This was not the first military funeral I had attended. It was the first time I’d been to any funeral that took place 76 years after the deceased had died. This young man, a kid the same age as my third of five children, has finally made it home to be put to rest with his family in a hero’s ceremony. Seaman First Class George Anderson Coke, Jr. came home to Arlington today for the first time since he left for boot camp back in 1941.
My friend, Leslie Dorn Barton, is George Coke’s second cousin once or twice removed. I’m still unclear on all that genealogy stuff. While I’d like to be able to trace back my family tree, I’m quite unorganized and tend to think circularly rather than in clear straight lines. Besides, I’ve got aunts and cousins on both sides of my tree who really dig that sort of thing and they actually journal it all. Anyway, Leslie is one of the Special Education teachers who taught my daughter at Sam Houston High School. We became friends over the last couple of years. So naturally, when she mentioned that this funeral was happening today, I told her I’d come.
It’s been hotter than ever all week and I was so relieved when the thunderstorms hit our city last night and it rained until the wee hours this morning. I donned my black abaya and a gray and black scarf and then headed over to the First United Methodist Church and tried to “blend in” with the Arlington locals. I know. I didn’t. The sole Muslim in a sea of mostly older, white, Christian faces.
I listened to the history of George Coke, Jr., son of George Coke, Sr., who was the Chief of Police in Arlington back in the 1920s. I learned that of the 3,500 American casualties that day in Pearl Harbor, that Arlington lost 48 souls. My mind wandered, as is the norm during funerals. Everyone in some way or another is reminded of their own immortality at a funeral. With military funerals, you are also reminded of all of your family members and friends who also served in the armed forces. I felt a few tears escape today as I remembered friends who were killed in foreign wars. I felt a few more tears escape as I offered prayers of thanks and gratitude for those family and friends who returned safely home.
I followed the funeral procession to Parkdale Cemetary. We were escorted by members of the United States Navy and a large number of the Arlington Police Department. I watched as the sailors, now pallbearers, respectfully carried the remains of their comrade who fell in the line of duty more than half a century before any of them were born. And the firing of the three volleys, though I knew they were coming, still caught me off guard and those tears of relief that most of my loved ones returned to me fell from my eyes as a silent salute to Seaman Coke and all of the thousands who didn’t.
My heart stirred as I watched the slow and deliberate movements of the sailors folding the flag and the hand off of that folded flag followed by the final salute from Seaman to Non-Commissioned Officer to Officer to Rear Admiral and finally to George Coke, Jr.’s family members. The spent shell casings from the three volleys, symbolizing duty, honor, and country, were then placed into the hand of the young descendant of Seaman Coke.
A cool breeze gently blew across my face, air-drying the silent tears and leaving my cheeks a little bit sticky. I hugged Leslie and shook hands with her son, aunt, and mother. I looked back to see the final resting place of Seaman Coke, under the Live Oak and the Crepe Myrtle trees, beside his mother and father. Welcome home, hero. Rest in peace.