Life Lines: Candy Puterbaugh

Your seatmate can make or break a plane flight. That was reinforced recently when I flew to Louisville, Ky. The Portland-Chicago part was the breaker when a big man in the next seat offered his elbow and no words or eye contact.

The maker came later. The final leg of my trip rewarded me with a front row aisle seat with extra leg room ... and Tyler.

My neighbor was young and fresh-faced with short-cropped hair, smudged glasses and legs that needed the extra room. He was a bit fidgety and glanced my way off and on.

Then: “This is my first time home in four months, ma’am.” Our final words came upon landing.

He was 22, in the Marines, and going home to surprise his half-sister on her 19th birthday He grew up in small towns in Kentucky — Greenville and Campbellsville — good places to grow up, he said, but not for him now as he wanted to keep busy and learn new things. He had no father, and his mother was 40 with a history of health problems, including epilepsy.

“She’s the strongest person I know, ma’am,” he said. “I admire her a lot.”

She saved a note he wrote in first grade saying that he had to do what he could with what he had and work hard to be a success in life.

Tyler went on. He was a weirdo in high school. Everyone had big trucks with huge tires, but not him.

“You see, ma’am, I was very shy in high school and didn’t fit in,” he said. “Even up until a year ago, I couldn’t carry on a conversation like this.”

He went to college for a while but thought he’d learn more in a branch of the military and it would be good for him. He liked the philosophy of the Marines and headed to boot camp in South Carolina. His mom worried about him.

Now he’s been at the U.S. Marine Corps base in Twentynine Palms, Calif,, for several months and loves it. He gets himself up at 4 a.m.

“No one wakes you up, ma’am,” he said. “You need to be somewhere by a certain time. I’m learning a lot and like the guys and the officers.”

He studied electronics and likes to fix things. He plays guitar, loves to run, enters triathlons, does martial arts, is an avid reader and loves languages. He’s traveled a lot, and went on mission trips with his church. In Africa his group couldn’t communicate with the people, so he studied the language about four hours a day. People were shocked when he spoke to them.

He’ll spend three weeks at home, working to recruit people to the Marines.

“I’m so excited to see my mom and sister and to surprise her on her birthday!” he said. “I’ll wait in the back room and, when she gets home from work at the DQ, step out.”

His sister recently texted him when he was en route at the airport, and he told her he was sitting outside in the California sunshine.

“She’s going to be mad at me,” he said, laughing. Then: “Martial arts will help me if my sister gets a boyfriend.”

Last year he looked up other half-siblings he’d never met, connected with them and said he’d stay in touch.

Tyler wants to have kids some day: “I hope I’m a better dad than my dad was. I’ve been lucky. I love my mom and sister so much. I can’t wait to see them.”

The long legs straightened when we landed and, after a polite “Good day, ma’am,” carried him with long, confident strides off the plane and into his fresh future. Happiness is more easily seen through grateful eyes.

Candy Puteraugh is a writer and Southwest Portland resident.

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