Weeds: Memories on Memorial Day
Early on a June morning seven years ago, we drove our son Ezra to the Mankato National Guard Armory. There, he boarded a bus with other recruits. We were able to drive up to the airport and spend time with him before he flew to Atlanta on his way to Fort Benning, Georgia.
Ezra was 17, between his junior and senior year at St. Mary’s. He was going to spend six weeks in basic training, the beginning of a six-year commitment to the Army National Guard. He seemed young to be doing such a thing. But then, I suspect every parent of every boy going off to be a soldier has thought the same for as long as there have been soldiers.
As a small child, Ezra’s toy soldiers mixed with his plastic animals and Pokémon creatures in his play world. As a boy, I can picture Ezra and his friend Ethan Siefkes going off to fight imaginary battles in our grove with toy guns and sticks.
Not every child who plays army ends up in the Army. But Ezra’s interest lasted into his teen years, and eventually to a contact with a National Guard recruiter. (Ethan would go on to join the Marines. After two deployments, Ethan is still serving overseas. It seems there was something in our grove that inspired service.)
On a winter night, the recruiter sat at our kitchen table with Ezra, Pam, and I. We clearly had moved on from the world of pretend. For Ezra to begin his service before his 18th birthday, Pam and I had to sign off. That led to challenging conversation between parents and son, and between father and mother. Ezra really wanted this. That was a lot different than really wanting an X-Box.
We finally acquiesced, and there we were at the airport a few months later, hugging our youngest as he prepared to spend his longest time ever away from us and home.
There would be no Junior Bi-County baseball or U17 soccer for Ezra that summer. In their place was a grueling six weeks of physical and mental challenges that were Basic Training in the heat of southern Georgia. The recruits were allowed only a few phone calls. We wrote letters back and forth: letters, just like soldiers would have sent home from the Civil War. It was interesting to communicate with our 21st-century son in that old form.
In August, we flew south and after a while touristing made our way to Columbus, Georgia, outside Fort Benning. The day before the graduation ceremony, we drove around the base, hoping to catch a glimpse of Ezra in the various marching groups. We visited The National Infantry Museum on the base. There, one can walk through realistic panoramas of battles from the Revolutionary War to Desert Storm, complete with light and sound. Each was an intense reminder of what young men have been called to experience for our country.
The next day, on the parade grounds, we got to see our son for the first time in two months. Dressed handsomely in his uniform white shirt with medals, blue pants, and beret, he was in formation with about 100 other young men who were his Basic Training class. It was a moment when, regardless of your opinions of military or war, you couldn’t help but feel markedly proud.
I mentioned how young Ezra looked at the airport in June. He and his mates assembled on the field, most of them 17 or 18, still looked young. But something in Ezra looked less like a boy now. Parents are used to their children growing gradually; this was a jolt.
Lots of thoughts coursed through this father’s head as I watched the drills and listened to the speeches. They were trained to defend our country. That sounds noble and high-minded. But those hundred boys/men by their presence indicated they were willing to give up their lives as part of that. It’s hard to know how that notion sets in the mind of a 17-year-old. It’s not something Pam and I talked about. But it was there, a pesky fly of a thought you wish you could swat away.
Later they broke rank. We got to hug our son, bookending the summer with our hug at the airport in June. We met some of the friends he made, bonded by their shared experience. In the relief of that moment, Ezra and his buddies could be goofy kids again. It was good to see he hadn’t fully leapt to adulthood, that he hadn’t completely skipped adolescence.
Some of that class was Army National Guard like Ezra. They would fly home and go back to school or work. They were committed to Advanced Individual Training the next summer, a weekend every month, a month every summer, and more if asked. Others in Ezra’s class were full time Army. After a few days with their families, they would be going off to Army bases to begin their careers. It is likely some of them ended up in the Mideast, very much in harm’s way.
In the years right before then, National Guard was being sent to Iraq and Afghanistan regularly. Seven years ago, there was the sense that those deployments were winding down. We didn’t know that for sure, but as parents, that is what we were hoping. Ezra might have felt different. He was young and itching to use his new skills. Ezra finished his commitment and lives in Denver now.
I look back on being that age. Similar to Ezra’s timing, Vietnam was winding down. Young men a year or two older were very much aware of the draft and their options. That accidental timing had a huge impact on lives, especially lives that were cut short. I have thought about how oblivious I was to all of it then. In the late Seventies, there were a spate of movies about the Vietnam War. I remember watching “Platoon” and “The Deer Hunter” at the Pix Theater and thinking, “Wow, that could have been me.”
When our kids were young, I made a point to take them to Memorial Day service at the cemeteries in town. It seemed important to remember those gone and honor those living. I don’t know if that made an impression on Ezra. It was mostly older men holding the flags and laying the wreaths. They were young once, probably not sure what they were getting into. A lot like those young men on the Fort Benning parade ground.