Global Matters: Reflections on summer, visitors, and veterans
There are so many reasons to savor the Maine summer. The stunning weather, the native produce, the late-afternoon light all combine with a slower pace of daily life that enables us to enjoy these blessings, if we are truly fortunate, with family and dear friends.
Inevitably, though, at some point in August, after you’ve spent the day in the garden or down at the boat, after you’ve returned from the woods or hosed off from the beach, you’ll be sitting on your deck when something in the air tells you it will soon be fall. Oh, there will be hot days to come, and there’s no need to panic, but we’ve all felt it – that little blast of uncharacteristically cold air, a weird gust of wind that pulls unsuspecting leaves from the branches. That’s when we know it’s coming, when the mind’s eye begins to see the gray clouds, the rain coming down sideways and, before long, the white stuff.
Some may not be entirely sorry to see the summer pass, for by this point, the pedestrian traffic, the congestion downtown, the lack of parking, the occasional inconsiderate visitor can all become a bit tedious. A few locals have even been heard to grumble something about “getting our town back” after Labor Day.
But it’s really just talk, of course. Maine people need visitors, and visitors need Maine. The truth is we’ve managed to work things out over the past century or so, and none of us has much desire to change anything, so this is the way it will stay, I expect, and that’s good.
In fact, if you’ve lived here a while, perhaps you’ve been fortunate enough to form friendships with some folks that summer in Maine every year, either as part of family tradition or because they just can’t imagine life without Maine.
If you’re particularly fortunate, you make friends like Huss and Jane Malik.
Huss and Jane come back to Maine every summer from Florida. Jane has deep roots here, and Huss relishes the scenery as he rides his bicycle through South Portland in the early mornings. That’s how we met, in fact, many years ago. A chat at a traffic light, a water break on my jogging route. It wasn’t long before we began to visit over coffee and to talk about the truly important things in life.
Huss has done many things, from teaching at universities to career counseling to working in state government, but what comes through most clearly in our conversations are his compassion and his strong pacifist streak. A military veteran, Huss has no use for armed conflict and mourns the waste of life and treasure on seemingly endless disputes beyond resolution or understanding.
So when Huss and Jane’s son Joey enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 39, Huss was anything but enthusiastic. But Joey felt the need to serve, and his family needed the health-care benefits. He rose through the ranks, was deployed to the Horn of Africa and, as an example to his younger brethren, volunteered for a 100-mile exercise through the desert in Djibouti.
Six miles from the end, Joey was overcome by the 115 degree heat and passed out. Aspirating sand and his own vomit, he was unconscious and without oxygen for critical minutes before his squad leader came upon him, intubated him and managed to stabilize him. Near death and with a core body temperature of 107 degrees, however, his prospects were bleak.
What followed next is both heroic and maddening; the remarkable medical expertise and dedication that brought Joey back to life – and full function – alongside the exasperating bureaucracy of military medical care.
For Huss and Jane, however, the traumatic episode has been both instructive and something of a miracle. From the moment Joey was stricken, the military demonstrated exceptional concern for the family. He was airlifted from Djibouti on a Learjet to Germany, stabilized and flown to the U.S.; Huss and Jane were then flown from Florida to San Antonio, Texas, where they were met at the airport, taken to a hotel, and squired about by a sergeant who put himself at their disposal, 24/7.
The Army paid for everything – hotels, flights, expenses, per diem, even parking and mileage – and it did the same for Joey’s wife – so that Joey could have the support of his family.
“There are good people out there,” Huss noted, despite his opposition to conflict . "I’ve never seen devotion and compassion like I experienced.”
And that’s when he tears up.
Summers come and go, as do summer visitors. Our lives intersect for a time, and then we move on to the next season. Along the way, if we are wise, we pause long enough to appreciate the better parts of human nature.
In a perfect world, there’d be no need for troops in faraway places, risking their lives fighting shadowy enemies. In a perfect world, we’d spend more time cultivating friendships than we would in battle or in recovery rooms.
Yet even in this world, we can strive to appreciate the friendships we have, especially here in this special place, that we fortunate few are blessed to enjoy all the year round.