Love is in the Air

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“Come on girls. We need to get going,” she told her four-year old twins.

As they walked outside, she saw her neighbor and said good morning.

“Oh, hi, Dawn!” a woman a few years older than her said in return. “Look at those pretty girls!”

“Say thank you,” Dawn told her daughters.

“Thank you!” they called out in unison.

“You’re so welcome. Have a nice day!”

“You too, Claire,” Dawn told her.

“Oh, I definitely will. Ezra is coming home today!” Claire told her.

“Today? Seriously? Oh, my goodness! I thought it would be another month or so.”

“His back is improving faster than they thought, and the burned area is also healing nicely. So they released him this morning, and I’ll be picking him up at the airport around 7pm tonight.”

“I’m so happy for you, Claire! I can’t wait to meet him. The way you talk him has made me want to do so for as long as I’ve known you.”

“Well, he is an amazing young man. Then again, I’m obviously biased. Anyway, I don’t mean to keep you. It looks like you’re in a hurry. I just wanted to share my good news!”

“No, I’m glad you did. That’s fantastic. We’re just running a little behind, and I don’t want to be late for work.”

“Well, have a wonderful day, Dawn. And you too, girls!”

“And you, as well, Claire. Tell Ezra ‘hello’ from the neighbors he hasn’t met yet, and that we’re glad he’s home and we think he’s a hero, okay?”

“Will do! Bye now!”

Claire Hancock was almost beside herself. She’d been in that state several times recently and not in a good way after she received a call from Washington DC informing her that her son, Marine Captain Ezra Hancock, had been shot down in a helicopter crash Afghanistan. She remembered very little from call except that Ezra was seriously hurt but alive and expected to make a full recovery.

Ezra Hancock was a direct relative of the signer of the Declaration of Independence, the man who had the most flamboyant and recognizable signature of all the signers and whose name had since become synonymous for any signature.

Like his father, Malachi Hancock, and his father, Nehemiah Hancock, Ezra had been named for a book of the Bible. Unlike his patriarchal predecessors, Ezra wasn’t much of a religious man. Nominally Episcopalian, his faith was a minor part of his life. He was however, patriotic, and had joined Navy ROTC as a freshman in college and stuck with it until graduating four years later then accepting a commission in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Ezra became a pilot who flew the the Bell AH-1 Whiskey Super Cobra helicopter. The Cobra couldn’t carry troops or cargo and had only one real purpose in life—to deliver devastating, lethal firepower on the enemy. Cobras are two-seat helicopters which carry only a pilot, who is responsible for maneuvering the aircraft, and a co-pilot, who is in charge of the weapons systems. Ezra Hancock was still a first lieutenant, and just a few days from pinning on captain, when he was shot down in Afghanistan.

He was in the aircraft’s ‘gunner’ seat upfront when they were launched in support of a nearby infantry unit’s call for immediate close air support or CAS. There were no fast-movers (jets) in the area, and the two Cobras that responded were the closest, and also the only, aircraft anywhere near the Marines in need of help.

They flew a CIFS or Close-in Fire Suppression mission for the infantry company in direct contact with a battalion-sized group of jihadists armed with AK-47s, RPGs, and mortars. Neither Ezra nor anyone else cared whether they were Taliban, Al Qaeda, or even ISIS. All that mattered was that they were trying to kill Marines, and doing so carried with it a death sentence—a sentence carried out from above.

Braving withering small arms fire from the ‘shit heads’, both aircraft made pass after pass firing both 2.75″ high-explosive rockets and 20mm-machine gun rounds, mowing down and often quite literally blowing the shit out of the enemy as the company continued to return fire with everything it had.

On the final pass, Travis saw one of them stand up, aim a shoulder-mounted weapon at them and fire. He called it out to the pilot yelling, “Break right! Break right! RPG-7!”

The pilot immediately banked the aircraft to the right slightly beyond the its maximum G-limit, but not still fast enough to avoid having the tail rotor hit just enough to make sustained flight impossible. They were only about 50 feet off the ground and with very little stabilization, the aircraft didn’t augur in, but it landed so hard it sheared off the tail section upon impact and burst into flames. The canopy flew open and Ezra was somehow ejected in spite of being cinched in tight. His body was twisted so hard that the combined impact and torque of the lateral ejection broke his back. Spilled fuel caught fire, and his left leg was also severely burned before his fellow Marines could arrive and drag him to safety.

Unknown to anyone at the time, the pilot, who was one merter escort of Ezra’s closest friends, was killed during the crash, and didn’t suffer when the front section caught fire and burned viciously. The heat was so intense, the ‘grunts’ sent to rescue the downed pilots had to stand back and watch, helpless to do anything for their brother Marine. Only later would they would later learn he died on impact, but it was nevertheless a gruesome thing to have to endure, as the firefight continued to rage around them for another five to ten minutes. When it ended, there several dozen dead and another 35 wounded ‘freedom fighters’.

Ezra was unconscious for several minutes then awoke to the sound of voices speaking English and in more pain than he’d ever experienced in his life.

Unbelievably, he’d survived. Even more unbelievably but in no way surprising to him, Marines from the infantry company had immediately put together a squad of Marines, who moved under enemy fire, to protect him until they’d routed the enemy. His back broken and his left leg badly burned, Ezra was awake for less than a minute before shock set in causing him to pass out.

The unit corpsman assessed him, provided first aid, and at the same time, a medevac was requested for him and two seriously-wounded Marines who’d been hit during the 30-minute firefight. The pilot who died would be taken with them only if there was enough room on the medevac bird, as he was no longer a ‘priority’ evacuee. If not, the Marines would place his charred body on a litter, cover it with the US flag then transport him back to their firebase until it could be taken away and sent to Dover Air Force Base to be prepared for burial back home. It would be a closed-casket memorial, but a perfectly assembled, full dress-blue uniform complete with all ribbons and medals he’d earned would be draped over what was left of the young officer’s body whether anyone ever saw it or not.

Ezra woke up in the hospital at Bagram Air Force Base, heavily medicated, and unaware of what had happened beyond the chopper going down. Only then did he learn that his friend had been killed in the crash. His next thought was for his window, Sandy, a woman he loved like the sister he’d never had. Unable to focus due to the morphine, he drifted off to sleep for several more hours.

His mother learned all of that when Ezra finally called her about 48 hours later from his hospital bed. The good news was he was alive and would walk again. The bad news was he’d need at least one, if not two, surgeries on his back. The leg would also recover but would require a lot of painful therapy to remove scar tissue so that the knee could bend and function properly.

Later that same day Ezra was flown to a hospital in Germany where he underwent the first of two potential surgeries while also having as much done to his burned leg as they could for it.

Claire wanted to fly there to see him when he told her where he’d be going, but she knew that couldn’t happen as she didn’t have anywhere near the money needed to make the trip, and she couldn’t afford to miss work, either. Ezra had also strongly suggested she not do so, and assured her he’d be fine.

Since her husband left her a little over a year ago, money had been unbelievably tight, and there was no way she was going to ask her son, who was saving for his future, for help. So she’d waited on pins and needles, living for periodic phone calls and the updates that came with them.

But as of two days ago, Ezra let her know he was doing so well his doctors were letting him take something called convalescent leave, and he would be spending the next 45 days or so at home with her. Claire couldn’t remember ever feeling so happy in all her life, and she’d gone out and bought all of his favorite foods, as well as things like sterile bandages and whatever else Ezra had told her they’d need.

He’d be getting care from either doctors at McChord Air Force Base near Olympia or the Seattle VA, depending on the availability of doctors and therapists at either place. Even so, Claire knew they’d need some supplies around the house. The care he mainly needed now was therapy for his leg and possibly his back. The good news was doctors in Germany told Ezra he wouldn’t need the second surgery after all. He was already up and able to take a few steps with the aid of a walker, but couldn’t stand for very long.

Additionally, the heavy scar tissue on his leg, which ran from the mid-calf to the thigh, made taking those few steps incredibly painful. It would have to be continually stretched, debrided, cut away, and stretched again until he was fully recovered. Or at least recovered enough to return to full duty.

Claire was secretly hoping he’d be discharged from the Marine Corps, but Ezra told her in no uncertain terms he had no intention of leaving either the military or his squadron. So she celebrated his homecoming and tried not to worry about him being sent back somewhere scary down the line.

Her istanbul escort good news was tempered, but only slightly, by seeing Dawn that morning. As bad as she felt about her own marriage ending, Claire felt even worse for her neighbor, who’d gone through a divorce herself. It had been well over a year for Dawn, but Claire rarely talked with her so she wasn’t exactly sure how long she’d been on her own. The big difference she was sure about was that Ezra was 27 years old and fully on his own while Dawn had two little four-year-old twin old girls at home. As hard as it was for her to make ends meet, she knew Dawn was probably struggling even more.

Claire didn’t know her or her girls well, but she thought Dawn was a very attractive woman and her girls the sweetest little things she’d ever seen. She loved the way her mom still dressed them identically most of the time, something they probably wouldn’t allow in a couple more years or so.

At 50, Claire knew she could get by because she wasn’t responsible for anyone but herself. Her wants were few, and all of her needs were met. But Dawn, who Claire guessed was likely closer to 35 or so, had to be having a really rough go of it. Claire promised herself she’d make more of an effort to get to know them better once Ezra was home and able to get around again. In the meantime, all she could think of was seeing his handsome face when he got off the plane that evening.

Ezra had always been extremely popular with the girls in high school and then in college. He wan’t one to ‘love ’em and leave ’em’. Ezra was as thoughtful and polite as God made ’em, and Claire was incredibly proud of her son. She would never tell him outright, but Claire yearned to have grandchildren and would occasionally drop subtle hints. Even so, with Ezra being on active duty and so far away from her, it would be extremely hard to imagine having them but not being able to see them often.

As she watched Dawn drive away, Claire knew she’d have just enough time that evening to leave work, pick up a few extra things, then get all the way up to the Sea-Tac Airport by 6:30 and find a parking spot. Ezra was coming home on a Lufthansa flight, and Claire really was beside herself again. But this time it was with happiness rather than worry.

Claire got to the airport at 6:42, and was already fretting about being late. That only lasted until she got to the arrival gate and saw a group of older men standing there. All of them were wearing VFW hats, and Claire had to ask one of them what was going on.

“There’s an American hero coming home on this flight, and we’re here to meet him,” the man told her.

“Would be a Marine?” Claire asked.

“He would,” the man replied. “He got shot down in Afghanistan and got banged up pretty bad. A friend of one of the guys in our local chapter has a son serving in the infantry, and it was his unit this young man and his fellow chopper pilots flew in to save. In my book, that’s a hero.”

“Mine, too,” Claire said quietly, not sure if she should mention this hero was her son.

“Are you expecting someone, too?” he asked.

The man was possibly a little older than her with steel-gray hair on the sides and the brightest blue eyes she’d ever seen. He smiled at her when he asked that question, and Claire found herself thinking he seemed like a very nice man who was definitely still very nice looking.

She smiled back then told him, “Yes. My son is coming home, and I wanted to be here to meet him.”

The man never once thought she could be his mother because he was certain she’d have said something were that the case.

“That’s wonderful. I don’t have a son, but I do have a couple of daughters. They’re both grown and on their own, and I love having them come home to visit.”

He paused for a moment then said, “Especially since their mom passed a couple of years ago. It’d be wonderful to have them a little closer, but they’re both married to servicemen, so I try and be grateful for what I can get.”

Claire immediately told him how sorry she was for his loss, and the man thanked her as she realized that explained the gold wedding band still on his left hand.

“I’m Charlie, by the way,” he said as he reached up and removed his hat exposing a full head of hair which was gray on the sides and salt and pepper on top.

“Oh, hi, Charlie. It’s very nice to meet you. I’m Claire Han…”

She stopped talking when she saw an airplane pulling up to the jetway outside.

He put his hat back on then said, “If you’ll excuse me, Claire. It was very nice meeting you but duty calls.”

“Oh, certainly. And nice meeting you, too, Charlie.”

Claire hadn’t had any interest in dating anyone since her husband left her, and yet she found herself unable to stop looking at this Charlie fellow she’d just met. That is, until she saw the men from the VFW move into two lines on either side of where the passengers would be disembarking.

Moments later bayrampaşa escort she heard one of the men upfront call out, “Ten-HUT!” and everyone else stood up straight and tall. Claire didn’t know what ‘the position of attention’ was. All she knew was each man was looking straight ahead with their hands at their sides.

And then she saw him. A flight attendant was pushing his wheelchair down the ramp, and as he approached the line of men, the first two saluted him then shook his hand and welcomed him home. That happened twelve more times as other passengers politely waited for Ezra to make it to the last man, who happened to be Charlie. Once he did, they all applauded loudly.

After saluting and welcoming the wounded Marine home, he said, “Do you have anyone here to meet you, young man?”

Ezra had seen his mom who was also waiting—although without as much patience—for him to get to her. He looked over at her then said, “I do. That’s my mother.”

Charlie turned around and saw her and smiled a very surprised smile. Claire couldn’t wait another second and hurried toward her son then very carefully put her arms around him as she started to cry.

“Welcome home, honey!” she said as she gingerly hugged him.

“It’s good to be home, Mom,” he told her as other passengers streamed by wishing him well and thanking him for his service.

Charlie was standing off to the side giving them time to reunite. Once Claire stood up, he asked her if he could help with the wheelchair or anything.

Normally, she’d have said ‘no thank you’ and gladly pushed her son around wherever he needed to go. But this time she said, “That would be so kind of you. If you don’t mind, of course.”

“Mind? I’d be honored!” he told her. “That is, if your son doesn’t mind.”

“No, not at all. Other than being stuck in this metal contraption. But since I am, I’m not too proud to accept a little help.”

“Well, all right then. Just point the way, Lieutenant,” he said having no idea Ezra had been promoted while he was in the hospital.

His squadron commander had requested permission to take the time to fly to Germany and do the promotion himself. Technically, Ezra didn’t need anyone to conduct a ceremony. At midnight the effective day of his promotion, he’d be a captain regardless. But good leaders did the right thing, and his squadron CO’s commanding officer, the MAGTF or Marine Air-Ground Task Force commander, a Marine colonel, was more than happy to let him go.

His CO pinned a set of captain’s bars onto Ezra’s hospital gown, a few photos were taken, hands were shook, then the lieutenant colonel headed out to take the first flight back to Kabul en route to his unit.

“Your mom didn’t tell me you were her son,” Charlie said to Ezra while looking at Claire.

“She’s not much for fanfare, sir,” Ezra told her, “so that doesn’t surprise me.”

They all chatted as they headed toward baggage claim then talked some more while they waited. Charlie grabbed Ezra’s green seabag (duffle bag to soldiers), and since it was fairly big, Claire offered to push while Charlie carried the ‘luggage’.

He carefully laid the green bag in the trunk of Claire’s car then helped Ezra stand up and get seated before folding the wheelchair to put away. When it didn’t fit, Charlie said, “Houston? We have a problem.”

It was close, but it would not go in no matter how he turned it. Before Claire could express concern, Charlie said, “No worries. I’ll throw it my truck and follow you—if that’s okay.”

“You don’t need to do that, Charlie,” Claire told him. “We live all the way out in Puyallup.” (The city was one of the most mispronounced names in America with the correct pronunciation being pyu-AL-up.)

“It’s the least I can do,” her assured her. “And your son is gonna need it until he’s up and around so…this is a done deal!”

“Well, if you’re sure,” Claire said almost demurely.

Charlie smiled again then told her, “Yes, ma’am. I’m quite sure.”

They agreed to meet up at the exit where they’d pay for parking then Charlie would follow her home. Claire no sooner sat down than Ezra smiled at her and said, “Mom’s got a boyfriend!” in that playground, sing-song voice.

“I…I have no such thing!” she insisted without looking at her son. She wouldn’t look at him because if she did, she knew he’d know she found Charlie attractive, and she had no desire to get into that. But were Charlie to let her know he was interested, too…

“So how was your flight, honey?” she asked, changing the subject immediately.

“I slept the whole way,” he told her. “It’s amazing how tiring doing nothing can be.”

The truth was his body was trying to heal itself, and with the help of the pain medication, Ezra needed all the rest he could get. He’d been an athlete in high school and college, and still ran as often as he could. But for now, running or even doing any real walking, was out of the question.

“Are you hungry?” was her next question as they headed toward the exit.

“Starving,” he told her. “I slept right through the in-flight meal.”

“Well, we’ll get you home, and get you something to eat.”

“Or we could maybe stop somewhere. My treat,” he told her with that smile of his.

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