[This Commentary originally appeared in the December 13, 1990 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]
It came to me in a plain brown cardboard box as I prepared to catch a midday flight to Washington DC four years ago. The dark brown many-pocketed WWII Bombardier’s Flight Jacket had caught my eyes a few weeks before. I really didn’t expect it to arrive before I left for the political conference. Imagine my joy when the UPS truck pulled up into my driveway.
Since my earliest days the spirit and the zest of the fighter jock secretly boiled far down within my soul. To counter this inner desire lay a cautious sense of responsibility. Yet, I could not deny deep-seated feelings. I knew, just like most people, I had undertaken some “daring” adventures. While not life threatening, these encounters certainly possessed at least a personal challenge.
So I bought the WWII Bombardier’s Flight Jacket, half wanting to reward myself for past deeds (albeit, only of private significance), half wanting to finally wear something that ran contrary to that cautious sense of responsibility my parents’ fine upbringing had imbued upon me.
Unbeknownst to me, the jacket became a special symbol, if not an important part of my life. Indeed, from the very beginning, the heavy leather pelt has been close by in very rough times. In hindsight now, I can see why I grew so attached to it.
I put on the jacket as soon as the UPS man had left. I didn’t take it off until after the place had landed at Dulles. I even wore it to the White House, where my group met with President Reagan on the South Lawn for one of those crazy little ceremonies we always see on the evening news.
White House security, spotting the coarse leather jacket in a sea of blue blazers and sport coats, singled me out and pulled me from my group. For a moment, they refused to let me enter the White House. Of course, I can’t lay all the blame on the jacket. In a crowd of coats and ties, I stuck out, dressed in dungarees and a flannel shirt, with the leather covering up the security pass pinned to my chest. I eventually got in to see the President. I also played my harmonica on the South Lawn.
Oddly enough, another new item accompanies me on that trip – my harmonica. Like the flight jacket, the raspy melody of a blues harmonica always attracted me. I longed to play. I decided the Washington conference, and the Florida meetings which immediately followed, would offer the time to learn.
I soon had more time than I wished for. The line at the ticket counter in Dulles moved slowly. I arrived at my gate in time to see the jetway detach itself from my plane and my plane gently pull back from the gate. I had missed my flight.
This worried me. All the big shots from work were on that flight. They would notice my absence. I hurriedly went back to the ticket booth to book the next flight. Luckily, United had extra seats. Unluckily, I would have to wait five hours.
The United terminal at Dulles Airport can be a lonely place. Travelers scurry back and forth, in and out of gates, but they all seem to want to spend as little time in the terminal as possible. The nervous excitement of a departing flight vanished as quickly as the plane took off. At times, the terminal reminded me of a ghost town.
There I sat. Scrunched up in a corner, wearing dungarees, a tee shirt, three days growth of beard and my WWII Bombardier’s Flight Jacket. With five hours to kill, I took out my harmonica and began to play. I half expected some sympathetic passenger to throw a quarter my way.
Needless to say, I finally arrived in Tampa and proudly wore my rugged leather in the eighty degree heat all the way to the hotel. I didn’t want people to think I me a mere tourist. I wanted to look native. I wanted them to believe I couldn’t feel the heat.
I yanked the jacket off and cranked up the air conditioning as soon as I entered the hotel room. I wanted to relax at this three day meeting. Little did I know I would be lynched by an angry mob the next day. Without warning, the meeting turned hostile. Twenty five angry people mercilessly scrutinized my every action over the previous year.
Never before had I been so humiliated in public when it really mattered to me. I slowly, silently, and solitarily sauntered back to my room. I ordered room service for dinner, still trying to absorb why people would say what they did.
Troubled, alone and confused, I didn’t know what to think. I decided, for the next few hours at least, I wouldn’t think. With the sun set and darkness upon the Gulf coast, I grabbed my trusty WWII Bombardier’s Flight Jacket and walked on the shadowy sand along the endless beach.
After a couple of miles, I put my hand in my pocket and discovered my harmonica. From that point on, I vowed to always keep the harmonica in the pocket of my leather jacket. I took the instrument to my mouth and began to play. Above the slow ssschrreeussshh of the waves floated the gentle melody of the only song I knew – Red River…
I survived, but my WWII Bombardier’s Flight Jacket didn’t. A couple of Saturdays ago, I ineptly left the forlorn coat in the corner of the west endzone at the University of Rochester’s Fauver Stadium. Just as suddenly and unexpected as it had entered my life, my jacket was gone. Yes, the harmonica was still in its pocket.
Author’s note: A few days later, after posting what seemed like several thousand signs throughout the campus, someone called saying they had found my jacket. He probably doesn’t realize how happy he’s made me. I only hope that, one day, my own actions can bring as much joy to someone as his actions brought to me.
[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]