It’s overcast. I’m on the wide porch of a friend’s house, chewing the fat on a vacation weekend. The house is perched on a little main road which cuts through a nondescript small town.
There are sounds of kids laughing and playing. Easy traffic. A dog barking. Lawnmowers running. A distant radio.
My wife is inside with everyone else, small bursts of laughter come from indoors. I’m on a rocking chair counting cars.
This is an old porch. The kind my father used to sit on. I can almost see his ghost, shirtless, reading baseball box-scores. Or carving a pine stick without any real reason for doing such.
And all of a sudden I see vehicles. Lots of them. A chain of wheels and bumpers that stretches backward to the tree line.
The first car is a police cruiser—lightbar flashing, driving at a dirge-like pace. Another patrol car follows. Then comes a slow-moving, extended Cadillac, black, with funeral curtains, and chrome fenders. The Caddy is followed by the world’s longest procession of traffic, each car with its high beams on. A gazillion headlights. Maybe more.
The cars are soon flanked by a railroad crossing. The train is about to run. The barricades close, and the procession’s lead car slows to a halt at the gate.
The faroff whistle sounds out train-whistle code—two long, one short, one long. Earth rumbles beneath the diesel locomotive’s power. The motorcade begins to accumulate more vehicles behind the Cadillac while waiting for the train to pass.
There’s a man on the porch of the house next door to me. He’s within spitting distance.
“A funeral,” I hear him say to his grandson over the din of the passing train as he opens his front door.
They step off their porch together to stand barefoot in the front yard while cars pass and the procession gets longer.
“Why’re we standing here like this, Grandpa?” says the kid.
“Because this is what we do,” he says.
A few other folks in nearby yards do the same. My friend and I walk off the porch to stand by the mailbox. Across the street, a woman stands at the curb, wearing an apron, holding hands with a little girl. Kids stand beside bikes. A few cars pull to the side of the road.
The whole world has stopped for this column of cars. And everyone is reverent.
Truthfully, I can’t even explain why we do this. Of course I know it’s a traditional gesture of respect for the decedent. But why? Why do we respect a stranger we’ve never even met?
Most of the time we humans are selfish, argumentative, and self-important people. But when a funeral procession passes, we are kind and gracious. Why can’t we be that way all the time?
The string of cars becomes more impressive. There are models of all kinds. Fords, Nissans, BMWs, a few work trucks. A Harley.
The train is still rolling by while the line of auto headlights grows.
And I’m thinking about that lead vehicle. Because I happen to know what the family inside it is doing.
They’re doing the same thing my mother and I did once. We were too stunned to even cry. We stared at our police escorts and our procession of vehicles in slack jawed amazement. The blue lights in the distance were frightening and comforting at the same time. We looked out the windows, numb from the novocaine of grief, unsure whether to feel honored or embarrassed. Or both.
That day long ago, men pulled trucks into ditches. Cars parked on shoulders. People stepped out of driver’s seats to stand on the roadside. Strangers respected a stranger, who just happened to be my old man.
Those strangers looked at us with serious, condolent faces when we rolled past. I’ll never forget it. Not for as long as I breathe.
The train finally finishes its crossing. The railroad barricades lift. The funeral cavalcade resumes. It takes almost six minutes for every car to pass us.
Afterward, we spectators wander into our respective houses. Our lives go on. Once again, my life moves forward like a keg rolling downhill, going faster each year. But for a few minutes today, time stopped. And we were the ones who stopped it. We did this on purpose, to remember someone we’ve never met.
People once did this for my family. I will do it for their family. And together we’ll do it for yours. And we’ll keep doing this until we join our forebears someday. For this is the gift we give to each other. It’s not much, but it counts.
Because, like the man said, this is what we do.