Monday, November 05, 2007

Graduation day

This last weekend, C and I flew down to San Diego to watch one of our favorite people graduate from Marine Boot Camp. His name's Mike, and he's 19.

He's very tall, much taller than he was when he was 7, when C met him. They were paired up in the Big Brothers program, and Mike came to count on C to be a steady, constant presence in his life, which could be chaotic. And then I married in, and I came to think of him as my Little Brother too.

It was easy to do; he was such a good kid. He was shy, but you could tell there was a lot going on behind his stoic little face. He had sharp eyes that missed nothing, much like C. But he hid it, he hid out from people, watching and waiting, sitting back, missing nothing, saying nothing. But always listening.

So we took care to tell him he was smart and we were proud. We told him how good he was, and that if he was ever in trouble, he could count on us to help.

We figured for Mike, trouble would mean a car crash, or maybe (and this was the worst thing we could imagine) getting a girl pregnant. So on his 16th birthday, we gave him the Condoms Condoms Condoms talk, with a side order of Don't Do Drugs, and for dessert, If You Want To Go To College, We'll Help.

Like I said, we always knew he was smart. We just didn't know how independent he was, or how much he wanted to succeed on his own. How motivated he was to make his own way in the world. You don't think of that, with a kid. You just think, he likes French fries; he blushes when he's the center of attention; he's such a good kid. And you ask the universe to keep him safe, because he's your good kid.

So when he called us several months back to tell us that, despite having a good job as a mechanic, he'd joined the Marines, I freaked out.

The Marines are the first guys sent out in battle. And as one of my friends said recently, they call it the infantry for a reason: because the guys they send out are kids, babies. They're 16, 17, 18, 19.

19.

So I freaked, a little (cough a lot cough). I was proud as well, particularly when Mike told us that he chose the Marines because it's the hardest, because it's the most worthy of respect. OK, I thought, the kid's got something to prove, fine. He couldn't prove it in the Coast Guard?

C talked me down, told me he'd be OK, that most soldiers don't die. C himself struggled with it, but that's the Kabuki dance of marriage: we play out our worst fears together. I get to be the drama queen; he gets to tell me everything's going to be OK -- and in so doing, he convinces himself.

So we told Mike we were proud. We did not tell him we were afraid he would get his ass shot off within 20 minutes of arriving in Iraq. And when he arrived at Boot Camp, we sent him letters and he sent us letters and it was all about support, support, support.

And you know, the kid did good. He got an award - on the rifle range. Which is not the kind of award you want to get, since if the Marines finger you as a sharpshooter, you're going to be asked to go shoot people.

He ran the Crucible (56 miles over 3 days, with 1 meal a day and 4 hours of sleep a night -- and did I mention the 100-pound pack on his back?), and even though some of the guys in his platoon outweigh him by a good 20 pounds, when it came time for the final hand-to-hand combat drill, he was the last man standing. See? Smart. Capable. Someone you can count on.

Every single day of that 3 months was hell. That's the Marine drill instructor's job, to ensure that it's hell, so that these kids are ready when the shit hits the fan. And in San Diego, they do their job very well - so well that every time Mike saw a commercial jet fly by, he wished he was on it. Did I mention they were stationed right next to the airport? A lot of jets flew by.

But he stuck it out, and he made it through the hardest boot camp in America. A lot of guys didn't, but Mike did.

And so on Thursday, we got up at 4 a.m. - the hour Mike had been getting up for three months - and we flew to San Diego. And as his platoon marched up and down the parade deck, C and I turned to one another in shock. They really are babies. They're kids. Some of them had to get their parents' permission to join. That's how young they are.

But then they lined up to receive their Marines pin. Mike stood taller than we'd ever seen him stand before. His bearing is different, now; he does stand tall. He looks capable, and he carries himself with a confidence and a focus that's brand new, but so good. Gone is the shy 7-year-old, the 12-year-old who sat back and ate French fries and spoke so softly you had to lean down to hear what he was saying.

In their place is the 19-year-old man, the one newly acquainted with his own abilities, his strength, his will. And let me tell you, C and I could not be prouder.

And on Friday, when we saw the same platoon stand at attention and salute, we noticed something we hadn't the day before: some of them might still have baby faces, but their eyes are all sharp like Michael's. All focused, all ready. They know, now, what they can do--and that will go a long way toward protecting them when they need it most. We hope.

We're still afraid for him. We still fear the call we'll get some day, that he's being sent to Iraq. But one thing has changed: we're not sending the 12-year-old who mumbled and blushed and liked dogs better than people. We're sending the 19-year-old who knows what he can do, who knows how far he can go. Who, from years of staying quiet and listening to what's going on around him, will be able to keep his head in a war zone and stay safe, stay in one piece.

And that's good, because we're counting on him.

7 Comments:

Blogger Eileen said...

This is amazing. If he's posted overseas pass out his address and we'll all right to him.

11:52 AM  
Blogger Cherry Red said...

Brooke,

Your post is fitting tribute to a strong and determined young man. He's lucky to have both you and C in his life. Congratulations to all of you on his success--you share it.

I have 5 family members (all are my baby cousins) in the army, marines and air force right now. (I about died when my cousin Brian re-inlisted last year.) A couple of them have been to Iraq and all of them are *fine*. Hope it makes you feel a little better.

Hugs,
Kim

1:45 PM  
Blogger Chandra said...

B, I'm sitting here with tears running down my face. You write so eloquently. And here's to you and C for helping to raise Mike right.

11:32 PM  
Blogger Brooke said...

Thanks, you guys! Mike worked so hard, I wanted to do it justice.

8:02 AM  
Blogger Cruel Shoes said...

This is a beautiful tribute; he sounds like an extraordinary young man, and you are right to be proud of him. I'm sure he will be fine, and will only grow stronger from whatever experiences he goes through...he sounds like he has the type of character to never be brought down by life.

All the best to you, your family, and your 19 year old Good Kid. :)

4:39 PM  
Blogger Breakup Babe said...

This is great! You should submit this as an editorial to a newspaper - local or national.
-R

10:30 AM  
Blogger Denise said...

First and foremost, he's had the best training in the world and he'll be surrounded by others just like him who will go to the wall to protect him, too. TCB was with the Marines at Pendleton for three years and they are some of the finest, strongest, toughest people I've ever met, so he's got all of that going for him.

I'd never experienced or even known anyone who'd experienced military life before I met TCB, but I can tell you now that it's a family and they take care of each other. He's on my prayer list and, if he needs a place to go for Thanksgiving, email me because I'll cook (and clean!) for him. And any of his buddies, too.

p.s. Tell C I can imagine how he's feeling because I'd pass out if Alcott told me he was joining up, too. It's not easy realizing that you've done your job and that they're not the little ones you once knew.

3:11 PM  

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