Christopher Applebaum finally had nodded off to that twilight zone state of being half awake and half asleep even though turbulence continued to bounce the Airbus 320, shaking its frame and passengers and crew. The movement made Chris dream he was on a boat at sea. Children in nearby seats chattering to one another or asking their moms, “Are we there yet?” made Chris’ dream include a band of youngsters carrying on identical conversations. A flight attendant’s admonition to “fasten your seat belts, fold down your trays and move your seats into the upright position. The temperature in Minneapolis/St. Paul is 12 degrees. On behalf of the captain and rest of the crew thank you for flying with…” did not rouse him.
The landing did.
Instead of the familiar thump thump of fat tires hitting Earth and accompanying screech of rubber melting into tarmac, there was a sensation of sliding like a hockey puck headed for net. Chris shook himself awake and watched the familiar buildings of MSP slide past faster than any of the other six times he had landed there.
But the pilot’s sooner than usual lowering and raising of the flaps and killing of the massive turbines’ forward thrust kept this flight from appearing as a story on the six o’clock news. The ten-year-old seated by Chris whined his disappointment.
“Not! We should’ve slid off the runway into the snow. That would’ve been really fun.”
Next came the disembarkation ritual, which never varied. Stand up. Move to aisle. Open overhead bins. Grab carryon bags, many of them larger than the precisely measured wooden example of allowed size back at the loading gate 1,627 miles ago. All of the carry-ons held gifts, with Chris’ the best one of all – a piece of his history that his wife had assembled for his relatives. Stand shoulder to shoulder staring forward until first class and the lucky ones toward the front have filed out.
By the time Chris reached the terminal he was inwardly rotating between his two favorite Christmas characters – the Grinch and Ebenezer Scrooge. He wore a face to match his mood because his stomach growled. But duty always trumps pleasure for such ones soured on life and its occasional joys and seasons of merrymaking.
“You there? Pick up, pick up!” He became one of hundreds dragging wheeled baggage with one hand and holding phones in the other. One attractive blonde mom somehow managed to also push a stroller with an elbow.
The familiar beep of the answering machine and cheerful recorded greeting let Chris know this would be another of many such one-way conversations.
“I just landed. Thought you’d at least be there…Okay, whatever. Say hi to the kids. Tell Angela I’m sorry I missed her and the grandkids and I’ll come by after I get back.” He started to say “Merry Christmas” but stopped at “Mer..” before substituting “Bye.”
It was still morning so he went to his usual haunt, Burger King, and ordered its biggest breakfast.
“Can I get the free senior coffee with that?”
The cashier studied his face. “I need to see your I.D., sir.”
He did not know whether to be pleased or offended. Pleased, because he looked so much younger than the required age or offended because she thought he was lying?
Four minutes and two free cups of java drunk later, he settled into a seat by the long narrow table bordering 100 plus feet of window that gave him at least a partial view of jets of every shape and size arriving and departing. Fortified after devouring the scrambled eggs, sausage, pancakes, and croissant, he headed to the regional airline’s terminal, carrying one last free refill of coffee.
The waiting area near the boarding gate for his flight aboard a small 19-seat Beechcraft seemed more crowded than the other times he had passed through. Must be because it’s Christmas Eve. The real reason soon came through the P.A.’s speakers.
“Ladies and gentlemen, because our earlier flight had to be cancelled due to the weather we are overbooked for Flight 83 to Watertown and Pierre, South Dakota. If anyone would like to volunteer to take a later flight, please come to the desk.”
The request brought forth no volunteers, only comments.
“I had to stay over last night in a hotel because my flight was cancelled yesterday.” A lady who looked to be 70 seated 50 feet from Chris complained. “There is no reason in heaven or on Earth that I should not be on the next flight.” Her announcement reached almost as many ears as the one made by the weary airline employee at the gate. Her loudness and emphasis on last night and yesterday amused Chris.
You tell ‘em, Granny.
She reminded him of those relatives he was to spend Christmas with: stoic, matter of fact, God-fearing, no-nonsense folk who only put their foot down or drew a line in the sand after being bamboozled, lied to, or otherwise angered beyond acceptable limits. It was Chris’ wife Paulette who had encouraged him to spend Christmas where most of his kin folk were. Her words echoed in his memory.
“Your Uncle George might not be alive by next Christmas and your cousins haven’t seen you in years.”
“Yeah, yeah. All right already. I’ll go.” Chris had agreed to end the argument.
Now he wondered if he might be bumped from his flight on the small puddle jumper. If that happened, he’d be sure to blame Paulette.
He watched a young woman as she trudged to the gate, a small boy holding one hand and a baby in the other arm. Hoping that she was volunteering the three of them to wait until a later flight, Chris stood, stretched, and walked to the plate glass windows and pretended to watch the runways as he eavesdropped. The gate’s keeper sounded apologetic enough.
“I’m sorry, ma’am but we still have one too many passengers. The only way all three of you can fly together is if at least one other passenger volunteers to give up their seat.”
“But my husband’s waiting for us at his parents’ home in Pierre.” Tears started to form.
The tears hit the tile floor as she retreated to a corner with her children. Chris thought of grabbing the microphone, now unattended because the gate keeper had moved from his desk, and making his own unofficial plea: “Come on, people. Can’t one of you volunteer so that lady over there and her two kids can get out of Dodge? Where’s your Christmas spirit?” He took a step toward the microphone but visions of security grabbing him and dragging him to a TSA interrogation room stopped his half-hearted attempt of kindness.
His next half hour consisted of running through the advantages and disadvantages of spending at least another nine hours stuck in one of his least liked places – a terminal. If the weather did not hold then he could be stuck overnight. As he shuffled to the desk, its attendant knew from experience and Chris’ expression that at last someone had relented.
“Uh, you still need someone to give up their seat?”
Differently motivated tears and a smile were what Chris saw on the young mother’s face after the new announcement as he left the terminal in search of a USO lounge. He was not active duty, just a veteran, but that should be sufficient to entitle him to free coffee and donuts and a place to stretch out for a nap. He fell asleep while studying faces from another lifetime.
Two hours later he stopped snoring after sensing a presence invading the personal space he so prized. A janitor had knelt beside him and was eying the photo album that had fallen from his hands.
“Need me to move?” He sat up and yawned.
“No. You’re okay.” She continued to gaze at the blue album.
“That’s something my wife put together for my nephews and nieces. She said they need to know my history, good and bad.”
“That patch…” She pointed at the piece of cloth adorned with four green ivy leaves attached to a green circle.
“It’s my old 4th Infantry Division patch.”
“It’s the same one my brother Billy wore when he came home. Bill Rowlingwood. Did you know him? He was in Vietnam.” She bent down and caressed the patch, protected by the cover’s clear plastic.
“Don’t remember his name. You want to look at it maybe?”
She nodded and he handed it to her. She slowly flipped through pages and focused on each face memorialized in the dozens of photos. On the eighth page she dropped the album.
“It’s him. It’s Billy.”
Chris picked up the album and clutched it, wondering how this stranger could be so thoughtless. She touched a face surrounded by a group of 16 soldiers.
“That’s Delta Company guys. I was in Alpha Company but I hung out with some guys from Delta. Still don’t remember your brother. Sorry.” He closed the album.
The janitor told of a brother who had never said a word about his time in ‘Nam, who died at age 47 from war’s aftereffects. She kept touching the album, as if it connected her to him.
“I miss him so much. He was never the same after he came back home. Mom always says she wished he hadn’t gotten rid of his uniform and all his pictures so she could have something to remember him by. She always wondered what the other soldiers looked like because Billy wrote home about them a lot.”
“Well, that would include most of us from my company. We went on patrol with your brother’s company quite a bit.” Chris leaned back and stared at the ceiling. Twice in one day, God? His grip loosened enough from the album so that his knuckles went from white to their normal pink. He sighed and handed it to her.
“Merry Christmas. To you and your mom. From my wife.”