Those readers who also monitor this blog's "Facebook net" already know that I spent most of the weekend attempting to get on a plane that would take me home to Iowa. I was stuck in Harrisburg, Penn., starting Friday afternoon. I was booked and rebooked five times, was bumped into tomorrow twice, and achieved first-name relations with any number of friendly faces at the airport, and the hotel, and the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) security desk, and the hotel shuttle service, and so on.
Of course, I was in uniform, and that helped break the ice. No matter your brand of camouflage, there's no hiding when you're dressed like a digital tree in the middle of the airport. I normally try to avoid traveling in uniform for that reason alone. That, and I'm always self-conscious about wearing the flag on my right shoulder. You wear the uniform, you represent your country. That means putting on a happy and professional face at all times. And post-September-11 airline travel makes me feel anything but happy and professional.
I'm old enough to remember when flying was fun, regardless of your age. Flying was romantic, almost an escape. There were peanuts. There were little meals, fit for hungry astronauts. There were even planes available, when and where the airline scheduled planes to be available.
By comparison, this past weekend was potentially a grudging, trudging, uncomfortable affair--an exercise as much in futility as potential family practice for the upcoming deployment. Lena, 5, and Rain, 3, are having trouble understanding why Daddy keeps promising that he's coming home, and then doesn't deliver the goods. Household-6 is re-learning that the Army's "hurry up and wait" includes frustrations akin to "naming the dog 'Stay.'" ("C'mere, Stay, c'mere!") She was counting on me being home Friday, so that I could take care of the kids during a few social and church obligations. She had to adapt, improvise, and overcome, and lived to tell about it.
On my end, I was generally tired of people after two weeks of intellectually intense Army training. I was wearing a 4-day-old uniform, hadn't had much more than 4 hours of sleep when I showed up to the airport the first time. I hadn't changed into civilian clothes, because the uniform was the cleanest and warmest thing that I had available. In short, I was on the edge of feeling pretty grumpy and lonely, but ... Pennsylvanians wouldn't have any of that. Instead, wthout my asking, Pennsylvanians brought out their best on my behalf. In doing so, they brought out the best in me.
I can't tell you how many small kindnesses were committed on my behalf during my unplanned 48-hour-stay in Harrisburg, Penn. Delta Airlines gate agent Stephanie had me automatically rebooked at the first cancellation Friday night. "I always look out for Iowans," she told me. (A day or so later, while booking attempt No. 5, she let me know that she was originally from Spirit Lake, Iowa.) Later, she would ask whether I was heading home or heading downrange. ("If you're heading home," she said. "We try even harder--that's your family's time.")
Ticket and gate agent Steve troubleshot his way through an arcane mix of airline codes and military travel-agent nonsense, "transferring" and "associating" and "opening" my ticket three or four times over.
I literally saw Stephanie physically toss the rulebook aside. One delta employee, who identified himself only as "a vet," then ran from one airline desk to another, trying to find me a seat on any other carrier. He came back empty-handed, but, by then, that didn't matter--I was surprised, grateful, and impressed.
Pat, the woman driving the Courtyard Marriott shuttle, greeted me warmly on my first bag-drag back to the hotel, and not only told me which restaurants were within walking distance to the hotel, but which ones were worth the walk. She greeted me with sympathy when she saw me waiting at her stop the second day.
There was the nameless blue-shirted TSA employee, who advised me that I didn't need to unlace and remove my boots every time I went through security screening. Service members are apparently exempt, as long as their footgear doesn't contain metal. (Like the old jungle boots did--or the steel-toed desert boots.)
Eric, the front desk at the hotel, tried to book me right back into the room I'd had my first night in town. When it wasn't available, he booked me on the first floor--right next to guest laundry. Then he gave me some laundry detergent, so I could arrive at home later-but-cleaner than originally planned.
The countless airport employees and fellow passengers who said "thanks for your service." I get choked up just thinking about all of it.
I briefly visited the 28th Infantry Division Memorial on Fort Indiantown Gap during my recent training there. The oldest divisional organization in the U.S. Army, the Pennsylvania Army National Guard's 28th Infantry Division is the "Keystone Division," and they wear a bright-red patch that's nicknamed the "bloody bucket." The division's motto since World War II is "roll on."
The celebrated last words heard from the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, before it crashed into Stoneycreek Township, Penn., were "Let's Roll."
So, where am I headed with all this, other than home? A handful of Pennsylvanians earned my ever-living gratitude for their kindness, hospitality, and quiet patriotism. They're in it to win, and they don't make a big deal of it. That's just how they roll.