TAMPA — A dark-haired woman pushing a double stroller appeared at Airside E security Saturday morning nearly out of breath.
Two tiny girls reclined in the stroller. A blond woman bustled alongside, carrying bags and cardboard signs.
The dark-haired woman told the Tampa International Airport security officer, "My husband is coming back from his deployment, and he has never met his daughter. Can I go to the front of the line?"
Whatever had been important to the people in that line five seconds earlier suddenly ceased to matter. All that counted now was that this woman and her children get to the gate before her husband emerged.
Turns out his plane had arrived early. It might already be too late for the surprise.
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My wife, Alisa, and I were in the line. Everybody made way. I helped the harried mother fold up the stroller so it would go through the scanning machine.
Later I learned her name and her story. Christine Prouty, 34, and her husband, Shaun, 32, live in Palm Harbor. Daughter Isabella is 2. On April 7, Shaun, an Air Force sergeant, left home for a six-month deployment in southwest Asia. Nineteen days later, Christine gave birth to their second child, Ashley.
Shaun had seen the baby in pictures and on Skype, but this would be the first time in person. Christine's friend Emily Sugar had come along to wrangle the girls and take photos.
My wife urged Christine to go ahead. Alisa said we would see their things through security and meet them at their gate.
"Thank you," Christine said. "Thank you." And she was gone.
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Nobody at security knew how to unfold the collapsed stroller after it passed through the scanner. After struggling for a minute or two, we stood it on its end and rolled it through the terminal like a filing cabinet on a dolly.
Christine had told us Gate 65. When we got there, we could see he had made it. Shaun, a tall man in a striped polo shirt and a Buffalo Bills hat, had gathered his family in his big arms, right in the middle of the terminal.
Christine handed him his new daughter.
Their friend Emily took a photo.
Everyone around backed up a step or two, creating a perimeter around this intimate moment, as if to give it respect. We all did our best to keep from losing it. It was as if someone had pressed the pause button on the universe.
They gathered their things to go home, but first, the Proutys' friend took another picture. Shaun held a sign that his baby daughter had made for him with her mother's help.
"I waited my whole life to meet you."