Saturday, September 14, 2013


It seemed like a strange place for an alfalfa field.  Acres and acres of it, for as far as I could see.  The clover was dark green, and dotted carelessly with purple flowers, as tiny bugs scrounged and foraged and bees flew in precise, yet seemingly clumsy loops as they hunted meticulously for sweets to take back to their hive.  Life is active, careless, and humming in this vast expanse.

Across a simple asphalt path, there is another field.  This one teeming with somber humanity, this one rigid in it's organization, as columns of tombstones sprawl across a neatly manicured tarp of grass.  Grass that is likely sprayed regularly to keep pests and weeds away.

At attention are hundreds of police officers, sweating under the hot Utah sun.  Some are in their dress blues, motorcycle helmets fastened to their chins, hands extended above their right eyebrow, as they try, most in vain, to choke back tears.

Organizers had asked the media to station their cameras in the alfalfa field, a request we all accepted in an effort to give the family a respectful distance.  As the coffin gently sailed, towards its plot, with uniformed officers manning each corner of it, honey bees zipped past my ears, and a thousand American flags rubbed and flapped, tossed and pushed by a brisk, hot wind.

Sgt. Derek Johnson, rolled up to a grey Volvo parked awkwardly on quiet, residential Draper, Utah street.  According to investigators, before he could even unbuckle his seat belt, the officer was met with a hail of bullets, his SUV then sped chaotically away, hitting a nearby tree at a high rate of speed.   Johnson died later that night at a hospital.  Troy Walker is accused of shooting Johnson, his girlfriend then turning the gun on himself.  Walker survived, his mugshot shows him, with a crooked frown, and his head and jaw, trapped inside a metal contraption, reminiscent of a Terry Gilliam film.

Funerals for police officers and fallen soldiers have familiar story lines, a plane or helicopter flyover, taps, bagpipes, a 21 gun salute, and the folding of the American flag followed by one of the most difficult moments you will ever see, that flag presented to the fallen officers wife, or husband.

In my career, I would guess I've covered more than 50 funerals, every one of them for strangers whom, I've met only in grainy pictures, pulled from a dusty frame, or carefully plucked off a hallway wall.

When families allow me into their homes to discuss their worst tragedy, they will often also oblige me by allowing me to take pictures of their loved ones.  I've seen hundreds of grieving mothers and fathers thumb through picture albums, glassy eyed, grinning at captured, tender moments at Disney world, a wedding, or in the hospital, after the birth of a child.

I'm pretty good at keeping my emotions in check at funerals, I have trained my mind to understand the gravity of the pain being felt by the families without being consumed by them.

I have only been to three funerals in my life, that involved someone I was intimately associated.
My grandmother and grandfather whom the grand kids called MaMa and PaPa.  It's endearing to think about those nicknames, and to recall grown adults, in their 30's and 40's referring to another adults as MaMa.

The third was my father's, who died two months ago.  By his own design his was a decidedly low key affair.  Bill Jones, would never allow for a bagpipe, a singer, or a slide show at his funeral.  He even paid most of the burial expenses to reduce the "drama," for his kids.

Although he was the greatest man I'd ever known, I didn't cry at his funeral.  Maybe it was because of the utilitarian design of the affair.  Perhaps it was because I was named co-executor of his estate, and I had busied myself with dealing with Dad's apartment, his accounts, and finding a storage facility for his things, that I didn't allow myself to mourn.

As the bagpipes breathed in and out at Sgt. Johnson's funeral, I thought about his family, but, as I stood, in the spongy alfalfa field, across from the cemetery, I thought mostly about my dad.  The bees went about their business, Sgt. Johnson was laid to rest, and for the first time in months, I cried for my father.

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