By Guy L. Pace
This is a short story. It’s fiction. Mostly.
I just finished boot camp and was waiting in the San Fransisco International Airport for my connecting flight home. I was getting a little warm in the June afternoon sitting in a waiting area in my white Crackerjack uniform. I was looking forward to a few days home with the family before heading to Virginia for A school.
Then I heard the timpani noise of the Hari Krishna’s as they paraded down the breezeway. I tried to ignore them, but they had me in their sights. They circled around me singing their song, banging their symbols and tambourines. One of them approached me directly holding a book with a picture of Paul McCartney on the cover.
“Do you like The Beatles?” He asked.
“Yes.” I said. Mistake number one.
“Then you want this book,” he said. “All the secrets of life and the universe are here.” He kept pushing the book toward me and trying to sell me on the benefits of worshipping Krishna.
Fortunately, my next flight was announced. I jumped up, grabbed my carry on bag.
“Sorry, gotta run.”
I pushed my way past the still dancing Hari Krishnas and ran to my gate.
I stood in the waiting area and watched out the windows as a large military transport aircraft taxied up. Once it stopped, the crowd waiting on the tarmac was allowed to approach a little closer. A huge banner with “Welcome Home” on it flapped over the crowd. Men, women, children stood expectant, excited, barely able to keep from rushing the plane. A small band fired up “God Bless America.” Local and national media filmed the event, cameras were flashing as pictures of anxious faces were taken. Down came the loading ramp in the rear, and shortly soldiers started streaming out.
One by one, they were met by spouses, family, children, all embracing and excited to receive their loved ones home again. After initial hugs, kisses, and emotional greetings, they proceeded into the terminal arm-in-arm, happy voices, smiling faces. Even with the warm welcome, the soldiers smiles didn’t reach their eyes. I could see the thousand mile stares still embedded deep within.
Fellow shipmates and I were gathered at a small table at a little eatery. We were enjoying some local food that wasn’t Mess Decks, and we were in dress blue Crackerjack uniforms. Smiles and laughter as we talked and joked, until a group of young locals showed up shouting anti-American slogans.
“Baby killers!” They yelled. “You are baby killers!” They shouted the phrase over and over and crowded around us. The noise and yelling annoyed some of the other patrons of the little place.
Shortly, the person we guessed was the manager, came over. Rather than try to move the rabble out of his establishment, he indicated we needed to leave. We got up, left our half-finished meals and departed while holding on to our white hats.
We moved down the street, but the protesters continued following, shouting and throwing things. Finally, they quit following and we were able to continue our sight-seeing unmolested.
December 24, 1972
It had been a surprise trip to home port after a nine month deployment to Vietnam. We weren’t able to tell our families we were coming home by letter, because the decision to return home was made final after we had left the Philippines. At this point we had been about two months beyond a devastating accident that killed a number of our shipmates and friends. Morale was low and the trip home was just what was needed. The Navy provided most of the notifications that our expected arrival in port at Norfolk, VA would be about Christmas Eve. We steamed hard and fast across the Pacific Ocean, through Panama and the Caribbean, and up the East Coast.
We arrived and tied up on the usual pier in the morning of Christmas Eve. Out on the pier were some families. No band. No media. No banners.
Crew could’t leave right away, but family were allowed on board.
I stood on the teak deck near the after boarding ramp watching for my wife. Finally, there she was. She walked toward me, but stopped about arm’s distance.
“I’m going home,” she said. She held out a small envelope. “This is the money you had sent to me while you were gone. I saved it for you.”
“But, it’s Christmas Eve …” I started.
“I’m going to my parents. I don’t know what you want to do.”
“I thought we’d go together.”
“No. It’s been too long.”
She turned and left. I was stunned.
I had joined the reserves and had been working at a reserve center part time in uniform. I was also attending college. As a vet, I got the GI Bill to help with costs and the reserve work paid something as well. One day, I had some important work to do at the reserve center. But, I also needed to attend one of my classes. I arrived in class in uniform and participated as required. However, I could tell the professor was not pleased.
During this particular class, the professor set an attendance requirement for the next class session that would determine a pass or fail for the class. Everyone had to arrive at class at a specific time to get a passing grade. Otherwise, fail.
I determined to make the class on time. However, when I arrived at the appointed time, the classroom was empty. It turns out that after the previous class, the professor communicated a different location to the rest of the students. I was excluded from that communication.
So, I got an F on my transcript for that class. I approached the professor and was brushed off. Complaints to the head of the department came to nothing. Later, I retook the class at another university and got an A. So that fixed the transcript.
I continued to stand and watch as the crowd thinned down.
Then a hand touched my shoulder and a man about my age came around. He had a veteran’s hat like mine.
“Welcome home, Brother.” He said.