Last night, I returned to North Carolina, after nearly 5 days in Seattle. I had nothing more than my purse, an extra teeshirt and my cellphone charger, because that's all I took with me when I got on a plane at 4:45pm on Tuesday the 13th.
That morning, I had gone to work with Dad and Ben, to help paint a cabin at Camp Highlander. Cue sweat and paint and cobwebs and working next door to a cabin full of teenage male campers whose conversations consisted of little more than rapid-fire successions of "No, you're gay!" "No, YOU'RE gay!"-- and when we stopped around noon for lunch, I checked my voicemail, hoping rather vainly for a message from Andrew (though I knew he wouldn't nearly be home yet), because he had flown out of Kyrgyzstan 20 hours before. I knew there were surely stops to be made in his journey, as usually he has a day or so in Germany before he would even start towards America.
I had a voicemail, but it was not from Andrew. It was from a private from the 1-17, informing me that Andrew would land at 1 and the homecoming ceremony would be at 3.
I immediately started hyperventilating, and all through lunch I tried to figure out some earthly way that I could get to Washington in time. All in vain. I had less than 6 hours. There was no way. So, I stopped hyperventilating and decided to be very sad instead.But once the indomitable men and I returned to the job site, Pvt. Wilkinson called again, to make sure I had gotten the message. Apparently, they are very efficient and attentive in the army. SNORT.
But I digress--the good private told me that the impending arrival was in fact to be at 1 in the morning, rather than in the afternoon. With this heartening knowledge, I thanked him, promised him that I would abuse his phone number if I needed more information or help, and hung up with renewed excitement in my lungs.
But that was not the end of it. Moments after I swore to my good brother that as long as the plane ticket were less than a thousand dollars, I would find a way to make it to Washington in time, Pvt. Wilkinson called yet again. The men were arriving sooner than expected. The ceremony was to be at 11pm, instead of 3am.
I rushed to my laptop, fought tooth and nail for a flight--not on time, not on time, can't get to the airport that fast, too expensive, too expensive--aha, $350 out of Asheville, arriving at Seatac airport at 9:41pm, oh but the airline is evil, oh but I'm scary too--and I was on my way. I took the quickest shower of my life, threw on the first teeshirt and jeans I could find, and rushed out of the house with wet hair, no makeup, and only a hundred dollars in cash in my pocket.
But I made it. I ran through Seatac, desperate to find a cab. "How far is it to Fort Lewis?" I asked a cabbie at ten minutes after 10pm.
"Yes, how far?"
"That's a 70 or 80 dollar cab ride."
"Very nice. How long will it take to get there?"
"Uh, well, 20 or 30 minutes?"
Nearly 40 minutes and over 90 dollars later, we made it to the visitor's center. I demanded that the unbusiness-like cabbie wait a moment, and I leapt from the car and up to the table with the wee little sign said I must sign in and get my pass. The soldier there asked me incredulously, "You took a cab from Seatac?" before I even handed him my ID, and I begged my ignorance of the area as an excuse, and when a couple near me said to the soldier that they came on post all the time and had a regular pass but needed to check in, and then made small conversation with me, I shrewdly eyed them, and then even more shrewdly eyed their SUV, and then asked in a breathless voice, "Can I ride with you, so I can release this bloody cab?"
They agreed, pleasantly, eager to help this excited young lady. I tossed my money at the cabbie, even though he looked at me (once again) like I was a nutter, and dismissed him.
10:55pm. We drive.
"Are we near the gym yet?" I asked Josh, the pleasant though rather portly man.
"It's right there," he replied, pleasantly, indicating the gym-shaped building on our left that was swarming with soldiers in ACUs and berets as well as a few jolly and meandering civilians, "We just have to find a place to park."
Oh. Private Wilkinson had advised me hours before that I should arrive at least 45 minutes early, for parking would be disastrous.
"Heh, well, if you can forgive my rudeness, I think I'll just make a run for it right now," I said, gathering my wits and my purse.
The pleasant couple laughed and said goodbye, and I was away. Across a narrow street, onto the sidewalk, into the chilly starlit air and sounds of excited activity. People were spilling out of the doors of the gym, overflowing into a small crowd of soldiers who gathered to peer into the jungles of people. The soldiers parted as I approached, unconsciously forming equal rows on either side of my path, and, much like a nutter, I giggled and trotted through with a smiling "ooh, fancy!"
I stepped through the doors at 11pm precisely. The crowd inside was ecstatic. Wives and little children, sisters, brothers, parents, husbands--noisy with homemade signs waving and anxious grins bursting out left and right. Banners proclaiming the names of the returning regiments and companies spanned the back walls, and a brass band played reverberating and patriotic songs in the front corner. Chairs and bleachers were full, people were crammed against each other, up against walls, up against the band, but nobody could bear to stand still.
And then there was the curtain. The great blue curtain that shielded an entire half of the gym away from prying eyes, the curtain behind which our men would gather in formation, the horrible, heavy, unkind curtain which was the sole enemy left in anyone's mind.
My hands are shaking even now to remember it. The band played song after song, and in every interlude, the whole assembly held its breath--is it time? is it time? is it time? But no... song after song. It felt like an hour, though perhaps it was 15 minutes, when finally a soldier came forward to a podium and said something. I'm not sure what. But was it time? Not quite yet. First, some country singer in the corner had to perform a song about men coming home from battle--they really think they need to remind us that this moment is significant and emotional????---
But at the crescendo of the song, that curtain began to lift, and we all started screaming and weeping already. Inch, inch, inch, and there were the boots of several hundred men, in perfect formation. Inch, inch, inch, knees, bodies, shoulders--
---Faces---and there he was, in the second row, a head taller than the man in front of him, and I was less than five yards away from him, standing in the front of the crowds, my arms clenched around me.
But we aren't to have our men yet. First they go at ease, and I caught my breath at the precision and discipline of every man there, who are just as desperate to rejoin their families, but who aren't to have us yet either. I'm sure a few of those stoic men are making the most secret of glances towards the crowd, searching out their beloveds.
But my soldier has no idea that I even know that he's home. As far as he knows, I'm still waiting for him to get back, get settled, get a cellphone, and call me. As far as he knows, even if I know that he was landing today, there was no way I'd know when the ceremony was. As far as he knows, even if I did know when the ceremony was, there was no way I could be there. As far as he knows, no one is at this ceremony to welcome him. As Andrew stands in formation, his mind flickers back and forth between two tired thoughts--I wish Chelsea could be here--and--this is so dumb. I don't even need to be here for this.
Still in formation, he glances to the side for a moment, and I think he sees me, but in fact, that is him trying not to roll his eyes. At last, the sergeant releases them, and Andrew turns with a bit of a sigh to leave the gym, because of course there is no one there for him. His fiance is in North Carolina, and his brother is all the way back in Afghanistan.
But then a blond woman in a royal blue tee shirt and jeans pops up a few yards in front of him, and though his mind is elsewhere, there is a slight registering of she's cute she looks like Chelsea oh well... in his head, and he keeps his path.
"Andrew," says the girl, and for a solid three seconds, he stares straight at her, almost unrecognizing, because of course Chelsea isn't here--
but then she is here and there's no way in hell that this is real---
but here she is and here his hands are touching her face---
and here he's kissing her and the rest of the raucous rejoicing crowd has disappeared because--- she's here, she's here, she's here, it's impossible but she's here---
and he's home.