THE PILOT PANICKED WHEN HE heard the rumble from the back that day in 1974. His stomach tightened at the thought of flying Marines home and instead getting hit just off the runway by Viet Cong below.
Moments later, as the jungle shrank in the oval windows, the flight attendant explained the goings on behind the cockpit.
The men sensed the pilot’s struggle to get lift in the sweltering heat. They knew bullets to the fuselage could ground the flight, and they pounded their muddy boots on the carpet to give him their power.
I interviewed that veteran pilot about 10 years ago, and I still remember his final thought on the subject.
“It sounded like endless thunder,” he said before taking a moment to compose himself.
Though I did not live through this story, I still consider it a red, white, and blue moment — one of the many short stories that explains my patriotism, my sense of gratitude regardless of the political climate, for all of the men and women who have served this country in uniform.
I suspect many Americans shape their patriotism in the same fashion, by reflecting on published and unpublished stories that help tease the best from the worst of who we are as Americans overseas and at home.
So it was for me, at 20, when I stood on the cliffs above the beaches at Normandy, France.
Never have I felt the same mix of pity and pride as I did then, in 1987, when I peered at the steel-grey English Channel through the slats of German bunkers used there during the Allied invasion in 1944 on D-Day.
The Germans were so protected in those bunkers, so above the fray with seemingly nothing but their eyeballs and the butts of their weapons exposed.
How our seasick, waterlogged men managed to battle on … That question still haunts this girl’s heart.
I was single and childless then. I am a wife and the mother of three young sons now.
Honestly, we might not get to Normandy together.
Together we can pay tribute on U.S. highways and byways as we did in August 2011 on the 18 Mile Road Bridge in Michigan, where we were vacationing. The bridge spans U.S. 131, and we stood there with veterans and their families as the traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall headed northbound to Cadillac for installation.
Who knows what sticks with my kids or how such images and stories will shape their patriotism?
But what sticks with me is the Vietnam vet who stood silently beside us on the bridge and held up two fingers.