“I can imagine no more rewarding a career. And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: 'I served in the United States Navy.”
― John F. Kennedy
The night before, I'd stayed up late watching Grandson Graham. We sang at the piano, shot hoops, and ate PB&Js. At about 8:45 PM he announced "time for a nap" and headed for bed. His dad arrived home from the hospital (Special Delivery) after nine and I ran off to bed. The shuttle would arrive at 4:15 AM the next morning for the flight home.
I'd snagged an exit row window seat and unlimbered the tools of my trade - eye mask, noise-cancelling headphones...everything a self-respecting introvert operating on 6 hours of sleep needs. I'd be asleep before we hit ten thousand feet. Then he sat next to me.
The eighteen or ninteen year old wore a dark blue blazer, matching slacks and brightly-shined shoes. A white hat perched on his bulky carry-on. He turned, cheery smile, rosy cheeks and dimples.
"Headed home for Christmas Break?" I asked noncommittally.
"Yes, sir," he replied. "I haven't been home in six months."
He fit uncomfortably into the middle seat, broad shoulders extending well over into my space. At about six three he jackknifed long legs into the thankfully bigger space between him and the seat ahead. In order to accommodate him I offered first to trade seats, and then resigned myself to leaning against the bulkhead for the four hour trip. I'd soon be asleep anyway.
Beside the young man the other passenger said "West Point?"
Seriously?! The anchor insignia on his collar should have been a dead giveaway. This was a Navy uniform, our row mate a midshipman attending the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. He chuckled, gently correcting with a "Naval Academy, sir."
He was a plebe, a first year. Over the next four hours this delightful, impressive soon-to-be officer chatted nearly non-stop about Academy life, the journey that brought him to Annapolis ("My dad is my hero. I'm trying to make him proud") and his hopes for the future. He wants to be a pilot, he said. He reinforced the point by exclaiming "Awesome, I love that part" as we broke above the clouds into bright sunshine. He is a track man, working out three hours a day preparing to compete in decathlon. Me - "When do you sleep?" Him - "On weekends."
I asked if he had been to the recent Army-Navy game, a bucket list item for me. "We're required attend all Navy home games." "In effect you have season tickets?" I suggested.
"I never thought of it that way, but...yeah. That's a nice perk." He giggled. Yes, that's what he did.
Academy life was rough to begin with, but he had settled in. He was supposed to wear his uniform on the plane out of Baltimore, but could change during his Denver layover. "I want to get off at home in uniform, though," he said. "My parents will appreciate it."
"What do you do, if you don't mind my asking?" he asked. When I told him, he said "Thank you for your service." I returned the comment, and he replied "I haven't done anything."
When a young man or woman begins their military career, they swear an oath to support, protect and defend. Everyone knows that, unspoken in that oath, the military member is accepting that he or she may have to give their lives. They step forward anyway. "Pick me, I'll go." That isn't nothing. Having men and women be willing to guard our freedom with their lives - that's everything.
This impressive young man shook my hand as we deplaned and wished me safe travels.
I pray to God he is afforded the same.