The ice and snow had left a thin, white covering on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery, the final resting place of more than 400,000, most of them under simple, small white headstones. The day was gray and cold, and a light rain was falling. There seemed to be no sound at all from the line of cars proceeding to the gravesite of Col. Tom Nordan, only the steady, precise footsteps of the company escorting the colonel to his grave. He was carried there by horse-drawn limbers and caisson, under a flag-draped casket, with a band and an honor guard.
The procession passed thousands of graves on its route. Some were marked from the Civil War, from World War I, from World War II, from Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, all those places where Americans have served and fallen in duty. Some gravestones offered the places served. Some, of the same size, included the inscription Medal of Honor, and no more needed to be added. Americans know what that means.
We had met the colonel, most of us, in his old age. At his passing, he was 96, retired after long service in the U.S. Air Force, a very good man indeed, a man of profound honor in ways that honor is earned in uniform and out of uniform. A devoted husband and father who carried on in service and in life. He was of the Greatest Generation, a wonderful example of why that name is so profoundly appropriate.
Even in the last of his long years, he was a person of good humor and spirit and charm. He liked a story and a joke and a song, and like so many who had lived through Depression and war and all the challenges and crises a long life brings, he kept going, kept pulling, kept fighting.
The end came quietly, in September, with a peaceful sleep he deserved.
It was hard not to think, as we rolled through those gentle curves and hills at Arlington, about all those families who had gone through similar processions, who had followed all those thousands of caskets, who had heard those footsteps of the soldiers providing the escort, who had passed all those thousands of graves.
For so many, the journey was agonizing, and must have been unbelievably painful. For their mission followed the deaths of so many young people, their lives taken in their prime, their bright futures suddenly ended, their widows and children and widowers and children left behind. For them, for those families who said goodbye at Arlington, the day of burial must have been agony, and the emptiness never-ending. And what of the parents who attended the funerals of their children? The wound that never heals, they say. And only those who have known it can understand.
These were our thoughts, we who followed the colonel to his rest at Arlington. He was the father of Richard Nordan, a soft-spoken Raleigh attorney whom we call Brother. Richard has presided these last 25 years or so over The Roundtable, a weekly gathering of good fellowship that meets at the corner round table at the Players Retreat near downtown Raleigh. All who attend are called Brother, and that salutation has been mostly whimsical all these years.
The colonel joined us once, maybe more than once. He wore his military baseball cap, and joined in the story-telling, answering questions about his service in World War II and through other wars and conflicts. The colonel lost a brother in WWII. His name was Fabian Francis Nordan. Dad was protective of his baby brother and never got over it, Richard Nordan said.
The colonels service interrupted law school, and changed the course of his life from plans to be a defense attorney to a military career. In that, in the sacrifice of one lifes plan for another because of the call of duty, he was of course not alone.
Richard spoke admiringly of his father on that cold and icy day in Arlington, in the way a son can. And he was anchored in those thoughts by his wife, Missy, and daughter, Ashley.
And yes, we hope, by his Brothers, a number of whom made the trip to Washington to help the colonel on his way.
A minister gathered family and friends around the grave. Salutes were offered. A piper played. Guns fired. And up the hill, a bugler sounded Taps, as the rain kept falling.
The crowd dispersed, to gather an hour later in a Washington restaurants back room, where friends relaxed, thought about the ceremony, talked about the colonel and offered toasts. One of the Roundtable Brothers stepped up. I grew up with six brothers, he said, and then put his arm around Richard. But I have seven brothers.
At that moment, we all understood exactly what he meant.
Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at firstname.lastname@example.org