Last week, Dustin and I had the opportunity to attend the premiere of “The Way We Get By,” a documentary film about the troop greeters at Bangor International Airport. The premiere at the University of Maine in Orono was a red-carpet night complete with a military band, uniformed soldiers, and a who’s who of Maine, including congressmen and women and Gov. John Baldacci. But the real star of the night was the film itself.
On its face, “The Way We Get By” is about three elderly Bangor area residents — Bill, Joan and Jerry — who along with others, many of them veterans themselves, gather at Bangor International Airport any time of day or night, 365 days a year, to greet American troops who regularly pass through there on their way to and from missions abroad. But “The Way We Get By” has several subthemes without obvious military connections as well.
Most notably, the movie offers shocking and heartfelt glimpses of retirement, aging, health care and dealing with the loss of a loved one. It is a fascinating, poetic statement — one that will leave you with many wet tissues — on loneliness, and it makes an unforgettable argument for the benefits of volunteerism.
My favorite shot of the whole movie (which by the way is saying a lot because there is no shortage of fantastic cinematography in “The Way We Get By”) is the very first scene, when a jumbo jet appears from behind a snowbank several feet high at Bangor International Airport.
It is set to a haunting score with the tinny sound of guitar, the sound you might expect when watching tumbleweeds roll across the hot desert in other movies on the big screen. Except the “tumbleweeds” is a commercial airliner, the “desert” a frozen airport in central Maine. This juxtaposition of what’s expected and what is not is one of the finer points of “The Way We Get By.”
Bill, the movie’s main character, is a widower who hasn’t kept up with the family farm and house. His cats wade through a sea of empty cat food cans piled two and three high on the kitchen floor to get to their food bowls. Bill has prostate cancer, and in fact, the audience sees a scan showing multiple tumors throughout his body. At this point, moviegoers — even hardened military men — will have a lump of emotion in their throats, which undoubtedly will be released when Bill shows off old photographs of his late wife and speaks about having no one to come home to.
When Bill decides to sell his home and everything in it, but wants to save his wife’s old bed, I assure you, no one in the audience will have dry eyes. Not with that guitar in the background, each note vibrating one dramatic note at a time, as you imagine Bill’s life as the aforementioned “desert” and his memories of the past the “tumbleweeds.”
And then, like the jumbo jet unexpectedly coming out from behind the snowbank, the music gains slow, steady momentum. There is a determination to the notes now. They are building one on the other. Suddenly, your heart quickens, and although you have tears on your cheeks, you will smile uncontrollably when you see Bill, the Bill you have come to know and love, standing in the hallway at the Bangor International Airport shaking hands with uniformed soldiers less than half his age. The soldiers hug Bill like he’s their own grandfather; they thank him for his service.
What the troop greeters provide for members of the U.S. military is probably obvious. Bangor International Airport is small, the kind of place where you don’t need someone’s flight number to pick them up. You just stand in the middle of the lobby and wait for them to get off the only flight coming in at the moment. So the troops who pass through here while their airplane refuels aren’t expecting much. You can see it on their faces in the movie. They are tired from traveling, eager to get to their final destination.
Then they see Bill and the other troop greeters waiting in a line to shake their hand, offer them snacks, and lend them cell phones to call loved ones back home. Such gestures might be expected and perhaps even overlooked in large military cities like San Diego, Calif. Or Norfolk, Va. But in a place like Bangor, Maine, not known for having a large military presence, it is for the troops as surprising and inspiring as — well, as a jumbo jet coming out from behind a snowbank.
Yet this relationship between soldier and troop greeter is a two-way street, something I had not realized until I saw “The Way We Get By.”
The service men and women who come through Bangor International Airport offer just as much in return for their admirers. Indeed, Bill himself says that the young soldiers have given his life purpose in a time when he can find very little. He says he wants his life to mean something to someone else. When you see “The Way We Get By” you will know that it does. In fact, Bill’s life will mean something to you.
Next Week: Departure scene in “The Way We Get By” brings back memories of Dustin leaving for deployment.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Her new book, “I’m Just Saying …,” is available wherever books are sold. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.