Sunday, November 6, 2016

Off We Went, Into the Wild Blue Yonder: Honor Flight with Dad

“Write it all down while it’s fresh, Sweetheart,” my dad says as I kiss him goodnight. He’s sitting in his chairlift, bound for his TV room, where he’ll enjoy a glass of wine and a bite before he goes to bed. He’s kissed my mom goodnight, and had one of the fullest days ever, and is too fired up to go to bed despite the 11:00 time….marking his 19th hour of being awake.  I smile, he kisses my cheek and the top of my hand, “thank you—again—for sharing this all with me,” he says, and then starts going up in the lift, singing, as always, “Off we go into the wild blue yonder, climbing high into the sun.” After spending the day with him and 61 fellow veterans, this song has a different meaning.

On October 29th, we started our day much earlier than most; we were at the Westchester County Airport prior to 6 am. We were greeted by a slew of red-shirted volunteers helped us with everything to getting Dad into his first of many wheelchairs, finding donuts and coffee, shaking hands, patting backs, smiling, supporting, and sharing a camaraderie that is so strong, so precious, and so unique.  From the first moment on, the day was an unforgettable adventure of faces, young and old, smiles, stories, remembrances, and tears.  

The travel portion of the adventure began as we boarded our police motorcycle-led bus brigade (made up  at least 10   local police officers—several bikers), which took us on a  dawn ride, past fire departments where we saw firefighters in full regalia standing at attention and saluting as we passed. As the sun rose, Dad could see our local police escorts.  He took my hand and exclaimed, “Wow…this is for us?” Yes, I smiled all for you. He held my hand tight and said,  “I’m so glad you’re with me!”

 That was one of many moments when I couldn’t help but feel that this time—this Honor Flight trip—was one that was so valuable to each and every one of us.   Despite great differences in lives, professions,  likes and dislikes, we all share the fundamental need to love, be loved, and appreciated. The Honor Flight gave both the much-deserving veterans, and us—their guardians and other volunteers—that reward: we all felt appreciated and loved.

The group—collectively—was dazzling!  Ranging in age from I think a twenty year-old grandson (guardian), to an 101 year-old WWII Vet. The journey talk was peppered   with clever quips, all kinds of tunes and tales, with many of our beloved vets enjoying the much-deserved privilege of speaking their minds on a hugely varied array of topics.  From fellow guardians,  to volunteers—the “angels” as my father termed them, like Jennifer, Marianne and Fred—and many more, to our uniformed companions, all were ever-present and tireless in their desire to assist as needed.

The day—despite its freshness—is a bit of a blur of young and old folks, reaching out their hands to my dad and the other veterans, offering praise, congratulations, and great thanks. Soldiers saluted, whole families parted to let us pass, and the warmth was way beyond that of the beautiful sun that graced our presence in Washington DC.  The visits to the memorials and Arlington National Cemetery were filled with poignant and provocative moments.

Dinner, like the rest of the day, was unlike any I’ve had in quite some time. Part sitcom, other time adventure, just when I was thinking about how tired this crowd must be, they would shine with a look, a smile, a tear—a remembrance. They never ceased to effuse, amaze—and entertain!

During mealtime I gave Dad the chance to sit with our dear friend/family pal Steve, and I sat with a  “new” group of delightful companions who, I’m sure could also double as stand-up comedians.

“I love having this lady next to me!” said one of the vets when I spooned the Italian dressing on his salad,  adjusted his coffee cup so it wouldn’t spill, and spread out his napkin. “Look at her attention to detail!” he exclaimed to the rest of the table. 

“Of course you love the attention," remarked another from across the table.  And I knew I  wasn’t the first “young” woman he’d flirted with that day! Then, when his guardian, I’m guessing about 20 years younger than the 90+ vet he was responsible for, started taking his charge out for a visit to the men’s room, he leaned over to me and asked in a stage whisper, “So, tell me: What did General Douglas MacArthur say to his troops?” 

“I’ll be back?” I asked, sheepishly.
They both smiled and declared in unison, “I shall return!” They made a dramatic u-turn, the guardian swirling (gently!) his charge around—while both managing to wave to me.

Then the dinnertime speeches at the podium, which were both reflective and thankful, commenced. Discussion of pictures (ah, that would be how my grandparents referred to movies!) was paired with talk  about things going viral! And then came the Hollywood finish: Michael (A.K.A. Isaac) recounting—interrupted by an emotion that resonated in all of us there listening—the tale of the wonderful coincidence of reuniting, at our pre-flight Meet and Greet, with his friend Russ after 73 years. Not a dry eye was in that dining room, and we were stamped with a smile/image we’ll all feel in our hearts forever. Appreciated and loved.

Like our evening speeches, that whole day was about presence, gratitude, and honor. To every person that shook my dad’s hand and said, “Thank you for your service,” he returned with a shake (okay, with the women it was a kiss on the hand!) and profound thankfulness. Appreciated and loved.

After landing back at Westchester County airport, on the plane and waiting (to get my dad back on a wheelchair).  I stood near the exiting aisle, and enjoyed the privilege of asking each and every one of the passengers, as they filed by,  if they had enjoyed their day. I was acutely aware that this was so not like any other flight; they were not pushing to get off, but rather taking the time to savor those last moments on the Honor Flight plane.  

I guess the veterans must have thought I was one of the organizers, since they were so effusive  with me in their appreciation. One man took my hand in both of his, looked me in the eyes— and I could see his tears (which of course inspired my own), and said, “This day was so beautiful. I’ve never had a day like this. Even when I came back from the army, I never felt like this. Thank you so very much for all you did.”  I just held his hand, smiled, and then hugged him a thank you, for all he did. Though the words were different with each passerby, the gratefulness, and smiles remained a constant.

When we finally exited the plane and arrived, once again, at Westchester County Airport, we received yet another hero’s welcome: we were greeted by an array of welcomers—from girl scouts, and family members,  to cadets.

“Look!” I said as I pushed Dad’s wheelchair towards the welcoming crowd so he could once again shake hands, and hear the heartfelt “Thank you for your service” declarations. But I stopped pushing—just for a moment and leaned over.

 “Dad,” I said—close and loud enough so I was sure he could hear me over the din, “they’re all here for you!”  

As I kissed his cheek, I could feel his smile, and his tear. 

Singing, "Off We go..." with Bill and our Beautiful Flight Attendant
(with HVHF Founder the Wonderful, Frank Kimler, the Man Behind the Curtain!) 

With Steve...the One Who Introduced Us to the Hudson Valley Honor Flight!

With Lovely Ian 
With Our Beloved Steve Scholem and His Sister, Sharon Scholem

With Fellow HV Honor Flight Friends: Veteran Bruce Gavril and Daughter Liz Gavril 

With Steve, and our Charming and Helpful Guide, Technical Sargent Jason 

Dad and His Angels: Marianne Mutoli-Schmidt and Jennifer D'Elia-DeFrancesco 
Dad Teaching An HVHF Guardian
Nora's  (His Great Granddaughter's!)
Special Handshake 

In the Airport--Talking about the Day!