…Ian Be, winner of the latest Work Stew writing contest. This was the prompt:
Describe a moment on the job, real or imagined, when the work at hand suddenly took on new meaning.
I received many good entries (some of which I may publish later…I’ll be in touch!), but I settled on Mr. Be’s piece as the winner for several reasons: 1) I appreciated the glimpse into a work world that too few of us understand; 2) I thought the entry was well crafted; and 3) I admired its adherence to the prompt.
Writing to a prompt is a special kind of challenge: how to create an entry that relates to the prompt without feeling artificial, or concocted? I thought this piece (like several others I received) threaded that particular needle very well. Here it is, all 548 words:
By Ian Be
Riding in a Chevy Tahoe is not always terrifying. But when your driver is a twenty-year-old recently returned from service in Iraq, the experience can be pretty intense. Specialist Matthews was swerving through dense traffic on Interstate 90, braking hard to avoid collisions, then slamming the accelerator again. His reckless behavior was influenced by driving humvees in a war zone, and his concern that we may arrive late to the cemetery.
We were supposed to be there before the funeral procession. When the drivers approached they would see two soldiers wearing dress blue uniforms waiting by the roadside. We would snap to attention and salute the deceased veteran as the hearse slowed to a stop. A third soldier would be stationed a polite distance from the gravesite with a silver bugle. The bugle was real, but hidden inside was an electronic speaker that played a prerecorded version of “Taps.” The best performers would fake their inhalations to mimic the phrasing of the melody.
Specialist Matthews continued cursing and grumbling, frustrated because the previous funeral had started later than scheduled. He knew there was no way we’d make it to the next one on time. I sat in the back, unable to watch the road when SPC Matthews was driving. Sergeant Kinsey rode shotgun, calmed by his sense of humor. He kept encouraging Matthews to drive faster. He was joking, but Matthews didn’t know that.
When we arrived, the veteran’s family was assembling around the gravesite. Specialist Matthews took the bugle. Sergeant Kinsey and I walked toward the gathered crowd as quickly and respectfully as possible. We stood at attention behind the casket, which was overlain with a crisp American flag.
I could hear sniffles and sobbing. The pastor gestured wildly, accusing the deceased of being an “alcoholic parasite.” The pastor was the veteran’s brother. He blamed his sibling for many things which hurt their family. I glanced over at Sergeant Kinsey, both of us wide eyed as we listened to the passionate scolding.
Most veterans serve short contracts in the army, quietly live the rest of their lives, and die in their own due time. Their funerals are solemn. Mundane. Sometimes I’d work five services per day. There was rarely an opportunity to learn anything about the people I was honoring. But this was different. Suddenly the duty I had performed so many times before took on meaning. I felt a deep need to return respect and dignity to this man, whose memory was being torn down by the harsh words of his unforgiving brother.
After the pastor struggled through the traditional prayers, there was a brief moment of silence before Sergeant Kinsey and I raised our final salute. Specialist Matthews brought the bugle to his lips. The slow melody of “Taps” sounded across the cemetery. When silence returned, Sergeant Kinsey and I lowered our salute and proceeded to fold the flag. I clutched the stiff triangle, executed a right face, and approached the next-of-kin. I knelt down, offered the flag to her, recited the speech I had memorized and delivered countless times. The last words spoken at this veteran’s funeral.
“Ma’am, this flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation, as an expression of appreciation, for the honorable, and faithful service rendered by your loved one.”