I have been travelling around the world for almost forty years. Much of that travel has been through airports and quite often those trips have been just before and just after holidays. I can remember surprising my folks a few times coming back unexpectedly from a patrol and seeing my Mom cry with such joy. Even Dad from time to time would get pretty emotional. I can barely remember the details of most of those trips but I can probably describe every detail of the arrivals (and too soon departures back to the ship).
I have a confession to make. Despite the hundreds of thousands of miles in the air, the long lines, the missing connection flight and really over-priced food, I love being in airports. Maybe it’s a kind of sickness considering all those days and nights where delays seemed to stretch on forever, but you really learn a lot about life in an airport waiting room.
Life plays out before you like a panorama and all of the drama and excitement overcome what should be boredom if you just know where to look. Take the last two days for instance. I was headed to Kentucky for a business meeting and it was going to be a quick in and back trip. The flight to Atlanta was pretty routine and then there was a layover. Atlanta is one of the busiest airports in the world and the moving mass of people just seems to overwhelm your senses when you first get there. They all seem to be going somewhere but their destinations are unknown.
After riding the subway shuttle to the gate, I settled in for my wait. I like to choose a seat that is by itself (personal space and all that) and I like to be facing the travel aisle. You see some of the most interesting things as the people rush off their plane and race to another connecting flight. Every kind of emotion is fully on display; joy, sadness, anger, happiness, worry, care free and easy. Some people are rushing with a purpose through the slower moving groups and people. You can see their irritation when someone aimlessly wanders into their glide path.
Fashion choices give you clues to their trips as well. Small kids with Mickey Mouse hats on, girls with long boots and short skirts, faded old khaki outfits with crushed brim hats covering a grey pony tail, and suit jackets with a loosened tie covering a body that had seen too much travel and too many airport beers. Most of these looks can help you determine their comings and goings.
Once you settle down though and the details of the scene play out in front of you, its like watching life unfold on a shiny platform filled with uncomfortable chairs and not enough electric outlets. As you look around the waiting area at the holiday season, you can imagine the stories that come with each passenger and family.
Over in the corner sits a young woman with a baby. She looks harassed and of course the baby is very uncomfortable in this foreign over-lit setting. The experienced travellers are all checking their tickets and subconsciously hoping that Mother and Child will be as far away from them as possible on the sold out plane. At 40,000 feet, there are very few places to escape a fussy child and since 9-11 it has been even worse.
Near them is a small family with a bored looking pre-teen pounding away on her tiny I Phone. She is probably texting her friends saying how much she wishes she was anyplace but here. Her brother is running around the chairs knocking into unsuspecting people who are trying to lose themselves in their computers or copies of the USA Today newspaper they found outside of their hotel room. Many of the business men who are not glued to their own I Phone appear restless to get home to their family’s. These professional road warriors really hate the holidays when the airport becomes clogged with people who travel too infrequently to appreciate the rules of the road.
A distracted man in his fifties is waiting up near the counter with his white haired mother in a wheel chair. She is probably going to visit a sister in a far away destination for what may be the last time. He looks agitated with the harried airline counter person as they both realize she has been seated in an exit row and of course, this being the holidays, the plane is oversold. Compassion can sometimes be in short supply in this season where we celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace.
All around the terminal are people in uniforms. Mostly Army since this is Atlanta but more than I was used to seeing for a long time. The thin young men with the bald heads who have just graduated from basic stand out first. The Army Dress Blue uniform is sharply creased in every possible way and they can walk right by the shoe shine stands with a smug smile knowing that the hours spent on preparing for graduation produced a shine far superior than anything a civilian could duplicate.
Some of the young men carrying the signature army digital camouflage rucksack try to blend in with the crowd wearing rock and roll t-shirts and jeans. But the proud way they walk, the short hair cuts, and the airborne tattoos are really dead give aways (sorry boys). On this trip though, hundreds of troops were in their digi-camo uniforms with packs. The newsreader on the TV was talking about the end of the Iraq war and the departure of so many soldiers. The time for questioning about the war will come later. Now, it was just a race to get to their homes. After eight years of being shot at by a people resentful and ungrateful for your sacrifices, I guess I can understand that feeling.
Sometimes I will say something to them. Sometimes, you can see a person sitting alone with their thoughts and just know that there is nothing you can say. That’s what happened to me on this trip. In the midst of all the bright and shiny uniforms and the unique Iraq era digital uniforms, there was one guy sitting alone in a different colored uniform.
This young sergeant had a bag in his hands and a uniform that looked like he had just left some place in a hurry. He was looking down so I didn’t want to disturb him. Military in uniform boarded first (Way to go Delta, thanks!). He sat right in front of me. At the end of the flight I saw him open the bag and it was a little girl’s toddler’s dress. All pink and still on the hanger. He was her real Christmas present though. I leaned over and said “Welcome Home son and Merry Christmas”.
His eyes and face seemed to relax and for the first time since I saw him in Atlanta he looked at peace. “Thank you sir.” His ISAF patch said that he had just flown home from Afghanistan. It got really quiet in the plane then and even the most hardened battle weary road warriors stopped shoving their way to the front and stepped back into their seats so he could walk off the plane. I have to tell you that a thousand trips home could never have compared to what I knew he was experiencing.
After he left, the aisles resumed their normal aggressive stance. Bags being pulled from overhead bins that were just barely large enough to hold them narrowly missed the novice travelers in their path. I looked around and behind me and about ten rows back stood a rather portly gentleman wearing the digital camo uniform. Where his rank should be displayed there was a bright shiny star. His aid was holding his bag and both uniforms were as creased and proper as those young recruits I had seen earlier in the waiting room. The look on his face was priceless… he was clearly pissed at having to wait in line with all these “civilians”. If looks could kill, the body count on that plane would be very high. I just kind of smiled and joined my place in line to get off the plane.
I looked for the sergeant when I deplaned but he and his family must have already left to begin his homecoming. Its probably just as well. I hate crying in airports. Especially at my age.
At this very busy travelling season, take the time to look around you. Be a little more patient. Remember that we all have destinations. One more request: even though we have “Peace” in Iraq, please don’t forget those brave souls still fighting and dying in Afghanistan. They could really use your prayers today.
God Bless the Men and Women who put their lives on the line for us every day.
By the way, you do realize that Christmas is less than ten days away, right? For all of my male readers, that means you have only a few days left before you start shopping. See you at the store.