'Taps' for Abe: Echoes of Ceremony Linger
How does such a familiar melody as taps - being heard everywhere on this Memorial Day weekend - convey so much meaning, honor and respect?
"Its strains are melancholy, yet full of rest and peace," reads a phrase that perfectly describes this traditional military honor. "Its echoes linger in the heart long after its tones have ceased to vibrate in the air."
On a recent blustery April afternoon, those tones struck a new chord inside me as they rang out over the sea of monuments at Arlington National Cemetery. And their echoes still linger in my heart.
To the rest of the world, the man being interred there was a military man and pilot: retired Coast Guard Rear Adm. Abraham H. Siemens. But he was also a very loving and proud husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather - and my stepfather.
The Admiral, as he was called by friends in Whispering Pines and throughout Moore County, was a Christian, a staunch and very vocal Republican, and absolutely the most positive person I have ever known. A born performer, he played the piano and the harmonica, an instrument he would whip out and start playing in a flash whenever the notion took him. And, it took him often.
A few years ago, Abe added a new line to his repertoire. After being introduced as Abraham, he would grin and say that since he had lost most of his ham, he was now just Abe.
Funny thing that. Since I met him in 1995, to me he was always just Abe, the guy who met my mother in a piano bar in Vienna, Va., charmed her into inviting him to visit her in Oklahoma and then married her seven months later. The fact that Abe was closer in age to my grandmother than my mother wasn't a factor. Abe adored Mom, and she adored him.
A true force of nature, Abe bounded into my mother's life and fully embraced her, my sister, me and all of our family. Thinking back, I've realized that in all the time I knew Abe, I never heard him introduce himself as Rear Adm. Abe Siemens. Others would introduce him using the full title, but no matter whom he met, he always just said, "I'm Abe."
Maybe that's why the significance of that title and what it meant in terms of defining Abe and the service he gave to his country was lost on me for many years. Abe had retired from the Coast Guard in 1977. I was in grade school, light years away from the time we would become family.
Over the years, Abe would tell stories from his days in the Coast Guard. I knew he had been the commander on Governors Island and at Coast Guard Air Station San Diego, but most of his stories were of rescue flights and memorable landings.
Full Military Honors
When Rear Adm. Abe H. Siemens was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery April 28, nearly 100 people attended. They included family, friends and former Coast Guard Academy classmates.
Having never attended a funeral with military honors, I had no idea what to expect. As we drove toward the transfer point in the cemetery, we noticed a large number of people ahead. We wondered if they were there for Abe's burial, but decided they probably weren't. We were wrong.
In addition to the casket team (pallbearers), there was a firing party, a large escort platoon, a military band, a bugler, a military chaplain, a group of officers, including an admiral, who were serving as honorary pallbearers, a color guard and flag bearer carrying a two-star Coast Guard flag, and four riders on horseback.
The transfer of the casket from the hearse to the horse-drawn caisson began with drums and bugles playing ruffles and flourishes. (Ruffles and flourishes announce the arrival of a flag officer. The president gets four; Abe got two, one for each of his stars.)
The band played, the platoons stood at attention, and mourners watched with a mixture of sorrow and awe as the pallbearers transferred the flag-draped gleaming wood casket to the caisson. As the procession, with mourners walking or driving behind, headed toward the grave site, minute guns boomed across Arlington. Thirteen booms announced the rear admiral's arrival.
My first thought as I listened to the guns' thunder was that they were part of another funeral happening elsewhere in the cemetery. Abe's burial was the 28th of the day. His might have been one of the last, but it was definitely the grandest.
Sitting beside my mother, sister and stepsiblings at the grave site, I watched as the American military showed its respect and honor for the life and service of Rear Adm. Abe Siemens.
Scenes I'll never forget include the frozen stillness of the pallbearers and the solemn expressions on their faces as they held the flag stretched out level above the casket; the eloquent words spoken by the military chaplain as he talked about Abe and the man he was in the military and as a civilian; and a commercial airliner from Ronald Reagan National Airport flying across the bright blue sky, a fitting symbol for a man who loved flying.
Across the expanse of green grass dotted with simple white monuments, the military band played a march, the Coast Guard's anthem, "Semper Paratus," ruffles and flourishes, and "America the Beautiful." A cannon salute was fired, booming 13 times across the cemetery. The sound of each boom hung in the air as the next one sounded.
As the chaplain concluded his remarks, I noticed members of one of the platoons standing across the hill from the grave site lift their rifles to their shoulders - seven of them with three rifle volleys ringing out.
As the rifle fire faded, a lone bugler standing apart from everyone else played taps. The notes sounded across the cemetery as clearly as the minute guns had, honoring not just Abe but all those who were buried around him and throughout the cemetery.
The tones were still vibrating in the air as the pallbearers began the formal folding of the flag that had been draped over Abe's coffin with crisp, military precision. The folded flag was passed to the admiral, who then presented it to my mother with these words: "On behalf of the president of the United States, the commandant of the Coast Guard, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one's service to country and the Coast Guard."
Then he and the other Coast Guard officers in attendance filed past, shaking our hands and extending their sympathy. One officer handed my mother a note from Admiral Thad Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard.
Escorted by a member of the Army's 3rd U.S. Infantry (The Old Guard), Marla Vickman stepped up to my mother. Vickman is a member of the Arlington Ladies, a group of women who volunteer to attend funerals at the cemetery so no serviceman or woman is ever buried alone. She whispered her condolences and thanked our family for our service to the country.
More Than Just Abe
I thought about that later - how she and the officers thanked Abe's family for our service to our country. I felt a bit guilty. I hadn't sacrificed anything - not the way Abe's first wife and their children had as they moved from place to place as their husband and father was deployed to different Coast Guard stations.
I hope as Abe looks down on me from heaven he knows how much I loved and respected him. While I might not have completely understood what his service and ranking meant while he was here on earth, I do realize he was so much more than just Abe.
My sister says just when she thought to herself that one more honor would be her emotional undoing, a whoof-whoof-whoof sounded behind us.
As I looked over my shoulder toward the sound, two orange Coast Guard helicopters rose from behind the hill and flew over the grave site and the gathering of mourners. It was a magnificent moment - Abe, the Coast Guard pilot, was being honored with a flyover.
It was absolutely perfect, like a scene from a movie, except I had to tell myself I was actually living this whole experience.
Maria, the family liaison at Arlington, told my sister that Abe received everything possible with his burial. That, when it came to the military honoring its own, he had gotten the works.
The great thing about Abe, who never played the rank card, is that he wouldn't have asked for any of it. But he would have loved every minute.
Contact Martha J. Henderson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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