“We’d like to start boarding a little earlier than usual. We have eighteen wheel chairs on this morning’s flight.”
With that statement, the agent upped my personal record for the amount of passengers requiring a wheelchair on a flight. I believe the previous record was nine… undoubtedly involving a departure or arrival somewhere in Florida.
It was a Sunday morning at Washington Dulles airport just outside our nation’s capital. I glanced around the boarding area and saw no obvious need for such a large amount of assistance.
Someone in the crew finally asked, “Why so many?”
The agent replied, “You’ve got a group of World War II veterans traveling to San Francisco. There are thirty three of them and eighteen need wheel chairs. They’ll be arriving as a group in a few minutes.”
I immediately made the association… over the previous few days, there were several news stories about WWII Vets attempting to visit their memorial during the government shutdown. Many were very upset that a dysfunctional government could lead to the closure and barricading of the public site. They fought for our freedom and deserved royal treatment at their memorial. Instead, they were being locked out. I hope you see the irony regardless of your political affiliation.
In the end, their highly respected voices prevailed over the games being played by our politicians. By Sunday morning, it was time to head home to the west coast.
I was looking forward to meeting them.
As they boarded, I stayed out of the way. I knew it would take an abundance of extra time to board and get everyone situated. As eager as I was to meet these men and women, I didn’t want to slow down the process.
The flight to San Francisco was uneventful. Without much headwind, the flight time was lower than average. With a nice October weather pattern, there were no cells to deviate around. Gate 56 was vacant with ramp personnel in position for our arrival.
With the parking checklist complete and “in-report” sent via ACARS, we exited the cockpit to join the lead flight attendant saying goodbye to our guests. I stood next to the first class bulkhead wall, the lead to my right and the captain in the cockpit entryway. The first hundred people off the airplane were unaffiliated with the group.
Then, the special VIPs proceeded forward.
When the first veteran reached me, I initiated a hand shake. I thanked him for his service to our nation. He looked me right in the eye and spoke with me for about thirty seconds. Then, he started telling the captain a story.
As the second veteran approached, it became obvious there would be no quick exit from the aircraft that afternoon. Their lack of speed had nothing to do with any physical limitations. They simply wanted to stop and interact with us.
It felt like a receiving line at a wedding. They shared stories, asked questions and praised captain’s flying skills. Every single one of them looked us in the eye when they spoke… even when it meant struggling to lift their heads. A few even “held the handshake” during the whole discussion.
Clearly, this group never succumbed to the technological “screens” that have eroded the communication skills of subsequent generations.
About halfway through the line, another vet motioned for both of us to get a little closer so we could hear what he had to say. In a soft but clear voice he said, “I was a pilot in the war and flew most of my life. You gentlemen just took me on my last flight… it was perfect. Thank you.”
A few minutes later, another shared the same message.
The average age of these veterans was ninety two years old. For decades, their numbers have been dwindling. These were the men and women who survived almost all of their generation.
My own grandfather was a World War II pilot. He died in his late sixties when I was a child.
Standing there in the galley of our aircraft, I started to get a little emotional. I realized I was speaking to men and women who were my grandfather’s peers. He died so long ago that it didn’t seem possible to be talking to men who flew airplanes in the same war as my grandpa. He was robbed of his golden years, but these men kept on living for almost three decades after he passed.
I decided to share that bit of personal information with the next pilot I met. The veteran behind him said, “You know, telling us your grandfather was a WWII pilot makes us feel old, right?” They both laughed. Oh, to be in your nineties and still have a sense of humor.
It took about twenty minutes for all thirty three of them to deplane.
The scene in the terminal was very festive. By the time we exited the jet bridge, the group had drawn quite a crowd of other passengers and airline employees. One American Airlines pilot was working his way through introducing himself to all the veterans.
After a few more minutes in the gate area, the group began to head for the exit. When they did, the entire terminal erupted in applause. People at the gates, in the hallway and restaurants were all standing and applauding. It was very loud. The vets waved as they walked or were wheeled towards Terminal Two’s curbside.
In a country of clashing political views, it was so nice to see everyone standing there applauding fellow Americans for their service and patriotism.
As they exited, our day was only half complete. We headed over to an adjacent gate for a deadhead to Newark. (It’s a long story how I ended up with this trip. But, yes… we flew from Dulles to San Francisco and then had to deadhead all the way back to the east coast.)
During the deadhead, I sat in the back of the plane and reflected on the experience from that morning. I thought about all those men and women and the very full lives they have lived. They have been labeled the “Greatest Generation” and were also blessed with some pretty good genes.
My thoughts drifted to my own grandfather. Growing up, there were many discussions about his service. At my young age, I thought that was “neat,” but I really didn’t appreciate the stories. Today, there are so many things I’d like to discuss with him. I firmly believe I will one day have that opportunity.
For now, the few minutes I spent with those veterans was the next best thing.
I appreciate each and every one of you who read this on a regular basis.
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