Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Woman By the Side of the Road

I was actually working on a post about poverty, racism, and classism in America, but towards the end of the morning, I got the bright idea of paying my respects to the Arlington police officer killed in the line of duty last week (see earlier post, "Death of an Officer").

The funeral for Craig Story took place this morning at a mega-church south of Arlington, and the funeral motorcade’s route from the church to a north Arlington cemetery came up a freeway near my home. I knew of a spot on a bridge over the freeway where I could watch the motorcade and the impressively long lines of police vehicles that usually accompanied police funerals.

So, I threw some cookies and a banana into a plastic baggie, grabbed a coat, and drove to the bridge. Being unemployed, you can just take off and do spur-of-the-moment things like this.

As I turned the corner near the bridge, I saw there were already some emergency vehicles parked on it with their lights on. A couple of passenger vehicles were also parked, and a small group of civilians and uniformed civil servants had already formed. I parked, got out of my car, and was stunned by the velocity of the wind that swept across the bridge! I was glad I had brought a jacket.

I had also brought a large American flag, which I hoped to suspend from the bridge’s railings. A fireman and I tried fastening it, but the wind was so strong, we didn’t think anything we had would really secure it. So three of the firemen held onto it, and even though the wind prevented it from flying freely, drivers speeding below us on the freeway could still see the stars and stripes undaunted by the gale.

Eventually, we saw the traffic in the freeway’s northbound lanes begin to dwindle as cops further down the freeway began closing off entrance ramps in preparation for the motorcade’s passing. Finally, the northbound lanes were empty, still, and quiet. Meanwhile, the northbound service road paralleling the freeway quickly became jammed with bumper-to-bumper traffic.

After waiting some more, in the distance our little group could see a moving glob of red pulsating lights. As they crested a nearby hill, we could distinguish a long, snaking line of police motorcycles – over 200 in the first group, one of the firemen heard through his radio. The line of motorcycles, two abreast in the center lane, snaked down the hill and under our bridge, and kept coming, and coming.

Traffic in the southbound lanes, which had been flowing normally up until now, began to slow dramatically as many drivers, realizing what was happening, began pulling out of the main lanes and stopping.

Several southbound drivers got out of their cars and stood quietly as the line of motorcycles kept cresting the hill and coming towards us, lights flashing, two by two. Those of us on the bridge marveled at how long it took those 200 motorcycles to pass. I wasn’t looking at my watch, but considering they were traveling at a rather slow, dignified speed, I’d say maybe it took five minutes. That’s a long time when you’re standing on a bridge in a strong wind, watching the flashing lights continuing to crest the distant hill.

When the motorcycles had passed, the hearse and a number of stretch limousines came by. All of the uniformed police officers and firemen on the bridge were standing stiff at attention in a salute. No one said anything.

Then came another impressive line of police vehicles with officers representing various parts of the state. They came from towns I’d never heard of, plus some close to home, like Cedar Hill, University Park, and a lot from Fort Worth. Standing as I was on the bridge, right over the center lane, I couldn’t make out most of the names that were on the sides of the police cars, but a woman standing near me was calling them out, almost like she was taking inventory.

Situated as we were in such a prominent spot, all of the passengers in vehicles going beneath us could see us, and many of them waved to us or took our picture. A few cops whipped their sirens. Sometimes, as the motorcade would slow down ahead, we could tell the drivers further back were paying too much attention to us, and they’d have to slam on their brakes because they weren’t watching the vehicle in front of them. At least a couple of times, a squad car had to veer off to the right to avoid rear-ending another vehicle. Wouldn’t that have been embarrassing – going to the funeral of a fallen fellow officer and rear-ending another cop in the motorcade?

It was during the long parade of police cars that I noticed a woman who had parked and stopped on the southbound side of the freeway. She had pulled off onto the shoulder back when the first motorcycles had passed, and gotten out of her car. But now, as I looked again at her, I realized she was standing still, like she was at attention. I pointed her out to another person on the bridge, and we watched her occasionally as other drivers would pull over; some would get out of their cars, but they would then drive on to whatever appointment they needed to keep.

Not this lady: she appeared to a shortish, middle-aged black woman driving a late-model silver Chevrolet Malibu. She didn’t move – as the motorcade passed her in the opposite direction, she just stood there, traffic in her lanes crawling past her just a few feet away.

And then I realized – she was shifting her arm, and she repositioned it in a salute. She had been standing at attention, saluting the entire time! In the wind. Without a coat. Obviously on her way someplace, otherwise she wouldn’t have been traveling on the freeway. But she felt obligated to stop and stand in salute, for the entire procession.
She stayed that way until the very last vehicles in the motorcade had passed by, with regular traffic following close behind.

Those of us on the bridge were impressed. Not only at the sight of all those motorcycles, police cars, fire trucks, at least one SWAT armored vehicle, limousines, and a surprising number of luxury cars for a police officer’s funeral. We were also impressed by that lone lady in the southbound lanes, standing still at attention, with a salute, and undoubtedly, a story.

Was she the mother of a cop? The wife of a cop? Was she a cop herself? Obviously, she had some sort of deeper connection to the funeral procession than most of the rest of us had. Maybe she was simply deeply civic-minded, or maybe the police had helped her deal with a tragedy of her own.

The idiot driver who caused officer Story’s death should have watched this woman. Respectful, and patient; two virtues she displayed without knowing we were watching her. Two virtues that speeder could have employed that would have avoided the very funeral whose motorcade we watched today.

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