Bob and I sat, our motorcycles idle, among a quiet group of veterans, waiting for stragglers. But no one came late. Most of us had been there early enough to stretch our legs. A few of us smoked.
The veil of fog faded away from the black and green hues of the Black Hills. It looked like rain. Hell, it looked like sunshine. It felt like anything was possible. The echos of motorcycles on the nearby interstate bounced off the blacktop parking lot like ricochets.
One of the leaders walked over, a black leather vest bore faded patches, the vestiges of Vietnam. He shook our hands, and it dawned on me that this group of maybe 50 veterans wasn’t accustomed to anyone taking up the invitation to this pilgrimage. Bob told him we had come to honor his father.
Carl Greenfield had endured basic training at Fort Meade just a few miles to the west. From there he had gone on to fight Nazis, culminating in the Battle of the Bulge where he was shot in the ribs by a sniper’s bullet that, an inch or two higher or lower would have ended this story before it began. Instead, Carl returned home with a scar, two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star and a whole lot of things he kept to himself.
When it was time to ride, the leaders fired up their bikes followed by the rest of us in thunderous progression. The stars and stripes led the line of bikers to the interstate where highway patrolmen respectfully parted traffic. We eased out onto the highway.
I thought back to the days when Bob and I shared an apartment on Railroad Avenue in Aberdeen, S.D., days when we would weave through Sixth Avenue traffic on our motorcycles, invincible, long hair flying in the wind, teeth fixed in a grin that seemed to come so easy back then. We had graduated to bigger bikes that now, ironically, we drove much slower.
Red lights flashing, the highway patrolmen cleared our path, standing at attention. Evenly spaced, we slowed and turned of one mind, like a school of fish. We inhaled deeply the fragrance of the pines.
Bob and I don’t see each other much these days. He’s out in Denver. I’m out here. But Sturgis, S.D., is a good place to meet, so that is what we do from time to time. A few years back, we went to the museum at Fort Meade so Bob could trace his father’s steps. It was hot inside, permeated by the smell of historical dust. Bob studied the pictures and relics and tried to imagine what it had been like and perhaps who his father had been. It seemed my friend was recording history, sacred family history. These are the memories a son keeps for his father. Carl’s own memory slipped away in large parcels in the end, unable at times recall the name of the son who loved him so much. Sometimes death steals us piece by piece. Back in Castlewood, the grass had yet to sprout on the fresh black mound of dirt where Carl lay, at peace and finally reunited with his memories, united with his wife and a son lost to leukemia.
That weekend, I realized how much Bob had begun to look like his father and I wondered how much I looked like mine. He hadn’t said much about his father’s passing. Just the usual things.
Slowly, we turned into Black Hills Cemetery, and the solemn site of 19,000 white crosses seemed to mute the pops, snorts and growls from our mufflers. One by one, we circled and parked, meeting in a small circular open-air building. A grizzled gray-bearded chaplain stepped forward in boots and chaps to speak of sacrifice and loss. And of hope. The usual things.
We stood in a circle, swallowing hard, honoring the ghosts of our contemplation. When the chaplain finished his prayer, we stood for a moment longer as if no one wanted to be the first to move.
The man who had first welcomed us moved closer to Bob and put his hand on his shoulder. And then another. And another, until he was surrounded by brothers, each sharing his loss.
I walked out, stood, and looked out over the graves and waited. I thought about what each cross represented — the lives cut short and the grief endured. I thought about Carl, and somehow I knew he was going to be just fine. When I glanced up, Bob was there, some invisible burden now gone from his shoulders. He seemed … well, satisfied. Suddenly I became aware of sounds again. I heard the gentle flap of the flags in the breeze, the birds and the faint roar of two-stroke engines.
It looked like rain. For the time being, though, the sun shone defiantly upon the clean white crosses. Mindful of the clouds moving our way, we scattered as we had come together, in ones and twos, and then we were gone.
© Tony Bender, 2013