Skip navigation
text size: default | enlarged——servicing readers in 130 plus countries——110 free stories
Genre: War or Peace
Back to Previous Page Review This Story Share This Story

The Medal

By: Bob Stubenrauch

Preview and purchase Bob's excellent book about WWII Cat Thirteen. Thank you for supporting the authors of WordShack.

The old soldier stepped stiffly down from the exit doors, last of a dozen people leaving. The bus pulled away into Washington traffic and the passengers it had brought headed across the green sweep of just-mown lawn. The route of the parade was by now well defined by the thickening crowd, four or five deep, on both sides of the boulevard that ran through the park.

The old gentleman wore his best suit, and while his step was somewhat less brisk at seventy-six, his bearing was as erect as ever. The gray suit was set off by a blue shirt and red striped tie. In his lapel buttonhole was the tiny bar of a military decoration. He rarely wore it since the death of his wife, Alice, seven years before. A long time to be alone, he reflected, then smiled at a flash of memory. He had often joked with her, that the lapel pin meant more to her, than to him. Her reply was always the same: "I want the world to know, here is an exceptional man!" So today, for Alice, he wore the bar with its scattering of white stars on a blue field, the Medal of Honor.

He paused at the boulevard curb and looked around. At this point the crowd was thin, the family groups laden with folding aluminum chairs and picnic hampers were further down where the splash of red and gold promised a close-up seat for the marching bands. He noted a half dozen motorcycle police were informally circled near him in the center of the road, and realized they were very likely the last of the units in the parade. The familiar thud of marching feet brought his attention to his left. A formation, he thought, yes, that would be the right term, although it was a bit ragged and rusty here and there, of men in a motley assortment of camouflage clothing who strode up to the police unit, and halted. Glancing to his right, the old soldier could see, several hundred feet away, the orderly ranks at parade rest, the flawless squares of color of the armed forces units, the Navy, Air Force, Army and Marines. Fascinated by the contrast, he studied the group before him. First, they seemed to exude a raw, nervous energy, and indeed their collective expression was one of near belligerence. Numbering perhaps eighty men, most wore berets, some fatigue caps, and some were bareheaded. A few carried unit guidons, and one man in the front rank carried a parade-sized American flag. Oddly enough, its straight row star design marked it as a forty-eight star flag, certainly not current issue, the old soldier thought.

Mentally inspecting them, the old soldier gave up before he had scanned two ranks. A surprising number were unshaven, several wore civilian shirts under their camo jackets and the word "motley" came forward again in his mind.

With an almost visible effort, he discarded his first impression and looked at them again. From the huge man leading them, a bearded giant wearing sergeant stripes, to the very last rank, they were his men, combat veterans all.

A war or two away from his time, his tour of duty, when destroying the Nazi war machine was the mission. But to be sure, the same men. But strangely, not easy in their role today, not relaxed and joking, as the VFW group he had passed earlier in the park. While the old soldier speculated, wondering to himself if this was a generational difference, or something deeper and alien to him, a jeep came down the boulevard parade route and stopped smartly before the big veteran wearing the sergeant stripes. A brisk, young, no-nonsense Major got out and motioning for one of the police officers to join him, was soon in an earnest discussion with the Vietnam veteran.

The Major was being adamant about something, that was clear. The old solider edged closer, noticed the gleaming jeep had a card on the windshield that said "Parade Marshal," and heard enough to understand the argument. The Parade Marshal, waving a list, wanted the vets to march after the police unit. It seemed they had not been planned for, and allowing them to parade would be a concession in itself. Seeing the color rise in the sergeant's face, the old solider stepped forward. "It's not my business, Major, I'm sure, but police units are always the `rear guard.' It surely wouldn't upset anyone if they followed this company of veterans, wouldn't you think?" The Major, a harried man today, got out one word. "Mister" - when his eye fell on the bar in the old soldier's lapel. He paused, and looked into the speaker's clear blue eyes. "Why do I have the idea you outrank me, sir?" he said. The old soldier smiled. "I may have once, Major, but today I'm just another spectator. I suggested this because we both know there are times you throw the plan away and improvise. What do you think?"

"It would seem the fair thing to do, and I can't imagine saying no to someone wearing the medal, your medal. I'd get a band down here for them, but we had one no-show, a bus breakdown in Maryland, so we are a little short of music," the Major replied.

As he spoke the old soldier looked past him into the park. The big sergeant and finally the Major turned to see what had attracted his attention.

In the parking lot deep in the trees, several red, white and blue busses and a semi-rig were unloading a youthful crowd. Clad in bright yellow uniforms, and wearing or carrying their shakos, they crowded around the semi trailer to claim their instruments.

"There is your music, I think," the old solider said. The Major hastily explained that the marching band would be far ahead, between the Air Force troops and the first complement of the American Legion, and not available.

"Major, I think I can improvise music from that bunch, they must have a hundred pieces. Let me see if I can get a fife and drum from them. I'll be right back." With that, the old man hurried across the park and within ten minutes was deep in conversation with a busy man wearing a yellow blazer and carrying a clipboard. To the Major and the sergeant watching, the distant pantomime produced amazingly quick results. The man in the yellow blazer looked around, selected two young men, brought them into the conversation, clapped each on the back, took their fur shakos from them, and waved the three of them off. The Major would never know why it had gone so easily, that the yellow-jacketed man had served in Vietnam and also recognized the ribbon bar for what it was.

The old soldier was striding back at a pace the two youngsters were hustling to match.

Slightly breathless, the trio joined the group. "Major, sergeant," the old soldier said, "here's your music. John Anderson here is your fifer, and Leroy Edward is your drummer. That's all the Continental Army had for a company, so I think they'll do you fine!" The grinning sergeant spoke first.

"Place of honor, boys, you get to make the last impression on the crowd today. We are pleased to have you. I see you left those heavy hats behind, which is just fine, because our band should be wearing berets!" Then in a bellow that made the old soldier start and the Major jump, the sergeant demanded two berets up front, on the double! Two hats appeared almost instantly and the two youthful musicians put them on and took up positions behind the big sergeant, flanking the flag bearer, but a rank behind.

The veteran soldier spoke. "I hope you lads know `Gary Owen' and `Rally 'Round the Flag?'" Anderson replied first. "I can play both of those, and I can tell you the crowd will expect `Tunes of Glory'!" Leroy, gesturing with his sticks, added, "When he's resting I got me a long, long, drum solo. It's called the `Connecticut Half-time,' and this crowd is gonna be doing some real stepping!"

At this, the Major gestured to the police contingent to form up below the Vietnam unit. This was followed by a flurry of salutes and farewell handshakes. The Major climbed back into his gleaming jeep and sped back up the line of march between the curbside crowd and the waiting marchers.

The old soldier debated with himself for a moment and decided he had better move up too or he would see none of the parade himself. Before he left, the Major had clipped a rosette to the veteran's breast pocket, allowing him to be anywhere on the boulevard he chose. Thus armed he strode off and fifteen minutes later was at a point near the reviewing stand, where the crowd was the deepest. He paused at a Girl Scout pack seated along the curb, debating whether to go any further as he was beginning to tire, much as he didn't care to admit it. Several folding chairs here were empty and the decision was settled by a friendly lady scout leader who urged him to join them. He settled gratefully into a conformable chair and prepared to enjoy the parade, due to start momentarily.

His mind returned to the Boy Scout unit he had just passed, forming up on the grass. A lanky blonde-haired boy with a loaded merit badge sash gave him a start. Forty years later it still happened the boy would appear, awkward, lanky and always blonde, and the terrible joy and pain would come surging back, twisted together forever. His Greg was a collection of memories, wrapped memories sealed in boxes stored away in an upstairs room, locked and still. Then a face, a gesture, a bicycle flashing by, this scout tugging at his sash, would explode the door open, wrappings would tear away, and the pain would rise to defy the years between. It would always subside and the old soldier knew at long last it was a condition that would never change, so he did what Alice had done, accept it washing over him, and simply wait it out.

The merit badge reminder was particularly hurting. Greg had been given the motorbike the week he made Eagle rank. They knew he would use it carefully and cautiously, but that didn't help at all when the oil truck ran the stop sign. Since then, nothing really helped.

With a start, the veteran realized the units were moving, each group on the lawn marching out onto the roadway, taking its place. A military band up the line started off with `High School Cadets.' Why, he mused, did he remember every Sousa march, but so little of the classical music Alice had so often played on the piano? Perhaps because he remembered Alice herself so well.

One unit after another marched by, the several bands all uniformly deafening.

He enjoyed it immensely. The crowd of young and vocal girls behind him were thrilled by it all, particularly the drum majorettes and twirlers, and he enjoyed their pleasure. Now came the veterans in large contingents, and he understood why the Major had been concerned. The last band was so far ahead these men marched almost in silence, the breeze only occasionally bringing the martial blare of distant music back faintly.

Then came a lone, shrill cry, a single fife sounding the opening bars of `Gary Owen,' accompanied by the echoing rattle of a single drum, and the last marchers came in sight. No smiles or waves to the crowd from these men. Eyes forward, they marched leaning into the music, matching the unexpected, brilliant precision of the two young musicians who led them with a cadence and step worthy of the Army Cadet Corps who had preceded them.

The old soldier rose to his feet for a better look, and briefly caught the eye of the big, bearded sergeant at their head. No smile from him either, but his right arm went up, and a dozen paces later, as the unit drew abreast, he bawled out a command: "Company halt!" The unit froze in place while their leader hurried around, just between the old soldier and his, the sergeant's, men.

"COMPANY-RIGHT-FACE!" With a single scrape and thud, eighty men and eighty pairs of jungle boots complied. "GENTLEMEN!", the sergeant roared, "THE CONGRESSIONAL MEDAL OF HONOR", he paused, "RIGHT HAND SALUTE!"

As the company had turned to face the crowd, the veteran also turned, looking over his shoulder to see the reason for this strange maneuver. With a start, he realized, even as the words registered on his brain, that eighty-one men frozen in salute before him were awaiting his response. He gave it. A firm, military salute that released the giant non-com. He about faced, bellowed the single word, "Front!" at his men, then hastened to his former position. Once here, a sharp, "Left face" followed by a hard-to-hear "Forward march!" set the company in motion once again. That final command was almost drowned by the wave of applause coming from those hundred or so spectators near enough to have seen the tribute. The old soldier waved to the crowd, then sat down again. "How Alice would have loved that!" he thought, "What a kind gesture!" Now came the roar of the motorcycles, as the neat ranks of the Police closed out the parade. He suddenly wanted to be alone, even as strangers squeezed his arm and said kind things that didn't register at all. Suddenly, the face before him was a familiar one, the Parade Marshal Major. "Hop in the jeep, sir, we can fall in ahead of your men, and go right to the end of the parade!" The veteran gratefully clutched at the diversion and got into the open jeep. The Major overtook the unit, swung in front of them, and slowed the jeep to a walk. Leroy was in the middle of his `Connecticut Half-time' and the vets and the crowd were loving it. Looking over his shoulder, the soldier felt the years roll away and the memory of past marches surge forward. Now the sergeant had his eye, and allowed himself a smile. The drum solo crashed to an end and Anderson's fife took it up with `Tunes of Glory.' The crowd applauded, the breeze lifted the old flag nearly straight out, and suddenly the old soldier felt very, very tired. He reached out to rest his hand on the rifle carrier, but this new and different jeep didn't have a rifle carrier, so his hand fell to his side. He wanted to lift his head and look around, -- the Major had been so thoughtful, -- to see the whole beautiful parade, but it was beyond him.

Then it seemed, he was out of the jeep, and incredibly, in water up to his chest. He must have dozed off, he thought, and the Major on one of his wild missions has managed to dump us in the Tidal Basin! He discarded this idea almost immediately, for there was no jeep, nor the Major, for that matter, nearby. He gazed about, with curiosity rather than anxiety as he strode through the water, sensing it was getting more shallow with a shore not far ahead. The breeze continued, the sun shone and nearby the parade continued, for the rat-a-tat of the drum and the cry of the fife were still in the air although the marchers were unseen.

The water was comforting, the sun warm on his face, and his stride strong and easy. Smiling, he thought, "It's another landing, another beach!" Drawing nearer to the line of surf, he saw a large tent, open on all sides. Now the water was at his knees and his stride grew longer. People were leaving the tent and gathering around awaiting him. The sun was behind them but he knew beyond thought he would know them all. Then a slight figure stepped out from the group and put her hand up to her eyes. The breeze stirred her hair and her gown, and Alice waited. A boy stepped out of the group. Awkward, gangling, hands thrust deep in the pockets of an old army field jacket, his field jacket. The breeze stirred his blonde hair. Greg, welcome in his eyes, waited.

The old, young soldier splashed through the surf and collided into Greg, embracing him, as the boy had raced to meet his father.

Arm in arm, they crossed the watery reach of sand. He looked down, the old, young soldier, as each foot pressed down on the sand and he saw the puzzle again. The wet sand, covered with the sparkle of the receding surf, drying out in a ring around each foot, then magically becoming wet again the moment he lifted his foot.

Again a flash of memory. Greg at five, at the seashore, pointing to his little feet, asking him to explain the puzzle he had just noticed. He couldn't explain the magic then, nor could he now. Even here, it still goes on.

It is all of a piece, he thought, seamless and if things have been, and are, and will be how can there be a beginning, a middle, or an end?

The distant murmur of the crowd, the rattle of the drum and the lilting notes of the fife were now far off, almost as though the parade had turned a distant corner, and a woods between had muffled the sound. Just as they faded out, one distant voice reached the veteran, even over Greg's eager chatter. The voice of the Major was heard, distant but unmistakable. The old, young soldier, running across the beach, matching his son stride for stride, heading for the group awaiting them, felt the last link part, and as it did, he thought, "Why does he keep saying, `He's gone, he's gone,' when I've only just arrived?"

About the Author

Bob Stubenrauch who lived from 1924 to 1998, was an artist, photograper and writer.

Born in Flushing, L.I., New York, he served as a Combat Photographer during World War II and was awarded a Bronze Star Medal for bravery. His combat photography team consisted of 3 people, a movie photographer, a still photographer (Bob) and a jeep driver who was responsible for delivering film if possible every nite back to headquarters for processing for information etc. to Washington, D.C.

He had 4 books published, 3 on his hobby which was collected cars, and one on the American Revolution. Three were published by Dodd, Mead, and one by Norton. They were text and photographs.

He is survived by his widow, Leah Goodman Stubenrauch and two grandchildren, Ryan and Kelly Stubenrauch. His two children predeceased him, both at the ages of 30, three years apart.

To top of page