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Fallen Marine returning home puts late flight, wet clothes, fatigue in perspective

DENNIS McCALLISTER

By LYNDON FINNEY
The Trucker Staff

5/25/2012

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the April 15-30 issue of The Trucker. It is being posted Friday in honor and memory of the men and women who have died to preserve the freedom we as Americans enjoy every day.

The Mid-America Trucking Show is a four-day marathon for trucking journalists, so one of the first orders of business is to get to Louisville, Ky., Tuesday (March 20), settle into the hotel and get a good night’s rest and be ready to attend the first news conference at 8 a.m. the next day.

With our colleague and business editor Kevin Jones having left early Tuesday, March 20, so he could attend an  evening function that day, assistant editor Dorothy Cox and myself stayed behind to finish our April 15 issue and were scheduled to take a 4:40 p.m. Southwest Airlines flight that would get us to Louisville around 8:30 p.m., which would put us at the hotel no later than 9 o’clock.

But the good Lord had other plans.

A torrential storm struck Little Rock, Ark., our home base, shortly after 4 p.m., and between that and a broken radar on the plane we were to take, our plans, and those of a couple of hundred other travelers, were thrown into chaos.

Long story short, Dorothy and I wound up in Raleigh, N.C., about 1:30 a.m., where Southwest put us up in a Microtel and scheduled us to leave Raleigh for Louisville via Baltimore at 6 a.m.

Every piece of clothing in our luggage was soaked because our bags were left on the tarmac basically uncovered in the driving rain at Little Rock.

So it was up at 4 a.m. and back to the airport at 5 a.m. where Dorothy’s new ticket had been improperly entered into the computer.

We barely made the flight, but got to Baltimore on time, bleary-eyed, clothes crumpled and damp, extremely tired from lack of sleep.

Yes, and a bit frustrated.

Then reality hit.

Our ordeal was about to pale in comparison to what an Indiana family was enduring.

At the gate, we noticed a Marine standing near the gate attendant’s rostrum, but didn’t think much about it.

Then, as we boarded the plane, we were told the front rows had been reserved for traveling military.

The Marine was seated in the front row.

We spoke, he responded in a serious tone.

Once seated, we were told that the flight to Louisville was carrying the sacred remains of a U.S. Marine.

Suddenly, there was silence on the plane.

Later, we would learn that the body of Lance Corporal Dennis J. McCallister was being returned to Booneville, Ind., for his funeral.

He was assigned to Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1) at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., where he had died March 14.

According to his Facebook page, Dennis had a lot of friends. He enjoyed reading history books, adventure books and books about war and liked Clint Eastwood movies. His interests were the Marines, hanging out with his friend, Jake, turkey hunting, Comedy Central and the Discovery Channel.

The events surrounding his death have not been released, but that didn’t matter. He had died while serving his country.

The flight to Louisville was uneventful and there was the normal chatter on the plane.

But when we landed at Louisville, all that changed when the passengers on the right side of the plane noticed the hearse parked on the tarmac.

Standing near the Koehler Funeral Home hearse by a white personal vehicle were Kenneth and Lynn McCallister, the parents.

Nearby were six more Marines in full dress, standing stiffly at attention.

Silence once again.

The flight attendant asked us to remain seated while the Marine and the captain deplaned to become part of the honor guard.

As the events outside the plane began to unfold, the passengers looked on.

They weren’t gawking, but rather just wanted to witness with reverential respect the return home of this young man.

A flight attendant finally asked passengers to deplane.

Still silence.

Grown men, women and flight attendants were weeping.

We had a lump in our throat.

Outside on the tarmac, the parents moved closer to the cargo bay, by this time able to see the flag-draped casket inside the plane.

Quietly, the mother leaned over and put her tear-stained face onto the shoulder of the father.

Behind the cart used to ferry luggage to the baggage area, four Southwest employees stood at rapt attention.

The captain and the Marine who had accompanied the body were nearby.

Finally, the casket began to emerge from the plane.

The only sound was the click of the heels as the Marine moved beside the conveyor.

Solemnly and with the utmost of respect, the body of Dennis J. McCallister was carefully lifted from a wooden cradle and carried to the waiting hearse.

Again, the click, click, click was the only sound penetrating the air on this sunny morning.

Inside the terminal, passengers gathered around the window, attentively and reverently watching the solemn ceremony, each paying his or her final respects to a fallen Marine.

The casket was loaded into the hearse, which left the airport followed by the family’s car.

Outside the gate, a convoy of about 40 members of the Rolling Thunder waited to escort the young Marine the final two hours of his journey.

Suddenly, our frustrations of the past hours vanished.

We didn’t seem as tired.

Our eyes, other than tears, cleared up.

And for some reason, our clothes didn’t seem as rumpled.

Dennis McCallister was home.

The Trucker staff can be reached for comment at editor@thetrucker.com.

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