Remembering, wondering and weeping

The Baltimore Sun

"Ready! Aim! Fire!"

The crackle of rifles punctuated the air, followed by the metallic sound of the weapons being unloaded and reloaded by the men in uniform.

"Ready! Aim! Fire!"

Again, a unison volley as the triggers were pulled and the rifles discharged, followed by the cartridges being ejected and the guns reloaded.

"Ready! Aim! Fire!"

Once more, there was the crack of gunfire and the click and swish of spent cartridges being dislodged from their chamber.

"Attennnn-hut!" was the next command. There was a pause where the sound of muted sobs was all that could be heard. Then the painful sound of taps being played by the bugler filled the air.

My friend Richard Evans and I, age 6 or 7 at the time, were standing by the cemetery fence a couple of hundred yards behind our homes. We watched until the hearse and all the cars filled with mourners drove away and the gravediggers filled the grave, took down the tent and laid the flowers on the fresh mound of dirt. Then we walked to the place where the small American flag had been planted in the earth.

We scoured the grass looking for the shiny brass shell casings, scooped them up and went back to one of our yards to play.

We didn't understand much more than that a soldier who had gone to war and been killed was now buried in that place, and we had some souvenirs of that event.

Soon there would be a star by the name of that person on the Honor Roll of those who served that had been erected in the front of our elementary school.

More than six decades later, men and women are fighting in Iraq, and more than 3,400 have been killed. Tomorrow is Memorial Day, when we traditionally remember and honor our fellow citizens who have died in war. But those graveside rituals are occurring somewhere almost every day.

My grade school playmate is dead. I no longer live near a cemetery. I no longer hear the sound of the rifle's salute or the orders barked by the commanding officer, or the sound of taps, or the sobs of the mourners. I gather no spent shell casings from the graves. I see no Honor Roll in schoolyards that lists the names of those who served and the names with stars beside them of those who died.

But I see their names, their ages - 19, 21, 26, 32, 39, 45, 53 - and the thumbnail obituaries in the newspaper that tell how they died, the unit in which they served, and where they were based.

I see the photographs, "in silence and as they become available," on the NewsHour on PBS. I see the faces - faces I never saw before and faces that no one will ever see again.

In the pictures, they are usually smiling. I am crying, inwardly and outwardly, for the loss of all these lives.

I understand they died fighting in a war. I don't understand why they have had to die in this war.

I don't understand why there is this war. Its purpose is as empty as a shell casing. The tears are my souvenirs.

Philip N. Jurus, a jewelry designer, lives in northern Baltimore County. His e-mail is

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