Is there anything more dignified than a burial with military honors? And Edward Erxleben was nothing if not the very essence of the word. His final commendation by a Color Guard of his beloved United States Air Force was a fit and appropriate send off for an extraordinary gentleman.
An age in which a Chaz Bono or an Alex Rodriguez can gain some measure of national spotlight is neither dignified nor is it modest. When an Ed Erxleben departs this life, some cosmic scale tips a little closer toward the profane.
To use Leonard Cohen's expression, I was only permitted a fleck of Ed Erxleben's life. His health, not much good in the last 10 years, had begun to fail him. I loved one of his daughters. We had a falling out. So I was not around much toward the end of his life. But the times I was blessed to have been in his presence will never be forgotten.
I don't have extensive experience with military men. Or women for that matter. My father was a Seabee in World War II. I worked with a man who was in every deployment since Viet Nam. One of my best friends was sent to Iraq. What all 3 guys had in common was that they really didn't talk much about their service. And if they did, the talk never much centered around them.
They also had mutual disdain for those that would inflate their military deeds so as to make them appear like unto the second coming of Audie Murphy. I am told that there are any of a number of guys that hold themselves out as Navy Seals despite have nor more military experience than I do. This is amazing to me.
Ed only told me a couple of stories about his service. One was an absolutely fascinating tale of how the VC (he never lapsed into racial epithets) were in awe of the Buddhist Monks in South Viet Nam. They referred to the monks as "ghosts." Ed told me that while the monks were basically apolitical, they leaned toward assisting the wounded and the escapee. They could also be counted on for intelligence. Ed Erxleben's war stories-or at least the ones he shared with me-were highly nuanced and ego-free. And he told them very simply and quietly and without extraneous detail.
The positive attributes of military service informed Mr. Erxleben's life. Words like honesty. Integrity. Duty. Words which were spoken often during the service today only to hang in the air like sparks upon their utterance. To those wondrous attributes I would add "modesty" and "dignity."
These attributes may be undervalued in this loud and profane world. But despite my unfortunately all too few encounters with the gentleman I could see that they were the core of his essence. Our society is all too full of guys that are equipped with levers they don't know how to use. Edward Erxleben was a fulcrum.
I hugged his grandsons after the service. To my beloved Jack I said, "He was a helluva man."
And perhaps I should leave it at that.
Your grandfather was a hell of a man boys. He loved you all. He loved his wife and he loved his girls.
And they don't much make them like Edward John Erxleben anymore. A helluva man.