Soldiers in Airports

I always see soldiers in airports. This is just about the only place I see them. I see them in the Charlotte Douglas airport, especially around the holidays. Alone. In groups. In uniform.

I tend to glance at them quickly, nervously, as if I am looking at something I’m not supposed to see. As if these soldiers should be hidden. Or else I look at them too long, like I’m trying to read them. Read some sort of history in their camouflage.

I don’t know what this history would look like. A personal history. Maybe something unique. Or maybe a history of war, like so many stories we have read. A story about male bonding or friendships left ravaged, ragged. A story about death or office work. Filing papers. Filling coffees.

I watch the soldiers, which seems like an inappropriate thing to do. She is texting. And over there by the bathroom, he is reading a book, but I can’t see the cover. I really want to know what the book is. And over there by the souvenir shop, he is plugging his laptop into the wall socket. And over there by the check-in desk, he is standing up and talking on his phone. He cradles it between his cheek and shoulder to write something down.

Sometimes people stop and say something to them. The soldiers look up from what they’re doing, surprised. Usually, the people say Thank you. Very appreciative, beaming. An outstretched hand. Sometimes I hear the soldiers say Thank you back. Or they just nod and continue to eat their burgers at the Chili’s Express in Terminal B, next to the rows of white rocking chairs.

Thank you. Nod. Thank you. Nod.

The soldiers are so visible. I wonder if they mind this—to be so noticeable that people think they know and understand them.

I smell one soldier’s hairspray as she walks past. I wonder if she works at a desk, or if she has been in a war, or if she’s still in training, or if her can of hairspray has been in a war. It smells like Elnett. The golden bottle, the woman with the bouffant. This soldier does not have a bouffant; she’s wearing an army green cap, her hair tucked up. She stops and looks up at the Departures board and sighs and then gets in a long line at the Starbuck’s.

She tosses her bag at her feet. They don’t have rolling suitcases. Instead, they have these medium-sized duffle bags that they take on the plane. And sometimes, if I’m in the first boarding group, I see the soldiers there, on the plane, spaced out in dots of camouflage. A spot of camouflage and then the dark blue polyester of the airplane seats, rows upon rows.

To board a plane early. What does that mean? That you are different, apart. You have a baby. You are a soldier. You are old. It means you go into this lonely place before everyone else.


Susan Harlan is a professor of English literature at Wake Forest University, where she specializes in Shakespeare and English Renaissance literature. Her essays have been published in Artvehicle, Open Letters Monthly, Cocktailians, and Smoke: A London Peculiar.

Category: Airports

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