The Way We Get By
Military greeters worth meeting
Officially, the folks who see off and welcome home those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are not a veterans’ group. They’re part of the Maine Troop Greeters, and, yes, a few of them are either veterans or have relatives serving in the military. But what we discover about three senior-citizen greeters in Aron Gaudet’s touching documentary, “The Way We Get By,’’ is that they appear to have loneliness in common.
It’s at the Bangor airport, dispensing hugs and handshakes, that Bill Knight, Jerry Mundy, and Joan Gaudet get the human affection that seems to elude them elsewhere. In Joan’s case that’s an odd thing to say since the director is her son, and the woman off camera interviewing her, Gita Pullapilly, is his fiancee and one of the documentary’s producers.
In its way, this airport business is a kind of therapy. Gaudet, Knight, and Mundy live alone, and the film follows them for several months during their daily activities. What emerges are three distinct, strong personalities (and their pillboxes).
Mundy, a former ironworker in his 70s with an alluringly deep voice, explains life with his dog, Mr. Flannigan, as we follow him around a Sam’s Club, where he shops for treats to give the troops.
Knight fought in WWII (he’s in his 80s), misses his late wife terribly, is fighting prostate cancer, and is trying to sell his house to remain solvent. He lives in a kind of eccentric squalor. That house of his teems with empty cat-food cans and the felines who’ve eaten from them. It’s like something out of a VA version of “Grey Gardens.’’ Yet, neither Knight’s misfortune nor his belief that he’s outlived his usefulness has kept him away from the airport.
At least once, Gaudet weeps at the unbearable prospect of more men and women going off to war, and the camera watches. In less sensitive hands this could play out as exploitation. But for her the issue is personal, too; the film finds her coming to grips with the reality that a second of her grandchildren is shipping out.
“The Way We Get By’’ leaves your heart a little tender for whatever is missing in the lives of these three remarkably empathetic Mainers. There’s no righteousness in what the greeters do. They’re not super-patriots - or at least they don’t think so. (The movie sidesteps political points.) What they’re doing at Bangor International seems extraordinary. But they believe it should be the norm. Whether or not Mundy, Knight, and Gaudet know it, they’re as underappreciated as the troops they greet. Watching them issue hugs produces an involuntary response. You want to hug them, too.