Four fathers

It’s a two-hour flight from Atlanta to Springfield, Missouri, one that leaves un-argued that Atlanta is a Cher-Madonna-Bono-city, while Springfield requires a state designation to determine whether it is Brad Pitt or a Brad Willis (and, further, ignores the fact that both Brads actually come from that little burg). No matter, as it’s a sealed humanity tube at 25,000 feet and four fathers are trapped in a ten square-foot space with nowhere to go until wheels down in the Queen City.

One turns to another. The younger one, the man with questions in his eyes, is wearing a St. John’s ball cap. He’s removed his iPod earbuds that hung from a young 40-something face. He’s looking at a man who has gone mostly bald, but has well-groomed white hair in a halo around his tanned head. The young one is in IT, a father, a husband, originally from Chicago, earnest, seeking. The older one is a religious leader. He’s wearing a thick cable-knit cream sweater. He’s lived in South America on missions–really–from God. The young one is uncomfortable, like a man trying to decide whether to ask a doctor he met on the train to check out a rash that’s been giving him trouble. Finally, he asks permission. “Can I ask you a question of faith?” he asks the old man.

It’s impossible to hear over the plane’s jet engines, but it’s clear the old man has offered his ear. The seeker tells the man of God that he has a son–a college freshman–a boy who was educated in a Catholic high school but has since gone on to a secular university. The plane noise drowns out what’s said next, but the man in the St. John’s cap finally gets around to the point. His son is lost. “He doesn’t believe in anything.” The man in 2C looks like he might cry. There is a nod from the tanned head in 2B. He speaks below the engines’ sound for a bit, asks a couple of questions, and nods again when 2C says, “I asked him to read the Bible, and told him it has a different meaning for everybody.” More nodding from 2B, and then three lines scrawled in black on a piece of scratch paper. The younger father looks touched. He shakes the old man’s hand–father to father.

In 4B sits Michael. He’s in desert camouflage and on a 15-day leave from Iraq. Part of a four-man recon team, he’s in month-four of a year-long tour. He’s going back to Mountain Grove, Missouri to meet his daughter for the first time. He produces a wrinkled picture as proof. It’s in a hand that’s too steady to be anything but true–frighteningly true. Michael is hidden behind dark wrap-arounds that cover eyes that no one–least of all him–wants to see. He watches the parents in front of him struggle with their toddler. He leans up, rips a velcro patch from his uniform, and hands it to the 19-month-old child squirming in his daddy’s arms.

“Something to play with,” Michael says. The patch designates something that has to do with guns, and a smart person could figure out what it means, but there is a moment of cognitive dissonance as eyes watch milk-white, unscarred hands finger the badge of a trained killer. Michael whispers he’s seen kids not too much older walking around with hand grenades. There is no reason not to believe him, no reason not to want to cry.

The other child peers up from his seat, so Michael puts his hand to his own arm and rips the word “RECON” off. It is an upper-rocker-shaped velcro patch he hands to the young boy. “You can keep that.” The young boy thanks Michael and asks a question. “You’re going to have to speak up,” Michael says. “I’ve been blown up three times.”

In a matter of minutes, and it’s impossible to say how, Michael adopts the two boys. He gives them toys. When one of the kids gets bored, Michael produces a pen and manilla folder so the toddler can draw. When the older boy’s movie runs out, Michael pulls out an iPod and fills in the black time with another video. This man who has not yet laid eyes on his daughter is taking care of two sons.

It’s Christmastime. The fathers travel on the same bird, but it’s impossible to say if they’re flying into the same sun. Though they could reach out and touch fingertips, the disconnect between them is so pronounced that the fathers might as well be on different airlines. The man in 2B nears death, but smiles, alive, warm, suntanned in the light of true belief. In 2C sits a father in crisis, afflicted with a son who does not believe as his father believes. In 4B is a man who has learned to spy, to sit all night in the desert, to kill if he has to, to get blown up, but hasn’t yet learned to be a father. Yet he plays the role as if he were the old man in 2B. Michael comes from a place where there is no God, but he puts out his hand to make children smile. Whether there is actually a God seems of less importance than how the whole of man can be seen in Michael’s half-smile.

It is all too much for the father in 3C, a man who knows his sons, does not worry about their faith, and doesn’t have to hold others up when they collapse in spiritual crisis. He sits and wonders if he could somehow grab the religious leader and the man from St. John’s and make them hold Michael, because if there is anybody on the godforsaken plane who needs holding, it’s the man who just wants to go home.

And no. That’s not right, because as Michael says, “I’ve been away from home so long now, I don’t know what home is.”

And so it’s impossible to say how these fathers will hold their kids this night. Will they say prayers with their children, for their children, or for things to simply finally seem clear? The father in 3C doesn’t know what to say.

So, as the plane clears, I wait at the end of the jetway for Michael to walk off. I grab his hand–father to father–and say all I know:

“Michael, thank you. Thank you for being kind to my family. Get home safe.”