“Coming Home, 2002”
Green was sitting at a gate in the Atlanta airport for his Delta flight back up to Chicago. His was waging a losing battle trying to mold his fifty-year-old body into the unyielding plastic of a seat that was obviously not designed to accommodate the shape of a human body.
He had pretty much given up going over the spreadsheets for the job in Valdosta he had traveled down to bid on. It was another strip mall, something his engineering firm had developed a specialty in over the years. After a couple of meetings, though, he had pretty much decided that the job was “wired”-the developer had already decided whose brother-in-law he was going to award the contract to. Green’s role was to make the bidding process look competitive and legit. The less time and money Green spend on this boondoggle, he decided, the less he had to lose.
He was wondering if it were too early to wander over to one of the many bars along the concourse and have a beer. He checked his watch. It said four-thirty. Was that Chicago time or Atlanta time, he wondered? What time was Atlanta on? He looked up at the digital clock above the departure gate. Five-thirty. His plane was supposed to depart at seven, if it got out on time. It wasn’t even posted yet on the gate. Green couldn’t remember the last time a flight to O’Hare from anywhere actually left on time. He wouldn’t get home until after eleven, he imagined. If he wanted a beer, he should just walk over and get one.
Green looked around the gate area. All the usual suspects, as the movie said. There was a score of business people, men and women in dark suits, their noses buried in laptops or cellphones glued to their ears. There were two guys sitting across from him, both in dark suits, their ties askew to indicate how hard they worked and how done their day was, going over something on some papers held between them. There was a family group in the next aisle. They were dressed in vacation clothes, golf shirts, khakis and loafers, and sitting behind a barricade of colorful cloth tote bags stuffed to the brim with bits of clothes, souvenirs and snacks. Their two kids, both boys under ten, were squirming and fretting in the uncomfortable chairs despite their mother’s hissing whispers for them the stop it and behave. The husband was trying to remain aloof from the struggle by burying his nose in a paperback.
Green noticed a folded, discarded copy of USA Today in a seat across from him. Almost unconsciously, he reached across, grabbed it and started to scan the pages. The great thing about USA Today, is that you didn’t have to be fully conscious read the thing.
The main stories on the front page were about the war the US was waging in Iraq, the second in less than ten years. Although the Iraqi army had been destroyed, its capital occupied and the president had declared victory in the Spring from the deck of an aircraft carrier, the violence continued. Vehicles stuffed with explosives were detonated in crowded market-places killing scores of civilians. Road-side bombs were exploded as US convoys passed along the road, killing and maiming US soldiers.
These stories seemed to indicate that the US had again gotten itself involved in the same kind of endless and unwinnable war it had fought, and according to the popular cultural myth, lost, in Vietnam. Green needed to push those thoughts aside. He had spent a year in Vietnam in the infantry. Luckily, he was up in the highlands, away from the terrorist war that the communists had conducted in the urban areas. Unluckily, he had been involved in the more conventional jungle-warfare conducted by the People’s Army of Viet Nam. He knew those memories still remained… he knew they still affected him… how he responded to things… how he dealt with people… that would never change… never go away… but he didn’t have to deal with that right now. Not today.
He thumbed through to the sports section. More bad news. The Mets dropped their third in a row; this time to the Cubs, for Christ sake!
Green was just about to take a second pass on that beer, when he noticed some activity in the gate area. A Delta employee in a blue and white uniform was fussing with some invisible stuff behind the desk. Soon, another blue-suited airline zombie joined her. Passengers began to warily approach the desk to ask whatever questions they had about the latest malfunctions-perceived or real-to their travel plans. Both airline workers ignored them, consciously it seemed. Green wondered briefly if those lanyards and cards the airline people wore around their necks gave off some invisible, electronic waves that numbed their frontal lobes, so that they could so effortlessly ignore other humans around them.
Green was just about ready to give up on USA Today and watching the gate crew’s passive aggression when he noticed one of them unlock the door to the boarding ramp with her magic card and secure the door back. Green glanced at the gate sign. There was nothing posted. But again, for no reason comprehensible to a rational universe, airlines rarely posted arrivals at the gate. Green imagined that, since the new anti-terrorist security regulations had been put into effect and no one could meet an arriving flight at the gate, it didn’t make much of a difference that arrivals weren’t posted. But, still… Green was an engineer and often tried to structure his universe like an engineer, so posting an arrival at its gate seemed neat… proper… it just made sense to him.
People began to wander into the gate area from the plane invisible out behind the concrete-grey walls of the concourse. Green noticed that some seem directed and determined, marching briskly through the gate area toward some urgent and necessary goal. Others acted like they had just been dropped on a strange new world. They blinked, looked around obviously not seeing anything helpful or meaningful, and eventually they meandered off down the concourse.
Then, a group of soldiers came through the gate. They were dressed in a uniform unfamiliar to Green. It was a swirl of creamy white and light green; it gave him the impression of a spinach soufflé. Some wore the round, brimmed caps that seemed to be throwbacks to the Korean war. Others wore the new black berets with jaunty peaks and bright blue tabs, the army had recently adopted. They even wore matching back backs.
But, what really impressed Green was how healthy and fit theses soldiers looked. He remembered how he and his buddies had looked after a few months in the jungles of the Vietnamese highlands. They were all severely underweight, their skin jaundiced yellow by the lack of sunlight and dengue. These guys getting off the plane looked like they could throw any of their Vietnam counterparts over their shoulder and carry them down the concourse without any effort.
Then, Green saw something he had never before seen in his life. Everyone in the gate area was standing; they were cheering the arriving soldiers. Green got up, too. He clapped. But… something was wrong. Somehow he didn’t feel right about this… no… that wasn’t the right word… he actually felt bad about what was happening. Why? He had no idea.
He noticed that some of the soldiers looked awkward about this, almost embarrassed. With what these soldiers had to go through in Iraq, Green thought, they deserved the cheers of these civilians whose biggest crisis today would be a delayed flight or a last minute gate change. They deserved the accolades, the “heroes’ welcome coming back from that dirty war… a dirty war… like Nam…
Yet, Green still felt something was wrong here… not with this… maybe it was with him… “a dirty war like Nam…” he had no such welcome when he got back… that was LaGuardia airport… so many years ago… it felt so cold… early April…
When Green got home, there was no welcome for returning soldiers, but there was a great deal of hysteria against the war. The returning soldiers were made to bear the blame for it. When Green was processed in Oakland, he was told not to travel in uniform so there would be no trouble.
Green flew back to New York in his khakis. The flight crew were polite enough, but he seemed to embarrass the other passengers. No one would look at him. There was no conversation.
In the men’s room at La Guardia airport, someone he didn’t know—a skinny guy with tinted, wire-rim glasses, bushy hair and a beard—called him a baby killer.
In the cab going home, the driver asked where he was in from. When he said Nam, the driver didn’t say anything for the rest of the trip.
Green hadn’t told his family he was coming home. They knew his tour was over, and they were expecting him, but he didn’t write before he left Nam and he didn’t call from Oakland.
When the cab pulled up in front of his house, he noticed some kids playing jump rope. One of them, a little girl, noticed the cab; cabs were a rarity in Green’s neighborhood. When the little girl peered into the cab’s window, Green realized she was his little sister at the same time she realized he was her big brother home from the war. He was surprised how much she had changed while he was away.
She immediately started screaming, “Patty’s home! Patty’s home!”
Her screams brought Green’s mother to the door just as he was dragging his duffle bag out of the backseat. She was drying her hands with a dish towel. Green was shocked at how thin and pale she had become since he had last seen her. For a second he wondered if she were well. Then, she was down the stoop, dropping the towel and embracing her son.
Green wasn’t sure how to react. He dropped his duffle on the sidewalk and put his arms around his mother’s shoulders, patting her back, while his little sister and her friends danced and jumped, shouting “Patty’s home! Patty’s home!”
When Green returned from his reverie, the soldiers had left the gate area. The other waiting passengers had sat down and resumed killing time. The airline people had closed and locked the gate and had disappeared before any passengers could ask their assistance.
Green realized he was still standing in front of his seat. He quickly dropped back down into the unyielding plastic bucket, half worried that he had been noticed and the other passengers would think his behavior a bit bizarre.
That was so long ago.
His little sister was now married and living in Pennsylvania, near Stroudsburg. She had kids older than she had been that day.
He had lost both his parents. His dad to cancer… from the cigarettes… the work… the stress… he didn’t see his sixtieth birthday.
His mom never seemed to recover from his being in Nam. She clung to religion, went to mass every morning for years… finally, after his dad died, she just seemed to give up… fade away… he remembered what his older sister said when they were leaving the hospital the night mom passed away… “I don’t think she got a night’s sleep all the time you were in Vietnam, Pat. Not a night’s sleep.”
So long ago… but with him always.
Green slipped his laptop back into his briefcase. He looked again at his watch. Over an hour before his flight. Yep, he thought, I could use that beer. Maybe a quick sandwich… I’m going to miss dinner at home. But, that beer, definitely.
© Copyright Ray Gleason 2013 – All Rights Reserved