The last few days have been beyond surreal. I'm sorry to keep going on about all of this, but right now, this is where I am and what I'm going through, and if that's not what you should journal about, then what is?
Cousin Jimmy never would have considered himself a celebrity here in town by any means... but he and his family have become such over the last few days.
The City of Scranton, also known as The Electric City (you might recognize the name if you watch the American version of The Office) has come out in full force to support the family in this time of crisis. So much so, that at times it's like we stepped into this alternate universe where we're part of the Kennedy Clan.
Wednesday night was the second viewing. The funeral home had said that one wouldn't be enough, and despite three straight hours of hand shaking and condolences on Tuesday, another viewing was scheduled for Wednesday from 3PM to 8PM. While the line didn't start as early as it did on Tuesday, by 2:30, it was already down the block and people were waiting to get in.
The Funeral home had everything wonderfully organized. Visitors came in and followed a rope line through an outer room where there were photos of Jimmy and the family, flowers and other memorabilia. Then they quickly snaked through another room that gave them access to a bathroom if necessary, then back out into the main hall where they could sign the guest book before entering the long room where Jimmy was lying in State. And I say "lying in State" because that's pretty much what it was. The long room ran the length of the Funeral Parlor (my Uncle Lee is old skool and couldn't stop calling it the Corpse House) in which waited about 30 of us.
After paying their respects to Jimmy, folks traveled down the length of the room expressing condolences, then were whisked back past the bathroom, through a room where Jimmy's firefighting brethren were waiting, then back through the memorabilia room before leaving the building. At one point someone likened it to a Disneyland attraction, "Jimmy the Ride." People waited up to 45 minutes to get in to the building, they traveled one of those paths that wrapped around itself before the few moments of actually experiencing what they'd come there for, then back outside. I have no idea how my aunt and uncle and Linda and Ryan kept it up as long as they did. But, like any attraction, there were a few points when the lines were halted so that folks on our side could get coffee and go to the rest room. Those of us at the far end of the room got it easy. We stood and sat as we wished. We were close to the bathrooms and the back room with coffee all the time, we didn't have to wait for breaks.
The entire time there were two firefighters, one at either end of the casket, on Honor Guard. Every fifteen minutes they would switch out the Honor Guard in a very ritualized manner that completely fascinated all of us. My parents and I even ventured up into the land of "Can't sit down, can't get coffee" for a little while so that we could watch it happen.
The night before, all of Jimmy's childhood friends had come by to visit, and to play one last game of Kick the Can in the alley behind the house. I'm pretty sure at some point during the viewing that the can ended up in the casket with Jimmy, along with cards, notes and the like.
Five and a half hours later, it was finally done, and we all made our way back to Lee and Alyce's house for a late dinner and so my Aunt and Uncle could go through the two and a half inch thick pile of condolence cards they had received that day. It was completely and totally exhausting, and over the course of the day, we were honored by the presence of three mayors (two retired), two police chiefs, and firemen from as far away as Florida and Toronto... HUNDREDS of them.
The next morning we were up extra early to make our way to the seven limos that were set to carry us all from Linda's house to the Funeral Home (for a final prayer service) to the Church, then to the Cemetery and back. Seven Limos weren't enough to fit the entirety of the family, so some of the more distant relatives drove their own cars (with police escort).
We'd noticed that even though it wasn't the proper day, the street between my Aunt and Uncle's house and Jimmy's house had been cleaned by the street sweeper AGAIN, and the garbage had been picked up for the third time that week at both houses.
Streets were completely closed down for us to get to the Funeral Home, which was unsurprising, as they do this for a lot of long processions. But when we arrived, everyone just lost it. Across the street from the Funeral Home was the entirety of the Scranton Fire Department, in dress uniform, standing at attention. Before them was Engine #2, the engine that Jimmy was the Captain on, draped in black bunting. And off in the distance were cameramen and videographers, capturing our every move and facial expression.
The prayer service was short, and soon after we were following behind Engine 2 and the Scranton FD as they marched the mile and a half to St. Patrick's Church. As soon as the procession started to move, doors started opening and people started coming out of their houses to stand on the sidewalk, hats over hearts, or Saluting. It was 33 degrees out, but the sidewalks were suddenly filled with people-- young and old, saluting, or holding signs that read "Thank you Captain Robeson." One group of school children had colored flags and pictures of firemen and were all holding them up for us. Every sign on every store, gas station and school had some sort of message for Jimmy. Camera men buzzed behind the crowds and took photos and shot video and interviewed people. At every intersection, a police car with lights ablaze blocked traffic, and the officer stood at attention, formally saluting the entire length of the procession. But the thing that got me the most was that people were CRYING. And not just one or two -- ALOT of people were crying.
When we finally got to the Church, we filed out of the limos only to find probably two thousand firefighters lining both sides of the street, all at attention, waiting for us. Once Jimmy was taken from the truck to the Church, we made our way up the steps and inside. I saw at least four television cameras, and from the footage later, there were several more outside.
Inside the Church were a few more cameras. The entire service was broadcast live on both (I think) regional television stations, and everything was live blogged to the local paper's website as it happened.
The Church wasn't big enough to hold all of the firefighters or all of the public, so some folks were shunted downstairs to the Church basement, and some across to the High School Gymnasium and some just stayed outside. In all locations (even outside) closed circuit televisions played the Funeral Mass for everyone to watch. EIGHT priests were at the altar to perform the Transfiguration, and then they dispersed to several sttions within the Church and to all of the remote locations. It was the most efficient Communion I've ever experienced.
Not only was there an organist, but a four of five piece ensemble playing with her.
The Sermon was very well done, and the Monsignor was personable and kind, and was constantly looking over at my Aunt Alyce to make sure she was okay. The readings and the psalms were done well, and the singer they had (I don't know the special name for this person) had a beautiful voice.
The President of the Scranton Firefighters Local 60 gave the first Eulogy, and it was moving and heart-wrenching, and when he said that Jimmy was "one of the finest men to wear the uniform of a Scranton Firefighter," we could tell that he meant it.
And then Jimmy's son Ryan took the podium. He was as steady as a rock throughout, and by the time he'd finished his Eulogy, everyone in the Church was in tears. It was solemn, respectful, funny, informative, well written, and moving beyond words. If I can find a transcript somewhere, I'll share it later.
When the Eulogies were done, Senator Robert Casey and Congressman Paul Kanjorski presented a flag that had been flown over the US Capitol to Ryan and Linda. And then Jimmy was presented with a Medal of Valor before the Fireman's Prayer was read.
When I am called to duty, God
Wherever flames may rage
Give me strength to save a life
Whatever be its age.
Let me embrace a little child
Before it is too late
Or save an older person from
The horror of that fate.
Enable me to be alert
And hear the weakest shout,
And quickly and efficiently
To put the fire out.
I want to fill my calling
To give the best in me,
To guard my friend and neighbor
And protect their property.
And, if according to your will,
I have to lose my life,
Please bless, with your protecting hand,
My child and my wife.
Back to the limos, where we saw that the Red Cross had set up a coffee station for the firefighters and the folks who stayed outside the church, and we prepared for the mile drive to the Cemetery, following Engine 2 and the Scranton FD, followed by ALL the firefighters, the camera crews and even aerial cameras in helicopters. More people lined the streets, waving, taking photos, saluting, crying... Business folks stood in front of their shops. People held signs that simply read "Hero."
At the entrance to the cemetery, two ladder trucks hoisted a huge American flag, under which we all drove. At the grave side, a bagpipe ensemble and drummers from Massachusetts played. Camera crews and photographers kept a respectful distance. The graveside service was short. The folding of the flag was silent. The ringing of the final bell for Jimmy was tearjerking. And then there was a low flyover by a medivac helicopter and it was done.
We watched every news report that night, catching glimpses of ourselves on cameras (they were actually REALLY respectful of our privacy during the services, so glimpses were all we really got). Everyone teared up a little bit each time part of Ryan's Eulogy was played, and as the evening wore on, and people started to drift home we were tired, but mostly at peace with the day.
I spent a good portion of today scanning newspaper articles. The two page spread of Cemetery photos was just amazing, and the full back page spread of photos from the paper from Wilkes-Barre was also wonderfully put together. We also stopped by the fire station to sign the condolence book there. As soon as someone noticed that "family" had arrived, all of the guys came out to greet us, which was really amazing. They said that the stream of people signing the book and leaving flowers hadn't lessened, and that the weren't sure when they were going to be able to move the memorial, let alone take it down.
Tonight, I met up with some friends from college that I hadn't seen in far too long. We passed the fire station on our way to dinner, and there were STILL people stopping to sign the condolence book.
And now, it's 2AM, and I'm exhausted once again.
Home on Sunday, but this will likely be the final PA wrap up.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled program...