Oct. 24, 2011
WASHINGTON — Melville Swanson is quiet as he looks down at his large, weathered hands. It is 6 a.m. on Saturday, and he had been awakened 2 1/2 hours earlier, not entirely sure what his day would bring.
His son and daughter crouch next to him at Port Columbus and explain to a caretaker which pills their 90-year-old dad would need to get the World War II Marine veteran to Washington and back over one long day.
They explain that his blood pressure drops dangerously when he stands up, that he sometimes gets confused. They don’t seem confident that he’ll be able to appreciate the day.
Of the 78 veterans on this Honor Flight, Swanson is one of the few that Columbus directors Bobbi and Bill Richards worry about.
He’s considered one of the TLC veterans — “their last chance” to see the nation’s capital and the World War II memorial built on their backs.
With around 1,000 World War II veterans dying every day, and a dwindling waiting list to get on such trips, Honor Flight Columbus will start accepting Korean and Vietnam war applicants next year. It’s a bittersweet moment for Honor Flight, Bobbi Richards said. With 70,000 World War II veterans flown so far nationwide, the program is transitioning to a new generation of heroes.
Twelve hours later, Swanson is at Baltimore/Washington International Airport, carefully sipping coffee given to him as a “thank you” by a barista.
Gone is the quiet old man from the morning. Now, he can’t stop talking — about the trip, about his family, about the flight home.
He waves at a little girl in polka dot pajamas and fingers the red paper poppy given to him earlier by another young girl. He had given her a small piece of candy that he had in his pocket.
Not once did he need his blood pressure checked, and he registered no complaint as he was hoisted in and out of a wheelchair a half-dozen times. His eyes stayed wide open as the tour bus wound through the streets.
“When I woke up this morning,” he said, “I didn’t realize anything like this was going to happen.”
* * *
In an airplane mostly filled with old men, Lee Bauermeister is a rarity.
She is a woman veteran, one of only three on this trip. She flirts shamelessly with the Naval Academy midshipmen greeting the other veterans at BWI, and warns one baby-face boy from Michigan that she’d be running around with him if she were a few decades younger.
She has a folder full of 65-year-old pictures to prove it.
She is one of those whom Honor Flight wants to reach, the ones who stood up to serve but were never deployed. Many of these servicemen and women don’t think they deserve to go, that they didn’t do enough.
You did, they are told. You stood up when asked.
She stood up and joined the Navy and was on her way to becoming a WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) when the war ended. She spent the end of the war as a photographer at a base in Pensacola, Fla.
“I’ve always believed women should have a part of everything and anything,” Bauermeister said, her old Navy cap pinned perfectly to her curled hair.
This flight isn’t exclusive. You didn’t have to climb the hill, you didn’t have to storm Normandy. You just had to stand up when asked.
* * *
It is slow going through the World War II memorial. Not just because of the crush of people, but because of the veterans’ celebrity status.
“Your memorial,” everyone keeps saying.
Once inside her memorial, Bauermeister touches up her lipstick. A woman stops to tell her she looks beautiful, and “thank you.” Bauermeister makes sure to lift her head for photos — a surgery has left her slightly hunched, and she wants to look her best today.
She smiles wide and waves at everyone, like royalty.
Across the memorial, Swanson is with his caretaker for the day, an Iraq War veteran and Army Reservist named Tom Englehart. It’s Englehart’s 11th such trip, so he’s well versed in his duties as a nurse, tour guide, historian and photographer.
Someone thinks the two are family, watching as Englehart keeps his ear close to Swanson’s lips so he can hear the old man’s stories.
“We are today,” Englehart replied, always keeping one hand on the wheelchair.
He said the veterans are living history books. As they roll through the memorial, Swanson’s book opens, spilling out forgotten stories and long-tucked-away memories.
A 14-year-old boy from Wisconsin waits to talk to Swanson, then tells him people need veterans like him in order to understand the war. “I hope you never have to understand it,” Swanson said.
* * *
Coming down the escalator at 9:30 Saturday night in Port Columbus, the crush of celebrants is shocking. Hundreds crowd around baggage claim holding signs and shouting.
As the veterans get closer, they look behind them, like this crowd has to be for someone else.
Swanson comes out of the elevator and grasps the tiny hands of scouts who reach out to thank him. Swanson’s daughter finds him and envelops her dad in a hug.
“It’s been an honor,” Englehart kneels to tell Swanson.
Women kiss Bauermeister on the head, surprised and happy to see a woman among those coming home. She waves and smiles, with lips freshly painted.
By the escalator, Bobbi and Bill Richards share a kiss.
They brought 500 veterans to Washington this year, but there’s so many more they’ll never take. They’ll never win this race against time.
Many of these smiling faces will be gone by next April’s trip.