Finding one’s way

I like to travel not because I just don’t have enough stress in my life already, but because I get to meet people I will never see again yet will never forget.

Airports are small that way — we sojourners might be taken in myriad directions to the proverbial four corners of the earth, but each of us is taking an invisible treasure trove of stories and experiences that gets stowed away once we set foot on those 747s.

I was in a gift shop at National Airport (like most liberals, I won’t name the dead president whose name has been tacked on to it), buying a stupid little Washington, D.C., pink babydoll T-shirt because I was bored and it was on sale. The cashier was kind enough — seemed a tiny bit preoccupied but brightened up when we started talking.

And then? She fell silent.

The shop was in the America West/US Airways wing, and it overlooked the tarmac. A plane went driving by and the pilot backed it up a bit. She freaked. Absolutely went into silent panic-attack mode.

I didn’t know what the hell to do. I just wanted to go drink my Cinnabon coffee in peace. But I stood there quietly, looking around for the phone so I could call for help, just in case. I noticed her first and last name on her tag. Mamie.

When Mamie recovered from her moment, she seemed surprised that I’d stood there. (What can I say; I really did wonder where she’d gone in her head.) She went on to ask me if I’d remembered the plane that had crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11. An odd question to ask someone who lives here, but I nodded, almost terrified to hear what she had to say.

She asked if I had known that an 11-year-old boy had been killed in the crash. I vaguely remembered hearing a child had been on board, so I nodded. She said that it was her Rodney — her grandson.

I looked it up in the WaPo when I had a chance — Rodney Dickens.

I had a million questions for her, but I felt like all she needed was someone to give her a moment to process. She said she had just started working at the gift shop — she’d thought it would be a good place for her to meet travelers and wish them well on their way out of town and to welcome the people who managed to make it in safely.

Or maybe that’s what I thought she was there for, because that’s what she did for me.

She did say, though, that she jumps every time she sees a plane — it’s pretty unfortunate that her shop happens to overlook the tarmac. (It’s a tiny airport, not like those mega-mall types like Pittsburgh and Minneapolis, among others.) Instead of inspiring her and helping her to overcome her fears, though, she thinks that she’s just about through with this job. It’s too hard on her.

I looked for her when I flew back a few days later, at exactly the same time of day. Maybe it was her day off. Maybe she’d had too much already. I don’t know. I do know that she will never forget her beloved grandson, and with that mere three-minute conversation, she became someone I would take in my heart during my travels as well.

On the opposite coast, I had the fortune of meeting someone who was catching a connection at SFO after leaving Hawaii post-earthquake last week. His home had suffered some damage — he told some stories about it but didn’t seem too bothered by it. He was very much of the “shit happens” mentality about it all. I admired that.

As we were being stripped of all dignity and shuffled off into a little glass-partitioned area to get dressed again, I asked him if he were heading somewhere safe for the time being. He said yes and that his destination was in Georgia, for his 45th high school reunion.

I’d wondered whether he’d intended to go to it or if it just happened to be a place safe from Mother Nature for the time being. He shrugged sweetly and said he never talked much in school but had a funny feeling that with his life and the stories he had to tell, he’d be remembered this time around.

I wished him well and saw him scurry off to the gate leaving for Savannah. And I never dreamed I’d see someone wanting to run like hell away from Hawaii but, admittedly, my world is a small one.

But it’s expanding.

Comments closed.