In this excerpt from Blessed, author Ellen Michaud recounts a memorable—and inspirational—airplane ride.
In an instant the Airbus 321 became deathly quiet.
Gently gliding over the desert as we descended from 35,000 feet toward the coastal lights of Los Angeles International Airport, the passengers around me on U.S. Airways Flight 893 from Philadelphia began to collect the water bottles, shoes, books, and headsets that had been stashed around the Airbus 321 during our five-hour flight.
Pulling up plastic window shades to peer out past our own shadowed reflections, we could see that except for an abstract splash of stars above and a grid of streetlights below, the night was pitch-black. Ahead was the darkness of the Pacific, behind the darkness of the desert. Only here, as we slid seamlessly out of the blackness toward the explosion of runway lights ahead, could we see the earth with any clarity.
Awkwardly, the captain’s voice broke our silence. “We have a situation here, folks,” he began.
In an instant the Airbus became deathly quiet.
“We’ll be landing in a few moments, and I’m just going to ask you to keep your seats when I open the door. I…”
“You may have noticed three young men riding with us today, two of whom are in uniform. They’re escorting three soldiers who are riding with us downstairs. So I’d just like you to remain seated and let these guys get off the plane first to accord them some privacy. I’m an ex-military pilot myself, and—it doesn’t matter what your politics are—I know you’ll respect what they have to do.”
Downstairs? I looked around in confusion.
Across the aisle, an older woman who had been reading the latest Tom Clancy thriller closed her eyes and let the book fall to her lap.
Next to her, a businesswoman who had been running charts and graphs on her laptop during the entire flight gently closed her screen, folded her hands on top of the quiet computer, and bowed her head.
My seatmate, a young systems engineer from Erie on his way to Disneyland, reached out a hand to his young wife and gently squeezed her fingers.
Suddenly, I realized what the pilot had meant.
Gradually, the small sounds of sorting, stuffing, and repacking returned to the cabin, but quietly, softly, without the anticipation or urgency they’d had. We were all thinking of the three young men riding silently beneath our feet.
My seatmate turned and looked down at me searchingly. Just minutes before, we had been discussing the war in the Middle East and questioning why we were there.
It was an uncomfortable question for someone like me who had grown up an army brat—one of those strong, friendly, competent and competitive kids who had been able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. I knew all about protocols, perks, and pecking orders. I knew how to strip down a rifle, climb a cargo net, organize a base rummage sale, sneak off post past the MPs, not read “TOP SECRET” documents on my dad’s desk, and dodge under helicopter rotors when Santa landed every Christmas.
The daughter of two U.S. Army captains, I also knew men and women who had pulled us through World War II, flown missions over Korea and then into Laos, and, finally, the men who had slid into the jungles of Vietnam and home to 30-some years of nightmares and a battle with the bottle.
Patriotism was a given, service a life’s work, sacrifice a matter of course.
But tonight, on the quiet inbound flight to LA, the sacrifices made by the young men below had turned the 185 of us on board into pallbearers. I was overwhelmed with grief.
The Airbus slowly slipped to the ground and, with the pilot’s tender care for his quiet cargo, gently touched the runway. The aircraft remained deathly quiet as it taxied to the gate. Then, as the three young soldiers sitting in the midst of us unbuckled their seatbelts and stood to retrieve their bags from the overhead storage compartment, the sound of one person clapping broke the silence. Another joined in, then another, and another, until, as the young men walked up the aisle, the entire aircraft resounded with the intensity and passion of 185 Americans who held their soldiers in love and respect.
The tears slid down my face. Some of us on board supported the war; others strenuously opposed it. But in the final analysis, every single person on that plane was an American, who held the men walking up that aisle in their hearts, and in their prayers.
“Welcome home,” I said silently to the soldiers downstairs. “Welcome home.”
Copyright © 2011 by G. Ellen Michaud, Best You™ Books Reader’s Digest. Used by permission.