I'll be home for Christmas, part IV

(This story begins here.)

It is now Saturday, 22 December, in Atlanta. Advon and I wheeled our bags out to the hotel's courtesy shuttle and rode back to the airport. We had confirmed seats ATL - DEN - CYS, changing from Frontier to United at Denver.

I declared unloaded firearms in checked baggage to the Frontier check-in agent, a woman who knew what to look for in a "show clear" and asked to see it. We could feel all the eyes in the terminal turned toward us as I unlocked, unpacked, and racked the rifles, then the pistols, turning the pieces so she could see into the chambers.

* * * *

Time again for security screening, but this time the Swiss Army knife and autoinjectors were stowed in checked bags. I still got stopped. Maybe it's the surgical staples from the splenectomy. Those plus my dental fillings.

Ten minutes later I caught up to Advon. "Metalhead," he said again.

* * * *
Denver by about 1030, some idle time in the cattlepen commuter gates at DIA. Bitter cold weather had moved in, and was bound to be colder still in Cheyenne.

Two Noble Eagle soldiers greeted the plane as it stopped at the gate in Cheyenne.
Our super, our commander, and our MPF contact greeted us.

The 20-minute flight to CYS was a regional commuter that codeshared with both Frontier and United, but the DEN-CYS leg was ticketed United, so of course they had to misplace a bag or two because there was an airline change. It says so in the Secret Airline Manual. During high security periods when 100-percent baggage-to-passenger matching is required, they are allowed to lose only one fewer bag per passenger than usual.

The bags they lost? The rifle cases, plus a few of Advon's. We watched as the belt ground past, until we saw the same pattern of scratches and gummed-fast discarded luggage tags roll past five or six times, then we and the Noble Eagle guys concluded that we should start asking after the four US Government-property firearms.

Oh, they're in Denver, the agent told us after calling around with the tag numbers. We'll get them up here on the next flight.

When is that?

Six PM.

It was about 1300 Mountain on the 22nd of December. Weather here was sunny, clear skies, but below-freezing with winds that chilled below zero. I was watching the weather back East also, where a lake-effect storm was brewing.

Advon's Christmas was an hour down the Interstate. Mine was looking far away in spite of the remarkable distance we had covered in only 3 days. We were cut loose until 2 January, when we had to inprocess; no one was around to inprocess us today, and we had to inprocess to get ourselves back off CENTAF's headcount. Whatever I was going to do, wherever I was going to go, I had to be back here by 2 Jan.

The first problem I had to solve, after receiving the weapons and checking them into our arms room, was to get from here to my house, 200 km away. I had no car here, because Barbaloot came up weeks after I deployed, to retrieve the sedan I had driven up.

Advon did one of the biggest-hearted things that a silent-type will ever do. "Take my car. My family is coming to get me, we'll drive you down to Fort Collins, then you take my car the rest of the way."

But the weapons and the rest of Advon's stuff wasn't going to get here for another four hours at the earliest, and I had to check them back in personally. Our Commander told me to get lost, go, somebody from the airport would call when they show up. "Drive, Fûz, drive. Go home and get to your family."

* * * *
And a good thing, because they didn't call until Sunday morning, 23 December. I had spent the last night, the first night back in my own house, rattling around it, feeding cats, and scrounging for airfares to get from DEN to BUF. Barbaloot had used up all of the frequent traveler miles to get herself and the offspring units to Buffalo days before, so there weren't enough left for me (maybe enough for a drink coupon).

United offered a roundtrip for just over $200, and warned me that securrr'ty had become still more Anal about short-notice tickets for metalheaded passengers with no checked baggage.

The only seats left were first-flight-out on 24 December, through IAD.

Weather was still sunny but cold and windy as I drove up to Cheyenne, signed the weapons and ammo back in, brought Advon's bags back to him, then headed back home. More rattling around in an empty house, a quick call to Barbaloot with my itinerary, then to sleep for another early wakeup.

* * * *
A major snowstorm was gathering moisture from Lake Erie and would begin dumping it on Western New York that day. Could I be stuck in Dulles? Yeah. Wouldn't be so bad, though, since both Barbaloot and I have family in the area---oh yeah, forgot, half of them will be in Buffalo.

After I checked in at Denver, I noticed two rows of OCR-font capital "S"s printed across the boarding pass stub. Now I would learn what that means. The secondary gate screening flagged my boots, my rigger's belt buckle, wedding ring, dog tags, sunglasses, and on and on. My surgical staples were beginning to tingle when another gate agent came up, the same person who had checked me in, in fact. She noticed the short hair, the desert boots, and the grimacing War Face and recognized me as a serviceman, since I had shown my military ID and leave form when I checked in.

"You're military on leave. You're not supposed to be subject to secondary screening."

Fine time to find that out. Am I going to make this flight?

* * * *
Of course I did. The storm over Western New York had worsened by the time I reached Dulles. The flight was delayed, then delayed again. I was reaching for a phone when they announced boarding. We would arrive at Buffalo at about dark, on Monday, 24 December.

As we descended we entered a cloud layer that had no bottom, only some gaps through which we could see patches of the runway and bits of Tonawanda, Cheektowaga, and Lancaster. This was wet, heavy snow churning beneath us.

The landing was slow and rough. The pilot announced during taxiing that we were the last plane in, Buffalo Airport was now closed.

I had checked no baggage, but the only place to meet anyone was at baggage claim anyway. I headed there, and stood around, looking at the families reuniting at the belts.

Then I felt a tug at my right hand. Middlechild, wearing glasses I had only seen in photos until now, had found me and now held my hand, but stared straight ahead with a faint smirk. She never has been big on eye contact. As I was turning to her, I felt another cold hand take my left. It was Barbaloot. She didn't say anything, didn't need to. We just looked at each other for a moment, holding one hand, each making sure it really was the other.

* * * *

I felt guilty, knowing that I came home from a huge military undertaking while tens of thousands of others were going to stay for months longer than I, and of them many would not come home alive. Pure dumb luck precipitated our release, and purer dumber luck, some of it made by ourselves, got us home in time to take advantage of it.

Eventually Advon and I deployed again, and made up for this release as well as our 365-day orders would allow. This makes me feel only slightly less self-conscious.

I felt guilty that I could join my extended and generous and loving family for Christmas, and they could not. In telling this story, that guilt has been revived somewhat, because another huge campaign has called servicemen away for another Christmas, while I write about my own experiences from the comfort of my home, on a computer where I can email or browse for hours at a stretch.

There is no question, between Advon and me, that our services will be needed again. And maybe this time, we'll stay in theater so somebody else can try to rotate back to the World in time for a busy holiday, and write about it.

* * * *

To the men and women who are still in the AOR, I wish a sincere Merry Christmas.

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