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.
“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.
“Don’t call me that. You’ll be doing enough of that for the next ten weeks.”
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.
“Did your parents come with you to the airport to say goodbye?”
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.”
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?”
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.”
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.