My friend Mike died over the weekend after another battle with cancer.
I knew him through poker games he ran at his house, which were always fun and filled with a group of nice people. Mike didn’t take a rake from each pot, only asking each of us to pay $20 at the start of the session to cover the food and drinks (often including dinner). You don’t find many home games run that generously.
The first time I played, the group of regulars in the game had already been meeting every Friday for several years. I was glad to be included, but didn’t think I’d be invited back after beating Mike for all of his chips twice in the session (in his own living room). Mike wasn’t happy, of course, but he didn’t hesitate to invite me back the next week. He wasn’t in it for the money. He ran the game because he wanted to play poker with his friends — and we did, for several years.
Mike’s funeral was yesterday, and all the poker players were there along with his large family, business associates, and friends. There was an open casket, which revealed Mike holding two cards face-down and a red $5 poker chip that had been lost since he’d opened a brand new personalized set of chips he bought for his very first home game. It wasn’t until after he died that his wife, Maureen, found the chip. She decided it should remain missing from the set forever by being buried with Mike.
After the memorial service at the funeral home, we all went to the cemetery, where a military honor guard was waiting to salute Mike for his Army service, including two years in Vietnam. In addition to the three-man guard in their dress uniforms attending the casket, there were also members of the VFW on hand to fire three ceremonial shots. And next to them was a young soldier, also in dress uniform, holding a bugle.
The Pentagon has a severe shortage of buglers, and especially during the dozen years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of soldiers — and veterans — dying has been too large for the bugle corps to cover every funeral. After the shots were fired, I noticed the soldier reach into the bell of the bugle and flick a switch. Then he held the mouthpiece to his lips while a recorded “Taps” played from a speaker inside the horn. The soldier made no attempt to pretend he was playing it — his cheeks didn’t go all Dizzy Gillespie — and his breathing didn’t change as it would if he were performing. When the recording ended, he lowered the bugle, reached into the bell to turn the switch off, and returned to standing at attention.
Next, the sergeant in charge and one of his corporals lifted the flag off Mike’s casket and crisply folded it into a triangle before presenting it to Maureen, as the sergeant told her, “On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”
With that, the ceremony was over and we dispersed back to our cars. I asked several other attendees if they’d noticed that the bugler wasn’t playing, but they hadn’t. I’m sure Maureen and the rest of Mike’s grief-stricken family didn’t, either, nor do I think it would have — or should have — mattered. Having a “live” bugler wouldn’t have changed a thing. The gesture and the ceremonial honors sufficed.
We poker players decided to honor Mike in our own way. We each made a small donation to his grandkids’ college fund, and then we went to the house of one of the other players and started a game in his memory, telling jokes, making fun of each other, eating unhealthy food, and sharing stories about him.
We’re pretty sure that’s what Mike would have wanted. And it’s a good thing it wasn’t recorded.