Friday, November 09, 2007

For Zack

It was one of those warm, muggy October days that bring the tourists back to Cape Cod. None of us would be going to the beach, though. We were at Otis Air Force Base to meet Zack, my sister's first-born, who was coming home from Afghanistan. I had been living rather reclusively in California and hadn't seen him in six years, and never would again.

I finally understood why our leaders in Washington were so adamant about keeping images of returning coffins out of the news. It's too much to bear.

The plane had been delayed at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for two hours. Zack's family and friends had plenty of time to sit around a ready room reacquainting, and acquainting, ourselves with each other. We told stories about Zack, a 31-year-old college graduate, filmmaker, rock musician, carpenter and movie-star handsome wit, who tried to find a new path in life by joining the Army in 2005. He became a sergeant and squad leader in two years and in April he was awarded the Bronze Star with a V for valor for rescuing two of his soldiers from a burning Humvee, badly burning his hands in the process, and still organizing a counterattack on the Taliban.

Afterwards, when he called my sister Pam, he didn't mention the Bronze Star. He said, ""Mom, I got a Purple Heart. I won't have to pay sales tax anymore."

That's the kind of young man he was, the kind of self-effacing hero he was. He stayed by the side of his more severely injured comrades in the hospital, and returned to duty in Pahktia Province near the Pakistan border. After he was killed in an ambush on Sept. 29, one of those scarred men, and others who had known Zack as a soldier, came to our sides on Cape Cod.

My sister said that Zack would have hated all the fuss, but we needed it. The family needed to meet those soldiers, and I think they liked meeting us. The extended, sometimes fractured family needed to talk to each other again, feel the hole in its fabric where Zack had been, and try to knit it together with memories and caring for each other.

Even those of us who might have doubted military ceremony needed the honor guard from the 82nd Airborne and the dozens of Cape Cod reservists, recently returned from Iraq, who lined up behind them. Sgt. Zachary D. Tellier deserved it.

We were all out on the tarmac when the plane touched down at Otis, the same base that had scrambled F-15s on afterburner in a vain attempt to stop the airliners heading for the World Trade Center. Now Afghanistan was coming back to haunt us again. We had been shedding tears, of course, trying to dry them with the occasional joke. Jokes failed.

The sadness and reality of it all clenched our hearts as we watched the plane taxi toward us. It was moving astonishingly slowly and evenly, like a funeral caisson with a steady turbine whine instead of a solitary drummer's beat.

When the aircraft came to a stop, it took a few minutes for its crew to organize the unloading of its cargo. We had time to collect ourselves - until the flag-draped coffin emerged and the honor guard slow-marched it to the hearse.

That was Zack in there. That was what it came down to. His widow Sara, an incredibly strong woman, collapsed to the tarmac as her sister tried to comfort her. I had heard sobbing in my life, but never as much as that day, and I never knew what the word "keening" meant before.

There was one photographer present, although not from the press. This was Joel, a young friend of Zack's who had lost a leg in an earlier action in Afghanistan. As the honor guard carried the coffin, Joel kept rolling his wheelchair for better angles on the homecoming of his friend. Not many people noticed but the reservists at attention behind him.

They, too, will always remember this day. Unbearable.