This past July, I was seated on a plane from New York City to Savannah when about forty young men and women boarded. These young people were charged with anxiety and excitement. Sitting in any seat available, many of these youthful, balls-of-energy were about to embark on their first flight. For most, it was their first time travelling without their families. They were on their way to Marine Corp basic training at Parris Island in South Carolina.
A particularly agitated young man sat next to me. He looked about as frightened as I had ever seen a teenage boy look. I said hello and he eyed my cell phone asking, “Can I use your phone to call my Mom?”
“Of course,” I answered, handing it over. My mothering instincts went into high gear as I realized the desperation in his voice. His mother asked him if he has eaten the meal she packed, and he replied, “Yeah Mom, but I threw it all up.”
I tried not to stare but had the urge to hug this soon to be Marine as I watched tears run down his face. Just then, the flight attendant walked by, announcing to the group that they had assigned seats on their tickets and that they needed to get in those seats pronto. The young man said goodbye to his Mom and stood, moving a few rows up to his ticketed seat.
In his place, another young man sat down. He appeared withdrawn, shy, and frightened. He stared at his hands. I looked over and said, “Hi, are you one of the Marines?”
In a quiet voice, the young man answered, slowly revealing that he was the only child of Chinese parents who came to America for a better life. Born in the USA, this young man had faced bullying for his ethnicity and feared more of the same in the Marines.
We spent the entire flight chatting. He listened mostly as I built him up with words of encouragement. They were the kind of words usually reserved for mothers and their children. I assured him he would do great, make lifelong friends and learn more than he could ever imagine about his inner strengths. He did not seem convinced but listened anyway.
At once excited for the opportunity he was pursuing and nervous for his anxiety about training in 100-degree weather and being screamed at by his trainers, I reminded him that no one owned his mind and that while his body would belong to the Marine in charge, he could think whatever he wanted. I told him that he was in control of his thoughts and that having this control would get him through the tough spots.
I could see the wheels turning as he seemed to take in what I said. His shyness melted away and he shared with me that he was an artist. Pulling a pad of stunningly rendered portraits and landscapes from his pack, he asked that I choose one as a gift. I suggested he should hold onto his creations. He insisted. I chose a landscape sketching.
As the flight ended, he handed me the artwork and thanked me for talking to him. I gave him my phone number, telling him to call if he ever needed someone to talk to. The intensity of our conversation left an indelible mark on this Mom’s soul. He had shared with me that he could not talk to his parents and that he did not get along with them. I suggested that he keep trying, for they probably loved him but had some difficulty telling him so. He did not seem to agree.
We parted with a hug. But my plane son (as I now call him) never left my mind. All through the Summer months, I would look at the pencil drawing framed on my office wall and say a prayer that he would be okay.
Yesterday was Christmas. So when my phone rang, I answered, “Merry Christmas”. The voice on the phone said, “Merry Christmas. Do you know who this is?” I took a moment, breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Yes, this is my plane son, and you made it through training.”
We chatted for about 20 minutes before I had to cut the call short to serve dinner to waiting family members. He shared with me his successes and that he had made friends who he called “brothers”. I asked if he called his family for Christmas and he said, The Marines are my family now.”
I texted my plane son today, attaching a picture of his artwork on my wall. I plan to keep in touch with him. I know our meeting was meant to serve us both and that no one is a stranger when you open your heart. The blessing of his phone call is a Christmas gift I will always cherish.