This is an old piece I wrote back in November of 2011.
I’m at the Philadelphia airport, waiting at the gate, watching people fingering their phones. There is anxiety in them, but not of the upcoming flight. It seems they are afraid of being disconnected from their virtual world beaming through three-inch screens.
The groups of power-flyers are boarding in order of hierarchy: Premium Executive, Fastpass Executive, Executive, Fastpass Premium, then just plain Premium. I wonder if the “Premium Executives” feel slighted by having the lowly “Premiums” in their title. The host at the gate announces that members of the military in uniform may board at any time. A Marine in full dress is in line at ease, but doesn’t look anywhere close to it.
I pass through first class and notice the Marine. He looks like he should be on a movie set, not American Airlines flight 1733 to Phoenix. The Marine is stoic and sits stiff in his seat, but there is something in his eyes. Anxiety? Longing? Dread? I don’t know.
The cockpit doors close and a few analog challenged individuals catch the last radio waves they’ll get for the next two hours. One last text. One last tweet. One last digital fix.
Over the speakers the captain extends his gratitude for veterans that have served. Today is Veterans Day, I forgot. That explains the accommodations for the Marine. The captain continues and acknowledges the presence of two military personnel on board. I was in Group 3, the ninth and last group to board, but I only noticed the one Marine.
The other Marine is 25 year old Private Nick Daniels and he is in the belly of the plane. We are stopping in Chicago, where we both grew up. He went to Saint Patrick’s highschool in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. The two Marines will be getting off together when the plane lands.
Nick was killed in action in Afghanistan.
A baby cries behind me and I wonder where Nick is. Maybe he is right under us. A beginning, and an end, in such close proximity. It seems perverse thinking about it so I try to stop.
The sun sets and we begin our decent into a dark Chicago. As we near the airport, O’Hare’s cluster of lights grow larger and less dense. I notice a concentrated area of blue and red flashing lights. I think there’s been an accident on a runway.
I don’t see any other activity on the runway and this corroborates my accident assumption. The plane navigates through the runway lanes and makes a U-turn. I can see the airport now and all the flashing lights, but I still don’t know what’s going on. The captain turns the nose of the plane towards the lights.
Nick was an American Airline mechanic and O’Hare International Airport was shutdown for Nick’s final arrival. A dozen police escorts, three fire trucks and a sea of neon yellow safety vests are at the gate H8. Almost a hundred ground crew members are forming a half circle around the opening of the place’s belly. With a showing like this, you know Nick was liked by all.
Six marines stand in formation as we taxi up to the gate. It takes a while for the vehicle with the conveyor belt to pull up to the plane’s belly. The Marines are still while the ground crew does what they do. They stand there as if they had been there before O’Hare was built.
I’m the only one who is not at my final destination. The passengers look out the windows as they check overhead bins and shuffle out of the plane. The windows of the airport have people lined up against the glass. Hundreds are watching what all the commotion is about.
Some people on the place aren’t leaving and the captain urges them on by saying, “You can get a better view from the airport”, but he’s lying. Aside from being on the ground, witnessing this from the windows of the plane is the best seat in the house and soon I have it all to myself. It’s just me and Nick on the plane.
I wander from row 30 to 15, then first class for a better view. The white casket moves along the conveyor belt and the six marines are Pall-bearers. A flag poll is illuminated with a safety light and the Marine and American flag is raised up. They take Nick away and the crowd slowly disperses.
The plane is grounded for a while and I get off to grab dinner. I re-board the plane with a fresh set of faces. As quickly as Nick’s presence came to my attention it is fading away. Weather talk ensues as it inevitably does when a group of Phoenicians head back from Chicago. I try to ruminate on what just happened and wrap my head around the fact that this kind of thing happens all around the country in different forms.
The transience of it all hits me like a ton of bricks. I’m not moved very often. The sight of the ground crew made me miss Nick. I’ve never seen him. I only heard of his existence two hours ago at takeoff. The belly of the plane feels a little emptier now.
I would like to show my gratitude to the O’Hare ground crew of American Airlines. You reminded me of Veterans Day when I walked on the plane. I walked off knowing I’ll never forget another.
My thoughts go out to all the men and women serving our country, and the many friends and family of Nick Daniels.
My thanks go out to all the veterans on this Memorial Day.