by Dr. Cynthia Paulis
Airports, for me, always represented the heartbeat of a nation. Thousands of people would travel through the terminals, transporting people to their destinations the way arteries and veins would carry newly oxygenated blood throughout the body, carrying it to its final parts.
For years, I was a traveling physician going to border towns and rural areas in underserved areas, delivering healthcare to communities. Oftentimes, I was on a plane four times a week. I traveled on American Airlines, going from New York to Dallas, the day before September 11. Three weeks later, when the planes were no longer grounded, I was at the Dallas airport getting ready to board a plane back to New York. I heard the sound of footsteps, my own. No one was in the airport. There were six people who boarded a 747 back to New York, the same number of crew members. Fear had gripped the nation, and people were afraid to fly. The airports were empty, and a deep sadness hung in the air.
Soon, there were new faces at the airports. Soldiers with guns and dogs patrolled the terminal. Hundreds of young men and women, oftentimes teenagers still with acne, trudging through the airport wearing beige camouflage fatigues, carrying heavy backpacks, headed off for war in the Middle East. I watched the tearful goodbyes at the airports. Many of these young soldiers, coming from rural areas, had never been in a big city before, let alone flown on an airplane. Now, they were headed for the Middle East. As I watched mothers cry and fathers hug their sons and daughters, I wondered how many would pass through this terminal for the last time, never to return. Or if they did, how many would be permanently altered by the experience, both physically and mentally. For years, there was a steady stream of soldiers coursing through the airport. Then things changed.
One day, while waiting at the Dallas terminal, I noticed a plane land and firetrucks pull up on both sides of the airline. Plumes of water created an arch, likes hands raised in prayer, for the plane to pass through. An announcement was made in the terminal that there was nothing to be alarmed by: it was Dallas’s way of welcoming home the soldiers from the Middle East.
As the soldiers exited the plane, anxious family members with welcome home banners and American flags paced in the lobby, hoping to find a glimpse of their loved ones. Then there were the screams, and a race to embrace their family members. The airport erupted with applause and cheers to a somewhat bewildered group of soldiers who couldn’t believe that the greeting was for them. The joy filling the airport was contagious, and for that brief moment in time, even though we were still at war, all seemed right with the world.
As the war in Iraq was winding down, I was coming home from a medical conference in Hawaii, where I was a guest speaker. At the airport, I noticed a handsome navy officer dressed in formal military attire: black uniform, gold stripes, white hat with black visor, and black shoes so shiny you could see your reflection. He had a square jaw, ramrod posture, and deep blue eyes. The captain went over to him; he stood, they shook hands and spoke briefly, and he was escorted onto the plane.
Boarding the plane, I noticed the officer in the first row. Settling into my seat, I was soon joined by a burly young man with a crew cut, in his 20s, wearing an army uniform. His muscular arms were filled with tattoos. He grinned, revealing a gold front tooth. We started a lively conversation. He lived in Arkansas, and was serving in the Middle East for two years. I asked him what the first thing was that he was going to do when he got home. Answering in a thick southern drawl, he responded, “After I eat my mom’s fried chicken and homemade apple pie,” he paused for a moment and raised his shirt sleeve pointing to an area of his arm, “I am going to get me another tattoo.” As he winked at me, we both shared a laugh. He had many questions for me as to the state of the country, just as I had for him as to what it was like over there. After dinner, we both fell asleep as the plane carried us on the long flight across the Pacific Ocean.
I awoke to sound of music as the plane landed at Dallas. It was the song “Slip Sliding Away” by Paul Simon. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes as the song played, “You know the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip sliding away.” That struck me as odd, since I had taken that flight many times across the Pacific, and never did I awake to music, nor on any other flight. Looking out the window, the sunlight emerged slowly over the horizon as we taxied to the terminal. The captain’s voice came over the speaker. “Ladies and gentleman, we have a military officer on board escorting the remains of one our soldier’s home. Please show the proper respect and remain in your seats.”
The handsome navy officer stood up, thanked the captain, and exited the plane. The music still played overhead, and from the window I saw a flag-draped casket being removed, with the officer standing at attention. Everyone sat silently, tears falling, while the song played on. The young soldier sitting next to me welled up with tears, as did I.
I reflected on the joyous reunions I had witness at the airport only five days earlier. This was the homecoming no parent ever wanted for their loved one. Who was this soldier? I wondered about the song: was it the soldier’s favorite song, or was it something the captain decided to do as a random act of kindness?
As the song continued to play, the passengers filed out quietly and respectfully, as we all slip slided away into the terminal. We were all home.