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Carl Wernicke Reflects On A Uniquely Moving Pensacola Tradition

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While riding in the procession from the church to the cemetery last week for the funeral of J. Earle Bowden, I noticed what I have been told is a unique Pensacola tradition: cars all along the route stopping to honor the deceased.

Now, I myself have stopped many times for funerals, but it has been a long time since I was part of the procession to the cemetery. I can tell you that from the inside, it is a very moving tribute. People didn’t just pull over to the side of the road, many of them simply stopped where they were, in the road.

It was Saturday morning, and in this increasingly fast-paced world where we all seem to always have somewhere be, and right now, it would have been easy for many of these drivers to be irritated with this quaint remnant of a slower time. But I studied many of the faces, and they didn’t look irritated. 

As we neared the cemetery we passed an almost movie-like convoy of bikers, lined up in twos, side by side, in their leather vests, German Army helmets and bulging biceps scrawled with tattoos. They, too, had pulled over in homage to a complete stranger taking his final trip.

I found myself wanting to wave to or otherwise acknowledge these strangers, all along the route, but I figured it would be inappropriate, perhaps even misinterpreted as too lighthearted for such a solemn occasion.

But there was something so very heartwarming about it, this gesture of solidarity, of humanity, an acknowledgement by these people of our shared destiny.  For a few moments, they were willing to stop and acknowledge that some things are more important than others, and that these things deserve at least a few moments of our time.

As I said, it was moving, and added a measure of graceful solemnity to an already solemn occasion.

Given that I grew up stopping for funerals, it has always seemed perfectly normal to me. But over many years of editing letters to the editor at the News Journal, I was always impressed  by the small but steady number of letters from visitors to the area who were so struck upon witnessing this tradition that they were moved to write to the newspaper to publicly share their thoughts. The sight of it uniformly thrilled these people, many of them from larger cities where our shared humanity often seems drowned out by the roar of mass civilization. During their visits to Pensacola they felt as if they had reconnected to an essential humanity that seemed missing where they lived.

There are many reasons to cherish living in Northwest Florida, and much to be thankful for. To have been a part of this simple but heartfelt event showed me one more reason to be proud of my hometown.

Carl Wernicke is a native of Pensacola. He graduated from the University of Florida in 1975 with a degree in journalism. After 33 years as a reporter and editor, he retired from the Pensacola News Journal in April 2012; he spent the last 15 years at the PNJ as editor of the editorial page. He joined the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in 2012 as Senior Writer and Communications Manager, and retired from IHMC in 2015.His hobbies include reading, traveling, gardening, hiking, enjoying nature around his home in Downtown Pensacola, as well as watching baseball and college football, especially the Florida Gators and New York Yankees. His wife, Patti, retired as a senior vice president at Gulf Winds Federal Credit Union and is a Master Gardener. Carl is a regular contributor to WUWF. His commentaries focus on life in and around the Pensacola area and range in subject matter from birding to downtown redevelopment and from preserving our natural heritage to life in local neighborhoods.