In less than 100 days, my husband will be on his way home from Afghanistan. I didn’t say anything to the kids, because it just reminds them that he’s gone. And of course, there is always the possibility that the plan will change. Still, it’s a milestone, so for just this one day, I’m letting myself get a little excited about it.
If you’ve never been to a military homecoming, you definitely should. It’s pure drama. My husband’s a huey pilot, so they always fly in formation from the ship to the base and land at the hangar where throngs of families and friends are gathered.
It’s a party out on the tarmac while everyone waits for their Marine. Classic rock (it’s always classic rock) pulses out of half a dozen speakers as tall as a full-grown man. Young women in completely “inappropriate for day wear” dresses try to stand facing the wind so it doesn’t wreck their hair. Little kids play in the obligatory inflatable jumper. Young mothers do last minute diaper changes and feedings.
There’s always one baby, if not two, who was born while the squadron was away.
Then the magic moment comes. The music stops and the announcer says something like, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Thunder Eagles are on approach from the east; ETA of 5 minutes.”
The crowd explodes. People cheer, cry, jump up and down, and hug. It’s like stepping into footage from a Beetles concert.
Sometimes the little kids look terrified. Once I heard a little girl ask her mom if her dad would recognize her in the dress that she was wearing. She was worried because she had lost a tooth and thought she looked very different now. Mom had held it together up until then, but that made the tears flow.
When the music starts again, it’s the squadron’s theme song, and that means that they’ll be “coming in low over the horizon” – just like in the movies – any second now.
Our last squadron was the Thunder Eagles, so it was always AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” Listen to that song really loud some time, and picture 20 helicopters flying in a series of V-shaped formations at about 200 ft. right over your head. The music continues as they fly out, peel off at 90 degree angles, and circle back to land in waves on the giant stretch of asphalt before you. All engines shut down but the props keep spinning, waiting for the final drum beat that marks the end of that song. THAT is when each pilot hits the rotor break to stop the prop. How’s that for theater?
Crew chiefs calmly tie down the birds and perform their duties, and pilots finish their shut down checklist methodically, as if hundreds of people aren’t breathless waiting for them. About five minutes later (though it seems FOREVER) they all come together into parade formation in front of the aircraft. The commanding officer addresses them for maybe a minute, but we can’t hear them. They’re too far away. We’re all on tippy-toes, trying to see our Marine. Did he shave that awful mustache? Is he skinny?
Finally, one last salute and they are dismissed.
The music starts again. The leading edge of the crowd surges forward, but the bulk stays back – keeping their place. They’ve coordinated with their Marine prior to the fly-in and he knows where to find them. It’s chaos, but within seconds, every Marine is locked in someone’s arms.
The molecules have re-formed.
It’ll be a little different this time. My Marine is on a non-flying tour. He’s with the earthlings – the ground pounders… the grunts. They usually come in on busses or something, but it’s still a hysterical crowd, loud music, and that moment when the Marines are dismissed.
On tiptoes, I’ll be trying to pick out my Marine in a legion of men wearing desert digital marpat cammies advancing and merging with our own heterogeneous mass of humanity. Hands locked with our two kids, we’ll wait where we know he’ll find us.
And time will stop for a few days.
We just have to get through Christmas now. That will be a little tough, but then we’re home free. Once we get back to business in the winter quarter, time will pass quickly.
Mercifully, I have the relentless schedule of SciComm to make me feel like 99 days isn’t enough.