Daniel Rubin: A labor of love stolen in Phila.

Here's a tender Philadelphia tale for the holiday, full of patriotism, camaraderie and grand larceny.

All it's missing is a happy ending, but there's an opportunity here, if the lowlife who ripped off Lynda Houck's luggage at Philadelphia International Airport steals today's newspaper as well.

Houck is a 47-year-old Army reservist who lives with her husband, Doug, in Strasburg, Pa. She spent 18 months making a red, white and blue quilt for a friend who was deployed to Iraq. And Houck still wasn't finished stitching.

Her friend, Kathy Brill, is director of recreational therapy at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Philadelphia. For three years they served together in Norristown, with the 358th Civil Affairs Brigade.

Then Brill was called up to active duty in February 2007 and assigned to work with the Iraqi Health Ministry in Baghdad.

Houck thought a quilt with a patriotic pattern would make a nice homecoming gift.

"In honor of her serving in Iraq, I thought I'd do this for her."

She bought a kit that would help her stitch an eight-point star in the colors of the American flag onto a twin-size spread that measures 14 feet by 14 feet.

"We're talking thousands of stitches," she said.

Stitching time

She thought the work would take a year. That was until she, herself, was called up to active duty, which left her less time.

So at night when she and Doug watched television or listened to the radio, she'd sew. And sew.

Brill had been back since January, and the quilt still wasn't done. Houck figured she needed about a half-year to finish. Plus her mother's expertise.

She flew to Oklahoma on May 7 to see her mom, who's ailing. After 11 days, Houck was heading home early on May 18, but American Airlines canceled her flight.

Fly standby, she was advised at the counter, so she did, checking her big black nylon bag with a hot-pink name tag stitched onto the front.

(This was before American announced it would charge $15 per bag, which is good because that would have added insult to injury.)

She didn't get on the first connecting flight out of Dallas that morning, but made the next one. After landing in Philadelphia, she went straight to the baggage carousel. Her luggage was not there.

The baggage handlers told her to make a report, and they'd notify her when the luggage turned up. She called the next day, a Monday, and there was no news. On Tuesday, the handlers told her to call the airline directly.

There'd been a problem.

In the wrong hands

That's when she learned someone had stolen her bag. It was found in a parking garage, its valuables picked clean.

She lost about four pairs of shoes, pants, tops, as well as a gold necklace her husband had bought her when he was stationed in the Sinai Desert in the early '90s. The airline will compensate her, she said.

But the quilt is worth the most to her, and it can't be replaced.

"I was shell-shocked," said Houck, who works for the Center for Naval Analysis in Fairfax, Va. "That's 18 months of my life that is gone."

She hasn't even told her mother that the quilt is missing. And she hasn't told Brill. It was supposed to be a gift. She figures if a column about the theft at the airport inspires someone to return the quilt, it's worth spoiling the surprise.

She's talking herself into starting work on another one.

"It might take me a few more years, but I will do this, Come hell or high water, I am going to remake it," Houck pledged. "She is a very sweet, dear person, and she deserves it."

So here's an opportunity for the thief. You drop the quilt by the Inquirer building in a bag with my name on it, and no questions will be asked.

It's the least you can do for Memorial Day.


Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-54-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com.