we got up yesterday morning at 3am (yes, that’s in the morning) to take a cab so we could be at the seatac airport the appointed two hours before our flight. there’s something about knowing you have a minimum of six hours in the air, not to mention all the lay-overs and connection times and waiting on your baggage…nothing like that to make you TIRED. and we were…
we boarded the plane shortly after shawn had a hot debate with the delta worker at our gate over having to check his guitar. the day was off to a stellar start. i, in a moment of uncharacteristic sacrifice (and only because he was so upset about the guitar), offered to take his middle seat. i squeezed my overpacked bag into the overhead compartment and then tried to settle into my seat. shawn was already half asleep at this point (he could easily rival my sister for marathon sleeping in random, public places). i put my little neck pillow on (yes, we use them- stupid looking as they may be, i am convinced it is saving my neck from chronic ‘kinks’) and closed my eyes.
“so are you guys going on home or vacation?” the man in the aisle spoke. i knew this not because i had taken the time to look at him (i hadn’t) or because i had been friendly enough to say hello myself (hadn’t done that either), but because the plane was so loud i was sure he was the only one i could have had the displeasure of hearing. i opened one eye, faked a half smile in his direction, answered”no, this is home for us”, and inwardly prayed that would be the last question so i could get some sleep. it wasn’t.
after question #2 (“no, we are on business”) and question #3 (“yeah, we work in the music industry”), i finally decided to take off the pillow that was forcing me to look at him from an awkward position and to be engaged by this older man. he smiled and then began to tell me about his trip. he is from miami, fl and was in town because his 85 year old father had fallen, broken his hip, and as a result was failing the way a lot of elderly do when they break a bone. he said he was there making some ‘final preparations’, mentioned that ‘everyone has to go sometime’, and i saw his bright blue eyes blink back a couple of tiny, discreet tears.
“i’m wren.” i put my hand out “kate”. he looked over at shawn, who at this point, had opened his eyes and was looking our way. “shawn”… the man asked some further questions about who we are and what we do. he was excited about thefact we are getting to travel and began to ask all kinds of questions about the people to run into and what we like about it and what we have seen. then he really got our attention, “i hitch hiked across the country for about 10 years myself”. his eyes wanted to sparkle right out of his head…life surged forth from them.
we both leaned in.
wren is a vietnman veteran, he came back from the war “really messed up” (his exact words) and decided to do nothing for awhile. he and a couple of his friends literally packed backpacks and headed into the woods. we, completely captivated, soaked up every story he opened up to us. they would live in tents in the woods, go into towns and get enough work to get something to eat, and then move on. he told us of a time in texas when he and his friends went into a country diner and almost got beat up because they didn’t serve ‘their kind’ there. “i was all hair in those days,” he said, those clear blue eyes dancing with delight at the memory of his former self. “i had a huge beard and hair down to my belt. i didn’t look quite the way i do now.” now, he is a man likely in his late 50’s with a neatly trimmed beard and not nearly as much hair on his head as previously described. it was plain to see he which image he preferred. “you couldn’t even see my face- just hair everywhere and these two blue eyes in the middle of it.” i looked at those eyes. then i imagined my old hippie friend as something comparable to harry the bigfoot from the old movie “harry and the hendersons”. i smiled into his face. he told us he has ‘itchy feet’ adn a hard time holding down a job because of it. he proudly announced, though, that he had had current job for 12 years. he takes care of the oldest building on the east coast…is its engineer. “usually takes three people to do my job, but since i know everything about her (the building) from the ground up, they only need me now.” pride shown on his face as if he were a little boy bringing home his first captured frog. “they took a chance on me since i don’t have any real credentials..most times you need a formal degree for a job like this. but i learned how to do lots of things- really everything- when i was hitch hiking and working odd jobs for my lunch.” i watched the deeply carved lines split around his eyes…going up around his eyes and down around the cheeks of his thin face with a certain growing fondness.
at some point in amid the stories on this long flight, we all dozed off again. i was in that i’m-not-really-alseep-and-not-really-awake, dreamlike haze. i imagined all the stories he had told us in my head…the hippie veteran and his friends, smoking too much weed (really any is too much, right?) and living day to day, trying to make sense of the war and the wreckage of their lives…trying to find some meaning or just some relief.
we woke up. (thank you , turbulance) he and shawn exchanged stories about oregon…shawn grew up there and lots of wrens family lives there now. they talked about fishing and camping and enjoying life. shawn always says he at one point was a ‘hippie’ when he lived in eugene, oregon. i never could image it until that moment. suddenly, i could see my husband with a huge beard and long hair, sleeping in the woods and hanging out with someone like wren. i liked the thought of it, i decided as the two men discussed things and places i knew little about.
“LA, ” wren answered, “i am going to LA” we discovered it was to see his son and his two grand children. i asked their names (which i no longer recall) and ages (10 and 5, boy and girl) and he began to brag in the way that only parents and grandparents can do without seeming arrogant. then he threw in the curve ball, letting us in a little deeper to his life. “i had never met my son until two years ago, so its really special.” for the first time in three hours i detected sadness in the those lively eyes. “we get along great, though.”
wren really had been ‘messed up’ from the war it turns out, so when his wife left with their 5 month old son, he said he knew it would be wrong to object. “nah…i knew i was in no way to be around a child. no purpose in messing up his life”. then the ex-wife had never told the son the real truth about his dad and changed his last name without consluting wren. where most would have been angry at that deception, he seemed to bear it with a tender understanding of her position. he son, now 32, had only found about his father two years before and had immeadiately contacted him.
for this hard-core, liberal, war hating 50 year old man with a fake hip (he had crushed his in a motorcycle race 30 years before), it was the sweetest redemption.
my sister always says she has a hard time resisting the urge to ‘good game’ friends once she begins to think of them as brothers. i fought the urge to touch this old man’s face. i wanted to hug him or speak something beautiful over him, but worked hard to think of anything fitting to say. nothing came. i silently prayed. more redemption, sweet Jesus. more for wren.
he let us out ahead of him (his bad hip forces him now to use a wheel chair) and he stood up and called out to us as we left the plane… “don’t forget- enjoy every moment. soak it in. take nothing for granted”
i don’t know if God sends angels in the form of graying, hippie men, but i would sure like to think so.