Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day

I was given the opportunity to visit Arlington National Cemetery last summer on my own (meaning no kids to “enhance” the experience).  I was looking forward to finding the resting place of my grandfather’s brother, Peter, who served in the Second World War in the Pacific.  He was part of the invasion forces Saipan (specifically Guam) and the occupation forces in Okinawa.  It took quite a while after his death for the government approved his request to be laid at Arlington, and the internment took place very quickly thereafter, so I was unable to attend the memorial service there.  So I was looking forward to finding his marker and paying my respects.

I found what I thought was his location in the cemetery from the welcome center.  But I was woefully wrong.  I ended up walking in circles and as it turned out, was nowhere near his location.  But had I not been so lost, there would be no story…

I had decided to go back to the welcome center to see if I could get some help locating Pete.  It had been a beautiful day in Virginia, but it seemed that some rain storms may threaten my walk.  I had been walking for hours and was worried I may have missed my chance of finding Pete on this day.  But on my way back, I encountered an older gentleman sitting on the edge of his car’s seat with the door open.  It looked as if he may have needed some assistance, and he waived at me as if to confirm my suspicion.  As I approached nearer, I noticed he had flowers in his right hand and a cane in the left.  As I walked up next to him, he asked me if I could help him get to his wife’s grave.  Even in my haste, I wouldn’t refuse a request like that.

It turns out his wife’s grave was only a few yards from the road, maybe 15 yards.  I held his arm steady as he bent over to place fresh flowers at her headstone.  I noticed her name, and “wife of” Major General John W. “Jack” Huston, ASAF.   I asked, quite dimly as I look back on it, if that was him.  Of course it was him.  Well, when I helped him return to his car, we started talking.  I told him of my intended quest that day and he told me a little about how he came each week to place flowers at his wife’s grave. 

He asked what I did for a living. As it happened that I was working for another retired USAF Major General, as she was the director of the retirement community for which I was currently doing an addition – Falcon’s Landing - the Air Force Retired Officers Community just outside of Washington, D.C.  He knew all about the community.  I told him I was from Lancaster and went to Penn State and it turned out he was from Pittsburgh originally.  He mentioned that he was on an advisory group for an architectural project, I believe alongside of Lady Bird Johnson (whom he said was “just a lovely woman”).   

He offered me a ride back to the welcome center in his car.  As I accepted, it dawned on me that I just effectively hitch hiked with a guy that couldn’t walk 15 yards.  I hoped the speed limit on the cemetery grounds would prevent a high speed crash.  I sat in the back seat because the front passenger seat was filled with stuff, including magazines, books and, poignantly, many empty gravesite flower stands.  But as it turns out, he dropped me off at the welcome center without incident, we exchanged some warm fair wells, and he drove off and I returned to the welcome center and received the correct directions to my Uncle Pete’s mausoleum building (not grave, he was cremated, which I didn’t know).  After I found Pete’s marker, I looked up Jack Huston on my smart phone out of curiosity.  I discovered he had a professional biography on the USAF’s official website, as most General Officers have.

I found the older gentleman I helped was a WW II veteran.  He was the navigator for a B-17 crew and flew 30 combat missions.  Regarding the 30 missions, it was customary to only to fly 25 missions before being rotated home, but Jack flew five more.  It was nearly statistically impossible for crews to survive 25 consecutive sorties based on the massive losses in the European theater.  Through the rest of the war, he instructed navigation to airmen back in Kansas.  Subsequent to his service during wartime, Jack continued to train troops, worked in intelligence operations, served in various policy positions and finally as the Chief Historian of the Air Force.  A web search will reveal numerous books that he wrote or edited about Air Force history.

I consider myself to be lucky that I got myself lost and was able to provide a very small favor to such an admirable man who served our country.  It just goes to show that doing a service to a stranger can end up paying in ways that aren’t imaginable at the time.  I was looking to pay my respects to one hero, and ended up finding two.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Fly the Friendly Skys

How easily we can be reduced to a very basic and primal state.  I had the pleasure of an overnight layover in the Chicago-O’Hare airport a few years ago; unplanned, of course.  Summer thunderstorms delayed my outgoing flight from Denver to Chicago so late, that there were no more planes running that evening –  or morning, rather, because I didn’t land until after midnight.  This was my first experience being stranded.  I was just so thankful that I was traveling alone, or at least not with any children.  Here are some survival tips in case it happens to you.

1.         Find a line and stand in it.  You need to get a new ticket.  Chances are you will be told to move to another line, then another.  Just find the main service desk and stand in that line first.  The “temporary” lines the airline staff set up are just that – temporary.  The main line will be longer at first likely, but it won’t evaporate.
2.         Find the free sodas, blankets and pillows.  You won’t really sleep, so get all the caffeine and sugar you can.  The blankets and pillows provide some buffer between your behind and the floor.  Hopefully they won’t smell like ham.
3.         Find a set of chairs that does not have air rests between each seat.  Some people are actually skinny enough to squeeze their bodies UNDER the armrests to lie down on the chairs.  Let’s just say I sat up all night.  I saw cots, but I don’t know where on Earth they came from.
4.         Don’t bother setting an alarm for your 6 AM flight.  The cleaning crew will make sure you are awake at 4:30.
5.         If flights were messed up all night, they are going to be messed up for some time the next day.  Pilots need a minimum time on the ground before they are allowed to fly again.  I was flying standby on a flight for 6 AM and miraculously got a boarding pass.  Literally five minutes later they cancelled the flight.  No pilot.
6.         Listen to the other stranded passengers.  Chances are you have it way better than some of them.  One guy was on his way to get an operation.  One family of five (with young children) was to spend 4 nights vacation in London and was looking at losing two of them.  A few adults were chaperoning twenty-some teen aged girls and were trying to get home from three weeks in Europe.
7.         Don’t listen to anything the service desk staff says.  I called our travel agent to see if they could get me on the next flight.  I was informed they got me the last seat on the 11 AM flight.  When I went to get my boarding pass the customer representative told me I was just given an overbooked seat.  It apparently didn’t do me any more good than flying standby.  Literally five minutes later I had a boarding pass and seat assignment in hand.
8.         Look for celebrities.  They get stuck too.  I saw Dustin “Screech” Diamond from Saved by the Bell.

On my several mile walk from Terminal B to Terminal E, I witnessed what can only be described as a refugee camp.  Every horizontal surface was strewn with bodies wrapped in blankets.  Mothers with small children camped on the floors.  Bodies huddled around electrical outlets as if to gain warmth from them.  People who seem rational and mild-mannered while in line were stoked to a rage when they heard when the next open seat was.

All I can really say is “chin up” and try to work on your return from all angles.  As one of our partners put it, via email after I told him I wasn’t going to make it back, “Welcome to a national practice!”