Memorial Day 2010

I arrived at the airport early because I was hopping on an international flight, because thunderstorms were already delaying the outbounds to Atlanta, and because nearly nine years ago, a few religious extremists flew airplanes into buildings and blew up the world as my generation knew it. It introduced us to a country where security is valued more than civil liberties, where shoes can carry a deadly weapon, and racism is almost tacitly approved as long as the target comes from a nation that worships Allah.

Memorial Day 2010 was a light one for the airports. The line at the Delta counter consisted of me and a nervous man with olive skin. Mid-20s, Middle Eastern, and in line to get on a plane on Memorial Day, I could understand the kid’s nerves. I wanted to tell him that he should seem less jumpy or he was going to have a hard time at the security line. But I didn’t. I watched him walk away, a dark face in the middle of America’s scared, white travelers.

At the security gate, I moved with precision. In just a few motions, I’d whipped my laptop from its bag, put my liquids and gels into a bowl, and shoved my shoes onto the conveyor belt. The year I was born, people smoked cigarettes on airplanes. Now, I can’t carry more 3.5 ounces of toothpaste in my bag. It’s hard to figure out who to blame, or of it makes more sense to just embrace the small toothpaste tubes and move on.

I went up the escalator and past a newspaper stand where one banner headline read “Afghanistan: America’s longest war.” When I was a kid, we were afraid of the Soviets. I didn’t know anybody who looked like Patrick Swayze, and our school mascot was the Tigers, not the Wolverines. War was a Hollywood concept. Now, as my son tunes into life, America is embroiled in its longest war. It’s a battle most of America barely knows we’re fighting, and a war we entered for such a myriad of reasons that even well-educated people barely understand the meta-reasoning that pushes us to finish what we started there so many years ago.

I arrived to an empty gate. I was way too early. I watched the nervous kid get on a plane after walking by a white guy with a shaved head and desert camouflage fatigues. This new kid was shipping out and stood in the embrace of a girl with a walnut ponytail and tears streaming down her face. I wondered briefly how the girlfriend was allowed past security. Then I decided it didn’t matter. This man was going to fight America’s longest war, and the girl in his arms didn’t believe she would ever see her man again. The soldier wiped at his eyes. He wasn’t sure he was coming back either.

Just then, the ticket agent told me there was one more seat on the plane and if I wanted to get out early, I could. I stepped up and passed the soldier on the way to the gate. I couldn’t hear what his girl was saying, but I felt it anyway. A hour before, I’d kissed my family goodbye and it hurt like hell. I was only leaving for a week. The solider was taking off to fight a war nobody understands and he might never again come back to kiss this woman.

My seat was in the back of the plane, and, remarkably, directly behind the nervous Middle Eastern kid. I tried to step around him. I tried to explain that he would have to sit down before I could pass. He was jumpy, eyes going every which way, clutching tightly whatever he had in his hand. That’s when the thought entered my guilty mind. Ten years ago, it would never have occurred to me to note how nervous this guy was. Worse, if the kid had been a little white boy, I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought. I hated myself for even noticing and mulled the cost of postmodern white guilt.

The pilot, a large white woman, took the mic and led us through what we could expect on the 35-minute flight. I kept my eye on the back of the kid’s head. The pilot said, “Finally, on this Memorial Day, I’d like to take a moment to thank the service members we have on board.”

There were two of them dressed almost exactly alike, one of them the tearful soldier I’d seen at the gate. Slowly, applause rose up from the other 90 people on the plane. It got louder, then louder, then loud enough for me to think about what it means to live in America today. It means that the veterans we honor on Memorial Day are not our grandfathers or their fathers. They are our brothers, sons, and boyfriends. They are the people we send off on Memorial Day to fight in America’s longest war. They are the people we bring home in government-issued coffins.

I hope my sons never have to understand what it meant to live on September 10, 2001 and what it’s been like to live ever since. I hope their understanding of the past nine years is akin to my distant idea of Vietnam. I hope they never have to look at a person on a plane and feel guilty about what comes into their head. I hope they can achieve and fully embrace what my wife and I teach: people are people, no matter what they look like, no matter what they worship, no matter where they live.

Moreover, I hope my kids understand that Memorial Day is not an excuse to have a BBQ. It’s a chance to realize that the cost of war is tears at an airport gate when you hug someone you love, and maybe more tears 12 months later when you hug an American flag-draped casket. I hope they understand that the men and women in fatigues don’t start the wars. They do all they can to end them, and we should thank them for that as often as we can.

Now I sit in the Atlanta airport’s E concourse. It’s the international wing and what the airport calls its “window to the world.” Ten feet away from me sits a man in his late 20s. He’s eating a salad, at the end of a hard-bound book, and on his way somewhere far away.

He’s wearing camouflage, which is ironic, because he is the only thing I can see right now.