In the late 60’s we lived in Memphis. My father was active duty navy and spent a lot of time on aircraft carriers. He looked quite handsome in his uniform and he was my hero. He was stationed at Memphis for instructor duty. We used to go to the base and I got to get in the flight simulator that they used to teach sailors how to fly.
One of the memories that gets stirred up every year at this time;
The first POW’s were starting to come home. I remember my parents telling me as we were bundling up one evening to go out that we were going to go see something miraculous. I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. I didn’t really know what a POW was. My father was on aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean. He never served in Vietnam even though he was active duty. I remember quite clearly asking him what a POW was. He knelt down to me and explained without hesitation that a POW was someone who had been away at war and the enemy had captured him and kept him. Sometimes they didn’t come home, but that day, one family and one base community was celebrating the return of one of it’s own. We were there to celebrate a hero’s homecoming.
As we neared the flight deck, cars were everywhere. It was cold and it was already dark. We had to park and walk. There were more people than I had ever seen in one place. My dad kept hold of my hand so I wouldn’t get lost in the crowd. People were milling around, talking, laughing, and celebrating. It was like a big party. We got hot chocolate and my mom handed me a small American flag. She had one too. Everyone did.
Then I understood. Someone’s husband and daddy was coming home. Like mine always did. I remembered when my dad would come home from a sea duty tour. Sometimes, we would go to the docks and meet him. We would watch for him in the sea of sailors in their white hats as they debarked the ship and we always were able to pick him out of the crowd.
There are certain things that stand out in this memory for me. I remember everyone was having a good time. Suddenly the crowd got quieter. Not still or reserved necessarily, but reverent, respectful. My dad put me on his shoulders so I could see. I was 9 or 10 but was about the size of a 5 or 6 year old. The plane was coming. It had touched down and was making it’s way toward us. You could feel the anticipation in the air. Officers and other military personnel began gathering around where the plane would stop. It pulled up like a limousine pulling up to valet parking. The military personnel all in their dress blues lined up on either side as they rolled the stairs to the plane. The entire crowd, I believe, was holding it’s collective breath. The stairs were carefully placed, the door swung open. The pilot and co-pilot were at the door. We couldn’t see anyone else but they saluted for what seemed like a long time.
Down on the tarmac, military personnel had lined up to give the POW a hero’s welcome. His wife, stood off to the side. I thought she looked very brave and a little unsteady. She wore a light blue pantsuit, white boots and a scarf to protect her perfectly coiffed hair. I worried that she was cold but I doubt she felt much of anything at that moment. Just then, A man in dress blues, who didn’t quite fill the opening, stepped off the plane and onto the stairs. I stole a quick glance at the hero’s wife. Someone was next to her holding her arm. Her hands went to her face but other than that, she did not move. Not like me when my dad got home. Once we found him in the crowd I would jump and run and giggle and get to him first to get my homecoming hugs and kisses long before Mom could. She always waited patiently on the sidelines like the lady in the blue pantsuit. The man saluted again, and the crowd went wild as though the Beatle’s themselves had just stepped off the plane. He started down the steps. As he hit the tarmac, he saluted each and every officer in that line. It seemed like dozens though it was probably more like 6. He did not flinch. He did not waiver. He did not look away. He took a step and gave the finest salute I had ever seen to each and every one. I heard someone say something about respect. I don’t know if he even noticed the crowd. As he got closer to the end of the line his wife had started inching closer across the tarmac. She took very long, broad, tentative steps and I remember thinking she looked like she was running, only in slow motion. Her pant leg would ride up a bit because her stride was so long and I could see her boots. As she got within about 3 car lengths, by a little kid’s estimation, her arms started reaching toward her husband. He stood strong and proud. Once he had reached the end of the reception line, he turned, ever so slowly and caught a glimpse of his wife inching toward him.
As he stepped toward her, almost as a cue, her slow motion edging turned into a full gallop and in seconds they were in each other’s arms. I remember feeling such relief that the lady in the blue suit finally got to hug her husband. No respectful salute for her. They held onto each other for a long time, surrounded by military personnel and their families and cheering onlookers waving their little American flags, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings. I forgot about how cold it was. I forgot about my hot chocolate. Tears filled my eyes for reasons I would not understand for many years. I waved my flag and cheered till my throat hurt.
Finally, the hero and his wife were escorted to a waiting car and a long procession proceeded to move down the tarmac. People in the crowd were hugging. Women and men alike were wiping away tears that I would later recognize as tears of joy, gratitude and also sadness for those who would not make it home. As I clutched my little American flag and counted stars out the car window, we inched our way through the crowd and rode silently home.