A bouquet of yellow flowers and a snapshot of 1st Lt. Thomas Clifford Bland Jr. graced the counter yesterday at Dede's Diner and Carryout in Gaithersburg, and crossed American flags and a yellow ribbon were on the door -- a day after the grim news had been delivered by an Air Force chaplain and officer.
Cliff Bland, born and reared in the Maryland suburbs of Washington -- the kid who was sometimes the short-order cook, or who did other odd jobs in his mother's small, brick restaurant -- was the pilot of an Air Force gunship that went down behind enemy lines in Kuwait on Thursday.
Lieutenant Bland and the rest of the 14-member crew were missing in action.
Lunch was being served when the Air Force messengers came, and the news devastated not only the lieutenant's mother, Deirdra McMahan, but the customers, according to the flier's grandmother, 79-year-old Martha Bland.
"One man stood there and sobbed," Mrs. Bland said last night at her home next to the diner at the junction of Route 124 and Darnestown Road.
Yesterday, at 5:30 a.m., Ms. McMahan managed to open for breakfast. "She's a wreck. But she's an extremely strong woman," Mrs. Bland said of her daughter-in-law, who has operated the diner about 20 years.
Lieutenant Bland, 26, attended high school in Gaithersburg and received his undergraduate degree from Texas A&M University. His parents -- who are divorced -- both have pilot's licenses, and Cliff decided in college to try for his wings in the Air Force, his grandmother said.
She showed a reporter a framed photo of Cliff Bland, in his university ROTC uniform and carrying a sword, leading a parade.
She said she asked her grandson why he was leading the marchers, and that he told her, "Well, Grandma, someone has to lead them."
Mrs. Bland said the Air Force messengers told Ms. McMahan her son was missing, and the family has heard nothing further. "They said he was missing in action and they were looking for him. We haven't the slightest idea whether he's dead or alive."