Bill Anderson dances sometimes as he walks along, for no reason other than because he can.
Considering the fact that doctors operated on the 84-year-old Army veteran’s knees four times and on the rest of him 11 times more, that’s impressive. Add to that two surgeries this year, one for cancer, one for a cataract. Yet as a member of the Rowan County Honor Guard, he still managed to work 177 funerals (missing only 16) through late July, including one for which he came straight from the hospital.
A widower for 10 years, Anderson retired after long careers in law enforcement and in textile mills. He jokes that he joined the honor guard to give him something to do instead of sitting alone in his empty house. He says this as he sits with a half-dozen fellow members of the honor guard. They call him Shortround, Shortlegs, Short-pretty-much-everything. “He’s the only 84-year-old teenager we’ve got,” says Bill Craddock, the commander of the Rowan County Veterans Honor Guard.
The more serious reason Anderson joined the honor guard: As a young man, he played in the Army band. “We buried many, many World War II veterans. It was very interesting to me,” he says. “I wanted to give back.”
The men all nod in agreement. For them, explaining why they joined the honor guard is easy. What better way could they spend their time?
To explain why they joined the honor guard is easy: to serve. But joining is one thing; staying under such weighty circumstances is another. Attending a funeral nearly every weekday takes something beyond dedication. The men of the Rowan County Veterans Honor Guard have worked as many as six funerals in one day, and they sometimes need police escorts to rush them from one cemetery to another in time. By year’s end, they will have served at roughly 330 funerals. What keeps them coming back? “My wife asked me the same thing. ‘Don’t you get tired of doing this?’ ” Craddock says.
The men in the room answer the question in unison, with timing honed from working together for hundreds, if not thousands, of funerals, flag ceremonies, and parades: “No.”
And that’s the truth. But it’s not the only truth. As the commander, Craddock works a full-time job with a volunteer’s pay. He maintains the rifles and flags, coordinates who plays what role in the ceremonies, and handles the inevitable conflicts. “Once in a while I have to sort of step back and regroup. There’s so much going on, so much you’re responsible for. There’s just so much, sometimes it will get next to you. Sometimes I lay my phone down and walk off,” he says.
The phone always rings again, though. And Craddock always answers it. “You just keep going,” he says.
He exhales. He keeps going for the same reasons the men around him keep going. They want to show their fellow veterans and their families honor. They want to show them respect. They see providing that honor and respect as their duty. The nobility of those goals gives them renewed purpose when they want to give up.
Everything starts with Shirley Rumple. From her home in Cleveland, she keeps the schedule for the men and makes sure they know where they are supposed to be and when they are supposed to be there. The men joke with her that no other woman in North Carolina calls a dozen or more men every night and never gets in trouble for it.
One evening, in late July, having talked to Brooks and Davis funeral home in Charlotte about a burial, Shirley calls Craddock first, as she always does. Two o’clock Thursday afternoon at the Salisbury National Cemetery, she tells him. She moves to the next man on her list. Then the next and the next and the next.
The men look forward to her calls, because they like to tease her, and because after they talk to her, they can plan their days. “Nobody makes any kind of schedule or appointments around my house until after I get my call,” says Ed Keeter, a Vietnam veteran. “If I don’t have a funeral the next day, it’s kind of like a holiday.”
Shirley’s husband, Gene, doesn’t mind that his wife spends so much time talking to the men of the honor guard because he’s one, too. They call him Clown because he makes them laugh so often. He uses his walker to get around, and on this Thursday, like always, he arrives at the cemetery before anybody else, two hours before the ceremony. Like everyone else on the honor guard, Gene wears gray dress pants, a short-sleeved white dress shirt, white gloves, and a black hat. His clothes hang off of his rail-thin and stooped body. He occupies a special place in the honor guard men’s hearts for his level of dedication. “If Gene’s not there when you drive up, you’re not at the right place,” Keeter says.
Of North Carolina’s four national cemeteries, only Rowan County’s Salisbury National Cemetery still accepts new interments. The Salisbury cemetery buries veterans and their family members from a roughly 100-mile radius, which gives Rowan County far more military funerals than it would otherwise have.
Established during the Civil War, Salisbury National Cemetery served as the burial place for Union soldiers who died while in a Confederate prison in Salisbury. It’s not known, and probably never will be, how many men are buried here because Union prisoners were buried in 18 trenches measuring 240 feet long instead of in individual graves, according to the cemetery’s website. The cemetery doesn’t have precise modern numbers, either. Best guesses by staff suggest that the cemetery is the final resting place for more than 25,000 veterans and their family members.
Because the honor guard men perform so many funerals here, the Salisbury National Cemetery serves as their unofficial headquarters. They use offices to hold regular meetings, to examine how that day’s funeral went, and to enjoy each other’s company.
One afternoon, they gather in a small office after working three funerals. Bill Lane, the honor guard’s chaplain, can’t find his voice. He chokes back tears. He served three years in the Army in the 1960s. He could spend time doing a million other things in retirement, but he chooses the honor guard. Every time he starts to explain that, he can’t finish, can’t get past the beginning. A painful memory spurred him to join, and he can’t compose himself to describe it.
Keeter fills the silence:
“When I got out of the service, I went to work for this company that would not allow me to tell anybody that I was a Vietnam veteran. They asked me not to say anything. There was still turmoil. People would call you all kinds of names. For about five years there, I did not tell anybody that I was a veteran. Then one day I just had enough of it. I said, ‘Look, I don’t have anything to be ashamed of.’ And I didn’t. So I told everybody I was a veteran, and he transferred me here from Portland, Oregon.”
He smiles. That boss set Keeter on a path that enriched his life. He loves Rowan County and North Carolina. He loves the men in the honor guard and leans on them as he struggles with the issues that brought them together in the first place. “Sometimes I get to thinking about the people we’ve actually buried. You can’t get it off your mind sometimes. It revolves around there for a little bit,” he says. “When we get together, I’m more comfortable with this family than I am at home right now. My wife sees it. She stays a little concerned. I need this fellowship. These guys here, I wouldn’t hesitate to ask them for anything. They’re just like blood.”
Keeter looks out at the friends he never would have met were it not for that transfer. “Some of these veterans, I know, went through the same things I did. The thing I want to do is honor them. That’s why I do it.”
All eyes turn back to Lane. He holds his head high, his eyes pink and moist. He starts again, talking about the treatment Vietnam veterans received after that war ended. “You would go through an airport or something, someone would spit on you,” he says. That’s as far as he gets before he breaks down again.
“Take your time, Bill,” Craddock says.
Thirty seconds go by.
Nobody says anything.
Lane alternates speaking at funerals with two other Rowan County Honor Guard members. “When you go under that tent, and you give that speech, you’re sitting there, and you look at them, the family, eye to eye,” he says. “They’re sitting there. They’re reading your every move. They hang on your every word. It’s gratifying to see the satisfaction on their faces that their loved one is shown that much respect.”
The men take great pride in performing the ceremonies properly. They use their military training — with emphasis on punctuality, precision, and uniformity — to try to replicate the same ceremony, every time. If someone misfires, talks in formation, or gets lazy, he will hear about it later.
Under Craddock’s leadership, the Rowan County Honor Guard refined and perfected the ceremony over the years. As the group’s reputation for performing veterans’ funerals, flag ceremonies, and parades the right way grew, new men volunteered to become members.
Jim Fox, at 54 the youngest honor guard member, asked to join because he admired the work he saw. He also wanted to wash away a bad memory. His brother died in the late 1980s, and the “slipshod” ceremony at his funeral appalled him. Fox, retired Army Reserve, doesn’t want anybody else to experience anger marbled with sorrow as he did that day. “I want to carry myself forward the way I expect it to be done, the way I expect it to be done when they bury me,” Fox says.
As Gene holds his walker and talks with friends before the funeral, three young men from the U.S. Air Force arrive at the cemetery. Their presence tells the honor guard that the man they will honor today served in the Air Force. Craddock says the Air Force always sends great young men to the funerals. He pauses. He says he served 22 years in the Air Force. He smiles. “I might be biased.”
These young men can’t be older than 25. Collectively they haven’t lived as long as Anderson has by himself. The young men call the old men “sir,” every time. They banter with the veterans about laundering uniforms and shining shoes. Two generations separate these soldiers, but their disdain for chores binds them.
The time for the ceremony approaches. Craddock pulls out rifles and passes them out. He unrolls an American flag and gives it to Gene. “He always holds the American flag because he cannot stand up,” Craddock says.
The men line up across from what they call “the tent,” an open-air brick structure in which family and friends of the deceased veteran sit. Gene leans against his walker. The flag leans against him. Next to him, Craddock stands straight. As the hearse stops in front of him, Craddock bellows, “Honor guard, attention!”
He pauses for a second.
The men bow their heads.
Two little girls in white dresses and one in a yellow dress walk with an adult to find their seats. The funeral home director rolls the casket to the tent.
Charlie Cauble, who spent 25 years in the Army, stands under the tent, the lone honor guard member there. Thirty feet or so to his right, his fellow veterans stand at attention, chins up, eyes forward. Using a speech he wrote, honed, and memorized, Cauble explains the ceremony, from the firing of the rifles to the playing of taps, to the presentation of the flag to the man’s widow.
As the ceremony draws to a close, two of the Air Force men take the flag off the coffin. Holding it lengthwise, they fold it in half, twice. Starting with the end opposite the stars, they make 13 triangle folds. One of them kneels, gives the flag to the widow, and talks to her.
Now it’s Cauble’s turn for what he considers the heaviest part of the service, the nexus of respect, honor, and duty. He leans down to get at eye level with the widow. He places in her hands a pamphlet about the ceremony. He gives her a spent shell casing, which represents the man’s service to his country. Cauble looks into the widow’s eyes. She looks into his. He tells her that he brings with him the deepest sympathies of the Rowan County Honor Guard. He rises. He salutes her.
The honor guard marches off. Gene brings up the rear, inching along with his walker. Cauble stays behind, under the tent.
Family members approach him. They tell him thank you.
Army veteran Lewis Reid, a former commander of the Rowan County Veterans Honor Guard and one of the three men who alternates speaking at funerals, arrived at the checkout line of a grocery store not long ago. Ahead of him stood a woman with a little girl. “That’s him, Mama,” the girl said. “That’s the man who did Daddy’s funeral.”
The woman paid for his groceries.
“I bought gas today,” Craddock says. “I went in and bought a soft drink. The lady said, ‘It’s yours.’ I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Because of what you do.’ I appreciate it. I went into a Subway and bought a sub. They told me, ‘It’s paid for.’ I said, ‘Who paid for it?’ They said, ‘We can’t tell you.’ I know everybody in here has run into a situation like that. It takes you back.”
When the honor guard men took part in the Fourth of July parade in Faith the past three years, people lined the route, saluting and applauding as they walked by. The men viewed the adulation as not for them but for the flag they carried.
“People in America are hungry,” Cauble says. “They’re hungry for patriotism. When we come in or the flag comes in, over the last three or four years …”
Craddock finishes the thought. “It’s changed.”
Cauble picks it back up. “I can see it. I can tell. We’re all proud to be part of this thing.”
Once, Lane couldn’t get the words out. Now he can’t keep them in.
“There are things more important in life than self,” he says. “We have a duty to country. America is free because of what our forefathers did and taught. Because of people like us, these principles will be carried forth. If we can influence some individual’s life through our actions in a positive way, it’s all worth it.”
“Absolutely,” Keeter says.
“Well put,” Craddock says.
“That will be our legacy,” Lane says.