Thursday, March 13, 2008

This Arlington Morning - Part 1

(Today, the subject of UFOs takes a rest while I share something of a personal nature with my readers -- Robert)

Eight years have rushed by since my initial visit to Arlington National Cemetery, about a year before the 9/11 chaos transformed every airport customer into a person of interest, everything in one's luggage into an object of government scrutiny, and every airline flight into a temporary holding cell where the inmates dare not say or do anything to arouse suspicion amongst the smiling flight crew, who lie in wait for the slightest infraction. I understand the reasons quite sufficiently, but it just angers me that the terrorists won a substantial round and absconded with a huge chunk of freedom not likely to return any time soon. Good grief, how I long for the fifties, an era when my World War II veteran father flew often as a passenger, and wasn't averse to taking advantage of weather turbulence to shout into the aisle, "Hey stewardess, tell me again, when did the pilot say this plane was going to crash?!" Savvy passengers recognized the humor, but the newbies would recoil in terror. Try that one today and I can't imagine how many pairs of handcuffs and other restraints the crew would slap on you after fellow passengers stopped beating you to a pulp. And no miniature bag of peanuts for you, either, just the knowledge that humorless government folks would be hauling your butt off the plane at the next stop.

So I flew into Dulles Airport Saturday afternoon (flights to the far more convenient Reagan National Airport are noticeably scarce now), after encountering some very unsettled and jarring weather all the way from JFK in New York. Hey stewardess, when did. . .the pilot. . .say this plane. . .oh, well, no I didn't. But I did fly Jet Blue all the way and found JB to be a great airline, so I don't fault them at all; I only regret how the flying society's spirit has been altered and darned nearly neutered by circumstance. Major Donald Keyhoe (of UFOs and NICAP) surely never had these problems when he flew cross-country with "Slim" Lindbergh decades ago, you know? And I will admit, to those of you who wonder where the UFO topic is today, that after every Jet Blue flight I was wishing SO MUCH that I could ask each smiling pilot watching us depart whether he (1) ever saw "one of those" during a flight and (2) what he thought about the UFO observed at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. Pilots know things, but they aren't inclined to tell, because. Because. Just because.

The reason for last weekend's trip was to meet Stephen's mother, Vivian, and it was so great to see her again after her long flight from the West Coast. She had lost yet another family member since 2000, when we last met and, as before, we would journey on to Arlington, where Steve was laid to rest in 1989 at age 38.

Steve, almost three years younger, and I had served for nearly two years (1969-71) together at the U.S. Air Force Regional Hospital at Sheppard Air Force Base near Wichita Falls, TX, he on the medical wards and in the emergency room, and I in the large hospital's physical therapy clinic. We were good friends and his love of literature and the fact that he was wise beyond his years made him a delight for me to hang out with and, of course, the medical staff liked him.

I remember that Vivian, a remarkable woman in her own right, once told me that as a child Steve loved the book, Gone with the Wind, and read it over and over again, refusing to part with the book until she literally pried it out of his hands so he could accomplish other childhood tasks.

Steve and I visited book stores frequently during off-duty hours, and his enthusiasm for this book or that caused me to purchase many a volume destined to remain forever unread, as I would later ask myself, why did I buy these? Steve was a natural showman. . .and a salesman, glowing with charm.

In 1971, the Air Force started inundating Sheppard's hospital staff with orders to report elsewhere. These were the Vietnam years, and medical personnel were on the move. I only went to a base in Georgia, but Steve received orders for South Korea. I had been attempting to teach him to drive so he could get a license, but that was a goal unrealized. We stayed in contact a little for a while, but I eventually lost contact with him.

I managed to locate Steve briefly when we were civilians, but lost contact again. By 1999 or 2000, when at last I had access to a computer and could search, I found Steve again, but the search results weren't what I expected. He had died from the complications of AIDS in 1989, just 38 years of age, and, incredibly, had kept his illness a secret from everybody, including family and co-workers. If you're familiar with AIDS, it's not an illness one can usually hide, and it certainly isn't one that allows a person to work right up until the time of death. Yet, Steve somehow toughed it out, without medical care and without medications, apparently telling concerned people that he had the "flu" (likely pneumonia) and he died alone in his Dallas apartment. Later, family and friends discovered that Steve, who worked for a major insurance company at its Dallas offices, had won a prestigious award for assisting AIDS patients when he previously lived in Houston.

Soon after I contacted Steve's family, his mother invited me to Arlington for a visit in October of 2000, and I accompanied Vivian and Steve's step-father to his resting place.

And now, in March of 2008, on a day sliced by a chilly and cutting wind, I've met Vivian as she arrives once again to visit the grave of her son whose knowledge and friendship had such a major impact on my own life.

Today's photos, accomplished by various people, include Steve's Air Force portrait, a snapshot of him in winter gear during his time as an Air Force site medic in South Korea in 1971 (during his spare time he taught English to Korean school children, and I'll bet he was a fine teacher), a great picture of Steve and Vivian during a home visit, a typical pose of Steve smiling, and -- to everybody's sadness, of course -- a picture of Steve's marker at Arlington. Too young, much too soon, what can we say? We can love him, we can try to understand his actions, but nobody has the right to judge him. He served his country, he lived his life, he loved whom he loved and was kind, helpful and charming to the end. I think. . .I think there are always secrets, aren't there?

I've a few more pictures taken by others that offer a little insight into Steve's world, and we'll have a look at those next time. In the meantime, whether you support "the war" or not, please strive to respect all active duty military personnel and veterans, because each is human and each has a story to tell, even if that story remains unspoken or undiscovered for any variety of reasons.