I'll Be Home For Christmas: Traveling With Our Troops
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You know your holiday week is on course when your planes are delayed or canceled due to nasty travel conditions, a tradition many of us reluctantly embrace year after year. But such is the joy of the season, we all deal with it, and, exhausted, we finally reach those we love with some gifts that are slightly dinged in transit, a few fraying strands of good humor, and a huge sense of relief.
This year, however, air travel was particularly gruesome, with airports intermittently shutting down or re-routing most mid-western flights due to what airline attendants and customer service assistants called "weather" -- as in, "due to weather, our Omaha flight is landing in St. Louis." By midnight, December 18th, in most cases, flights were canceled or so significantly postponed that airlines had to assist "distressed passengers" (the industry's term for the unlucky) find refuge for the night. Older travelers and families with young children and early teens raced to local hotels for a shower and a handful of quiet hours during which came either a semi-sound sleep or a brilliant, devious plot to end the stressful journey. The more youthful demographics, the tightly-budgeted, and new starter clans slept across seats and floors in designated airline waiting areas, smartly choosing a little discomfort over what potentially would be re-enacted scenes from Steve Martin's, John Candy's and John Hughes' Trains, Planes & Automobiles.
In the morning, after a short rest, the hotel-pampered passengers exhaustedly lined-up for continental breakfasts of barely-brewed coffee (and nothing else), airport shuttles and taxis, and yet another dose of security screenings. Then, blending-in with the airport's temporary residents, the herd staggered zombie-like through terminal food courts and bookstores as they bravely faced a new day of cancellations, postponed flight times, endless gate changes, and missed connections. What kept people going was the belief that, regardless of the "weather," they finally would make it to their destinations. Maybe.
But another breed of traveler suddenly joined the masses, one that positively changed the general mood of things. Groups of soldiers in training or those back from a tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan also killed time wandering the airport's now-chaotic pathways and people movers. Actually, out of St. Louis alone, 6500 soldiers from Forts Leonardwood, Campbell and Knox triangulated the airport and began their odyssey home, those destinations spanning from Smallvilles to Metropolis' across the country. Groups or pairs of young men and women wearing slightly modernized grey-green, digital checker-patterned fatigues traversed the terminals, their rowdiness being spontaneous, disciplined and brief; their camaraderie, especially after spending virtually every waking and sleeping hour together for months on end, was obvious and admirable, and a little surprising considering. And as snow and ice was strangling air travel further, this crowd already was on holiday with virtually nothing capable of dimming their festiveness. Their enthusiasm was noticeably contagious.
Time seemingly suspended like a Twilight Zone episode, it was mainly middle-aged men that initially approached soldiers with names like Tyrell, Kyle, Zack, etc., either sharing stories of their own adventures in the military or thanking the much-younger servicemen and women for their work. Middle-aged women, especially those with impressionable children, cutely mothered the male troops and passed on stories about deceased military family members, hometown gossip, and an impromptu recipe or three to take home to their moms. That triggered stories by the soldiers that ranged from their personal achievements such as overseeing troubled youth wilderness programs and helping to raise a late-sister's family, to county concerns like the Noxon and Cogent plant closings or hops farms being sold by Anheuser Busch to a Belgian investor. The conversation continued, re-focused on thirteen hound dogs, cougar hunting, building snow forts, and what it was like to have been a defensive tackle on the University of Montana's football team. And they even spent a little time educating the civilians on military protocol and their speedtalk acronyms (i.e. PT is physical training, AKO is Army Knowledge Online -- a site for service members to check out what's new, placements, etc.).