Almost Home, by Forrest Brandt.

Almost Home

by, Forrest Brandt
© 1996


DEROS: Flight to D.C. - My flight left at 10 a.m. Pacific Standard time. I didn't have much time to kill but I stopped and picked up something to read and then headed to the gate.
      The American Airlines flight, a Boeing 707, was all but empty; a handful of people in first class and maybe two or three of us in coach. We taxied to the end of the runway, taking the route that crossed an overpass to the LA freeway.
      The stew in our section was beautiful, long trim legs, an excellent figure, golden hair in a perfect pageboy cut and a smile that gleamed when she looked your way. I was fascinated and listened to each of her word's about safety exits, seat belts, upright serving trays and oxygen masks that would fall from the ceiling should "our aircraft suddenly loose cabin pressure." Then she disappeared and I returned to my magazine and glancing out the window.
      The big jet made a left turn, stopped long enough to race the engines and began the long roll down the runway. My heart was beating fast. I was saying good-bye to California, the West Coast, and two good friends. I had looked forward to being here and especially to being with them. But in each case the visit was unsettling. I still felt like a stranger even while with good friends and I could not figure out why.
      We lifted off the ground and I watched as the city and freeway shrank from view. We continued to gain altitude and then LA disappeared under a sulfuric cloud of yellow smog. I was now free to think about DC and my next step toward home. These first two stops had opened my eyes as to what to expect the rest of the way home. I was beginning to understand that this was not going to be a ticker tape, Stars and Stripes Forever, give-the-vet-a-hand, experience. That was the kind of welcome I perceived my dad and uncles had received. It was the payoff they deserved for all that they had done. Now I wanted the same treatment.
      Instead I was trying to understand why soldiers, like me, were being harassed by protesters and 16 year old punks in pea-coats and field-jackets and ignored by everyone else. I was thinking of Mary, and sex, and being home, and going back to Ohio State. I was thinking of Willy and Wayne, wondering what they were doing in my absence, wondering who had taken my place on the radio station, thinking about LTC Vitello, hoping that CPT Kelly or LT Johnson would stand up to him and keep him from messing with the troops. It was all bubbling around in my head.
      Suddenly, my reverie was interrupted. "Sir, would you like something to drink." I realized that this was not the first time she had asked me that question. I had been so into my thoughts that I had lost contact with everything around me. Emerging from my cloud, I half expected to find out that the voice belonged to a Lai Khe based Donut Dolly. Instead, I turned and looked into the blue eyes of the stewardess. My God, she was even prettier up close than when I had first noticed her. I continued to look straight into her face, determined to break out of my shell of confusion and morose thoughts and get into a celebratory mood.
      "Any chance you have some champagne?"
      "I'm sure we do. Anything else?"
      "Oh, yes. Can I have some earphones?"
      "They're in the seat pocket, right in front of you sir." Her voice was as soft and pretty as the rest of her. I pulled the earphones out of the pocket and their plastic wrap. I began to channel hop, listening to bits of six or seven different types of music. Another discovery: I could have choices in music, I didn't have to listen to the steady stream of rock 'n roll that poured out of AFVN. It had been 10 long months since I had been able to listen to classical music so I finally selected that channel and heard the opening notes of a familiar Mozart piano concerto.
      The stew was back with a split of champagne and a small lunch of salad and a sandwich. I ate the food quickly and enjoyed the music. She came back to take the tray and to check up on me. "Everything OK?"
      "Yes, just fine, thanks."
      "All right then. Just let me know if you need anything else."
      I ordered and received a second split. With that accomplished she returned to the front of the cabin. I was getting happier with each sip and each musical note. Finally I was going home! Mozart finished and an announcer with a wonderful baritone voice and perfect diction introduced the next selection, New World Symphony by Antoinin Dvorak. I heard the first few notes begin, the sound coming from the flutes that always reminded me of a telegraph signal, dots and dits, carrying news. The swirl of thoughts began to spin in my head again but I listened carefully to the music. It was a piece I had heard so often that I could anticipate each note, each solo. We had not played New World in band but I had heard it over the radio many times, always failing to catch the title or the composer's name. Then I heard it again in music appreciation class during my junior year and rushed out to buy a recording. I had hurried back to the apartment I shared with Dennis Michalski, a fellow Phi Delt, and put it on the stereo. The version I had bought was my standard for measuring the quality of all others; Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Now I settled back and thought, "How perfect. Champagne, great music, money in my pocket, sitting all by myself in this huge flying tunnel, a beautiful young woman fetching me wine ... what better way to go home?"
      A new voice interrupted the music, "Ugh, this is Captain Townsend, we're at 35,000 feet and still climbing. We're going to try and pick up a jet stream that's just above us. That ought to put us into DC about 30 minutes early. If you look out on the left side you can see the North Platte River below. If you look carefully, you can see two thin white lines running parallel together, that's part of the Oregon trail."
      I scanned the ground. It was easy to spot the river, a twisted, glossy black line that cut across the tan and green earth. The trail was harder to spot but eventually I located it. I imagined the thoughts and feelings of the brave people who had used the trail. I assumed that they had missed home just as I missed it, that they must have spent time in lonely isolation wondering about what had brought them to such a spot, why they had made the life decisions that had separated them from all that was familiar, perhaps, like me, they had thought of how wonderful it would be to return to home again. And maybe, in their thinking that thought of return confused them just as it was confusing me.
      I imagined a long wagon train passing below. I knew that some of those who made that trip were buried alongside the trail. Headed to the West, they ended up having bought the farm 1,000 miles and many weeks short of their goal. And then I thought of the guys who had bought the farm in the Michelin or Ho Bo Woods, or Song Be or FSB Julie. I remembered interviewing grunts and listening to them talk about "riding the freedom bird back to The World", "goin' home on the freedom bird." I remembered nights when I had offered up informal prayers that those same guys I had interviewed be spared, that their ride home not be in a steel gray casket resting in the belly of a 707.
      Subtly, the orchestra moved into the largo and the haunting sound of an English horn began the familiar strain, "going home, going home, I am going home ...." I had assumed that Dvorak had borrowed the melody from a Negro spiritual. It would be years before I learned that this was not the case. But then, as now, I heard those words to the music though no one was singing. Before I realized what was happening I let the music and the emotions come together. I remembered the 21 year old college student listening to his new record, thinking of how beautiful and sweet and delicate the melody, sensing the undulating rise and fall of the notes.
      I remembered rainy days at Ft Lewis or Columbus, days when I had indulged myself in melancholy or self pity by playing this music. I listened as the strings repeated the melody and pictured the flat farmlands of my native state, recalled driving by farms on my rare trips to and from college in my Volkswagen bug and feeling the isolation, remembered the same places blanketed in snow, long purple shadows of the bare trees reaching across the white fields, remembered the burnished glow of those same farms in autumn sun light.
      I remembered old loves: Ethel, Diana, Jan, Judy, and now Mary and wished, wished I could somehow express all that I was feeling, tell them how their patience and friendship had brought me to a point where these feelings, and this music, and all my memories of time spent with them, all of it could merge and melt into one experience, wished I could hold their collective hands and thank them for helping me learn how to love.
      I remembered the kids I had grown up with, Ed Rupert, Greg and Gary Etter, Phil Brown and Wally Scheer and Brooks Couser and Kenny Wilson. And I was "going home, going home." Home to the countless games of baseball, football and basketball and riding bikes and playing tag and going to church and growing up together.
      I remembered serious talks, confessions of heart and soul, passionate discussions of what really mattered to us, what we really believed in, with Ed and Herb Walker and Mitch and Amy Kunkler.
      I remembered my dad and trips to Crosley Field and Ohio Stadium and Friday night jaunts to small towns to watch the Fairmont Dragons play football and basketball.
      I remembered the day I found out Bob Fox had to leave for Vietnam .... Ah, yes---Vietnam. And then I thought about Vietnam. I thought of those kids on the flight line at Biên Hòa, wrapped like mummies, drugged out of their minds by pain killers, staring at me in my starched fatigues. Thought of the sounds of jazz followed by the bouncing amputated leg as the medics unloaded the Huey at dust off. Thought of body bags and body counts. Thought about how easily I had succumbed to aiming a rifle and taking a deliberate shot. Thought of the frightening sound of incoming. Thought of my debt to Willy and Wayne for helping me stay sane. Remembered that they were still in Lai Khe, still OCONUS (Outside Continental United States), while I was at 35,000 feet and, "going home ... going home ... I am going home ...."
      I remembered how lucky I was to be, "going home, going home, Lord, I'm going home." I chose to think about it all. My confused mind swirled with the thoughts of everyone and all I cared about. My throat tightened and then burned. My stomach knotted up and then began to tremble. A shiver racked my frame as my hands grew clammy cold and when I could not suppress it any more I felt the fiery tears rush into my eyes and spill down my cheeks. My chest shuttered and a soft sob came to my throat. I let the torrent continue and I could hear the soft plops as tears fell onto the crisp, starched, khaki shirt. I watched, bleary eyed, as they flowed over my silver lieutenant's bar and then dropped onto the green and red of my First Division patch. I tried to gulp in a breath, thinking to stop this silly cry and then discovered I could not and so I relaxed and just let it take hold of me, the sting of salt in my eyes, the taste of salt in my mouth, the warmth of letting go.
      Tears of joy, tears of sorrow, tears of memory, tears that begged to understand why I had been spared and others had not, tears of frustration, of trying to understand all that had happened in the last two years, understand how it fit in with all I had experienced before and would experience in the future.
      Silently, unobtrusively, she responded. I felt her hand run across my shoulders, felt her slip into the seat next to me, her left arm resting around my slumping shoulders, her perfume filling the space. The pretty stew with the perfect golden pageboy and the deep blue eyes grasped my right hand with hers and said in a soft, soft voice, "It's OK Lieutenant. You're almost home."


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