Dad’s story: The departure
One dreary January day, two beginnings: Big Guy was going back to school, and Dad was headed for boot camp.
The timing was tight between the two. Dad was due at the recruiter's office at 12:15 p.m., to board the van that would begin his journey. Big Guy usually didn't finish lunch until around noon. We decided to pick him up early.
We half expected the doctors to send Dad home. The one who'd cleared him back in October told him that if he didn't lose 20 pounds before his ship date he wouldn't let him get on the plane. Instead, Dad gained five.
He started to shed weight when he began working out with the local recruiters. One jokingly threatened him with a baseball bat in early December when he remained 15 pounds above the target weight.
I second-guessed my decision to reunite. He'd had months to lose the weight and, although he was running regularly and had all but quit smoking, he wasn't much lighter. "He's tricked me again," I thought.
When he weighed in Dec. 21, he remained a dozen pounds over the weight at which the doctor said he'd approve him to go, 40 pounds over the Army's limit for 40-year-olds.
He fasted, then subsisted on vegetables. A "treat" was sliced tomatoes with lime juice. He ran twice a day. He and I walked for an hour to keep him out of the kitchen the night his mom made him a farewell dinner. "I can't blow it now," he said.
We talked about what we'd do if the doctors rejected him - freelance work was slow for me at that point and it would be a struggle for the four of us to make it just on my unemployment.
"We can manage for a few more months," I said. "And you can try again."
There wouldn't be many more "try agains" though. He'd turn 42 in April - the Army's enlistment age limit.
The night before he was to leave, he fell into bed exhausted at 3 a.m. after spending an hour encased in plastic wrap and two sweat shirts, going at a punching bag. The program was a combination of coaching from one of my brothers, who'd always struggled to meet standards when he was in the Army, and everything I knew wrestlers shouldn't do to cut weight.
Turns out, all the worry was for nothing. The Army had recently implemented a program that gives recruits a year after enlisting to shape up.
We didn't know that, though, when he left us that drizzly day.
"Don't take this the wrong way, but I hope I'm not back here tomorrow," he said.
"Me either," I replied.
We embraced and he walked away, a middle-aged man headed to a world better suited for people half his age, everything he was allowed to take with him stowed in Big Guy's tiny soccer bag.
"Wonder what Daddy's doing?" Big Guy asked the next morning.
Just so happened that I knew, because Dad had told us the first step would be stripping down to his skivvies and waiting with the other "shippers" for the final physical.
"He's sitting around in his underwear with 300 people," I said. Big Guy giggled for the rest of the day at that mental image.
Many times, I didn't know so I'd weave stories based on what Dad had told me when we'd last talked or on what I knew or had been able to figure out about basic training - technically, Basic Combat Training now to reflect the changed mission of today's military.
"He's getting his hair all shaved off," I said when Big Guy asked later in the week.
"Daddy's balded? Oh, he's going to look so funny!"
Around dinner time every evening, we started saying "good night, Daddy" to reflect his earlier bedtime across the time zones.
Largely, Dad's earlier weeks were spent in limbo.
"Don't be in a hurry," I said. "Time is on your side. It's letting you get in better shape before you head into real training."
And it gave him time to lose the weight.
"The chicken tastes like skunk," he said during one call.
"Now, I know you ate deer at my mom's house, but she never cooked skunk. How do you know what it tastes like?"
"I don't. But I know what it smells like, and it smells like this chicken."
"If you think that's bad, wait until you taste the MREs," I said, referring to the dehydrated food packets troops eat in the field. "They're so awful even my brother wouldn't eat them. There's a tiny bottle of Tabasco in some, but it's not enough to help."
His days were a frustrating holding pattern. He watched friends move on from the reception battalion while he remained. He pulled a hamstring trying to play soccer like he was 20 and hobbled through his daily runs. Officials barked at him for paperwork - documents we'd sent two, sometimes three times earlier - and he spazzed.
"They are never going to let me out of here," he said. "I'm just going to sit here for three and a half years, away from my family, while everyone else gets to go to training and go on and enjoy life."
The cycle started anew each week, as a fresh group started basic training without him.
Finally, in late January he got the word. Pack up: You're moving on. He'd been at the base for four weeks.
Before joining his training unit he got to visit the post exchange, where he drank a half gallon of Pepsi and ate half a pizza.
The next day was Super Bowl Sunday, and the soldiers were allowed to buy $10 "tickets" to the game that also entitled them to pizza and soda. At halftime, though, he wanted to make a call and was told he couldn't go back and watch the game if he left.
He made the call. We didn't hear from him for another two weeks.
Next: Training for real.
Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.