Top R to L. Joel Martin, David Harris, Me and Mike Frazer. I'm holding my 4th tall Guinness of the hour!
May 28th, 2009. The date on the calender, highlighted in bright orange marker, smiled back at me with a Cheshire cat grin that was rivaled only by my own. In just a few short hours I would be getting on a plane that would take me home for 6 days of leave; home to my two little girls and to the woman to whom I owed my life and future. I had hurt her deeply for too long. Against every instinct in her body, and for reasons that I may never understand, she had forgiven me. In spite of my own selfishness over the years, her love for me never wavered. I swore to be the man for her that I had always promised I would be and to finally give her the life that she had always wanted. Sadly, I only had 6 days to do it in.
On the eve of deploying to war, I had been feeling lately a bit like a man on death row, awaiting the order for execution. Like many others, I questioned my future, and if, for me, there would even be one. I tried not to think about it, but the thoughts kept haunting me. I fought them back, telling myself that I had so many reasons to come home. My girls and my son needed me, my wife loved me, and I needed them. I had been without them for too long, and for six days at least, I had the promise of hope, and a bright future. I smiled even bigger and went back to eagerly packing.
Normally, I'm a meticulous packer, but not today. I hurriedly stuffed that last of my civilian clothes into a dusty olive drab duffel bag and snapped it shut. I padlocked it with the satisfaction of knowing that the next time I removed that lock it would be at home under the watchful, curious eyes of my two little girls. I looked at my watch. Eleven o'clock, "Shit". The bus to the airport wouldn't be here until three, and we wouldn't be allowed to sign out until one. I had at least four hours to kill. I walked over to the All Ranks Club and bought a soda. I checked my watch. Twenty minutes had passed. "Dammit!". I walked back to the barracks and pulled out my i-pod, crawled onto my rack and propped my head up on my pillow. I silently tried to calculate in my head how many songs I could go through to pass the 3 hours and 40 minutes left to go. Never having been very good at math, I gave up after three tries when I kept running out of fingers. I spent the time instead, walking around the barracks, laughing and joking with the guys, peed 5 times, and re-arranged the contents of my locker. I then re-checked my watch. Two-thirty. Close enough. I grabbed my duffel bag and went outside to await the bus. The sound of distant thunder and the smell of rain quickly gave way to a steady spring drizzle. Perfect. I grabbed what little shelter was left under the overhang of the roof, as everyone else apparently had the same desire to stay dry and freshly coiffed. It had been two months since we had worn anything remotely like civilian clothes, and everyone looked like a walking Benneton commercial. Male and female soldiers alike, in anticipation of removing those civilian clothes as soon as arriving home and feverishly getting down to the business of doing the no-pants dance with their significant other, had drowned themselves in perfume or cologne. After smelling sweat and dirty socks for two months, the pungent mix of aromas was a actually a bit refreshing.
Just as the rain began to increase in intensity, the three buses that would take us to the Indianapolis airport pulled up. I had strategically placed myself in a position to be first on the bus and first out of the rain. My gamble paid off. I wrestled my duffel bag onto the bus and took a seat in the front row. Jake "The Jake" Sere got on right after me and joined me. Jake is not so much a person as he is a walking, talking theory. You see, all women love "The Jake". To prove this hypothesis, one need only ask a few simple questions. 1) Is he not "The Jake"? 2) Is the admirer a female? 3 ) Is she conscious? If the answer to the first question is "Yes", then all other questions become moot because all women love "The Jake". Question number 3 is really not necessary. Consciousness is not a requirement to love "The Jake" because all women subconsciously love him. Thus the hypothesis is proven by simply asking oneself, "Is he not The Jake"?
Jake and I bullshitted (girls chat, guys bullshit) all the way to the airport. The difference between chatting and bullshitting is that chatting implies a mutual exchange of meaningful information. I don't remember a damned thing Jake and I talked about. Hence, the art of bullshitting. I bid Jake goodbye as he headed off to meet his girlfriend who had flown into see him. I wasted no time. Besides, I was in too big a hurry to get checked into my flight and get to the airport bar so that I could enjoy a frosty beverage....or two. Sergeant Eddie Lauron and I checked in together and made our way through security. We proceeded directly to the airport sports bar. I swear I could hear an angelic choir singing "Hallelujah!" as a heavenly light illuminated my bar stool. This was it. A short stop in Mecca before heading home. I ordered a tall Guinness and drank deeply. "Ahhhhh. This grog is truly the nectar of the Gods" I whispered lustily as I shamelessly wiped foam from my lips. "Wench" I called out to the female bartender. "Another round, and bring one for my Asian companion here as we have traveled many miles and are thirsty!". Apparently, the dog tag chains visible under our shirts and short cropped haircuts gave us away as soldiers, and she smiled slyly, excusing my poor attempt at humor as the ramblings of a soldier who was anxious to get down to the business of drinking with friends and making memories while we still could. In no time at all, Eddie and I were joined by Sgt Frank La Spina, Pfc Joel, "Sta-puff" Martin, Pfc Jason May, Sgt Jon Baum, Spc Erin Bell, Spc Mike Frazer, and Sgt David Harris. Soon, the whole bar knew our story, and people were lining up to buy us drinks and thank us for our service. It was a humbling experience, and for me at least, it was I who was grateful for people who cared.
Our time together passed quickly and soon it was time to head to the gate and board our flights. I settled into my seat next to the window, plugged in my ever-present i-pod, and tried once again to calculate how many songs it would take until we landed. Apparently, the amount of alcohol I had consumed had not significantly improved my math skills as I had hoped, and I quickly gave up. "Who Says You Can't Go Home" by Bon Jovi and Jennifer Nettles, thumped away in my head, and I was joyous. Whether or not I fell asleep, I'm not sure, but I was suddenly snapped out of my giddiness and back to reality by the wheels of our 737 touching ground as the roar of the engines reverse thrusters drowned out the music in my head. I knew that in just a few short moments, I would be re-united with the my reason for breathing. This time, however, I was not so lucky to grab a seat up front as I was on the bus several hours earlier. Being at the rear of the plane, I first had to wait an eternity for elderly grandparents, young couples with small children, and weary businessmen in rumpled suits to grab their carry-ons and slowly make their way off the plane before I could hold her in my arms again.
I half ran-walked the short distance from the gate through the terminal to the security checkpoint. From a hundred feet away I saw them. There was Olivia, her short stubby little legs propelling her 5 year old body as high as it could as she jumped and squealed "Daddy, Daddy!" My 8 year old Alyssa, tall and lanky, jumping in rhythm with her sister, a mouth full of brand new braces shining like the grill on a new Buick. And there in the crowd, I saw her. My wife of 11 years, Robbie. As beautiful as a dream. My girls ran to me and jumped into my arms. Olivia buried her face in my neck and inhaled deeply. I was grateful I had not drowned myself in cologne earlier in the day. Alyssa squeezed me cheek to cheek. None of us wanted to let go. I stood up and faced her. I forced back tears of joy as I saw in her eyes the love I had always remembered. And then she hugged me. Her embrace required no words, and at that moment, any doubts as to whether she had forgiven me were laid to rest. I slept better that night than I had in two months, curled up with my babies who, nestled on my bare chest, breathed slowly and deeply. I was home.
The next few days were spent playing, laughing, and joking. Robbie and I took what little time we had together to begin the process of healing and getting to know one another again...to become best friends, again. My final night at home, before returning to Atterbury the next morning, I made my girls lunches for the next day at school. I stood at the kitchen counter spreading peanut butter and jelly onto the bread, as I had so many nights before, and started to cry. The simple act of making my girls peanut butter and jelly sandwiches filled me with an incredible sadness that I could not contain, and the emotion poured out of me in stifled sobs. What if these were the last peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I would ever make for them.? I vowed, then and there, that when I came home, I would never again take for granted an act as simple as making my girls lunches, which I had complained about so many times before. It wasn't just a sandwich. It was an act of love. Suddenly, little things began to take on a renewed importance, and I couldn't wait to get home again and start making sandwiches.