`Thanks for a Job Well Done'

SPRING comes late to this part of Maine, and though winter has not been particularly harsh this year, its dismal remnants remain in the shape of dirty piles of snow, slowly turning to rivers of mud. Meanwhile an economy which even in good times is a survival economy in Maine has been bleak as a result of the recession that has particularly blighted New England.

But at the Bangor airport there is no gloom, no depression, no mood of recession. What is going on here, hour after hour, right around the clock, is an outpouring of affection and celebration, a kind of festival of love, for thousands of servicemen and women returning from Saudi Arabia, and for whom Bangor is the first touchdown on American soil.

At all hours of day and night the commercial planes - chartered from United Airlines, Continental, Hawaiian Air, American Trans Air to bring the troops home - drop down after the long flight from Saudi Arabia. They refuel in Bangor before flying on to military bases in every part of the country, and the troops, still in their Desert Storm fatigues, pour off the planes for their first glimpse of America in months.

What awaits them here is astonishing, and moving, and uniquely American.

The airport terminal has been transformed with red, white, and blue banners, and flags, and balloons, and yellow ribbons. Proclaims one poster: ``God used you to bless America - thanks troops.'' And: ``Alpha Phi sorority loves US troops.'' And: ``From the Dedham cheerleaders, we all love ya.''

There are messages of jauntiness: ``MASH - Mainers Against Saddam Hussein.'' And of poignancy: ``Welcome home Vietnam vets and Persian Gulf troops,'' of especial meaning to the Vietnam veterans who dot the waiting crowds for each airliner.

Crowds there certainly are. No matter that weeks have gone by since the cease-fire in the Gulf war. No matter that some of the planes come in at two or three in the morning. So many people from Bangor and other parts of Maine want to welcome the troops that the local newspaper has to publish the plane arrival times. Radio stations broadcast them. So many people call the airport that special lines, with special numbers, have been installed with arrival information. Sometimes the airport is so clogged wit h welcomers that parked cars stretch for a mile down the approach road.

As the troops come down the ramp from the plane into the terminal, they get yellow daffodils and soft drinks, fruit, candy, and home-made cookies from tables under a banner proclaiming: ``For our troops with love from the Greater Bangor community.''

Musicians - often a band from the local high school - strike up with the ``Red, White and Blue,'' or the national anthem. Boy scouts wave American flags. There is clapping and cheering. Then the troops, some teary-eyed, run a gantlet of well-wishers who hug them, and kiss them, and thump them on their backs. They get yellow ribbons pinned on them, teddy bears and stuffed animals thrust upon them.

Children and teenagers get them to autograph ``Desert Storm'' T-shirts often crowded with signatures from earlier flights. By last week Alison Robbins, who has a brother in the Marine Corps in Kuwait, had missed only five of the incoming military flights.

A camera-clicking World War II veteran told me he'd met 20 flights, and aimed to get a collection of 300 photographs. His lapel badge, under an American flag, proclaimed: ``These colors don't run.'' Representatives from American Legion Post 84 have met every single flight that has arrived.

The troops seem overwhelmed, and letters of thanks from them after they get home fill pages in the local newspaper. Pasted in the Bangor terminal are yellowing clippings from papers as far afield as Honolulu telling the story of the Maine welcome. The television networks have run stories about the Bangor reception. Earlier this month, Sgt. Kevin Tillman of the 82nd Airborne Division, returning from the Gulf through Bangor, got national attention on network television when he borrowed a saxophone from a local high school bandsman and played a movingly soulful rendition of the national anthem. Bangor wants him back for a mammoth Fourth of July celebration it is planning.

What does this all mean? Some may probe for psychological significance and want to analyze hidden currents in the national psyche. From here, it just looks like ordinary folks saying ``welcome home,'' and ``thanks for a job well done.''

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