It has been an unusually wet and rainy summer in my corner of the world, and it was a great pleasure to be able to combine a road trip with what has become a rare sunny day.
The Girlfriend and I were headed to see our two godsons and their family for a summer barbecue; and you would think the combination of family, a perfect day, and a smoking grill would be all you would need to guarantee happiness all around.
But not today.
Because we were going to say goodbye to one of our godsons.
He’s going to the Middle East with his Army unit, and this is his last day “in the world”.
It takes about three hours to drive from one house to the other, and neither The Girlfriend or I want to think about the purpose of the trip too much...I’m trying to lose myself in music, and she’s on the phone, just to stay distracted.
There are a couple stops to make, but we eventually arrive at the house.
The weekend before I seasoned some beef, let it slowly cook for about six hours, “pulled” it and sauced it, then tossed it back on heat for another hour or so. As a result, all I had to do to get dinner going was to start the oven and reheat the meat.
We picked fresh blueberries, had some veggies and salad cut up, and all there was to do was to wait for everyone else to arrive.
It’s weird how, on the surface, everything seems normal and mundane, but the proverbial elephant is very much in the room.
He’s been in the Army National Guard for long enough that he’s got some stripes on his uniform, so he and we all have a familiarity with him being in the service, but the idea that he will be going tomorrow puts a bit of a damper of everyone’s otherwise good mood.
There was a first part to this story, written three months ago when he was going to Fort Sill, Oklahoma for final training; and as we discussed then, the good news here is that he is unlikely to be serving in a direct combat role-at least based on today’s circumstances.
Of course, I’ve known that since at least 2004 the Army has been so short of combat soldiers that they have been forced to draw on the Navy and Air Force for ground combat troops, and that the problem continues to this day; but you can bet I don’t mention it much to The Girlfriend, and he and I only talk about it a little.
That said, I don’t like the safety glasses portion of the hardware store anymore (troops are wearing safety glasses they were sent by family members shopping at Home Depot and Lowe’s to protect them from flying glass), but I am impressed at the stylishness of the new designs.
There are now three members of the family there who have a military background-his Mom was in the Army (and when both kids were young we did tease ‘em by saying “your mother wears Army boots!”), and I have my own military association-so there’s not much in the way of wild-eyed idealism. As a matter of fact, his Mom just came back from a trip to Anatolia (the historic name for what is now Turkey) with her college class, so we’re particularly focused on the history of the neighborhood these days.
Some stupid movie is on, but no one’s really paying attention.
We talk about what might happen a little bit, and we talk about the Sunni and Shi’a and Kurds, and how strange it is that we’re having a more informed discussion than what our President seems capable of.
(Ottoman Empire is not a piece of period furniture, Mr. President.
I promise it isn’t. Really.)
I know we don’t have enough troops to keep this surge going, and we talk about how long it might take to pull out...what I don’t talk about is my gut feeling that these troops will be there longer than 15 months...or my deep conviction that Mr. Bush will declare that we can never give up, no matter what the cost, because we are finally about to turn the corner and victory is, once again, imminent.
Nor do I choose to expound on my Universal Theory of Soldiering-which says, in a nutshell, that all soldiers, on every side, in every war in history, return home wounded.
Instead I’m trying to soak in as much memory as I can-because I’m deathly afraid the most important thing in the world one day will be to be able to remember him as he was before he left.
By now it’s dark, and fairly late, and his brother has to go, so it’s hugs all around.
We sit and talk for a bit longer, but he’s tired, and eventually falls asleep on the couch.
We still have a three hour drive ahead of us, and so it’s well past time for us to go...so we say goodnight to the remaining awake family. I take one last look at my godson...none of us cry, but I’m crying now.
The next morning, his Mom drove him to the airport, and now he’s gone.
If all goes well, he may be home for next Christmas.
Between now and then, there’s not much to do but hope for the best, make sure that we keep in touch as best we can, and try to stay as upbeat as circumstances allow.
So that’s our story for today: a beautiful summer day, good food, the company of those who matter most...all balanced against the backdrop of an occasion I hope to never repeat again.
All in all, it was a hell of a barbecue, if you ask me.