Dad’s story: Graduation
Sometimes the only thing that keeps me from making a tire-squealing U-turn and heading for the nearest store that stocks duct tape is knowing that the guys are more discombobulated than I am.
Such was the case the morning we headed on post for our first chance to see Dad in more than three months.
We'd spent the previous day crossing the time zones, but they were too "excitick" about the hotel and its pool to sleep at a sane hour. Which meant we overslept and I had to rush them through breakfast, out the door and into the rental car.
"Mommy, where are we? How long before we get there? How will we find Daddy?" Big Guy fired as we drove toward the base.
"I don't know, babes. I'm still trying to figure all this out."
I really wonder if anyone in the crowded review stand heard a word that was uttered during the half-hour of presentations we shivered through after arriving on base "No talk. Where's Daddy?" Boots squirmed. I'm thinking he was speaking for a lot of folks.
About that time, purple, gold and green smoke exploded on the field. "Hey, guys! Look over there! What's that?"
Big Guy peered as images emerged from the smoke. "It's soldiers! Hey! It's soldiers! Daddy's there!"
Yes, Daddy was there somewhere among a thousand people dressed identically. But where?
I grabbed the guys' hands and we squeezed through the crowd, toward Dad's platoon. Boots whimpered and clung; Big Guy kept trying to skitter away.
"How will we find him?" Big Guy asked. "He doesn't have his belly. He's balded. He has ugly glasses. How will we find him?"
"We will," I said. I have no idea how, I thought.
For about 10 minutes we wove in and out of joyful reunions while we searched for our own. Then I saw the back of a neck that for some reason seemed familiar. The height looked about right. I shouted Dad's last name. The figure turned. Yes! Right soldier!
And the guys recognized him, even balded with ugly glasses and sans big belly. They rushed toward him.
"Where were you?" Big Guy asked as the four of us intertwined.
"I was back there, waiting for you," he said, pointing to where the colorful smoke had wafted. They'd been there for three hours.
Three minutes into the reunion, it was the beginning of my weekend as chopped liver.
It was "Daddy uppy" instead of "Mommy uppy" for the next four days. After a 100-pound ruck sack, a 35-pound 3-year-old was nothing for Dad.
They played soccer with a friend of Dad's from the reception battalion and his 4-year-old son as we lunched by the lake. His wife had driven to the graduation, starting the meal in a Crock Pot at home and completing the finishing touches in a rice cooker in a hotel that morning.
They gazed goggle-eyed as Dad showed them where he learned how to use a bayonet. They listened in rapt silence as he described crawling on his belly in the sand, his head low to avoid gunfire.They marched along behind as Dad sang a sanitized version of a cadence about smashing a little bird's head. When Dad told of nights spent in the woods, watching for bad guys, the guys wanted to go camping there, too.
And bribed by a few packs of Teddy Grahams, they sat attentively in the review stands the next chilly morning and heard a lieutenant colonel tell Dad and a thousand comrades that they'd successfully completed the hardest thing they'd ever do in the Army.
Dad got to leave post after that, and it was his turn to look goggle-eyed. "So this is what the outside world looks like," he said as he gazed out car windows, a long-forbidden Pepsi in his hand.
I'd studied restaurants around our hotel and listed the places where we could eat - Big Guy's food allergies limited our choices.
"You know what I really want to do? Go to the grocery store, get some bologna, make some sandwiches and just be with you and the kids. I'm sick of being surrounded by people. I just want quiet."
Quiet, of course, being a relative term with a 5- and a 3-year-old in tow, but hard as he tried even Big Guy couldn't replicate a drill sergeant's dulcet tones.
Dad finagled an overnight pass for Saturday, and it was a day filled with Pepsi, bologna and splashing in the pool. Sunday after breakfast, we took off for a nearby park.
All too soon, it ended. "Why is time going so fast?" Dad asked repeatedly.
Boots dozed in the back seat and Big Guy hid behind his hands as Dad and I said goodbye outside the barracks.
We embraced just as we had all those months ago, except this time we knew what was coming next: In two weeks, he'd begin eight more weeks of training. And then the family would be together. At least for a while. At least for longer than a weekend.
Dad strode off again, the same stride that carried him up the sidewalk when he broke the news that September afternoon that he was going to enlist, the same stride that took him toward the recruiting station that drizzly January day.
But an entirely different man walked away this time. He was a man sure of himself and confident of his capabilities. A man no longer enslaved by fear of the unknown, because he now knows he can do amazing things. A man who meets the world's gaze head-on instead of with his head down. A man whose sons stare up at him, and at anyone else wearing the same uniform, with admiration blazing in their eyes.
It was the man I caught glimpses of during that long-ago first date on Halloween. The man I met at the front of a church and exchanged "I do's" with. It just took a while for him to fully surface.
"Mommy, why were you crying?" Big Guy asked
"I was a little sad because we have to be apart for a little while longer. And it's good to let it out if you're sad, because sometimes if people don't they can wind up getting mad."
"How do people get mad?"
"Because when something's bothering you and you don't talk about it, the sad just builds up inside of you and can turn into mad."
"Oh. Can we get macaroni and cheese at Burger King now?"
It wasn't until the guys were climbing into bed that Big Guy let out the sad.
"Mommy, I miss the sleepover we had with Daddy last night. I wish we could have another one," Big Guy said.
"I miss our soldier Daddy," Boots added.
"I do, too," Big Guy said, tiny tears forming. He grabbed me and gave the hug he was too tough to give only hours earlier.
"So do I. But we'll all be together again before you know it. Right after your birthday, Boots," I said.
"We're still having a birthday party for Daddy, though, right, Mommy?" Big Guy asked. "Because he didn't get to eat his cake this year. He had to do push-ups instead."
"Yes, we'll have cake ..."
"And balloons!" Boots added.
"The soldier balloon from Raley's, right, Mommy?" Big Guy said.
"Yes, the soldier balloon."
"Mommy," Big Guy said, snuggling against me and actually inviting his brother to join in. "I just miss Daddy."
"So do I, babes. But we'll be together again before you know it."
"And we'll be a family!"
"Yes, babes. We'll be a family."
Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.