Rory is home. He went, he served his country and now he's back home. And all he wanted when he joined the 109th Bravo Company was some extra money for college. Needless to say, he got much, much more than he ever bargained for. And he made it back.
As I stood there waiting amongst the thousands of patient and jubilant people lining nearly every single inch of Nanticoke, my mind wandered back to the Veterans Day parade of 2001 when the war drums were beating louder and louder in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. I remember the contingent of 109th soldiers marching on by with their weapons in tow and wondering to myself about how many of them might ship off to a faraway land someday and never make it back home. It was one of those extremely rare moments when I might have shed a tear if it was at all possible for me to do so. And here we are all these trying months later and we're celebrating their return.
And I couldn't be happier today. I'm happy not only for all of those folks who were gathered to celebrate their loved ones return, I'm happy for Rory and his wife. And most of all, I'm happy for my Uncle John who was well beyond upset when he learned that his son had up and joined the military.
My son accompanied me to Nanticoke today to see his cousin's return, and while we waited for those overdue busses, I couldn't help to think about his intentions to join the Marines after he made his escape from Coughlin in June 2001. I was all for it. I thought it was a great idea. True to chickie form, wifey was dead set against it. She was worried about him being killed or something close to that. I assured her that while there are no guarantees of safety for folks joining the military, the likelihood of him turning up KIA on us was very, very remote. After all, there weren't any serious conflicts looming on the horizon in June 2001. But we all know what happened just a few weeks later.
He never did join the Marines. And after those twin towers dropped like a couple of weighty stones, I was pleased that he didn't. While watching these guys pile off of the busses today, I wondered "What if?" What if he had joined, did his tour and came marching home to us? Would we be as proud of him as these folks seemed to be of their returning loved ones? I'm sure we would have. But the "What if?" question cuts both ways. And in retrospect, when I consider the other possible side of the equation, I'm still content with his eventual decision to not join the "Always Faithful" brotherhood. I'm not suggesting that it's a good thing that someone else's kids marched off to war. It's not. It's really sad that any family's kid has to do such a thing. But with the state of the world being what it is, we might have to get used to it for the foreseeable future. And for a fleeting moment this afternoon, I suddenly felt somewhat selfish. The "What if?" thing can do that to you.
Maybe I just think too much.
I expected quite the crowd for this homecoming event, but not what I actually encountered. Simply put, there was a friggin' helluva lot of flag-waving people camped out in Nanticoke today. I haven't seen this much red, white and blue since the clever merchandisers were peddling everything from red, white and blue sex toys to red, white and blue shoe horns during the 1976 Bicentennial. There were helium balloons everywhere and enough variations on your basic American flag to make those merchandisers from '76 lore wish that they'd thought of half of these patriotic do-dads way back when. American flag hats. Flag shirts. Flag jackets. Homemade flag posters. And faces painted like our flag. There were decorated porches. Decorated cars. Decorated walls. Decorated entrances. Decorated poles. Decorated fire trucks. Even a decorated front-end loader.
The boy and I arrived on the scene around 11:30 and we had to park far enough away to make us consider abandoning the Ranger forever and hitchhiking home. After we humped it to Kozimuckamucko Street, we set out looking for my Uncle John. He, of course, was nowhere to be found. And after a lengthy, but unproductive walkabout, we headed around the back side of the school to wait for the bus' arrival. There was a happy mob waiting back there, but still no Uncle John. So, we camped out for quite a while and started asking others if they knew what the program was. And when I learned that some V.I.P. types needed tickets for one side of the gymnasium, I figured that both Uncle John and Rory's wife were probably waiting in there. Into the gym we wandered.
As soon as I stepped into the gym, I encountered a couple of Supreme Commanders from the Wilkes-Barre Fire Department. So I inquired as to why they were there only to learn that one of our hose dudes was also returning from Iraq. Oops. I forgot about that. And I ran into some old friends and swapped some niceties. Still no Uncle John. Finally, the boy tapped me on the shoulder and said, "There he is." So we traipsed on up to the top of the bleachers and settled in next to him. There I got to meet Rory's wife for the very first time and Uncle John said that someone told him that our returning troops were still in the Allentown area.
What? Say again? An hour and a half away? Can't be after telling us they'd be here at noon for well over a week now. I wasn't buying into that bogus bit of intel, so I wandered back outside for a smoke. Once outside, I discovered that I had missed a cell phone call from my daughter in Pottsville. I was totally perplexed as to what she might need on a Tuesday just after noon. So I returned her call. "Dad! Dad! We just saw you on Channel 16," she went on to say. Me? On Newswatch 16? "Yeah. The guy was talking and you were standing right behind him. You were on for a long time." Me? How the hell did they manage that? There was something on the order of 4 billion people mulling around this high school. How the hell did they manage to use me as a backdrop? Sure as hell, when I got home, I went to the WNEP web site and watched the archived video from the noon neswcast. And there I was. Yours truly. The internet dorkwad. Go frickin' figure. Why do they do that sort of thing to their devoted viewers?
I just happened to spot General J.J. Murphy (MacArthur Jr.) and Mayor Tom Leighton so I headed on over to bug them for a spell. We yapped at length about the state of Wilkes-Barre for a time before Uncle Paul Kanjorski and his entourage arrived and quickly filled both of their ears. Something about the feds scaling back yet another revenue stream meant to help cities and such. Great! Wonderful! Just what we wanted to hear.
So here I was standing practically face-to-face with Uncle "Porky" Paul, and I suddenly got to hoping that he had never heard of me, or this stupid web locale for that matter. I really didn't want to get into another one of those "So...you're that f**kin' internet f**ker!" moments at such a joyous occasion. For a peon such as myself, such an encounter would be a lose/lose situation. What would you say to a United States Congressman that got right in your ugly face because he didn't appreciate your constant sniping? "Farg you, you old Grinch-face?" "Back off D.C. mofo?" "I'm so sorry, I'll never question your undying loyalty to President Blowjob again?" "Oh, yeah! How's that bogus water-jet thing coming? Did your entire family retire yet?" Nah. Very, very counterproductive. It's just as well that he probably glanced at my ugly mug and saw nothing more than some dumb coal cracker's offspring who votes democratic every time out no matter what.
Although, the guy did take time out of his busy schedule to come on home from Washington D.C. and greet our returning heroes. Maybe today wasn't the right time to go on hacking on his nuts.
So we waited, we waited and we waited some more. Balloons kept on with their daring escapes into our ozone-less skies. The boy's toes started freezing up on him. And I immediately mocked him after hearing that tidbit. Wuss! We waited some more. And before very long, my toes starting copping an attitude on me. And we waited some more. And even more balloons went ballistic on us. I started looking around at all of the women who were so obviously excited, plenty of them were just about dancing in place without even realizing it. And soon afterwards, we heard the sirens emanating from the fire trucks escorting the 109th boys into town. I scanned around at those chicks again and wondered about how many of them would be bursting into tears soon enough. Not that I'd freakin' blame them in the least. Finally! This event was drawing to a happy conclusion. This was neat. This was witnessing history. I was glad that I made the short trip to Nanticoke.
And after a quick spin through Nanticoke, the busses finally rolled up the backside of the high school and the excitement took on an even greater fever pitch. The crowd swelled towards the busses. People held their homemade signs aloft for the guys in the coaches to see. The crowd also swelled towards where I was standing. Right where the 109th guys would march into the gym filled to capacity with family, friends, politicos and your basic wellwishers. I saw the first of the chickies start balling. And after a few minutes, Bravo Company filed off of the busses and marched through the dozens of flags lining both sides of the sidewalk leading into the gym. And with that much anticipated development, what seemed like a thousand red, white and blue helium balloons suddenly filled the sky.
This was it. Except for a very brief ceremony in the gym and the long-awaited dismissal from one of the 109th commander types; this was it. The long and dangerous road that led these guys all the way to Iraq had finally led them home again. This was neat. And I don't think it was quite cold enough to deliver to me the goosebumps that jumped up and grabbed me. And after what seemed like a hundred guys in desert camos trotted on by, we finally caught a glimpse of Rory. There he was. And he never looked so good to me before.
After he headed indoors, we tried doing the same thing at the other end of the gym, but that place was filled to capacity and then some. I think a few fire codes were ignored for this homecoming event. I think. Don't hold me to that.
There was no frickin' way we were going to penetrate very far into that crowded gym, so we watched the final proceedings from one of the jammed doorways. And after a bit of verbal give-and-take that we could not hear over the buzz from the crowd, Bravo Company was dismissed and the resulting roar from everyone in attendance proved that this here high school was indeed structurally sound. And those goosebump goblins went and bit me all over again. Did I say this was neat?
With our toes no longer thinking about frostbite, we wandered right back outside to wait for Rory and his repatriated entourage. And before very long, there he was. Close enough to hug. He, his wife and his dad were headed off to Lone Star for some eats and I decided that they didn't need me and the boy tagging along on this very special day. Rory promised to drop by the adobe real soon and I look forward to that day. I really didn't need to hit the salad bar with him today, although, I would have liked to.
It's funny, wifey asked me what to expect from him after more than a year spent in a desert combat zone. I told her he'd probably want some real food, a real shower and a bit of trying to make a real baby for a week or so. The last I knew as we headed back to our wheels was that the real food thing was covered. And I imagine the other real stuff is well underway. Good for them. Good for Rory. He more than earned whatever good stuff comes his way.
These 109th boys served their country well and they sacrificed so that we could continue to enjoy what we've all grown accustomed to. And today we tried to pay them a fitting tribute. It's the least we could do.
And the next time you pass someone wearing a uniform issued by our armed services, take the time to acknowledge their committment to this country. You never know where they might be shipping off to.
Today was neat.