I was late for a plane when I saw him. The freckled kid was in uniform. Operational camouflage combat fatigues. Reverse-flag patch on his right shoulder. High and tight haircut.
He was standing on the sidewalk outside the airport. His mother was beside him, straightening his collar. His little sister was there, too. So was his dad.
The young man was carrying a backpack the size of a Frigidare, the thing must have weighed a few metric tons. He was vaping from an e-cigarette nervously.
I could tell by everyone’s body language that this was farewell.
Mama stood three feet shorter than her boy. She stared upward into his young eyes and the expression on her face was mournful.
“You got everything, baby?” she said.
He might be on Uncle Sam’s payroll, but to her, he’s still “baby.”
“I packed sandwiches in your bag,” said Mama. “It’s a long trip, be sure to eat, need to keep your energy up.”
Dad jumped in. “How long of a flight is it?”
“Six hours for the first half,” said the soldier.
Little Sister spoke up. “I’ll miss you. I don’t know what I’m gonna do without you.”
He nodded solemnly, but offered nothing heartfelt in return. In fact, his side of the whole conversation was about as emotionally charged as a scoop of coleslaw.
Dad said, “Just keep your head down and your nose clean.”
Funny. American dads have been using this exact phrase since dads wore knee breeches and carried muskets to PTA meetings. Head down, nose clean. Here it is 2023, and dads are still saying it. Don’t tell me this isn’t a great country.
Dad clapped his son on the shoulder. “You’re gonna be fine.”
“We’re so proud’a you,” said Mama.
“I love you,” said Sister.
Once the soldier finished sucking on his vape pen, he gave Mama one final hug. Then he stooped to embrace Sister. The soldier then shook his father’s hand and the old man pulled him inward. Dad wrapped his arms around the boy. They squeezed. They released.
And the kid was gone.
Little Sister tucked her head into Mama’s chest and made some noise.
I checked in for my flight. The airport was pure chaos. Cable news was blaring. Men in Guccis were sprinting toward the food court, towing wheeled suitcases, thumbing away on smartphones.
Why is it that travelers in airports act so important? You’d think they were all congresspersons by the authoritative way they stride around.
When I got to my gate I happened upon the young soldier again. He was sitting with his head in his hands. I won’t say he was crying, but I won’t say he wasn’t.
What I will tell you is that the kid was wearing a face he had not worn earlier on the sidewalk. With his parents, he had been stoic, stern, and a real hard butt. Right here, he was someone’s baby.
What I saw was a grown-up little boy. He looked like a kid who was nervous about leaving for Camp Winnipesaukee. Like the kid who once learned to ride a bike on your street; who used to play in your sprinklers; your hometown jayvee running back.
Soon a few more young people in combat uniforms joined him. The kid’s demeanor changed when he saw them. He swallowed his sadness. He was all smiles. He even laughed a little. He and his GI pals horsed around, they talked about music, girls, life, and whatever else guys his age talk about.
The kid played it off well. You would have never known his heart was breaking.
But just before it was time to board the plane, he excused himself. The young man wandered away from his buddies. He removed a phone from his pocket and dialed.
“Hey, Mom,” I heard him say into the phone. “Plane’s about to leave, I just wanted to say how much I love you. Tell Dad I love him. Tell everyone I love them so much. I will miss you with all my heart.”
He’s a good boy. A good man. A fine soldier.
And that is why I thanked a perfect stranger for his service to our country.