It was May 26th, 1971, time to step onto the “freedom bird” and go home. Like every other guy in the war-zone back then, I had no illusions about what to expect. We all read the Stars and Stripes newspaper and knew what the news was from the States. The objective of a returning serviceman was to get through the airport quietly and unnoticed, get off the aircraft, or the bus, or the train, and get home with as little contact as possible. Even so, nobody I knew was overly fixated the social condition of those times. We just knew that was the way it was. Getting home was what counted.
I processed in-country at Norton AFB, last in line of a couple hundred other GI’s, and caught the last bus out of there for LAX, not having time to shower and change into my “class-A’s.” I walked into the airport in my jungle fatigues and a couple days’ growth of beard and asked a young fellow behind a ticket desk where I could clean up and change. He acted like I might shoot him (no, I didn’t have a weapon) as he pointed toward a mens’ room. There I cleaned up, shaved, and pulled my khakis out of my B-4 bag, walking out of the mens’ room looking much more civilized than when I went in. I booked a flight and then found a pay phone to call my parents and let them know I had arrived back in the US and would be flying into Albuquerque in the morning, the first time we had talked in over a year. With a whole night to kill at LAX, I found a restaurant for a real meal and then a lounge to have a drink and wait out at least the early part of the night.
A 20-something waitress came over to my table in the lounge to take my order. She was friendly and struck up a light conversation, asking where I was traveling from. When I told her I had just gotten in from Vietnam, she acted like she had caught me in the admission of a crime, turning coldly hostile. I tired quickly of her lecture about killing babies and decided it was time to go somewhere else and just sit the night out.
At 0700 the next morning my aircraft lifted off, next stop Albuquerque. It felt simultaneously familiar and strange to look out the window at the American landscape below and to sit back in a comfortable non-military airplane, no war anywhere. On the ground in Albuquerque I stepped down the stairs to the tarmac and saw Mom & Dad as close to the terminal door as they could get. Thinking back to that day, I realize that I was looking for the first time at welcoming faces.
It was 130 miles to the ranch and Mom had some shopping to do, so we planned on having lunch at one of the popular haunts before leaving town. The restaurant was as bustling as I had remembered, and it took a bit for me to get used to not being in a chow hall full of GI’s. The three of us were catching up on all the happenings at home and on the ranch over the past year when a well-dressed man approached our table and shook hands with Dad. His name was Finley McGilvray, someone whose name I had heard for many years as the highly respected General Manager of the New Mexico State Fair, back when the Fair was one of the biggest events in the western U.S. When Dad introduced us, he mentioned I was just back from Vietnam. Mr. McGilvray looked me in the eye, shook my hand and said “Thank you for your service.” I was taken aback and unsure what to say in response, so what came out sounded, to me, weak and wrong for the moment, even kind of dumb: “Your welcome.”
Military people coming home from Southeast Asia, myself included, knew not to expect much of a welcome. It was just the reality of the time, something to be resigned to. For me, I made it through relatively easy, just a brief encounter with a waitress doing her part in an anti-war movement. I met with no public shouting, no spitting in my face, but I knew about plenty who were not so lucky. What remained important to all was home, family, and being back in “the world.” The rest didn’t really count much. For me, like most everybody coming back, somebody’s thanks wasn’t being sought after, and for sure was not expected. Everyone just passed with no fanfare through the public places, on their way home.
Yet, after almost 50 years, that brief encounter still stands out in my memory, not because of my service, but rather because of the man of character who acknowledged it.
Today, “Thank you for your service” is common and even expected, a far cry from the fashionable behavior a half century ago. However kind and heartfelt, it remains a bit awkward for most recipients, for they do not serve in order to be thanked. That’s how it should be.
We can hope Americans never fail their servicemen and women again. We must also hope the expressions of gratitude never become automatic and mindless; and that it is always delivered authentically with the same look in the eye and grip of the hand that brings forth my memory of Finley McGilvray.