When I reached the onramp to the highway which would take me to the freeway which would take me home, the sight of cars lined up bumper to bumper for as far as visibility extended made my heart sink. Mark, the brother I'd been staying with near Tacoma (who generously piloted me to the highway) had been listening to the morning traffic report on the radio. Traffic was plugged all the way to the freeway - several miles up the road - and would be for some time to come.
We both knew the memorial service was later that day in the Tacoma Dome, but thought it was far enough north that it wouldn't impact my travels south. That was before we knew every police department who was sending representatives to the service was meeting at McChord Air Base. Right where the highway meets the freeway. While the service wasn't scheduled to start until 1:00, the caravan of police cars was to head north from McChord at 10:00.
I crept onto the highway at 8:00.
For more than an hour I sat wedged in traffic that moved inches at a time, feeling more reverence and gratitude than impatience. My fellow travelers seemed to be in the same place. No one tried to change lanes to jump ahead a few cars. There was no zooming or screeching or honking. Just clouds of car breath in the bright arctic morning air, and a stillness tinged with sadness and respect.
At one point a dozen police cars and motorcycles sped up the left shoulder, lights flashing. The cars in the left lane, nowhere to go really, turned wheels to the right in a move that looked for all the world like they were bowing.
Farther along, a caravan of limos with a huge motorcycle escort came onto the highway. The exit they merged from was near the restaurant where four police officers were gunned down a week ago as they sat enjoying their morning coffee. I wondered if I was seeing the families of the slain officers, and sent my heart out to partners and children who are living the cost of sacrifice those four officers made.
When the line of traffic finally delivered me to the freeway entrance - north to Seattle, south to Portland, straight ahead to McChord - I was stunned by what I saw. Police cars and motorcycles of every make and model, from multitudes of places, lined up parallel to the freeway, coming from the north, beyond my line of sight. Every one had its lights flashing, and each waited patiently to be signaled ahead to find its place in the memorial procession that would return north in just an hour.
As we (in that hour of waiting, watching, and witnessing my fellow travelers and I became "we") rounded the bend that would take us to the freeway, each car slowed a bit. Even though the road ahead was clear and we'd been held back for a very long time, we paused. I know in part it was because the sight of all those police officers in one place was astounding. But I know too that we sent our love, our condolences and our deepest respect and gratitude as we left our accidental procession and zoomed ahead into our everyday lives. Lives made easier and safer by these people gathered in unity to honor their fallen comrades, and to remind us all how very fortunate we are that there are those who are willing to die for our freedom.
photo from Flickr: police memorial in Ohio