I am typically the last person to board a plane or close to the back. That’s because I don’t fly First-class and because, well, I have an aversion to standing in lines. Especially single file lines.
So that’s where I was while boarding the non-stop Alaska flight from Portland to DC, at the back of the line, when the pilot walked past. We smiled at one another and went on about our business.
After I was seated, the captain walked to the back of the plane and stopped in the aisle by my seat.
“Ma’am, are you Gold Star?”
“Yes,” I nodded.
He stuck out his hand. “Thank you for your family’s sacrifice.”
I shook his hand.
Then he turned to the stewards and instructed, “Take good care of this woman.”
I’m not really a high-maintenance flyer. Give me a window seat, a set of headphones, a book and I’m good. I rarely even get up during a flight, and almost never order food or drinks. I wasn’t much different on this flight. Still, the steward brought me my own movie player, explaining, “The captain said.”
They gave me a drink that included vodka. “Captain said.”
They passed delicious chocolate over to me: “Captain said.”
By the time we arrived in DC, the staff has treated me so well, I wasn’t sure I should ever get off that Alaska flight. Okay. I’m kidding but it was lovely. I signed a copy of Christian Bend and asked the steward to give it to the pilot. I wrote him a note and told him that in all my years of flying, he was the first pilot to ever acknowledge and honor my father. I thanked him for that.
He was waiting for me when I deboarded.
His named is Howard Smolin. He knew I was a Gold Star family member because of the lanyard I wore acknowledging my father. During Veterans Day or Memorial Day, I wear my Gold Star pin and a lanyard that sometimes includes my father’s photo or his name or something connected to the Wall. The pilot had noticed it under my raincoat when we passed just outside the door of the plane while I was boarding.
Observant fellow, this Captain Smolin.
He walked off the plane with me. Thanked me again. Said he understood how hard it is, such sacrifices. It seems so long ago, now, those sacrifices. Fifty years,, the media keeps telling us. Fifty years. And yet, whenever I see a Vietnam veteran with his grandchildren, I am reminded that the sacrifices continue. Joining me on this trip this year is one of my own grandsons. My daughter is bringing her son because she is teaching him now how to honor the fallen. Teaching him to know that he belongs to the exclusive club – Gold Star families.
All my grandsons are being taught by their mothers the cost of war.
It’s a lesson I taught them.
It’s a lesson I have written about for the past 20 years, the bulk of their own lives.
So they get it.
These men and women, Vietnam veterans, are their friends. Their extended family.
Uncles, they call those who wear the Yellow hats and serve at the Wall. Their way of honoring the fallen and their families.
When I first began writing about my father, very few people knew the term Gold Star. When I wrote my memoir, my publisher didn’t want to name it After the Flag has been Folded because they said nobody would know what that meant.
But ten years later, we all are way too familiar with what that means.
I thanked the Captain and we hugged.
Alaska airlines, y’all.
It was a sweet way to start this week’s remembrances for the 35th anniversary of the Vietnam Memorial Wall, the vision of a former Army grunt Jan Scruggs, who wanted some way to honor the men he had served alongside.
Good men can be hard to find, but sometimes they are piloting the planes we ride in.
Or raising monies to build the memorials that honor our fallen.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of CHRISTIAN BEND (Mercer University Press).