americastories November 18, 2010

Did You Stand For Me?

I was sitting the other day in a crowded airport, waiting for a boarding call on my flight to Arizona. As I sat there , I noticed an old man sitting across from me facing the large picture window that gave passengers a view of the runway. The history of a life of hardship traced the old mans eyes as they stared into the twilight of his years, and as I watched, I saw tears rolling from those ancient steel gray eyes, leaving a trail of sadness that tore at my heart. I got up and walked to him and asked if I could join him. Without even looking up to identify me, he nodded, and I sat down, feeling awkward but intensely drawn to him in compassion for his quiet tears. “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help but notice you sitting here alone. Are you ok?” I asked. There was a deafening silence suddenly between us, for what seemed a long time, and finally he spoke in a voice that was worn and weary with age.”Did you stand when she walked by?” he asked. I was confused by his question, and a bit taken off guard by the tone of his voice that sounded almost accusatory. “I don’t understand sir, , I answered.”Did you stand when she walked by?” he asked again, staring straight into my eyes. “Who?” I asked him. But he turned away from me, staring again at the tarmac just outside our window. I waited for an answer, but there was not going to be any. Our conversation was over it seemed, and I got up to leave, hearing the call to board that by this time, was welcome as an excuse to get out of an awkward situation. I started walking away, but was troubled and torn by his question. I boarded my plane after clearing the gate, found my seat , and settled into it, looking back at the terminal I had just left. He was there as I had left him, sitting alone facing the tarmac. I watched for several minutes, and in that time I noticed a number of people stop to visit with him, presumably to ask if he was ok, and then walk away, some of them shaking there heads, others just gone from view at a brisk pace. And still he sat, fixated on a plane that was resting about 300 yards away, surrounded by military personnel. As I watched, a small procession of 6 men carried a flag draped coffin away from the plane to a waiting hearse, where they stood after the rear door of the black car had been closed and they offer a salute as the car slowly drove away. I looked back toward the window of the terminal, and instantly my tears nearly blinded me when I saw the old man I had been talking to also offering a salute, but from his wheel chair now parked next to the window. Since our craft had used a rolling stair gantry for passenger access, I got up, and made my way to the door of the plane, and got off. I walked deliberately, heading for the terminal, making my way through the crowds to the old man at the window. I walked up beside him, faced the plane as yet another coffin draped with Old Glory was placed in a waiting hearse, and I slowly raised my hand in salute, allowing my hand to drop only when the hearse rolled out of view around a security fence. I turned slowly to the old man who by now was looking solidly into my soul with eyes of countless memories. “I know her name now sir, and I stood when she walked by.” He was visibly moved, and he said to me in quavering voice ,”Thank you sir . . . for what you did. My greatest wish these days is to stand again for her, but I can’t.” I gave my legs in ’43 and my oldest son in ’67 to that Lady, so she could keep walking. It hurts when no one cares that she walks by. I missed my flight that day, but my heart and soul found wings to the heavens on the words of an 90 year old man who dared to share a heart full of memories with me and dared to remind me why Old Glory stills waves as the beacon of Hope in a lost world.

By Robert VanDerslice