I should have given up the day Barney asked me to help him take promotional pictures at a local cemetery. That was the first time I led Mike, or should I say, Mike led me. He drug me in circles around headstones, my feet barely touching the ground.
In spite of that auspicious start I was there for that first funeral and every one thereafter.
There I was with a hearse, a trailer, and a horse I couldn’t lead. I wanted to give up the day I got the call for a funeral and couldn’t find anyone to help me with it. Instead I went out to the corral and said to Mike, “I’ll make a deal with you. I will feed you and take care of you forever if you will take care of me at this funeral today.” It was then that I came to understand how knights in medieval times could ride those noble Percheron horses in to battle and face death without fear.
I could write a book about Mike. But for today I will just tell you that Mike and I became like one over the course of the next thirteen years. Together we buried babies and children, school teachers, policemen, family, dignitaries, senators and lots of royalty. Well, they weren’t really royalty, just common folk whose families said we honored them like royalty.
Through wind and rain, blizzards and scorching sun, Mike and I were there. He would shelter me from the elements and I would keep the flies away from him.
I always said when Mike retired, I would retire. I didn’t count on him dying so soon. That is when I finally looked back and realized how far we’d come. Over 500 funerals in 125 different cities and towns spread across five states. I wanted to give up then, but Mike wouldn't let me because he had already chosen his replacement, his beloved Lady, another noble Percheron in whom I know Mike’s spirit lives on.
I shouldn’t be standing here with Lady today, surrounded by Marines, saluting a flag. Not just any flag, but one draped over a casket.
I still have the letter, postmarked 1994, from the director of the same National Cemetery we are standing in today.
“In reference to your inquiry about the possibility of using your horse drawn coach for services within the ---- ----- National Cemetery, I am sorry to inform you but is has been determined that this service would be inappropriate for a national cemetery operation. Thank you for the opportunity to evaluate your service.”
In a phone call appealing the decision, I argued, “Doesn’t a GI deserve the same dignity and respect afforded a Commander in Chief?”
Give us a call, they said, if you ever have a request from a veteran and we may reconsider. Very soon the first request came from a veteran’s family. The powers that be reconsidered and decided maybe it would be appropriate to allow a traditional casket escort. Dozens of times thereafter, Mike pulled that hearse, with its cargo of flag draped caskets, through sections of countless white headstones of soldiers from a different era.
That was before 9/11, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Today, as I stand among these Marines, I feel the significance of this final journey. For it is I, who will take this young hero away from his loved ones to the place where he will forever rest.
Hand over heart, I hide my tears as the Marines lift the casket and the stars and stripes disappear into the coach. I know now, why fate wouldn't let me give up.
I offer the coach seat to the family. Perhaps if they can share this ride it will ease their pain for a fleeting moment and briefly distract them from the harsh reality that will soon set in.
I urge Lady forward. “Slow as you go, Lady, maybe we can buy these parents a few more precious minutes with their son.”
Copyright 2009 Lorraine Melgosa