As we approached the gate for the second leg of our cross-country trip, I noticed that folks had gathered at the window looking out onto the tarmac. Some had cameras raised, video-taping something that was happening outside. Thinking that perhaps some celebrity was arriving on a private plane, I approached the group to see what was going on that was causing such interest. As I peeked over the shoulder of the man in front of me, my heart fell as I realized that this was no celebrity arrival. There were no paparazzi; there were no limousines in site – unless you can call a hearse a limousine. Next to the hearse stood an Honor Guard with the US flag held high and the flag of Colorado tilted forward beside the red, white and blue. Beyond the hearse and Honor Guard was a small group of people huddled together as much for emotional comfort as against the cold Colorado winter. Their arms around each other, I immediately imagined some of their pain and my tears started to flow.
I read an article a few weeks ago about why some people cry more than others. I was interested in the article because I’m a crier. Happy times – I cry. Sad times – I cry. Touchy-feely times – I cry. I can’t remember from the article what it is that makes some of us criers and some not, I just took comfort in the fact that there is some biological or hormonal reason and let my tears flow even though I appeared to be the only person in our solemn group who was moved to tears.
While we waited for what was surely coming next, I was amazed to see that the group around the hearse also included many airport workers in their navy blue work clothes and bright neon safety vests. None of them moved to handle baggage like those farther away from this aircraft, none of them saluted like those in the Honor Guard, they did not huddle together like the family and friends, but they stood stoically, almost at attention, as they waited.
It wasn’t long before another red, white and blue flag could be seen – this one was not held high on a staff; this one draped the coffin that was emerging from the belly of the airplane. An airport worker, squatting on his haunches, held fast to the back of the coffin as it descended the baggage ramp. At the bottom, six uniformed men approached, three on each side, picked up the coffin and carried it slowly and carefully into the waiting hearse.
I don’t know who was inside that coffin, who his or her friends and family might have been, in what capacity he or she was serving our country, but I do know that the reality of seeing that flag-draped coffin will stay in my mind and heart forever. As people began to disperse and the airport workers went back to their jobs, they pulled from the belly of the plane a large, long cardboard box – obviously the functional outer covering of the casket we’d just seen so honorably draped in our country’s flag. On the outside of the cardboard box was stenciled the words, “Handle with Extreme Care”.
Strange. It seemed it was a little too late for that.