I was flying on business not too long ago, going from Philadelphia to Dallas. After we had reached, as they say, “our cruising altitude”, the pilot came on to give the usual run-down of how the weather was in Dallas, how smooth the flight would be and so on. All very typical and forgettable – I was barely paying attention. Before leaving us though, to our various ways of passing the time, he said he had one more piece of information to pass on: he wanted us to know that we had the honor of escorting the remains of a fallen American service woman back to her hometown in Dallas. A casualty of the war on terror. It is unusual to consider a body in the hold of an airplane – your airplane. Especially of a person killed, I assume, violently. Especially of a person that died, I assume, well before their time. Especially of a person who perished performing a job to defend you.
My thoughts silently coursed along lines similar I am sure to many of the other passengers. There was, I admit, a morbid curiosity as to what had happened – how had she met her end? Once more, I found myself struggling with the harsh reality and hard questions of our world today. I thought of her family, waiting at DFW, to retrieve the body of their daughter, sister, cousin or niece. I thought of ones who are dear to me.
After we landed the stewardess asked us to close our shades to keep the plane cool for the next passengers. People began to de-plane. She then came back on the intercom and said if we wanted to see an emotional scene we should look out of the plane’s right side. Shades went back up. A few years ago I cut a picture from a magazine. It depicted a plane at night, but the cabin was lit so you could clearly see the passengers inside. They were looking out and down at the coffin of a fallen service person as it was unloaded from their jet. And now here I was playing out that same, exact scene. I saw a white hearse pull up underneath the wing. As I started to walk down the aisle I saw a white box with an American flag on it, removed from the hold. Then that was it. I was out.
What do I believe? I believe that sometimes I forget too easily; that, being too busy, sometimes I’m guilty of letting things pass over me, rather than through me. So I write this in order to remember and to keep wrestling over its meaning to me. Like the grasp of a child’s hand, there are times when our lives are intertwined with a thing much larger than ourselves. We honor, and profit from them by engaging them. They can be the very cloth from which our beliefs are cut, but we must first accept the invitation. This I believe.