This morning, Frank and I decided to have breakfast at a local favorite, Weston Diner. Weston Diner is one of those great places where people line up to have their names put on a list for breakfast, where the waitresses remember your face and what you want, where the food is plentiful and the menu contains exactly what it should. There are gum-ball machines near the door. There are little tiles at each booth with pithy sayings like “A house should be clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy”. The coffee is good and continually refilled. The owner’s name is Sam.
I had corned beef hash and eggs, Frank had the “2-2-2”: Two eggs, two pancakes, two pieces of bacon. We sat in a booth in the corner and quietly ate our breakfast, occasionally looking at something on our iPhones or engaging in brief chit-chat.
The threesome in the booth behind us, however, were not so reserved. We’d paid them scant attention when we sat down: Two guys and a girl, all in their late teens. I would guess just out of high school, first year of college, thereabouts. One guy was sitting on one side of the booth, the other guy and the girl were sitting on the other side. Nice looking kids having breakfast together.
Being young and much more carefree than us two old fogies , they were talking loudly and laughing. And so, even though we were not eavesdropping, we could not help but hear the vast majority of their conversation. LIstening to them talk while we ate our breakfast, we got a slice of young life, circa 2009.
“Eye-RACK!” the guy sitting next to the girl said loudly. “When you say it like that, it sounds so much worse than it really is, you now. Eye-RACK! You gotta say the last part of it really loud”. The other two chuckled. I couldn’t hear what the girl was saying, but the other guy was in my line of sight, so I saw his reaction to his friend’s comment. “Is that how they say it over there?” the other guy asked.
“I don’t know”, said the loud guy. “My Staff Sergeant was telling me Friday that’s how we should start saying it. Loud and with emphasis. Eye-RACK!” He laughed again.
Growing up in the Army, I knew my share of Staff Sergeants. I had this guy’s sergeant pictured in my head as he talked: A grizzled guy in his thirties, close-cropped hair, five o’clock shadow, maybe smoking a cigarette –
“She’s been there twice, so she wants us all to be prepared, you know”, he added.
My imagined Staff Sergeant vanished in a puff. I wasn’t sure how to picture a female Staff Sergeant who was advising this young man. Frank raised his eyebrows at that, and despite ourselves, we listened a little closer.
“Dude, right after Memorial Day, too”, the other guy said. “That’s wicked.”
“Thirteen weeks of training, I know, and now I’m shipping out the day after Memorial Day!” said the fellow with the Staff Sergeant. He told his friends about how he negotiated a later curfew from his mother the previous night. “I mean, normally, she’d say I have to be home by midnight. But I was like, Mom! I-m going to eye-RACK day after tomorrow! So, she said OK, I could stay out as late as I wanted”.
About then I got a refill of coffee, Frank and I talked about something else, and I stopped paying attention to the youngster’s conversation. Maybe ten minutes later, we heard them talking again.
“I hope my motorcycle’s in good shape when I come back”, the military kid was saying. “And I’m gonna get a new car too! You know… when I get back from…” and all three of them said loudly “Eye-RACK!!”
The kid was talking so fast and so loud, I felt sure that he was overcompensating. Was he trying to make sure his friends didn’t worry? Was he trying to cover up his own fear? Was I just projecting way too much onto a complete stranger?
As we were leaving, I was rehearsing a line. I was going to say to the kid, “Hey, stay safe over there”, or “Thanks for your service”, or “Come back in one piece”, something like that. But when I stood up and saw his face, I decided to just keep my mouth shut. They were three teenagers, and one of them was about to go away to war. It was not my place to insert any tone of worry or concern into their happy breakfast.
Paying the bill, I had a clear view of the T-shirt the kid was wearing. In the center was the Marine Corp emblem. Above the emblem it read, “To err is human. To forgive is divine”. And under the emblem, it said “Neither is Marine Corp policy”.
For some reason, that just really hit me hard. The shirt seemed so much more grown-up than its owner. I turned 47 last week, a big fat happy man in a nice house, cars in the garage, my own business. And here I am, looking at an 18-year-old kid smiling and grinning as he’s about to be shipped off to Iraq.
So, instead of intruding on his last breakfast with his friends, I sent him a silent wish for an uneventful tour of duty and a safe return.
Our flag flies over our driveway this Memorial Day, in honor of the men and women who gave their lives for our freedom. Who go out and do what they are asked to do, whether they think it’s right or wrong.
To my friends and family in the military, whether you’re Over Here or Over There, my best wishes. I hope with all my heart that all of you – including the loud teenager in the booth next to me whose mother extended his curfew the night before he was to be shipped out – are safe and sound next Memorial Day, and for all future Memorial Days.
Stay safe out there, guys and girls. Thanks for everything that you do, and for everything that you’ve already done.
Let Memorial Day be a day of celebration, and not a day of mourning.