It was a cold and grey Saturday morning in mid December, 1971, a little more than a month after my 12th birthday. My sister and I were sitting in the back seat of our green 1969 Ford LTD, my Dad was driving and my Mom was sitting in the front passenger side. My Mom was nervous and anxious. We were on our way to Mitchell Field to pick up my oldest brother, Mike, who had just finished the Army’s basic training in Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. He was coming home on leave. It’d be the first time we saw him since the last time my Dad drove to the airport, eight weeks earlier, to drop him off.
We had received, in the mail, an official army portrait photo of Mike, all dressed in uniform, very formal, with his hair cut razor thin. He looked nothing like the thick haired rock and roll fan he went into the army as. We had received a couple of letters, in the army’s white envelopes with the red and blue trim, and he seemed to be doing well.
We parked the car and went inside the arrivals area. We were surprised to see dozens of razor thin haired soldiers, all formally dressed in their uniforms, all resembling the photo we had received. My Mom was very anxious to see her oldest son, and somehow, she and I split off from my Dad and my Sister, as she aggressively made her way through the sea of uniforms. Finally, she spotted my brother standing at a ticket counter. She walked up, me following, and approached him, smiling broadly and saying, “Hi, how are you?” It was at that point that the confused expression on the soldier’s face confirmed what I had just begun to suspect – it wasn’t Mike.
“I’m fine”, he said cautiously, as I was able to nudge her and say, “Mom, that’s not Mike.” Embarrassed and flustered, she turned red, and we turned our back on the soldier that wasn’t Mike and towards the mass of uniforms. It didn’t take us long to find the real Mike, and I had a good laugh when I told him how Mom had mistaken the wrong soldier for him. My Mom, still red with embarrassment, was a good sport about it, and reluctantly laughed, too.
Then the three of us found my Dad and Jenny, and then we were back in the car, Mike sitting in the back seat with me and my little sister. We had a nice ride home, with me calling him a “punk”, just like I did in the weeks before he went in the army, picking up where we had left off as if he’d never been gone. The conversation turned to current events, and my Mom asked him what he thought of the big topic of the day, President Nixon’s recent trip to China, and Mike answered that he didn’t think Nixon was tough enough. We were all surprised by his answer, as this was the same Mike who had been against the Vietnam War and who had agonized, after being drafted, about going in or defecting to Canada. He ended up taking advantage of an offer where if he would enlist for a third year, he could serve in Germany, on the front lines of the cold war, and avoid having to go to Vietnam. Mom and Dad took his response to Nixon and China as evidence that he was growing up. I silently doubted the sincerity of the answer and suspected that he was telling them what they wanted to hear. Regardless, I think it was more the site of his son in uniform than the answer to the question that made my Dad proudly beam as he drove. They spoke of going downtown and having a couple of beers together while Mike was home on leave. The generation gap that had always stood between them had, at least for the moment, closed.
As we drove home to Union Grove, light snow flurries began to fall, a reminder that Christmas was right around the corner. Outside it was cold and gray and windy. Inside the big Ford, we were comfortable and laughing, warmed by the car’s defroster and the knowledge that we were all going home, and that we’d all be together for the holidays.