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Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/1177845-Where-Death-Comes-Home
by SueVN
Rated: E · Short Story · Military · #1177845
A young Air Force Captain learns the meaning of military service.
         Where Death Comes Home

         Stacy Granger hated Mondays.  Four whole days until Taco Night at the O-Club.  When she pulled her Firebird into the Contracting Office parking lot, she saw Senior Master Sergeant Mike Daily’s standing astride, hands clasped, no evidence of the perpetual coffee mug.  He otherwise looked himself, Air Force uniform crisp and creased, flight cap perched on head, buzz-cut to the roots. 

          She put the car in Park, opened the door, clamped on her hat and climbed out to see him walk up and salute.

         “Morning, Captain.” 

         “Morning, Mike.”  Stacy returned the salute and cocked her head. “You’re out here because?  Another problem at the racquetball courts?”  She reached into the back for her briefcase and thought if the contractor found one more over-budget complication, she would move her desk to the construction site and build the damned thing herself.
 
         “No, Ma’am.”  Mike whispered, her attention drawn to her usually enthusiastic associate.  She turned and straightened up. 

         “What?  What’s happened?”  She looked at Mike’s bright blue eyes.  They looked watery.  He took a deep breath and stared off, the morning sun making him squint, increasing the lines in his leathered face. 

         “The Marine barracks in Beirut was bombed last night.”

         “Oh God.”  Stacy leaned back on her car thinking of her mother, a Marine in World War II.  “How many?”  Stacy watched Mike swallow, her heart pounding in her ears.  “Mike, were some killed?”

           “They’re saying two hundred twenty Marines, plus some Army and Navy troops.” 

         “Oh.”  Stacy held her arms against the October chill. 

          “The remains will be brought here, to Dover.”

         “Here?”  Stacy knew Dover Air Force Base owned the largest mortuary on the eastern seaboard.  She shouldn’t be surprised. 

         “Yes, here.  There’s a meeting right now with Public Affairs at the Wing Commander’s office.  The Major’s already left.  You want me to drive?”  He pulled out his Alcoholic’s Anonymous key ring, a gift from the local group on his ten-year anniversary.

         Mike once told her he was in Vietnam as an Airman, then came to Dover in 1968 to help process the hundreds of body bags flown in daily.  He started drinking and couldn’t stop, couldn’t understand how he survived when others did not. Now, he was back.

         “I’ll drive,” she said.  “Get in.”  As the low buildings of the base went by, Stacy mused her probable duties.  As Chief of Contract Administration, the mortuary contract fell under her purview.  However, that many bodies in 1983’s relative peace could pose problems.  Not the least of which included the recent contract award to a minority funeral home under the Small Business Program.
 
         “You called Mr. Piper?”  Stacy glanced at Mike as she pulled into the Wing Headquarters parking lot. 

         “Yes.  Told him to meet us in your office at nine o’clock.  He sounded nervous.”

         “I don’t blame him.”  Stacy visualized Ernie Piper, the black mortician, dressed in his best suit, so proud of the new contract. 

         Parked, Stacy grabbed a notebook, smoothed down her deep blue skirt over hips kept trim with running and tucked her sky blue blouse in tight.  They walked to the door.

         “Go right in Captain, Sergeant,” the secretary said.  Stacy noted the Public Affairs Officer, Captain Andrew Baggins, stood at the briefing stand with his nose so far up, she thought of a bird dog.  While he droned on in his nasal southern twang, Stacy sat at the one remaining seat at the conference table, Mike behind her by the wall, and mulled the possibilities of using local mortuaries.  Thinking of a new one on the west side, she realized all eyes rested on her.  The room sat in near silence, the clacking of the secretary’s typewriter outside punctuating the silence. 

         “Sir?” She said instinctively and looked at the Wing Commander.  Tall, broad-shouldered, with a full head of silver gray hair and deep green eyes, Colonel Brian Hastings exemplified the military man. 

         “Captain.  Penny for your thoughts.”

         Stacy felt her face redden with heat.  “Sorry Sir.  I wondered whether we might use outside mortuaries.”

         “Good thought, Captain.  We also need uniforms and medals for these men.  You’ll be contacted by the Pentagon for a hand with details.  “Captain,” he added, his gaze burning through her, “anything you need, you let me know.”

         “Yes sir, thank-you sir.”  Stacy swallowed the little moisture in her mouth.  The Colonel stood and the room followed suit, eyes glancing at her.  Stacy’s heart sounded like a Congo drum.  Get a grip, girl, she said to herself.

         The Colonel’s eyes roamed like a laser beam.  “This is the deadliest day for the Marines since World War Two, since Iwo-Jima.  We do this right.”  He walked through his office door, leaving the twenty or so people looking at each other.  After a moment, they collected their notes and headed to the door, mumbling among themselves. 

         Stacy looked for her supervisor, Major Parsons.  She wondered if he’d already left, or had he been there at all?  She squeezed her notebook tight against her chest thinking he’d slide out of anything smacking of responsibility.

         Andrew came up behind Stacy.  “Hey girl!  Sure got your hands full.  No time to screw up!”

         He looked like an English aristocrat to Stacy, one in a perpetual pout, his nose too long, his chin too small, his cheeks too puffy, his mouth too pursed.

           “Excuse me.  Some of us work.”  She looked him in the eye, something she loved about being tall, and slid past.

         Stacy put her hat over short brown hair, and heard Andrew say to the Colonel’s aide, “Man, she a looker or what?”

         Mike waited by the car.

         As they drove back to the office, she hesitated.  It was like asking her father about boys.  “Mike, you all right with this?”

         “Yes, Ma’am.”

         She noticed him fingering his key ring as they parked.

         “Really, I can do it myself.” 

         “No, Ma’am.  I’ll be fine.” 

         Ernie Piper waited in her office.  Stacy’s staff of ten craned their heads from the cubicles, five on each side.  “Later,” she waved, went in and closed the door behind Mike.

         All five foot six of Ernie Piper sat in the gray chair as if a rod went up his back.  His black suit, shiny from pressing, white shirt, and black tie suited his mahogany skin.  The liquid brown eyes watched her sit behind the desk.  She could smell the sweet/sour of sweat.

         “Mr. Piper…..”  Stacy started.

         “Captain, Ma’am.  I have a plan.”  Ernie interrupted. 

         Stacy sat back in her chair, motioned for Mike to sit, then placed her palms on the cool gray metal edge of her desk.  “Do you Mr. Piper?  Tell me your plan.”

         “Ma’am, when I heard about this, I saw problems coming.  So I called some friends.  You know, in the business?”

         Stacy pondered “business.”  Emergency contractors made a bundle by forcing outrageous prices.  She cocked her head at Ernie.  “And, they said?”

         “They said they’d work for my contract rates.  Four of them are on standby.”

         Stacy slipped a look at Mike whose eyebrows rose at Ernie. 

         She let out the breath she didn’t realize she was holding. “I see.”

         “Yes, Ma’am,” Ernie went on.  “Said they’re proud to help out.”

         Stacy leaned forward, clasped her hands and looked into Ernie’s lined face.  He looked to be of an age to retire, she thought.  Probably wished for it now.  “Thank you for taking the initiative, Mr. Piper.”  She looked at Mike.  “Sergeant, as the contract administrator, please help Mr. Piper coordinate and visit the other mortuaries.  I want assurance they are up to our standards.” 

         “Yes, Ma’am.”  Mike replied.  Stacy watched them retreat to Mike’s cubicle for a notebook and depart.    She wanted to leave with them.  This would come down on her, not Mike.  The officer in charge.  But, what help would she be?  In her four years in the Air Force, Stacy knew about contracts, a multitude of administrative details and how to throw a good party.

         With Mike on the Beirut situation, she turned her attention to other problems, like the blasted racquetball court.  Her inbox sat stacked with documents for review.  The phone rang.  She went to work.

         At four thirty, Stacy realized Mike never returned.  She picked up her purse and keys to drive to the mortuary, praying she would find him there, not at the NCO bar.  The phone rang.  Mike gave her a counts of body bags, how many each mortuary took in. He expected to be checking their work most of the night.

         She considered dropping by, making sure.  No, she thought, Mike must be okay.  She couldn’t be hovering.  Instead, she drove to her apartment and flipped on the news. 

         The screen showed C-130’s landing at Dover.  They taxied to a remote hangar with their sad cargo.  She leaned forward. 

         “Oh Geez,” Stacy said to the TV.    Hangar 32 filled the screen.  It housed dead soldiers from Vietnam and victims of the Jonestown massacre.  Hangar 32 was now used for only one thing.  Black limousines followed each other like palmetto bugs to a cracker. 

         She picked up the phone and dialed.  “Mom? You’ve seen the news?”

         “Yes.  They say they are bringing them to Dover.  You have the mortuary contract, don’t you?”

         “Yes, but Mom, I’ve never even been to a funeral!”

         “You’ll be fine, Honey.  You just take good care of those Marines.”

         “I will Mom, I promise.”  Stacy felt like the hard cover edition of Encyclopedia Britannica landed on her shoulders.  Her throat constricted.  “Gotto go.  Love you.”

         “Love you too.” 

         Stacy put the phone in the cradle and took a deep breath.  The phone rang before she moved her hand. 

         “Hello?”

         “Stacy, it’s Andrew.” 

         Stacy looked at the phone and wondered if the moron dialed the wrong number.

         “Stacy, you there?  Listen, I need your help.”

         Stacy almost laughed.  Andrew needed help?  Beyond belief.  “With what?” 

         “The memorial service.  We need a really big place.  Any ideas?”

         Stacy mentally filed through banquet rooms at hotels the base occasionally rented, but none of them could contain two hundred plus caskets and attendees.  Not the base theater.  Not the O-Club. She looked back at the TV and the C-130’s.  “The wash rack.”

         “The what?” 

         “The C-5 wash rack.  It’s a hangar.  The contractor recently finished it.”  The thought of a car wash for the gargantuan C-5 Galaxy cargo plane made Stacy laugh at first.  When she looked at the specs, she considered it the size of her apartment complex. “Sure,” she said, visualizing the metal exterior, the color of a baby chicken, the interior, bright white.  “You’ll need a platform, right?  I mean there’ll be speakers and all?”

         “Oh yeah,” Andrew sighed.  “‘And all.’  What an understatement.  Listen, Stacy,” she heard his nasally voice lower.  “The press is everywhere and the Colonel thinks I can arrange the service, too.  I like your idea, but I don’t know any of those guys on the flight line.”

         Stacy wondered what those words cost Andrew. 

         “Let me think.”

         “While you’re thinking,” he continued, “we expect…” and listed numbers of families, visitors, speakers, and Press.  “President Reagan, maybe.”

         “The President? Shit. Okay, I have the idea.  I’ll call you tomorrow.”

         “Sure thing and thanks Stacy.  Gotta go.  Washington Post ….”  The phone buzzed in her hand.  She put it down, then called Captain Todd Reeling, an old boyfriend who recently married.

         “Todd?”

         “Stacy?  What a surprise!  What’s up?”

         “I need the wash rack.  It’s about Beirut and...well...I need to think.  Can you be there at eight o’clock in the morning?”
         “Yeah - I’m working over there tomorrow anyway.  Any hints?”

         Stacy chuckled, trying to remember why she broke up with Todd.  “Tomorrow.”

         “Okay, eight o’clock.” 

         Stacy placed the phone in its cradle, changed to sweats and sat at her kitchen table making lists. 

         The next morning, she stopped by the office early to learn details from Mike.  His eyes avoided hers and he gripped the coffee mug with white knuckles.  He said the mortuary people, when they entered the hangar, stopped in their tracks, the dark green body bags lined up row after row. 

         “They had a moment of silence, Captain.”  Stacy figured that moment took Mike back fifteen or more years. 

         “The morticians handled them so tenderly, I worried one might be dropped. “But,” he looked up at her, back to the present, “the remains are organized now and being processed.”  He winced at the last word and took two gulps of coffee.  “Couple of Marines from Henderson Hall coming to help with uniforms and medals,” he finished.

         “Thanks, Mike.”  She wondered what it was like to see too much, then have to see it again. 

         “I’ll be off then.”  He left.

         Stacy walked up front to brief Major Parsons, but the secretary smirked and said he was late.  Stacy nodded and left for the wash rack.

         As she walked in the pedestrian back door, a C-5 sat receiving a shampoo and rinse.  Globs of soap hung on its aluminum surface and two wash rack crew on cherry pickers blasted it with high powered hoses.  She thought of squirrels spraying down an elephant.  Between the roar of pumps and water raining off the plane, her ears felt stuffed with cotton.  She saw Todd wave outside a built-in office and walked over. 

         Inside, the sound reduced to a low hum.  Todd stood in his blue flight line fatigues, shirt pulling out over the web belt. Marriage must be good, he’s put on some weight, Stacy thought.  She walked over to the side chair he indicated with a nod.

         “So, I hear you’re busy.”  Todd leaned his desk chair back on two legs, put his hands behind his head and grinned at Stacy. “What can the wash rack do?” 

         Stacy smiled at the freckles splashed across his face, the copper hair pushed up in the back by his hands.  That pilot, she thought.  She dumped Todd for a pilot.  She should know better by now about pilots. 

         “Well, you know about Beirut, right?”

         Todd blinked accord and nodded, pushing the chair on its rear legs in a slow rock. 

         “The memorial service is Saturday and I can’t think of anywhere big enough...but here.”

         The chair landed with a thud.  Todd leaned forward, elbows on desk.  “You must be kidding.  This is a hangar, for God’s sake.”  His eyes glanced to the window and she watched the C-5 towed out.  The blue and gold Military Airlift Command seal winked at them in the morning sun. 

         “Come on.”  She walked out where workers squeegeed remaining water into a drain.  With the hangar doors open, the entire back of the building was exposed to Delaware’s morning sun.  The humid air smelled of detergent.  She walked outside with Todd, turned back and opened her notebook. 

         “We’ll rent some bleachers.  Put the press on the right, the families on the left.  Spectators in the rear.  I can get the podium from the O-Club.  The coffins will be nearest the runway side.  People will surround them from behind.”  She looked up at the fan-fold door stacked on itself at the ceiling.  “God.  It’s so big, it will dwarf the coffins and the people.

         “We need to lower the ceiling.” Todd said.

         “Lower the ceiling?  You can’t lower the ceiling!” 

         “It’s what my wife said about our dining room.  You put something up there so it doesn’t seem so far away.”  His eyes roamed over the rafters, the motorized equipment for moving wash gear and the white hoses now coiled in their respective notches.  “Flags.  Big flags.  Maybe the Marine’s home states.  American flags. Service flags.  What do you think?”

         Stacy smiled.  “Brilliant!”

         “Brilliant?”  A male voice came from behind and materialized in a Major’s flight suit.  “What makes our boy here brilliant?”

         “Steve! Wow!  It’s been awhile.  The St Patrick’s Day party?”  She started to hug him, then restrained herself as the rack crew worked nearby.
 
         “So?”  Steve asked.  Todd and Stacy relayed their plans. 

         “Honor Guard’s coming, right?”

         “Yes, maybe the President and dignitaries from DC.  We don’t know yet.” Stacy answered.

         “Can’t let them walk in the front.”  Steve peered through the hangar to the pedestrian door.

         “I guess we could lower the doors, but it’s still awfully big,” Stacy said. 

         Steve looked out to the tarmac.  “You need a C-5.”

         “Oh no.”  Todd said.  “Way too crowded with a plane inside.”

         Steve laughed.  “No, you dimwit.  We’ll park it outside and open both ends.  People can walk in under the cockpit and out the tail into the hangar.  Put the Honor Guard in it.”

         Stacy and Todd looked at each other.  She’d watched a C-5’s nose raise over the cockpit.  By lowering the rear cargo door, it gave drive through capability.  She once heard it could carry ten Greyhound buses, given the opportunity. 
         “Huh,” she said.  “It might work.  I’ll ask the Colonel.”

         “No, no.” Steve said.  “I’ll ask my boss and he’ll ask the Colonel.  It’ll be our part.”  He turned to the twelve C-5’s sitting on the tarmac.  “Possibly not my plane, but any of them will volunteer.”

         They paused.  Stacy felt a couple of Britannica volumes leave her shoulders.  From the contemplative looks on the men, the books had found new homes. 

         “So,” Stacy sought to break the spell.  “Todd.  I’ll have the bleachers and podium set up on Friday and I’ll check the Pentagon for flags. 

         “We’ll polish the place.”  Todd said.

         She turned to Steve.  “Call me when the Wing Commander approves, okay?”

         “Yes, Ma’am,” he smiled with his even teeth, swept off his flight cap with a bow of gallantry.  She noted his wavy black hair. 

         “Cut the Italian act,” she said with a smile.

          “I AM Italian!”  Steven struck his hand to his chest as though wounded, then turned, yelling back, “One C-5 coming up!”

         Back at her office, Stacy received a mortuary update from Mike, coffee mug steaming.  He reported a fever pitch, some punchiness, but no one would stop until all the casualties were prepared. 

         By two o’clock, Stacy’s stomach gnawed on her backbone.  “Off for some lunch,” she told the airman closest to her office.  Halfway down the hall, the Major’s secretary yelled her name.

         “Hey Kathy.  Major need something?”  She tried not to be sarcastic.

         “Wing Commander’s on the phone asking for an update and…” Kathy’s voice trailed off. 

         “Gotcha.”  Stacy trotted back to the conference room where her boss spoke sentences punctuated with “Well,” and “I’ll look into it.” 

         “Excuse me, Colonel Hastings?”  She sank in a chair by the speakerphone.  “Captain Granger here, Sir.  I’ve not yet updated the Major.”

         A silence followed and Stacy looked at Major Parsons.  His dumpy physique belonged on the “fat boy program.”  The blue uniform shirt lounged in the dryer too long and the name tag hung at an angle.  His eyelids sagged under skimpy eyebrows as though maxed out.  He looked at Stacy and said nothing, a wisp of gray/brown hair falling over his brow.

         “You want to borrow an airplane.”  The colonel’s voice emitted with static from the speakerphone.

         Stacy took a deep breath, her attention riveted.  Maybe they’d asked too much. She’d overstepped.  She wasn’t Operations.  She was Support.  Did Steve‘s boss even ask the Colonel or maybe one of the wash rack crew overheard?  Her mind multiplied with doubts, like a deck of cards flying into the air. 

         “Yes Sir.”  She clasped her hands and looked at the speakerphone as if it breathed.  “You understand how we would use it?”

         “I do Captain.  We’re shining one up for you now.”

         Stacy slumped back in relief, then sat up again.  “Sir, I thought of updating you at 1600 hours. Shall I come over now?”

         “No.  I can hear you fine.  Go ahead.” 

         Stacy looked at the Major, who shrugged, hauled his body out of the chair and left. 

         “Well, sir,” she ticked the plans off her fingers. 

         Wednesday and Thursday went by in fast forward.  The bleacher company offered no charge for rental, delivery and setup.  The least they could do, they said.  Amish carpenters appeared in her office asking to enlarge the platform.  They’d heard it was too small.  A flag company in Pennsylvania called to say they shipped twenty-five ten by fifteen foot American flags that morning.  They hoped this might lower an apparently very high ceiling.  Another flag company in Florida asked for a list of the home states of the deceased Servicemen.  Before the conversation ended, they offered a free flag of each state, shipped overnight, no charge.

Stacy, trained to negotiate a good deal, sat perplexed every time she put the phone down. 

Mike came in on Thursday afternoon looking as if he had washed his uniform and hung it and himself on the clothesline.  Stacy didn’t smell liquor, but his eyes looked like they swam in tomato juice.  The lines in his face were now crevices. 
He sat down as if he might sleep there, then straightened up.  “Looking good.  Spent all morning on insignia and ribbons, thanks to the Marines from Henderson Hall.  To say nothing of...ah Captain...you don’t want to hear all this.  It’s gonna work.” 

         “Go home, Mike.  Get some rest.” 

         On Friday morning, Stacy drove directly to the hangar.  The bleacher company pounded together seating.  Boxes of flags sat in a corner by the open hangar door.  Big fans roared trying to dry the place out, carrying the detergent and wet concrete smell to the outside. 

         Todd walked out of the office, his crew of ten Airmen following.  “We’re all yours,” he smiled.  “Hosed it down this morning.  Thought we’d do the big flags first from the catwalk.  Then, the Service banners.  What do you think?  Marine flag in the middle, the rest of us on each side?  Maybe on the north wall?”  He looked at Stacy.

         She laughed.  “You’re all mine?  I’ll just get out of your way.”

         Todd turned to his crew.  “Go to it.  Like we talked about.”  Stacy watched them scatter like actors in a play, sure of their part. 

         “Excuse me,” said an elderly voice touched with a German accent. 

          An Amish man stood behind her in his black pants, suspenders, white collarless shirt and black hat. His lined face sported a grey beard.

         “Mr. Yoder?”

         “Yes,” he nodded.  “I think we’re done here. Care to look?  We redid the platform.  It shook bad.”  He pointed down to the platform, but the podium filled Stacy’s vision.  A magnificent piece of oak, carved and polished, stood as if planted there for years. 

         “Hope you don’t mind, Ma’am.”  Mr. Yoder took his hat off. 

         “Where did it come from?”  She walked over and ran her hand on the wood as it curved over to where someone’s important notes would soon lie. 

         “My brother made it.”

         Stacy looked up.  “He did?”

         “Said he wanted to honor those Marines.”

         Stacy came around the podium.  “Mr. Yoder, I don’t know much about the Amish, but I know you don’t believe in war.  Here you fix the platform and,” she paused to look back at the podium, “your brother creates this masterpiece.”

         “Well, Ma’am,” Mr. Yoder twisted his hat.  “Let’s say what happened to those boys wasn’t our idea of war.”

         “Thank-you, Mr. Yoder,” She felt rather than heard the shake in her voice. “Thank-you very much.”  Stacy watched him replace the hat, walk out the pedestrian door and climb into his carriage. He snapped the reins and the horse trotted off.  Stacy watched the big orange triangle on the back recede with the clip-clop of the horse’s hooves all the way to the main gate.

         The noise of a low gear engine drew her attention back to the open hangar doors.  A tractor pushed a C-5 backwards in a forty-five degree angle.  Stacy smiled.  Like an outhouse maneuvering a barn.  With one wingtip inches from the hangar, the tractor stopped.  The plane’s back bay door lowered with the squeal and whir of motors.  Stacy watched the nose rise over the cockpit.  Sunlight washed through the cargo hold.

         “Needs carpet.” 

         Stacy turned to see Steve walking up. 

         “Carpet?  I can try.  What color?”

         “Red, but no worries.”  He pointed.  A roll of fire engine red tumbled through from the front of the cargo hold right out the back bay door. 

         “Where?”  Stacy stared at Steve.

         “Uncle Henry.  Told him we needed to dress up our plane.  He owns a carpet store in Philly.  Sent it down last night with an installation crew.”

         “Really?”  Stacy felt vaguely out of control, like the planets were moving in unpredictable orbits.

         “Said he wanted to do his part.” 

         “I see.”

         “Colonel mentioned the Honor Guard is coming today.”  Steve continued.  “You know all the Services are sending them?  Arriving this afternoon to stake out where to stand.           

         Todd walked up.  “Stacy, you got a call from the office.  Something about racquetball courts.  Don’t worry.  Steve and I will take care of this.”

         “Thanks.”  Stacy turned and felt she might miss out on decorating, then shook her head.  Some party. 

         The Saturday morning sun watched a cavalcade of cars arrive from Washington, DC.  Marine officers escorted families of the fallen first.  Stacy walked around the outside of the wash rack with the second group of people, which included the Press.  Modest in size, perhaps twenty, she noticed three cameramen.  A white path led into the gaping mouth of the C-5, the cockpit two stories overhead. 

         Chatter turned to whispers.  Whispers turned to silence.

        The sun dimmed inside the cargo area.  Plush carpet softened footfalls.  Honor Guards from each Service lined both sides, their flags tipped over the arrivals, their eyes straight ahead, their dress uniforms so sharp and tight, Stacy wondered how they breathed.  Her heart gripped in a fist.

         They passed through and came into daylight down the back cargo ramp, then under the hangar door, closed to within ten feet of the floor.    Inside, the silver caskets lay, each on its own stand, each with its own flag, each with its own wreath.  Stacy could hardly believe over two hundred twenty bodies lay there.  She wanted to wake up, be back in last week, receive some warning about this, save all these lives.
 
         She felt a nudge.  Steve took her arm and led her to the bleachers beyond the podium.  Flags hanging from the ceiling fluttered in the morning breeze, American flags surrounding state flags.  Sniffles and sobs floated through the air.  Grief seemed to sucked oxygen from the hangar.

         The Commandant of the Marine Corps stepped to the podium, the stars on each shoulder glittering in the lights.  His words floated over Stacy and she felt tears well in her eyes then spill down her cheeks.  What happened?  The Service was fun.  Good job.  Good pay.  New places.

         “Oh God,” a woman in the Press mumbled.  The Commandant paused.  Stacy looked down and saw a little girl, no more than four, running to a coffin, pink dress and blonde curls bouncing with every step. 

         “Daddy!” she proclaimed, gripping the coffin’s flag in her small hands.  The mother, close on her heels, scooped the child up and the two returned to their seats, faces buried in each other’s shoulders. 

         The Commandant, voice cracking with emotion, finished his remarks.  People stood in prayer, then filed out, back through the C-5, back through the Honor Guards.  As they worked their way to the parking lot, some whispered.  Speaking aloud seemed disrespectful. 

         Stacy thanked Steve for all he’d done.  “You’re not bad for a pilot,” she added.  He smiled.  “You’re not bad for a Support Puke.” 

         She walked to the shade by the hangar when he left.  Within minutes, a fleet of black limousines arrived.  They came in twos and stopped in rows of four, each waiting for the ones ahead to load.  She saw Mike raise a hand to her in the first set as they pulled away to the waiting C-130’s, far down the tarmac.  She raised her hand back. 

          Andrew walked up.  “Stacy?”

         “Not now, Andrew.”

         “Stacy, you are amazing. Reagan arrived here early for a private viewing.  He was impressed.”

         “Well, I didn’t do it all.  Lot of help.”  She started walking to the parking lot.

         “Cup of coffee?”  Andrew touched her shoulder.

         Stacy felt her bones turning to jelly.  “No, sorry.  Maybe another time.”  She looked at his face, the nose down, the eyes looking at her, not over her head.  “I need to go home.”

         Stacy opened her front door, dropped her purse to the floor, walked to the TV and turned to CBS. 
"This is Walter Cronkite reporting to you from Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.” The anchor paused. “Where death comes home.”

               The camera silently recorded a hearse stopping by the back bay of a C-130.  Marines in dress uniform unloaded a casket and wheeled it up the ramp. 

               “Where death comes home,” she repeated and choked back a sob.  She picked up the phone and dialed her mother
.
         “Hi Mom.”

         “Stacy?  You sound like you’ve been crying.”

         “Mom, did you watch the service?”

         “Yes, Honey.”

         “Did you see much death in World War Two?  I mean, you never talk about it.”

         “Yes.  We found no need to talk about it.  The first time is hard, I know. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get better.” 
         
         Stacy sniffed and said, “I didn’t know it would be like this.”

         “It’s all right,” her mother said.  “We didn’t either.” 

         
         



         

         
         
         

















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