The Journey to the East
(borrowed from a lesser-known work by Hermann Hesse)
The Summer Solstice is only days away. Afternoons have grown long, and they languish for hours, especially as we move into the Eastern time zone. My companion on the trip is my husband, who prefers to drive. I am the navigator. So we pull onto Interstate 10, heading toward the Atlantic Ocean. This trip is a labor of love, for our #1 son, a 23-year-old, will head even further East soon. He is in the Navy; it's his first deployment. We intend to see that ship leave its home, Mayport, FL. But first, we are going to spend some quality time with him and let him know, once more, that we are brimming with pride.
As we get closer and closer to Jacksonville, the text messages fly. He wants to know where we are, how many miles out of Tallahassee, when we will make the next pit stop. Then he is texting directions: follow the Jax Beaches signs, exit onto Atlantic Blvd., stay straight, keep right, you're almost here. There is still plenty of daylight when both our vehicles pull into the motel parking lot. Mr. Powers and I are a little bedraggled from the long, boring road trip; Jonathan is refreshed and smiling, winding up a much-deserved day off-duty.
Hugs are exchanged, news from all corners shared, supper plans made. We eat together on the patio of a local restaurant, and by the time the last daylight fades, it is after 9:00 p.m. We cannot believe how late it already is, and suddenly everyone is exhausted.
Sunday morning finds the three of us in church together. It is Fathers' Day, and at this particular church, it is the day of the Bishop's visit. There are many young adults being confirmed here, a very good sign for a parish in the city. Jonathan shows me the bulletin, and points to his name. He is on their prayer list. During the Peace, parishioners greet him happily, but they hug him when he says he is about to be deployed. The Priest-in-Charge, Teresa, beams at him as he shakes her hand at the end of the service but looks distressed when he shares the news of his departure. "You'll be prayed for extra hard by name, every day," she promises. She turns to me and says, "We absolutely love your son. He is an awesome young man! But you knew that." Yes, I guess I did. How strange and wonderful to discover that others seem to know it, too.
"How I Spent My Summer Vacation"
(borrowed from Ernie Souchak, a fictitious character played by John Belushi)
The wind blows constantly off of the gray-green Atlantic. I sit beside the pool at our hotel reading a book. Later on, Mr. Powers and I decide to be touristy--we crank the Chevrolet and head toward the public beaches. We are used to the Gulf of Mexico, like most Alabamians. We cannot help making comparisons--the sand here is gray and coarse with many, many shells and pieces of shells. The surf is active, roaring; only a few people swim. Many walk their dogs. A man sleeps, fully clothed, with newspaper for a pillow. The strand is firm beneath our feet. We remember that Jonathan says he runs 2 miles on the beach right outside base housing. We see how that might be possible, but he insists he'd rather run in the loose, sugary sands of the Gulf coast. He says it's harder running and therefore, better exercise.
Then it's back into the car and on to do some shopping. We find a bookstore, buy what's on sale, and get iced coffee. We are vacationers, and we pay no mind to the clock. But the sunlight is fading, and we remember that it is probably supper time. A beachy-looking restaurant beckons as we drive up A1A. We eat steamed shrimp until well after dark in a screened-in, second floor dining room with newspaper spread on the tables. The wind rustles through the palmettos, and we can see the steely expanse of the Atlantic from where we are sitting. It's not crowded, and only the two of us occupy this corner of the room. I wonder if Jonathan, who is on duty his last night stateside, has ever been here before? Not likely, we decide. He is allergic to shellfish.
A Comedy of Errors
(borrowed from that English playwright)
With our son facing a nine-month deployment, we must bring his pick-up truck home with us. Two vehicles will return to Alabama where there was only one. I will of course drive home in the Chevrolet; I am used to it; it is reliable. Still, I am not looking forward to getting out of the congestion of downtown Jacksonville, nor do I relish the thought of the long stretch of highway that is I10 West. I know my way home, but I get drowsy sometimes, and what if . . . ?
I strongly recommend to Mr. Powers that he get a cell phone; just a cheap pre-paid one would be fine, but something, anything, just in case . . .
Mr. Powers says NOPE. "We're going to stay together," he tells me.
And for the most part, we do. Mr. Powers has the truck and therefore GPS, but he wants to follow me out of Jacksonville. I am OK with that as I do know my way out, but I am not always sure how many lanes of traffic I have to cut to get to my exit or how long I have to get over. That makes me not the best person to follow if you are not sure where you're going. When we make a pit stop, Mr. Powers tells me there are certain rules of etiquette I must follow if I am going to be the lead auto. I am not in a very good mood, and I really don't listen to his complaints. I thought I was doing great.
At any rate, it is only an hour or two later that I signal for another stop. I have plenty of gas, but the car feels shaky and hard to handle when braking. We look at the left front tire, which had been suspiciously low the day before, but all appears well. Mr. Powers is no longer annoyed, since driving on the straightaway of the interstate has apparently improved my ability to lead considerably. When we get back on the highway, I let him pass me, since he is hungry and will decide where we'll stop.
We pass Lake City. Tallahassee. I am enjoying the symphony on Florida State University Public Radio when noise from the back right side of the Chevrolet intrudes. This is not a "What was that sound?" kind of noise. This is "Get off the road RIGHT NOW" noise. So I put on my blinker and roll onto the shoulder. The white pick up in front of me never sees a thing.
I do have a cell phone. It does many things, and on that particular morning, it had been a workhorse of a camera. What I do not have for this trip is a car charger. I have enough battery left to text my neighbor, who is caring for our dogs. I tell her I have car trouble and may be delayed. I call 911. I wait. A State Trooper comes. He ascertains my tire size, because the back right tire has peeled its top layer like a cheap re-cap, exposing a now-useless steel belt. A service truck arrives with the appropriate new tire, replaces the useless one, and charges me $100. I stand in tall roadside grass under a mean Florida sun and try to fend off fire ants. The fire ants win. After two hours I am back on the road. Sweat is rolling down my cheeks. My child is deployed. I don't know where my husband is.
If I weren't in such a hurry to get home, I would kiss the pavement on 231N.
War and Peace
(borrowed from a Russian who knew a whole lot about both)
Jonathan arrives at our hotel room shortly after 0700 on 20 June 2012. He collapses onto one of the beds. He has been off duty for half an hour, since he had to stand watch while on duty overnight. He says he'd like us to get him up in two hours, because he has to be at the ship by 1000.
We get coffee and newspapers in the lobby. I have already done Jonathan's laundry, and he will pack some of it into his seabag when he wakes up. The rest will go home with us. True to his plan, he is awake again around 0900. He is wearing civvies--he says he won't man the rails, because he has to put on his coverall and get to work. He is a DC--a damage controlman--and he works below decks. He is tense and impatient on the ride to the base. We are all three in the truck, in which Mr. Powers and I will leave the base later on.
There are so many people on the dock. Sailors in dress whites are walking up and down the ramp where there is a banner: USS Hue City. There are strollers with little kids, babies in their parents'arms, groups of three and four posing for pictures. The wind is brisk and constant; the engines rumble. It is hard to converse.
Jonathan reminds us that he will not be in whites. He boards the ship after "one more hug" and tells us we can go on if we want; he has to get to work. He does not know exactly how he'll stay in touch. He loves us. He goes aboard.
We are not leaving until the Hue City leaves. Sorry, Jonathan. You'll understand when you're a parent. Right now we will sit here and talk to --who is this?--a nice set of Kansas parents whose son, Sean, just made E-4. Congratulations! Nice to meet you, Sean. How long did your trip take? Our son is still E-3, looking for a promotion during this deployment, hopefully.
Then he is walking toward us, looking a bit sheepish, but looking handsome all the same in his dress whites. Yes, he is going to man the rails! Photo ops begin in earnest now. We take one of just him, one with Sean, one with his dad, and the lady from Kansas volunteers to take one of all three of us. Then it's 1130, and everyone in uniform needs to be aboard. The giant crane removes the walkway. Sailors take their places on all three decks. They all look the same in dress whites, of course, especially from this distance, but I can see Jonathan next to a ladder. I know he sees me, too, because he stands still while I take another picture. The Hue City bellows a good-bye into the cloudy sky.
Then she is free and drifting away. The Sailors stand fast, not waving, gazing at their children, wives, husbands, and parents, who are waving good-bye or holding American flags. Tugboats bring her slowly around, and she is headed out to sea. A little one wails that she wants her daddy. In another group, a young woman says to her mother-in-law: "You OK mama?" The older woman nods slightly, solemnly. I do not think it is her first deployment. Mr. Powers and I walk back to the truck. I will not cry.
The USS Hue City is a guided missile cruiser assigned to the USS Eisenhower battle group. They are headed for the Mediterranean and then the Gulf. She is carrying more than enough to defend with if anyone should be so foolish as to meddle with the carrier. This, say Navy spokesmen, is a longer-than-usual deployment. Nine months. They go in peace. May they not encounter war. Godspeed.