My son came home from California to visit us just before the holidays. Our gift to him was his air fare, and because we were going to celebrate Christmas a week early, we were able to book a round-trip flight for a reasonable price. He was delayed for the return trip, however, and we had to re-book it for the following day, at three times the initial cost. Being one day closer to Christmas was enough to make that much of a difference.
His flight was scheduled to leave Newark Airport at 6:30 on a Wednesday night. I drove him down in the afternoon, expecting a lot of traffic, and long lines at the airport, but there were no delays, and after he checked in, we had a couple of hours to spend together before he would actually board the plane. There were rows of plastic seats on the lower level of the terminal, and after getting some coffee, we took the escalator down to wait. I was glad for the time. He had only been away from home since September, but I had missed him a lot, and wished he had not chosen to go so far away.
After we had been there for a while, a group of men passed by and walked toward the escalator. There were six of them, mostly wearing jeans and black leather vests, with silver chains and military patches, indicating that they were veterans, and possibly bikers. A few of them wore camouflaged shirts and caps. They were carrying a rolled up American flag, and what appeared to be a state flag, although it was not clear which state they represented, and I knew immediately why they were there; someone was coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan, and these men would be the first to welcome them back to the States. I watched them ride the escalator up to the next level, and form a small circle off to the right, where the passengers from incoming flights would be filing by.
My son and I continued to talk a little longer before it was time for me to go. I knew he was anxious to get back to his new life in California, and looking forward to the freedom and independence he enjoyed being on his own, and as much as it hurt to know that it might be a long time before I would see him again, I said, “Come on, I’ll go up the escalator with you, and then head out.” I also told him I wanted to stop and talk to the vets, because I wanted to thank them for being there. When we got to the top of the escalator, my son followed me over to where they were standing.
As I approached the gentleman nearest me, I held out my hand.
“Here to welcome someone home?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he said. “An Airman.”
“I just want to thank you for doing that,” I said. “I was in Nam myself, and I’m glad to see that things have changed.”
He motioned toward two of the vets on the other side of the circle. “These guys were in Nam, too.”
We shook hands.
“Welcome home,” was all we needed to say.
I asked him if the Airman was local, thinking that if he lived anywhere in New Jersey or New York, I would offer him a ride.
“No,” he said, “She’s from Texas.
I was not expecting him to say that. I had assumed that the Airman was a man, and since he had referred to her by rank, and not gender, I quickly realized that something else had changed. It would not have been unusual for him to say, “A female Airman,” and yet he chose to leave out that detail, as if it was not important. Defining people by gender, race, or nationality is a common practice, but referring to her simply as, “an Airman,” was a refreshing example of how far we've come in addressing the issue of equality. The fact that it was applied to someone who had served our country, and been called upon to exemplify and protect those ideals, made it even more appropriate. We talked a little longer, and I thanked him again before my son and I went to find the boarding gate.
When it was time for him to get on the plane, I gave him a hug, and said, “I love you.” We shook hands, and at that moment, it occurred to me that I could be standing there just like the other vets, waiting for him to come home from a war, or worse, sending him off to fight in one. Suddenly, California did not seem like such a bad place to be.
And neither did Texas.
So, wherever you are tonight, Airman, “Welcome home.”