Thursday, June 10, 2004

A soldier's view of a state funeral

In Thursday's Washington Post, Stephen Hunter writes an account of his role in the funeral for Dwight Eisenhower in 1969. I'm fascinated by the rituals associated with the military, and often moved by those traditions associated with state funerals. Hunter recounts the preparations that the privates went through, including multiple inspections and polishings, and the long stretch of time when he stood on the street waiting for the caisson bearing Eisenhower's body to pass by. Only then was he allowed to move, from one military stance to another. Today, Joel Achenbach writes about the honor guard in the Capitol Rotunda for Reagan's lying in state. It seems nothing has changed in 35 years, which is a good thing for this aspect of the military.

The closest I've ever been to what these soldiers go through is the time I had to substitute as a model for a Georgetown University art class. It was fall 1993, and I was a student worker in the Fine Arts department. One of the Drawing professors came in late in the afternoon, looking for anyone who could model for his figure drawing class. The regular nude model hadn't shown up. I agreed, but refused to do the job al fresco, and he said that was OK. I stood on a pedestal about five feet off the ground. For the first hour of class, he had the students draw quick sketches of me in various poses, most of which I chose: a quarterback with right arm cocked in a passing motion; playing an imaginary viola; variations on "The Thinker;" and so forth. For the last drawing, he asked me to assume a casual pose and hold it for about 20 minutes. No problem, I thought. I stood on the pedestal with my hands in my pockets, looking casual. For the first few minutes, I was fine. Then I started to notice some of the things Hunter mentions in his article: my heartbeat, my bladder, stiffness in various joints, etc. About fifteen minutes in, I felt lightheaded and the room started to go black. I knew I was about to pass out, but somehow I fought through it, shifted my position slightly, and managed to hold out until the class finished. Afterwards, one of the artists, an acquaintance, told me that he thought I was about to collapse; I had hoped that no one would have noticed. Anyway, the point of a long story is that if I couldn't get through 20 minutes standing with my hands in my pockets, I can't imagine how anyone could stand ramrod straight in a dress military uniform for hours at a time. It's just beyond my understanding.

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