that the undertaker has done a good job, for you can hardly tell that Anthony had the side of his face shot away when a land mine exploded, and that the doctors in the Army surgical unit who tried to operate on the poor wounded mass of red and stinking meat were themselves sickened at the sight of such disfigurement. So they put him on ice, sent a telegram home, and shipped him to the top floor of the building in which he now lies, so that everything could be put back together again for the benefit of the De Molays. And Anthony Blake returns home to St. Louis.
ST. LOUIS lies on the Mississippi River like a frozen relic The Arch and a new complex of modern buildings attempt to create the illusion that St. Louis dwells in time present and time future, but those who live there know differently. The great underlying lethargy, the quiet acceptance of the indifference of urban life, symbolized by a ghetto that has never come close to eruption, all these make St. Louis the quietest city of its size in the world.
The French came to St. Louis first, and were in turn supplanted by the Germans. With blond efficiency and radical polities that were intellectual instead of passionate, they took control from the easy-living French. Only the architecture and the names were retained. Names like Lacklede and Chouteau.
St. Louisians take the war like everyone else. Construction workers did attack students in the streets a few weeks ago, but on a much less massive level than in the Battle of New York. Even the Globe-Democrat, great voice of Nixon Republicanism and former employer of Agnew speechwriter Patrick Buchanan, was appalled. "Polities," their editorial began, "is a game for gentlemen" and, in the great scheme of the American consensus, beating up peaceful by-standers, however long-haired, is not gentlemanly conduct. The Globe is not racist, for racism is tinged with something dirty and vile here in the heart of Union sentiment in the Civil War. It is for law and order. The difference is subtle, but the Globe is proud of it.
No, they take the war here without question. Go into a restaurant, and the housewives talk of the price of food, of the growth of their children, of the problems of paying for college. If they mention the war at all, it is only to shake their heads and nod sadly. And to go on eating.
Even at Washington University, hot-bed of student radicalism, self-styled, of course, they occassionally picket McDonnell Aircraft, but when someone fire-bombed ROTC he was sentenced to twenty years in jail. Thoughts anyone else might have had about street violence were cut short by that fact. So they have their fraternity parties, they go to classes, hoping that someday perhaps the war will end, and during the strike everyone wore armbands and let their hair grow, passed out leaflets, and then went home at night to sleep the sleep of the just.
Anthony Blake's father is not an unintelligent man. Educated at the Jesuit St. Louis University, he is now a successful bond salesman. Until 1968 he had always voted Democratic, remembering vaguely the breadlines and the voice of F.D.R. over the radio giving him hope. He decided in 1968, however, that it was time for a change. So he voted for Richard Nixon, and a year later his son enlisted in the U.S. Army, in the family tradition.
The death of his son has changed things in George Blake, but the changes are too subtle to mark a milestone in his life. His son is past the point where dying ends and death begins, and George Blake will take weeks to absorb that fact fully. And maybe in that time he will come to an understanding of why it happened. Now he only his time for grief.
"He was a fine boy, always tried so hard to do everything people demanded of him. Never griped, never fought with his mother and me, never got into problems at school. Oh, he had his fights with teachers, disagreements really. But trouble? Not Tony. He never made great grades, but we thought the Army would straighten him out, get him to be serious about life, take some of the immaturity out of him. We didn't know it would come to this. Even when they sent him to Vietnam we thought it would be all right. We were pulling out troops, and there were all the stories about casualties falling, and everything seemed all right, just hunky-dory. Now this. if we could have known. He could have enlisted in the Guard, or the Navy, anything. Maybe," and George Blake sets his mouth as firmly as he can, "maybe we would have sent him to Canada." George cannot hold his mouth so firmly for very long, and so his lower lip begins to tremble.
THE NIGHT before the burial Anthony's friends gather at a tavern in downtown St. Louis. Anthony had no trouble making friends, he had achieved the goal of being well-liked, so there are many people who have drifted here to honor Anthony as best they can, by celebrating his life.
"Remember those games in the backyard," says a short-haired and bronzed compatriot gone South to college. "Anthony was a hell of a basketball player."
"Yeah, but not too hard, you know? Like that time when the game was going badly and Steve Jackson threw the ball against the garage door and yelled 'Fuck that fucking ball' and Anthony picked the ball up and put it next to his rocks. and everybody laughed till we found out later that he thought fuck meant piss, and he didn't know what he was doing, and then we all laughed again." They all remember the time; it was a story that made the rounds all through high school.
"Yeah, or the time Tony went out with the teacher's daughter, and the tire blew out in Pierce Lane and he had to call old Mrs. Hirsch and tell her that he was stuck out on the darkest lane in Missouri with her daughter, who just happened to have broken her bra strap at a dance-and it wasn't a lie either, she had, but he caught hell for the rest of the year." The speaker begins to laugh and stares into his beer glass for a moment. "Yeah, Tony was a really good ball-player. But he could never move to his right. Great shooter, but no speed." And they all nod.
At the high school Anthony attended the principal reads an expression of condolence over the loudspeaker. No one going there now knew Anthony, and so no one pays too much attention. In one class a favorite teacher of Anthony's reads her class a letter he had written "just a few weeks before he died, imagine." It is full of facts about the war, of gripes about the food and the heat, of praise of his buddies and their brotherhood in the face of the enemy. It also tells about Anthony's feelings about the war. He has a job to do, the letter says, and he will do it, because that is what Mrs. Carpenter taught him. The letter goes on to say, almost plaintively, that he cannot understand why the job was there in the first place, but that part Mrs. Carpenter does not read. It might lead her students to the wrong sort of conclusions, and besides, it is what has gone before that is important. No use cluttering up susceptible minds with detail, especially with the hippies and all. Mrs. Carpenter is a good teacher, and that is why Anthony wrote to her.
THE MINISTER at the funeral has a face like a photograph that did not develop properly. Everything is blurred, his nose runs into his eyes, and his mouth seems nothing but a line behind which teeth hide. He is a Presbyterian.
The pall-bearers are the good citizens of St. Louis and their sons. Mr. Blake moves in the best circles, and many of the men who bear Anthony to the grave-site are almost-rich, in the way that America alone can produce the almost-rich. These men are the vice-presidents and the branch managers, the second-level executives who buy the finest Hart. Schafner and Marx suits off the rack. Good men, men with consciences and children and wives who could step into a role in a situation comedy in a minute. It is a beautifully-staged funeral, the kind Anthony would have been proud to have.
"Oh, Lord, we commit this boy, thy servant, to your hands," the minister prays, and all the good citizens nod their heads solemnly. Many have buried mothers and fathers already, and they know the protocol of death.
"Lord, this was a boy dedicated to your service, a boy that all who knew him were proud of. Now he is gone to your mercy and to be judged under your grace. We ask you to hear our prayers, our Lord who died that we might live again through Christ Jesus. Amen." The minister finishes, and looks sideways at Mr. and Mrs. Blake, He see they are not crying, and he is pleased. It is a minister's duty to stem tears and to distribute grace and the promise of life eternal. Very few cry at a funeral at which he presides, he is happy to say.
"Anthony Blake died fighting for his country. Lord. He was a brave man and a good soldier, and we ask you to remember that. Lord, when he appears before you." The honor guard who has come back with Anthony looks at the minister, and the minister looks at him. The minister wonders if the soldier is sneering, but that would never happen. So he goes on.
In a while it is finished. and they are ready to toss the ashes and sprinkle the dust, and to commend his soul to God for the final time. And because he is a veteran, they have buried Anthony with the full privileges his heroism commands. Anthony Blake, dead at 20, is lowered into the grave, clothed in the flag.