The Unsung Celebrity

Flags at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day. (photo credit: WikiCommons)

In honor of Memorial Day, I wanted to share one of my favorite pieces with you. I wrote it in 2004 – I can’t believe it’s been that long – after returning from my first Erma Bombeck humor writing conference.  It’s been reprinted a bunch of times, but it’s still one of the few pieces that makes me weepy. (And I wrote it!)

All of these years, I’ve wondered about Kyle – Who was he? Where is he now? With just a first name and the airport he flew out of, I have no clue how to even find him. He could have been from Ohio or Kentucky; could still be in the military or not.

In any event, on this Memorial Day, remember those who served – liked my grandfather, John Francis Sheerin, in WWII; or my great, great grandfather Samuel Keltz, in the Civil War; or my brother in law, who serves now in the Air National Guard (flying those gas stations in the sky).

And in honor of Kyle, this is for all of the military service men and women whose names we’ll never know, who serve so we might be blissfully ignorant of how much our freedom really costs.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

The Unsung Celebrity

He looked like just another fresh-faced, Midwestern college student heading back to classes after spring break. Tall and handsome, dressed in jeans, a hooded sweatshirt and baseball cap, he was surrounded by what could only be his family, gathered together to send him back into the big world.

I was returning home to Rochester, NY after spending three days in Dayton, OH for the Erma Bombeck Humor Writer’s Conference, where we’d been encouraged to see the humor in the mundane, the laughter in our surroundings, and the comedy in our pain.

Maybe that’s why I noticed the young man. A woman who could only be his mother was wrapped tightly around his waist, reluctant to say goodbye, a gesture I’m all too familiar with whenever I send my daughter Cassie back to the wilds of Buffalo State College, an entire hour from home.

I was with two other women from the conference, chatting and laughing, and the young man ended up behind us in the security line. I leaned across our group and tapped him on the arm. “Where are you going that your family is going to miss you so much?” I asked with a smile. “The DMZ in South Korea,” he responded politely.

It took a minute for that to sink in. The DMZ is the Demilitarized Zone. He wasn’t a student. He was a soldier.

Suddenly this wasn’t so funny. I looked beyond him, and noticed that his family was still gathered beyond the security ropes, his mother teary-eyed and wringing her hands, not daring to take her eyes off her son for even a moment lest she lose him forever in the crowd. I leaned back to the young man. “What’s your name?” “Kyle,” he replied. “I’m going to pray for you, Kyle,” I promised, and turned around, not sure what else to say.

We were directed through different security lines, and Kyle was through the checkpoint before me. As I met up with my friends and we headed to the coffee shop before going our separate ways, I saw Kyle off to one side putting his belongings back into his carryon. I wanted to stop and talk to him, but I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to run back and tell his family that he would be OK, but I didn’t know if that was true.

So I said nothing, and headed for the coffee shop, where I found a group of reality TV celebrities who had been in town for a charity event. Chatter and laughter poured out into the terminal, and fans were getting autographs and taking pictures. We’re reality TV junkies at my house, and I had my picture taken just for kicks.

Winding the film in my camera, I looked down the terminal and noticed Kyle walking by himself to his gate. In an instant, the contrast between the pseudo-celebs and Kyle became all too clear. I was standing with a group of people who were admired simply because they’d been on television, enduring a month on some tropical island, eating coconuts and rice, and battling each other for a cash prize and the chance of product endorsements. They were surrounded by fans who wanted to shower them with attention.

And here was Kyle, headed out to endure a real bout with survival. Real enemies, real sacrifice, real danger. And no one noticed him.

I know almost nothing about Kyle. Surely, he is someone’s son. Quite possibly, he is someone’s brother. Very likely, he is some young woman’s prince charming.

But I know now what I want to say to you, Kyle. You are the foundation upon which this country is built, young men and women willing to leave behind safety, security and family so that I may remain at home and enjoy the fruits of freedom, even if that includes watching mindless television and writing columns just for laughs.

You are more than any television survivor, more middle-American than any Average Joe. You, Kyle, are my hero. I missed my chance. You are the real celebrity, and I should have had my picture taken with you.

(c) Joanne Brokaw all rights reserved.

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