There is no playing of the Star Spangled Banner. They didn’t put Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA” over the PA system. There are no fire trucks creating an arc of water to taxi under. There is not even the cheering you occasionally hear when a plane lands after a particularly difficult flight. However, for me it is a deeply emotional moment. One of the few moments in my life that despite the erosion of time on memory, I will never forget. I am home.
For 71 days I have wondered whether I would ever make it back. I have been a castaway on a desert island wondering whether I would ever escape. The island I had been marooned on could not have been more welcoming. It was beautiful if not spectacular. I was as safe as any place can be in a pandemic. I had been with my wife, the one person required for me to be whole. As lush and as pleasant as the surroundings of my marooning had been, I was still stranded. As well fed as I had been, it did not have the flavors of home that comfort and cajole. As safe as I had felt, it was compromised because I had failed to learn the language which made me vulnerable to the indecipherable.
All those days of stress, fear, and doubt are over with the screech of tires on the runway tarmac and I weep.
While we taxi to the gate, an announcement is made about deboarding the aircraft. We are told that Custom’s and Border Patrol have instituted measures to help ensure social distancing. Only 6 rows will be allowed off the airplane at any time and only those who are called may claim their luggage and other belongings from overhead bins. Deplaning will start with the business class section and work its way from front to back. We are reminded that masks are required on board the aircraft and while in the terminals of George Bush International Airport.
When we reach the gate, my section is the first to be called on to deplane. I collect my bag from the overhead bin and follow a now masked Tex off the plane. Normally, when an international flight arrives there is a mad dash of passengers to immigration. Nobody, even those, like me, who use Global Entry Kiosks to enter, wants to be caught in the long lines that are the hallmark of entering the country. There is no need to rush today with only 20 of us exiting at the same time. But I do. Partly out of habit but mostly to separate myself from the other passengers.
One of the things that has confounded me for years is the distance between the planes gate and immigration. Almost without exception, regardless of country or airport, there seems to be a conspiracy to make your walk as long as possible. In Rio, I have measured it on a walking app to close to 2 kilometers. Here at IAH, it is not that long but the trek from airplane to the Global Entry Kiosks is ten minutes.
When I reach the kiosks, I begin the familiar process. First, I slip my passport into the reader and remember just in time to lower my mask so the device can take my picture. I place my fingers on a touch plate so it can read my fingerprints. When they are accepted, I prepare to go through the standard series of questions such as purchases made abroad, have you visited a farm, what flight you were on, etc. But the machine asks me none of those questions just printing out the standard form to hand to the CBP officer. I am not sure why things have changed but I am grateful to be on my way.
There is no line at the Global Entry designated que and I go directly to a masked officer. He asks for my paperwork, which I hand to his gloved hand. I realize that this job which used to be relatively safe has turned into a front line posting on the nations war on the pandemic. The CBP officer is pleasant and asks me what has kept me out of the country for so long. I tell him it was not from lack of trying. That I had five flights cancel on me and that while I hoped to fly home from Rio, where my wife and I had a home, when Trump declared the travel restrictions for Brasil I thought it time to get home anyway I could. I know this is too much information. I know he really does not need to hear my personal story. But there is a method to my madness. When he hands me back my passport and ticket and says “Welcome home!” I ask, “My wife is a Brazilian citizen and is planning on joining me here at the beginning of July. Does she need to bring any particular paperwork with her to prove she is married to a US citizen?”
He pauses before answering and says “No. We have no directives on what paperwork is required. A declaration is enough. But it probably would not hurt to bring along her marriage certificate and a copy of your passport.” This is a huge relief. I want nothing more than Elaine to join me but I know that she is nervous about being turned around at the border and sent home. Who wouldn’t be considering the Trump’s administrations attitude towards immigrants borders. I just hope the information the CBP officer has given me will ease her fears enough to enable her to travel.
I leave immigration and follow the signs to security. During normal times, even with TSA Pre, this is a choke point due to long lines and the extra scrutiny given to international travelers. Today, it is empty. The maze leading up to the identification check point has been reconfigured into a single line and it has no one in it. I place my bags, computer, iPad, jacket, shoes, and belt on the conveyor belt. I am scanned without a beep but my bags need to be run through twice due as to insure my CPAP machine and Milka chocolate bars are not instruments of mass destruction. Normally, I would be annoyed at this inconvenience but today I let it pass over me as I am grateful for being in the land of my birth.
As I leave security and begin the trek to my gate, I see Tex once more. He is having a booming argument with some of the security people. Apparently, he did not receive read or the email sent to passengers on our flight that informed us that by Houston ordinance, all people at George Bush International Airport are required to wear masks at all time. Nor did he listen to the post landing announcement on the plane. He is arguing loudly that he does not need to wear a mask. That he is fine. As I walk in search of a men’s room so that I can wash my hands, I find that amnesty on anger has passed.
The golden rule is something that connects almost every faith in the world. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a principal on which every community beyond one person must be based otherwise chaos would ensue. It is a concept that is taught in Sunday schools, public schools and by teachers and parents alike. I have no doubt, that if I asked Tex what the Golden Rule was he would have no problem reciting its words. Why then does he have such trouble living it? Doesn’t he understand that he has been in Brazil a country that has the second largest infection rate in the world without doing any significant testing and he could be infected or a carrier and not know it? Unasked carriers had spread the infection and brought our country and the world to its knees.? Wearing a mask is an act of kindness to your neighbor and your community and would help prevent needless disease and death. That his not wearing a mask would encourage others not to wear a mask and that could result in him or someone he cares for getting the disease.
I know that what is activating my rage is more than just people not wearing masks. They are just a symbol of a different type of virus that is running rampant through the cultures of both Brazil and the United States, if not the world. The disease that allows science and facts to be discounted by unproven theories and conjectures. The illness where meme’s are given equal weight to historical fact. The sickness that allows people to express vileness and hatred with a sense of impunity.
The only consolation to both of these diseases is that they have exposed flaws within our society. We can see with better acuity the mistakes that we made both planning for and coping with the spread of the disease. We can perceive more acutely our countries’ divisions and perhaps the paths that will help bring us closer together. The dangers of unfettered social media has been made crystal clear and now we just need to figure out to contain its excesses.
My father loved the punny expression “You can lead a whore to culture, but you cannot make her think.” I pray that our countries learn to think and that we rid ourselves of the “putas” in the White House and in Brasilia.
I am greatly relieved when I find a bathroom located adjacent to the shopping area in the terminal. Not only has the hydraulic pressure reached capacity but I am desperate to clean my hands after the interactions of border control and security. Washing turns out to be a less than pleasant experience as my hands have become chapped and the application of hot water and soap is painful. As a consequence, I go in search of a shop where I can buy some hand cream as I have read that Covid19 can infect through chapped and parched skin.
As in Sao Paulo, most of the shops and restaurants are closed by a combination of lack of business and employees. However, I find a Hudson News open. I am momentarily overwhelmed by the wall of goodies that I have only been able to dream about it in the last few months (Peanut M&M’s, Cheezits, Combos, Frito’s, Reeses, etc. ) in Texas sizes. Before I can pay homage to this wall I overhear an argument between two clerks in the store. The masks they have been given to wear have been contaminated and they cannot be worn. They wonder how they are going to manage customers. I decide that I will forgo the treats and buy only the lotion for my hands. But before I can pay I see they have been blessed by the gods of travel with a shipment of Clorox Disinfecting Wipes To Go. I decide to buy 4 and pay for them and the lotion while standing as far away from the clerks as I can. Then, I return to the washroom for another hand cleanse followed by some soothing lotion.
I walk to my gate through a sparsely populated concourse. Most of my fellow travelers are following the directive to wear masks although some of those choose to wear them only covering their mouths and still others as neckerchiefs. I mumble sub voce curses at them in Portuguese at them but my earlier internal tirade has taken much of the steam from my invective.
The gate area itself is modern. Instead of rows of seats there are a collection of six foot long tables with stools bolted in place and several tablets to enable you to order food and drink from where you are sitting. I find a seat at one of them facing my gate and quickly wipe down counter and chair with my newly acquired wipes. “Apocalypse Now” pops into my head and I imagine Robert Duvall saying, “I love the smell of bleach in the morning, it reminds me of victory…against Covid19.” Clearly, I have been alone too long.
I am too tired to read. I have no patience to find programming on Hulu, Netflix or any of the other streaming services I belong to. I revert to the people game my mother taught me. I look at a young family a mother father and child. The mother and father are doing all they can to keep the child entertained and wearing his mask but they are failing at both. I wonder what has brought them here to the airport. Why would any family, especially one with a young child, want to travel now? Are they returning home from overseas like I am? Have they lost their jobs and are moving to their parents home to live?
I see two morbidly obese men wearing dirty jeans, Heavy Metal T-shirts, baseball caps with sunglasses on the visor and no masks. I peg them as Trump supporters who feel like they are making a political statement while exposing us and them to disease.
This is a game without end but it eats up the time until my flight is called. When it is, I am among the first to board. When I take my seat, a single in business class, it hits me. I am on the final leg of my journey. Home, and all it represents, are just a few hours away. I discover that mask serve more than protecting others from the virus they spare them your tears as well.