‘Me and my buddies lost our wives. This trip is our last hurrah.’ I couldn’t shake the feeling of sadness. I had to do something.’: Travel agents surprise veteran, friends with touching act of kindness

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“It was a Saturday afternoon. I was busy painting a wall in my bedroom I hadn’t had the time to finish in 6 years due to work and parenting. The last year of the pandemic has been nothing short of exhausting and frustrating for my business as a Travel Agent. We have cancelled endless amounts of honeymoons, family getaways, bucket list trips, and last hurrahs. Not only have we struggled with the loss of income, but also the slapping down of our passion of helping others’ dreams come true. Things are beginning to look up, but the heavy restrictions we deal with keep many travelers cautiously at bay. That day I decided, it will be what it will be and picked up a paint brush to finally cross the wall off my list.

My phone began to ring once the drips of paint had covered my fingers to where a cleanup was necessary before answering it, so I missed the call. When I checked the message I began to smile. I heard, ‘Julie, Julie, Julie..’ from an unfamiliar elderly voice. There was just an aura of friendliness from the first sentence. He explained he was a 90-year-old veteran pilot living in an assisted living facility in Florence, Oregon. I am in Northeastern Wyoming, so I wondered how he found me. He went on to explain he was discussing wanting to go to the Reno Air Races this fall and said a lady who works at his facility told him he had to use me for his travel plans. He wanted to take his friends (94 and 96 years old) with him.

I called him back and we immediately hit it off. I found out about his plans and also some about his life, which I really enjoyed. Although there are several states between us, we had a lot in common. We both have three kids. He spent some time in my home state of Wyoming working as a fireman for the railroad and I spent just over three years working for a railroad contractor operating trains being loaded with coal in my area mines. He did some mining himself somewhere in California. I spent a handful of years operating heavy equipment in an open pit coal mine. At every twist and turn in the conversation, we had common ground, as well as a sense of humor. Towards the end of our chat, he volunteered that he and his two buddies have all lost their wives and this trip was supposed to be their ‘last hurrah.’ He explained how after his wife passed away he was just overcome with sadness, until one day he decided it was time to pack his suitcase and favorite pillowcase to move to assisted living. He wanted to spend his last days around other people. That touched my heart.

I quit mining in early 2014 when I was expecting my second child. I had worked for 11 years prior, trying to balance parenting my oldest child and making a living. When my husband and I conceived number 2, we were met with the news at our 10-week checkup our baby no longer had a heartbeat. We were devastated. God knows why it didn’t work out, but when we tried again and conceived, my doctor thought it best to get me out of the rough riding equipment and on light duty. There is no such thing as light duty in coal mining, so I hung up my hard hat and put away my steel-toed boots and decided my primary job would now be mom. We have three children total now and I don’t regret my choice. The sun rises and sets on my family in my mind. Becoming a one-income family meant budgeting and no longer being able to do one of the things I enjoy the most – traveling. I developed a love for travel at a young age when we would make a yearly trip from Wyoming back to Michigan to see our family, and it stuck. Since then, I’ll take an adventure any time you want to throw it my way.

I started working in the mines immediately after turning 18. I worked in various departments before making my final home in the pit. The great majority of my coworkers were male and much older than myself. I had no problem making friends and my favorite friends were always the good old boys. I adored their rough-around-the-edges honesty. It doesn’t get much more genuine than that. As reality would have it, I have attended many funerals of my good old boy crowd. I can think back to many lunch shack conversations about what their plans were ‘someday.’ ‘Gonna get to Alaska at some point.’ ‘Someday I’ll take the wife to Italy.’ ‘Might try cruising when I hang it up out here.’ I had the same thoughts in my mind as well, but I have always had the, ‘Why wait until you hang it up out here?’ mentality. Why not go now? But I know how it goes. Life’s responsibilities get first dibs, and oftentimes we never get around to some things. Being a demanding shift working schedule, it’s no wonder why they didn’t pursue it. Once you come off 5 in a row 12-hour night shifts and you have to get back to daytime hours to be at your kid’s games and help with homework and then mow the lawn… who has time to go sit at a travel agent’s office? There’s just not enough hours in the day.

At each funeral I attended, there were notable differences. Some of them did follow their arrows and left behind pictures and memories of the things they did. But some didn’t. Some funerals became echo chambers of all the things they didn’t get to do. I couldn’t help but think back to conversations had and recall what their plans were and it just broke my heart. Life is d–n short. We never know when our time is going to run out. Whether that equates to taking the vacation or just loving everyone around you as if tomorrow isn’t coming, it has shaped the way I think. After losing one of my mining buddies who had a heart attack at work, the same week he had taken overtime and pushed his retirement out one more year, I decided to put my reservations aside about starting a new career aside and try.

Four years into the travel world and one year into a global pandemic that’s brought it all down around me, I got the phone call from Jack in Oregon. I let him know I would get back to him on Monday with more information. Monday came around and I was excited to visit with him again and let him know tickets would be available for purchase later in the spring. But Monday his tone was saddened. One of his friends had fallen ill and was taken to the hospital. Jack didn’t know if he would see his friend again and his response to my saying when the tickets would be available was, ‘I might not be around by then, either.’ I said, ‘Oh, don’t say that Jack!’ But I couldn’t argue. None of us know when our time is up. After visiting a bit more, I promised I would reach back out when things were available.

When I hung the phone up, I just couldn’t shake the feeling of sadness I had. I was sad for Jack. It’s not fair. I tried to go on with my day, but I kept coming back to thinking about him. I am a part of a small Facebook community for travel agents, and in this group we have an unending train of support. Professional issues, personal life, you name it. We laugh, we cry, we vent, but most importantly… we support each other. I took to the group that day to express my sadness and one of my friends said, ‘Oh no! They have to go!’ That made my stubborn side go into overdrive and I had to just look… just to see if there was anything in their area we could do for them. Something fun for these good old boys. I hit my fill with watching one dream after another dissolve over this pandemic. Too many delayed plans witnessed in my life. Too many d–n funerals where you hear, ‘It’s so sad he never got to…’ Nope. That stops right here.

Then I found it. There was a biplane operation right in their little town of 8,500 people and guess what? The pilot is also a veteran pilot who also flew in the Reno Air Races. It was fate. To hell with them watching the show from the ground. Lets get him in the air one more time. I went back to the group and presented my idea. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t out of line by just booking Jack a flight in a biplane and surprising him with it. Before I knew it, my friend Mark Elie said, ‘I’m in! Let me know how much you need!’ Before I could even respond I was met with a wave of other travel agents, one after another saying, ‘Put me down for $25.’ Within a few hours so many people, who have all had a terrible and fruitless year, had dug deep and offered to help, we had enough money to fly all three of them and there was even money leftover.

I contacted the lady at the assisted living facility who had given him my name in the first place and ran the idea past her. She loved it and offered to assist in the surprise. I spoke to the biplane company, who also loved it. They even offered to deliver the gift certificates and do a presentation on it when Covid restrictions allowed. I collected the money from my friends and we wrote a letter to Jack.

The big day came and I received these pictures at the facility. Great big smiles and what looked like wiped away tears. It made my heart happy. Jack said they were all gathered together and he wasn’t sure what was happening. Took him back to the days of being called to the principal’s office. Then she told him. He said they all about fell out of their chairs. They just couldn’t believe it. They were very excited. Jack told me there’s only about 10% of the people in this world who would do special things like this for others. He said we couldn’t have picked a better surprise.

Courtesy of Julie Pflaumer
Courtesy of Julie Pflaumer
Courtesy of Julie Pflaumer

This wasn’t the end of the happy tears, though. When I spoke about the events that day, I was informed one of Jack’s friends had previously spoken to this biplane company about taking a ride. But it was for a different purpose. His plan was to spread his late wife’s ashes from the sky. He was simply waiting for the right time. Then this group of complete strangers put this gift certificate in his lap. When I read that text, I sat right down and cried. I’m not known for being an overly sensitive person. But that hit me. This was no longer a fun surprise, this was a milestone in someone’s life. I can’t even explain the emotion of learning that. It took this experience far beyond what I ever imagined this could turn into.

There was a series of coincidences that made this all come together. Learning this news made me think it was a higher power. Maybe Jacks’ friend’s wife was up in heaven trying to get the show on the road. Whatever it was, I couldn’t have pulled this off without the help of my travel agent friends. We all have a deep-rooted passion for helping others. We care a lot more than any website ever could. The proof was in the Venmo that day.”

Courtesy of Julie Pflaumer

I want to make sure all of these kind souls get the credit they deserve:

  • Barbie Thompson of Florence, Oregon
  • Misty King, Go Travel Getaways in St Louis, Missouri
  • Lori Gold, TWIL Travel in Playa Del Carmen, Quintana Roo
  • Kim Grammar, I-travelagent from Melbourne, Florida
  • Mark Elie, owner of K&E Travel in Wellington, Florida
  • Angela Grigar, Northcutt Travel Agency in Houston Texas
  • Kelsey Ebner, Foreign to Domestic in Grants Pass, Oregon
  • Cindy Bryant, Bryant Getaway Vacations in Decatur, Alabama
  • Dena McDonald, Tiki Trips in Dallas, Texas
  • Pam Harper Horst, Pams Path to Travel in Redwood City, California
  • Christy Snyder Bartlett, Daydream Cruise and Travel in Round Rock, Texas
  • Meredith Merritt, Luxe + Wander Travel in Greenville, South Carolina
  • Janelle Allen, Destination WE Travel in South Padre Island, Texas
  • Karin O’Keefe, FNS Travel Group in Longmeadow, MA
  • Nicole Riley, Visit the Magic Travel in Manchester, Iowa
  • Kimberly Brooks, Discovery Travel in Portage, Indiana
  • Stephanie Daniels, Leaps and Bounds Travel in Windham, New Hampshire
  • Scott Walters, Go Away Often Travel in Nanuet, New York
  • Amanda Bartow Storm, Amandas Travels in Lawrence, Kansas
  • Shelley Morse, Horizon Vacations in Burleson, Texas
  • Tiffani Inserra, Destination Paradise in Huntington Station, New York
  • Jamie Root, Beach Bum on a Budget Travel in Lincoln, Nebraska
  • Valerie Wynn, Windblown Travels of South Bend, Indiana
  • Trish York, Trish York Travel of Powell, Ohio
  • Rene Prasad, Grand Explorations Travel in Norwalk, Connecticut
  • Gayle Hirsch, Travel World in Grapevine, Texas
  • Jennifer Elliott, TravelAgentJen in New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Mary Delello, All About Travel in Winter Park, Florida
  • Rachel Lykins, Integrity Travel Planners in Aledo, Texas
  • Jacalyn Haddock Counts, The Travel Agency in Pierce City, Missouri
  • Jessica Riediger, Vincent Vacations in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
  • Jan Mauer, Exciting Vacations in East Brunswick, New Jersey
  • Heather Troutman, GoSeeDo Travel in Woodland Park Colorado
  • Shaunna Kennedy Brown, Coast and Crown Travel in Mobile, Alabama
  • Kristina Raykinstein, KVR Travel Group in West Bloomfield Township, Michigan
  • Sherry Hunter, Leisure and Lime Travel in Kansas City, Missouri
  • Carri Kersten, Fox World Travel in Manitowoc, Wisconsin
  • Jerre Martin, Prosper Travel in Prosper, Texas
  • Sheila Michels, Hometown Travel in Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • Ray Goldenberg, Lighthouse Travel Specialists in Cruises & Tours in Boerne, Texas
  • Denise Belcher, Big Sky/Travel Source in Moore Oklahoma
  • Tammy and Richard Renie, Red Parrot Travel in Longwood, Florida
  • Brian Matthews, Raise The Bar Travel Group in Fenton, Missouri
  • Kristin Garrett, Tropical Travel in Midlothian, Texas
  • Susanne and Cal Yonts, Any Seasons Travel in Midland, Texas
  • Jeni Chaffer, Journeys Travel in Bourbonnais, Illinois
  • AeroLegends in Florence, Oregon

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Julie Pflaumer (Destinations by Julie) of Rozet, Wyoming. You can follow AeroLegengs Biplane Rides on Facebook. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

Read more about acts of kindness:

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‘I saw an elderly man with his walker at the corner. ‘I’m trying to get to the 99-cent store 1.5 miles away.’ His wife needed some chocolate bars.’: Man shares act of kindness for 93-year-old man

‘I rushed down the street. ‘Ma’am?’ She turned around with tears streaming from behind her big sunglasses.’: Man shares touching act of kindness for old woman after husband dies

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