Down East 2013 ©
During the holidays we often think more about the people who are missing than we do about the ones present. This is especially true during times of war. But unless you have loved ones in Iraq or Afghanistan those conflicts might seem like distant, impersonal affairs.
I can’t say that I’ve always remained mindful of the sacrifices our service members and their families have been making for the past nine years. Recently, though, I received a visit from a longtime friend. I have known Hugh Tillman since we were in grade school in Scarborough, but our lives have taken different paths. Hugh attended the Maine Maritime Academy and enlisted in the Marines. Not long ago, he retired as a decorated lieutenant colonel. Along the way he became a crackerjack pilot (I believe he can fly anything with wings or a rotor) and so inevitably he was sent to war in Iraq.
Hugh, who now lives in Hawaii, visited me in a rented Cessna that he flew up from Portland. I treated him to lunch in Rockland, and then he took me for a flight above Penobscot Bay. As we soared above the Muscle Ridge Channel down to Port Clyde, we talked about Iraq (he even let me take the controls for much of the flight). Hugh commanded Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 363 and flew combat missions in Al Anbar province. I’m sure he witnessed horrific things, but we didn’t talk about the horrors of war. Instead he told me about the suffocating 130 degree heat at Al Asad (“like a hair dryer blowing in your face all day long”) and the surprising item he asked his mother to send him in bulk (“hand wipes”). We also talked about Down East and how much it meant to him in the desert to see crashing waves and pine-forested mountains in our pages. It reminded me of the words this magazine’s founder once wrote: “We chiefly hope to catch something of Maine that will appeal to those who live here as well as those who wish they could. To the latter, Down East hopes to serve as a letter from home, keeping Maine alive and warm in their hearts until they can return.”
I was gratified that this magazine had performed that service for Hugh, who is home safe and will be celebrating the season with his family. But across Maine this December there will be many empty chairs at dinner tables. I, for one, will be more mindful of them.