As I boarded the plane going home to Chicago, I reflected over the last four months of my life. I had graduated Basic Training, Combat Medic School and was about to head to Europe for a two year tour. On the inside, I didn’t feel any different than the day I had started. My reflection in the bathroom mirror at the airport, however, showed a physically different person whom I didn’t recognize. My hair was “high and tight”, the hairstyle worn by military men. I was deeply bronzed from the summer sun of Oklahoma and Texas. My entire body was tightened and chiseled from the rigorous routine of soldiering. My face had mostly healed superficially, however, my nose seemed tilted slightly to the left: A parting gift from Sullivan and avenged by The Apple. I had learned a skill taught to me by the oldest branch of the United States military. I seemed to carry myself different. My droopy shoulders and outward pointing toes when I stood had been mostly fixed. My hands were permanently fitted into loose, professional fists that swung purposefully to offset my stride. I looked like a soldier.
The Army had issued me a duffle bag. In it were the two sets of B.D.U.’s (Battle Dress Uniforms), combat boots, Class A. uniform and accessories that the were also issued to me. I decided to wear my “civilian clothes” home, the same clothes I reported to Basic Training in: denim jeans, running shoes and a white t-shirt with a tie dyed peace symbol on it. I wanted to go home as a civilian, see my friends and drink a beer with my father. I didn’t want any attention drawn to me by wearing any uniform on the plane or in the airports that I would walk through. We were told by our C.O. that proud soldiers wear their uniforms home on leave. We would be expected to adhere to the Army standards of wearing uniforms, even on leave, or we could be disciplined at our new units once we got there. I didn’t want to think about Army standards or any such nonsense while on leave. I wanted a vacation.
My father met me at the airport and shuck my hand firmly. He greeted me with a “welcome home”, a hug and informed me that my mom had to work late and would meet us at home. I asked him if we could stop in the airport lounge and get a beer. He stopped me mid sentence of explaining why with a disgusted, “God damn it! Your mom wants us to go straight home. Don’t start with your shit already you just got off the plane. Come on lets go!”
I knew, right then, my decision to not volunteer for Airborne School was a mistake. We drove home silent and my insides began to hurt. I hadn’t felt these feelings in over four months, however when they returned I knew them immediately. I was so familiar with these feelings, it was as if they never left. The fear comes first. I would have to identify these fears in therapy, one day, however on this day, to me, they were just feelings. When the feelings get strong enough my brain begins to race with irrational thoughts to make the fear go away. The thoughts never extinguish the feelings. I knew, for a brief moment, that this man would never be able to live up to the expectation I had for him. As the peace of knowing that settled over my body like water in a warm bathtub, he spoke again. He spoke of baseball. It was his only way to communicate to me. The Chicago White Sox. So I listened. His long wordy stories become too boring to listen to and I loose interest. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t listen to him complain about the White Sox attentively over long periods of time. Sometimes he had morals to the story. Most times he just verbally abused the team management. If I had come home in autumn his conversation would be about the Chicago Bears. Different sport, different management yet the same conversation. Every week, while I was gone, I called home. I spoke to my little sister, my mom and then dad. Dad’s phone time was always about the White Sox.
The rest of my leave was catching up with my friends, eating moms cooking, catching up on sleep and wishing my leave was over. Along my travels being home I looked and asked for Elle. Finally, Jim told me she was going to community college locally and was still with the guy she left me to be with. I felt peace just knowing she was ok. I felt peace knowing they were all ok. Everyone was safe, moving forward and living their lives. I was ready to go to Europe and start living mine.
The car ride to the airport from my father was eerily silent. We just listened to his country music station on the car radio.
I wouldn’t come home again for over two years…