Family History: Waking the Warrior
Family history just isn’t complete without describing meaningful occasions. Most of us use photo albums, but a memoir of the event preserves a highly personal description capturing elements that perhaps won’t be remembered by those thumbing through albums in future years. Despite “gratitude” expressed at every departure and arrival these days, not so many U.S. families service careers. We celebrated a young man beginning military service recently and this memoir is my attempt to capture the experience.
My nephew, “cool guy” Mitchell, awakened a warrior on June 12, 2016. Likely, he doesn’t yet know it. But, that’s his story, not mine. Mine begins a year earlier. I had seen Mitchell at the annual family Fourth of July picnic turned wake, and he asked, innocently enough, if I would commission him into the Air Force upon graduation. I was flattered, pleased and honored all at the same time although these were only shards of daylight at the time. He said that I was the only military officer in his family and all of the cadets were having a relative or special friend. If they had none, they would have to suffer their senior officer to perform the ceremony and, of him, most had quite enough already. So, on that promise, I made my first commitment to hold on for the unforeseeable future.
Roll Ahead One Year
Roll the year forward nearly done. Friday afternoons are not the slot of choice for seasoned travelers. But, I chose economy over comfort this trip and thus happened to be flying South West. Why
Southwest executives feel the need to amuse passengers, I do not know. I was to meet my daughter in the Los Angeles airport upon arrival and had become anxious to have her waiting. She was only travelling from Phoenix, but it didn’t matter in the end as her flight was delayed for several hours as well. Not an auspicious beginning but one must be patient if one chooses to fly on Friday afternoon.
Los Angeles, indeed coastal California, can come as a great shock to folks from the South. A relatively enormous expense raises no native eyebrow. But, that’s not the only shock. Both of us had left very warm, although different, environments as after all, summer was about to begin. We stepped from the airport zone into the cool grey of Pacific coast fog. Or, maybe it was drizzle, hard to tell even though I used to be a native and should have remembered “June gloom. “
Saturday, we made our way to the UCLA campus where Mitchell was to graduate from the School of Engineering. He’s a computer engineer now meaning he can officially discard the descriptive “geek”. His specialty in cybercrime also means he is in high demand as a prospective employee. Personally, I’m glad he chose Air Force. Not many graduates walk out of a five year program owing nothing and starting an honorable career. Even fewer discover early on that service means something
greater than oneself. Since his first assignment is likely to be Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, it will hardly be a difficult transition. Cheyenne Mountain, after all, is where they track Santa Claus from the North Pole every year…..among other things.
It wasn’t exactly raining. But, it was wet and cold. There was a joyous atmosphere on the campus. Small cohorts of students and families, some in academic gowns, some arrayed in party finery merged into larger groups until before we knew it, we were a large damp crowd shivering together in front of the entrance to the basketball arena where the graduation ceremonies would take place. The School of Engineering grads were staggered among several other schools and we could read on various kiosks that there would be various ceremonies every few hours through the weekend. UCLA is a very large campus and graduates number in the thousands.
All those engineers…..something good must come of this. The basketball arena was filled with eager and joyous families despite ticket limits. Many were trying to pick out their graduate seated on the floor of the arena. Some students were creatively helpful by pasting messages onto their caps but mostly it was a sea of black draped figures making obvious they weren’t too serious about the ceremony or themselves.
I was amazed by the numbers of families who claimed a first child among the college graduates. Shouts and cheers erupted as a particular son, cousin or sister marched across the stage to receive a diploma. Colorful and chaotic and choreographed at the same time, the ceremony lasted about four hours. The pride these families felt was palpable and energizing.
Mitchell becomes 2Lt Binning
Sunday dawned and the fog lifted more or less. Commissioning our future Air Force officers wasn’t scheduled until 5 p.m. and by then the sun was shining gloriously with three days of fog rapidly evaporating into familiar heat and humidity. This ceremony was staged indoors in an auditorium but we did not recognize the name of the building. I’d been sent some basic instructions like…park here, walk this way and there will be cadets at the building to guide you further. We had our trusty modern technology, the GPS, never fear. Besides, with so many family members participating, constant contact by cell phone was assured. Ha! The GPS evidently could not determine north from south campus and we were led 180 degrees astray. At least I had the foresight to wear flats and carry my dress pumps in a tote.
We struck off walking briskly and we still had 30 minutes to arrive on time. Nice day for a walk. About 15 minutes in, or roughly a half mile, the GPS was still confused. Michelle decided to abandon it, go back for the car and move it nearer the correct location given the written instructions. Off she went, more frustrated by my gentle reminder that this was Air Force and time over target was essential. I continued walking the route that threatened to become a cross country trail. Campus map in hand and after asking for directions at numerous kiosks along the path, I finally sighted one of those cadets, with about 10 minutes to spare. Michelle must have jogged from the parking lot she eventually found and arrived just minutes before the ceremony should have begun.
But, it didn’t begin. What? Things have changed, perhaps becoming a kinder, gentler military. Or, perhaps the commandant felt a particular empathy for those loving parents about to give birth to a totally different person. Several cadets from a different university were delayed by heavy traffic and would be late. The ceremony would be held another 15 minutes. There was a day when cadets would have camped out within a short walk the night before rather than take a chance on late arrival. But, that was then and I sound old. My nephew anxiously awaited my arrival so already two lessons were available for the young lieutenant: never lose track of your important guests and detailed planning is needed to achieve ‘time over target’.
The energy among the 11 cadets might have provided power to that section of the campus. They seemed so young and excited. Four or five years of study and drills had gone into their readiness to accept responsibilities of the office. Here they stood, newest leaders of a truly mighty force. A commission into the military of the United States is an appointment by the President and is approved by an Act of Congress. It is singularly marked by an appropriate and decorous ceremony. Many of those who had been asked and honored by the cadets to administer their oath of office were wearing their best dress uniforms and the effect was creating an entirely remarkable experience. As I found seats near his parents, my nephew addressed me with relief.
“We’re up first,” he said, “because my last name starts with B.” I smiled. The oath of office is just there,” he said pointing out a large poster.
“Except, I won’t be saying ‘swear or God’ when we get to that part. I’ll just affirm because I’m an atheist.”
I must have looked puzzled because I didn’t believe it. Still don’t.
“There are no atheists in foxholes,” I said, intending a succinct description of decisions to come.
“Actually, there are only atheists in foxholes,” he replied. Pencil in lesson three about snappy responses from junior officers.
But, maybe he had a point as his only references in a short and media encrusted life have been spawned by apparent religious conflicts. It’s a matter of perspective, I guess. He was talking about going in and I was talking about coming out.
Well, St. James (5:12) admonishes us not to swear but live so that our word alone may be trusted so we’ll go with that. What delicious irony that it is only the Holy Spirit that inspires service to others.
He had given the role of pinning on his new gold bars to his mother and father. I helped him take the insignia out of the packaging and showed them where to place the pins and how to do it most easily. I’d been an ROTC instructor myself, so I well understood that this is among many small details no one thinks about. The rank insignia, the pins, the medals, even the name tag are all already on the uniform when the officer appears in public. I would have added highly polished shoes which we used to call ‘spit shined’ but today there are manufactured patent leather versions that require little care. Several other cadets did not anticipate these details and allowed their distinguished guests to painfully fumble with the packets on stage. Refer to lesson two above.
This ceremony had a unique element. One of the cadets had asked a former instructor to administer his oath but the captain was in Afghanistan. Modern technology to the rescue with a handy laptop computer and Skype, the cadet and the captain were “linked” and a new officer was born.
Celebration after the commissioning ceremony was formal. Underclass cadets cut slices of cake and served beverages to the guests. Cadets formally introduced family members to instructors and other cadets with practiced etiquette. The even more formal social receiving line had been discarded. I offered 2Lt Binning the small gifts I’d brought; rank insignia, a flight cap, a manual for officers and his own personal bible inscribed by his old aunt, now colleague, for the “dark and lonely” times ahead. He will surely need inspiration at some point but this day was all for joy.
It had been another long but very happy day and family occasion certainly worth recording. As we walked out of sight, I kicked off those pumps with relief exchanging them for the flats, a concession to aging gracefully.