Last week, my husband and I were lucky enough to get upgraded to first-class seats on a flight from Atlanta to Lexington. I’ve not been upgraded very many times in my life, and getting to sit in the seats up front, rather than in the cattle coach in the back, is quite a thrill. As such, I was eagerly beaming at everything from the TV in our seat to the provided blanket and pillow to the flight attendant who offered us a drink. It was then that I noticed two empty seats in the row beside us, though the majority of the people on the flight had already filed on.
After a few minutes, the flight attendant returned and offered a young soldier, who had been seated in the back, one of the empty seats.
(Delta’s policy is that any service man or woman can get upgraded to first class if there is room — a policy, I might add, warms the cockles to such an extent I get a little teary-eyed thinking about it.)
I watched him take his seat in his Marine uniform, the orange chevron on his sleeve indicating he was a private first class. The top of his body was an inverted triangle, with shoulders as broad as a baseball bat and a waist so small you might be able to put your hands around it. He was tall and handsome, but in that grown-up uniform looked about 15. He sported a bit of a deer-in-headlights expression, happy to be upgraded but not exactly knowing what to do there either.
My lovely husband started talking to him immediately, thanking him for his service and asking him where he was stationed. His “yes, sir” and “no, sir” answers spilled out of him so automatically you knew those manners had been drilled into him long before he joined the Marines. The soldier boy had been in basic training for the past two weeks. He was flying home to Stanton, Ky., because his mother was very sick. His name was Jacob Patton.
A pilot who was going to Lexington to fly a charter was seated beside Jacob and they started an easy conversation. I immediately realized Jacob was the type of kid all parents hope to have — polite, articulate, honest. His innocence positively radiated off of him, filling the cabin with a soft goodness.
A few minutes into the trip, the flight attendant came by to get Jacob’s drink order.
“Water is fine,” he said automatically and then reconsidered. “Ma’am, what are my options?”
She listed the types of soda on offer, tentatively suggested beer and then said, “And we have milk, too, if you’re in the mood.”
“I’ll take a Sprite,” he said.
He downed the drink in what seemed like one gulp. Then he turned to my husband and admitted, “I haven’t had a pop in two and a half weeks.”
Through more conversation, we learned he would be trained in welding. He assured us, and himself, that they’d told him this trip home wouldn’t put him behind. He hoped to be stationed in North Carolina after basic training, “where he wouldn’t be too far away from home.” Japan was another option though. My husband suggested it might be an exciting adventure, and Jacob said, “Yes, but I don’t want to be too far away from my mom. Although, by the time I get to that training, it probably won’t matter anymore.”
We all knew what he meant and offered the obligatory, “I’m so sorry.” We realized Jacob would always remember this flight, not for the upgrade, but for what waited for him on the other side of it.
Instantly, I think we were all struck by how unfair it was that this should be happening to this good, good boy. It certainly occurred to me that he didn’t deserve this hardship, this kid who was embarking on his future while most kids his age were lying around bingeing on YouTube videos. But Jacob bore it. He bore our pity, and the reality that real life had started earlier for him. He possessed this diamond-hard strength that, I don’t know, maybe you only have when you are young. It didn’t seem harnessed by outrage, denial and certainly not self-pity, although he was entitled to all of that.
But I guess that was the most impressive thing about Jacob. He didn’t seem to feel he was entitled to anything; he was willing to plow through to get where he needed to get. When we landed, he asked the pilot beside him if he could borrow his cell phone so he could call his dad and then his girlfriend, who was picking him up. I thought of Gabrielle, who has had her own cell phone since she was 9.
Then, as he was getting ready to leave, Jacob turned and told us all we should look him up on Facebook, as sincere an invitation as if he had invited us to his house for dinner. And with that, he was gone.
My husband and I have talked a lot about Jacob since we’ve returned home. It made me re-remember there are lessons everywhere, that they’re not hard to find. Jacob taught me one. Because he’s the definition of first class.