The conductor stopped by my seat and advised me that we would soon be entering the Philadelphia rail-yards where the baggage car would be added to another train. He would advise the engineer to have it opened so that I could enter.
I thanked him and walked to the end of the car, stepping out onto the platform. When the train came to a stop, I stepped down and walked along the tracks until I reached the baggage car. I was met there by a brakeman who opened the car and allowed me entrance.
Soon I felt a jolt, and the car began moving on it’s own through the yard until it slowed and connected with another string of cars. I jumped down and waited until the brakeman had again secured the car door, assuring that my cargo would not be removed accidentally.
In a few hours, we arrived at Bethlehem, Pa, and I repeated the process. This time however, I waited and observed as they removed the flag draped casket and placed it in the waiting hearse.
I was eighteen and had been in the Air Force for less then a year. We were not at war, and I was safely stationed in Maine. But this was a friend. A buddy. A fellow airman who had died in an automobile accident. His wife had requested a military escort home, and that was now my job, made harder by the fact that I knew them both so well.
The hearse carried us to his hometown, a little mining town about an hour away. I met the family at the funeral home, and they offered me a place to stay, continuously questioning me about their son and his demise, trying to make some sense of his loss.
After a period of visitation, my friend was laid to rest. He was afforded a military funeral. A reverend spoke after which a salute was fired, and taps was played. The honor guard removed the flag from the casket and, after tri-folding it, gave it to me to present to his mother who sat weeping softly. A bereaved sister rose and threw herself across the casket, unable to control her grief.
That was over 50 years ago, and it could have been yesterday. It is still that vivid. I can relate to the extreme hurt and sorrow experienced by his family. By all the families of the young men and women who come home to say goodbye. The circumstances may change, but the result is always the same. And it never hurts any less.