by Tammy Tillotson
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Psalm 23:5
December 28, 2001 was an important occasion. It was my twenty-third birthday and also the first time I flew in an airplane since the terrorist tragedies.
The Shadows of Death
I hesitantly planned this trip in November and, as the official take-off date crept closer, I nearly decided to cancel the flight and catch a Greyhound. In the end, a bus would have been cheaper, yet it would have taken two days longer to arrive at my destination. Living on a bus for half of my already short vacation was not my idea of feeling comfortable. I was going to fly. Yet, an internal debate and discussion raged between my logical and irrational fears and emotions.
This hesitancy over air travel was entirely out of character for me. I considered myself to be a somewhat seasoned and unique traveler, as I had flown at least a few dozen times. My last several flights had even been international ones. After much contemplation, I did not change my travel plans. As long as I felt afraid of flying, I recognized that the terrorists had successfully taken away part of my freedom. I wanted to regain that freedom.
Despite the still recent shadows of death, I was determined not to be fearful. I decided that the goal of my entire trip would be to find examples of everyday heroes, who despite their doubts, were still endeavoring to light the way as shining examples of people who were truly proud to be Americans.
Dawn’s Early Light
At the curbside check-in, I immediately noticed additional security stops even before dawn. Observing the steady flow of warm bodies and rosy cheeks, I realized I had been expecting more holiday travelers since it was only three days after Christmas.
Despite the chill in the air and the dreary rain, I was thankful it wasn’t snowing. Inclement weather habitually increased waiting, and the line was already longer than usual. I thought to myself that perhaps a few less holiday travelers were not really such a bad thing.
I glanced at the individuals in line behind me, and I suddenly had an incredibly odd feeling that made me uneasy. A calm permeated throughout the line, and people were unusually quiet, kind, and considerate of one another. I realized then why I felt uneasy. The light chitter-chatter, banter, and senseless conversation of annoyed travelers crowded together, was quite nearly diminished. The chill from the rain could not compare to the increasing chill I felt the longer I continued to wait patiently in this line that was barely inching along.
I was imagining being inside the terminal where it would be warmer, when a sudden thud and bump in front of me interrupted my daydream. Two elderly ladies had momentarily lost control of a luggage cart, which sent all half dozen of their assorted suitcases askew, directly into my suitcase and me.
A college student, who had seen the commotion, abandoned his place at the front of the line and came to help. He straightened my suitcase before I even realized what had happened, and then just as quickly, he assisted the ladies recover and rearrange their luggage. Since all of us had nearly arrived at the front of the line, he waited alongside the two ladies, pushing the cumbersome luggage cart for them. I watched as he lifted all of their oversized bags onto the conveyor belt.
In parting, both ladies shook his hand, thanked him for being such a nice young man, and offered to compensate him for his trouble. The young man smiled and replied, “You ladies all have a safe flight and a wonderful day…that’s payment enough.” The ladies wished him well in return and, we all quickly waved good-by.
I completely forgot about feeling cold.
Bursting In Air
A well-dressed businessman in front of me was having a heated discussion with a harried security officer. The businessman was obviously in a rush, and he certainly was not pleased with the information the security officer was calmly trying to explain to him. The businessman argued that he was indeed an American citizen, and he encouraged the security officer to examine any one of the three forms of picture identification that he had available in his out-stretched hand. The businessman explained there was an important meeting, and he had to catch a flight in less than a half hour. His company had purchased an electronic ticket for the flight, and for this reason, he did not have an actual ticket, a receipt for a purchased ticket, or a print out of the flight itinerary. The businessman was convinced that he could straighten out this ridiculous misunderstanding, if only the security guard would allow him to pass. The security officer adamantly refused, citing the businessman lacked mandatory documentations and until he possessed such, he would not enter.
It was difficult not to overhear this rather loud public conversation. I was reminded of playing Monopoly – “Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200.” The businessman was stuck precariously by chance. The community chest of passengers, patiently waiting in line, were all attentively straining to see if this confrontation was resolvable. I was anticipating hearing “Go Directly to Jail” announced over the intercom within the next few seconds.
Despite the angry and frustrated tone of voice that the businessman upheld throughout the conversation, the security officer remained calm. The officer explained that he would do whatever was necessary to ensure this traveler did not miss that important business meeting. A quick call by radio provided an airline assistant who would help this businessman remedy the situation and get where he needed to be on time.
The impatient businessman was instructed to follow the airline assistant, and as he began to do so, he stopped and put down his suitcase. He turned around and shook the security officer’s hand, as he said, “I’m sorry for giving you such a hard time. Forgive me for forgetting myself. Thank-you for all your help, and thank-you especially for doing your job.”
As the security officer smiled, greeted passengers, and allowed them to pass by, few noticed that he had needed a few moments to first collect himself.
Two handicapped passengers riding in wheelchairs were not excluded from security checkpoints. Additional time and security measures were necessary to maneuver the clumsy mechanical apparatuses, as no one seemed to know what exactly to do with these carriers.
Both frail and elderly passengers were asked to walk through the metal detector without the aide of the wheelchairs. One of the passengers was no less than ninety and had to be carried over the threshold because she was unable to walk on her own. She was utterly delighted with the hefty security guard that hoisted her up as if she were weightless. She laughed softly about never having had so much fun being up in the air – and she hadn’t even gotten on the plane yet.
A small child behind me tugged at his mom’s skirt and asked if the big man would carry him through the machine like that too. The mother pushed her suitcases forward and hushed the curious child without answering his concern.
The second elderly passenger insisted that she could walk on her own, and she was determined she would proudly accomplish this task by herself. All the previous times she had flown, she had not been asked to get out of her wheelchair. She announced loudly that she finally had something to do that was worth standing up for in an airport terminal. For her sake, I silently hoped that she wasn’t wearing anything that would make the detector beep. Thankfully, it didn’t. The effort exhausted her, but she completed the task alone. To her, a few insignificant small steps had been a triumphant personal leap.
I doubted she would be able to accomplish that feat again in her travels without graciously admitting she really needed assistance.
I overheard the small child talking to his mother again. “Are the special people in the metal chairs going to be on the same plane as us?” His mother replied, “I’m not sure, but those special people have special places and other special people to visit just like everyone else here.”
We Love to Fly…and It Still Shows
At Gate A17 a television was on, but few people were watching the news broadcast. The CNN live coverage showed President Bush making an address to the nation about “America’s New War,” however a busy three-year-old captivated a much larger audience in the busy terminal.
The child wore a U.S. flag knapsack that was strapped haphazardly across his small shoulders. A stuffed bear in a matching flag sweatshirt peeped its head out of an opening in the sack, which had failed to be securely zippered up. He excitedly rushed over to a large bay window and yelled, “Mommy! Daddy! Mommy! Daddy! See the big plane? We’re going! We’re going! Up! Up!”
The child’s daddy walked over and swooped his anxious little travel buddy into his arms. The child yelled again, “See the big plane? We go up, right?”
His daddy kissed the boy’s cheek, then kissed the boy’s mommy on the cheek, and said to both of them, “Yes, we sure are. All of us.”
The speech on television drifted into distant words with distant meanings within a contradiction of distant contexts. The distant was temporarily replaced by something more important, as most eyes were watching the present tense nearness of reality that was unfolding directly before them.
The flight attendant brushed away tears as the pilot quickly took her hand in his and mouthed the words “I love you.” Their moment of intimate reassurance was only interrupted by their squirming 3-year-old, stating quite matter of factly, “We go up, right?”
The pilot repeated, “We go up.” The flight attendant replied, “Right.”
The family walked hand-in-hand to the plane. The child happily waved good-by to a roomful of onlookers, and his cheerful voice was heard echoing the entire length of the corridor as he repeated, “We go up! We go up! We go up!”
These anonymous people are all fellow Americans, and they are only a handful of the dozens of individuals that impressed me throughout my journey. I will probably never know their names, their families, or any other personal facts about them. I observed their actions without them ever being aware of me, and I feel love for every single one of them.
Each was effected by the events of September 11th in their own way, yet each also exhibited a different view as to how a single person can play a role, no matter how seemingly small or insignificant, in truly creating courage and hope through setting an example.
Each of us has the chance to be an American hero, because that gift comes from within. When everything falls down around us, we go up, and we uplift one another in doing so.