“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” – Robert F. Kennedy
Being an XXL passenger on a PS (painfully small) airplane is the bane of my existence as a frequent business traveler.
Airlines have long ago forsaken any pretense about passenger comfort as they pursue more revenue born from smaller seats, less space between rows, and perfect “10” scores (“Worst Pain Possible”) on the “Pain Assessment Tool” chart used by doctors.
Not until the airlines can figure out how to classify passengers as freight, allowing them to create piles of passengers stacked like slabs of meat, with the elimination of rows, will their march to absolute aviation-sadism be complete.
That was my mindset last week when I boarded American Airlines Tiny Jet No. 5035 from Portland to Charlotte, North Carolina, and jammed myself into seat 15C. For five minutes while other passengers/cattle were boarding, I stared at the empty window seat next to me hoping against hope that the airline gods would smile upon me and leave it empty for the flight.
Then I felt a slight tap on my shoulder from a young man standing in the aisle, followed by the “I’m sitting there” glance towards the window seat. Later I found out he was 18 years old, but my guess would have been 16 years young, with the hopeful innocence of youth fully intact.
As he was sitting down I noticed that he wasn’t carrying a single bag, just a large yellow envelope with printed decal near the center, and a name (his) printed near the bottom. Then I watched nine other passengers, all about the same age, carrying the same yellow envelopes, board the plane, carrying absolutely no luggage, just various looks ranging from abject fear to unbridled excitement.
And, then I immediately felt like a XXL jerk for selfishly worrying about my own comfort a few minutes earlier.
My seatmate pressed his face against the window for 15-20 minutes without looking back towards me once, while staring intently to the world outside the plane. From gate to runway to take-off, he seemingly stayed fixated on what he was leaving, more than what was ahead.
We were at 10,000 feet before he turned around ready to engage with the stranger next to him.
I knew his answer before I even asked the first of many questions to follow.“Where are you going?” He answered “Paris” followed by a pause, a nervous smile, and then, “Parris Island, Marine Corps boot camp.”
He and the other nine young men and women clutching yellow envelops were all on their way to South Carolina for the toughest 13 weeks of their young lives. If they pass the incredible physical and mental rigors of Parris Island, each of these brave individuals will prepare to put their lives on the line to protect America, our democracy, and every citizen, through their service commitment.
Every person who has served, or is presently serving, in any branch of the military deserves much more credit and respect from the rest of us than we can ever provide.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Maine has a veteran population of more than 127,000, representing almost 10 percent of all Mainers, leading the country in percentage of military service. More than just in numbers, Maine has played a vital role in our nation’s military history since the birth of our country.
During the three-hour flight, I learned more about being a Marine Corps recruit than I have ever known. I asked my seatmate if he would mind if I mentioned our conversation in a newspaper column. He asked, “why?”
I told him that most people are familiar with policy discussions about war, movies about war, and general military references, but many never hear about the human dimension of military service, especially on Day 1, when young men and women “take the oath,” arriving at Parris Island and embarking on the sacred and most honorable transition from civilian to being a Marine.
“You can write about me being proud to serve my country as a Marine, but please do not include my name or any personal information about me. It’s my honor to serve my country and that’s enough for me to know and that’s all anyone else needs to know,” he said with a level of clarity and conviction beyond his years.
After landing, I shook his hand and told him how proud I was to sit next to him and I wished him safety and good health. I also thanked him for his military service.
Later in the airport, I saw him and the other nine Marine recruits walking to their next gate, all carrying large yellow envelopes, and nothing more – except the heavy weight of marching into a dangerous world, not as young men or women, but on this sacred first day, as Marines.
Steve Woods is from away, but fully here now, living in Yarmouth, working in Falmouth, traveling the world, and trying his best. His column appears every other week. He can also be heard each Saturday at 11 a.m. on WLOB-AM 1310.