It was a last-minute deal. I left dirty dishes in the sink, grabbed two flags from the garage and met the husband midtown. I parked my car at a Chili’s (thanks Chili’s), hopped in his car and we zipped to the airport.
All week long an Indianapolis radio station had been inviting the public to greet World War II veterans returning from an Honor Flight to visit their memorial in Washington, D.C.
By the time we arrived a good-size crowd had gathered, lining ropes marking off a pathway from B Concourse into the main terminal. A bagpipe ensemble milled about and 20-somethings in vintage 1940s clothing lingered by the escalator.
There were families with kids, grandkids and great-grandkids holding signs that said, “Welcome Back, Raymond” and “We’re proud of you Pa.”
As the crowd grew, so did the wait. The elderly took refuge in chairs; children plopped on the ground. A volunteer occasionally strolled by with updates. “They’ve landed.” “They’re taking bathroom breaks.” “Be patient; they’re older than you are.”
Finally, the bagpipes sounded, the drums echoed and the parade into the terminal began.
Each veteran was accompanied by a family member holding a large poster with the veteran’s name, rank, duty and theater of service beneath a huge picture of the soldier in uniform years ago. The photographs were of young men fresh-faced, clean-scrubbed, thick hair, wry smiles, still in their late teens.
They’d sure been lookers in their time.
“How much for that movie star poster of you as a soldier, sir?”
“It’d be pretty expensive. Don’t think you could afford it!”
Each of the male vets had a set of red lip prints on their cheek. It must have been some welcome as they deplaned.
Fathers hoisted little ones to their shoulders for a better view. “Look!” a dad shouted to his kids. “That soldier was a Flying Tiger.”
There was a Tuskegee Airman, a veteran from the Battle of the Bulge, a veteran who had fought in the Philippines, a woman who served in the European theater, a man who survived D-Day and a man who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Many of them are in their 90s now, a number of them in wheelchairs; yet many still have the handshake. It was my father’s handshake, the grip that threatened to crush every bone in your hand, a reminder that he was strong and that he had served.
A friend says every time someone dies, they take an entire library with them. A great library of history was passing before us, page after page, face after face, ordinary men and women who forged history.
“I can’t believe this,” the veterans said, one after another, eyes glistening. When the last vet passed by, we left the parade route thinking we had been at the midway point. We’d actually been close to the front. People had lined the pathway 10 and 15-deep through the airport terminal. Thousands found a way to pay tribute to American greatness.
If there’s an Honor Flight (www.honorflight.org) returning near you, go to the airport. As Will Rogers said, “We can’t all be heroes. Some of us have to stand on the curb and clap as they go by.”