Story by Jaye Lewis
I only noticed him out of the corner of my eye. I knew he was a Marine from the cut of his uniform, with its tightly pressed military creases. Then I heard him, speaking low with a kind of hiss. He was not speaking to me. He was speaking to my Sergeant, who was the Non Commissioned Officer, in charge of the Military Information Booth, at San Francisco International Airport, where I served as a Navy WAVE, during the Vietnam War.
I heard his tortured attempt to speak. “Hep nee, peesss!” (Help me, please!) He struggled with every word. I was grabbing my purse to take a much needed break, but I was caught by his struggle to make himself understood. I could hear the irritation in the sergeant’s voice, as she demanded that he “speak up!”
I paused, as he began again, “I-nee-to-change-ny-tickek!” I understood every painful word he said. He needed to change his ticket. What was wrong with my NCO? “I CAN’T understand you!” She said, irritated. “Speak up!” How rude! I thought. I turned, putting down my purse, and I looked at him, again beginning his struggle to speak. And, no wonder. There stood a tall, strong Marine Officer, perfect in his pristine uniform, missing half his jaw! My God, I thought! What is she thinking?!
“Excuse me, Sir. I can help you.” Without thinking, I shoved my Sergeant aside and maneuvered my way in front of her. I could see the man’s teeth through the wire that held his face together. I was of no importance, a lowly seaman apprentice, but I knew what this man needed. Someone, who cared enough to listen. I studied his eyes. I saw the pain, and I felt his humiliation. Soul to soul, I knew what to do. I smiled. A big, welcoming smile.
“Yes Sir! How can I help you?” Painfully, slowly. words, tortured and slurred, escaped from his wired mouth. I listened with all my heart, and I watched his eyes. Dear God, help me to understand! I prayed. And I did understand him, more than I can express. I gave him the directions he needed, and his eyes smiled his thanks. When he walked away, I called a friend at United Airlines, who adopted him immediately, taking great care with his situation.
I thanked God for this opportunity to help a real hero.
However, I also knew I was in trouble. I looked at my Sergeant, feeling anger rise in me, at her rudeness and total lack of sensitivity. She stared at me, and she said, “I could put you on report.” Her eyes narrowed. Without thinking, I blurted out, “…and, I could put YOU on report, Sergeant, for insubordination to an officer!” My eyes spit fire, as I hurtled the stack of report chits towards her. “Be my guest!” I said, as I grabbed my purse. “I’ll be on break.” And I left.
I went on to supper, as I knew it would be a long night. I was troubled, however, now that my “dander” was down, at the thought of going to Captain’s Mast, for my insubordination to an NCO. I was certain it would be very unpleasant.
As I neared the United Airlines counter, I saw him again. His luggage was being checked, and his back was towards me. Then, as though someone had told him where I was, he turned, and he looked at me. Our eyes met, for an eternity. Then I smiled.
This soldier and hero, in the United States Marine Corps, pulled himself up to his full height, and with all the military perfection in his being, he gave me a sharp, military salute! I was thrilled! WAVES did not salute indoors, especially, when they were not wearing their cover (hat), but I pulled myself to attention and returned that salute.
Moving on to the cafeteria, I walked a little taller, and I felt more like a lady than I ever had before, in my whole life! And…just a little bit…I felt like a hero.