Yesterday – Veterans Day – I went to the Richmond airport to pick up a colleague.
Since you can’t go through security, at RIC you wait in a central area between the two concourses. I parked myself in front of Concourse B, where I noticed two women and a little girl also waiting. The apparent mother of the little girl held balloons, one of them a large American flag. The other woman, a small blonde, had on what can best be described as cocktail attire, a Little Black Dress. She looked at her watch, talked to her older sister (I’m assuming here), looked at her watch again.
The plane from Atlanta was 11 minutes late. But after a while, travelers started to make their way to the center of the airport. The two women stood up, and the blonde was all excited motion. She smoothed her hair. She adjusted her dress. She wiped her glasses. She smoothed her hair again. From the corner of my eye, I could see her standing on her toes, craning for a view.
She had to wait as people she had no interest in flowed past, caught up in their own stories. A businessman in a suit shook hands with the suit who greeted him. Two young women gave each other a quick embrace then chatted about where to eat. Others, those without a welcoming party, took the turn to head toward baggage claim.
Then down the concourse came a tall man in Army fatigues. He was searching for a face. He saw her and broke into a run. So did she. They met and shared a tight movie-moment hug. She didn’t make a sound, but her shoulders shuddered in a silent cry of happiness and relief.
By instinct, the crowd formed a protective half-circle around them. We all were smiling.
The moment finally melted them back to the airport. They collected the balloons, the sister, the girl, his gear. They were on their way.
My colleague appeared. Her first question was, “Did a tall man with a mustache and Army fatigues come through here?”
Funny you should ask, I said. We exchanged the two halves of the tale. On the Atlanta flight, she had overheard the man’s story. He was a soldier finishing a year-long tour of duty in Afghanistan. He had been traveling for three straight days when he made it to Atlanta, barely catching the flight to Richmond.
When he got on the plane, one of the men in first class said, “Here, you take this seat,” and swapped with the soldier. In the few minutes before the airplane doors closed, he called his wife – the blonde in the black dress. My colleague had tried not to eavesdrop, but not too hard. The soldier said, “I told you when I left I’d come back to you.” And he kept his word.
We made our way down the escalator to the airport exit, and we saw the couple talking with a few other soldiers. We passed, and I stopped to speak to a man I had never met. “Welcome home,” I said.
I just wish I had added, “Thank you.”