The homecoming letter directed the families to be on base, in Hangar 12-A’s waiting area by 11:00 AM. It explained that the plane would disembark the returning troops at 11:15, and that the homecoming ceremony would be completed and the soldiers would be released to the families by 11:25.
All the precise military planning in the world however, did not help Clyde sleep the night before. Nor could it keep him from arriving at the base nearly three hours early. The anticipation of seeing his son for the first time in thirteen months was just too much for Clyde to be constrained by procedure and protocol. Mom decided she could not handle it at all, and stayed away to prepare a special homecoming meal that would fill the house with all those smells she knew her boy so enjoyed.
The guard at the gate was reluctant to let Clyde enter the grounds so early, despite the circumstances. Even as Clyde tried to explain to the guard that someone had to be the first to arrive, the guard held firm to his orders to not allow families to enter prior to 10:00 AM. Thankfully, after two calls to the family liaison specialist, the deadlock was broken and Clyde was permitted to enter the huge, mostly empty hangar that would soon be the sight of such great joy to fifty families.
Every inch of this now rarely used hangar brought back a flood of memories from Clyde’s own days when he proudly wore the fatigues. The sounds of the planes taxing by, the smell of the machine oil that seemed to come from every direction, and even the cadence of the soldiers’ boots on the ground as they walked by returned Clyde to the days when he was young, tough, and proud. But now, as he studied the back of his withered hands and felt the side of his left knee that never did heal quite right, he realized all of the strength and confidence he once had, was transferred to his son. A son whose plane was now only 78 miles down range.
As the families began to fill the hanger, and the workers completed the final touches, Clyde noticed a trend of those gathered inside. As expected, the awaiting wives and children packed in as close to the receiving platform as possible, but all the fathers seemed to have been pulled by some unseen force to the far corners of the room. While the children wiggled and squealed and the mothers struggled to contain themselves, the fathers would only occasionally glance at each other and nod. Despite every father’s heart beating out of the chests in anticipation, there seemed to be some unspoken manly understanding that required from them a stoic stance. Tears, certainly would be held in check. When one waiting grandfather did let loose the waterworks, all of the other fathers quickly turned away. Clyde distracted himself by studying the not so interesting iron lattice work on the hangar’s massive doors.
Sure enough, the plane was spot on time, the home-coming ceremony was mercifully brief, and the joyous reunions were chock-full of emotion. Clyde held his position at the rear of the room so the spouses and kids could get in the first hugs. His son seamed to anticipate the situation and his eyes slowly canvased the corners of the room where he finally found Clyde standing on a bench waving. Manhood be damned, as Clyde’s arms finally wrapped firmly around his son’s chest, the crocodile tears of relief were let loose. His son took the young buck military approach and just patted the old man on the back appreciatively.
The reunion act was replayed at home with mom, but this time with no witnesses to the event, and this being mom after all, even Clyde’s son dared shed a tear or two.
After mom’s sumptuous feast was consumed, Clyde and his son wandered out to the back porch where many a year had been spent watching the dogs play in the leaves and where most of their father-son talks had taken place. Clyde tried to retell some of the stories of those days, but it was clear his son was not nostalgic tonight. Clyde then tried to inquire about what had transpired over those last thirteen months. The Skype and emails between them never did say much. But his son intimated that only his “buddies” could really understand those months away. He claimed no offense, but since they had lived through it with him, and because the old man’s military days were just too different than his, he simply could not understand.
On one of the best nights of Clyde’s life, the safe return of his only son, the chill in the air was no longer contained to only the autumn evening’s breeze.
All too soon, one of his son’s new buddies arrived at the house to whisk him away for a celebratory night out. After a wave from the driveway as they pulled away, Clyde grabbed a jacket and returned to the back porch and stared out into the distance. Tears started flowing fast and furious. Half of Clyde’s tears were from the relief that his boy was home safe. The other half were flowing because he knew his boy had been forever lost, and thirteen months later he had been replaced by a new man.