Barry Sattler stood at the concourse window staring out into the rain drizzling on the runways at SeaTac International Airport. He checked the arrival and departure screens again, for the umpteenth time, to make sure that Lufthansa Flight 633 from Frankfurt was on time, and for the umpteenth time, it still was. He checked his watch again for the umpteenth time. The plane should be in sight by now. He paced the length of the waiting room, turned, and retraced his steps with almost military precision.
Gray hair streaked with white, worn long and tied in a ponytail, jeans, and sandals spoke volumes about Barry. As he stared at the landings and takeoffs of the airport routine, his mind replayed a similar airport scene more than thirty years before. On that occasion, Barry’s father stood in the window of a much smaller airport staring out at a plane leaving Seattle, carrying Barry to Toronto, presumably for the rest of his life. In those days, no one supposed that the many young men headed for Canada to escape the Vietnam War draft would ever be allowed to return to their homeland. Though he knew there could be no meeting of their minds, Barry tried one last time to make Colonel William F. Sattler, United States Army (retired), understand why his son could not and would not be part of “Mr. Johnson’s War”.
They had played out this discussion – this battle – many times before. The Colonel could accept that Barry objected to the politics of the war, though he himself thought the United States owed a debt of honor to the people of South Vietnam. Moreover, his years of “hot war” in Korea and “cold war” in the Fulda Gap of West Germany convinced him that the Soviet Union had to be opposed every time and every where it tried to export communism. However, if one conscientiously objected to fighting, one could go into the medical corps or become a chaplain’s aide. In this way, honor and duty, as well as conscience, could be satisfied. In addition, he would not lose his only son forever.
Barry disagreed with his father on virtually every point. The civil war raging in Vietnam was about the people of Vietnam trying to overthrow a corrupt and dictatorial regime and reunite a sundered nation. The United States had no business propping up its pet puppet general in Saigon when the people so clearly wanted him gone. The Soviets were not fighting American soldiers, the Vietnamese people were! The Soviets may have been supplying the North Vietnamese Army with equipment, but that does not justify sending American soldiers into the jungles of Southeast Asia. As for becoming a medic – that was a joke! Honor and conscience demanded the war be opposed – that Johnson be opposed. Which meant clearly and simply “Hell no, we won’t go!”
Neither could understand the other, neither could bend. They could only break against the opposing indomitable will in each of them.
That final leave-taking, so many years before, had remained with Barry to this day – his father glaring in shame and disgust as his son fled from honor, duty, and responsibility, as his father saw it. His father died before Barry was able to return home and they had never reconciled. Now history was very nearly repeating itself.
As the huge white and blue 767 rolled up to the gateway, Barry remembered the Boeing 707 that took him to Canada and smiled wryly. The tension in the pit of his stomach was real, physical, and his hands shook just a little as he watched the disembarking passengers surge out the doorway into the waiting area. Yes, there he was.
Tall, proud in his dress greens, captain’s bars on his shoulders, the laurel-wreathed rifle of the Combat Infantryman and Airborne wings on his chest, the green beret perched just so on his head. As Barry put his arms around his son, he murmured, “Bill! Welcome home, son.”
With those words, a strange sense of peace settled over Barry, a peace he had not known for many years. Today, finally, he understood that just as his son had made the right choice for himself, so, too, had Barry made the right choice decades before. Different times, different places, different wars, different choices – and all were right – for each of the three generations of Sattlers.