It was the crying child that got to me.
Five a.m. is early, no matter how you look at it. “Are you sure we need to get up already?” asked my beloved Viennese bride, Dagmar, as she swatted at the alarm clock. I pulled a pillow over my face, not quite ready to establish a viable high-speed connection with reality just yet. I don’t wanna get up, I don’t wanna.
But… “Yes, we need to get up. It’s gonna take us a while to get there, and I want to leave some extra time.” I sat up and rubbed my eyes, pondering. “Do you want to get in the shower first? I can wait…”
“No,” she replied in that cute little accent of hers. “You go ahead. I can vait.” That’s my wife, generous to a fault.
Half an hour later I was done with project Scrub the Hippie and had moved on to the fine art of making a cup of instant coffee. Mug in hand, I wandered towards the bedroom. As I peeked in the bedroom door I couldn’t help but laugh as Dagmar struggled mightily to get one eye open. As soon as that task was accomplished, she looked me straight in the eye and said, “Dat noise you heard – that wasn’t me. Dat vas the cat snoring. I wasn’t asleep. I vas just laying here with my eyes closed, thinking.” She managed to get her feet on the floor and put one of them in front of the other until she got to the shower.
By six we were backing the bike out of the garage. “It’s going to be chilly,” she said. “I’m glad we’re wearing lots of clothes.” And indeed I was – I had leather chaps on over my britches, a T-shirt, a long-sleeved shirt, a denim work shirt, a coat, my vest, and gloves on. Dagmar was similarly dressed, sans vest and chaps. Up on the bike we went, zip-zoomy down the road we tootled. We stopped about ten miles down the Interstate to gas up, and away we went.
It was a bright, sunshiny day, the kind of day that happens just once or twice a month in the summer around here — not much wind at all, not a cloud in the sky, temperatures scheduled to be in the lower 70s most of the day… A beautiful, beautiful day.
Too bad we were going to a funeral. That kind of put a damper on our mood…
A soldier was being buried in his hometown just south of Omaha. He was killed in Iraq by an improvised explosive device (IED). The Patriot Guard Riders (PGR) were to meet at the local high school there at 8 a.m. in preparation for the 10 a.m. funeral. Sad duty, but necessary.
After fighting our way through downtown Omaha (a misbegotten, twisty maze of concrete that has baffled me my entire life, taunting not only my sense of direction, but my instinctive feeling that roads should at least make a half-hearted attempt to be straight) with only one missed exit and one wrong turn, we found ourselves headed southward on Highway 75, just like the map said. Within minutes we’d veered left and had found the high school. At a guess, I’d say we were about the 100th bike to arrive, give or take.
After a steady hour and a half on the motorcycle it felt GOOD to get off and stretch a bit. Unfortunately, though, we were running a bit late — we barely had time to get the “riding” flag out of the saddlebags and mounted on the back of the bike and we were up and running again. In strict formation we rode the six blocks or so to the chapel, arriving right at 8:30 a.m. Off the bike tumbled the hippie and the Austrian, coats and chaps off and stuffed into bulging saddlebags, down the hill we ran/walked to get our “standing” flags.
Some very generous people have donated flags, you see, to the PGR. It used to be that we simply stood with our backs to the protesters. Then someone got the idea to start bringing flags, so some of us had flags and some just stood. Now each area of the nation has it’s very own stash of donated flags, so riders can simply show up, grab a flag, and head to the flagline.
Flags in hand, Dagmar and I headed for the chapel door where about thirty other people were lined up with flags. After just a few minutes, though, it was apparent that there were quite enough people at the door, but there weren’t enough flags at the parking lot entrance — so we headed down the hill to join the flagline there. As we settled into our new spots we couldn’t help but notice the five big red shiny firetrucks in the parking lot. “Vas the soldier a fireman, too?” Dagmar asked. “I think so,” I answered. “From what I heard he was a volunteer fireman and had a wife and five children.” A few polite inquiries to our neighbors in the flagline confirmed that this was indeed the case.
“Five children,” my wife said. “How sad. How very sad.” We stood in silence for a few minutes, listening to the wind rustle our flags.
“Are the protesters here?” asked the lady to my left. “I’ve only done this a few times. I’ve never seen the protesters.”
“I haven’t seen them yet today,” I answered.
“Where would they be?” she asked.
“Well, I’d imagine they’d probably be right over there, across the street, in that parking lot.”
“By law they have to be a certain distance away from the church,” I answered. “That looks like a likely spot for them if they show up.”
By now you may be asking who would be graceless enough to protest at a funeral. The answer may surprise you — it’s a church in Kansas, led by Fred Phelps. Mr. Phelps has decreed that homosexuality is evil, and, since homosexuality is legal in the United States of America, those that defend our nation’s freedoms are therefore defending homosexuality.
It’s pretty much agreed that the this church can exercise their freedom of speech, but doing it at a funeral is in poor taste – especially when they try to get in the grieving family’s face with signs saying “God Loves IED’s” and “God Hates Your Son.” They yell the most vile things, but the most bothersome part of it is that they bring their children with them to help protest.
So we stand with our flags, staying between the protesters and the family.
(I explained this to a friend of mine a while back. He shook his head. “What a sad commentary on the United States that the Hells Angels have the high moral ground over a church,” he said. I need to tell you that we’re not Hells Angels. The PGR is comprised of bikers from many different groups and clubs — I happen to be with the American Legion Riders — but the gist of his statement is accurate.)
After about twenty minutes (oh, about 9:10 or so) one of the Ride Captains came up to our section of the line. “The uninvited guests are here,” he said. “We need more people to stand over there.” He pointed to a stretch of sidewalk right near where I’d guessed the protesters would be. As we walked the thirty yards or so to our appointed spot I scanned the parking lot. Yep, there it was – the van the protesters use. We got ourselves lined up and spaced appropriately, all of us watching the protesters get their signs ready. “Patriot Guard! About Face!” As one, each and every one of us turned our backs to the protesters.
We stood there, whispering to each other occasionally, but mostly in silence, listening to our flags talk in the breeze. By this time there was a steady stream of cars and firetrucks entering the chapel parking lot. By about 9:30 or so the police started asking some people to park in the “far” parking lot, over by us. This meant that people were now having to walk within fifteen or twenty yards of the protesters. We shielded people best we could, but everyone knew the Kansas people were there anyway.
After a while they started singing. I couldn’t tell you what they were singing as I was doing my best to ignore them, but I caught the occasional hate-filled phrase. A couple guys went down the hill and came back with their motorcycles. They parked them and left the engines running – just loud enough to drown out the singing.
I snuck a peek. There were about eight of them, each holding a brightly colored sign with catchy phrases like “God Hates Fags” written on them. At least four of them were children. There was a police officer in a car in front of them, and another officer in a squad car behind them. There were officers on foot on either side, protecting the protesters from the public.
“They can only stay for forty-five minutes,” said the man beside me, turning my attention back to the flagline. “That’s how long their permit is for. If they stay one minute longer than that I’m sure they’ll be arrested. But they’re too smart for that.” I nodded in agreement.
At 9:58 a.m. the police escorted the protesters back to their van. Several PGR members had to move forward a few feet to let them past. Not a single biker so much as looked behind them to see what was happening as the protesters brushed past. Not a word. Nary a dirty look. Complete composure. I have the utmost admiration for those individuals — I’m not sure I could resist the opportunity to hurl a dirty name or two at the protesters if I were that close.
It seemed to me that there weren’t so many getting into the van, though, as had gotten out of the van 45 minutes earlier. But then again, I wasn’t really counting.
After the van had gone its way (with police escort) up the hill and around the corner, the Ride Captain dismissed us and pointed us down the hill. We rolled up our flags and headed back to our bikes. “Vhat do we do now?” asked my wife.
“Well, there’s a riders’ meeting, then we go to the cemetery,” I said. “We probably have fifteen minutes or so before we have to go.” She kissed me on the nose and trotted off in search of a restroom whilst I returned our flags to the flag truck and made my way to the riders’ meeting.
After a quick “I’d like to thank you all for coming today,” speech, the State Captain told us how we were getting to the cemetery, (“parade formation, there will be a LEO escort and roadblocks, watch for loose gravel,”) then informed us that two of the protesters had been arrested. A cheer went up — this has never happened before! I found out later that only one had actually been arrested — the officers witnessed a lady throw an American flag on the ground and tell her 10-year-old son to stomp on it, a violation of Nebraska state law. Seeing as how they couldn’t very well arrest a 10-year-old boy, they arrested the mother for Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor. This carries a $1,500 fine and three months in jail if I heard right.
The State Captain dismissed us, and we all headed back to our individual bikes to get ready for the short ride to the cemetery. I was about halfway back to our Kawasaki when Dagmar caught up to me. “I heard a cheer when I was trying to find a bathroom,” she said. “What happened?” I told her about the arrest as we put our helmets on and checked our “riding flag.”
A determined rumble went up as over a hundred motorcycles started up and headed for the road. We were about a third of the way back in the pack – as you can see from the photo Dagmar snapped over my shoulder there was quite a line of bikes in front of us — and even more behind us.
We went through a twisty, curvy road up the hill to the cemetery, a beautifully manicured spot of green in the middle of the city. Off the bikes, down the hill, grab a couple flags, then down to the gravesite.
The PGR formed up in a large circle around the gravesite. Soldiers were there, nervously checking their rifles in anticipation of the 21-gun salute. Firefighters were there in their dress uniforms, rehearsing the flag-folding ceremony. We waited.
After a while, we heard rumbles in the distance. It was a police escort, six motorcycles leading the hearse into the cemetery. At the same time we heard rumbles behind us — ten or fifteen firetrucks pulled up on the street below. Within seconds we heard rumbles above us — three helicopters flew overhead in perfect formation.
The family slowly made their way down to the gravesite, and the ceremony began. About five minutes into the ceremony, just after the 21-gun salute, a small child started crying. Not the wails of an over-tired youngster, nor the cry of a hungry infant. This was the heart-wrenching, full-throated cry of a toddler who just realized that Daddy’s in the funny-shaped box under the flag and that he’s never coming home.
He cried the entire time.
That’s what got to me.
God bless Bill Bailey, National Guardsman and Volunteer Fireman, father of five.