Crew returns, and a town rejoices

In the middle of her business day, Patti Carter starts crying.

She hasn't been fired, and there's not an angry customer in sight here at her mailing service on Pioneer Way. But when she stops to talk about the return of the reconnaissance crew that calls this town home, her voice cracks.

"We've all been tied up emotionally in this mess," says Ms. Carter, unashamed by her tears. "There's almost no separation at all between the air station and the town."

You can see that at the local churches, where deployment boards are carved in the shape of aircraft carriers, reminding people to pray for those overseas. You can see it at Eric King's printing shop, where "Welcome Home" signs are rolling off the presses. Come Saturday, the whole nation will see it, when this tiny Puget Sound port town sandwiched between two military bases holds a homecoming celebration for the 24 men and women finally freed from the Chinese island of Hainan.

People here know the military life. Nearly everyone has served in the armed forces - or has a son, daughter, or husband who has - and they see the safety of the servicemen and women assigned to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island as a collective charge, not a military matter. So it is only now, two weeks after the EP-3 reconnaissance plane made its emergency landing on a remote Chinese airstrip, that people are releasing emotions pent up over days of waiting and watching.

"So many of us who are now in the civilian community used to be on the other side of the fence," says Carter. "My husband was career military. He had over 20 years in when he retired. The military was part of my life. I know what it means to feel the support of this community."

Since the crisis began, that support has been overwhelming - and decidedly yellow. Across the northern half of Whidbey Island, most businesses, trees, fences, and signs sport yellow bows or sashes, a symbol that this community would not forget its crew.

In local restaurants and businesses, waitresses, bank tellers, and clerks at K-mart wear yellow ribbons. A cyclone fence at the elementary school is awash in yellow, with arrays of ribbons and homemade signs of support.

"It's kind of like extended family," says Dave Johnson, senior vice president at Whidbey Island Bank. "If something happens to your family, what do you do? You pull together.

"Even though you may not know the actual person involved, you pull together and do whatever you can," he says. "You pray.... You give as much comfort and support as you possibly can."

Jubilation and eggs

By early Wednesday morning, word of the crew's imminent release swept through Mitzel's out on Highway 20, where the Rotary Club was eating breakfast.

"Everyone was jubilant," said Mike Sullivan, a resident here for 28 years.

Mr. King of Whidbey Printing certainly left the breakfast in good spirits. Soon after he arrived at the shop, the Navy veteran was taking orders for "Welcome Home" signs. "And even today," he says, "more yellow ribbons are going up."

Shows of solidarity have taken other forms, too. On Monday, when it looked like the crew might not return for weeks, the Rev. David Lura of First United Methodist Church began a ritual to deepen the community's spiritual resolve: Every day at noon, he rang his church's bell 24 times - once for each member of the crew - then led a brief prayer service.

Although he has been the town's Methodist pastor for 13 years, Mr. Lura only retired from the Navy five years ago, and he says the military and the town are inextricably intertwined. "I feel like an active-duty chaplain in civilian clothes," he quips.

Lura urged residents to set the alarms on their wristwatches to buzz at noon, "so that they could be reminded to pray." On the church readerboard he spelled out the following:

Prayers and candles

Bells and more

For the Whidbey 24.

Done this before

Praying for men and women dispatched to faraway places is nothing new in Oak Harbor. Most of the town's churches have deployment boards that list the names of service personnel stationed here but dispatched around the globe.

The board at First Baptist is cut from wood in the shape of an aircraft carrier. The United Methodist version is about three feet square, with a hand-painted aircraft carrier plying ocean waves and names listed below.

"We have folks out on deployment all the time," Lura explains.

"Really, we have an ongoing prayer vigil, so what we've done these past few days isn't out of the ordinary - though I might add that our prayers have included the Chinese pilot who died and his family," he says.

Oak Harbor, in fact, is surrounded by the military - not only figuratively, but literally. The Naval Air Station here is two facilities, with a seaplane base south of town and a larger air base to the north. "Most bases ... are surrounded by their towns," Lura notes. "Our town is surrounded by the base."

The sound of freedom

That means the people of Oak Harbor are never far from the Navy. To some, that hasn't always been good. A few have complained about the incessant whine of jet engines, as Prowlers and other aircraft takeoff and land above the forest and fertile farmland of north Whidbey. But the community has always rallied around its troops.

For decades here, not far from the air station, a red, white, and blue sign has proclaimed: "Pardon our noise - it's the sound of Freedom."

On Saturday, when the 24 members of the spy plane are expected to return home after two days of debriefing in Hawaii, it won't be Navy jets that people hear in Oak Harbor. Most likely, it will be a rally, with honking horns and cheering citizens.

That, too, will be the sound of freedom.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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