As my flight home from Philadelphia came into Atlanta for my change of planes, I noticed a young man a few rows in front of me unbuckle his seat belt and stand up.
He had lost his legs and had metal rods protruding from the cargo shorts that he was wearing. He made his way up the aisle and turned awkwardly to step off of the plane.
He leaned against the wall of the ramp and slowly took one step at a time moving up the slope as other passengers quickly moved past him.
A large black man with a wheelchair came up behind him and touched him on the shoulder. He glanced backwards at the chair and then looked the attendant in the eye. They looked at each other for several seconds and the black man nodded his head up and down one time. The man with the artificial legs nodded one time in return and then turned and lowered himself into the chair.
The attendant gripped the handles of the wheelchair, took a deep breath and leaning his weight forward, moved the chair up the steep incline.
When they reached the concourse, an attractive young woman was waiting for a wheelchair. She held a service dog on a harness. The man raised himself out of the wheelchair and reached into his pocket for money. The attendant shook his head as he touched him on the shoulder and walked away.
The man gave the woman a kiss and then got into the wheelchair that she had brought. He scratched the dog on top of his head and then put his hands on the wheels and started down the concourse.
He had real upper body strength and they moved away from me gradually. She walked besides the chair with her hand on his shoulder.
I caught up with them at the top of the escalator while they were waiting for the elevator to take them to the lower level.
I reached the bottom before they did and started on my way, knowing that he would pass me again. I glanced up and saw two soldiers in fatigues coming toward me. They were young and had no rank on their sleeves, so I assumed they were privates on leave after their basic training.
As they came even with me, I knew they had spotted the wheelchair that was behind me. Their mouths opened and their eyes widened. Then they pulled back their shoulders and walked upright.
The wheelchair passed me and I saw that the man was staring straight ahead as his hands kept a steady rhythm on the wheels.
He had seen enough soldiers in his lifetime and he had no need to make eye contact with slick sleeved privates in an airport concourse.
They quickly moved out of sight and I never saw them again. Just a chance encounter in the Atlanta airport.
I thought of Colin Powell wearing rows of service ribbons from his time in Viet Nam and I remember his open contempt for Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, both of whom had been deferred from any military service.
I thought that if Colin Powell had passed the man in the wheelchair on the airport concourse, he would have thrown him a stiff salute.
And I’ll bet the man would have braked that wheelchair and thrown him back one just as good.