A missed connection
Have you ever wished you could go back and finish the conversation?
I’ve started a new journaling pattern. Every week, two questions: What do I most regret? What do I most remember?
Last week one person made both lists: Marine Sgt. First-Name-Unknown Cronin. On a Saturday-evening, full-to-capacity flight from Philadelphia back home to Washington, D.C. I noticed her—dress-blue uniform, dark hair pulled tight in a bun more befitting my age than hers—even before she claimed her seat next to mine.
She was used to being in control of a small universe—here and now an airplane aisle. An older woman nudged her way from the rear to the front, obviously confused about her seat assignment. Sergeant Cronin took charge. A simple command, “Let me see your ticket.” A simple solution, “17A. Farther back.”
Sergeant Cronin. It was the name written on the blank book she pulled from her bag. As we settled in, we exchanged a short conversational round. “You going home?” I asked, meaning: Are you stationed in Washington?
“Yes,” she answered. “What an intense trip.”
Maybe it was the midnight blue uniform. Or the tight bun. Or her youth. I don’t know. But this is my regret: that I didn’t ask a follow-up question. Something easy, like, “Where’ve you been?”
She couldn’t keep her hands off that blank book, her sketchpad. With a pen she drew and drew. I didn’t want to pry, yet I couldn’t keep my novel-reading eyes from glancing at her artwork. I remember a female figure, standing maybe at a kitchen counter—or was it at a large box? When she finally quit sketching, Sergeant Cronin looked out the window, like a first-time flier staring at the nearly night sky.
The plane had landed before our conversation took off. She ventured a compliment. “I like your earrings.” White shirt buttons glued onto old screwbacks. I smiled. “A flea-market find.”
After a bit of banter about passengers standing, as if chafing at the aisle would expedite their exit, she asked the age-old question, more personal and telling than “Where do you live?”
“Where are you from?”
“Western New York,” I said. “And you?”
She turned the conversation to western New York, naming the only cities she knew: Rochester, where there’s a decent airport; Elmira, where there’s a military cemetery. Then a few towns, Wellsville, Scio. “That’s where I’ve just been,” she said.
“Wellsville? Scio? What’s the U.S. government doing in Allegany County? The rural, rivercut county where I went to college 30 years ago—at the time the poorest county in the state. And Scio (she pronounced it correctly, Sigh-o) among the least of the towns, 2,000 strong—including the weak.
Then the sobering sentence: “I was laying a comrade to rest.”
Before I could collect my thoughts, the row ahead of us emptied out and the aisle opened up. Responding by habit, I grabbed my carry-on and rushed toward the door. I assumed that she in the midnight blue uniform was right behind me. But she wasn’t.
At the gate I turned around, hoping to see her in the connecting walkway, thinking I’d wait for her, trusting I’d find meaningful words to close the conversation. Maybe offering a prayer, for her, the living, if not for her colleague, the dead.
But Sergeant Cronin wasn’t in sight. She’d lingered on the plane, maybe telling the woman in row 17 how to open the overhead compartment. I might have waited, but didn’t.
An AOL news teaser caught my eye the next day. Marine hero. Scio, New York. His name was Cpl. Jason Dunham, age 22. Near Husaybah, Iraq, he’d thrown himself on a grenade to protect and save the lives of two men under his command. Losing his life, he gained a Purple Heart.
Sergeant Cronin, fellow traveler, I regret not asking you one simple question at the beginning of our short journey: “Where’ve you been?”
If I’d known you’d been to Scio and had known your Scio sorrow, I would have asked to see your sketchbook drawings and listened like a mother.
This article originally appeared in the August 2004 issue of U.S. Catholic