By James Stalker
I strain my gaze to sift the roiling heads of arriving passengers rushing in a holiday hurry. Ugly Christmas sweaters must have been sale-priced everywhere in 2006. I look for the one who will be a head taller, in camo fatigues, square-shouldered, striding with confidence. My soldier boy, no longer playing such in the woods, but for real. Our soldier home and safe with us for two weeks in what the Army refers to as the “holiday exodus.”
He wears the maroon beret slightly tilted, pants bloused into polished black boots. He wraps his arms around his mother; this warrior goes soft, kissing her cheek. I admire the “AA” patch signifying the proud and storied 82nd Airborne Division. I’m next, squeezed by arms hardened by hundreds of pushups done daily at dawn.
His being home is the only present I care to have; the one I need. It is a prayer answered.
An Imagined Scene
I had imagined a Rockwellian scene after the gift-giving and the turkey carcass is picked clean for sandwiches, where we’ll settle into the easy chairs by the fireplace and talk about his Army adventures. But he never sits for long, pacing, checking his phone.
The discussion is mostly one-sided, with me asking questions. His answers are shallow. Again, I catch him sneaking glances at his phone.
“Which girls are you expecting to call you?” I tease. He doesn’t laugh as he normally would.
Suddenly he realizes that he’s been sitting too long. He goes to the window, cautiously checking the perimeter. Satisfied it is secure, he turns back to me and answers, “The 2nd Brigade is on ready alert, first in the rotation to deploy—if the call comes.”
“What?” I say. “You’re on Christmas exodus. Two full weeks ...”
“It’s said when President Bush dials 911, the 82nd answers. I didn’t want to ruin Christmas. And the call might not even come.”
The next morning, as I pass the hall bathroom door, he steps out, facing me, wearing a half-beard of shaving foam, razor in hand. He bear-hugs me, pressing his wet face (tears or foam, I can’t tell) against my cheek.
Barely above a whisper, he says, “I got the call. Back to Fort Bragg, [North Carolina,] 1200 tomorrow. I need to be on a plane this afternoon.”
His mother will wail when she finds out.
Time for Goodbyes
We go as far as security will allow us before we admit it’s time to say our goodbyes. And though we join hands in a prayer begging God’s protection, that demon of helpless worry hisses, “Could be the last time you see him alive.” I’m terrified and try to hold him just a second longer.
He pulls away. “Gotta go.”
We rush to an opening where we can get that last glimpse as he clears security and turns toward his gate. He’s a head taller than everyone, striding with that square-shouldered confidence he says that comes after the third jump—when the Airborne has made him believe he is tough enough to survive anything.
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James Stalker is a freelance writer who lives in Lafayette, Indiana. He retired after 40 years as a middle school library/ media specialist. He has two sons who served in the Army and the Air Force.