The Unseen

December 3rd, 2008 § 0 comments

Sitting in the Dallas Airport once again on my way to Palm Springs, I passed my layover in the usual way by eating lunch and photographing out the window. Instead of catching the Obama plane like some I know, I witnessed something more sinister.

I thought at first a famous “someone” was boarding the plane fueling near my gate, as cars of an unusual kind drove outside the plane, and uncharacteristic people milled around the wings. I was taking pictures more out of boredom than interest, and I was watching mostly because the activity was happening in my direct line of vision. As I snapped away, the milling men directed a certain car into a specific place, and they themselves appeared to be assuming some kind of formation. The closer I watched the unfolding activity, the more I pieced together what was happening. The men were military officers in dress uniforms, and the car was a hearse.

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A young man seated next to me rose and walked to the window. When I realized what was happening I put my camera away, it suddenly felt disrespectful, and I too rose and went to the window. There was a ceremony taking place—the like of which I associate with movies where a folded flag is handed to a teary-eyed mother accompanied by discharged riffles—but this small gathering, in the middle of an international airport, planes taking off and landing, baggage carts and food trucks driving by in the background, felt truthfully ceremonial. I suddenly understood the need for all the stepping, saluting, line-forming, and marching; up against death our funerary customs feel like a lame acknowledgement of the limitations of our emotional expression. The woman who emerged from the car appeared to be the deceased’s mother; she made a lonely speck of black on the tarmac. I was expecting, but couldn’t really believe, what was going to happen.

As a family sat down behind me the father, noticing myself and the young man watching with intent and grimaced expressions, both of us braced against the glass inches from the pane, followed our gaze. He was much older than both of us, his own son was perhaps 10, and a flag-draped coffin emerged from the plane as he stepped next to me. The coffin the officers carried to the hearse looked exactly like those first pictures of the dead from Iraq, those controversial images that showed what we don’t like to see—that people die in these conflicts. The father sighed, the young man groaned, I turned to ask, “is that what I think it is?” He nodded and said, “a soldier.” It was a moment of hard reality, evoking a different kind of anti-war sentiment, the kind that does not blame so much as it grieves. We ask our army to kill and die, and they do both. The three of us were struck silent for different reasons, sharing an experience that rendered us unmoving. Our thoughts clanked audibly as we watched the mother greet the coffin.

In the midst of all of it the father called his son to the window, as his wife also approached she asked “who is it?” I knew he wanted to share this experience with his child, but the moment his wife saw what it was she jerked the boy away. He asked for several minutes what was happening, but she refused to answer. As we walked back to our seats, becoming again strangers in an airport, I overheard the father give a hesitant explanation. The son, who had not been allowed to witness or experience, didn’t seem to know how to respond, he didn’t know what it meant. I watched the blank look on his face, and finally he smiled and asked his parents eagerly if they wanted to hear a joke about a soldier who dies. Grossly inappropriate, but without malicious intent, it seemed to be the only thing he could link a dead soldier to, a joke. I wondered as he told his story how often we see the unseen, the hidden, the carefully excluded, and how much one coffin can say about our wars.

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