Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Catching Up With a Longstanding Friend

This week my wife and I went to Beaufort, SC to attend a friend's retirement ceremony, which capped a 30-year career in the United States Marine Corps.  I met Keith at MCAS Tustin in 1997, when I was a Private First Class and he was a Corporal.  At first he was a mentor.  He took me under his wing and taught me practical application of Avionics.  As time went by, we became close friends, spending a lot of time at the local dive bar drinking beer and playing pool.  Towards the end of my enlistment, we both got married and lived one building away from each other in base housing.  The Marine Corps by nature fosters close friendships, and ours was tight even by those standards.

After six years, I left the Marine Corps to pursue other endeavors, but Keith stayed in.  He became a drill instructor around the time I returned to Iowa.  We lost touch for about two decades, but he was never far from my mind.  Finally, I found his wife on Facebook a couple of years ago.  Late last summer, it hit me that I hadn't actually seen them for 20+ years, and mentioned that we should plan to get together.  His wife said that he was retiring in February and that I should come out.  A little bit of planning culminated with my wife and I driving to Beaufort for the ceremony and a long-overdue visit.

After a 16-hour drive, which included several hours of driving through the type of light snow that can induce highway hypnosis, and an awesomely fun drive through the winding roads of I-40 in western North Carolina, my wife and I arrived in Beaufort.  I was greeted with a broad smile and a back-slapping man-hug that told me he had missed me as much as I had missed him.  We got signed on base and checked into the base hotel, then it was off to his house to see his wife and start catching up.

At the house, I was greeted with an equally warm welcome by Keith's wife, and I was reintroduced to their son, met their daughter, and introduced everyone to my wife (who, for those of you not familiar with me, is a different wife than the spouse I lived with in base housing).  I also met Mike, a Marine Corps Captain who has been friends with Keith for just shy of 20 years.  I spent the rest of the night listening to Keith and Mike tell sea stories, asking them questions about today's Marine Corps, and reliving some Keith and Dave stories from the old days.  Keith's wife, Mike's wife and my wife were in the next room, getting to know each other and probably telling "my-husband-is-such-a-dumbass" stories.  Over the course of the evening, I decided that Mike was definitely a cool guy, and completely understood why Keith and he became such good friends.  Keith and Mike had a golf date for the next day, and they invited me to come along.  I had never golfed in my life, and I told them this.  They explained that golf is a game to them, and I agreed to give it a try.  Shortly after that, Keith's brother-in-law arrived. He's an avid golfer who can't play right now because of recent surgery.  He offered to drive the cart and give me pointers so that I didn't embarrass myself too badly.

We spent the entire morning on the golf course, where I cracked my first beer before the mist had lifted from the green.  (But then again, those of you who know me realize that I always start drinking early when I'm on vacation.  Hey, you can take the Marine out of the Corps, but you can't take the Corps out of the Marine.)  The four of us had a LOT of fun.  I had a couple of awesome shots... a few whiffs... a couple of balls ended up in the drink... I became a master at getting out of the sand bunkers... we all talked smack about each others' games.  I don't really know what to say beyond this, except that I'm chuckling out loud as I write this part of the story.

After finishing our round of golf, I took my wife to Parris Island boot camp, partially to rekindle some distant memories of my own boot camp, partially to give her a glimpse of a process that helped mold me into the man I am today.  We visited the Parris Island Marine Corps museum, which far exceeded my expectations.  From Parris Island, we returned to Keith and Toni's place for dinner, where Mike and his clan joined us.  After dinner we played Cranium... boys against the girls.  The girls started out kicking the boys' asses, but we rallied for a comeback.  We started a second game, but didn't finish.  The women were ahead, so we all agreed that the entire evening was a draw.  Regardless of the outcome, it was an absolute blast.  We all got to know each other better over several drinks and laughed mercilessly at one another's lame attempts to hum songs, impersonate famous people, draw, mold sculptures out of clay, and pretend to be a clam and drive low-riders.  Sorry... inside joke from the game, but I know that everyone who was there that night just laughed out loud.

Next day was Keith's retirement ceremony.  The Parris Island Marine Band played.  The squadron did a pass in review.  Keith got letters from the Commandant, the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, and President Obama.  Mike spoke about their friendship and what Keith had taught him as a Marine and as a man.  Keith spoke about what the Corps had given him.  Toni was given flowers.  I briefly questioned the wisdom of leaving the Marine Corps 21 years ago.  There were a lot of misty eyes.  And I'm sure a lot of the Marines in the formation were wishing they could go home.  But that's just part of participating in a ceremony.  For what it's worth, if you were one of the Marines who participated in Keith's retirement ceremony, I know that he appreciated it, and so did I.  You may not have volunteered for the detail, but your presence was noticed and valued.  Thank you for being there, and thank you for your service in general.

The retirement ceremony was over pretty quickly, and we moved to the Staff NCO club for the retirement party.  There were many Staff NCOs, a few warrant officers, and a few field grade officers.  I had the privilege of talking in depth with a Gunnery Sergeant (Mark) and a Master Sergeant (Mike) about today's Marine Corps, covering topics such as today's young Marines, our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, the future of the Corps and a plethora of other topics that kept us all engaged for about an hour.  I also spoke briefly with a Staff Sergeant who was an immigrant from Communist Poland.  Keith came in during this conversation, and told the Staff Sergeant that he needed to tell his story to any Marine who would listen, because he was the embodiment of what makes America great.

Shortly after that, we moved back to Keith's house for the after party, which, oddly enough, included the exact same people who had been around for the last two days.  We ate, drank and felt merry until late in the evening.  There was a lot of smack talk and a ton of laughter.  But it was time to go home because my wife and I needed to leave early the next morning.  So we threw around the hugs, the handshakes and the Marine tongue-in-cheek insults.  As my wife and I left the next day, I kept thinking that it was perfect.  I wanted to stay an extra couple of days.  It felt that I'd been away from Keith and Toni for 20 minutes, not 20 years.  I loved getting to know Mike and his wife Amy.  I greatly enjoyed Joe's company (even though he is a retired squid).  They've all got great kids.  Everyone made my wife feel welcome.  This week forged a memory that will endure as long, and be remembered as fondly, as the the events that transpired when we were young Marines in the late 80's and early 90's.

Keith and Toni:  It was incredible beyond words to see you all again.  It's been two decades, but it seemed like 20 minutes.  In my opinion, the ability to seamlessly pick up where you left off is the litmus test of friendship.  Mike and Amy: I had a wonderful time meeting you.  I wish that I could have spent more time getting to know you, and pray that our paths may cross again.  Joe:  It was great to meet you as well (even though you are a squid).  Thank you for the golf lessons; it was a lot of fun hearing stories about Keith and Toni from your perspective.  If you're ever in Iowa, look me up.  To all of you.  Thank you for making my wife feel welcome.  I believe she enjoyed the visit almost as much as I did.  She spoke very highly of you all.