Taps

Editorial Notebook

November 08, 2003

LIKE CLOCKWORK, five days a week, six or more times a day, the shining hearses pull into the Garrison Forest Veterans Cemetery, leading caravans of mourners up to a small stone chapel that offers a striking view of a sylvan landscape and its seemingly endless rows of small granite markers.

About 23,500 Marylanders are buried here, mostly veterans but also many spouses and dependents, and there's room for 23,000 more on the rolling 100 acres. The Owings Mills cemetery, one of five run by the state, is the second-busiest veterans' burial ground in the country; it marks its 20th anniversary Tuesday by hosting the state's Veterans Day ceremony. Maryland was the first state to begin burying veterans for free, and most other states have followed its model.

The interments here are highly ritualized and to the point. Mourners enter and leave the chapel in 15 minutes flat -- time for a few words from a minister or family member and for a three-man honor guard from the Maryland National Guard to play taps and go through the intricate drill of folding and presenting a large American flag to the next of kin. It's all done with military precision.

Garrison Forest's graves hold both a World War I vet and the first Marylander to die in the current conflict in Iraq, Marine Staff Sgt. Kendall D. Waters-Bey of Baltimore. One brilliant afternoon last week, another Baltimorean, Howard W. Bradford, 85, a former Merchant Marine and truck driver who earned a service ribbon as a corporal and mortar squad leader in the Pacific in World War II, joined them. "My daddy was very proud of being a veteran," says his oldest daughter, Blanche Wells of West Baltimore. "He told me that from jump street."

And so, accompanied by the constant crinkle of falling leaves and the occasional honking of distant geese, honor guard trumpeter Sgt. Greg Graf launches into the 24 melancholy notes of "Taps," the end-of-day signal adapted by a Union general during the Civil War from a French lights-out call. A tuba player studying to be a music teacher, Sergeant Graf frets over getting the piece's intervals just right. "It's such a well-known tune," he says. "If you make a mistake, everyone knows it."

His notes are barely done echoing when his honor-guard partners this day, Staff Sgt. Kevin Richardson and retired Pfc. Robert Siewierski, lift the large American flag from Mr. Bradford's coffin and, with a measure of subdued spit and polish, fold it with 13 triangles -- an elegant protocol that took weeks to learn and that they still regularly must practice. Then Sergeant Richardson drops to a knee before Mr. Bradford's family and offers the neatly tucked flag with the traditional words: "This flag is presented to you on behalf of a grateful nation as a token of appreciation for the honorable and faithful service rendered by your loved one."

Five days a week, six or more times a day, it goes more or less like that. Some interments draw only a few cars trailing a lonely hearse; a few back up traffic along most of the cemetery's mile-long loop road. At the solemn affairs, there are often tears, of course, but some are noticeably bookended by the gentle laughter of family and friends appreciating one another.

Mr. Siewierski says he's particularly glad to be involved in honoring those veterans for whom very few, if any, mourners show up. He recalls one particularly sad interment when no one came to retrieve a small plastic bag containing the dead veteran's belongings sent by a hospital. "Some veterans," Mr. Siewierski says, "this is all the recognition they will get, 15 minutes. We're the last ones to see them off. It's the least we can do. That's probably the best thing about this job."

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