I boarded a plane last Saturday night in Atlanta dog-tired after a four-hour layover on a Saturday -- on a flight that was scheduled to get me home just after midnight. I'd be back at the airport to fly to San Diego Sunday morning.
I have traveled 140 of the last 160 days -- a 40-plus-stop book tour followed by digging myself out of a backlog of new consulting clients. As I settled into seat 4B, I thought, well, at least I got upgraded -- and then I remembered that my head phones were in my bag in the overhead. I stood up, dug them out and sat back down as two young soldiers passed me heading back to coach. I really should give my first class seat to one of them, I thought, and stood up on impulse. And then stood paralyzed between doing the right thing and settling back down into my comfortable seat. At that moment, the guy in 3B turned around and glared at me.
"Are you ever going to sit down?" he asked.
"Yes," I stammered. "Is it important to you?"
"You've been bouncing off the back of the seat like a monkey!" he shouted.
"I was just getting up to give my seat to one of those soldiers," I said.
"Then do it already!" he shot back.
I looked at him again and was struck with rage. He looked like one of those former frat-boy guys, a silver spoon kid. I couldn't help myself. I spit out the sarcasm: "You know what, you are a cool guy, and you've probably always been cool. Guys like you make me proud to be an American." He just stared at me.
I went and stood at the bulkhead as the flight attendant went back to coach and brought up the young Marine, and I went and took his seat in the back of the plane. I was so angry I couldn't think straight. I sat and fumed for half the flight at how rude my fellow passenger had been to me until another soldier sitting nearby approached me and said, "I just want to thank you for what you did for my buddy," he said—and my anger melted. As we talked I found out that they had been on planes for more than 23 hours and were returning home after three tours in Iraq.
When we landed, it took Delta 15 minutes to get someone out to operate the sky bridge, and my fellow passengers were ready to revolt as they staggered off the plane. When I walked into the terminal, I found the soldier I had given my seat to and his buddy waiting for me. The soldier I had put in first class walked quickly to me, stuck out his hand, and said, "I want you to know how much I appreciated your giving me your seat." I was embarrassed at what a small sacrifice I had made, in the face of what he undoubtedly had just gone through for me and my fellow citizens. From the look on his face, you would have thought I had given him the keys to a new Ferrari. I mumbled something like, "Well, we appreciate all that you guys do for us." He paused, looked me straight in the eyes, and said, "Hey man, it's all about you." The weird thing is, I could tell he meant it. He was a soldier because he loves America and its people. I was stunned by the profound honesty of his statement, and the pride he obviously takes in his job. He told me that now that he has finished his tours he was off to become a drill sergeant.
"Don't be too tough on them," I said.
He smiled and said, "Don't worry." He struck me as just the kind of guy that young men would follow into battle.
At that moment I decided I would never again sit in a first class seat when there is a man in uniform on the plane. I'm 6'3" and fly 150,000 miles a year -- coach class used to be my idea of hell. But meeting those two young guys changed everything. Giving up my seat is a ridiculously small price for the sacrifices these people make. And if this all sounds kind of sappy -- try it sometime. You are likely to be amazed by the quality of people protecting our liberty.
As I walked away from the two soldiers, I saw someone approaching me in my peripheral vision. It was the guy from 3B. All the frat boy swagger was gone. He had waited for me and seen me talking to the soldiers. "Hey," he said, "that was great what you did for those guys." Embarrassed again by the comparatively meaningless gesture, I shrugged. He continued, "And I am really sorry for being rude to you back there." What was left of my anger melted away, and all I felt was sympathy for a fellow road-warrior just trying to hold it together till he got home to his family at midnight. "Hey," I said, "I travel a lot, and my nerves get pretty frayed, too."