Slouched in the bar in Concourse B, in the midst of strangers speaking a Babel of indecipherable languages, my mind drifted back twenty years:
"Daddy, there is a monster under my bed."
"Let me have a look. Nope, nothing there."
"I'm 'fraid of the dark"
"Everyone is afraid of the dark."
"Even you, daddy?"
Unsurprisingly, the connecting flight that would eventually take me to Dulles International was delayed, leaving me alone with my misery among throngs of travelers. Memories, flushed by the three $11.00 bourbons that I had swigged down, swirled, engulfing me:
"You have to step towards the pitcher, son. If you pull back you take your eye off the ball."
"Dad, I'm no good at baseball. I can't hit."
"Don't give up. Everything is hard in the beginning. You are ten, you will get better."
"I am afraid of the ball."
"Everyone who plays baseball is afraid of the ball."
"Even you, dad?"
Snippets and snapshots of time that passes exponentially faster, accelerating towards the end, like a stable horse heading back to the barn.
"Dad, is grandma in heaven?"
"I don't know, son. I hope if there is such a place, she would be there."
"Am I gonna die?"
"Not for a long, long time."
"I am afraid of dying."
"Everyone is afraid of dying."
"Even you, dad?"
The flight was finally called to board by someone much too close to the microphone, reminding me of the baffling bus station destination announcements. I erratically staggered up the jetway, boarded the flight, not acknowledging the vacant, spurious, smile of the flight attendant. She had obviously been practicing that simper since she was referred to as a stewardess. I plopped down in 18F. I was oblivious to the cacophony of the preflight ritual: ceremonial storing of items in the overhead bins and the obligatory emergency instructions should our pilot choose an unlikely water landing in the heartlands. My mind continued to relive our too few precious moments together.
"Dad, I just got called up to the majors."
"There is something I need to tell you."
"You got me season tickets?"
" I am joining the Marines at the end of the season."
"It is something I need to do. Only for a couple of years. Baseball will still be here when I get back."
I am not sure if the haze that partially obscured the skyline silhouetted against the Rocky Mountains was due to the perpetual Denver smog or Jack Daniels. I dozed off or passed out after the drink cart purposely passed me by, the cheery flight attendant micromanaging my methomania.
Sober now, though a state trooper would not agree, I trudged down an identical jet bridge, skipping baggage claim as I had hand carried the few things I had hurriedly gathered for the trip. The middle man in a trio of uniformed men was holding a small sign with my surname on it. Uncomfortable, but sincere, pleasantries were exchanged and I was led to a spotless and shiny navy blue Crown Victoria with a placard containing four stars. It is my experience that a Crown Vic never brings good news. It was a quiet ride to Arlington, as I was hung-over, and suffering from a time lag of years, rather than hours,
I barely heard the words read from the Citation to Accompany the Award of the Medal of Honor to Staff Sergeant Brian Gehrig Johnson, USMC. My mind was still replaying flashes of his life.
It was the last time I saw Brian. He had come home for the weekend and it was a moderate Sunday evening, a welcome break from the oppressive Pueblo sweltering summer . We had grilled steaks and he quaffed ice-cold beer, and I sipped my customary over sweetened iced tea, my twenty year chip securely in my pocket. I knew he was struggling with something that he wanted to say:
"What's up Brian?"
"Dad, our unit is deploying to the Middle East. I have to report tomorrow."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"I didn't want to upset you. You know how you get."
"Son, I'm afraid for you."
"Every warrior is afraid."
I will never forget the acrid aroma of the gunpowder and the sad sweetness of the bugle as the officer bent to hand me the triangulated flag:
"Mr. Johnson, I am sorry for your loss.....our loss. There are a dozen Marines, maybe more, that are alive because of his sacrifice. I was... am, his commander and I asked to be the one to present this to you. Your son was the most fearless man I have ever had the honor to serve with."
I nearly collapsed the flimsy, folding chair as he snapped to attention and saluted me:
"Semper fi, Mr. Johnson."
I stood up, unsteadily, and, though I had never been in the military, returned his salute and said in a fissured voice, "Semper fi."