This Memorial Day story takes place in October, not a particular day to venerate fallen heroes. But then, when you’ve lost someone you love and they served in the military, every day is a memorial day.
That day I was back home in Connecticut, there for my granddaughter’s wedding. And since living in faraway Florida, every time I come home I visit the boys, my husband, Richard (1941-2014), and our son, Sean (1970-2016). Both are buried at the Connecticut State Veterans Cemetery in Middletown. On this visit, I brought Sean’s saxophone, the one I play now. I wanted him to hear me play, but I didn’t know if I could for various reasons, having enough nerve to be one of them.
When I arrived at the cemetery, there were no other visitors, so I was alone except for a work crew that was leveling and smoothing parts of the ground for maintenance and expansion. What would they think of a lady playing the saxophone in a cemetery? Would they tell me that playing the saxophone is not allowed?
As I opened the case and began to assemble the sax, I could hear them pondering the noise of the heavy machinery they were operating.
“Leave her alone. She’s mad with grief, no doubt,” they said to each other.
“In mourning, it is true. A little crazy, of course,” I thought back.
Then I started having doubts. It’s really crazy. Who would come to a cemetery and play the saxophone? Hey, I could be accused of disturbing the peace.
“What the hell,” I said to Sean, sitting down on a bench near his grave, which is not far from his father’s. “I don’t have any music with me, so I have to play by ear. Sorry in advance for the mistakes.” And a bulldozer passed.
Undaunted, I started playing the “navy anthem” all the way through, mistakes and all. Then I thought, Sean, you served in the Coast Guard. I’ll play “Semper Paratus”, what I did, mistakes and all. “And you, Rich, you were in the army,” I said. At the time, I was speaking out loud, my voice muffled by the sounds of work going on around us.
Did I say we? Indeed, I did, for now I could sense the presence of a spectral audience of military men who had come for the one-woman show. Wow! It’s like Bob Hope and the USO.
“So, Rich, this is for you,” I said and played “The Army Goes Rolling Along.”
I could see him rolling his eyes not knowing whether to be proud or embarrassed of his wife. The guys around him were patting his back. Someone yelled, “Hey, what about the Marines?”
“Oh, I know that one,” I said. “We sometimes play ‘The Marine Hymn’ during our New Horizons Band practice warm-ups.” That’s where I started playing Sean’s saxophone, in the Essex Community Music School band. I played the piece for my friend Marine, not without flaws.
“And what about the Air Force,” someone said. It was a woman’s voice this time, an Air Force officer.
“You bet,” I said, and Off We Went with Sean Into the Wild Blue Yonder’s sax.
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Ghostly applause marked the end of the show and I once again apologized to my captive audience for any mistakes I made while performing their songs. I promised that when I got back to Florida, I would practice to improve my skills playing military tunes by ear.
And I promised to make a return appearance for another bigger and better USO type show someday. I might add “The Second Line,” which is the jazzy New Orleans funeral anthem, or something from Glenn Miller and his military band, or how about “God Bless America?”
“When could that be,” someone asked.
“Oh, in the near future. Next time I go home,” I said.
It suited them perfectly.
“We will all be here,” said a Spec 4 in the third row as he slowly walked away, “as we are already at home here in eternity.”
Peggy Schenk is a former Connecticut resident and longtime journalist.