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 I could enter.
I thanked him and, gathering my flight bag, 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 the flag draped casket was removed and placed in the waiting hearse.
I was eighteen and had been an airman for less then a year. We were not at war, and I was safely stationed in Maine. But this was a friend. A fellow airman who had died in an automobile accident. His wife had asked for a military escort home, and that was my job, made harder by the fact 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 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.
The following day, he was laid to rest in a military funeral. A reverend spoke, a salute was fired, and taps was played. His sister threw herself on the casket, sobbing uncontrollably. The honor guard tri-folded the flag and gave it to me to present to his mother, who wept silently.
To this day, I still relive the emotion of that moment. I think of the extreme hurt and sorrow experienced by the families of our young men and women who come home to say goodbye. The circumstances change, but the result is always the same. And it never hurts any less.
From the archives September 2012