Global CIO: The Thanksgiving Angels Of Flight 3405

Nov 25, 2009 (03:11 AM EST)

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Last night—two days before Thanksgiving, with airports and airplanes jammed with travelers eager to get home—my wife and I were lucky enough to squeak aboard an earlier flight that would get us home three hours earlier than planned, and we gratefully jammed ourselves into the last row of the plane. I felt relieved and lucky—but within the next hour I would learn just how much I have to be grateful for on this and every Thanksgiving.

My education began shortly after takeoff when the attendants on flight #3405, just after announcing that the beverage service was about to begin, added that "We wanted you all to know that we're honored to have traveling with us tonight Private Aaron of the United States Army, who's one of the young men and women who by being so brave allow the rest of us to enjoy the freedom we so cherish. Please join us in thanking this young hero for his great service to our country."

And there was a huge ovation from throughout the plane for this courageous young warrior, who represents precisely what Winston Churchill meant when he said, "We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm."

A moment later, I turned to the flight attendant working in the galley right behind our seats and thanked her for giving all of us a chance to thank that young man for his service and for paying the price necessary so that the rest of us can sleep soundly in our beds. She nodded, seemed a bit distracted, and than said that her own son—19 years old, just like the PFC on our plane—had recently joined the Army and was about to finish basic training.

She then showed us a picture of her son taken right before he he left for the Army with his arm around his very proud mom, and also shared with us a letter he'd just written to her with the oversized words "THANK YOU!!" splashed across the top and bottom of the page. "He's so brave," she said, "but he's so young!" And then she went back to her galley and engaged in some work that would prevent the passengers from seeing a member of the flight crew in anything less than a state of perfect control.

The woman in the aisle seat across from me got up and gave the flight attendant a quick hug; when this woman sat down again, she looked over and said that in some way she couldn't quite explain, she felt a connection with the flight attendant because this passenger had just experienced the familial emotional strain so evident from the flight attendant: the passenger's mother had just died and the grieving daughter was returning from the funeral.

"My mother lived a long, long, and wonderful life," she said. "But these young men and women in the military are only 19 or 20 and they're putting their lives on the line for the rest of us." So we chatted about that for a bit, and about her mom, and about the simple blessings of families, parents and children, and long lives filled with memories that some of these young warriors will not get to experience.

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Then the flight attendant leaned in and said, "As brave as that young soldier is, there's another boy on this plane who's at least as brave. He's 8 years old, his liver has been failing for a couple of years, and they've got a donor for him in Pittsburgh—we have him and his parents in the first row and as soon as the plane lands they'll rush him off to UPMC for the surgery. He's a real fighter."

By this point my head was spinning as all my usual standard, selfish, narrow-minded, and astonishingly petty flight-related thoughts flashed like billboards in front of me: I hope I don't get a middle seat, I hope I don't get stuck next to an overweight person, I hope the person I front of me doesn't put his seat back, I hope there's room in the overhead right above me for my bag, I hope the flight's not 10 minutes late or I'll be terribly inconvenienced, I hope the person next to me doesn't try to say hello, I hope the taxi line isn't too long...

And then the flight attendant reappeared with a conspiratorial grin and a bag filled with snacks for the young soldier to enjoy wherever that night's travels were taking him, and spontaneously several of us tossed more snacks and some cash into the bag. It was just a small way—a tiny way—to say thank you.

So I believe in angels, and I believe they were aboard flight 3405 last night. They were with the little boy who's about to have the chance for a normal life with a new liver, just as they were on the ground with the other little boy whose tragic death in a car crash made the healthy liver available.

Those angels were with the young soldier who so humbly and wonderfully represented the 1,000,000 men and women of the U.S. military who let us sleep soundly, and who would never consider asking the sort of questions that preoccupy me because they're focused on keeping us safe from those who would do us harm.

And I believe those angels are with the flight attendant's warrior son, whose name is David, and with the just-buried mother of the woman across from me who tried to comfort that flight attendant.

Perhaps, on this Thanksgiving, inspired by what they showed me on last night's flight 3405, I plan to show them at least a glimpse of the better angels of my own human nature by giving thanks for my many blessings and by keeping in my thoughts and prayers our men and women in the military, and that little boy facing a liver transplant, and his family, and the woman who'd just lost her mother.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

GlobalCIO Bob Evans is senior VP and director of InformationWeek's Global CIO unit.

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