I spent the afternoon with my oldest son, Jack. It was his last day as a civilian. It was probably the last day that he and I will share a mailing address. In a few days, I’ll get a postcard containing a new address at RTC Great Lakes. It will be written in his own hand. He will miss home when he writes it. I hope I’m not revealing too much. But Jack wrote down his Grandpa’s address, today, when we stopped by to tell my son’s namesake “goodbye.” Dad wasn’t home, so Jack and I drove to the place my dad spends most of his days: sitting with my mom. I wasn’t going to take Jack to see Mom. But now I’m glad Jack got to see both of his living grandparents on his last day as a civilian.
Mom was thrilled to hear Jack’s going into the Navy. She informed him that her brothers and husband were in the Navy in World War II, a fact Jack knew. But he appreciated her breaking news story. Mom, of course, didn’t recognize Jack, but that’s okay. She was thrilled to have met another sailor. The most important men in her life had been sailors.
Next stop: the recruiting station. Jack formally requested permission to come aboard the command. I, having left the Navy 15 years ago, could just walk right in. (Sure, I could have popped to attention, saluted, and requested permission to come aboard from rote, but I knew that doing so would be to mock the Navy tradition.)
“Petty Officer First Class ?????” said a very sharp sailor in full dress blues. I missed his name. He looked way too young to be a First Class. Was I that young when I made E6? (Was I ever that young?)
The recruiter looked at me as we shook hands. “You’re not gonna cry, are you, sir?” he asked.
“No need for that. He’ll do just fine.”
I agreed with him. But that wasn’t the reason I looked like a man fighting tears.
The recruiters processed some paperwork, which is what the military does far more than anything else, including drilling, cleaning, and fighting. I immediately remembered how glad I am to be free from the tyrannical paperwork of government service. I wondered how long it would be before all of us wished we could go back to the days when we didn’t have to fill out so many forms. (But that’s a different subject.)
After the recruiters talked to us, my son and I headed toward downtown St. Louis. We were mostly silent. I asked him about dinner, and he told me that they gave him a chit for dinner in the hotel. The Navy requires all recruits to spend the night before induction in a hotel under government contract. Lights out at 2200. The policy prevents repeats of my own unfortunate arrival at boot camp after a night of no sleep and lots of whiskey.
Only after I parked at a meter directly in front of the hotel did I wish I’d parked a mile away. I knew that once Jack was checked in, I’d have no excuse to hang around with my son. I’d be forced by time and circumstance to tell him I love him and that he will excel and to leave him in the hands of the United States Navy. Will they treat him well?
For the past month, I hadn’t been able to speak to Jack about his upcoming departure. Emotionally, my mind jumped ahead to the scene at the MEPS Hotel that I was about to experience. I cowered from that simple duty. Work and Tea Party emergencies provided me great cover, an excuse to avoid uncomfortable time alone with my son. How pathetic.
While Jack was on the hotel’s second floor checking in and hearing a repeat of the instructions his recruiter had given, I thought about my day at MEPS in 1984. I saw myself standing in that paneled room as a Marine Corps Major inducted fifteen of us into the Armed Forces.
I, William Thomas Hennessy, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.
It’s that oath, which I consider a lifelong commitment, that compels me to type, talk, and march for the freedoms my father and uncles fought for in the war my mom still remembers through the haze of Alzheimer’s. It is the oath my son will take tomorrow.
And a family tradition lives on.
Having used the bathroom and washed my hands as if for surgery in a sad attempt to stall for time, I walked back to the lobby where my son, the soon-to-be sailor, stood alone. Behind him sat a half dozen young men and women. They were all here for tomorrow’s induction. Jack’s comrades looked at me, one by one, each of them strangers but for one, and said to themselves: “Dad.” They said it with a sense of relief. Feelings of fear and regret—there’s always just a twinge of regret—were interrupted by the presence of a father: a symbol of home and all that they knew until now.
I hugged Jack and felt my eyes burn with the two-minute warning of tears.
“I love you,” I said. “You’ll do great.”
Jack was man enough to save me from tears by giving me firm instructions.
“I’ll call you when they let me. Can you or Patrick call mom? Unless they let me have two calls?”
“Of course,” I said.
Don’t go, I thought.
“Good bye,” I told him.
I made it to my car, got in, and started the engine before my chest started heaving. In the bar, young people, but not as young as my son, looked out wondering why that man was crying. The young men smirked, but a young woman stepped toward the window as if to make sure everything was alright.
I wiped my eyes without shame and smiled at the happy hour revelers. They were kind enough to show concern, after all.
After tonight, my son won’t sleep in this town for at least another couple of months. I’ll be at Great Lakes for his Pass in Review in June. But the man who snaps his head toward the grand stand on the order “eyes right” in June will not be the same boy I didn’t spend enough time with for the past twenty-one years. I have finished raising this fine young man. He turned out wonderfully despite my many, many failings.
Fair winds and following seas, Jack. I love you.