There was a big storm, hail and rain, we were told, but by the time we arrived, the sun was shining. Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Wide, spacious airport, where a little train takes the passengers with their luggage from one terminal to the other.
First we ate at the Wall Street deli thinking that we would be flying in an hour, but we were wrong. The crowds were growing, impatiently waiting to hear announcements from the loudspeaker, and also talking on their cell phones and eating. Everybody wanted to continue traveling immediately, but because of the delay, there was more and more chaos. Those who were so inclined started to argue with representatives of different airlines. Nobody knew when they would arrive at their final destination.
The tall black guy sitting next to me was past middle age. He talked loudly on his cell phone, laughed a lot and moved his baseball cap back and forth on his head. When he â€“ after about an hour â€“ left to get something to eat, a young woman sat in his place. She put her feet up on the chair across from us and took a book out of her bag. (She must have just bought the book, I thought. She wandered around the airport stores and then decided to buy this book with a nice pink cover.) But she was not reading, just watching the people around her and the big monitor, where names of those who already had a seat in the airplane were listed. (Of course, I could not see that far. Maybe I should be wearing glasses.) She wore sandals, the kind in which you have to put your big toe through a little strap so that they donâ€™t fall off your foot. (She is going to be cold soon in these, I thought.)
And then the woman soldier came. She was black and seemed young. A medium-sized backpack was sitting on the floor next to her. She had earphones in both ears and as she sat down, she started reading a book. (Of course, I could not read the title of the book from where I was sitting. I really do need those glasses! Or do I have to take my binoculars everywhere with me?) First I thought about the soldiers that I saw on my way here. They were mostly young, but some of them looked around fifty, balding already, but that was not very visible, because they had their heads shaved. It was sad to see them, not that to see the young ones was not sad. The young woman soldier wore a uniform that would melt nicely into the country in Iraq or Afghanistan and the bottom of her pants was tucked into her boots.
And then I thought about where she was going. Or where she was coming from. And if she is going, because probably she is going, because she was in no hurry apparently, because it did not bother her, or at least not in any visible way, that the planes were late, so if she is going, then who is she leaving behind? Does she have a lover, or maybe a child, or children and if so, what are they feeling knowing that she left and maybe she will be not coming back? And her parents and siblings? I pictured birthday and Christmas photographs, her colleagues and friends who must miss her, must feel something.
And then I thought about why she joined the army in the first place. (The army here consists of volunteers. Why would anybody want to join? Except when you are dealing with someone like Hitler â€“ that I could imagine. But if there were no armies at all, there would be no Hitlers either and no need for armies at all.) Maybe she wanted to have an education and this was her only option â€“ the army pays the tuition, gives a stipend and health insurance. Maybe she really wanted to study badly and wanted to get out of her parentâ€™s house. Maybe she gave birth early, because nobody told her how to be careful and she saw no other way to fix the rest of her life. And now she sits here at this airport and maybe she is on her way to Iraq and maybe there will be no rest of her life.
And then I thought about how two nights ago in Taos, New Mexico, Julia talked about a relative of hers who wants to join the army. I must have given her a strange look from beyond my red-wine-and-coke: (The Americans donâ€™t know the red wine and coke combination and are always very surprised â€“ coke with wine? Well, what a strange idea of these Central Europeans!) To the army? Is this guy insane? And of course, I should not have given the look because Julia lowered her eyes and said that the guy is not insane, itâ€™s only that he does not know what to do with himself. His mother cared for him for all these years, studied with him for every test. But he will be eighteen and his mother cannot go to college with him, can she? If they would accept him. And she cannot go to work with him every day, can she? And the guy cannot stay at any job long enough and he feels uncomfortable in this society which accepts only the successful ones, even though his parents did not raise him this way and stressed that what society expects is not what really matters. But he thinks the army will put him into place. Because there he will have no choice.
Especially, if he gets shot dead somewhere, I thought, though I did not say this, because I saw how hard the whole thing was for Julia. The guyâ€™s sister is a big anti-war activist in their high school, and the whole joining the army thing is a big secret. And of course I was just sitting there mute, eating my delicious vegetable rice and tried not to think about how this guy will also become just a killing machine, if he survives the brain washing. Or he will have a nervous break down and will be haunted by nightmares, because how can anyone survive with a healthy psyche what one sees in war? And feels? And knowing that there is someone out there who wants to shoot me, who hates me only because I am wearing this uniform? And I thought, while the rest of the table was exchanging small talk pleasantries, that someone should take this guy to the nearest veteranâ€™s hospital. He should work there for a month and see how it is, when one does not have a leg or an arm or has burns all over his body or is a bit crazy. Or someone should take him to where the dead are arriving in their coffins and he could work there too and see how the families receive the coffins, and the mothers are breaking down and the fathers are losing it as they cry. Someone should show this guy what it means to be in a war, which is not a video game, which has lasting consequences.
And then I thought about a different conversation with another woman in which she was telling us how one of her nephews came back from the war unexpectedly and how the family is not talking about what happened to him. Maybe he had a nervous break down, said the woman, but we donâ€™t know, because nobody says anything and nobody asks anything, although all of them are worried, because he was a nice guy before he went to Afghanistan, and who knows what is going to happen to him now. And you could feel something behind this womanâ€™s words, something about how the soul of this guy, who was a nice guy, rebelled and could not take it anymore and so it broke down, because this kind of experience is not for nice guys. New Mexico is one of the poorer states and this suits the army because the poor enlist more easily than the rest. In the meantime, I thought about a guy who I talked to many years ago in Budapest and who fought on the side of the Soviets in Afghanistan against the Americans, and he said with vehemence that only those who wanted to kill went there. And he went there to be adventurous and because he wanted to kill a man and he paid for it dearly and will never go to war or would want to be in the army again.
And then I thought about the young college student who wrote in her paper that she hopes all white people will burn in hell for what they did to the black people in this country. And that when she was traveling on the bus, she did not give up her seat to the old white lady who was standing and even felt like punching the little old lady in the face. This young college student is studying to be a police officer. And maybe in just a little time she will have a real gun in her hands and I hope I will never meet her on the street at night, because who knows how that would end.
And then I thought that the woman soldier, who is just sitting here quietly, is black too, but she does not seem to be angry, while it is very probable that her ancestors were dragged here from Africa by some ugly white man to be slaves for decades and decades for other white people. No wonder that blacks are angry when they realize that they cannot go to college or get good jobs, because it was the white men who became rich as a result of their ancestorâ€™s work, and not them. No wonder.
And then I thought about what could be in her backpack. What does one take to a place from which one may not return? Not much fits into a medium-sized bag. What would I take? A notebook, because there is no electricity in the desert, a laptop would not be useful. Pens and pencils and pictures. And my camera, because what if I survive, and if not, maybe someone would find it and send it to my family. Body lotion for sure, and sunglasses and a hat, but that they would give us, I guessâ€¦Interesting, I canâ€™t think of many necessary things.
And then I thought that this woman at the airport, who is also being watched by others, did not isolate herself from the environment by accident with her earphones and book. I have decided by that time that if she looks up, I will smile at her, but what I really wanted is not to smile, but to get up and hug her and say something that would make her feel good. Or to save her, to take her with me so she would not have to go to the war or even just to say to her that I will be her friend, if she needs one. We could talk and email and I would send her packages with M&Ms and milk chocolate. She could tell me her fears and anxieties, which she cannot tell her family, because they are already worried, they have a strong bond and we donâ€™t have a bond at all. But the woman did not look in my direction and I did not go up to her and did not hug her and did not say anything.
The boyfriend of the girl sitting next to me arrived. He was also wearing those sandals. He offered his jacket to the girl, who was cold, of course. They talked. First about the plane and the delay, but later about people. Near the counter from where the plane to New York would be leaving, two passengers from Damascus were screaming at Delta employees. The manâ€™s face was red and his voice was given some support by his fist in the air. His wife was standing next to him and nodding vehemently. Eventually, hours later, we saw him boarding the plane alone and we thought that maybe she was not his wife at all, or he left her in Atlanta, or she left him in this big mess and maybe she would never ever go back to him because after waiting for twelve hours for their connecting flight he still couldnâ€™t make it to leave!
But when the Egyptian taxi driver, who picked us up at JFK, was showing us the picture of his Irish wife and nine-year-old son, instead of getting us home as quickly and safely as possible after this long journey, I still thought of that young black woman soldier. Where could she be and what could she be doing? And I thought about how this taxi driver, whose English was very bad and who had a degree in bio-engineering, was very lucky to be able to go home to Queens to his wife and son and how many in Iraq and Afghanistan are not able to do that. And that the soldier woman will be waking up or going to sleep to the sound of bombs going off and cars being blown up and shooting â€“ and why all of this? Because some insane men think that their god is better than the god of the others? And is this 2005 or are we still in the middle ages? Because it is dark, our age, however they will call it hundreds of years from now.
Written in May 2005 in New York City
(Published in Kalendarium, a traditional almanac in Hungarian in Slovakia, for the year 2006.)