“I didn’t really know much about military personnel. I didn’t know much about their lives… I don’t think I appreciated them to the level that they deserved. And that has changed…. I border on embarrassed at how little thought I gave military service until I got to know service members.”
Wow. Stephen Colbert and I think alike. Not the character Stephen Colbert, the real Stephen Colbert. He said those words to Terry Gross during a recent interview on Fresh Air. Of course, we came to the same realization from two different angles. Colbert was talking about what he had learned from doing his show for the last several years. In 2009, he spent a week in Iraq performing for the troops. Since then, he and his staff have supported several charities which raise funds to help military personnel and their families. My awakening was on a much smaller, though possibly more personal, scale.
Last week, John and I left Cleo in the care of friends and flew to Great Lakes, Illinois, to see our son (by blood, his son, by childrearing, ours) Jackson graduate from Recruit Training Command, the Navy’s basic training.
This past year has been a taxing one for our family. Sometimes adolescents experience a gentle, constantly ascending arc of growth from childhood to adulthood. At other times, the path can be a little rockier with lots of ups and downs. And then there are the times when the path is not so much rocky as boulder-strewn, less up and down than veering straight over the cliff into a freefall tumble to the valley floor below. It can be difficult or impossible to pinpoint any reason why one person’s adolescence is more fraught than another’s. I’ve known young men far less capable, less socially intelligent and less kind than Jackson who sailed through their teens and twenties with nary a blip on the radar screen of distress. John and I aren’t perfect parents, but I’ve seen kids fare better with far worse ones. Suffice it to say that a year ago, we reached crisis point, and after much consultation and deliberation, John and I did the hardest thing we have ever had to do. We gave Jackson a month to find somewhere else to live.
It’s a tribute to a resourcefulness he didn’t know he possessed, and to his emotional intelligence, that he pretty quickly lined up a couple places with friends. He also parlayed a part-time job at a failing bike shop into a full-time position as a bike repairman for a thriving string of rental shops for tourists. And for the first time, he started thinking about his future. John and I were floored when Jackson called to say he had enlisted in the Navy. “Why the Navy?!” I whined to John. “If he had to enlist, why not the Coast Guard?” When my oldest sister’s college boyfriend drew a number so low that he knew he would be drafted into the war in Vietnam, he enlisted in the Coast Guard as a safer choice. That made a big impression on my fifteen-year-old mind, though these days, what with the war on drugs and the Coast Guard’s deployment to Iraq in the early days of that war, I don’t know that the “Coast-Guard-is-safe” canard holds water anymore.
Growing up during the Vietnam War, I never thought of the military as a career choice. Don’t misunderstand: I was never one of those people who shouted epithets at soldiers in uniform or who went to the airport to yell “Baby killer” at returning veterans. For one thing, I was too young to drive and my parents never would have given me permission to go. For another, even as a callous teenager, I saw that these protesters were yelling at the wrong people. So many of the boys returning home were barely older than we, and they would bear scars for the rest of their lives. Yet even though I have nieces, nephews, students, friends and colleagues who enlisted in one branch of the service or another, I still thought of military service as something one would have to be required to do, rather than something one would chose to do.
We had six months to get used to the idea. Recruitment was so high when Jackson enlisted that the Navy had no room for him until August. And so it was that last week, John and I turned our faces towards Lake Michigan. The graduation hall opened at 6:30 AM for a ceremony that started at 9:00. We couldn’t imagine why we would need to be there so early, so we slept in till 5:30, had breakfast, hopped in the car and made the hour drive to the base. Traffic was fairly heavy the whole way, but when we turned the corner onto the street leading to the main gate, with a mile and a half to go, it seemed to get even worse. Avoiding the badly backed up right lane, we pulled over into the left where the going was a bit clearer. “Man, that is just bumper-to-bumper over there,” I commented. “They are not even moving.”
Silence. We looked at each other. Uh-oh. “Naw!” I waved my hand to dismiss the idea. We scanned the line of cars. “Every one of those cars,” John stated ominously, “has what looks like a family in it.” I tried to peer into the car next to us. Dad, Mom, Grandpa, Sister? By now we were a quarter mile farther along the road. Clearly we were not the only ones taken by surprise. Cars ahead of us were slowing and merging with the right hand lane. John put on his signal and eased into the long line of graduation-goers, waving a thank you to the car behind us. We sat, not moving. Five minutes passed. We sat. Cars flashed past us on the left. We sat. In ten minutes, we had not moved a single car length. Up ahead, every time some space opened up, a car from the left lane merged into it. It was almost 8:00; the Navy had been very clear that the doors to the graduation hall would close at 8:45. “We’re never going to get through this line in time,” I fretted.
“There is no way we’re going to miss this,” John vowed in his best Dirty Harry style. He peeled out of the line and into the left lane.
“What are we going to do?” I asked, a little quavery.
“Think outside the box.” He gave me a grin. “How are those shoes for walking?”
About a half mile from the gate, we dove into a residential side street, found a perfect parking place, stretched out the kinks in our legs and started a very pleasant trek. We were the only pedestrians, and the two sailors detailed to check IDs at the walk-in gate looked thrilled to have something to do. By 8:25, we were crammed onto the bleachers with the majority of what would ultimately become a crowd of over five thousand. It turns out that Jackson was one of 1001 graduating Sailor Recruits, the second largest class of the year.
The Navy puts on one of these graduation ceremonies just about every Friday of the year, and it is quite the show. There are videos (“We know in just a little while, your recruit will have plenty of stories to tell you from the last eight weeks. Before that happens, we want to show you our side of the story!”), speeches, special awards and honors, a totally hip drum corps, several tunes from the marching band, a chorus, and lots of impressive marching (the Navy has such a relaxed style of marching—very chill and self-possessed). At the outset of the ceremony, before the divisions of recruits arrive, a flag corps displays each of the fifty state flags arranged in order of entry into the union. As the state’s name is announced, the corps member dips the flag and the attendees from that state cheer and applaud. “Delaware!” One lone voice from the far left of the audience lets out a whoop. A similarly small contingent from Rhode Island. Giant cheers from Illinois, Texas, California. Some states may have had more recruits than others, but in this graduating class, every state in the union was represented.
Honestly, I don’t know if I would necessarily call myself patriotic. I’m not sure I know exactly what that word is intended to mean anymore, not as it’s commonly used, anyway. I do know that I love my country. Despite its flaws, I believe it affords more opportunities than any other country currently on Earth. I love Americans. We are an ornery bunch, but we are also resilient, brave, inventive, imaginative and caring. I also love our national anthem. Yes, some people object to it because they claim it’s war-mongering. It’s not; it’s about surviving. One night, when Jackson was five or six, John and I were getting ready to read him to sleep. Jackson sat between us, his warm little head leaning against my arm. For some reason, I started telling him the story of our national anthem. An exhausted soldier, embattled and besieged by enemy attacks that have gone on all night, looks up to the ramparts. In the light of exploding shells, he sees his country’s flag, tattered and smoke-stained, but still flying, still in place. From that sight, he gathers the strength to press on to the end, to survive. I’ve never been able to hear that part of the song without tearing up a little.
“And the rockets’ red glare,
The bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof, through the night
That our flag was still there.”
As we sang the national anthem at Jackson’s graduation, I pretended it was the stratospherically high range of the melody that kept me from singing those lines, but the truth is, I was too choked up to get the words out.
By the time the ceremony was over and the newly hatched sailors were granted liberty, we had about five hours with Jackson before he had to be back to stand watch. Plus, he was leaving for his “A” school in South Carolina at 1:00 the next morning. We decided to drive down to Chicago so that he could see the city he’d been an hour away from for the last two months. As we walked across the base and back to the car, as we drove, as we walked the streets of Chicago, as we ate lunch, as we explored the Skydeck at Sears Tower, this formerly monosyllabic young man talked. He told us stories, he described his division-mates, he explained terms and drills and the lessons he had learned. These things mattered to him. He had an adult perspective on why he was expected to set his cap just so, why it was regulation to take ladders one rung at a time, why it was important that he had learned to fold his clothes precisely: Attention to detail could save his life, and the lives of everyone around him, one day. He understood why recruits are not permitted to say thank you, why this reflex instilled in kids every day by their parents is actively discouraged. Thoughtless words, wasted words, can, quite literally, get you sunk. You better mean everything you say.
It was a fascinating thing to see, everywhere we went, people openly gazing at him. Granted he is a good-lookin’ boy (I can say that; my genes aren’t involved). And he is impressive-looking at six-two clad in his sailor’s whites, carrying himself with an ease and a confidence we’d never seen from him before. There was a lovely, sweet humility about him as he returned their looks with a quiet smile.
On our way into Chicago, we stopped off at a Starbucks to caffeine up. We each ordered a cup of one kind or another. At the last moment, I grabbed a little tube of trail mix. “That’ll be a buck seventy-nine,” said the bepaunched man behind the counter.
John looked confused. “For the nuts. What about the rest of it?”
“Whaddabat the rest of it?” returned the cashier, somewhat defensively. “Lemme tell you a story,” he went on. “When I was a kid, a recruit, I went into a bar. The bartender hands me and my buddies a drink and says, ‘The guy at the end of the bar bought you this.’ So I look at the guy and I say, ‘How come you bought us a drink?’ And the guy says to me, ‘When I was a recruit, some guy bought me a drink. I’m returning the favor. I’m only goin’ to ask you this: When you’re in your fifties, buy some recruit a drink.’ So here I am. I’m in my fifties and I’m buyin’ you a drink. I’m just gonna ask you one thing. When you’re in your fifties, buy some recruit a drink.”
Jackson and the cashier looked at each other, sharing a moment of reflection that John and I were not, never could be, a part of. Then Jackson reached out a hand and with grave sincerity said, “Thank you, sir.”
But that wasn’t my favorite moment. My favorite moment was in the parking lot when we had taken Jackson back to the base and it was time to say goodbye. I reached out to him and he folded me into a hug, wrapping his arms tightly around me, and held on. And he did not let go first.
In his interview with Terry Gross, Stephen Colbert said, “I work hard to keep [a consideration of military personnel] in mind without fetishizing military service. I think there are great ways to serve the country that are not military service. It’s not the only thing you can do.” The path that Jackson has chosen is not right for everyone, but for him, it’s something that he is committed to and believes in. The transformation in him didn’t all happen in an eight week period. It was taking place over the last year, a year when all three of us had time to reflect, learn about ourselves and grow. I know there will still be ups and downs as the years go by. There are in every life and in every relationship. But when the ties are strong, we can weather a few rough seas.
|Jackson on the Skydeck|