On Veterans Day, PBS aired a documentary called “The Way We Get By.” Much of it was shot in Bangor, Maine’s tiny airport, where flights from military bases all over the U.S. and inbound from Iraq and Afghanistan stop to refuel. Filmmaker Aron Gaudet’s mother Joan is one of the Maine Troop Greeters: a group of older men and women who’ve taken it upon themselves to shake the hands of every soldier passing through. During periods of intense deployment, that can mean seven or eight flights a day, many landing in the middle of the night. Over the past five years the Mainers have greeted over 900,000 troops, and the three profiled in the film are going strong.
At a mere 71 Joan Gaudet is significantly younger than the people I’m writing about, and you could argue that greeting airplanes isn’t “work.” (My definition is that the work need not be paid, but it must involve a fixed commitment to a tangible enterprise: doing or making something on a regular schedule.) I’d say that it qualifies. The task is no less valuable for going unpaid. As 83-year-old Bill Knight puts it, “There’s plenty of jobs out there that need to be done that hold the community together.” And the greeters have yet to miss an inbound flight — one hell of a commitment.
This promise to the troops infuses their lives with meaning. As the understated title makes clear, it’s the way they get by. “I can’t wait to go home so I can go to the airport again. I don’t know what I’ll do when they all come home,” says Knight, quoting his father’s comment that machinery left unused rusts out faster than someone could wear it out. Jerry Mundy says he’s not afraid of dying anymore. “I’m not anxious to leave,” he adds. “I’d want them to know that I had a lot of love for my family and for the service people coming through here.”
The documentary doesn’t shy away from the significant hardships its subjects face, from sending a granddaughter off to war to fending off bankruptcy and prostate cancer. It doesn’t talk directly about work or retirement, or even old age per se, because it doesn’t have to. Only in an interview does the director speak to this directly. “I think you retire from your job and maybe you kind of lose your identity,” says Gaudet. “You get to this point where you’ve been marginalized and pushed aside, because people think you don’t have anything to offer anymore. And these people have found something that has put so much purpose back into their lives.”