Editor’s note: Princeton resident Elaine Russell accompanied her father on an Honor Flight. Prior to the trip, Russell told of her anticipation. The following guest commentary tells of the trip and emotional impact it made on her and her father.
For the first time in my life, it was I who gently touched his shoulder at 3 a.m. and awakened him for the “Journey of a Lifetime.” I could not help but remember all those many years ago when he was my 4 a.m. alarm getting me up to do chores before heading off to school. It was finally time for our “Daddy-Daughter Honor Flight!”
We arrived at the airport by 4:45 a.m. Central Time, and as they promised, we were in the air by 6:15 a.m. heading for Washington, D.C. This is where his importance elevated, and I, as promised, started a very long day. His compromised mobility allowed for his travel to be in First Class with a window seat, while I was directed somewhere in the back of the plane. This was the only time we were separated, and I could see a little disappointment on his face. However, after a sausage croissant, coffee and juice, we landed in Washington, D.C., 9 a.m. Eastern Time.
It is an hour and 15 minute sprint to deplane, get in a restroom break, secure a comfortable wheelchair, board our bus and head to the World War II Memorial. We are a color-coded T-shirt crew of 71 World War II veterans (blue); seven Korean veterans (yellow); and 73 guardians; one nurse; two medical (green). Our caravan of buses is also color coded. The Liberty is red; the Freedom is blue; and the Justice is white. Guardian’s lanyards are color coded to match the bus, and we get the blue Freedom bus, It works! You can tell they have done this before.
Of all the individuals I encountered on our trip, it turns out that our bus driver, Ray, was the most important to me. Our bus was equipped to raise and lower two veterans in their wheelchairs on and off the bus at every stop. My father filled one of those seats. This, I will tell you, has not been perfected. It is a tight squeeze, and the easiest way to get the wheelchairs in place to be locked to the floor, is to just pick them up. Ray requires that a guardian be in the bus with the wheelchair and one on the ground for when they are lowered. It became a tag team effort between Melinda and I to raise and lower our fathers on and off the bus ... always with Ray’s help.
But I gained Ray’s trust, and he eventually allowed me to actually ride the lift with the wheelchair and veteran, and we cut our time in half. Melinda even trusted me with her father and not once did either veteran complain about the jarring and ramming of their feet into the bottom of the seats in front of them. At the end of the day, Ray hugged me and offered me a job any time I was in Washington, D.C.
It’s 10:15 a.m., and we have made it to the World War II Memorial for a group photo to be taken that is given to each veteran at the end of the day, a restroom break and back on the bus. At 11:30 a.m., we have one very short hour in which to board the bus and travel to and visit Korean, Vietnam and Lincoln memorials. We definitely broke wheelchair speed limits for this one.
From 12:30 to 2:45 p.m., we travel to and visit the Air and Space Museum. A much needed box lunch is consumed on the bus. We are offered 45-minute tours, but my father has his own agenda, so we take off for the Space Shuttle Discovery, the Enola Gay and the Concorde. He could have stayed there for hours, but we must board the bus, travel to and visit the Air Force Memorial. Exhaustion has set in, so we decide to sit this one out and stay on the bus. This takes us to 4:10 p.m., where we travel to and view the 5 p.m. Changing of the Guard at Arlington National Cemetery. Words cannot describe the emotional impact of this event. By 5:30 p.m., we are back on the lift and into our bus. One more stop at the Iwo Jima Memorial.
We arrive at the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport at 6:15 p.m. where we take a restroom break, pass through security, and then I do the first selfish thing of the day. I get a Venti, double-shot Latte, skim with two Sweet ‘n Lows. Heaven! Our last box lunch of the day is provided in the waiting area, and at 8:10 p.m. Eastern Time, we board Flight SY8604 back to Springfield, arriving at 9:30 p.m. Central Time.
Time is taken to say good-byes to our newly-found friends, and 17 hours later we are back where we started. And of everything I had done throughout our day, the best event happened during that ride. He thanked me. And it just didn’t seem right since throughout my entire day as guardian to this very special veteran, I thanked him over and over again ... just not out loud. It was my honor to take care of the man who has cared for me his entire life. So if I didn’t say it enough on Oct. 16, 2012, I say it now ... Thank you, Daddy, for everything. XXOO