Delayed in Atlanta

The Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is a nuthouse. I’m in the boarding area awaiting my delayed plane.

I exist in that numb mindspace you’re in when your aircraft has been delayed for—get ready—seven hours. You become a zombie. You lose the will to go on. You grow to despise vending machines.

Pretty soon you get to the point where you realize you would have been better off walking home.

I am jolted from my thoughts when I am tapped on the shoulder. I turn to see a young man who is an oak tree, towering over me. He is maybe six-nine. His shoulders are Paul Bunyan; his face is “Leave It to Beaver.”

“Do you dip?” the kid says.

I am confused. “Beg pardon?”

“You look like someone who dips. You know, tobacco?”

The giant hands me an unopened tin of snuff. I stare at the container with the bewilderment of a guy who just woke up with his head stapled to the rug. Immediately I start looking around for Alan Funt and the “Candid Camera” crew.

“What?”

“Well,” he says, “my dad dips, and you look like my dad, only older. This is a brand new can of Skoal, but I don’t need it anymore because I’m going to basic training tomorrow.”

So he presents the tin. “Here.”

I have to shake my head and laugh because (a) I am not overjoyed about being profiled as a snuff dipper, and (b) who’s he calling old?

“Sorry,” I tell him, “I don’t dip snuff.”

Although I come from people who do. In fact, the first time I ever tried snuff was in the Little League dugout. Randy Matthews snuck some wintergreen snuff from his granny’s sewing kit. When I went to bat I accidentally swallowed my chaw. They had to revive me with defibrillator paddles.

Still, I’m sensing that this kid isn’t really concerned about snuff. I have this gnawing feeling that he just needs to talk. So when he tries to leave I ask him to hang around and keep me company for a while.

He checks his watch. He needs no further prompting, the young man drops his duffel bag and plants his huge body beside mine. We introduce ourselves and wait for our planes together.

“Basic training, huh?” I say.

“Yes, sir.”

“Don’t call me that. You’ll be doing enough of that for the next ten weeks.”

“Yes, sir.”

His sweatshirt hoodie bears the name of his small-town high school. His hair is strawberry. His shoes are probably fifteens. I bet this kid could bench press a 2018 Ford Escape.

“You nervous?” I ask.

“Very.”

“Did your parents come with you to the airport to say goodbye?”

He nods.

One thing I know from a lifetime spent around snuff-dipping rural men: No matter how big they are, no matter how gruff, they will always talk about their mamas if you prod. This kid is no exception.

“How’d your mama handle the sendoff?”

He shrugs. “She was okay. But she was crying.” He inspects his boots and adds, “I’m kinda the baby of the family.”

“Well, I know she’s proud of you.”

“Hope so.”

And I bet she even packed him some crustless ham-and-cheese sandwiches along with his Flintstone vitamins, too.

“So where’re you doing basic?”

“Fort Benning.”

I ask the kid what made him decide to go into the military. Not because I want to know, but because it’s good for a young man to articulate his reasons for doing a thing. It fortifies him.

“Why am I joining?” He takes a breath. “Well, I guess the Army just felt right. Plus, there ain’t no jobs at home except for the mill. My dad works at the mill. I don’t wanna work at the mill. I wanna go to college someday.”

After a few minutes of talking, I notice the kid’s hands are trembling. He finally admits, “Ain’t never been on no airplane before today.”

“Aren’t you the lucky one.”

“Planes freak me out. Don’t they scare you?”

“Just the toilets.”

“But what if it crashes?”

“It’s more fun than being delayed.”

Throughout our conversation his young face constantly bears that insecure expression all kids wear when they need an adult to reassure them. I know this face because I see it whenever I look in mirrors.

So I make a point to clap his shoulder a lot while we talk. Namely, because when I was a young man, nothing made me feel better than to have an older guy gently clap my shoulder. For all I know this gesture annoys the kid. But I hope not.

We talk for another hour and we cover a lot of ground. Eventually an airline employee calls his row and it’s time to go. Before we part ways the young man stands upon tall legs. “Thanks for hanging with me,” he says.

“Thanks for telling me I look old.”

He laughs. We shake hands. His paw feels like a fifteen-inch iron skillet, only stronger.

“Well,” he says, drawing air into whiskey-barrel-sized lungs. “Wish me luck.”

“You won’t need luck.”

Shoulder clap.

And as he walks away I don’t see a young man before me, I see someone’s baby. I see a good kid who is unsure of himself right now, but who won’t be in ten weeks. I only hope this boy realizes that he’s making more than just his mama proud.

I’d say it’s more like an entire nation.

84 comments

  1. Susan J. - July 16, 2021 7:59 am

    Awesome one, Sean. This mom of two big grown boys got soggy.

    Reply
  2. Meredith Smith - July 16, 2021 8:35 am

    Sean, you know how to frame a story that just touches the heart of a nation. 🇺🇸

    Reply
  3. Ed (Bear) - July 16, 2021 9:00 am

    Amen to proud

    Reply
  4. Virginia Russell - July 16, 2021 9:40 am

    Good grief! Who knew you could fly from Atlanta to Columbus?

    Reply
    • Kris - July 16, 2021 1:27 pm

      Don’t be like this. Please.

      Reply
    • pamasa - July 16, 2021 7:23 pm

      Bingo! Could’ve driven it in the time it took me to read this.

      Reply
      • Kris - July 17, 2021 1:04 pm

        Rude

        Reply
        • Larry - July 17, 2021 6:13 pm

          Lighten up!! Kris. The comment was offered in humor. Even so, every reader from GA who have made the easy route was thinking the very same thing. And good luck and God’s blessings on this young fellow. We love our military volunteers. Not so much for whining snowflakes that there are too many of.

          Reply
          • Kris - July 18, 2021 2:14 pm

            It was unnecessary. So are your comments, Mary.

  5. Terry Lea - July 16, 2021 9:43 am

    I love you stories, they always make me feel human. I started reading you about the time I lost my husband in December of 2020. You gave me strength and courage in my strange new world of living along. I just wanted you to know that I appreciate you and the way you observe the world.

    Thank You; Terry Lea

    Reply
    • Karen - July 16, 2021 11:52 am

      Terry Lea— under the same circumstances and time I did the same—found Sean. I start the day with him, and I realize the world and I will survive.

      Reply
  6. Liss - July 16, 2021 10:07 am

    Phew.

    Reply
  7. Rhonda - July 16, 2021 10:07 am

    Oh geez. And I didn’t want to cry today

    Reply
  8. Ginger Smith - July 16, 2021 10:16 am

    Yes, I guess you can fly from Atlanta to Columbus. There is a shuttle that goes to Benning from the Atlanta airport. But he wouldn’t have met you, Sean, would he?

    Many stories about the soldier boys over the generations. The biggest memory is seeing a soldier dangling for a very long time from a jump tower when the machine broke. It must have been much worse than jumping! Those towers could be seen from miles away.

    Reply
  9. Jayne - July 16, 2021 10:19 am

    Thanks for hanging out with him! This mom of a former young soldier appreciates that!

    Reply
  10. Sharon Maszy - July 16, 2021 10:29 am

    ok you made me cry…again…thanks for sharing like you do.

    Reply
  11. Deborah Walker Gandy - July 16, 2021 10:59 am

    As I’m reading this, our family is enroute to Fort Benning to see my grandson graduate from Army Airborne School. He’s already graduated from Basic Training and AIT. We are beyond proud!!! Thank you for your stories. I met you in Fairhope. Hope you’ll visit again!!)

    Reply
  12. Bev London - July 16, 2021 11:03 am

    Yep, proud. Where would we be without people like him? I hope he does well. In this world of electronics it was nice for you to encounter a young person that actually participated in the fine art of conversation. An art so often lost on today’s youth. (They don’t know what they’re missing.)

    Reply
  13. Joan Moore - July 16, 2021 11:07 am

    Always remember that this is why you write.

    Reply
  14. Dean - July 16, 2021 11:22 am

    Thank You for spending time with the young man. I am sure it meant so much to him to have someone to talk to him snd pass the time and encourage

    Reply
  15. Liza Bragg - July 16, 2021 11:27 am

    Lovely! I am fascinated by the conversations you have with total strangers! I need to slow down and do more of that!

    Reply
  16. Jan Casey - July 16, 2021 11:39 am

    I look forward to every morning to see what you have written. You make me laugh and sometimes cry but you start my day off with an incredible feeling that it’s going to all be okay.

    Reply
  17. Leesa - July 16, 2021 11:39 am

    You did good, Sean! For the young man, for you and for us. Thank you.

    Reply
  18. Connie - July 16, 2021 12:03 pm

    I will be praying for that young man. Thanks for sharing this story. 🙏🏻🙏🏻🙏🏻

    Reply
  19. Ann P. - July 16, 2021 12:04 pm

    Indeed, Sean. Thank you and also the fine young human you introduced to us today. Obviously, he is facing an arduous but noble near future of becoming the best grown up person possible today. May such idealism never falter and fade in this world. We need it’s strength and unity.

    Reply
  20. Nancy Crews - July 16, 2021 12:09 pm

    ❤your writing. I have a son who went to the marines, a grandson who went to the navy, and now another grandson who is at West Point. It is difficult to loosen my hold on them, but when they graduate from basic training you feel like you might explode with pride.

    Reply
  21. Bob Howard - July 16, 2021 12:12 pm

    Morning Sean, as usual, you sure got this one right! I live in the Pensacola area and for 30+years I spent most weeks passing through “Purgatory,” aka Concourse’s A-F, Hartsville, GA. I can recite every space and food option in every concourse by heart! My favorite was always B-13. This is of course, this same airport that I departed from on my way to Lackland AFB in 1973 carrying that manilla envelope in one hand and my behind in the other.

    I had to go through “Atlanta” even to fly to Miami and though I never earned the badge that might be considered the Purple Heart of air travel (Million Miler,) I certainly exceeded that value because of the numerous changes in the Delta frequent flyer program and their accounting practices.

    It took me a few minutes to retain my composure and to clean the coffee that I spit on the screen of my new Mac M-1 computer after reading a part your daily message and what has now become my morning routine.

    “What if it crashes?”

    “It’ll be more fun than being delayed.”

    Nothing could be more “accurate” than that statement. Especially late on a Friday afternoon and after a long week of hotel beds and restaurant foods. It was mostly a “death sentence” to see the “red jacket or gate agent” pick up that mic a few minutes “after” boarding was to “supposed” to begin. That’s when a series of non-factual delay tactical, miscommunications would begin. And sometimes’ 5-hours later, the same Delta robots would without empathy, announce that the flight was now cancelled. Run to center of the concourse to stand in line to meet yet another agent who would work to get you rescheduled on “another” Delta flight! Frequent travelers will now also attest to the latest strategy of having already abused to the point of death humans, to line up in rows like cattle at the processing plant to board an oversold aircraft with seats that shrink more with each flight.

    Semper Fidelis to all of the young men and women who pass through these gates to service. I can’t even imagine the numbers who started their adventure at the Hartsville-Jackson International Airport. God Bless!

    Reply
    • Kate - July 16, 2021 1:11 pm

      what an accurate description of Atlanta Hartsfield. It is such an awful place to have to go through. We moved to Florida and everytime we go to the Melbourne Airport, I smile, 7 gates, it is Heaven, Atlanta Hartsfield is close to the opposite. They could have expanding the Macon airport and many of the flights could have operated from there and I guess because of greed of some kind. never did.

      Reply
  22. Molly Mitchell - July 16, 2021 12:13 pm

    Good one. And Atlanta airport is H. E. Double Toothpicks.

    Reply
  23. Lana - July 16, 2021 12:16 pm

    Good one ! My nephew just finished up his first year in the Army. Coming home for a visit next week. They all look so young these days.

    Reply
  24. Lisa Smith - July 16, 2021 12:34 pm

    I love writing that brings tears to my eyes that are the good kind! Thank you.

    Reply
  25. Judy Smith - July 16, 2021 12:36 pm

    Thank you for this message. The sense of touch is a powerful blessing. My husband had Dementia and was in a nursing home for six long years. During those years I learned a lot about the sense of touch. I learned women respond to o a gentle hug. Men respond to a touch on the shoulder. Even in the deepest cases of Alzheimer’s and Dementia many times when you touch them they will look you straight in the eye and just for a moment they connect with you. The sense of touch also works astoundingly with a troubled teenager too.
    You made this world a better place with that clap on the shoulder of this young man. As the Mamma of 3 young men I thank you for your Wisdom.

    Reply
  26. Jan - July 16, 2021 12:42 pm

    Thank you, Sean, for your time and effort to provide comfort to this young man. As a mother of three sons, grandmother of four grandsons, aunt to another five young men and great aunt to one small boy, I salute you for your efforts!

    Reply
  27. Judy Smith - July 16, 2021 12:46 pm

    One more comment. While sitting on a Delta flight during a delay at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, a fellow passenger told me: “I believe when you die whether you are going to Heaven or hell, you will have to pass through the Atlanta airport!!!”

    Reply
  28. Molly - July 16, 2021 12:55 pm

    Perfect!! Thanks Sean.

    Reply
  29. Meredith - July 16, 2021 1:00 pm

    Yes, you both made me proud. Thank you for identifying and sharing the good!

    Reply
  30. Kate - July 16, 2021 1:15 pm

    Tears in my eyes and throat this morning. So many wonderful young men and women go into the military looking for opportunity to a better life. Often that is the only hope they have. It is often a way to go to college or learn skills that will support them later in life. And they learn so many other things. It takes courage and most are scared and many have never been away from home before. I wish him luck and God’s angels to protect him and guide him.

    Reply
  31. Suellen - July 16, 2021 1:19 pm

    Courage means feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Blessings to this young man as he goes about the business of protecting this great land.

    Reply
  32. creativedolan - July 16, 2021 1:25 pm

    This one made me cry and smile at the same time. Thanks for your amazing stories.

    Reply
  33. eliza - July 16, 2021 1:28 pm

    Good grief Sean, your writing really gets me in the gut! Wasn’t expecting it this morning. thank you!

    Reply
  34. Peggy - July 16, 2021 1:39 pm

    Sean,
    Your writing recently seems to have reached a new level. Exquisite. Please continue to bring these snapshots of your world to us. And thanks.

    Reply
  35. Patricia Schmaltz - July 16, 2021 1:41 pm

    Making me cry again. I would have hugged him and not let go..

    Reply
  36. Heidi - July 16, 2021 1:47 pm

    My son went into the Marines right out of HS. They leave as mama’s boys and come back as young men. Bless you for giving this boy encouragement and comfort. Btw….they also learn how to iron real well.

    Reply
  37. M. Massey - July 16, 2021 1:49 pm

    ❤️

    Reply
  38. BRENDA DAVIS - July 16, 2021 1:54 pm

    SO LOVE !! REMINDS ME OF MY GRANDSON’S LEAVING FOR LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE IN SAN ANTONIO TX. THAT WAS IS FIRST RIDE ON AN AIRPLANE !!! THAT WAS 2 YRS AGO AND I STILL FEEL HOW PROUD I WAS OF HIM, BUT HOW FRIGHTEN I WAS !! HE MAKES US SO PROUD !!!

    Reply
  39. Ella Herlihy - July 16, 2021 1:58 pm

    Thanks for helping us remember that “the military” is just one son, brother, father, sister, friend, daughter, loved one going off to defend and uphold our rights and freedoms. As Andy Stanley so eloquently reminds us, “Do for one what you wish you could do for all.” Thanks for continuing to highlight the “one” so we can each make it personal.

    Reply
  40. Bex - July 16, 2021 2:31 pm

    Sean, not only are you and your column good for me but for AMERICA! 🇺🇸 You know how to read people and you help them feel better about themselves and that is truly an amazing gift. You also remind us how blessed we are in our daily lives as well! God bless you and Jamie! 🙏🏻❤️

    Reply
  41. Tom Wallin - July 16, 2021 2:39 pm

    You didn’t know it, but his mama just thanked you profusely and send kisses to you as well. I hope you got home safely.

    Reply
  42. glbarlow - July 16, 2021 2:47 pm

    A story well told.

    Reply
  43. Brenda McCutchen - July 16, 2021 2:52 pm

    Dangit, Sean! I’m going to start sending you a bill for tissues! And I pray that young man knows how many people appreciate his willingness to serve.

    Reply
  44. Cynthia Russell - July 16, 2021 3:15 pm

    Again, Thank You Sean for your heart!

    Reply
  45. Amy Mack - July 16, 2021 3:16 pm

    Oh Sean you broke my heart this morning. My baby is 16 and wears a size 15 shoe. He has a man sized body but the most gentle heart. He always stands up for those smaller and weaker than he is. He loves his God, country and family. He wants to go into service (that’s what we grew up calling military). I could just see my baby walking down that aisleway to get on the plane. Lord, I’m so grateful for those who answer the call and I’m sure he will one of these days. I will be the mama crying my eyes out in front of the airport watching his plane leave home. God watch over our young service men and women. They are what keeps us breathing free. Thank you for reminding us of them and thank you so very much for the claps on the shoulder.

    Amy

    Reply
  46. Irma Turnipseed - July 16, 2021 3:31 pm

    Not sure what you’ve been eating the last couple of days Sean, but it’s producing some great writing. My daughter introduced me to Sean of the South, now I look forward to reading you each day. I love that even when you’re writing with your heart, you can’t hide that sense of humor. My sister lives in Miramar Beach; my dream is to meet up with you one day so I can pick your brain about writing. I am writing a few stories to leave for my family, but I’m still in the want-to-be stage. In the mean time have another heaping helping of whatever encourages your great stories!
    Looking forward to tomorrow’s.

    Reply
  47. Steve McCaleb - July 16, 2021 3:34 pm

    Small town American kids have been marching off to fight freedom’s battles for almost 250 years now. We don’t do nearly enough for these people who sacrifice so much for all of us.That young man’s story is the story of America in a nutshell. May God richly bless him and all those like him. These warriors are the ones who pay the butcher’s bill for all the things we so often take for granted. FREEDOM IS NOT FREE.

    Reply
  48. Tom - July 16, 2021 4:05 pm

    Young man has my respect.

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  49. Patricia Gibson - July 16, 2021 4:15 pm

    Amen and God be with this young man🙏

    Reply
  50. Stacey Wallace - July 16, 2021 4:55 pm

    Sean, great story, as always. Thanks for spending time with that young man. He is my hero, just like Captain Brittney Patton, my niece, who is in the Army. As I used to tell my students: They do what I am too scared to do. May God bless them all and keep them safe.

    Reply
  51. Richard Maloy - July 16, 2021 5:08 pm

    Keep it up Sean👍

    Reply
  52. Barbara J Schweck - July 16, 2021 5:12 pm

    God Bless the men and women who serve our country!! Thank you for this beautiful story! So many very important points made in a simple, warm, heartfelt writing. You are the best, Sean.

    Reply
  53. Karen Goss - July 16, 2021 6:19 pm

    Oh, this one made me cry. Thank you, you brave young man, for your service. I am a mom who has sent her oldest son and her youngest daughter off to basic training for the Army, bawled both times (not in front of them). Tomorrow my son leaves for OCS (Officer Candidate School). Zero contact while he is away. God bless our country, our soldiers and their families too. Great column, Sean!

    Reply
  54. Ann - July 16, 2021 6:40 pm

    Amen!…very proud🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸

    Reply
  55. Bill - July 16, 2021 6:47 pm

    Sean,

    Great observations and great story. You’ve got his feelings completely. Thanks for telling it to us.

    Reply
  56. Maria - July 16, 2021 7:04 pm

    Bless his beautiful heart. And the hearts of the brave men and women that do this so every American can continue to live free.

    Reply
  57. Deanna Cignetti - July 16, 2021 7:06 pm

    This made me cry. I grew up in an Air Force town and encountered this situation a lot. I grew up in the Vietnam era, when our vets weren’t really welcomed home with open arms. We, as a country, owe our gratitude to every military person and their families

    Reply
  58. Doris W Drummond - July 16, 2021 7:24 pm

    Thank you Sean for this story you shared for a frightened young man as you gave hope and kindness exemplified by few persons.

    Reply
  59. Sandy Burnett - July 16, 2021 7:31 pm

    A huge thank you to all the young men and women who are serving our country and to all the mothers and fathers who are missing their babies. No matter how old our children get they are always our babies. May peace be with each of you.
    Thank you Sean for this send off to a great young man.

    Reply
  60. MJ Breaux - July 16, 2021 7:52 pm

    Love. Can’t articulate anything else at the moment.

    Reply
  61. MAM - July 16, 2021 8:26 pm

    Ok, I bawled at your last line, because you are so correct! We are so grateful for everyone who serves and has served our country to keep us free. I pray he returns safely to his proud Mama. Thanks for nailing the way we feel!

    Reply
  62. Chasity Davis Ritter - July 16, 2021 9:27 pm

    Damn allergies working overtime today. My God watch over that young man from now on but specially the next ten weeks. Yep I’m proud of him too even though I never met him but I can picture him clear as day. Yep I’m so very truly proud of him…. damn allergies.

    Reply
  63. Linda Moon - July 16, 2021 9:55 pm

    I was delayed in commenting today, but at least I made it back home to comment briefly. My ordeal today was not quite as bad as yours, and you’ve made me feel pride in this story and of the new nation of Liberty you told us about yesterday. It is a MASTERPIECE. After I’ve rested with a cat on my head (it always helps), I’ll read “Gettysburg” again soon!

    Reply
  64. Kathy Browning - July 16, 2021 11:43 pm

    Sean, you are a wonderfully encouraging person! Thank you for being you. I’ve read your story and you have made your misfortunes into blessings for others. Kathy and Bob

    Reply
  65. Susan Kennedy - July 17, 2021 12:22 am

    Well that made my eyes sweat.

    Reply
  66. Betty Higdon - July 17, 2021 1:23 am

    This one brought tears! 🥲

    Reply
  67. Karen Snyder - July 17, 2021 1:32 am

    Wow! This made me cry, Sean, and it also took me straight back to a sunny afternoon in May, 1982, at the Greyhound station, seeing my 18-year old, firstborn off to boot camp, from whence he moved directly to Jump School at Ft. Benning. He’s long since retired from Army life, but his son picked up the baton a number of years ago, and has thus far seen service in many places, including Afghanistan and Korea. I will never know, but it’s nice to imagine that if either of them ever needed someone to listen and encourage they met someone just like you. ❤️

    Reply
  68. Phil Jennings - July 17, 2021 11:29 am

    Excellent!

    Reply
  69. peggy hayes - July 17, 2021 2:30 pm

    Absolutely love this!

    Reply
  70. Beverly Schaffer - July 17, 2021 2:34 pm

    Thank you for being an understanding listening ear for that young man. My nephew went to Ft. Benning and he said “Everyone needs a Staff Sargent”. It was a real learning experience for him.

    Reply
  71. Cecelia Arnold - July 17, 2021 4:10 pm

    Thank you for being there for that young man. And, thank you for telling us about it.

    Reply
  72. Larry Wall - July 17, 2021 7:03 pm

    This reminded me of a July afternoon in 1966 when I was waiting in an airport to fly to Fort Bragg, NC for basic training. Even though I was 20, and pretty much on my on, I felt that insecurity this young man was having. I even bought myself a good cigar and smoked it while waiting in the concourse for my flight, acceptable at that time, to convince myself that I felt confident. I wasn’t tremendously successful. And though I had a goodly amount of experience in life before entering the Army, I learned a lot about myself and the world through military service. Some of it was good and some not so good. But there is no substitute in learning for that of experience.
    Thanks to all who have and who continue to serve.

    Reply
  73. Tammy S. - July 17, 2021 9:54 pm

    As long as my kids can remember I have “embarrassed” them by walking up to anyone in military garb, anywhere, and thanking them, and their families, for their service to our country. This past Memorial Day I sat on a beach in Destin, FL as military planes and helicopters flew overhead. We all stood to our feet and the lump in my throat was bigger and the tears fell, as always, cause this year I am an Army Mom. Proud of this young man, and proud of our daughter. Men & Women like them help me to know our country is a great place.
    Thanks to them!! 🇺🇸 Loved this one, Sean!!

    Reply
  74. Tammy S. - July 17, 2021 10:00 pm

    ❤️❤️❤️

    Reply
  75. Peggy Slaton - July 18, 2021 3:04 am

    Love this!

    Reply
  76. Brenda - July 18, 2021 9:01 pm

    Time well spent. This young man needed your conversation.

    Reply
  77. Anita Johnson - July 26, 2021 12:37 am

    Sean, you are priceless! Thank you for being such an encourager to that young man! May God keep him safe cause we are all so proud of him!

    Reply

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