Our son, Ethan has been a “future soldier” since he signed his enlistment papers on July 31st. However, the future is now. On Sunday afternoon, we dropped him off at the Ocean Recruiting Office in San Francisco and said our goodbyes to him. He’ll have a day at MEPS, the Military Entrance Processing Station in San Jose and then get on a plane early Tuesday morning to fly to Ft.Jackson in South Carolina to begin basic combat training.
Joining the army is a really big deal because he has chosen to take his life in a completely different direction. As much as he loves movies and had hopes of getting work in something related to his degree in film, he feels now that he is starting on a path that will give his life real purpose. As we talked about his expectations for the army, he said that he thinks that the popular culture that he has immersed himself in up to this point will feel frivolous once he is immersed in army life.
So when I thought about what it would be like to say goodbye to him, I imagined it would have some drama because his departure signifies such a significant milestone in his life.
At the very least, I pictured other young men and women congregating at the recruiting office, pacing nervously while their families had expressions of pride and terror on their faces. An intimidating, stern-faced drill sergeant would bark a few orders at them but save calling them maggots until they were on the bus and out of earshot of their parents.
Or in my most a romanticized version drawn from the movies, Ethan and his fellow soldiers would get on a train and wave to their teary-eyed loved ones out the window as the train pulled out of the station. Of course, this film was in black and white.
In reality, saying goodbye to him when he left for the one night at Angel Island in fourth grader for the Living History Program was more dramatic than this.
For starters, the recruiting office is located on the second floor of a strip mall right above the Jenny Craig storefront and next to a Lucky and Petco so the setting doesn’t exactly lend itself to driving-off-into-the-sunset sort of departures. We had arrived more than an hour early for Ethan’s 2:00 departure time, so we had lunch at a Hawaiian fast-food restaurant, took some photos, and then headed upstairs to see if Ethan could start the check-in process early. He was the only recruit there.
The doors to the recruiting office were still locked but in a few minutes, Ethan saw Sergeant Vernon pull into the parking lot. Instead of a Louis Gossett, Jr. type of drill sergeant in like in an “Officer and a Gentleman,” Sergeant Vernon was a 5’5” Asian man wearing a Red Sox shirt and jeans…but probably as tough as they get. His bio on the recruiting office wall said he had done two tours inIraqand had numerous awards in marksmanship among many other commendations. It’s just that he didn’t fit the movie that was playing in my head.
The recruiting office was basically a big room with six desks placed around the perimeter and three big banners with the words “Are You Army Strong?” decorating the walls. Sergeant Vernon plugged in his laptop, entered some information, printed out Ethan’s “Ship Packet,” handed it to him and told him not to lose track of it. Ethan answered with “Yes, Sergeant” and stood at parade rest while he waited for the papers to print. I know he’ll do fine; he’s so eager to please. Then we all headed back out to the parking lot.
There we each hugged Ethan once more, he unceremoniously threw his duffle into the trunk and he and Sergeant Vernon drove off.
Given the importance of this day in his life, it was all somewhat anti-climactic. But that’s okay. I can do without a dramatic send-off, what’s really important is the dramatic change that I expect will happen in him over the next 10 weeks.