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Tales from First Class: Fat Man and Soldier Boy

Posted on July 30, 2010 at 5:14 PM

Last week I mentioned 7 travel tips I learned from my recent jaunt up to New Hampshire to meet with the good folks of Russound. While the #1 thing you should take away from that was to never, ever, NEVER accidentally call the angry, butch lesbian handling your bags, “Sir,” it turns out that I was mistaken about something I wrote.

 

On tip #6 I mentioned that there was only one way to get a non-airline bump to First Class. At first, I thought only scantily clad, flirty-flirty cute women had a chance. But on my trip back home from Boston, I discovered not one but TWO other ways to get moved to First Class. Not only discovered, mind you, but actually saw these in action firsthand.

 

The first totally unexpected way opens the First Class bump playing field up to a much larger – literally, MUCH larger – portion of the population. During boarding, a man of extreme proportion, or if you prefer of “generous girth” or “of biological abundance” or “morbidly obese” stopped in the first class cabin and asked the flight attendant if he could get a seat belt extension. Now, I’m sure that your pride has just GOT to take a hit the first time you look in the mirror and face the reality that, no, a single seat belt is not gonna make it around your equator. However the woman behind me took pity on this man and offered to swap seats with him. Voila! Just like that, upgraded to first class! You’ll be happy to know that he ordered a Diet Coke for his beverage, so I’m sure his weight issue is entirely glandular in nature.

 

The second leg of my flight was from Charlotte to Myrtle. Now, after another insane death race through the airport, during which I did NOT have my Swim Buddy from before, yet managed to still commandeer a courtesy, Special Needs golf cart. (Which is actually not as easy as you might think. Whether or not you have a Special Need seems to be left entirely to the discretion of the rather surly operator of said cart. My plane arrived 55 minutes late and my flight home was scheduled to leave in like 10 minutes, which meant door to plane closing imminently. So I have run from one end of Concourse D to the center section of Charlotte where I spot an open cart. I race up to the woman and say, “Oh, thank God! Please...can...you...help...me? I’m trying...to make...my flight.” “Mmmmm-hmmmm. Let me see ya boardin’ pass.” OK. These are valuable seconds ticking away while I fumble for my boarding pass and she then slowly looks it over, using some unknown equation to determine if I qualify for “special needs.” Turns out I did – or she wanted to get a snack only available in Concourse B, it’s really an even bet.)

 

So I make it to my gate and surge into First Class like a conquering hero. I ask the flight attendant for a drink (OK, it’s a pomegranate martini. Yes, it’s pink. Yes, it probably *should* be served with an umbrella. But it’s refreshing, dammit!). So they finally close the plane up and there is no one sitting next to me, and an unfilled First Class cabin is a relatively bizarre and unnatural thing. So the stewardess steps into the back and shows me the second way to be upgraded. Be in the military and wear your uniform.

 

So down sits Private First Class, Kyle E (figured it probably wouldn’t be cool to post his whole name...). At this point, I’m on pink-drink #2, I’m on the plane, the probability of me making it home is in the high 90-percentile, and I’m fairly relaxed following my completion of the CLT 2K. So I ask PFC Kyle if he feels like chatting. He said sure, though, to be honest, I doubt he realized the level of commitment this was going to require on his part. For the next hour I grilled him about life abroad and I discovered some really interesting things about this young man that I felt were worth sharing.

 

This will be his first time home after 8 months in Iraq and Afghanistan and he’ll have two weeks of leave. When he returns, he’s off to Italy for a couple of months where he will get jump qualified and get his “wings.” He'll also get a promotion, to I believe Specialist, though I can't recall. Ultimately he wants to join Special Forces and get qualified so he can work aboard a Blackhawk when they pull guys out and see how far an Army career can take him. My advice to him for his time in Italy was to get a girl, get some wine and get to Venice to which he gave me a big “Roger That!” (My orders are seemingly a lot more enjoyable than dropping down and giving pushing out any random number.)

 

I asked him how he got into the Army and he said he grew up outside of Myrtle but his high school football coach got him into a college near Sacramento, CA. However he hurt his foot his first year and then came back home and since he didn’t really have anything else to do, he decided to join the Army (after first considering the Air Force but he thought he’d be too tall to be a flyer). When you think about it, imagine the immensity of the life-changer that football injury put on this guy. He is 19 years old, and could be out in Sacramento worrying about finals and joining the Century Club. (It’s a drinking game; Google it...) Instead, he took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) and scored a 93 and signed on to be a combat medic.

 

At this point, I requested my third pink-drink – so sweet and pomegranatey and free -- and Kyle ordered a water because – now tell me this isn’t like some line out of a movie; the classic, self-sacrificing hero -- he’s used to taking care of himself so that he can take care of his guys. While we take a moment to enjoy our bevs, I once again give him a chance to bow out of the conversation gracefully, asking if this is a bit too much like an interrogation, if he was starting to feel a bit like an over-fondled iPad, and that if he wants to me to leave him the hell alone, to just let me know. He says it’s cool and that he doesn’t mind talking about it. In fact, he says that a lot of people don’t know how to talk to him and want to ask if he’s killed anyone or anything. (Believe me or not, I was actually NOT going to ask this because even I know it’s in the poorest of taste.)

 

So I ask him what life is like “over there” and he said that they routinely go out on 3-25 mile foot patrols with 50-60 pound packs. Since the insurgents target medics, he spreads his gear around his body so he doesn’t stand out like a bullet magnet. He said when he first arrived, he just had to jump into it, treating combat and IED attack wounded, and that when you’re under fire, you just have to rely on your training to do the right thing. I asked if they still see a lot of combat and he said that life is about 95% boredom with the rest of the time *wishing* you were bored. I asked if he’d ever been under fire and he pulled back his sleeve to reveal an arm that was covered in scrapes and scabs from mortar shrapnel. He said they were on a patrol, and he felt a tug at his sleeve after an explosion and he looked down and saw that he was bleeding. He put a tourniquet on him arm and went over to help his sergeant who was hit in the neck

 

When dealing with enemy combatants, Kyle said that if US bullets don’t kill them right away, he has to go and treat them, which he admitted was a philosophy that took a bit of getting used to; one moment the guy next to you was trying to kill him the next moment you’re tasked with risking your life to saving theirs. He said the “coolest thing he’s done” was to get a chance to work the 50-cal off the back of a Humvee. He said that there is no real Internet in Afghanistan and that he avoids using the Sat phones to stay focused on his job and to avoid being distracted by thoughts of home. Getting mail is also very sporadic, with mail trucks getting blown up all the time. I asked how long it would take for him to get a letter and he said it could take 3 weeks to 3 months.


He said things are bad in Afghanistan, but that the locals in Iraq are starting to accept the troops. He spends a good bit of time treating non-war injuries, helping kids, diagnosing and treating illnesses, etc. Regular doc stuff.

 

I was left thinking how tough it must be for someone so young to make such difficult – literally life or death – decisions. And yet he had no complaints or negative comments or “what could have beens.” I asked what he was most looking forward to on his vacation and he said being able to wake up whenever he wanted and to go surfing without worrying about 3 AM mortar attacks or that someone might want to wake up the doc to look at a blister on their foot. At the end of the flight, we parted ways with a handshake and I gave him my second order: Take care of yourself. Then, he was gone. And I have to say, I was a bit hurt -- shocked, saddened, totally in disbelief -- that no family was there to greet him at the airport.

Categories: July 2010

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1 Comment

Reply Jeremy Glowacki
1:15 PM on August 20, 2010 
This was great, John. You so like to talk more than I do. Thanks for doing it for me. I'm curious, just not the chatty type. The ending of this was poignant (and sad).