The Corporal came home Friday last, his casket nestled in the baggage-stacked womb of Delta Flight 2738.
The captain broke the news to the passengers as the plane taxied toward the gate at PTI Airport. He gave the Corporal’s name, but I shall not.
It had been our honor, he said, though we passengers had not known it, to accompany the young Marine on his return to his family and friends and to his final resting place — the captain did not say where. Nor did he say — presumably he didn’t know — the circumstances of the Corporal’s death.
He asked the passengers to remain seated and silent as the Marine who had escorted the Corporal home deplaned. Then we were free to leave.
But no one did. For several minutes, no one spoke. No one stood to retrieve their luggage. No one made a move toward the exit.
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From my window seat, I watched an SUV back slowly toward the cargo hold, which was almost directly below me. Two baggage handlers, whose job was to transfer to a waiting cart suitcases and boxes filled with mementos of other people’s vacations, did not seem to know what was expected of them in this unannounced holy moment.
Across the tarmac, 50 yards away, several law enforcement officers and military personnel stood, not in clusters but singly. Separate from them, short-sleeved, were a dozen or so people of varying ages — the family of the Corporal, I reckoned.
Slowly, the passengers on Flight 2738 began to retrieve their bags from the overhead compartments and move toward the exit, quietly, with a minimum of noise, and only necessary conversation.
Inside the terminal, 30-40 people pressed against the plate-glass windows and watched as the Marine funeral escort in dress blues approached the cargo hold in a slow, solemn march, so slow and solemn that it could scarcely be called a march.
A fallen hero? The Marine Corps must have thought so. In any case, he was one of their own.
A couple of people held their phones high and took photos of the silent drama being acted out in the baking August heat below. Those who spoke — there were few — did so in a whisper.
A woman, crying, took a seat next to her husband and rested her head on his shoulder. Were her tears for the grieving family — weeping with those who weep — or were they, unknowingly perhaps, for a brother or a boyfriend lost in another of our country’s conflicts?
The Marine escort received the Corporal’s casket from the conveyor, turned and carried it in measured steps to the waiting SUV, leaving the rear door raised, the red, white and blue pall visible. Then, their sacred task completed, they departed as slowly and solemnly as they had approached, as respectfully as they had done their duty.
The family and friends of the Corporal approached the SUV from across the tarmac, cautiously it seemed to me, as if dreading to see what they knew they had to see and do what they knew they had to do.
At the SUV, a woman — his mother I supposed — paused, then stepped forward and, collapsing, wrapped her arms around the flag-draped casket.
At that, the crowd that had gathered at the windows of the terminal quickly, quietly dispersed, embarrassed by what now seemed like obscene voyeurism, leaving the family and friends of the Corporal to grieve their loss in the privacy of an international airport tarmac under a threatening sky.