I found myself traveling again this week. It’s not something I do much anymore as I haven’t been anybody’s Union rep in about a year and a half now. But this week I was once again on some other, equally important, Union business and traveled to Rochester New Hampshire.
It’s a place you just can’t get to from here. It was an hour on a plane, then two hours in an airport, then another hour and a half on another plane, and then two hours or so in yet another airport, and then an hour by car, a diversion that lasted more than an hour, and then on to the hotel. I could set down my backpack and laptop as I had finally arrived at my destination.
A backpack was all I needed because in my years of travel I’ve learned to pack well, and pack lightly. And since I was only going to be in Rochester for two nights, I didn’t have to pack much at all.
Everybody always asks if it was a good trip, and I always say that it was uneventful. In my opinion, an uneventful trip is the best kind to have, especially when travelling by air. But this trip was full of adventure. Not the bad kind, either. The kind that will have me pondering the enormity of the events for a while, and the impact it had on me.
It was during my two-hour layover in Washington DC. I’d gotten off the plane and headed to the restroom like everybody else. Then I found a place to have a late breakfast. And then I made my way to my gate. With still an hour and a half before the scheduled boarding time, I settled into a seat, dug out my Kindle, and dove into something I’d downloaded a few days ago.
I began hearing announcements over the intercom system about something happening at another gate. I’m usually pretty good at tuning out the airport noise, so I didn’t pay too much attention to it. That is, I ignored it pretty well until I’d heard the same message for about the third time. The announcement seemed more conversational than informative. I figured if the guy was going to keep interrupting my reading, I might as well give it a listen at least once.
The announcement was about an incoming plane from which more than a hundred WWII veterans would be disembarking, having traveled to Washington DC to visit the memorial. They were only going to be in DC for the one day, and the announcer had invited everyone in the terminal (who had the time without missing their flight) to greet the Veterans at Gate 36.
I still had about an hour and a half before my flight started to board. I stowed my Kindle, picked up my few belongings, and meandered my way over to the designated gate. A small crowd had already gathered, and it was growing by the minute. The chute that the Veterans would travel from the plane to the terminal was decorated with an American flag hung on an inner wall. Another hung tapestry style on an adjacent wall inside the terminal. Amid red, white, and blue balloons, a brass quintet played all those old Company songs from the 40’s with two trumpets, a trombone, a baritone, and an oboe.
As their plane approached the terminal on the flag-lined tarmac, it received a water salute and the entire plane passed through an arc of water. Inside, people’s noses were pressed up against the thick glass to watch, and tears sprang to our eyes long before we ever saw the first of the Veterans disembark. Cheers the Veterans couldn’t possibly hear echoed through the halls of the airport, and the crowd grew thicker.
I could almost feel the static that rose from all the goose bumps from everybody’s arms as the Veterans came through that chute, one by one. Some walked unassisted while others used wheelchairs, canes, and walkers. One rose from his wheelchair to meet his greeting upright.
Some were missing a leg, one was missing an arm, and they were all absent their youth.
I thought about trying to dig out the only camera in my possession, my iPod, from the bottom of my backpack, decided that by the time I could get to it the parade would be over, and resigned myself to simply taking notes. I was afraid I would forget probably the most profound sight I had ever seen in my lifetime. But writing this, I find that I have only consulted my notes twice. I don’t think I will ever forget this day.
The Veterans all wore yellow shirts that advised that if we could read their shirts, we should thank a teacher, and if we could read it in English, we should thank a Veteran. The assistants all wore the same message on blue shirts.
While we applauded them for their service, they met us with smiles and laughter. Some wept. One couldn’t even look at us. I saw in their elderly faces gratitude for our appreciation, sadness at the abruptly conjured memories, and nostalgia from the camaraderie experienced on the flight with their fellow servicemen. I saw disdain from a few that we in the crowd would have the nerve to thank them now, derision that we dared act like we had any knowledge of their sufferings, and knowledge that whatever gratitude we were showing, it could never take the place of their tremendous losses.
And we clapped our hands together anyway, because all of us standing there were standing there in genuine gratitude for them. We were showing appreciation for those that couldn’t be there because they’d, quite literally, given their all. We remembered them, we saluted those that were still alive, and we tapped our feet to songs like Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, made popular by the Andrews Sisters in 1941 (and replayed for us live by the Whitworth Brass Quintet for an honor flight in 2013).
People who couldn’t wait any longer rushed to catch connecting flights. Others paused as they passed the gate, and then stayed as long as they could. Parents shuffled small children as best they could for as long as they could, all in order to stay and participate just a little while longer.
The war was over nearly 70 years ago. These people we were saluting and for whom we were cheering, won’t be with us much longer. They are aged, and their collective health is failing. And pretty soon, there will be no more surviving servicemen from WWII.
As I was thinking about this, I realized that I’d lost all track of time and was about to miss boarding my own flight. While the remaining Veterans disembarked, I became one of the other passengers fleeing the scene in a mad rush to my own gate.
I was glad I stayed as long as I possibly could, though. It’s a sight I’m glad I was available to witness. And even though I wasn’t able to take pictures digitally, I’ll always have the memory for as long as my own mind is healthy enough to re-play it.
It wasn’t only an actual flight of honor for the WWII Veterans.
It was also a flight of honor for me.