This summer, NolaVie is running a Throwback Thursday series, where we revisit some of our favorite articles from the past. For Independence Day, we’re running a double throwback (see today’s other throwback with LOVE NOLA too). Keep reading to find out more about Renee Peck’s patriotic reflections from last Fourth of July.
It was a hot June day, and I was sitting in O’Hare airport in Chicago, waiting for a flight change in the midst of delays and frustration on my way to my youngest daughter’s college graduation in New Hampshire.
I noticed that a crowd had started gathering to my right, in front of the floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the concourse. Half a dozen, a dozen, then 20 or more in number, they stopped, juggling a little for position, gazing silently through the glass.
I strolled over, wondering what might be happening outside the gate to cause such a stir — gas spill, blown tire, luggage-truck pileup, runaway pet, jetway breakdown?
At first, nothing seemed amiss. An airplane was parked at the gate, cargo door open, a jetway securely in place against the metal skin behind the cockpit.
But then I noticed a line of men and women, 18 people or so, standing shoulder to shoulder on the pavement below, parallel to the plane, facing the cargo door. Some wore uniforms – firemen, baggage handlers, airline personnel, an Army logo or two. All stood rigidly, eyes riveted on that cargo door.
Two men appeared out of the blackness in the plane’s belly, holding … a flag-draped coffin. Carefully, they set it down at the top of the belt leading from cargo-hold lip to concrete. The red, white and blue of Old Glory stretched tautly across the box, its corners wrapped as precisely and tightly as any private’s cot.
As one, the observers standing below raised hands to foreheads in a long and silent salute. From somewhere beneath us, a septet of soldiers, stepping slowly in unison, came into sight. They slow-marched to the base of the luggage belt, where they stood facing one another in two rows of three, an officer a short distance behind, all waiting solemnly to receive their fallen comrade.
The coffin rolled slowly down the belt. As it came to a stop, the soldiers lifted it carefully, unwilling but respectful pall bearers, and delivered it to a flag-bedecked luggage truck nearby. As it rolled away, the honor guard marched precisely behind, they and the unlikely hearse inching into the distance until both were lost to view.
Inside the concourse, a story higher and a lifetime away, we observed in silence. No one spoke, not a whisper, as we watched that red, white and blue coffin roll slowly down the ramp and embark on the final mile of some unknown American soldier’s journey.
I’m sure that the 30 or 40 people standing together that day in O’Hare airport, caught collectively in a snip of time while winging their ways to disparate cities across the U.S., were as diverse as any haphazard crowd tends to be — in age and background, race and political views, gender and income.
But I will tell you one thing that we all had in common at that moment: A deep sorrow for that fallen soldier and an appreciation for the ritual and reverence shown by the soldiers and workers in attendance.
I know, too, that I was by no means the only stranger in that crowd, on a hot day in June in a crowded terminal in Chicago, in the midst of a long afternoon of flight delays and frustration … with tears streaming down my face.
Happy Fourth of July, America.
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie.