An Outreach Program of MarineParents.com
Our Marine sergeant has been home less than a day, and already his mother and I have bundled him into her car for a road trip. Of course, after enduring years of travel by military ship or aircraft to places as diverse as Iraq, Germany, the Philippines and Alaska, he doesn’t complain. Traveling is a way of life for him.
In fact, he insisted on the trip. He’s going to see grandparents. It’s been a long time, too.
Last night, his flight from California landed in Nashville at 8:56 p.m. He strolled out of the airport into the arms of his mother, who is 5-foot-2 but had no trouble stopping her 6-foot-2, 200-pound Marine with a bear hug. A two-hour drive later, he walked into the arms of my mother, who is 5-foot-1 and 91 years old. She had no trouble bear-hugging him either. His mother hadn’t seen him since last June when we visited him in California; his grandmother hadn’t seen him in two-and-a-half years.
The women laughed and cried and hugged him some more. Then there were hugs for his sister, who is 16 and blossoming faster than he could believe, and another important female, our Australian shepherd, Sadie, who is 12 and thinks she helped raise all our children – and most likely is correct. Our Marine just laughed through it all because … well because when you’re a Marine you endure all sorts of encounters, including the proprietary attentions of teary-eyed women and an old dog who rests her head on your foot when you finally get a chance to sit down.
And now it’s 12 hours later and our Marine is in our car with his mother, who is in the backseat, and me behind the wheel. We’re heading north to the St. Louis area and another reunion, this one with his maternal grandparents and then my father. He hasn’t seen his mom’s folks in three years, since he got married. It’s been even longer since he’s had a chance to visit my dad.
On the drive I’m reminded of a few things:
1.) Marines have seen and done things most of us never will experience, and
2.) Marines, because of what they’ve had to see and do, have a unique sense of humor.
With his mother snoozing in the backseat, my son tells me about a Marine friend who is always bragging that he doesn’t have to shave, except for his upper lip. His chin and cheeks are hairless and he takes a lot of good-natured ribbing from his co-workers about it, my son says.
“Just can’t grow a beard?” I ask.
Well, he could at one time, I guess, my son says, but then he was on patrol in Afghanistan and another Marine stepped on an IED and the blast blew parts of his face up and over his head. He looks good now, but the plastic surgery keeps him from growing a beard anymore.
“Oh,” I say. We drive on for a while in silence, and then I use the code phrase that’s evolved in our family over the years, the words that mean try as I might I can never fully understand because I’m not a Marine: “I guess that’s a Marine thing, right?”
Sometimes you have to laugh because that’s all there is, my son says. Now I nod in understanding.
“So, tell me another,” I say.
Then he tells me about the Marine, age 20, who was climbing a rope in the gym when his prosthetic leg fell off and nearly landed on the sergeant standing below. The Marine wouldn’t climb down until the sergeant, who my son says was definitely startled by the close encounter, promised to return his leg and not hit him with it. My son is a good storyteller and he has me grinning as he tells the tale.
We’re a couple of hours into our road trip by now and we’re approaching an overpass spanning the highway. Parked atop the overpass and directly over the lane in which I’m driving is a black SUV with the motor running. It’s cold and we can see clouds of exhaust at the tail pipe. My son sits upright, bends forward toward the windshield to better watch the SUV, then sits back in his seat and exhales.
“What’s wrong?” I ask him.
In Iraq, he says, we would have started shooting by now.
A guy sitting there like that, he says, that meant he was getting ready to drop a grenade on you or open up with a rocket.
I switch lanes and we pass under the bridge and leave the SUV in our wake. Of course, I think as I look at my son, some things you never get beyond, at least not entirely.
It’s quiet in our car, then my son grins at me, jerks his head toward the overpass and the SUV falling fast behind us and says, “I guess that’s another Marine thing.”
Two hours later we’re through the St. Louis traffic and cruising down I-70 to the small town in which my wife grew up. Then we’re at her home, built on the remains of her family farm that was started shortly after the Civil War. Waiting inside for us are my wife’s parents. Grandpa is 86 and holding his own. Grandma is 83 and frail. There’s also an assortment of aunts and uncles and cousins on hand, too. That means there is a lot of hugging and hand-shaking and laughter.
It’s all a little too much for Grandma, so with the help of my wife’s brother, she uses her walker to head back to her bedroom to lie down for a while. The visiting continues over pizza and a couple of hours later Grandma re-appears. She sits in her easy chair and listens to the conversations, but seldom joins in. Her hands tremble in her lap.
Then it’s time to go. We’re spending the night at my wife’s sister’s house. It’s easier on Grandma that way. We’re gathering coats and jackets when I notice my son leave the room for a moment and walk back in holding a scrapbook. In it are photos from a family trip to Disney World 15 years before. He sits down next to his grandmother, turns to the first page and begins talking to her about the trip, pointing at the photos of her and her grandchildren.
And it’s as if by opening the book, the years have been peeled away from Grandma. She leans forward slowly to look at the pictures and starts talking about what she remembers from the trip. And in a few minutes she and her grandson are laughing together. Then she sits back, tired but happy with a smile on her face and it really is time for us to go.
Grandpa walks us outside and stops near the flag pole he installed with the help of my wife’s brother and sister. That was six years ago, shortly after his two oldest grandchildren – my sons – went to Parris Island to become Marines. A U.S. flag and a Marine flag hang from the pole. Grandpa hugs his grandson and tells him his grandmother hasn’t laughed like that in a long time. Then he hugs him again, whispers in his ear and shakes his hand. The lights catch the tears in the man’s eyes as he watches his grandson get in our car. He is smiling as he waves farewell.
And now it’s the next day and we’re cruising through the maze of highways that run through St. Louis County to catch the main road south. My wife is driving and she looks at our son and asks him if he still feels like visiting his other grandfather, my dad.
Absolutely, he says.
So we drive past the highway turnoff and head to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. It’s been at least ten years since our son was here, and he’s amazed at the changes. Sitting on bluffs high above the Mississippi River, Jefferson Barracks was established as a military outpost in 1827. The first grave was dug a year later. It belongs to the infant daughter of an Army lieutenant who was assigned there when it was considered a hardship outpost. The cemetery was established in 1866 as a final resting place for Civil War dead, Union and Confederate troops alike. Three Revolutionary War veterans rest there now, too. It’s grown since – row after row of white marble tombstones; nearly 200,000 of them. The cemetery averages more than a dozen burials a day.
We take our Marine to visit his uncle, who served in the Army in Korea, and his aunt. Then we drive past the grave of my grandfather, who was in the Army in both World Wars, and grandmother. And then, like in the Trace Adkins song “Arlington,” we move a thousand stones away from them and find ourselves standing at the grave of my father. On the stone are inscribed his name, the dates of his birth and death and something else: U.S. Marine Corps, World War II.
I pay my respects, then turn and walk away because, as usual, my eyes get blurry when I see my dad surrounded for eternity by all those who have served their country since before it was a nation. I turn back and watch my son place his hand on his grandfather’s tombstone and bow his head in respect; one Marine reaching over the years to another.
I turn away again, and if anyone asks I’ll say I’m looking for the herd of semi-tame deer that roam the cemetery grounds. I look over at my wife and she smiles and nods at me. And then I’m surrounded by a pair of strong arms and my son is standing there. He has tears in his eyes. He hugs me. And no more words are needed.