It was the late 1960's, and I was in the second grade. The day was already laced with excitement because we were all going to the airport to meet my grandfather, coming home from one of his assignments in Venezuela for Shell Oil.
In the days before TSA, and especially in small airports like this one, people could wait very close to the runway in small sheltered areas. Steps would be rolled up to the door of the airplane and passengers would descend and walk across the pavement and into the terminals.
As my siblings, cousins and I followed my grandmother, my parents, and various aunts and uncles into the airport to the passenger pick up area, I noticed a group of three or four men already in the passenger pickup area. They seemed old to me because they had scraggly beards, but they were probably no further out than their early twenties. They had long hair and wore clothes unlike any of the men in my family.
My mother cautioned the kids to keep close and not to wander off as we settled in to wait.
The first plane that landed looked to me like an amazingly graceful, alien bird, setting down with an ease that belied its size. My grandmother had already told us it was not my grandfather's plane, but it was a wondrous thing to watch as the heavy door swung open and passengers filed down the steps into the intense sunlight.
Some stretched, some moved quickly, and some seemed to be a little afraid of the steps as they picked their ways gingerly down. One man towards the end of the line of passengers had a short haircut like my college football player uncle. He wore a uniform which my 10 year old cousin, Mike, excitedly told us was a Marine's uniform. Mike had wanted to be a Marine almost since he was old enough to talk, and he was our military expert.
The soldier paused just past the bottom of the steps leading from the plane, looked around as if he were taking in a deep, satisfying drink of his surroundings and dropped to his knees on the tarmac. He set his duffel bag aside, placed both palms flat on the ground and lowered his face to the pavement. What he did next made no sense to me then, but he touched that hot, tarry concrete with his lips and kissed it. He slowly pulled himself back to his feet, retrieved his bag and made his way to the area where we all awaited.
The shaggy men we had seen earlier stirred themselves as they saw him pass through the waist high, aluminum gate that separated us from the runways. I thought they were his family, there to pick him up. My older cousins and I were close enough to see the military man had streaks of tears making a trail down his cheeks.
As the soldier neared them, though, the long haired, bearded men contorted and twisted their faces, spewing words at him with the venom of rattlesnakes. "How many babies did you kill over there?" one snarled.
"You're a murderer!" another with the long hair stridently interjected.
The soldier only looked straight ahead as he worked through the press of people.
What happened next is seared indelibly into my core. Another of those bearded men suddenly flung his head forward and ejected a stream of spit that landed squarely on the Marine's cheek, who recoiled as if he'd been slapped. His eyes widened and the skin on his face burned red, but he made no reply as he continued his journey through all the waiting people.
As he walked, the soldier pulled out a handkerchief and wiped the spittle off his face, never breaking stride as he drew close to us. His eyes looked sad and haunted.
My cousin Mike did it first, and then all of us in our group of siblings and cousins followed suit.
We each stood as tall as we could, hands drawn up to our foreheads in our best renditions of a shaky salute.
He paused and looked at each of us. He said not a word as he dropped his duffel bag, drew himself to attention, and snapped off a sharp salute to us before making his way out of the airport.
As I remember and honor those who gave their lives in wars popular and unpopular, I also remember those who came home from those wars and had to fight even more battles here.
To them all, thank you; a million times, thank you.