The Boys of 38 Special

As the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches, the SongMom recounts when she and fellow passengers rallied behind a complete stranger.

"It is easier to understand a nation by listening to its music than by learning its language." Anonymous

September 2011. 

It's hard to believe that nearly 10 years ago, the world as we knew it fell apart. I remember sitting on the end of my bed, speechless, seeing a beautiful blue sky in New York City and watching a second airplane hit the second Twin Tower. It seemed that within minutes the second tower fell.  That is when I fell—to my knees.

Within days, many songs were written—including my favorite, Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)." My pain unbearable, I went back to the two things that always got me through the tough times in my life: my faith in God, and my piano. 

Within a week I had decided that life was too short to not do what you love.  I wanted to be a songwriter; I wanted to write music that touched people's lives.

It was then that my journey as a songwriter began. 

 "Grab a chance and you won't be sorry for a might have been." Arthur Mitchell Ransome

Four years later I was pursuing that dream. I was on my way back from a country radio seminar in Nashville when I took ill. As usual, the long days had overworked my immune system, and I was returning home with a horrid cold. 

At the airport, I grabbed some cold medication and wearily boarded the plane.

Looking at my ticket, I noted that I was assigned to sit in row 38, seat C. I made my way down the aisle of the plane to my seat number, slightly tipsy and giddy from lack of sleep. Two men were seated in row 38. The seat between them was empty. I noticed that one man was close to my age, the other much younger.

“Well, this should be interesting," I commented to both as I sat between them. Both men were quite serious, and neither replied, let alone laughed.

As the plane was taxiing out, numerous thoughts went through my mind:  How come people don’t talk on elevators or airplanes? How can I sit here between these two guys and not say a word for seven hours?

I decided to take a chance. I turned to the young man to my left. 

“Hi, my name is Casey Stark, and I want you to know that I am absolutely scared to death to fly, am slightly high on cold medication and will probably talk a lot, so if you have a problem with that, you should just move now,” I said, smiling.

“No problem!” he laughed, and introduced himself. 

Daniel was a Marine and had just returned from his second tour in Iraq, where he had seen serious action and been injured. He had also just celebrated his 20th birthday, purchased a brand-spankin’-new Mustang and was flying home to his new base at Camp Pendleton before he was to be shipped out again. 

He won my heart instantly.

"In war, there are no unwounded soldiers." Jose Narosky

Emboldened, I leaned over to the guy on my right and said the same thing.  He also laughed.  His name was John.  Coincidentally, John was an ex-Marine, and a Persian Gulf War veteran, living in O.C. Both started talking, and as the plane lifted off the ground, I wasn’t the slightest bit afraid. I smiled inside. It was going to be an amazing trip home.

We laughed. We told stories, and even though Daniel was underage, John bought drinks for him, saying, “If a man is old enough to die for his country, he should be old enough to drink a damn beer!”  

I heard proud but serious words from both about their time in the service, confirmed kills, battles. I heard about their families, their girlfriends, their interests in music. I told them about this crazy dream I had about somehow making it in music at my age, and about my life and family, about my brother-in-law who had recently signed up for the Army and was doing his first tour of Iraq. 

At one point, Daniel put some tobacco chew in his mouth. Being the polite gentleman he was, he asked if it was OK with me.

“No problem!” I answered. 

Within moments, however, a frowning flight attendant was parked in front of us. 

“No tobacco products on the plane!” she said, loud enough for the other passengers to hear.

“Excuse me,” I spoke up. “This young man just returned from active duty in Iraq.”

“Yeah,” John added. “He is fighting for our country, as did I. Can we cut him some slack?”

“It’s a $50,000 fine if he is caught with it,” she said, wagging her finger in front of his nose. I won’t report him, but he must dispose of it immediately!”  

As Daniel stood up, she pointed down toward the bathroom.

The plane grew quiet as we watched Daniel limp down the aisle toward the bathroom, obviously favoring his right leg.

“He was injured,” I declared to the flight attendant. “It’s not like he is smoking on the airplane.”

John and I both continued to try to reason with her. She said nothing; she just stared her long nose down at us, watching to make sure Daniel opened the bathroom door before she turned around and walked toward the front of the plane.

Not surprisingly, the passengers bravely act.

Everyone began whispering. 

“That poor boy; he didn’t deserve that,” I overheard an elderly woman say in disgust. She looked at me, her mouth partly open in shock.

Suddenly, the man in front of us turned around and spoke up. 

“Does anyone know what this button does?” he said, pointing to the flight attendant call button overhead. " 'Cause, baby, I plan on pushin’ it a lot today.” And with a smile, he pushed it.


Those around him murmured, and I watched in amazement as they reached up to push the button.

“Bing, bing, bing,” went the button, lighting up the entire row. John laughed out loud and pushed his button.

Daniel made his way out of the bathroom and paused, watching as each passenger made eye contact with him, some shaking his hand, winking, as they all reached up to push the button. A smile stretched across his handsome face. I looked up at him as he returned to his seat. His eyes were sparkling. I grabbed his hand and squeezed it with encouragement.   I had never been so happy, or so proud. 

This could be my son someday, anyone’s son, and I would be damned if he would be treated so callously.

Laughing, I reached up to push the button. “Bing!”

Someone had a long flight home.

Yep! We kept that mean ol’ flight attendant pretty busy for the remainder of the flight, and, for the first time in my entire life, I watched as complete strangers turned around, or leaned across an aisle to smile and speak to each other on an airplane. The one thing we all had in common—our humanity, our memory of those fallen victims of 9/11, and our honor for Daniel, John, my brother-in-law, and those many more who defend and serve our country.

As for John and Daniel, I quickly dubbed them “the 38 Special,” and I promised to write a song about them. As we disembarked the plane, I watched as passengers exchanged phone numbers, e-mail addresses and smiles.

For us, this airplane ride had ended differently. Wiping tears from my eyes, I finally said goodbye to the inspiring and brave boys of 38 Special.

This one is for you, boys!

Shelly F. September 09, 2011 at 08:03 PM
I know you told me this story before, but reading it truely brought tears to my eyes. It's sad that people in this country don't know how to make exceptions or treat our service people the way they deserve to be treated. Can't believe it's been 10 years already since our world changed. Great articel and that is one handsome young man you used in two of your pictures :)
Shelly F. September 09, 2011 at 08:13 PM
Casey Stark September 09, 2011 at 09:12 PM
Thank you Shelly, and thank you for sharing Tyler's pictures with us! Shelly also shared with me..."There is no such thing as an X-Marine. They are called "non active duty Marines" or "retired Marines." The saying goes..."ONCE A MARINE, ALWAYS A MARINE." They are very proud and do not even like being called Soldiers :) Another saying, "Don't call me a soldier, I'm a marine. LOL Of course you wouldn't know these unless you had a hubby or a son for a Marine :)" Thank you Shelly and God Bless you and your family for your service to our Country!
Sherilynn Grayson September 10, 2011 at 10:55 PM
What a beautiful, inspiring story! Shame on that flight attendant! Since 9/11 I have begun to try and speak to those sitting next to me on an airplane. It's silly really that you spend hours sitting next to someone and not even introduce yourself! Love the pictures and the video too...handsome young men!
Casey Stark September 11, 2011 at 10:48 PM
Thank you Sherilynn - Today, I said a prayer with my family at breakfast and made a vow to go outside and tackle my front yard rose bed, its weeding and trimming long overdue. For some reason, I found comfort in creating order out of chaos, in the shadow of the American flag which hangs off the eaves of our house. Later, we will go to the tribute down at Laguna Niguel Regional Park...tell me readers, how are you coping today?


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