Friday, February 04, 2005

My first published work

This is a commentary I wrote and had published (Really!) in the Prescott, Arizona Daily Courier on September 10th, 2004. American Heritage magazine is interested in publishing it also.

Thomas Wolfenden
Special to the Courier

My work as a contractor for the railroad takes me all over the country, mostly to the Southeastern States. So I’ve spent untold hours in airport terminals just looking at the faces. There are so many untold stories in the faraway look of the traveler. A son going to see his ailing mother in Toledo. A honeymooning couple on the way to Jamaica, A church group on there way to a revival in Montgomery. But this passed Friday afternoon I had the pleasure (or displeasure depending on your point of view) of having a six-hour layover in Atlanta, Georgia that I’ll soon not forget. I spent the better part of the afternoon and evening in terminal "D" waiting for my weather-delayed flight home to Phoenix in "Sojourner’s Cafe" having a few adult beverages and satisfying my nicotine addiction. It was there I noticed a lot of young men and women in uniform. More than usual, really.
I struck me right away of what railway stations all over the country must have looked like during my father’s time in WWII. I closed my eyes for a second and was transported back to 1943. I could just see the throngs of uniformed soldiers at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station waiting on the Broadway Limited. Or at New York City’s Pennsylvania Station waiting on the Empire Builder to take them from their homes in the city, their farms, coal mining towns to a very far away place. I could almost hear the sounds of Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. I could almost smell the coal smoke and steam from the locomotives. A time when trains still had names and personalities. The lounge was over half-filled with desert camouflaged young people waiting for there flights like me also. As an Army veteran, I started to see the unit patches first before I saw the faces. I saw a huge mix of shoulder patches I recognized some I didn’t. 25th Infantry Division, 1st Infantry Division, 3rd Infantry Division, 1st Armored Division, 7th Cavalry Division, 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions with some reserve and quite a few National Guard and Reserve units thrown in for good measure.
I began looking at the faces. God, they were so young. Was I that young when I was in the Army? I looked deeper covertly over my drink into the eyes of some of the soldiers. I felt like a voyeur. Just under the swaggering and bravado, I saw the trepidation and the uncertainty of their situation, but I also saw determination. I had been there before and I could identify. A hostess who sounded disturbingly like Natasha Fatale from the Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoon then sat three soldiers at my table as the establishment was quite crowded and the three very inebriated paint salesmen from Detroit I was sitting with had just left to make there flight to Minneapolis. They and I Said Hello and they introduced themselves to me then and told me where they were from. Meguel was a Spl.4 from Luzon, Philippines, Josh, a Cpl., was from Seattle, Washington. They were both in the 25th Infantry Division and Janet was a PFC from North Carolina and in the 3rd Infantry Division. We made small talk for a while, weather, sports, NASCAR, the Olympics, what my job was like with the railroad, things like that. The adult beverages were flowing quite freely at that point and I could tell that they were shedding their nervousness and they felt more at ease with talking to me. I had told them I was a Vet, so they I guess they felt some kinship with me.
I really hadn’t intended to get our conversation turned to where they were going. I wanted maybe help them forget about where they were headed for a little while. I knew where they were headed. I didn’t want to bring it up but Josh brought it up first. All were heading for Iraq. I bought another round as I came to the conclusion that their money wasn’t any good at Sojourner’s. For Meguel & Janet this was there second time in "The Sandbox". It was Josh’s first tour. We talked about life in the Army now and how it was in my day a million years ago in 1983, What the difference in "C" Rations compared to the MRE’s, what there future plans are. I really liked them. Not a one was over twenty-two years old, although I suspect two of them weren’t of legal drinking age as they had a guilty look on their face when they accepted the six-dollar beers I bought. It didn’t matter to me. If they can go over to the Middle East and get shot at and maybe killed, they deserve a beer or three. I had my hand in my pocket fingering my 1/75th Inf. "Challenge Coin" but I didn’t dare take it out. That was a long time ago and this is their time.
It made me feel old. It also brought out a flood of emotions that I didn’t think I was capable of anymore. I wanted to shield and protect them. They’re kids! They can’t go there! But again I thought; I was there age and in uniform and this is our future sitting right there at this table with me. And we’re in a war weather we Americans like to think about it or not. A very real war. A war for our very survival and all three didn’t have a doubt in there minds why and where they were going. No doubts at all. Just ironclad, steely resolve. It must have been the same resolve the men in Washington’s first Continental Army at Valley Forge. Andrew Jackson’s men at the Battle of New Orleans. Jim Bowie & Sam Houston at the Alamo. The Brothers fighting Brothers in Blue and Grey at Antitam and Gettysburg. The RoughRiders at San Juan Hill, The Doughboys in Belleu Wood. My Father at Omaha Beach and Uncle on Iwo Jima, The "Frozen Chosen" at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea, My Cousin at Khe Sahn. Myself at Port Salinas airport on Grenada. Did I actually have that mettle when I was there age? I’d like to think I had it at the time, but looking at these fine young soldiers I wasn’t so sure about my own past anymore. Nothing I had done in the past mattered. All of a sudden I was proud. So damn proud.
I started to tear up and they asked me what was wrong. "Nothing" I said and laughed as I palmed a napkin to daub my eyes as I shook all their hands as they left. I wished them Godspeed as I watched them walk away. I’ll probably never see those three young soldiers again. I really had to wipe my eyes as I watched them disappear into the thong in terminal "D". I pray they come home again to have a good life as I’ve had. To be able to grow old and have a family some day. God knows they’ve earned it, in spades.
No matter what your political leanings are, stop and think about Meguel, Josh and Janet. They’re out there fighting for US. All of us. No thinking about it at all. Just doing what needs to be done so we can go to out 9 to 5 jobs, sit fat, dumb and happy watching our so-called reality TV, and worrying about our "carb" intake, just being self-centered and thinking only of ourselves. How many of you would trade places with them right now? I know myself I’d give anything to be right beside them today, living in the same miserable conditions, eating the same crappy food, fighting for a cause that’s forgotten on most people, not knowing when they’ll see there loved ones again. I hope and pray they’re safe tonight while I’m safe and snug in my nice warm bed in my nice safe home.
Tonight, say a prayer for our men & women in uniform. They’re out there doing a job none of us would want to do thousands of miles from home and loved ones. They do it gladly. For US, unselfishly. Next time you see someone in uniform, thank him or her. It’s not their fault there’s a war on. They didn’t start it, but God knows they’ll finish it from the fortitude I saw in those young eyes Friday. Hank Williams Jr. sung it, and I saw it Friday... America WILL Survive!

Copyright 2005 Thomas J Wolfenden


Dr. Munas said...



Liked your article. I've seen the same thing in and out of St. Louis airport. I'm older than you (58), and I'm saddened by this futile war.


Ranger Tom said...

I'm glad you liked my posr Dr. Munas, but I think you missed my point.

Lora said...

I got your point, Tom. I get those same overwhelming feelings when I see soldiers in uniform, watch news stories of troops being deployed to or coming home from overseas. I get it when I see my father in his dress blues doing the roll call on Memorial Day at the cemetery. When I see the color guard at the head of a parade and the truck full of old vets sitting quietly looking at the crowd lining the street. Probably never more so than the first time I saw my own son in his BDU's waiting for me in the Armory parking lot.

Ranger Tom said...

Thanks Lora... I think my father felt the same thing too when he saw me the first time in BDU's...