Last night I found myself in the Atlanta airport. Two travel weary children in tow, we made our way through the busiest airport in the world. Off the plane after a three-hour flight, through the masses, down and escalator, onto a train, back up an escalator and to our gate. Eliza and Lucille were hungry and disoriented. We’d had enough snacks, enough airport food so we lined up to get ice cream at 9 p.m.
The kids had been champs bouncing from one end of the country to the other and in and out of airports all day. Ice cream seemed like a treat we could all get behind. I read off the flavors and Lucille jumped up and down beside me as man in front of me told me he’d be picking our tab.
“Order whatever you want,” he said. “It’s on me.”
“Oh you don’t have to do that,” I said finding my southern, apparently, after a few breaths of Georgia air.
“No really, I’ve have this voucher. I’ve been looking for someone to let me buy them ice cream for 20 minutes. I’m going to basic training tonight and I won’t get ice cream for a while.” He showed me what looked like a check. “I have $24 to spend and I can’t eat that in ice cream.”
I looked at the voucher and realized it was a military meal voucher. Then I looked back at him and realized how young he was.
“That’s really generous,” I said. “Thank you.”
“Well, the United States military is really generous,” he said. “You’re welcome. Go ahead, order whatever they’d like.”
I ordered one cup of cookie dough and one cup of mint chocolate chip. We said a few more thank yous and headed slowly to our gate. I pulled our suitcases while Eliza and Lucille meandered through the busy corridor licking their ice cream.
We sat on the carpet and waited for our flight to Columbia, S.C. After a few minutes I spotted the man who’d funded our ice cream at the same gate. He was lapping up his own cone of mint chocolate chip when I started to put it all together. He’s going to Fort Jackson, I thought. And it’s going to be hot. In terms of heat in the summer, Columbia is in the third circle of hell. Basic training sounds like it is too, so I was feeling a little sorry for this kid when he came over to chat.
He said he was from Michigan and that the hottest it gets there is about 85 degrees. It can be that hot in the middle of the night in Columbia, I thought, but I didn’t tell him that. He was 23, just out of college and had traded a summer working in fast food to go to basic training. He’d been running, he said, to get in shape. From the looks of his biceps, he’d been lifting weights too. As he nibbled the edges of the cake cone that held his dwindling ice cream, he sat back against the wall and closed his eyes. He looked nervous for what awaited him on the other end of the flight we were about to board. He saw another man about his age with a similar army issue backpack across the terminal.
“I wonder if he’s going with me,” he said and stood up as if to say over here. I’m over here.
But that man kept walking to another gate.
The man who’d bought our ice cream sat down again. I kept thinking how it seemed he was looking for connection is this giant airport, this unruly world.
“Can I ask you a favor?” he said.
“Sure,” I said.
“My phone is dead. Can I use your cell phone? I just want to call my mom and my girlfiend to let them know that I’m okay.”
I handed him my phone and moved my daughters a few steps away so he might have some privacy.
I heard him make the first call and I was so glad that it sounded like he reached someone. On the second call, he left a message. He thanked me, handed me back my phone and walked away for a few minutes. He looked like my brother. Round classes, boyish face, turning-into-a-man body. He’d joined the army. He wanted to talk to his mother. And the mother in me just wanted to tell him it was all going to be okay.
About that time I felt my phone buzzing in my pocket. It was a number unknown to me, from Michigan.
“Um, hi…did my son borrow your cell phone to call me?”
“Yes,” I said.
“I didn’t recognize the number so I didn’t answer. Is he…there?” she said.
“He’s walked away,” I said. “But we are on the same flight. I think he’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Will you just tell him that I love him?” she said.
“I will.” I said.
Somehow I had tripped into this moment. I wanted to tell her he looked like he needed a hug, that he was nice young man who’d bought my daughters ice cream, that she didn’t have anything to worry about. Instead, I just promised to relay the message.
I took the kids to the bathroom to wash the sticky off of their hands and returned to the gate just in time to board. When I saw the man who’d bought us ice cream, he looked so much like a scared boy. He was sitting alone with his eyes closed, taking what appeared to be deep breaths. I tapped him on the shoulder and offered him my phone again.
“Your mom called,” I said. “You probably still have time to call her back.”
He dialed the number quickly and I heard him start to talk to her. He thanked me again and returned my phone as we both got caught in the rush of boarding.
When we arrived in Columbia, Eliza and Lucille were amped, having spent the last forty minutes on the flight whipping glow sticks through the air. They’d been on planes for the better part of a day and ran through the deserted airport to nowhere in particular. They just needed to move. We met my aunt, who was picking us up, and headed to get our bags. On our way up the last escalator of the night, I looked over my shoulder to a waiting area teeming with young men and women, boys and girls. All of them carried an army-issue backpack. They’d arrived from all over country, I imagine. They were all waiting for a bus to take them to basic training. Just as I was about to to slide my suitcase off the moving stairs, my eyes met those of the boy we’d met in Atlanta.
There was so much I wanted to say to him. Be careful. Don’t die. Watch the business end of your gun. Call you mother. Come home. But all I could muster was something so inconsequential.
“Good Luck!” I shouted over a sea of other people just like him.
“Safe travels,” he shouted back.
And with that my aunt, my daughters and I stepped out into the rain of a southern summer night.
This essay originally appeared on mamalode.com.