A crowd gathered by the window, staring out: Our plane had arrived. Early summer on a budget carrier, there were fewer wing-tipped passengers waiting than usual, more families in flip-flops, plenty of kids dragging mini roller bags. There’d be no empty seats on this plane. We’d take a short hop to Oakland then transfer to Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis, and beyond. With the boarding call expected any minute, the waiting area should have been loud and lively, but I emerged from the bathroom to utter silence.
I stood on tiptoes to try to see over the crowd, three rows deep, but I could not.
“What’s going on?” I whispered.
No one replied.
I’d seen a cop earlier, fully uniformed, not TSA, so I wondered if there was some kind of high-speed chase in progress on the tarmac — we weren’t that far from Los Angeles, after all — or maybe a medical emergency. I knelt down to try to see between people’s legs. As I did, I noticed that several men had removed their ball caps.
Then I saw. A casket had descended the baggage chute, flag-draped, secured in a frame of two-by-fours. Soldiers marched forward, five men and one woman, in full-dress uniform. They lifted the casket — the body — in unison and moved it to a rolling gurney. Then they stepped aside. Heat rose in waves from the asphalt. Nearby mountains stood barely visible, shrouded in wildfire smoke and ocean haze. All planes and vehicles and orange-vested employees stopped.
The family stepped from station wagons, a large family, mixed race, arm-in-arm, well-dressed. They approached the casket to have a moment to themselves.
With all of us.