“Wow, what a bunch of lucky dogs!”
“Yeah; Barcelona for a couple of weeks; that would be just so cool.”
“When I took French last year, we went nowhere. That sucked!”
“Yeah, what a bunch of lucky dogs.”
“Did you hear?”
That’s dialogue. I don’t know whether it’s anywhere near what was said before and after the plane crashed into the Alps. I have no idea if that’s the way it went, but to this day – sixty-three years later – I can tell you exactly how those kids felt. I can tell you how fast the news spread through Haltern, Germany. I can understand the shock of fellow students, although not to the extent that comes from losing that many. But, I understand; I remember.
I remember sitting in a funeral home on Webster Street and looking at a casket who’s lid was closed…and sealed…because there wasn’t anything the funeral director or embalmer or whoever makes a corpse look life-like could do. I remember wondering how much of him was in the casket. Did they find all the pieces, parts of his body? Did he see it coming? Was he aware that he was about to die? Did it hurt much? We’d never toss a football around, ever again. He wouldn’t be one of the first ones picked when we bucked up for teams, never again. Yeah, I remember.
The “he,” in this case, was Joe Thompson, a friend who decided to leave high school in his senior year to enlist in the Army. He loved a good fight and wanted to go to Korea. He was at Fort Benning in Georgia; had come home on leave. He and four of his Army buddies were heading back. We never really knew precisely what happened; whether someone fell asleep at the wheel or what, but they all died. I don’t even know where the others were from, but Joe was from our town, a town of about 10,000. Word traveled fast. In those days, we didn’t light candles or create little shrines anywhere. We went to the wake at the funeral home, sometimes in groups, sometimes alone. One of the other things I remember well is that the walls of the funeral home were white, a stark white, and I remember thinking that they should have been something other than white; funny, the things you remember.
It doesn’t really matter whether it’s one or sixteen; whether it’s the jock or the class nerd; it’s a classmate and he or she is dead from this, that, or the other thing…and you won’t see them again. It doesn’t matter whether you were a good friend or not; this was a classmate. Kid could have been the biggest jerk in the school, but now the jerk got killed, and that changes things. As kids ourselves, we may not express it or even understand it, but it’s an indication that we aren’t immortal, invincible, or inviolable. He or she was a classmate – same grade or different; it doesn’t matter – and high school is nothing if not a community unto itself.
Is this as tragic as Newtown, or Littleton, Lockerbee or Malaysia flight 370? Sure it is. Nearly all death is tragic. It’s more so when it’s young people who die; even more when it’s a violent end to young life. The people of Haltern will get through this…almost. The pain will last for years. Memories will come back after years have passed and those classmates will remember an episode and they’ll start to cry. Someone may ask them, “What’s wrong?” and they’ll just shake their heads; perhaps look at their own kids. They’ll dry their tears and get on with what they were doing.
Some memories fade quickly. I used to believe that it was the bad ones that faded the fastest; that the good ones remained far longer. However, as you can see, there are times when even the bad ones come back to bite you. Just ask someone who lost a friend when they were young.