The American military has a way of describing nearly everything with its own unique, arcane language. Gossip, for example, is scuttlebutt. A collection of brightly-colored ribbons on a dress uniform is fruit-salad. A situation that is irreparably chaotic, hopelessly marred by poor communication, or just a big mess is a . . . wait a minute. This is a civilized blog. We will refer to the big mess as charlie foxtrot, and I beg you to excuse my language, but I found myself dancing in a foxtrot I never wished for. Some one should have cut in.
April 11 was a milestone day for my son, a Sailor. It was not only his three-year service anniversary; it was the start of what might have been his longest and final deployment. In addition, my Sailor was to receive his Good Conduct Medal for three years' service without any disciplinary action. Mr. Powers and I have never missed an opportunity to see his ship leave or return, and this day was to be no different. Last minute schedule- shifting had been necessary, but we had arrived in Jonathan's base city late on the night of the 10th. That was a spur-of-the-moment arrival, to be sure, but we had a late supper with our son and made plans to arrive at the base by 0830 the following morning. That would give us ample time to clear any security details and proceed to the pier before the Sailors began to man the rails. There would be sad smiles, hugs, and congratulations all around. There would be pictures!
We were in line at the main gate in plenty of time, drivers' licenses, registration, and proof of insurance in hand. (Hey, this ain't our first rodeo!) We presented an MP with our paperwork with the expectation that he would direct us to a checkpoint ahead where we would be identified as members of a deploying Sailor's family. Instead, the busy MP informed us that we could not "just drive onto the base," as if we didn't know. He stopped the traffic in the outbound lane so that we could U-turn around the gatehouse and pull into the parking lot of the Base Pass Office.
Every base has one of these cinder-block, square buildings with a giant label by the door that says BASE PASS OFFICE. A visitor parks his car, goes inside, presents his credentials, and gets a placard to go on his dash. We parked and entered the building. There was one other customer there, a Sailor registering his motorcycle. No one else was waiting. It was here, at 0827 on a Friday morning, that we had the misfortune of meeting Mr. B. I will give no information here as to Mr. B's racial/ ethnic group, religious affiliation or ELL status. I want there to be no unfair generalizing. What I will state is that Mr. B., a civilian contractee with little to do, was the most indolent, apathetic creature I have ever been cursed to encounter.
"Help you please?" he asked. (Translation: Do I have to deal with you? OK, let's get it over with.)
Mr. Powers and I proceeded to the window with all our credentials in hand. (I should note that the MP had already run a check on both drivers' licenses and our car tag. What a relief! We are not suspected of being terrorists.) We put the paperwork on the windowsill, explaining that our son was aboard a deploying ship, and that we were there to see the departure.
"I don't see a special event on the calendar for (Ship Name). Is it a departure or an arrival?" (Translation: I am not listening whatsoever.)
"It's the (Ship Name). They pull out at 10:00."
"Is there a list? Who's your sponsor?" (Translation: I don't know what to do.)
Was this a trick question? How would we know if there were a list? There always has been, and we've always been on it. We told him our son's name for the second time. Mr. B. heaved himself out of his chair and went into another room. He came back in 10 seconds.
"You can't go on base without a sponsor. Your sponsor will have to come to the gate and escort you while you're on base. You can sit over there and wait for your sponsor." (Translation: I'm done. This is your problem. Get out of my window.)
I got on my cell phone, thinking that Jonathan would still have time to leave the pier area and drive to the gate to act as our escort. Jonathan, however, was aboard ship. probably changing into his dress whites in preparation for manning the rails, and was unable to receive wireless signals. I tried calling, texting, emailing, and Facebook messaging, all to no avail. I was finally able to get ahold of another Navy mom who was already on the pier, having stayed overnight with her son and his family. I explained our dilemma to her, she passed the word (scuttlebutt!) to another Sailor, and he went aboard to tell Jonathan about the charlie foxtrot we had encountered. But by that time, no Sailor could leave the area, so our chance of getting any escort was just about zero. It occurred to me to call the ship's family liaison, but the cell number I had wasn't connecting for some reason. Thinking I had the wrong number, I ventured back to the window and asked Mr. B if he had a number for that individual.
"I can give you the number ma'am," he intoned. (Translation: Oh my God, lady, can't you see I'm trying to set up a dental appointment here? Hold on a minute.)
He did give me a number. It was a landline, and it rang to infinity. I hung up in despair.
Lest you decide to stop reading here, concluding that this is just a sentimental mom's lament that she didn't get to say Fair winds and following seas to her kid, I should tell you that there was also a practical matter that needed our attention on the base. Jonathan doesn't store his truck on base; we bring it home during deployment. He likes it to be driven; we like the convenience of having a nice pick-up truck to use. He had brought the key along with him to give to us before he had to go aboard. His friend got to him with the charlie foxtrot message just in time for Jonathan to pass the key along to a Navy wife. She was able to bring us the truck key, but she only showed up at the Base Pass Office after the ship had pulled out and was out of sight. Can you blame her? Her husband was aboard that ship. She gave me a ride down to the parking lot where Jonathan had left the truck. Mr. Powers waited at the gate with our car. By that time, we were fearful they'd tow it away if it were unattended.
Jonathan's white Dodge was where he said it would be. I thanked the young lady for the lift, unlocked the door, silenced the alarm, and turned the ignition. The truck idled smoothly. It hadn't even gotten hot inside the cab yet. I rolled the window down and pulled the seat forward. Jonathan is so much taller than I am. There was an Episcopal service order on the floor from the previous Sunday, a black sock without a mate on the seat, a coffee mug from the NEX in the cup holder--just the everyday trappings of a Sailor on the job. I pulled out of the lot and headed back the way I had come in. As I passed the deserted pier, I glanced out the left-hand window at blue-gray water lapping against the concrete and stretching to the empty horizon. I was careful to fasten my seatbelt and stay below the speed limit.
An hour later, Mr. Powers and I were a motorcade of two headed west. He drove the truck; I was back in my car. We stopped for lunch, asking each other the same questions we had been asking all morning: Why didn't Mr. B just call the ship and verify the deployment? Why didn't he simply ask a Sailor to escort us the half- mile we would need to travel down to the pier? What was the point of holding us at the gate once they had verified who we were and why we were there? There was no unusual security on base that day. What would prevent a couple of aging baby-boomers in a Chrysler from proceeding to a pier where their bona-fide, natural-born son is waiting to pull out? We couldn't come up with any answers. We knew only two things for certain: We were sadly disappointed, and our Sailor was mad.
I mentioned earlier that it was a milestone day for Jonathan. Check the date. I wrote this on April 13. On April 14, 200 miles north of Bermuda, the USS Hue City caught fire. My Sailor and the rest of the crew fought major flames for nearly two hours, and miraculously, no one was killed or injured. The deployment ended that day, and the ship began her return home. On April 17, Jonathan received the official word: He's the Sailor of the Quarter. On April 18, I got the call that let me know my son was safe in port. I guess even good Sailors get the charlie foxtrot treatment once in awhile. But having just celebrated Easter in a way I never expected--in the happy company of my whole family--I also guess that charlie foxtrot is a relative term.