Dear Clevelandseniors.com readers; This article was printed in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on November 11, 1990. I wrote it after watching our youngest son graduate from Parris Island Marine Boot Camp, before Operation Desert Storm. Today our son is a 2nd Lt. in the Marine Corps, and I still feel the same.
Parris Island, S.C: The heat hangs heavy, along with the faint reek of musky swamp. An occasional offshore breeze from the Atlantic tantalizes, then fades.
At this eastern training depot for Marine recruits, this dot on the atlas map, the buildings are well-tended, but ordinary--almost like a mid-sized college campus. Almost.
Scrub lawns sport haircuts as military as any two-day recruit's. There is no litter, and there are no loiterers. Everyone walks smartly, or marches, or runs. Everyone has a purpose. That's what hits me first. Parris Island is a small Southern town with a purpose.
We have come--mother, father and two older sons--to see the youngest of our five children, our youngest son, graduate from basic training. But he doesn't belong to us, now. He belongs to the U.S. government for four years and he's a recruit until tomorrow when, basic training completed, the Corps will officially call him a Marine.
Maybe I gave him too many books about wars and generals: let him watch too many John Wayne movies. But isn't that what you're supposed to do--encourage their interests? I never thought it would come to this. Father talked to him, but it fell on deaf ears--he just grinned back. On his 18th birthday, he signed up. Damn you, Duke!
We wait on a wide sidewalk in front of the visitors' center as the recruit platoons are marched down for dismissal for a few hours of on-base liberty. Platoon guidons whip from standards as the marchers approach.
From the ranks comes a husky chant: "Used to ride in a Chevrolet, now I'm marchin' ev'ry day." The singing is determinedly manly, and as the ranks press on down the sidewalk, the civilians scatter.
"I see him," his brother says, and the other starts snapping pictures. "Where?" I ask, scanning the marching faces.
Where is that open-mouthed son of mine, the one who, in long-legged, loose shamble, stumbles into a room like an adolescent spider?
The platoon halts, turns as one to face their senior drill instructor. All jaws are tight, all ears like sails, short-bristled heads like young porcupines, eyes riveted on the face of their master.
Except for skins ranging from burnished ebony to deep olive to sunburned red, they are exactly alike. I can't find my son. The Marines have accomplished their goal--
The Clone Recruit.
He's been up since 4:30. Before, he wouldn't rise at such an hour if Guns N' Roses were playing in the living room. How does he fare now, without his dental floss and zit cream, without Chicken McNuggets at 2 in the morning, without his faded Jams and grass-stained Converse high-tops, without his dented apple-red Olds and the stereo blasting in the driveway?
The heat is numbing. I can see a sheen of sweat on the recruit faces, but by order of the day it miraculously disappears at their jaw lines. Every shirt is immaculate and unstained, every trouser creased, every boot a mirror.
Their faces look like they could chew nails and spit them out, but the backs of their shaven skulls remind me of--what? Of course--that tender, vulnerable spot where a newborn is cradled. I glance down the lines at all the identical, exposed spots. Despite their military growl, it makes them look touchingly innocent.
"Dis-missed!" The platoon melts out of formation as civilians surge forward. My husband prowls into the crowd, then clasps a young recruit on the back. The recruit turns--no, that can't be him, I think. Then I fall against him, clutching his chest and putting my head against the second button on his shirt. "Don't get lipstick on my uniform, Mom," he says.
He looks wonderful--no, terrible.
So handsome in his uniform--no, I hate this uniform and the distance it has put between us. And not to have even recognized him! They all think I'll cry now, I can see the smirks on their faces. Well, I'm not. OK, just a little. I hate myself like this.
We head for the on-base fast-food restaurant, forbidden to him until today. Wine, women, song? Forget it--he's 18 and wants food. He walks erect through the line, garrison cap across his outstretched right arm like a robot. He selects one of everything.
We all squeeze into a booth and elbow one another as we eat. He eats and talks, talks and eats, a steady stream of anecdotes spewing from him as though his throat had just been reconnected to his mouth and stomach. His vocabulary is peppered with slang terms and military abbreviations, and we try to decipher this foreign language he now speaks.
This is the baby of the family, the teased one, the goof-off, the guffaw-er. Now, he exudes a cocky confidence, a somewhat patronizing air. He's showing off his world now, and if he was ever homesick, he shrugged it off in his few letters home weeks ago. Can he see how hungrily I press each line of his face to my memory?
"Still hungry?" his father asks, reaching for his wallet again. He nods, grinning, surprised at his own appetite. He rises and turns.
For a brief second, I can see that profile again. That spot that has all the classic beauty of a Greek sculpture. Now it's gone.
He stands erect and addresses a passing officer with, "Good afternoon, sir!" in a firm, serious voice to match his new, serious self.
Graduation Day, 9 a.m. The metal bleachers are already egg-frying hot. We have been up since sunrise to catch the crisp and stirring flag-raising ceremony, and I am chock-full of patriotism and nerves. The band sets the mood with catchy tunes as the platoons march by.
Now I can find him as he marches by, so ramrod stiff and sober-faced. Well, you hung in there, you made it. You'll never be the same, and neither will we.
I'll move my sewing machine into your room and try to ignore the clutter of boyhood around em--a boyhood gone, now. Oh, you rebellious adventurer, you dupe, you cannon fodder! I am so very, very proud of you and I hate myself because I am.
The speeches are routine, and they drone on like measured ticks of a clock. Camcorders and cameras whir and click. Handkerchiefs fan some in the stands, and here and there an umbrella provides shade. The Corps has it down to a pat drill; at five minutes to 10, it's all over.
We shake hands with the senior drill instructor who, according to my son, has been God, father and inquisitionist. The man has a reticent manner, quiet and unassuming. He is partially hidden by his Smokey-The-Bear hat. Then he lifts his head and I stare into a pair of yellow eyes...the kind of eyes, alert and unblinking, of a leopard waiting in the grass.
Oh, I know what you're thinking: So this is the family that produced that snot-nosed kid I shaped up. Well, don't be too smug; we did provide the raw material. It just irks me a little that in 12 weeks you changed him more than we did in 18 years.
Savannah Airport, 6 p.m.
We drag his assorted impedimenta--seabag, carry-ons, photos, PX junkery, for weigh-in. His brother hefts a final bag on the scale. "This weight more than you do!" he kids his brother. I look at the scale and at my bone-thin son. Yes, it does.
The plane taxis, then lifts into the darkening sky. He sits across the aisle from us, rattling on about who he'll see on leave, where he'll go, what he'll eat. A half-hour into the flight, talking subsides. His arms are open-palmed in his lap, his mouth has fallen open. Above the drone of the plane I catch the steady, rhythmic snore of oblivion. The garrison cap still balances precariously on his knee and his head droops downward. I can see the outline of that naked skull again.
I wish I could cradle that head to me right now, to keep him safe and protected once more. But home and comfort are tenuous strings. Now, there is no place for him to go but away.
I rest my head; I'm exhausted and adrenalin-nervous. I'm proud, but I'm scared, too.
There's always something to worry about for parents. The dread disease, the speeding car, the thoughtless prank. You turn the pot handles inward, hold their hands in traffic and issue all the standard warnings. You do it because life is chancy and capricious.
But this child wants to put himself on the cutting edge of danger, and what can I do about that? Nothing.
Except to love him and write to him and put up a good front, the good old stiff upper lip. It seems I've been a mom forever; now I have to be a new kind of MOM--Mother of a Marine. With the state of the world today, it's not going to be easy.
I close my eyes as the plane soars homeward through an ink-black sky full of twinkling, rhinestone stars. Up here, it's very easy to pray.
(God bless all sons and daughters in the military, their parents, and God bless America)