The man behind me in line at Atlanta airport’s TSA was in a wheelchair. I could see he had lost both his legs and one arm. I thought to myself, how does he get into the airplane seat? How does the airline accommodate his wheelchair? He was traveling alone. Does an airport employee lift him up or would that be considered a liability?

I watched TSA agents pat him down, feeling around his waist, grabbing at the pant legs which lay flat on his seat and the one sleeve filled only with air. I collected my carry-on bags from the conveyor belt. After he passed the pat-down test, I handed him his bag embroidered with the words ‘Freedom Isn’t Free.’

I asked the serviceman where he was traveling; Branson, Missouri was his destination. Having lectured there, I knew what kind of town it was, very touristy; a combination of Las Vegas and Orlando. ‘Are you traveling for business or pleasure,’ I inquired.      

I’m speaking at a Veterans conference, he replied. OK, I was speaking to a kindred spirit, a person willing to bare their soul to strangers; a colleague in the trenches of connecting flights, taxi cabs and dinners alone; I immediately felt a connection. People like us don’t do this for the glitz and the glamour that exists in the minds of those looking in from the outside. We do it because we have a burning desire to make a difference and we are uniquely qualified to help others through the lens of our personal experience.

“I’m a speaker too! I speak about surviving stage IV oral cancer. I just spoke in Las Vegas and I’m off to Anaheim, but I’m taking a detour home to attend the funeral of my father-in-law. How many lectures do you give a year?”    

“150.” That was three to four times the number of gigs I was performing a year.

“Wow – that’s a lot. You travel by yourself?”

“Sure do. I am blessed,” he said in his southern drawl. We walked toward the elevator chatting, that is to say, I walked, Tommy rolled.

“How do you get into the airplane seat? Do they help you?” He seemed open to answering my many questions.

“No. I can get around with the strength in my arm and torso.”

“So, I guess they have a ramp for you to get onto the speaking stages or platforms.”

“Yes, but when they don’t, I don’t mind being picked up.”

“How much do you weigh?” He didn’t take the least bit of offense in my question and answered readily.  

“135. 355 including my chair.”

He had a toughness about him, yet he was humble enough to accept assistance when needed. The image of him being carried by a strong man onto a stage stirred an even greater feeling of admiration. Another example of the fortitude of this war hero.

Instead of getting on the escalator, I joined him in the elevator which we shared with a couple and their baby stroller. “Thank you for talking to me,” he said. “You have asked some good questions. But I bet you can’t guess what color my socks are.” I looked down like an idiot and then broke into laughter. How else can you do what he does without a lot of humor. As we exited the elevator, I asked the father with the stroller if he would take our photo. He happily obliged. We had been speaking for at least 10 minutes and I didn’t even know his name. As we made our way toward the train to the other terminals, I offered, “I’m Eva.”

He pivoted around to reach into his Freedom Isn’t Free bag hanging from the wheelchair handlebar. His white t-shirt was secured around him with a wide elastic band. His torso was an odd shape. I didn’t want to distract him by asking more questions. As he weighted to one side, reaching for the bag, his left pant leg fell to the floor. The train came and went. I patiently waited as he rummaged through his bag passing over his bible, cell phone and an unopened pack of gum. Finally, a triumphant grin appeared across his face, when he found what he was looking for: a rubber banded pack of business cards. With one hand, he expertly slid the top card from the tightly wound, aged, rubber band and handed it to me. It read, ‘Johnny T. (Tommy) Clack.’ We boarded the train and I took a seat in the handicap section beside his wheelchair.  

“Nice to meet you Johnny,” I said as he tucked his pant leg back under his thigh.

“I go by Tommy,” he replied with a warm expression on his face.

It occurred to me that the preferred moniker of this man didn’t belong in parenthesis; it would require something much stronger to contain his spirit. I continued to read his card, ‘Captain US Army Retired, Combat Wounded/Vietnam May 29, 1969, Forward Observer, C/2/27 Infantry, 25th Infantry Division.’ “Tommy, you are one impressive guy. I’m touched by your attitude. What terminal are you going to?”

“D.” I liked his direct answers.

“I’m going to A.”  

My life motto is on the card, he added. I turned it over and seeing a lot of copy in a small font, I said, “I will read this when have my readers.” We passed Terminal T. My stop was next. “Tommy, it was an honor to speak with you; Break a leg tomorrow night!” We both laughed. He flashed me a peace sign and I waved goodbye as the train sped off.

I couldn’t wait to read his life motto. I unzipped my bag and pulled out my glasses: “Our lives are NOT determined by what happens to us but by how we react to it. A positive ATTITUDE causes a chain reaction of positive thoughts, events and outcomes. A positive ATTITUDE is a catalyst, a spark that creates extraordinary results.”  

To say that Tommy exuded a positive attitude would be a gross understatement. Engaging with him underscores the fact that we should never miss the opportunity to lend a hand. Out of the simple gesture of handing this American hero his bag, I was privy to a conversation and a perspective that will stay with me always, one that I will share. HIs attitude of gratitude in the face of the kind of adversity most of us will never know, has left me awestruck. Thank you for your service, Tommy. Your enormous sacrifice is only diminished by the size of your heart.

I hope you enjoyed this piece. I enjoy writing and had a chance to do a lot of it during Covid. I would LOVE to hear your comments!

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