11/12/13

First Time . . .

I'll put a more appropriate pic on this post when you admit
the Virgin Mary was a lot of things . . . but NOT a Caucasian.
I did a quick, one night business trip last week to Atlanta. I am normally not all that chatty on the plane (being the fat guy you tend to keep your arms crossed, your bladder full, your snacks out of sight, and your exchanges cordial) but as I sat on the tarmac to leave Wichita the kid next to me seemed nervous.

I looked over and asked "Are you okay?" Normally this a question I would only ask people I truly care about - any answer beyond "yes" is otherwise too much for me but I felt like this kid needed to be engaged a little.

"Well," he said. "I've never left Kansas before and I've never been on a plane and I'm heading off to basic training for the Army National Guard and I'm scared, sir."

I did the only thing I could think to do. I put his hand in mine and squeezed gently. No. I didn't really do anything even close to that.

I told him that the world outside of Kansas is actually not all that different than the world inside, that I've probably flown 100 or more times and nothing bad has ever happened to me and that, while I had no idea what awaited him at his training I was sure he would survive that too. I then thanked him for his service and went back to listening to my podcast (the beauty that is the loosened portable electronic devices rules - THANK YOU FAA!). For about five seconds.

"You see, sir," he continued. "I'm fifth generation military service in my family but I was the only one that didn't want to do it and the only one that put it off after high school hoping to find something else. But I couldn't find anything else so my parents made me enlist on my 20th birthday."

"Well," I responded. "The jet will head out a bit and then sort of stop and pivot and then the pilot will give it the gas good and hard and we'll jerk a little and as soon as he hit speed he'll pull up and we'll be airborne and you can say you've flown in a plane before and you can thank your parents for giving you the experience of flight . . . and in a few weeks, months, or years, the experience of service." Headphones back in.

"Do you think it will be okay?"

(Deep breath) "Yes. Just two hours to Atlanta and then you'll be on your way. Just try to relax and enjoy a free soft drink or two. Heck (I'm trying to purge H-E-Double Hockey Sticks from my vocabulary) I'll buy you some booze if that will help take the edge off."

"Did you know my Great Grandfather was a high enough ranking official that he would have people come to the house even after he retired and the rest of the family would have to leave the house while they talked?"

"No. I didn't even know you three minutes ago. Would you like a magazine? I've got some CheezIts. Maybe a stick of gum - your ears might pop during ascent and decent. Do you want to borrow my iPad and play a game? Maybe you want to just rest?"

"Yeah. That sounds good." (NOTE - NO indication which of the many options he was interested in.)

"Okay. Good. Let me know. I promise you're going to be fine."

Then we did the stop, pivot, hit the gas, ascent thing and as soon as we were airborne I remembered when I was 13 and flew for the first time. I was going to Disney World with my family. I was the odd-person out and seated with a stranger. A man who was a salesman (admittedly talking with him was the first time I realized people made a living making and leveraging relationships and in that moment a fire was probably sparked). I was scared to death and I was about to go to the HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH! I could be more patient with this kid. I could talk to this kid. I could help this kid. I could provide some comfort to this kid. So I put his hand in mine. No. I didn't really do anything close to that.

I simply took out my headphones and spent the next two hours chatting with a kid who has had and will have a life so completely different than mine I can't even ponder we had anything at all in common beyond the time and space we shared in that aircraft.

When we got to Atlanta and were exiting the plane, I shook his hand. (I really did put his hand in mine that time) and I gave him the rest of my pack of gum (he seemed really in to it and had no cash on him), I thanked him for his service. I wished him well in the experience awaiting him and the years of service ahead of him. I told him to handwrite his mother a note on the bus ride to the base telling her all the things he loves and appreciates about the life she has nurtured in him and the woman she has been to him. I gave him $20 for a stamp, a postcard, and maybe some grub and I walked away.

I then walked through the airport with colleagues - hundreds (thousands?) of other people passing us as we walked through the nation's busiest airport every one of them with their own life, experiences, origin and destination point, and things they were afraid of and confident about.

And then I realized that was the first time I'd ever really pondered such a thing . . . first time.