My daughter, known to many as Blondie due to the extreme fairness of her hair, first raised a delicate subject by asking, in that deliberately casual way that teenagers have of raising that issue that is of supreme importance to them:
"Mom... do you think I could make it through Marine Corps basic training?"
My initial reaction-- I was heading north on I-35, shortly south of the I-10 interchange, in the Very Elderly Volvo, doing something like 70MPH in the inside lane on a weekday afternoon-- was to damn near take out 50 feet of median railing.
My second reaction was to remember Sgt. Mom's Rule of Parenting #1, which is to never, ever come unglued at any question they may ask, or thing they may say, no matter how severe the temptation. If you come unglued, and begin screaming, you will frighten them, and then you will never, ever hear anything interesting and/or relevant at first hand. One must maintain calm, and rationality in order to maintain credibility and communication, especially with teenagers, that most skittish of human beings. (One may very well disapprove, but one must be calm and rational. Screaming is counterproductive.) My third reaction was to be judicious:
"Oh, I think so... it's much more physical than Air Force basic, though. They go much further with the mind games, and they really want the killer instinct."
"Do you really think I could do it?"
"You'd have to fake the killer instinct... I watched you try out for basketball, you know. And you'd have to really, really get into shape."
It was in the middle of her senior year: I had taken my retirement from the Air Force the year before. I had worked a series of interesting and muddled jobs (some of them simultaneously) and she had finally settled into the habits of academic excellence at a private Catholic girls' school, favored by south-side San Antonians--- mostly Hispanic families who wanted the best possible education for their daughters. Although she had made the National Honor Society, she was competing for scholarships with girls who had been eaten up with academic ambition since kindergarten-- and until I sent her to St. Francis she had drifted and dreamed away in the back of the classroom.
"What about college? " I said, hopefully. "You could go to SAC and live at home... in two years you could transfer to UT... I could help with the tuition, you could join ROTC... You DO want to study psychology, don't you? "
"Yeah... but I don't want to owe anybody.... And I want to take a break from classes and do something. Besides, I have to get out of Texas. I'm starting to like country music."
"Why the Marines?" I asked after another mile or so. Our best quality family time always seemed to be in the Very Elderly Volvo on the road to someplace or other. “If you went into the Air Force, you’d be at Lackland for Basic…”
"They're... I dunno. Different."
"Different from the Air Force, all right. They have the lowest percentage of female troops, so the testosterone poisoning is a given... sweetie, you don't have to do the military, just because I did. It's OK if you don't want to."
"But I do," said my daughter. I looked at the highway unspooling in front of me. It hadn't seemed like any time at all. The plump pretty baby had become a willful toddler, a fearless and adventurous child, a confident and responsible teenager, with the speed of a flower unfurling in stop-action footage in a nature film.
"OK, if you're sure..."
"I am." Said my daughter.
The US Marine Corps recruiting station was a couple of miles from St. Francis. Blondie's appointment was with a sergeant who had recruited one girl from each graduating class, every year for the six years he had been in that district. As she was still 17, I needed to be there to sign documents for her.
"When did you first think about joining the Marines?" he asked.
"When I was ten, " She said, "When they were getting ready for Desert Storm, our next to last summer in Spain."
Oh, yes, I remembered that summer. Zaragoza AB, which had been a base where fighter squadrons rotated out of the northern cloudy climes for gunnery practice in the Bardenas Reales, became one of the four European bases supporting the traffic into Saudi Arabia. Every evening as we drove home out the Garapilllas gate, the flight line was parked thickly with transport aircraft. Our transient dorms were packed, and the two clubs had the most profitable fiscal quarters they ever had, and would ever have again. Blondie had outgrown the child care center (“That’s for babies!”) and hated the youth center’s summer camps, so we worked out a day split between the library in the morning, and the base pool in the afternoon. She swam like a fish, in consequence and nonchalantly dove from the high board and during one of those afternoons a party of young Marines on their way down-range was there at the pool.
“They just seemed really, really cool,” said Blondie.
I was eight, when Dad took us to an air show at Edwards AFB, and I saw some women in uniforms there, and thought that looked like a really neat thing to be, daring and adventurous like Great aunt Nan, and I held that thought to myself for a long time.
So I signed off on all the paperwork to process Blondie for initial screening. When she passed, and went to MEPS to be sworn into the inactive reserve she had passed her 18th birthday. When she signed all the contracts and paperwork herself I had that sinking realization that if I had not approved of this, there would have been damn all I could have done to prevent it. At her graduation in May, when Sister Marie listed where every girl was going to college, even the one who was only going to study cosmetology, a raucous cheer broke out at the back of the hall, when she announced that Blondie was enlisting in the Marines. The cheer came some from fathers and brothers, but also from the off-duty police and deputies working security and traffic. She was the recruit for her year.
The recruiters rounded up the recruits on delayed enlistments and took them out to the gymnasium at Ft. Sam Houston a couple of times a week to work out. I don’t think she took it at all seriously until the Marines held a field day at Lackland AFB. A handful of drill instructors gave the kids a healthy taste of what basic training required. She came home from that absolutely limp and grey with exhaustion, and redoubled her workout schedule.
“You’d best start running, “I said pulling into the gym parking lot, “Every day, just to get used to it.”
“I’ll hit the treadmill, “she said. “I so much want this, but sometimes I think about how hard it will be, and I worry that I’m just not ready for it all.”
“If it’s worth having, it’s something you have to work for, “I said, bracingly. “And you’re ready. You’ve been like a baby bird, sitting on the edge of the parental nest, madly flapping your wings, getting ready to fly.”
“Well, I just hope it’s not a flight straight down with a thump at the bottom.”
“It won’t be. You’ll be OK.” I said, as she closed the door and trotted up the sidewalk towards the gym.
She shipped out to Parris Island that September, and I reflected that it may have been a good thing: if she had gone Air Force, I would not have been able to resist the temptation of going over to Lackland and hanging around on the training side. It would have been so embarrassing for her, to have the DI snarl, “Recruit Hayes, is that your mother…. Lurking behind the bushes… AGAIN!”
She carried her overnight bag into the MEPS, and swore in with all the other kids; the Marine recruits all very lean and intense and driven, the Air Force and Navy a little less so. I went to work, and drove home alone that afternoon, and walked into the house; my mother was sure I would be just throwing myself on the floor and howling with grief, the Gentleman With Whom I Keep Company thought I would do nothing of the sort. Blondie had called from the airport and left a message on the answering machine: they had all eaten, and were about to catch their flight.
They would travel all night, and sometime in the wee hours arrive in a dark airport. People in uniform would meet them, there would be a long bus ride, arriving in the dark--- they always fix it so you arrive at Basic in the dark. All I could think was how short her childhood in my house seemed to be in retrospect. I always thought it would last longer… but in the end, you have to open your hands and let go.