Going home during wartime


A journey home during wartime. . . .

It started in the airport. They said there would be increased security at all international airports throughout the United States and Europe. No surprise, then, that the other morning at Baltimore-Washington International, I counted six security officers in blazers by the metal detector. A woman placed a diaper bag on a bench in the main terminal and started walking toward her husband when a state trooper snapped, "Whose bag is this?"

The trooper appeared from nowhere. The bag had been left unattended for no more than 10 seconds -- enough time for the woman to take three steps toward her husband, who was carrying an infant -- when we all heard the trooper's voice. The woman immediately turned and retrieved her bag.

George Bush reportedly objects to the Soviet proposal for peace in the Persian Gulf because it would leave Saddam Hussein in power with his army largely intact. And Iraq would still be a retreat for terrorists planning attacks around the world. One ponders Saddam back in post-war Baghdad, the Arab who refused to grovel to the Great Satans of the West, and one sees troopers spending the foreseeable future snapping at women who leave diaper bags unattended in airports.

No one without a ticket for a flight was allowed past the security gate. All goodbyes were said at the metal detector.

Waiting for the plane was a young sailor. His head had been shaved. He sat straight and still in the chair in the boarding area. His eyes seemed to be focused on some distant, daydreamy spot in the vast terminal, shifting only when a pretty woman walked by. He appeared to be no more than 24. In a time of war, one looks curiously at young men in uniform, as if this were a way to develop a composite of the American assigned to fight the war in the gulf. In combat gear, pictured against Saudi sunsets in news magazines, they look rugged and ready, mature and mean. Close up, they just look young.

The soldier on my flight was that way. He was tall and dark. His head had been shaved. He wore eyeglasses. I guessed he was 22. He looked a bit awkward in his uniform, as a high school boy looks awkward in a tuxedo rented for a prom. He sat in his seat, slipped on a headset and listened to a Yes tape. When our flight arrived, his parents and his girlfriend met him. He was presented with a single rose wrapped in cellophane, the kind a convenience store sells. Seeing him there, welcomed home for the weekend, one wondered where he was headed next.

The woman who picked me up at the airport wore a yellow ribbon. Yellow ribbons were everywhere, on the toll booths on the road leading away from the airport, on car antennas, on the front doors and front windows of houses. Back in my old hometown, we drove past the town common across from the high school. Twenty years ago, that common was a hotbed of protests against the Vietnam War. Now a tree, just a few yards from the Civil War monument at the center of the common, was adorned with yellow ribbons.

At the convenience store in the center of town, they were selling Operation Desert Storm baseball caps for $4.99. On Saturday, the local newspaper ran a front-page photograph of Bush looking downright giddy as he greeted a crowd of workers who had produced Patriot missiles. There was an article celebrating a local factory that made dies for a machine that cut plastic for some innocuous military purpose, one of those doing-our-part-for-God-country-and-contracts pieces that have become standard to home-front journalism during the Persian Gulf war. A full section of the newspaper was devoted to short profiles of local car dealers, in a particularly seamy effort by a co-opted newspaper to stimulate sales and, in turn, advertising.

"This guy's a Hitler, he had to be stopped," a cousin said at the dinner table Sunday. No one answered her. Everyone agreed. Or no one felt like arguing. Twenty years ago, at the same table, there were plenty of arguments about the war. Our uncles, veterans of World War II, battled with their kids, several of whom were draft-age during the Vietnam era. Most of the uncles are gone now.

Two of my three draft-age nephews came by. One of them had just come off a terrific year as quarterback of his high school football team. He'll be graduating this spring.

The nephew, a happy-hearted young man, has a thing for sweats. He wears them all the time. Sunday he was wearing an Operation Desert Storm sweat shirt. This one said, "Kicking A-- In Iraq." Nephew was amused by it and assumed everyone else would be. He was smiling broadly. He looked very young.

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