You know an experience has touched you deeply when you don’t want to return to your usual consumption of information, people, noise, and chatter, lest the spell be broken and a wisp of conversation or a touching scene be blotted from your mind in the overload. One miracle moment, you can keep in your head—one thousand, and you’ll need a batch of Post-Its. I suppose this serves as that; the Sports Center highlights of a Flight that was my Honor to be a part of.
Me: Wow! Look at your gorgeous wife! You did quite well for yourself, sir.
86: And she’s even more beautiful on the inside than the outside.
Me: I’ve changed my mind; she did quite well for herself.
“I knew I was going to go to war from the time I was nine. And well now, you know I’m as gay as pink paint.” The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell fight might do well to look beyond the Lt. Dan Choi/contemporary examples of service and sexuality, to those from another era. They are there if you look, and entirely willing to talk—and that’s asking and telling worth gold.
Do it now. This lesson of regret isn’t learned from Oprah, but from missing out on fun stuff as a kid because I was too scared to be bold and do it alone, because it was just easier not to make trouble, not to ride the ride. When you’re five you have time for regret—when you’re 85, you don’t.
At the WWII Memorial, under freezing sleet, Sen. Elizabeth Dole arrived to meet the veterans, beaming and, at least outwardly, impervious to the miserable, horrible weather. One of the men I was partnered with was a soft-spoken, shy man with a deep well of emotion in that seemingly quiet pool. He’d taken a picture of Sen. Dole, and given the conditions and crowd, didn’t want to trouble her for a picture with him. Sometimes bossy is a virtue. I’d made eye contact with her staffer and she knew my companion wanted a picture—so I wouldn’t hear his protestations. “Sir, go ahead and get up there, I’ll take your picture. Go on, it will just take a moment.”
Picture snapped, thanks and handshakes given—and on the walk back to the bus, I showed him how the picture turned out. The sincere and pleased “HA!” when he saw it, proves my thesis. And later that evening when he said, “Boy, I sure wouldn’t have done that if you hadn’t made me. Thank you,” writes it in stone. Do it now. (Note: This lesson also applies to meeting people, asking questions, listening to stories, and giving back—not just carnival rides and pictures with Elizabeth Dole.)
There are no English words currently in existence to convey what a Purple Heart ceremony at Walter Reed feels like, so I will just describe the events rather than the emotions: Once you have seen a mother stand next to what is physically left of her son and receive the honor and reward which doesn’t come within an epic chasm of being enough; once you have seen a soldier clap with one hand on his chest while his other uniform sleeve hangs empty and neatly pinned; once you have passed down the line of warriors, new medals on wounded chests, and been able to shake their hands, look in their eyes, and choke out the sincerest, “Thank you,” you’ve ever uttered—and when it’s received without a hint of bitterness or anger, you will know without doubt you’ve had the most gut-wrenching human exchange you will ever have. Blood, of blood and treasure, now has a face, a heart, a soul. Perspective after that, is forever more altered; it now rests on the shoulders of warriors.
Marching out of the World War II Memorial with the Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors, and Marines who earned it, knowing it’s for the last time with a plaintive and proud lone bagpiper underscoring the moment, will make you cry really, really hard.
It sounds stupid to even say, but if the New York Times found it not too obvious to write about, neither do I: We treat old people terribly. We look at the wrinkles and the slower gait and project that onto their brains, assuming once you enter your eighth decade, you lose your sense of humor, the relevance of your thoughts, your entire personhood.
CUT IT OUT.
I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the amount of times I blushed at a flirty compliment, leaned in transfixed as to not miss a word of a story, and was charmed by a thought or joke. New rule: If you’re not over 75, you’re gonna have to do way more to earn airtime with me. It’s a cane folks, not a can’t.
Bonus note: At no time does “age before beauty” actually apply. Do not try to fight chivalry with these men: you will be boarding the bus first, rain and age be damned. And even if the fight wasn’t futile, you know you don’t sass your elders.
YOU ARE NOT TOO BUSY. There is nothing in this world that is more pressing than preserving the stories, memories, and histories of the only resource we have that truly means anything: humanity. On the Honor Flight video, one vet says, “Well, I’m too old to make that drive, so I’d have to ask a grandkid to take me and I know they’re just too busy with work and stuff.” Hey. All y’alls. For SHAME. First: Don’t make them ask—you know they’re not going to—they were raised in the peak of sacrifice, pride, and deprivation. Second: See sentence #1.
There are 1,700 other moments and memories, but for now—to Boris and Lowell, Walter and Earle and George, Philip, Harlan, and Clancy, Joe and Louis, Russell and Bill and Clif, Barney, and Amos and all the rest: thank you for the memories gentlemen. It was my pleasure and my honor.
Flight Attendant: Here’s your drink, sir. I made it a double.
86: Goodnight, Irene!