A RED, WHITE, & BLUE MOMENT
By: Wayne Brown
I had one of those moments today when it became crystal-clear that we still have some amazing people in this country. This week I was on a three day business trip to Florida…out on Tuesday and back on Thursday with an important appointment on the day in-between. As with most “moments”, they come when you least expect them much like falling in love. This one brought some emotion for me which I had not planned for when the alarm rocked my world this morning in the hotel.
My trip took me to Jacksonville, FL on a Delta flight via Atlanta for a connection and then on to destination. Going in, things went pretty much as scheduled with a few spots of bumpy air along the way but nothing serious enough to cause delays or arrival problems. My appointment the next day went very well and I finished up with plenty of time to write up my report and close out the work without bringing it home to complete. I like getting things on paper when they are fresh on my mind and I understand the facts. So, by bedtime last night, I was ready to saddle up and head up to finish out the week.
The southeast had been a brew-pot all week for weather…mostly just the threat of rain but with some thunderstorms laced into it. That was the case when I arrived at the Jacksonville Airport this morning. As I checked in for my flight to the Memphis Hub for a connection on to Dallas, the gate agent informed me that my flight was delayed by about a half-hour. That was not a big deal except that I already had a tight connection in Memphis and he was pretty sure that I would not make it since it involved a terminal switch as well. On top of that, the chances of the weather going south in Memphis was forecast to get worse as the day progressed. That did not sound like the best option, so I waited and extra forty-five minutes, caught a flight for Atlanta and then routed to DFW from there. The weather was somewhat better in Atlanta so to speak.
Now we are back to what was always described in my military flying days “ops normal”, a shortened reference to the term, “operations – normal”, meaning all things are in their place and assuming their normal balance in the overall scheme of the world. I then found a comfortable chair and began my wait while reading a really good historical accounting of the days of President Garfield and his insane assassin, Charlie Guitai. This was my form of entertainment for the trip in both directions. I happen to glance up at the gate area where my original flight had been scheduled and looked at the board to see how late the flight was still running. Just my luck, the Captain had made up a half-hour and would be arriving at the gate on time. My Memphis route would have worked I thought but no sense crying over spilt milk anyway….things work out.
The leg to Atlanta went fine with a few minor weather bumps for some isolated conditions in the local area. A quick look out the window to the west told me that the pot was perking and at the very least I would see some weather on the route to Dallas. Never mind that I had a tight connection and a switch between terminals to deal with before my feet left the ground again, so I began to focus on moving through the crowed airport to my next departure point. It was a long hike running from the far end of one terminal to the center escalators, down, down, down into a hole in the ground; catch the train…hold on tight to the straps…this train is stopping! Then it was off the train and a reverse of the process back up out of the hole on the escalators and a long hike down the terminal. Sure enough, there was my flight just as they said that it would be with all the eager passengers massing like a bunch of ducks at feeding time on the lake. I grabbed a spot and got back into my book patiently awaiting the call to board.
The flight was full and I had an exit row window seat on the MD-80 aircraft bound for Dallas-Fort Worth. As the boarding door was closed, I realized that the seat beside me was going to remain empty…a special treat for a long time frequent flyer who missed his first-class upgrade today. I spread out a bit and enjoyed the comfort of the extra leg room in the exit row, all the time staying with my reading. As we crossed into Alabama and reached our cruising altitude of 39,000 feet, the air became rougher and a glance out the window let me know that thunderstorms were scattered about. The Captain came on the PA with his normal spiel regarding rough air and seatbelts and let us all know that he was doing everything humanly possible to produce a good ride to Dallas. That included set a new course north over Columbus, Mississippi, then on to Little Rock and down to the Dallas area…a route which avoided the most of the weather developing out of Louisiana. My old former weather-cautious navigator instincts came out and I tipped my imaginary hat to the Captain for his anticipation of poor circumstances. Far too many continue straight ahead and realize too late that it is just as far out of the forest as it is into it once one is halfway in….an old navigator adage.
We continued to bob and weave across Mississippi and Arkansas off of the turbulent air coming from the southern storms. Nearing Texarkana, the Captain addressed the passengers over the PA system with the arrival information on Dallas area weather, our arrival gate, etc. He then asked that we all remain in our seat once at the arrival gate. He cited he honor he had of being on a flight which was delivering the body of an American soldier home to loved ones for final arrangements. In an aisle seat toward the front of the passenger cabin sat a young Navy Seaman who was escorting the casket to its final destination. The Captain requested that we remain in our seats and allow the young Seaman to exit the plane and prepare for the removal of the casket from the cargo bay of the aircraft. This was interesting I thought in that for all the almost forty years that I have been flying commercially, I have never encountered this scenario.
As we continued our descent into DFW from the Texarkana navigation point, I continued thinking about the soldier in the cargo bay. “Is this the best we can do for them?” This was the question that kept repeating in my head. Why not just ship the body home via UPS or FedEx? Then I thought of all those who died in World War II that never made it home from places like Normandy and the Pacific Islands…even Vietnam. I found solace in realizing that someone was assigned to stay with this casket the entire trip and be there with the loved ones when it was delivered safely to them. So many families of soldiers who never came home again would have welcomed such care and closure. A part of me still said that we could and should do it better in light of all the money this country wastes on things so much less important. I lost the thought as we touched down on time at DFW and headed for the gate.
As we taxied into the arrival gate, the Captain again reminded us of the soldier and the escort. As the aircraft came to a stop at the gate position, the young, Navy Seaman rose up out of his seat in uniform with a crisply folded American flag tucked under his left arm. As he stood, the aircraft broke into applause for the young man. He turned and glanced at the lines of seats behind him and quietly gave a respectful nod to all of us and then he was out the door. The passengers remained in their sits for another five minutes and then began to gather their belongings and depart the plane. I stayed in my seat wanting to catch a glimpse of this process and assure myself that it was carried out with dignity. I also felt that this dead soldier had earned the right to depart this aircraft before I would.
I was sitting on the right side of the aircraft at the front edge of the right wing. I could see the baggage handlers mobilizing and preparing for the removal of the casket. Off to the right and out away from the mobile conveyor belt which was positioned at the cargo door, sat a very special cart. This was a baggage cart but the paint was impeccable on it letting one know at a glance that it had not been used in the baggage process. The cart was draped in a dark blue set of curtains with Delta symbols at the front and rear. An American flag was imprinted on the top portion of the drape which covered the roof of the cart. On the curtains which covered each side was a statement indicating that the cart had been provided by the employees of Delta Air Lines as a symbol of respect for the fallen members of America’s armed forces. I gazed of the window anticipating the sight of the casket being loaded into the cart.
The process was slow and I did not see anyone about that looked to be family or loved ones waiting to receive the casket. I wondered if this was just another transition point at which the casket changed aircraft or if the process only allowed the family to receive the remains at some other location. I am still wondering about that. I saw the Captain of our flight standing near the luggage belt watching the process closely. I could tell by his tone when he made the announcement that he was honored to bring this soldier home and I knew that he was down there to see that it was done correctly. He could have simply gathered his belongings and moved on but he took the time to care.
Slowly the casket began to emerge from the cargo door aboard the conveyor belt down to the waiting cart below. The casket was sitting on a wooden pallet, covered with a white shipping box and draped in the American flag carried by the young escort. At the bottom of the conveyor, baggage handlers positioned themselves carefully around the casket and delicately moved it to the cart just as I had hoped that they would…with care and respect.
As I gazed out at the box draped in the American flag sitting alone in the cart, I found myself wondering about this person. Who they were, what their hopes and dreams in life had been, how they came to be in the military, what had happened, and how many times since they had joined the ranks had their own mortality been on their mind. All these things rushed through my mind. I was reminded of my time in the military and those moments when it seemed that maybe I would not be returning home. Every person serving in the military is confronted by those thoughts at one point or another, and for each of them, every time they see the casket or an American soldier, the question arises…why they and not I? Lost in the moment, that is where I was. I thought about the loved ones waiting to see this casket for the first time and the sorrow they must feel. I thought of this shortened life and the lost hopes and dreams that went with it. I also reminded myself that here was a person still willing to voluntarily step up and serve the country and I was proud. I felt a tear roll down my cheek.
A flight attendant took the seat beside me to watch as the curtains were closed on both sides of the cart. Her entry into the seat brought me back to my surroundings and I was caught off guard with a tear on my cheek and eyes that were a bit too moist. For the moment I could not speak and she seemed to sense that yet ignored the emotion apparent on my face. She talked a bit about seeing this process at different locations in her travels and how each location did it a little differently but always with dignity and honor for the deceased. As she spoke, I gained enough time to return to the world and regain my composure. At that point the cart was slowly towed away and passed from my sight.
I was the last one to leave the aircraft other than the crew that still remained on board. As I gathered my belongings, I was glad that I had stayed and watched. In doing so, I was reminded that so many still do care and respect our military and its traditions…a point made by the way the passengers handled themselves on arrival. I was proud to know that we still have people willing to chance their lives and their futures for service to their country and I was sadly reminded that the price is still paid as I watched that casket taken from the aircraft. I also was overcome with a sense of pride that I too had the opportunity to serve which reminded me that I would always have a kinship with the soldier who occupied that casket.
My weather-bounced business trip had surprisingly turned into a very special moment at the end. It was a moment that I would have missed had I stuck with my original scheduled flights. It was a moment that seemed as if I was destined to witness it and fate was making sure of it. I had to smile thinking back on how my original flight had made up the time and left Jacksonville on time without me as I sat there waiting for the later flight that I opted to take. It was what I was supposed to do.
For all the times that I have come and gone at the airport, most of it is lost in the hysteria of people in too much of a hurry to notice anything. Much like the rabbit in “Alice in Wonderland”, they are “late, late for a very important date”. They busy themselves with mobile phone call after mobile phone call all the way up to the time that the cabin door closes and forces them off of it. At a distance, they look like very important people with a lot going on. Close up and within earshot, they become simply folks who cannot get through the next minute with hearing someone else’s voice on the phone…much like a child with a pacifier. One who travels regularly attempts to block all that out to avoid joining the insanity. There are no “moments” to remember that are worth remembering. Yesterday was different, it was a rare, sad, and wonderful moment in my life…it was a red, white, and blue moment which I will always remember.
May those who serve us in all parts of the world remain safe this day and come home to the rest of their life and their dreams. May God give them the courage and the grace to do the difficult task at hand for each and every one of them and keep them safe in that great endeavor. May those who have made the ultimate sacrifice know that it was not a sacrifice made in vain. Let those of us who remain see to it that no soldier died in vain to save the future of this great nation. God Bless America.
©Copyright WBrown2012. All Rights Reserved.
13 July 2012