When we boarded our plane in Dallas bound to Honolulu in January, I'd had only had two hours' sleep. Inevitably, I tossed and turned in anticipation of getting up at 4 a.m.--and then traveling for more than 12 hours. So when I saw the large man I would have to share my other armrest with, I grimaced.
The man, in military fatigues, quickly jumped to his feet to help me put my bags up above. Once we were settled into our seats, he leaned over with a mini-bottle of Maker's Mark in his right hand, offering it to us.
"I don't drink, and people keep giving me things," he said with a grin. We took it, even though we don't drink it, either. (Yes, I thought of Gov. Barbour, who apparently does.)
As our seatmate got busy figuring out where to put all those legs, I examined his patches out of the corner of my eye. I wondered what that black-and-white flag, pinned to his sleeve, meant. When he pulled out a blue Snuggie and started poking his arms and legs into it, I couldn't help but snicker.
That was his opening. "This thing is great," he said. "Someone sent it to me in Afghanistan. It's great for long plane rides."
As he talked, people were boarding, many of them patting him on the shoulder and thanking him for his service. One of the flight attendants gave him a sandwich, and he offered it to us. We told him we don't eat meat, so he gave it to people across the aisle.
Turned out he was an Army infantry captain, headed home after a tour in Afghanistan, and he was near giddy over the chance to see his wife and 2-month-old little girl. He's from Ohio, but is stationed in Hawaii. As soon as the plane's captain let him, he flipped out in iPad, set it up on his tray table and showed off every possible photo of his wife and daughter. He showed us their apartment, their furniture, the baby bed, the stencils his wife did for the walls. We saw the big-screen TV, and the bookcases, and the bathroom.
After the photos, I asked him about the pinned-on patch on his sleeve. It represented his company in Afghanistan he said, quietly.
About 20 minutes into the flight movie, I poked Todd. Our new buddy was covered by blue fleece, was wearing a huge puffy eye mask over his eyes, and had headphones protruding from his ears. His blond head was dropped forward, and he was napping. I smiled.
Todd and I were already blessed to be on this trip--headed to a paradise we'd never visited, with all our expenses paid by a group that wanted us to help brainstorm ideas for racial reconciliation. In Hawaii, we joined a remarkable group of people to talk about issues that matter so much--and as white folks, we were in the minority in our group and in Hawaii.
Our first session was opened with remarks by a dynamic young Hawaii native who filled us in on the history of the islands, including the tough colonization by the United States that has challenged natives for so long. She talked about how the U.S. military "occupies" 20 percent of Oahu, where we were. She addressed the poverty that the oppressed communities struggled with; she didn't sugarcoat anything, and none of us wanted her to.
But we were there for reconciliation, not for what one of the participants called "frozen anger." As she talked, it was easy to draw parallels with our situation back at home where we face and try to overcome the consequences of our history on a daily basis, not to mention build bridges with others to try to overcome them. I thought of the importance of discerning between institutional problems and individuals who mean well, especially in such a politically divisive country and world.
I got to know the young woman, Dawn, during the next several days. She, like the others at this gathering, wasn't about getting stuck in that "frozen anger"; we all believed in acknowledging historic issues and then using their lessons to get past it. And she appreciates life as much as we do.
While in Hawaii, I became obsessed with all the tropical fruit I'd never seen. So she would stop at the fruit stand and get me some--like the red, fuzzy rambutan with little soft tendrils--and bring it to the hotel. She pointed out those fabulous spurts on the top of the whales when we toured the island. She took us to a beach where two huge sea turtles were dug into the sand (surrounded by guards).
She had us meet next to the bay while a wonderfully diverse group of teenagers practiced rowing in those long outrigger canoes. She told me that the pink cake that melted in my mouth like cotton candy was a guava chiffon. (I recommend it). She explained why my potato salad was purple at the buffet before the Polynesian hula and fire dancing.
All along the way, Dawn talked about the highlights of her home state, along with the challenges. She is one of the most life-loving people I've ever met, and also one of the most informed about real history. She is engaged, and she is working to make her postage stamp of the world a better place for its people.
During our weekend tour of the island--with five of us crammed into a convertible--I told her and others about the Army captain I'd met on the plane. He was one of the most loving strangers I'd ever met, I told them. I wondered if he was always that way--or if being away from his loved ones had made him more that way. I suspect both were true.
On our last day, Todd and I went for a driving tour of the island using a detailed itinerary Dawn had emailed us early that morning. As we drove along gorgeous coastline near the "blowhole" (look it up), I thought of the captain again; he had been the first person to use that strange word to me.
As we'd prepared to land in Honolulu, the captain was bursting with excitement to see his wife and baby. But, first, he had to tell us all about the island he'd grown to call home. He pointed out the window so we could see the mountains, telling us what we were seeing (from Diamond Head to the U.S.S. Arizona) and giving us instructions on where to drive (the same route Dawn would choose later).
When we landed, he jumped out of his seat and said goodbye. A few seconds later, we saw him coming back down the aisle against the traffic. He reached out his hand. "I want you to have these," he said, handing us two of his Army-green infantry patches. Then he ran off to say "aloha" to his girls.
"Aloha" means "love," you know.
Whoops. On second reference in the above column, I said "Air Force caption" instead of Army captain. I've corrected it above.
By the way, I looked up an image of the patch our captain friend gave us. Apparently, he is with the 25th Infantry Division; read more here.