A HERO'S WELCOME!
His journey began in 1945. He was a recent high school graduate and now an 18-year-old "Navy Man." A Petty Officer Third Class.
Yet little did he realize, he'd receive a hero's welcome for his service as a World War II veteran, 70 years later. It was September 2nd, 2015, the clock read 3:05AM. Dad slowly entered my car. We left in darkness.
Over the decades, Dad and I have spent lots of memorable days together. Yet none like this. His Honor Flight Chicago trip as a World War II vet had officially begun. (Honor Flight Chicago's mission is simple: To thank and pay tribute to America's war heroes, by bringing them to Washington, D.C. for a day of honor and remembrance at no cost to them.)
First stop, Midway Airport. At 3:40 AM Dad carefully exited my car. Two orange-shirted volunteers gently helped Dad into one of his many "chariots" for the day. A smooth-movin' wheelchair!
I parked my car and then headed into Midway to join the fun. (I spend lots of time in airports. Yet never have I seen such energy, excitement and joy...in any airport, especially at 4 o'clock in the morning!) Hundreds of volunteers were there for one reason, to "serve" veterans. For after all, they had served America, its citizens and future generations.
Dad was one of 85 veterans. 84 men. 1 woman. Average age 90. The oldest 99. And as Dad said, "There was even a 'kid' who was only 86!"
I quickly donned my green Honor Flight shirt. It meant I was now an "official guardian." And I'd have the privilege of being Dad's guardian for the day. Dad has always encouraged, prodded and politely pushed me to succeed. Yet on this day, I'd be "pushing" him and his wheelchair, through crowded airports, around memorable D.C. memorials and up countless ramps.
But first, an extensive and remarkably organized "check-in" process: Name tags were issued. Ditty bags passed out. And portrait photos of each vet were taken.
We breezed through a special security line and once at the gate for our Southwest charter to D.C., we were treated to coffee, donuts and "time travel." A live-band, featuring "Andrews Sisters" impersonators belted out hits from the 1940s. While volunteer dancers in 40s garb danced with veterans.
Then the slow, methodical, yet highly efficient boarding process began. 85 vets. 8 nurses. 2 doctors. Volunteers. Guardians. Photographers and videographers. Finally, it was wheels-up. A glorious day to fly. Blue skies and a bright morning sun.
When I fly for business, clients often ask, "How was your flight?" I typically reply, "Perfect! We took off, we landed. Uneventful." Well, by that aviation standard this "flight" was also uneventful. But not the "greeting!"
As we entered the Dulles terminal, each vet was greeted by literally hundreds of volunteers, well-wishers, adults, children, high school teams and admirers, who thanked the vets for their courage and commitment with an extended handshake, a warm embrace, a high five, a huge smile or a simple kiss to the cheek.
The enthusiastic crowd showed their gratitude with signs, cheers and the always powerful direct eye-contact coupled with, "Thanks for your service." (It was one of many times during the day, when I wish I had a box of Kleenex with an automatic dispenser!)
Eventually, we exited the terminal, (still to thunderous applause), and made our way to the next mode of transportation, our gleaming, air-conditioned, well-stocked, five-strong "bus brigade" - Red, White, Blue, Green and Gold. (By the way, it's pretty easy to navigate Virginia and D.C. traffic, with a police escort!)
Visits during the day included; the Air Force Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center and our most memorable visit to the World War II Memorial.
It included a special ceremony for the vets with a color guard, members of the U.S. Marine Corps band and a personal greeting from Senator Bob Dole, himself a WWII vet. (And ironically, the date of our trip, September 2nd, was the 70th anniversary of V-J Day, when Japan "formally" surrendered aboard the U.S.S. Missouri, anchored in Tokyo Bay.)
D.C. was stifling hot. Yet there was never a complaint. About the heat. The lack of sleep. The pace of the day. It was now easy for me to understand, why this group of men and women, have been called, The Greatest Generation! Being with them and Dad, was a day of significance.
It was late afternoon, and for the final time, haggard yet happy vets, volunteers and guardians boarded our five buses. Off to Dulles! As we gathered at the gate for our return flight home, there was still an audible buzz. Folks reflected on the day with new friends. They swapped stories about life during and after the war. And of course, there was more 40s music! With a local dance group "cutting the rug" with women in polka dot dresses and men in zoot suits!
Finally, Southwest charter 8248 was headed home. Back to Chicago. The overhead lights dimmed. Exhausted eyes closed. Proud, but pooped heads sunk into slumber. Until...
One hour into the flight, the plane's lights abruptly began to shine. And they were accompanied by a loud declaration over the plane’s PA system, "Mail call!" The vets were in disbelief. And awe!
Each received a 9x12 envelope with their name on it. Inside; cards, letters, faxes, e-mails, crayon drawings, original artwork...from their family, friends, business associates, local students, grateful citizens and even the owners of Chicago's professional sports teams. Each message offering sincere thanks, admiration and love to the vet for their service! (Yep, time for another automatically dispensed tissue!)
8:41PM, we landed. And as we taxied toward the gate, a surprised vet exclaimed, "Is it raining?" Nope! Yet there was water cascading or raining down each side of the plane. The vets were receiving "salutes" from the Midway Airport Chicago Fire Department's water canons! As the water streamed, so did the tears.
As vets de-planed, they were greeted once again by applause and cheers. And that was just in the jetway, from Southwest crew members, Midway employees, Honor Flight volunteers and members of the Chicago Fire Department.
If the reception at Dulles was remarkable, the welcome at Midway was incomprehensible. As each vet exited, he or she was greeted by saluting active members of the U.S. Navy, who then became a vet's official escort. As I relinquished Dad's "pushing priorities" to the U.S. Navy's Jeremy Butler, I proudly walked about five feet behind, capturing pictures and video. Once again, hundreds of enthusiastic well-wishers whooped, hollered, clapped and repeatedly told each vet, "Thanks for your service!" (While this time, the musical accompaniment, was a group of bagpipers!)
And when you thought the raucous welcome or "roof" couldn't be raised any higher, it was!
As we headed to Midway's ground floor, a band was playing patriotic American songs. Plus Honor Flight had transformed an expansive area of baggage claim, into a dedicated, long, winding parade route. Each side lined (not by hundreds), yet now almost 3,000 frenzied family, friends and admirers. Young children. Nearby neighbors. And even other vets, there to honor "their own."
Many feverishly waved American flags and held up signs, banners and posters, with a vet's picture from the 1940s and simple messages of love and appreciation. There seemed to be more zealous fans, videographers and photographers than Oscar night! Folks continually reached over the security fence or barrier to thank each vet for their service. And then...
Tears swelled in Dad's eyes. To my knowledge, yet his surprise...
He looked up, and to his right, lining the parade route...were my Mom, my family and our friends, cheering, applauding, hugging, kissing and yelling, "Welcome home Irv!" / "You're a hero Dad!" / "Way to go Papa!" (Dad said he now expects this kind of reception, every time he flies!)
If you're a World War II vet or know a vet who's interested in this powerful and unforgettable day of remembrance, (or you'd like to volunteer), hop online to see what honor flights are available in your region of the United States. And if you're in the Chicagoland area, simply head to honorflightchicago.org or call 773.227.VETS (8387)
Mom, we brought your Navy Man home safely. Dad, thanks for serving. You're a hero. I love you!
BELIEVE IT OR NOT!
Even Ripley would be shocked. The Chicago Cubs are headed to the playoffs! As the Wrigley Field marquis declares: CUBS CLINCH POSTSEASON BERTH
We Cubbie diehards hope they'll reward us with celebration vs. depression. Because right now, that's a sad emotional state, the Chicago Bears provide weekly!
May we soon hear, OFTEN: Cubs win! Cubs win!
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