They were jumpy, their eyes darting back and forth, scanning the bustling crowd for him. They craned their necks down the long, white passenger-
arrival hallway of LAX's international terminal, looking, waiting, looking.
They were the Jaegers, a blond family of five from Temecula in Riverside County. They had driven nearly three hours to the airport Friday morning to meet their father and husband, Ken, who was flying in from his Marine base in Okinawa, Japan. He was coming home for the holidays, and they hadn't seen him in 2 1/2 months.
The family of four children, ages 5 to 14, and Jaeger's wife, Elizabeth, had just learned that his flight had arrived. They fidgeted and sighed. The children gently pushed each other to get a better view.
"Oh, I just can't stand this," said Elizabeth. "I wish I could just go down there and get him."
She shifted from one foot to the other and then back again, looking down the hallway that produced a trickle of groggy-eyed passengers.
As the Jaegers waited, they talked about dealing with the absence of the career Marine officer who had been sent overseas in October for a yearlong stint in Asia. It was the first time the family had been separated, and life without him was strange. He wasn't around to check on the cars and go fishing at Lake Skinner with the kids. His armchair in the living room sat empty. The kids insisted that dad was needed at home to build the new two-story playhouse he had promised.
Most of all, Elizabeth said, she missed talking to her husband.
"It's all the little things I miss," she said. "It's really hard to do it all on your own. I've never been a single mom before."
With all the talk about dad, 5-year-old K.B. Jaeger began to cry. He leaned into his mom, mumbling that he wanted daddy to come home and play baseball again.
It was 11:40 a.m., the flight had arrived more than half an hour ago, but Ken needed to pass through customs. Elizabeth nervously stroked daughter Sarah's shoulder-length hair over and over, looking down the hallway.
Elizabeth and Ken had met back home in Iowa 16 years ago, when they were both 19. Newly enlisted in the Marines, Ken was home on leave from his post in Hawaii when his future wife stopped by to visit his mother. Elizabeth didn't know Mrs. Jaeger had a son her age. It was, she said blushing, love at first sight. They were married a year later.
Ever since, the family had moved from one post to another every few years, spending the last two in Temecula, where Elizabeth taught grade school and Ken was a gunnery sergeant administrator at Camp Pendleton.
Then, in April, Ken got the news that he was to be stationed in Japan. The family was crushed. He would receive no home leave for a year, he was told. No Christmas.
The family began pinching pennies, hoping to make a trip to Japan in the summer of '96. They could only afford it if they could get a military flight. They struggled through with little contact, talking by phone for 10 or 15 minutes twice a month and writing letters every week.
Ken called the day after Thanksgiving, sounding heartbroken after a grim meal with the other officers without families at Camp Kinser, the Okinawa base.
Then, Tuesday night, he called unexpectedly. He was coming home, he said.
"I was so excited, oh my gosh," said Angel, 14, who took the call. She immediately called her mom, who was out at a school meeting.
The family began wrapping the gifts they had been planning to have shipped and stashed them under the Christmas tree.
And they hung dad's stocking-- which they hadn't had the heart to take out this year--alongside the others. Waiting at LAX on Friday, Elizabeth began to worry that she had come to the wrong terminal.
"He's been on the ground for a long time now," she said. She hugged K.B. and looked around anxiously, adjusting her mauve crocheted sweater, the same hue as her earrings.
Elizabeth was complaining that it takes nearly a week to get letters to Japan when 10-year-old Sarah began to squeal.
"There he is!" she cried. "Daddy!"
The family toppled the blue velour ropes holding back the crowd. They rushed at Ken, a grinning man who wore a blue and yellow pastel shirt and a fresh military haircut.
Elizabeth, tears streaming down her flushed cheeks, got the first turn to kiss her husband and hug him close. The children rushed in behind her, squeezing their father and each other in the mayhem. K.B. was all smiles, hopping up and down before Ken scooped him up.
Ken said he was exhausted from the 12-hour flight, but so happy to be home. The family walked out of the terminal and toward the parking structure. He held a large cardboard box in his left hand--presents, the kids noted, smiling. His right hand clutched a small gray duffel bag, and Elizabeth tucked her hand in with it, touching him as they walked to their car. He would be home for about 17 days, she said.
"But he's not home for good," she said. "I wish he was."