Airline passengers are typically supposed to take their seats in a calm and orderly fashion.
Not so on Saturday when an MD-80 taxied to Gate 79 at Terminal C of Kansas City International Airport and more than 20 children plus 15 parents boarded the 12:07 p.m. charter bound for Dallas/Fort Worth.
As they did, out from the overhead storage bins popped a dozen or more hiding children who, while in the compartments, proceeded to pelt the new group of laughing passengers with “snowballs” made of cotton balls and fabric.
This was no ordinary flight. It was the 10th annual arrival of American Airlines’ Snowball Express.
Besides sharing a flight to Texas together, the passengers shared something more significant: All were the children and spouses of fallen members of the U.S. military, individuals who died while on active service from Sept. 11, 2001, or after.
Jerry Murray, 11, of Junction City, Kan., was there with his mom, Maricel Murray, 39. Jerry wore a T-shirt with a photo of his father in uniform. Above the photo were the letters KIA for “killed in action” with the date 090407 and place, Sadr City, Baghdad.
Sgt. Joel Lee Murray was killed by a roadside bomb when his son was hardly 3.
“They get to know that they’re not the only ones who’s lost a loved one,” Maricel Murray said of the trip.
Gavin Pastine, 13, of Clay Center, Kan., was there with his brother, J.T Alton, 8. Their mom, Carrie Alton, 39, has been emotionally shaky and raw since the sudden death of her husband, Sgt. 1st Class John Alton, of a heart attack at age 44. The family continues to suffer.
“I just wanted them to have a good time,” Alton said of her children and the chance to have four days of fun with children and families that can relate to their lives.
Sgt 1st Class Forrest Robertson died in an Afghanistan gunbattle in November 2013. His wife, Marcie Robertson, 36, of Wamego, Kan., brought their children, Alia, 8, Evelyn, 12, and Kristie, 16, for the second year in a row. The trip is open to children younger than 18 for as many years as they want to attend.
“Last year was the most amazing experience,” Marcie Robertson said. Not just for the children, but the spouses, too.
“I am not alone,” Robertson said the days showed her. “There are so many people like me.”
Although there is comfort and a sense of communion at the event, the reason American Airlines and others sponsor it, with all expenses paid, is to offer fun for the kids.
Some 1,700 children and military spouses fly from around the country to the Dallas area, where the families are put up in hotels and guided to events. In the past they have attended professional football games, basketball games and rodeos. This year they’re attending Dallas’ Medieval Times show, where the families will be served a four-course dinner and watch a show of jousting and falconry.
Actor Gary Sinise and his group, Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band, are scheduled to put on a private concert.
Gate 79 prior to takeoff was a party scene, stocked with pastries, balloon hats, Sluggerrr from the Kansas City Royals; Kansas City Chiefs cheerleaders; Mac, the horse mascot for the Missouri Mavericks hockey team; and Santa Claus. The families will return Wednesday.
Said Jerry Murray, who is attending for a fifth time: “I meet a lot of new friends.”