Standing on the curb
The April Fool’s Day snow lay about 3 inches deep in our driveway when we left Bristol Sunday morning. My aunt had called a week before to tell us that Lewis, my 92-year-old uncle, would be flying to Baltimore with Honor Flight Maine and would return Sunday, April 2.
Lewis is the youngest of seven children born to Lena and Schuyler Higgins. My mother, 10 years his senior, was his only sister. In January of 1943, he left home to report for duty at "Camp Devins," according to Lena’s diary. For the next week, her entries include lines like, “I miss Lewis so much, I just don’t know what to do.” Her entries grow less frequent over the weeks, but in April she notes that Lewis is in the hospital with rheumatic fever. Later that summer she notes that Lewis arrived home on the last train from Bangor.
Despite the weather on Saturday, the roads were clear and mostly dry on the way down to Portland, and just past the Hilton Garden Inn, signs directed us to what is normally the employee parking lot. We received tag number 002 at a little past 10 a.m. Inside the terminal, volunteers were already hard at work. The long red carpet was laid from the arrivals area to the reception area and three women were unpacking T-shirts and hats. We stopped to buy shirts and a hat for me. The ladies remembered Lewis from the Honor Flight departure on Thursday. We took our purchases, bought some unexpectedly good coffee, and sat down for our two- to three-hour wait.
If you’ve been to PWM, you probably know that the seating on the first floor is diabolically designed to discourage lingering, and we shortly found it preferable to stand and chat with others. One woman we met had just arrived from Tampa to surprise her mother, who was on the Honor Flight. We met a young woman who was leaving in a few days to start basic training as a marine. I had the extraordinary privilege of shaking the hands of the Freeport “flag ladies” and thanking them for their example and dedication.
Organizers came by to tell us the flight had arrived as scheduled at 12:30, but, as predicted, it took a full hour to deplane, gather luggage, and assemble the veterans for their “march” down the red carpet behind bagpipers and a color guard. Most of the World War II veterans were in wheelchairs being pushed by their companions for the trip, except for one who insisted on pushing his chair containing only his luggage. There were also veterans of Korea, Vietnam, and Desert Storm. Lewis was one of the last to come by, and he wanted us to know that he didn’t need the wheelchair. The organizers had insisted!
After lunch and a few speeches, we took Lewis to the loading area, and his son got behind the wheel to start the two-hour drive to Dedham. We found our car and left for Bristol with our thoughts:
Only the night before we’d heard that Drexel University Professor George Ciccariello tweeted: “Some guy gave up his first-class seat for a uniformed soldier. People are thanking him. I’m trying not to vomit or yell about Mosul.” Lewis had given us this opportunity do something positive while also demonstrating how vehemently we reject Mr. Ciccariello, the university that enables his hate, and the reprehensible thoughts he harbors.
We noted how blessed we are to have Lewis with us and, while it was our great privilege to greet him, he in fact had given us the greater gift of meeting so many extraordinary, patriotic, fundamentally decent fellow Mainers.
We were reminded that as absurdly divisive as our country has become, America remains fundamentally good, kind, rational and patriotic. Lewis represents what is called the "Greatest Generation," not just because of the sacrifices they made and the heroism of their service to the world. They also returned to set high standards of self-reliance, personal achievement, hard work, charity, morality and responsible parenting.
Their hard work made America educated and prosperous, they cleaned our rivers and the air, and they rejected the discrimination that shamed America for a century after the Civil War. Sadly, it was our generation that followed them, coming of age during the Vietnam era and shamefully setting new standards for enabling and legitimizing every imaginable form of sedition, duplicity, hedonism, depravity, irresponsibility and self-destructive behavior.
Back home, the snow had vanished from our driveway and we let go of the guilt over what we could have done, should have done, but didn’t do. One of the shirts we saw in Portland effectively summed up our musings: “We can’t all be heroes. Some of us get to stand on the curb and clap as they go by.” –Will Rogers