Iowa Writes

JAMES C. PERLEY
Homecoming


I was coming home. It was 1970, and the United States was in turmoil over the long Southeast Asian war. Some anti-war protesters vented their frustration on returning soldiers like me. Jeers and tomatoes greeted troops. I had been gone for two years and did not realize how much the country—and I—had changed. It was too much to absorb. All I wanted was to once again set foot on Iowa soil.

Earlier that day, I had been on a small Air Force base as medics loaded a bleeding woman onto a helicopter. Hours later, I was on a plane bound for Iowa. So much had happened it was difficult to distinguish dream from reality. Civilian life was minutes away, but my mind remained on my old base.

I was coming home. It was 1970, and the United States was in turmoil over the long Southeast Asian war. Some anti-war protesters vented their frustration on returning soldiers like me. Jeers and tomatoes greeted troops. I had been gone for two years and did not realize how much the country—and I—had changed. It was too much to absorb. All I wanted was to once again set foot on Iowa soil.

Earlier that day, I had been on a small Air Force base as medics loaded a bleeding woman onto a helicopter. Hours later, I was on a plane bound for Iowa. So much had happened it was difficult to distinguish dream from reality. Civilian life was minutes away, but my mind remained on my old base.

Then I saw her. She was a young flight attendant, only six months on the job. Her sparkling eyes and ready smile invited conversation. We soon learned her uncle worked where my wife and I bought our wedding rings. We compared landmarks until we realized we knew people in common.

The flight attendant returned to chat during free moments, and during her break, she took me to first class. We talked, and then we talked some more.

I relived my adventures, and she told me of the places she had visited. My spirit brightened as the night wore on. It was as though we were the only two people on the plane. Neither realized how far our voices carried.

Finally, it was time to leave, and my new friend returned to her post. After we landed, I stood to leave. As the flight attendant gave me a Disneyland balloon and wished me luck, someone behind me began to clap. Then another and another did, until all of the passengers gave me a standing ovation.

I didn't realize that given the national mood, my experience was close to unique. As I basked in the good feelings, I silently thanked the woman whose conversation made it happen.

Ten years passed. I thought of the woman and what the evening meant to me. I wanted to thank her and know if she was enjoying a happy life. Several halfhearted attempts failed. I didn't even know her name.

Two years ago, I accidentally found one of her high school classmates. She was certain my description matched the girl she knew in school, a girl who had become a flight attendant to see the world. Were they still in touch? I could thank her at last.

I can still see her sitting in the seat ahead that night. Her infectious smile shows her teeth well, and her eyes sparkle like diamonds. She loves her job. It takes her to interesting places and she enjoys meeting people. The woman tells me, "Oh, you should see..." this place or that, and I promise to try. We laugh at a bad joke.

I want to break through the years and thank her, to ask about her life, but I can't. She died of cancer over twenty-five years ago. I was too late.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


JAMES C. PERLEY

James C. Perley was born in Iowa and lives with his wife on their farm in Little Sioux. After serving in the Air Force, he earned an MA from the University of Iowa. "We raised two children. My wife teaches school. And I chase storms," he says.

This page was first displayed
on May 09, 2006

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