We got the orientation package for Son Number One’s NROTC program this week – he starts down at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot here in Sandy Eggo in mid-August. There were the general orders of a sentry to memorize, a list of things one could (and could not bring), haircut regulations, etc. For as long as I can remember, he wanted to be a naval officer, to fly fighters – a boy’s dream. It all seemed so far away, so theoretical, for so many years.
Suddenly it seems real: The Navy, which has been a part of my life for so very long, is about to become a part of his. In a way that it never has before.
There are so many things that he needs to know, so much that I would try to pass down to him – but he has learned so much already, living the gypsy life of a Navy dependent. And some things one must learn on one’s own.
I had a sudden flashback to my own experiences, my own commissioning program. Four long years at the monastery on the Severn.
In my minds eye, the image that always comes most forcefully to the forefront is this one:
For three years we had observed it as spectators, in the stadium seats. We envied the grads who left the loving arms of “Mother B,” the Bancroft Hall dormitory. They were going to the fleet. They would learn to fly fighters, or drive ships, conn submarines, lead young Marines in combat.
We would turn and walk back to Bancroft Hall. To another year at least of grinding academic course loads, military drill, stultifying discipline, with only the release of competitive athletics, and 12 hours “liberty” on a Saturday afternoon to relieve the stress. If our grades were good enough.
I remember the moment as distinctly as though it had just happened – the feeling of freedom, of accomplishment, of release. Standing there for the first and last time, not observing from the stands, but for the first time down on the football field itself. The Very Important People have had had their say, their motivational moments. Our names have been read off the rolls and the commissioned officer’s oath of office read aloud, proudly and with a plangent meaning it would maybe never have again, no matter how seriously one took it:
I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter, so help me God.
We turned to the left or right, and with another that we had come to love as a brother, exchanged shoulder boards on our choker whites – the thin stripe of a first class midshipman exchanged for the fat gold bar of a no-kidding, ready-for-the-fleet ensign, complete with the broad star of an officer of the line. The underclassmen in the stands gave out the traditional three cheers for the outgoing class, with descending degrees of enthusiasm from those who would take our places as seniors to to the plebes whose lives we had made as miserable as was permitted. And on the last hurrah, we flung our midshipmen’s hats into the burning blue Annapolis sky, as hard as ever we could.
If this were a movie, it would end right there, at that picture – the hats frozen in the air, the expressions of triumph frozen on the almost painfully young faces.
But I also remember this: The hats come back down, with their hard plastic bills, brass buttons and tearing anchors. I had never thought about it until that very moment, at the point they reached the apex of their trajectories and came crashing back down upon our upturned faces.
It seemed some sort of metaphor. And in fact, it was. What goes up, will in fact go down. Seniors, first class midshipmen, are at the pinnacle of one organization. The moment those hats come back to earth, they are at the bottom of another. Because the only thing lower that an ensign in the US Navy, is whale sh__. Oh yes, we believe in karma here; the good and the bad. Because every tide that rises brings a promise of an ebb.
And that is the life that Son Number One has chosen – freely, willingly. In spite of my every effort to tell him that it was his life to live, his choice to make. That just because this had been my life, it did not have to be his. But he would not have any other life, could not imagine it. And he is very happy.
So I am very happy for him, as he embarks upon his new path, and very, very proud of all his accomplishments.
But I am also a little bit afraid for him. Because that orientation class is at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, in San Diego, California. And waiting for him there will be a granite faced drill sergeant who couldn’t care less that his father is a captain in the United States Navy.
And it is a different world that he will join, a different country that he will defend, some four years hence.
I am now become old – I have served my time on the line. I have faced the wolf, and flung my willing craft at those who would gladly kill me, if they could.
But he is young, and he is my son.
So I am proud, and a little bit afraid.