The new one tried to look around the shabby American Legion post, squinting tightly after coming in from the brightness outside. Once his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he was able to spot a few souls scattered at tables around the room.
Puzzling over the old-school uniforms at a couple of the tables, he finally recognized a unit patch he’d seen in Afghanistan. He walked to the table, pulled out a chair, and turned it around. Planting himself in the chair, he introduced himself to the other two. Returning the courtesy, there fell a silence on the table.
Around the room others were sitting silently at the tables as well, pitchers of beer glistening in the center of each. Realizing that there was to be no service for them, he flipped over one of the old-fashioned beer glasses and poured himself a cool one.
Draining the glass, he picked up the pitcher, marveled that it was full to the brim again, and poured himself another glass.
After the fourth one had settled in his stomach, he relaxed a bit and realized that the other two at the table had done the same.
“You guys just get here?”
“Here at the Legion, or here in the afterlife.”
Jeremy had to wrap his head around that for a moment before he could answer.
“Say, is that what happened? Last thing I remember I was walking out in the country along a canal of some kind. Next thing I know I’m in the doorway here looking at you guys. We’re all dead?
Frank tilted another sip past his lips and nodded. “I figured it out a bit ago. I saw Brad, he indicated the third man at the table, take a round in the head right before my lights went out. Only logical conclusion. I figure we’re getting ready to go wherever it is we’ll wind up and this is our last chance for a beer.”
Brad shook his head. “You’ve got it wrong. We’re already in Heaven. On Earth this would be almost a year after we got hit. I came to in Heaven and some of the old timers explained it to me. Seems we get kind of a 24 hour pass and can take back our bodies for a beer on that first Memorial Day that you’re dead, but only one. Seems it’s the special compensation you get for dying in combat.”
Jeremy nodded slowly. “That kind of fits. It’s all bits and fragments. I could have sworn I was at my own funeral just a bit ago. I must have been.”
Brad asked, “Many people there?”
Jeremy had to think for a minute. “No, just my family and a couple of guys from high school.”
“Yeah, that’s what everyone is saying lately. The enthusiasm is gone. Our war, our deaths, are forgotten now that major combat is over. Nobody puts any value on our lives.”
A new voice from an adjoining table lifted up over the click of glasses and pitchers, “Same for us. Nobody cared when our guys died. As a matter of fact, most of them resented us and you could feel the scorn from every set of eyes as you got into the world. And there were a lot of caskets for them to hate. They didn’t know us, and never said a nice word about us until the day we died.”
“Us too.” That one came from a table ten feet away. Without a signal of any kind, all of the men stood up and pushed their tables together. Introductions went around the circle.
Assembled in the forgotten Legion post were veterans of two score of conflicts from the Aleutians to Afghanistan. Men who’d served in Korea, the East German border areas, the Korean DMZ, and half-a-dozen different recon aircrews from the Cold War era all chatted and swilled beer.
None of them had gotten a parade upon the end of their war. None had been honored with a plaque on the wall of the local high school. All felt that the world had forgotten them in the past.
The door was slammed back against the wall, and the skirl of bagpipes broke the somber mood. A line of pipers in kilts marched through the door, a drum-major leading them with his baton. Filling the perimeter of the room, they circled the men while playing the various service anthems.
After all the anthems had been played, each group coming to attention as their service was recognized, the band broke into “The Star Spangled Banner.” Every eye gleamed as the words to the song echoed off the walls, and the shabby Legion post seemed transformed, now appearing to be a successful gentleman’s club
Once the last pipe hummed to silence, George Patton strode into the room, followed closely be several other military leaders of great historical import.
“Gentlemen. We are here, as your fellow veterans, to honor you on this day. Memorial day comes but once a year, and all of you have joined us since the last ceremony. You might think your war is forgotten, but a grateful horde of your brothers recognizes your role in preserving democracy. Each nation up here gets a day to do this, and today is our turn. Now, let’s end the pity party and break out the hard stuff. On the tables in front of them there appeared the finest crystal glasses, and a bottle of each man’s favorite beverage. The drinks ranged from Nehi soda to ancient bourbon.
“Now, pour yourself a glass and let’s raise a toast.”
General Patton lifted his glass as the rest filled theirs. “Gentlemen: to the Armed Forces of our beloved nation, and all who have given their lives in service of that ideal.”
Glasses were drained, and set on the tables with a bang.
Patton eyed the crowd and pointed a finger at the veterans of wars who had passed away earlier. Shaking with rage, he said, “I thought I told you guys to knock it off. You missed your parade, but you got a party like this when you arrived. I warned you of the consequences.”
Without a word being spoken, the old-timers moved to the supply closet and broke out buffers, floor wax, swabs, and rags to dust the room.
Patton smiled. “You new guys are on warning as well: don’t crash the party or you’ll be doing field day for a year until the next Memorial Day. Now, sit down, have a drink, and enjoy yourselves. When you’re done, report to Arch Angel Michael for your assignments. And, gentlemen, thank you for your service. You are magnificent.”