It’s a mess, that’s what it is. When you land in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Third World International Airport, you’re walking into a battle zone.
It’s nonstop chaos. Airport professionals ride golf carts with loud beeps and flashing lights.
Hordes of business professionals below age 40, speed-walk past you, having loud conversations with their earbuds, dutifully working on their first nervous breakdowns.
Middle-aged Midwestern guys in New Balances, shoulder a tonnage of roller luggage, most of which—you can just tell—belongs to their wives.
Everyone is on their phones
I notice the elderly man across from me. He is wearing khakis and Merrells, the universal uniform of the Old Guy. He is breathing heavily. Hyperventilating, actually. His hands are trembling. He takes a sip of water and almost drops the bottle.
This man is having a diabetic episode or something, I’m thinking.
“Sir, are you okay?” I ask.
He looks at me. His eyes are rimmed pink. I can’t tell if he’s about to cry or not. “Have you ever flown before?” he asks.
“Well, I haven’t.”
He returns to his trembling.
“I’m eighty-two years old,” he said, “and I’ve never flown. I’ve never been anywhere or done anything.”
This is a man old enough to be my father, but at this moment, he seems very childlike to me. Fear has a way of reducing one’s age.
There is a little girl sitting on his other side. She notices what’s going on. She joins our conversation. She is maybe 10.
The kid says, “What do you mean you’ve never been ANYWHERE or done ANYTHING,’ sir?”
He looks at her. Her hair is in pigtails. She could pass for the Coppertone Girl.
“I’ve only left my hometown twice,” he says. He’s getting more nervous with each word. “I’ve never done anything of note. I’ve never been anywhere.”
“Do you have a family?” the girl says.
He nods. “Four kids.”
“My oldest is fifty-nine. Youngest is… I think she’s forty-four.”
“What about your wife?”
“I’m sorry. How long were you married?”
He takes a nervous swig of water. “Since I was twenty-three years old.”
“What happened to your wife?” the girl asks.
The girl begins to stroke his back. It’s the sweetest thing you ever saw.
The girl’s mother is simply playing on her phone.
“What do you do for a living?” the girl asks.
“I’m retired. But I was a barber.”
“You cut hair?”
“Men’s hair. Every day, since I was 19 years old.”
“How’d you get started cutting hair?”
“Well, I wanted to go into the Army, but I couldn’t because the doctor said I had an irregular heartbeat. So I tried to do something useful.”
The girl smiles. “How many people’s heads have you cut over the years?”
“I don’t know. I think I’ve cut the hair of every man in north Georgia.”
The girl touches his knee. “You’re amazing.”
The intercom sounds. The airline employee announces that it’s time to board the plane. The little girl helps the man stand onto hobbled knees.
“You’re going to be okay,” she says confidently. “You’ve got this.”
“Right,” the man says. He’s embarrassed now.
“Everyone gets scared the first time,” the girl says. “I was scared when I was a little kid, my mom took me on a flight to Washington D.C. I was crying and everything.”
“Yes. And look at me now. I’ve flown tons of times, and I’m okay.”
“How many times?”
“At least twice. Here, take my hand.”
The man takes her little hand. Her hand is miniature compared to his.
“Sometimes it feels good to hold hands,” says the child. “Sometimes you just need someone to keep telling you that it’s going to be okay. I’ll be that person for you.”
“It’s nice to meet you, by the way,” the girl adds. “My name is Angela. What’s yours?”
“You’re a nice man, Robert.”
“You’re a nice girl.”
“No, thank you.”
Soon we are boarding, livestock style, and walking the gangway. The child leads the old man toward the gate. He is shuffling. His trousers are baggy. His shirt is crumpled.
The girl is rubbing his back, speaking softly. The old man keeps wiping his nose and eyes.
I tap the girl’s mother on the shoulder. “Excuse me, ma’am,” I say, “But your daughter is an extraordinary person. I am touched by how kind she has been treating a perfect stranger.”
The woman smiles at me. “He’s no stranger. That’s my dad. She loves her grandpa.”
Yes. I believe she does.
Sandy - April 29, 2023 12:19 pm
My husband said I had to read this today. I was smiling until the end, when I was knocked flat. My father had vascular dementia, and it brought me back to the days when my kids would sit and talk with him in much the same way. I’ll be okay after I dry my tears. I miss him.
Jimpa - April 29, 2023 12:42 pm
Hate that your daily email no longer shows reader comments. I go to your web page, but there aren’t as many as before you went to the new provider. ☹️
pattymack43 - April 29, 2023 8:54 pm
pattymack43 - April 29, 2023 8:56 pm
Where did all the comments go????
Corey - April 30, 2023 4:55 am
Wow! Thanks for sharing, I’ll make it a goal to share this with somebody else. I think it’s such a great example of ways to show love, and it’s told with such honesty and grace. I love your style!
Eva Marie Everson - April 30, 2023 8:13 pm
There’s an ending I didn’t see coming! Wow. And yes, ATL is nutz.