It’s Memorial Day, and there is never a year that goes by that I don’t remember the moment I wrote about below. I’ve been trying to write it for years, and I just felt like I could never capture it. I’m not sure I have done it justice now, but I finally decided that I had no chance if I didn’t at least try. So I did.
“This is the captain from the flight deck. We’re now making our final descent into Raleigh-Durham. The local weather is 80 degrees, with overcast skies, and a chance of rain. We’ll have you on the ground in just a few minutes.” It was a short flight from Atlanta back to Raleigh. I’d just gotten through with an interview and I was pretty confident that Aflac would offer me a summer internship. Just a few more months and I’d be off to work for the summer.
The plane jolted onto the runway and the captain came on again. “Thank you for flying with us and welcome to Raleigh-Durham. When we get to the gate, we’d ask you to remain in your seats for a just a few minutes to allow a military escort to get off first.” We pulled up to the gate and when the seat belt sign went off, a young man in an Army dress uniform moved quickly down the aisle. He was alone, and I wondered briefly who he was escorting, but my curiosity was quenched in the commotion of leaving the plane.
I stepped through the gate door into an unusually quiet terminal. There was a crowd to my right pressed against the window, their faces lit by flashing red and blue lights. I pulled my bag over to an empty spot and pressed my forehead up against the glass, putting my hands up to block the glare from the bright lights behind me. Outside, next to several local police cars, the young escort who had gotten off the plane was standing at attention next to the belt loader that was pushed up against the open baggage hold.
A dark car pulled up, and the soldier snapped to attention as the door opened and two women got out, one supporting the other. They watched the belt begin to move. Four more soldiers in full uniform stepped up to either side of the belt, and from the belly of the plane the nose of a flag covered coffin appeared. The women pressed in to each other until I couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began. The four soldiers took hold of it as it rolled out and then lifted it onto their shoulders. They moved slowly toward the back of the hearse that I hadn’t noticed before. I watched as they loaded the coffin, as they closed the door, as the escort lowered his hand, as the women got back into the car.
Around me, the terminal began to come back to life. People who had been saluting along with the escort lowered their hands. Some rifled through their bags and pockets looking for tissues or handkerchiefs. Others answered children’s questions in lowered voices. I stood there until all that was left to see were suitcases making their way down the belt. Then I turned and walked back into life, dragging my red bag behind me.