“I have a lot of practice,” he said, flashing that great smile.
I noticed his heavily muscled forearms, and the callouses on his knuckles
and other parts of his hands.
“And you’re really good at it,” I said.
1988. I was one of those forty-five year old guys, in a nice suit and tie, on my way to one of those “really important trips” to New York. Upgraded to first class and assigned the seat I had requested–aisle, bulkhead, with maximum legroom–I knew I’d be comfortable and wouldn’t have to climb over anyone in order to use the restroom.
Along with the other first class passengers, I boarded the plane early, stowed my suitcase, and thanked the flight attendant who handed me a cup of coffee as soon as I took my seat. I could not have been more content, considering I was drinking TWA coffee, and not an espresso in an outdoor café.
When the flight attendant approached me, she said, “We have a problem, sir, and you can help us solve it. We need you to change your seat, and I’m sorry for the inconvenience.”
“So am I. Why do I have to move? There are other seats open in first class.”
“We specifically need yours.”
“I did everything I could to reserve this seat, and now you’re saying you need it for one of your special customers?”
“That’s correct, sir.”
As I began to say something more, I noticed what was happening behind her, by the entry door. A man my age, mid-forties, was in the aisle. He was several feet tall, and his read reached not far above the arm rests of the passenger seats on either side of him. His body began, or ended, at the few inches that remained of what once had been his legs. He propelled himself by pressing his fists against the floor, boosting his torso about six inches, swinging forward as far as his arms and momentum would permit, landing on the floor, and then repeating the series of well-practiced, moves, all the while smiling at anyone he saw watching him, myself included. Ashamed of my self-absorbed interaction with the flight attendant, I moved to the window seat.
The passenger arrived at our row, and said, “I’m sorry you had to move.”
“I don’t mind at all,” I said, uneasy about how he intended to get from the floor to the seat. “Would you like me to help you?”
“Nope. I’m fine. Watch.”
He propelled himself the remaining, short distance to his aisle seat, and used the same technique to pivot so his back was against the front of the seat cushion. He lifted his arms behind him, and placed the heels of his hands on either side of the cushion. His shirtsleeves were rolled to the elbows, showing his heavily muscled forearms. With a powerful push, he boosted himself onto the seat, and fastened his belt for takeoff.
“I have a lot of practice,” he said, flashing that great smile.
“And you’re really good at it.” I had noticed his heavily muscled forearms, and the thick callouses on his knuckles and other parts of his hands.
After takeoff, we began a conversation. He told me he’s a Viet Nam combat veteran, and I asked him if he’d mind telling me how he had been wounded.
“It wasn’t complicated. I was in one of the trucks of a long convoy and we hit a land mine. The blast blew me out of the truck, and the next thing I knew, I was in the hospital. You can see what happened.”
And it’s heartbreaking. “I do see,” I said. How do I talk to him about what I see, what I feel? In fact, what do I feel? “I’m very sorry that happened to you,” was all I thought my Viet Nam veteran fellow passenger would appreciate, if anything at all.
In an intimate act that surprised me, he gestured towards his crotch. “Yeah, I’m kind of messed up down there. I mean, I can do things to take care of myself, but the rest of it…you know what I mean.” He gave another of his smiles that made you love this guy, not pity him.
He and I alternated between talking and retreating into our own thoughts during the remainder of the flight from St. Louis to New York. At one point, he was browsing through one of those airplane magazines, and I was having one of those episodes of remembering in only a few seconds, the details of an event that might have taken hours or days to unfold–in this case, one day.
My undergraduate college failed to send the draft board some necessary documents, so the draft board cancelled my student deferment. I received the dreaded “Greetings” letter informing me of the day, time, and place for the physical exam in preparation for my induction to fight in a war I actively opposed. I reported, as instructed, to the St. Louis draft board building (where war protestors would demonstrate on a somewhat regular basis and, once in a while, would have bags of urine dropped on their heads.)
Next to the large room where we are to gather after we “prepare for the exam,” another draftee and I stand near each other as we strip to our underwear and put our clothes in metal lockers. It was impossible not to notice his artificial leg below the knee. I asked him why is he here. He said he tried to explain it to the draft board, but they told him to go to the physical and tell the story to the doctors.
Another of the young men was leaning against the frame of the door to the gathering room. He was so thin, his cotton briefs fit his thighs like wide-legged boxer shorts, a size too large. His “white” skin looked grey, and I had the immediate impression he was about to pass out, but he didn’t. I think he passed the exam, but I know for sure that I did, and was classified I-A (prime material.) Only days before I was to report for induction and to take the oath, document confusion was resolved and my deferment and 2-S classification were reinstated. That is the end of my time in the military.
As I came out of that memory, I wondered if my Viet Nam veteran, fellow passenger might be curious if I had served during the war, because we were about the same age. I considered asking if he had been drafted or had enlisted; but I wanted to avoid what could turn out to be an “America, right or wrong” debate about patriotism, so I avoided the issue. Had that conversation taken place, I would have told him that I probably would have been in Canada on the day of my induction. Or, I might have been on my way to jail for refusing, conscientiously, to take the oath and the requisite step forward to indicate that the deed has been done.
And that thought about patriotism and what it means took me into another one of those time-compressed memories. Another flight, ten years before this one to New York. I’m in my mid-thirties and am next to a middle-aged woman who sits in the window seat. As night falls, we begin a conversation somewhere over Kansas. Her view is better than mine, but both of us are able to see at least a dozen miniature Fourth of July firework displays thousands of feet below us, spread over a wide swath of rural Kansas.
She turns away from the window and begins a story. She is wistful, even melancholy, as she tells me she was born and raised in a small, Kansas town, like the ones so far below us. On the Fourth of July, everyone turned out for the parade, the picnic, and the fireworks.
“Do you know why I loved the holiday so much? I was born on the Fourth of July.” She turns again to the window, and a long few seconds later, she says, “Yes, I was.”
“Well, Happy Birthday to you. I’ve never met anyone born on the Fourth of July,” I say. “Was that a lot of fun for you?”
“Oh, yes. It really was.” She laughs, still looking out the window. Then she turns to me. “I think I was eight years old before I knew or, I guess, really believed, that the parade and fireworks weren’t for my birthday.”
When she tells me this, I imagine a once-little girl in her small town…standing on the sidewalk, having just learned the truth about what used to be her birthday party…clutching her American flag in one hand, and a melting, vanilla ice cream cone–America’s favorite flavor–in the other…trying her eight year old best not to cry, while all the people of the town enjoy their patriotic holiday.
I glanced at my war veteran fellow passenger who either was dozing or just thinking, as I had been, with his eyes closed. Why am I thinking about that little girl and a Fourth of July in Kansas? I removed the magazine from my seat pocket, and began to thumb through it, not paying attention to what was on the pages. A little Kansas girl on the Fourth of July…yes…standing on the sidewalk with her vanilla ice cream cone melting…no longer feeling part of the parade, the Souza march music, the American flags, the men in uniform…that’s how I felt…many of us felt…when what we believed was a distorted patriotism during Viet Nam that left little room for dissent…America–Love It or Leave it…a war for what reasons?...in the end, nothing was worth what happened to the man sitting next to me.
When our flight landed, he and I remained seated while others began to disembark.
“I enjoyed sitting with you,” I said, still ashamed I had been concerned about leg room.
“Yeah. I enjoyed it, too. Take it easy, man.”
We shook hands, our grips steady and tight. His callouses feel good, not rough against my skin as I expected. I stood and walked in front of him–without causing him any of the inconvenience I had been so concerned I might experience–and removed my bag from the overhead compartment. We exchanged a last smile before I moved down the aisle, fixated on how he’ll get off the plane.
At the end of the walkway into the terminal, an airline employee stood next to a wheel chair. Will he roll it to the airplane door or to the veteran’s seat? Or will the veteran propel himself to the terminal and hoist himself onto the chair waiting there for him? I wanted to return and tell him again how sorry I am that he had been so grievously wounded, to tell him everything I had been thinking and remembering on the airplane. But that seemed the wrong thing to do.
Walking through the terminal, I wondered why the veteran’s strong, calloused hands were comforting, so reassuring. Maybe it’s because they communicated his strength and resilience. Anyway, that’s what I wanted it to be. Otherwise, it would have been even harder to deal with a stark reality: I didn’t go to Viet Nam, he did; I walked off the airplane, he did not.