The only way you can get it right is to know that you’re wrong. You gotta bend, you can’t have everything your own way. You see you made a mistake, why back up and do it again?
— Bill Knight
“I live in Maine,” says Bill Knight. “I always said any place in the USA is good enough for me. I served for 32 years and three months in the military, the Army Air Corps and the Navy.” Not that he’s counting. Bill now works as a volunteer troop greeter at the Bangor Airport, one of three featured in The Way We Get By, along with director Aron Gaudet’s 75-year-old mother Joan and 74-year-old Jerry Mundy. Every week, they stand at the arrival gate to welcome soldiers home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and say goodbye to those leaving for war. As much as he loves helping out, Jerry says, “I wouldn’t mind if it ended yesterday, and everybody came home and all the moms had their little boys back, and daughters back.”
The greeters all have their own reasons for getting up at three or four in the morning to see the troops come and go, and all face their own struggles. Joan, who first appears in her home using a walker to get around, describes her work as “addicting.” Since her Korean War vet husband died some 14 years ago, she’s immersed herself in her family, which includes eight children and numerous grandchildren. Granddaughter Amy is now a medevac pilot about to deploy to Iraq at the same time as her brother Troy. “Twelve months is a long time,” Joan says, “By the time she comes back, things will be different.”
Throughout The Way We Get By, which airs tonight as part of PBS’ POV series, it’s clear that the greeters are particularly aware of time passing. As he heads to the airport, Bill notes his own service (“32 years and three months in the military”), as well as the demands of his current schedule: a “busy week” at the airport, he says, can entail meeting “seven or eight flights in one day’s time. That means you’re there 24 hours a day. At our age, well, that has its toll you know.” Bill’s home reflects his priorities, cluttered with dirty dishes, empty boxes, 25 vacuum cleaners, dozens of cat food cans, and happily feral pets. The cost of feeding his adoptees has taken another kind of toll, he says. When credit card companies began calling “every now and then” about the $18,000 he owed, “I told ’em hang fast, soon as I get the money I’ll pay ’em.”
The film implies that his work at the airport provides Bill with a positive structure, a means to stave off occasionally acute loneliness. He sees what he’s doing a way to correct past injustice: “Our boys got a raw deal over there in Vietnam. They were over their defending our country and they got home and they weren’t even allowed to be veterans at that time. We wanted to make sure that the government would not send our boys into battle or to defend our country in any way without giving ’em credit for what they doing.”
He’s not the only greeter who worries about why soldiers are being deployed; Joan confesses, “I can’t help but feel sometimes, would we want somebody from another country coming over and telling us how we had to live and it makes you wonder if some if the people over there feel the same way about having Americans come and telling tem how their country had to be.” Still, all agree that politics have nothing to do with their support of the troops. Jerry describes himself as an “independent,” bristling when he discusses the war in Iraq. “When Mr. Bush said ‘mission accomplished,’ he didn’t know what the hell he was talking about,” Jerry says while raising a U.S. flag in his front yard. “I sort of feel unpatriotic when I say that, but then, if you don’t say that, you’re unpatriotic too.”
As he notes such complications of allegiance, Jerry hints at an equally complicated personal history (when he’s at the airport, he says, “I mostly think about my family, the opportunities that I’ve had on this green planet, some of ’em I blew and some of ’em I didn’t”). Jerry doesn’t get into details, but remains stoic and wry as he reads the morning paper (he checks the obituaries first, he smiles, slurping his coffee, “to make sure I’m not there”), then heads over to the hospital for tests. “They say it’s a slow moving cancer,” he sighs, “but sometimes when it gets into other places, it moves a little faster.”
Amid such pressing concerns, The Way We Get By shows that greeting provides a sense of purpose and community. And while it includes assorted brief testimonies by troops who appreciate feeling welcomed, it stays focused on the greeters’ mix of loneliness and determination, the pleasure of feeling needed and the pain of growing old (Joan counts out the “10 pills I take in the morning and seven pills at night: they all have side effects”). Service — however it’s defined — offers an abstract sort of order amid such daily upheaval. “Be nice to somebody and that makes you feel nicer,” observes Jerry. “That’s the only way to feel better.” But the movie, however charming or heartwarming it seems (and the soundtrack does occasionally turn sentimental), doesn’t make a case for salvation or peace through selfless acts. Instead, as its title suggests, the greeters “get by,” flawed, frustrated, and focused when they can be.