Thursday, March 31, 2011
IN MEMORIAM: ZACH ECKHART, ONCE MY STUDENT
Those of us who work in the English Department at Virginia Tech get to see a lot of Tech’s Corps of Cadets. Located in Shanks Hall on the Upper Quad of campus, the English Department is more or less surrounded by Corps dorms. We see the freshman cadets in their first semester walking on the far right of every sidewalk and making only right-angle turns as they walk to their classes. We watch as the cadets, often in shorts and t-shirts in the middle of winter, do sit-ups and pull-ups and leg lifts at the physical-training yard just across the way. We see them doing their marching drills on the half-acre of grass just outside. We hear the Highty-Tighties, the Corps’ regimental band, practicing; sometimes the drums and trumpets distract us, just outside our windows, as we try to teach. We all stand and walk a bit straighter on our good days, influenced, whether we’re aware of it or not, by all those uniformed young men and women with their perfect military posture. Occasionally, we look out our windows and see them with presumably unloaded guns, in full combat outfitting, giving and receiving orders, crawling here and there, aiming at nothing, we hope, practicing for the things that military people must practice for and that we would prefer not to think about. The cadets have always made me proud and worried and a little sad.
Tomorrow, Friday, April 1, 2011, at 3:00 p.m., Zachary R. Eckhart, who graduated from the Corps in 2007 and from Virginia Tech in 2008, will have his name officially dedicated on the Ut Prosim pylon on the Drillfield at Virginia Tech. Zach was in the navy. He was killed when his training aircraft crashed in Georgia on April 12, 2010. “Ut Prosim,” for you non-Hokies, is Latin for “That I may serve.” It is the motto of Virginia Tech.
Zach was my student in First-Year Composition in the spring semester of 2004. Like many freshman cadets, who frequently are shouted out of bed for grueling physical training at four in the morning, Zach often showed up for our late-afternoon class exhausted. (I once had another exhausted cadet who, only once, fell asleep noisily in my class. He was so humiliated when I gently woke him that he insisted on standing in the back of the classroom for the rest of the class, in order to punish himself, I think, and so that he would not behave so disrespectfully—as he alone saw it—again. He earned all our respect that day.) Zach never fell asleep in class, always showed up, did all his work on time and according to instructions, and was unfailingly pleasant, polite, and unpretentious. He behaved, in a word, like a freshman cadet. I don’t remember much about his class work or discussion contributions beyond that; he was one of those under-the-radar students. He got a B in the class (I just looked it up)—more than respectable for an Engineering major in First-Year Comp.
I soon lost track of the rest of my students in Zach’s composition class, but not Zach. Living and working as we both did on the Upper Quad, we would run into each other frequently, on the sidewalk (as an upperclassman, he no longer had to walk on the far right) and in nearby Schulz Dining Hall. I’d say, “Hi, Zach.” He’d say, “Hi, Mr. Weathers.” I’d ask him about his classes, he’d say something, in his quiet manner, and we’d go on our way. For four years, I watched him grow less skinny, more into a man. I saw other cadets treat him each year with more and more respect. He was often dressed in his Highty-Tighties uniform. I’m embarrassed and disgusted that I can’t remember what instrument he played in the Corps band. I think he was in the brass section.
I liked Zach. I enjoyed seeing him grow up. That’s all I have left to say about my feelings for him. He was 25 when he died, the ninth Virginia Tech graduate to die during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Zach didn’t die in combat. That makes no difference.
I won’t be able to go to the Pylon Ceremony for Zach; life calls me to other things at that hour. I hope to be where I can hear the Corps cannon fire in his honor. I won't be able to hear the Corps band play Echo Taps, which is just as well. This blog post is my way of remembering Zach. It’s all I can do. It’s pretty much nothing.