The Flags of Our Sons

08/06/2006 10:11 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When you fly as often as I do you learn to mind your own
business as soon as you take your seat. But that wasn't possible once I
saw the military honor guard boarding US Airways' 1:45 p.m. flight from
Boston to Washington earlier this week.

I was heading through the gate when I first noticed Senator Ted Kennedy,
walking down the concourse and arriving fashionably late, not an
uncommon sight on this route. I stepped aside and followed him down the

As we got to the arched entrance of the plane, the members of a Marine
honor guard in their dress blues were coming up that outside staircase
usually used for stowing strollers and allowing mechanics on board. The
marine in charge held in both hands a flag that had been folded into a
triangle as if it had been previously draping a coffin, which it had.

Senator Kennedy extended his hand to the marine and said, "Thank you for
your service."

"Thank you, sir," replied the marine.

"Are you escorting remains?" asked Senator Kennedy.

"Yes, sir, a marine."

"And the funeral is at Arlington Cemetery?"

"Yes, sir, on Wednesday."

"Thank you, I'll try to get out there."

The marine went back to sit in coach, but a man in the last row of the
first-class cabin went over to him, shook hands and offered his seat.
The marine reluctantly accepted. Half the passengers broke into

The rest of the flight was uneventful, though quieter than usual. When
we landed, the marine took his white gloves from where he'd stowed them
inside his hat, put them on, and again gripped with both hands the
precious cargo of the folded flag.

Then he went over to two people quietly sitting in first class - the
parents of the fallen marine. None of us had known they were there.
He escorted them off the plane and into the terminal. Because of the
afternoon's oppressive heat and humidity, he had persuaded them to wait
inside instead of on the tarmac.

The father looked as if he might have once been a marine himself, a
handsome man of perfect posture, with bristly silver hair, dressed
smartly in a blue blazer and gray slacks. The mother, blond, wore
light-colored pants and an orange jacket. Her glasses made her eyes seem
bigger than they were. They both looked calm, if a little lost, and gave
off an aura of deep quiet. As she walked by me she noticed that a tie
had fallen as I was removing something from my carry-on bag and she
stopped and pointed. "I think you dropped something," she said softly.

They stood at the window between Gates 43 and 45 and watched as a full
Marine honor guard marched up the tarmac, coming to attention between
the plane and a silver military hearse. The unloading of their son's
coffin from the cargo hold was very slow, and every time someone inside
the terminal noticed and stopped to stare, someone else noticed and did
the same, and this kept happening until about 20 people stood in silence
watching out the window.

The mom leaned her elbows on the window ledge, supporting her chin and
cheeks with both hands. She remained perfectly still. She stared for 10
or 15 long minutes and never moved. The father stood nearby, rocking
from foot to foot and pacing a bit. They did not touch; they did not say
a word to each other. Neither wore a wedding band. Perhaps they were
divorced, or simply isolated in their pain.

Standing nearby was a man wearing the T-shirt of a suburban fire and
rescue department that he may have earned 20 years and 35 pounds ago. He
went over to the parents to chat, not knowing who they were, just one
curious spectator to another.

But whatever he said to the mother caused her to turn and look at him in
disbelief. Her lips didn't move, which only encouraged him to repeat it.
Her eyes widened and her chin tilted upward like a boxer who had taken a
blow. She stared at him and then looked back outside toward her son.
Down on the tarmac the white gloves of eight marines snapped their final
salute as the doors of the hearse closed.

The P.A. system announced flights for Atlanta and Chicago. Travelers
rushed to business meetings or summer vacations. The line for Auntie
Anne's pretzels was as long as ever.

Except for a handful of us standing frozen at a respectful distance from
the window, the war and its carnage might as well have been on another
planet. The disconnect between those who serve and those of us who are
beneficiaries of their service has always felt great to me, but never
greater than at that moment.

The mom and dad stepped away from the man in the T-shirt and to another
window, still not touching, their movement synchronized by grief. They
waited until the marine in charge came back up from the runway to escort
them to a government vehicle. I went to my car and drove to work with no
ambition for the day other than to be worthy.