Friday, July 17, 2009

Getting There: Part One

It's been preparation for HMH 463 for weeks: close down apartments or barracks quarters, and put couches and televisions and microwaves and stereos and books and blankets and pillows...all the stuff of everyday life...into storage.

Take the fish from your fishtank to the petstore, so they can sell them to someone else, so you won't have to find someone to take care of the tank for you for eight months. Call your cell phone carrier to stop your service in two days: there are no cell towers in Afghanistan.

Clean out your car, and get it in storage as well. Get rides for the next several days, since you have to put your car into storage days before you leave.

Shots. Malarial pills. Reactions to medications you might need tested. Instructions that you can share with your family...and instructions you can't.

Then you start to pack, and you load (in Zach's case) 185 pounds of gear into four bags, plus your weapon padlocked in its case.

Call friends, chat, wait out the days that take forever and go fast. And then, on Tuesday at 4:00, report to the hangar to check in and get on the bus to the airport.

Check in at the United ticket counter with forty other guys and one female corpsman, all of whom are lugging massive quantities of luggage.

PAY UNITED AIRLINES $125 EACH FOR HEAVY BAGGAGE CHARGES. It's mostly the body armor that you need to wear, since you can be shot at nearly any time, and the heavy helmet that will protect your head. Wrap your emotions around the fact that as a member of the US Armed Forces, you have to pay to ship your own gear to war.

Then it's on the plane, and over the Pacific to Denver, and breakfast in the airport and a quick call to your family during the layover.

In our case, it was such welcome news: our son's unit would be flying through BWI, less than an hour from home, and was expected to have a several-hour layover.

It started as a simple request: can you bring me a barbeque sandwich from Andy Nelson's? A last favorite taste of home before eight months of who knows what food, eaten catch-as-catch-can. Then Scott wanted Chick-Fil-A, and Zach thought that was a good idea too.

So he added on: And an order of Chick-Fil-A?

Then maybe you'd better bring a big order. So we can share.

Then Word's gotten out. Everybody loves Chick-Fil-A. Bring a lot.

So we planned to bring a lot, and we talked to Kevin and Kathy Wilt, who were planning to bring a lot...and we ended up bringing a party.

Kevin Wilt talked to the great folks at Chick-Fil-A in Cockeysville, MD and they offered a generous discount. Together we got three big trays of nuggets and a fruit tray.

Kevin got two coolers full of bottles of water at Sam's Club.

Mark and I picked up some jumbo Andy Nelson's famous pulled pork sandwiches.

My friend Wernie donated melt-in-your-mouth cinnamon rolls from his restaurant, the Bohemia Cafe in Chesapeake City, MD.

Grandmom Leora Ritter picked up crab cakes to share, Baltimore's finest treat, and made a pound cake.

Without knowing if we would be able to visit - it varies according to the group and is totally at the discretion of the unit leader - or when or how they would be able to eat, we went to the airport,

and saw the most beautiful sight you can see in the world: your kid.

They were strong, healthy, laughing, and unloading massive chunks of luggage from the United carousel as if they weighed nothing. I mean, pieces of luggage that were bigger than bales of straw, and that weighed as much as a small Toyota.

They never even made it to the USO lounge where they could sit down and rest after the long flight from Hawaii. After a straight sixteen hours of traveling already, they went right upstairs to line up to check in to the next flight to Germany

We were lucky; the terminal was empty, and we commandeered a counter, and the good folks at BWI let us serve the boys a feast. They kept thanking us, but it was we who wanted to thank them, for letting us share even a little part of their lives and their trip.

We got to meet folks whose names we had heard, and got to hear their voices. There they were, real and laughing, joking with each other, with blond hair or dark or shaved bald.

They were remarkable. Patiently waiting, never arguing, they never displayed an iota of negative emotion during the many long hours we saw them standing on their feet, not moving, nowhere to go, waiting in line to check in for the flight to Germany, only to learn that it had been cancelled for the night.

Among other things, I'll say this for the Marine Corps: they know how to show profound restraint and patience, when the need is there. My feet and back were aching, and I had to find somewhere to sit down - and I had slept in a comfortable bed the night before. They stood without complaining, looking for all the world as if they had just strolled over to the airport.

And then, after six hours of waiting in line, they loaded those heavy bags onto a bus and headed over to the Holiday Inn Express - and we heard the best, most unexpected words:

You guys who live so close to here, you might as well head home with your families for the night.

It turns out you can fit five people and 185 pounds of luggage into a Prius. And we drove towards the Maryland sunset. Happy. Happy, happy, happy.

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