Two quick flights from Boston had taken me to another world.
In retrospect it seems odd that I didn’t notice a single ball field during my visit to the Deep South, a region I've long associated with athletics: Archie Manning and the SEC, Eli Manning and the Ole Miss Rebels, Jerry Rice, Boo Ferriss, the Bulldogs at State, and that retired guy from Hattiesburg who throws a football in Wrangler commercials.
Oh, I saw plenty of uniforms on this road trip, but they had nothing to do with football or baseball. So many uniforms. Atlanta, Charlotte, Jackson, Meridian: so many men and women in uniform. Combat boots on young recruits, women with crisp caps and hair pulled back tight, infantry and Air Force and Airborne. Camouflage, flight suits, and Navy blue.
Many faces displayed an otherworldly expression, as if they were gazing at something far away.
At Logan Airport, I watched one mother bid farewell to her U. S. Army son. There was nothing she could do as he disappeared inside the sterile jetway. She left the gate area slowly, leaning toward someone who might have been the young man's dad, seeking comfort and strength. I watched until she too disappeared from view.
When my Delta flight landed in Atlanta, most passengers remained seated and silent. No one rushed to stand up and grab belongings at the sound of the bell. Military personnel had been invited to deplane first, so that is what they did, while the rest of us solemnly applauded. A handsome young man in camouflage departed, his final destination: Kuwait. “Thank you, ma’am,” he nodded, and I watched him go. He looked so young, so very young. Thank you.
They journeyed alone and in small groups; said their goodbyes; boarded their flights. Inside a quiet terminal in Jackson, Mississippi I witnessed a poignant homecoming, the scene like so many others even more affecting because it was so subdued: three small children formed a circle around their dad, sheltered by a larger gathering of loved ones surrounding a lieutenant now safe at home.
I traveled with a pair of dog tags in the pocket of my jeans.
As I walked and as I watched, passing all the snack bars and ticket counters, rest rooms and Hudson newsstands, so much seemed superfluous. Newspapers, magazines, cosmetics, bestsellers, the sports pages. That world ceased to matter. I was traveling to meet my son, and it never occurred to me to check the box scores or MLB standings. Baseball headlines and trade deadlines suddenly seemed remote and insignificant, and the seriousness with which others approached those subjects struck me as amusing.
I watched a single mom happily diapering her baby boy, just as I once tended to my own children. The infant's name was Marcus, a distinguished and manly name, or so it seemed to me. A young father struggled with his diminutive twins, one of them screaming a newborn cry, a sweet and fragile sound that instantly took me back to blissful mornings and wakeful middle of the nights.
My children had always traveled well. The oldest loved an airport experience, no matter what our destination. Delayed and connecting flights never upset him; he'd stand patiently at picture windows, studying the activity on the runway and imagining flight. Nothing engaged his attention more than pilots in cockpits preparing for takeoff; orange sticks waving an aircraft into the gate; the slow rollback.
Last Thursday morning he greeted me early, a grown man all dressed and ready for work. He wore a khaki flight suit, Marine Corps dog tags laced into his boots.
Two hours later, I stood on a short runway in Lauderdale County under very uncertain skies as a T-45 Goshawk approached, its beam of light shining golden just as it should, a Navy jet swiftly touching down, then taking off again.
Inside a small hut beside the airstrip and outside it as well - just steps from those painted lines you see in the photograph - I stood and watched six young men rehearse and refine their touch-and-go landings. Their jets came straight at me, one after another, a golden light on the nose of each aircraft assuring me (and their mild-mannered yet acutely focused flight instructor) that if this patch of asphalt were the more fluid terrain of a carrier out in the middle of the sea, they would catch a hook.
The strike zone matters.
For two whole days, I didn’t think once about baseball. The subject never even crossed my radar screen. I saw no highlights or web gems on tv, checked no game summaries, and I survived without wireless newsfeeds from my colleagues in the business. Players' names became faint sounds in the distance, like friends I had known long ago . . . .
From time to time I wrestle with some questions, and maybe you do too. Is baseball ultimately just a frivolous pursuit, or is it worthy and significant? Does the game lift me up and fill an empty space, or does it drag my spirit down? Is it mostly an escape from pain and trouble, and thus unreal? Or is it real?
Maybe baseball isn't the huge thing I've made it out to be. In the end, it really isn't the thing I love most in life.
For the past week or so, the field of my dreams has been an airfield, its painted lines configuring a new geometry, a stretch of asphalt functioning as a metaphor for fluid runways that move in the middle of turbulent oceans where there is no manicured grass to be seen.
Last Thursday morning I wore foam earplugs to muffle the exhilarating noise of jets touching down so close we could almost touch them, then swiftly taking off again in well-choreographed, intelligently-executed patterns of touch-and-go. The powerful music they generated didn't manifest itself as something to be heard. No. Sound waves became a tactile thing felt palpably in the chest, not anywhere near the ears. An intense rumble of vibrations very close to the heart.
In less than 48 hours my son would touch down on a moving runway in the middle of the sea - not just once, but ten times. Alone in the cockpit, he would be G-suited, helmeted, and belted in for landing and takeoff, protected beneath a transparent canopy and furnished with an ejection seat. Touch and go. Lap around the boat. Catch a hook. Then catapult off the deck, accelerating over uncertain waters in a manner that most of us will never know, from 0 to 120 knots in approx. two seconds.
Upon finishing his required carrier landings, he sent a message home, delivered in words that were typically succinct and matter-of-fact: CQ complete. And then came a photograph of USMC wings pinned close to my son's heart, his name inscribed in letters of gold.
"They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint."
- Isaiah 40