Patriot Riders: Respecting our Country’s Fallen Heroes

220px-PatriotguardThe frost on the ground is starting to crack under the weight of the sun. I look out the window waiting for something ridiculous to pass by on the country road as it often does. Once I saw carnival equipment pass by, I had no idea where they were headed to or coming from. It made no sense. The two lane highway outside my home leads to the next town, but there’s no reason for loads of carnival equipment to be heading past. A bright pink elephant teacup ride caught my eye — the cups were rotating slightly to the left and it looked like those elephants were smiling at me from their perch. At least that is what the 12-year-old inside of me wanted to assume.

Now a gorgeous blue Harley rolls up in front of the funeral home, blue as an oceanic blue. The fellow backs his bike in. I watch him move the bike back and forth and jimmy it right into place. He is a precise gentleman; although it’s not called for, since there is ample parking and he is the only vehicle in sight.

Even with the sun out, my poor, size eight dogs have been cold and barking but now I have to slip my black heels on and saunter out to see what exactly is going on. By the time I get to the bike the gent has taken off his helmet and I can read the title “Patriot Guard” emblazoned on the back of his crusty leather jacket. I know this guy is with the military but not quite sure why he is here. He tells me that he and the guys plan to ride in the missing man formation tomorrow and will stop by my parlour to pick up Mr. Basil’s urn.

Patriot_Guard_Riders_flag_lineupPatriot Guards attend military funerals to show honor and respect to our country’s fallen heroes, their families and their communities. They also shield the procession from protesters. At the head of a seemingly unending column is the position of highest honor. It is the “Missing Man” formation. The five-man segment has two riders in front and two in the rear. The fifth rider in the middle rides on one side, leaving an open spot for a missing rider that symbolizes those who have fallen. The leader has the honor of riding alongside that empty space.

Look at that Rider

Wind in his face

Hand on the throttle

Setting the pace

First spot on the right

Is unoccupied

A Rider that’s gone

Should be by his side

A place of honor

Is that first bike tonight

Our friend that is gone

Rides to his right

Too early He’s taken

Our Brother that’s gone

His face we still see

As we ride on

patriotMy biker has a large flag wrapped up on a pole which extends behind his bike and I can see yellow on it. We talk for a bit and his old crusty hands pull out a smartphone from inside his chaps. He wants to read what the captain wrote to him so I know what’s going on. He’s arthritic and it’s hard for him to get his glasses on to read.

I start thinking about what his life might have been decades prior. A young guy in his 20’s and 30’s riding without a helmet, with his hair in the breeze, listening to the lyrics of Kansas or Boston or Lynyrd Skynyrd. Now his hands are stained with nicotine, his knuckles broken up, and cracked fingernails strain to push the buttons on a smartphone. His kid probably gave him the phone to make his life easier but it just makes his life all that more tricky. He looks up with misty eyes.

slkirkpatrick-funeral-services-photo-01He stands there with phone in hand, tears now coming. This encounter with grief is overwhelming for me. It really is true what they say about having to see a grown man cry. There is unnaturalness about it. I stand and wait for him to speak.

“I lost my best friend a month back. His Hog just didn’t take a turn and he hit a tree head-on. I just came from the spot. It is right down the road. I feel all broken up inside. My grieving period is long, stretching all month. Can you help me, lady?”

This is why I am here. I can be a bright light in the dark woods for a man who has rolled up on a beautiful blue Harley, right to my front door.

I advise, “One of the most effective ways is to let yourself grieve and do so without rushing the process. Grief takes its time and it can be draining. It’s all so deeply personal. There is no right or wrong way to express it. You need to go through your own process and make your own peace with the deck of cards that God or universe or the powers beyond our comprehension have dealt you.”

He pulls out a navy blue hanky and cries; I’m composed. He points his finger up the road and it takes me longer than normal to realize it’s just a general sort of pointing gesture.

“I really miss Ramona. That’s my woman. She runned off ‘cause I was just a big baby crying all the time over my friend. You want to know the biggest thing I miss about her? It’s having that person I can run to that loves me. The Carpenters have a song called “Superstar” and there’s a line that always stood out that she’s running to find the person who loves her, the person that loves me. Its knowing that there’s somebody that will be waiting on the other end of the phone when I figure out how to use it, who is excited when you push their phone number to tell them about every good thing or bad thing or dumb thing a stupid thing. Or that billboard you saw that made you laugh, or that person that you always see that you have a hidden nickname for. Just little things. You know what I mean?”

Do I ever. “It’s that partner you share the mutual joke with who you know so well that you probably can guess what they’re doing when they pick up the phone, who actually will hug you and tell you that you are going to be fine, even when you are pretty sure you won’t be.”

A very slight smile comes to his lips. I can barely see it under that bushy, unkempt ‘stash, but I do believe he is feeling our connection. He nods. “I always feel so isolated, so lonely knowing that I will quietly get dressed in the morning and quietly make my way out the door to quietly make my ride to work to know that and know that I will only work a full day and return home alone again. Something about that seems so empty. I should get a cat.”

He reaches out to hug me. I smell unfiltered cigarettes and not much showering, but its so mild compared to the healing that has begun.

“Lady, you really helped me out. I am going to get on my bike and head out yonder and know that I am not alone in this word. Thanks a million.”

With that I watch him go through the process of getting his gloves on and startling all the birds in the trees with the thunder of his bike. Before he rides off down yonder, he tells me that someday soon he will put the baffles back in his exhaust pipes.images

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