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Essay: Funeral Train

Funeral Train
by Michael Levine

“Any day is a good day to die”—Arab proverb

On Saturday, June 8, 1968, I witnessed violent death. It wasn’t the first time, it wouldn’t be the last. Yet the images of that day festered in my memory for three decades. It wasn’t until recently that I understood why.

It is a hot day and I’m leaning out  from between two cars of a southbound train trying to catch a breeze.  Throngs of people line the tracks as far as the eye can see,  gawking at us.   Here and there an American flag hangs limp in the dank heat. The body of the Senator Robert F. Kennedy in a flag draped coffin is in the rear compartment.  More than a million people line the tracks between New York and Washington DC where he will be buried.  My train is packed with (literally) the year’s hottest celebrities— the air-conditioner, unimpressed, has quit.

Ahead, some of the crowd push onto the tracks for a closer look.   A northbound train suddenly speeds around a curve heading right at them.   I wave and shout.   Most scatter to safety.  But a few freeze in their tracks like frightened deer an instant before the  mass of steel grinds them into road kill.   I’m thinking, “I didn’t see that.”  There is an explosion of sound.   Shrieks of horror over screeching steel.  A blur of dirty brown metal.  The indescribable smell of death.

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