Mike – Lost

On a Saturday night, I had a dream that I woke up, and Dad was standing at the foot of my bed. He told me not to be afraid, but that he was there to help. The dream chilled me. The next morning while Larry was preparing to leave to drive to a conference, I told him about the dream. He said I was daft and left for his destination. About 7 o’clock that night the phone rang. Lee was calling to tell me that on Saturday afternoon Mike was killed in a mountain climbing accident in Garmisch. Garmisch, in the Bavarian Alps, is an Army-owned recreation area for soldiers and their dependents to use.

John Sherman asked me if I wanted to go home with Mike’s body as the official military escort. He made a phone call to make it happen for me. Because Mike’s accident had occurred in a German province, it took ten days to get his body released to the American military. I left Fulda and went to Rhein-Main AFB just outside of Frankfort. I was the only ticketed passenger along with Mike on a C5-A cargo plane with about 60 standby passengers. The plane had just arrived from Turkey. Taxing out to the run-way, there was a mechanical problem. The plane turned around, and I had to spend the night in Frankfort.

The next morning, we departed for Dover, Delaware. The C5-A was a military cargo not a passenger plane. To board the plane I had to climb up a ladder. The crew was aware of my reason for flying, and again I was the only ticketed passenger. The 70 or so seats were directly behind the cockpit with the huge cargo hole beneath. There were a number of soldiers and dependents who were flying on standby. A young Black woman sitting near me started to complain about the accommodations. Next, she loudly declared the area smelled like a dead body. Concerned I would be offended, the Air Force flight crew told me they would move me. They reminded her that she was flying standby on a cargo plane. I declined their offer and tried to sleep.

The flight went directly to Dover Air Force Base as Mike was on board, and we were going to the military mortuary there. When the plane landed an official came on board and stamped my passport. As my clearance was going on, the angry Black girl complained that I was getting preferential treatment. Her husband was told that he needed to get her under control. She had to stand in line to get her passport clearance and luggage for at least an hour. I was taken down to a military sedan on the tarmac.

When we got to the mortuary, I was given a class on the protocol of escorting a deceased service member. The class instructor showed me how to properly drape an American flag on the coffin. He advised me that the coffin should never be loaded without my presence. Because of the embalming process, the head of the coffin has to be toward the cockpit. The mortuary attendant gave me an American flag to drape on Mike’s casket when we reached our final destination. He told me that flags are traditionally given to the service member’s company. He advised me to pack the second flag in my luggage because flags are heavy. I asked for a third flag to give to Lee because he and Jean were divorced.

After I was at the mortuary for about eight hours, the staff came to speak to me. They were unable to reconstruct or to make adequate, cos-metic repairs to Mike’s face. I needed to decide if the body was presentable or to make a decision to have a closed casket. On the mountain while getting up on a ledge, Mike bumped his head. When he stood up straight on the ledge, he was most likely dizzy. He fell backwards from the ledge, and he dropped 1000 feet. After seeing he was unrecognizable, I determined Mike’s casket needed to remain closed. I was instructed to tell his parents that the coffin should remained closed. If his parents elected to see his body as an official escort, I was required to leave the room. Somehow, this negates the Army’s responsibility. I caught a cab to the post guest quarters to spend the night.

The next morning, Mike and I were loaded in a civilian hearse which drove us to Philadelphia for our flight to Texas. At the Philadelphia airport, I went in to pick up my boarding pass. I was approached by an airport staff member who informed me they had erroneously loaded Mike’s coffin. They asked me to go to the airplane’s cargo hole and sign off on the placement of the casket. He took me down the stairs to the tarmac. With two men, one on each side of me holding my hands, I walked on the conveyor belt into the airplane’s cargo hole. Once I approved the placement of the casket in the belly of the plane, they escorted me back upstairs.

I boarded the aircraft and found my seat. The man in the seat next to mine had been watching out the window when I walked up the conveyor belt. He questioned why and what I had been doing. I simply told him that I was traveling with special cargo. On our way to Atlanta where we would change planes, he and I chatted. I did tell him I was coming from Germany. As we were coming into Atlanta, the flight attendant said they needed me to be the first to deplane. She said she would move me to an empty seat in first class. As I was gathering my stuff, the gentleman asked if I were some kind of spy. That made me laugh.

When we landed, they took me down to the tarmac, where Delta had a station wagon waiting for me and Mike. We had a five-hour layover in Atlanta. The Delta people drove us to the cargo area. They put me and Mike’s casket in a small, separate area away from all of the luggage. A Delta staff person came over, and he sat down and chatted with me. He returned to work, and another staff member came to sit with me. I realized that they were intentionally staying with me. I told him that I was okay with being alone with Mike, and he told me that the crew preferred that we not be alone. They went to get me a pizza and held my hand for several hours. The Delta crew paid Mike proper respect of their own volition, which I have always appreciated. When we went back to the plane, the cargo crew had made arrangements for me to be seated in first class. From Atlanta, we flew to Shreveport, Louisiana.

A hearse was waiting for us at the Shreveport airport. When I left the plane, I was again taken down the stairs to the noisy and steaming hot tarmac. The ground crew brought Mike’s casket over to the hearse where I was waiting. Next to the hearse, the driver had roped off a private area where I would place the flag on the casket. I looked up to see Lee standing there. Having to drape the flag on Mike’s coffin with his father watching was the most difficult thing I had ever done in my life. The complete area came to a standstill. All of the ground crew took off their hats and stood at attention. There was total silence as I laid the “Stars and Stripes” over his heart. Mike was three months shy of his 27th birthday.

Riding with Lee, we followed the hearse to Texarkana, Texas where the funeral was to be held. We arrive at the funeral home, and I turned my sweet nephew over to the funeral director. It had been 70 hours since I had left my home in Fulda.

I was exhausted. Mother and Jay had driven from Mississippi. Lee, Kay, Margaret, Van, Billy, Ron and Betty had already checked-in at the motel. Missy and her future husband, Gary, arrived after I got there. Lee got upset about them staying together in a room. To divert the argument, I gave Kay my room key for her and Missy to use. Drawing the short straw, Gary had to bunk with Lee. I roomed with Mother and Jay.

The young man, who was on the mountain with Mike, flew in for the funeral. Heartbroken, he broke down when I gave him the flag to take back to the unit. At the funeral it was 114° in Texarkana. There had been a horrendous, heat wave for several days. Accustomed to the mild summers of Germany, I was wretchedly uncomfortable. Several weeks before he died, Mike visited us in Fulda and left his watch at my house. I gave the watch and the third flag to Lee. I had tremendous difficulty in accepting that my kind, caring nephew could be lost in such a horrendous way. I was bitter over his loss for 10 years.

After the funeral, Mother, Jay and I drove to Galveston, Texas to spend a few days at Margaret’s beach house before heading back to Mississippi. Jay didn’t particularly like to drive. I drove to the island and then on to Mississippi. I stayed about two weeks in Mississippi. The heat in July was so intense, I decided to return to Germany early. I flew out of Charleston, South Carolina.

Published in: on June 15, 2010 at 5:28 pm  Leave a Comment  
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