Four-year-old Ryan Lemm was perched on a uniformed cop’s shoulders as he raised a tiny right hand to join thousands of other uniformed figures in saluting his father’s flag-draped coffin.
This sight outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Wednesday made many think of John-John Kennedy saluting his father’s coffin back in 1963. The difference was that John-John had been only 3 and seemed not to grasp the magnitude of the tragedy.
Ryan is a year older and the manifest grief in his face made clear that he understood the enormity all too well. The cops who worked with NYPD Det. Joseph Lemm called the 6-foot-5 Nebraska native Superman because of his size and his resemblance to actor Christopher Reeve, and his unwavering readiness to race into danger for the sake of others. Ryan had another word for him, one the boy had repeated beside the coffin at the wake the night before.
Ryan’s daddy had also served as a technical sergeant with the New York Air National Guard, having asked himself what he could do for his country as well as his city. John-John’s daddy would no doubt have applauded as Lemm gave his all as both a cop and an airman.
Even in times when the city echoed with chants about racist cops and even calls of “What do we want? Dead cops!” Det. Lemm had hit the streets tour after tour, uncommonly brave and dedicated, making memorable gun collars.
And even as our longest war became a double quagmire and the country’s post 9/11 patriotic fervor faded to something too close to indifference, Technical Sgt. Lemm remained steadfast. He had been on his third combat deployment on Dec. 21, when he became one of six American killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan.
Under a gray Manhattan sky, his son now watched the NYPD honor guard carry daddy’s mortal remains up the cathedral’s stone steps. Ryan followed on the fellow cop’s shoulders, a miniature NYPD detective pin on the left lapel of his suit jacket.
Inside, Ryan sat with his mother and teenage sister in the front pew. The coffin stood close by, the flag replaced with a white embroidered pall. The other pews filled with cops in dark blue and airmen and airwomen in the lighter blue of the skies.
One of the three eulogies was delivered by Police Commissioner William Bratton. He took everybody back a decade before Ryan was born, to a morning that had led to this moment.
“Fourteen years ago, a war began,” Bratton said. “It began here in New York City—on a day that started warm and clear, and ended with smoke and fire, with mangled steel and lost lives.”
He went on, “Joseph Lemm was a rookie NYPD cop then, and he was in the war from the start, sifting through the smoldering debris in the heartbreaking search for survivors.”
Bratton noted that Ground Zero had burned for 100 days.
“And for so many, it still burns,” he continued. “It burns inside those who were there, and those who have dedicated themselves to fighting this war—people like Joe.”
Bratton pledged to Lemm’s wife, Christine, teenage daughter, Brooke, and, of course, Ryan, that the NYPD would stay true to the memory of this super man known as Superman.
“We keep our promise by confronting evil in order to steady those who tremble from it; by pushing ahead as others run away; by comforting the frightened, empowering the weak, and shielding the vulnerable; by standing united against fear, against wickedness, and against any threat, anywhere,” he said.
At the end of the Mass, the mourners sang “America the Beautiful.” The coffin was again covered with the flag and carried back down the stone steps.
Ten blocks of cops standing 10 deep snapped to attention. They again saluted, as Det. Lemm himself had at dozens of funerals for cops killed on 9/11, or in the street, or, on two occasions, while deployed with the military.
Lemm was now the third, and his son was back on the fellow cop’s shoulders, waving as if in farewell to the coffin, then again saluting as President Kennedy’s son had. A pair of buglers played “Taps.”
Ryan was still saluting when the order came over the public address system for the cops to stand at ease. The boy was startled by the barked command and clapped his hands over his ears, this one added jolt seemingly just too much. He began to relax again as the cop whose shoulders he was on started over to a limousine waiting behind the hearse.
Bratton stepped up and presented Ryan with a teddy bear in an NYPD uniform. The boy sat in the back of the limo with the bear in his lap, holding it in both hands and gazing into its glass eyes as if it could tell him something.
The procession had begun to slowly roll down Fifth Avenue, the NYPD Emerald Society Pipes and Drums leading the way, playing a slow, muffled beat that soon faded into the hum of the city bustling at Christmas week.
The mourners included several members of the FDNY, among them Chief Joseph Pfeifer. His fire company was investigating a possible gas leak in downtown Manhattan on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when the first hijacked plane roared overhead and hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. He had gotten on the radio and become the first person to officially describe the incident as what it in fact was.
“A terrorist attack,” he called it.
The firefighters who died that day included his brother, Lt. Kevin Pfeifer.
All these years later, the surviving Pfeifer brother had come to the funeral of yet another gallant soul who had answered duty’s call.
“It doesn’t seem to end,” Pfeifer said.
He then returned to his present post as the FDNY’s chief of counterterrorism and emergency preparedness. His counterparts in the NYPD and the Port Authority Police and the FBI were also doing all they could to get the city safely though the big New Year’s celebration in Times Square.
We should hope that 2016 will bring an end to the war, but nobody can rightly believe it will. What we can do is pray for those who have chosen to live as John-John’s daddy urged us, as Ryan’s daddy did until his very last moment.
“He chose selflessness,” Bratton said of Lemm, the cop and airman. “He chose sacrifice. He chose to serve.”
Go into the New Year remembering him and that little boy who sat gazing into a teddy bear’s eyes.