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Travelers’ Tales: Welcome Back

Introduction by Chris Clarke – Carol McCool and I met five years ago, through a writers’ group in Costa Rica. She is softly spoken and very kind to all the people she meets and writes about. She has penned many stories about the interesting characters she has met. These portraits are insightful and sympathetic. Most have not yet been published.

Carol is a psychologist who enjoyed a rewarding professional life working in schools in the Chicago area. Upon retiring, she left the cold winters and long commutes of suburban expressways—renowned for having only two seasons, winter and “under-construction”—for the warmth of the tropics.

Her stories of her early years on a mountain farm here are published in the anthology, Costa Rica Kaleidoscope. She also worked as a freelance writer for a Costa Rican newspaper for several years and has published articles in various magazines. This story, “Welcome Back” is an excerpt from the book she is currently writing, Costa Rica – Quirky and Serious: Travel Stories in Many Voices.

Welcome Back

by Carol McCool

This was to be a routine visit to see family and friends, a trip I had made several times before. But I was feeling different, uneasy. People told me that the U.S. has changed in the years since I left. On earlier trips I had not noticed.
Agent Díaz at the immigration desk at the Miami Airport looked at my passport and asked, “What was the purpose of your trip to Costa Rica?”
“I live there,” I replied.
“How long will you be in the U.S.?” he asked.
“Ten days in Chicago, then a week in Atlanta.”
“What kind of work do you do?”
“I’m retired. My home is in Costa Rica now. I paused and added, “It’s a good life.”
He handed me my passport. “Welcome back.”

The flight from Miami to Chicago had been delayed. The hour was late, and O’Hare was fairly empty as I walked toward the door leading out to the taxis. A slender, young woman with dishwater blond hair approached from the street carrying a large, homemade, cardboard sign. It was decorated with drawings of yellow ribbons and said, “Welcome home…” I could not read the name.

She turned to the young woman with her, “I see him.” Her voice choked with feeling. “Look! There he is.”

I stopped and turned to watch as both women ran into the airport toward a soldier dressed in camouflage, descending the escalator. My eyes teared as I watched her embrace the young man. I do not cry (It’s just not who I am), but I get a little emotional when I see something loving or touching.

Once outside I slid into a taxi and gave the driver my destination. He asked me the best way to go. “Take 294 south and then cut over on the Stevenson. I’m not sure exactly where, but I will know it when I see it.”

The driver engaged me in conversation asking me about my flight and reason for coming to Chicago. I am usually reticent with people I do not know, but he wanted to talk.

“I used to work for the Bank of America,” he said. “I have two masters’ degrees, one in economics and one in international finance. I got laid off.”

“A lot of people are really hurting in this economy,” I replied.

We talked about politics. He had an accent I could not place. I thought it might be from the Middle East. “Do you mind if I ask you where you are from?” I asked.

“A tiny island in the Persian Gulf off the coast of Oman. I got one of my degrees in Iran and one in India. Bank of America recruited me to work for them.”

I leaned forward, resting my arms against the back of the front passenger seat to hear him better. This was a suburban taxi with no bullet-proof barrier between the front and back seats.

“When I lost my job, I had little money, so my wife left,” he continued.

“Do you have any children?” I asked.

“Yes, one son. He’s twenty-five. He’s lost his mind. The Army sent him to Afghanistan. He cannot function now. He’s in the state mental hospital in Elgin.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that. Won’t the Veterans Administration help?” I asked.

“No, nothing.”

“Are you a U.S. citizen?”

“Yes, I’ve lived here for twenty-two years. My son is a citizen too.”

I thought about my brother, still struggling with PTSD and the effects of Agent Orange from Vietnam. I remembered that CNN International, a channel I watch in Costa Rica, reported that twenty-two U.S. veterans kill themselves every day, and active duty soldiers die of suicide at the rate of one a day. But I did not mention that to the driver. Then I looked up.

“Hey, we missed our exit. We need to turn around,”

The driver tapped his GPS device vigorously. He turned off the meter and apologized profusely, as we headed back north. I offered to pay him the amount on the meter at that point. He accepted and apologized again.

He will lose money on this trip, I thought, as we headed in the right direction.

“I’m sorry to hear about all that happened to your family,” I said. “I may be able to find someone who can help you—probably not—but I would like to try. Do you have a card so I can contact you?”

“Here’s my card,” He said. “My name is Ali. I’m Muslim. Maybe that’s why I was fired.”
I let that sink in. Then I asked, “Do you know what your son’s diagnosis is?”

“Bi-polar, ADHD and schizz…” He could not pronounce the word.

“Schizophrenia?”

“Yes, they give him a shot once a month and some other medicine, but he is not getting better. I was told to get him private help and better, more expensive medicine than what they give him in the hospital. It’s too expensive for me. I drive this taxi twelve hours a day.”

The diagnoses seemed like an unlikely combination. I suspected an under-trained diagnostician just used a symptom checklist without asking what the symptoms might mean.

Did they know that he had been in war? Did anyone at the state hospital know how to help a veteran heal the soul-wounds of combat?

“What was he like before he went to Afghanistan?” I asked.

“He was fine. He was a good student and a good soccer player. He was in the ArmyReserves. They sent him to Afghanistan three times. Now he can’t do anything. My son says we are killing innocent people there.”

I cried.

When we reached my destination, Ali helped me with my luggage, and we hugged. The next day I made some phone calls and sought information on-line. I found a toll-free hotline for distressed veterans and their families and a number to call to access veterans’ benefits. I sent the information to Ali. Maybe he has already tried them, maybe not. He is educated and speaks English well, important traits when dealing with bureaucracies.

I like to think that one day he can say to his son, “Welcome back.”