I know this is a bit long, and normally I’d break it into two or three posts, but people are bugging me to tell them all about it. So I’ll let you choose to read it all at once, or in three chunks, or not at all. All are acceptable, none is wrong. In case you weren’t bugging me, it might be fun to read every fourth word, but I make no guarantees. I’m just sayin.
First, two random impressions of my five days in Chicagoland … One, sailors are unfailingly polite, despite having been yelled at and called names for the past two months. And two, Chicago should be called the Most Ironic City because it’s full of potholes AND road work.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
We landed at Midway around 12:15, picked up our luggage and scooted over to the car rental where we got our car before we even had a chance to complain about anything. Which is funny — well, to me, because I’m kinda mean — because at the graduation, I was chatting with someone who said when they landed at 1:00, all the rental cars at Midway airport were gone!
A friend of ours (thanks, Lisa!) suggested if we wanted real Chicago food, we should go to Superdawg which was established in 1948 by a GI recently returned from WWII.
He and his wife built it and created the recipes, but they only meant to be in business for two years. It became so successful, it’s now run by one of their sons who helped direct me to the correct door. I explained we were tourists and were told to visit Superdawg and he took us under his wing. He told us how to order, what to order, and all kinds of fascinating tidbits about the place. They still have carhops who brave all kinds of weather and he told funny stories about all the movies they were almost featured in. They hand-cut all their fries — and we’re talking crinkle cuts! His dad invented a special tool the three full-time French fry makers use. (Three. Full-time. Crinkle cutters. Your job looks pretty good now, eh?) He even bought us milkshakes! We had lots of fun and quite possibly the best darn dawg I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, once I found it under the ginormous pickle. Still not sure what the neon green relish was, though.
Because I wasn’t sure how much time we’d have with our new sailor, or if we’d get back to Chicago over the weekend, I planned a route up Lake Shore Drive. It’s a beautiful drive through a gorgeous part of Chicago. And it was an inspired decision, because we didn’t get back to town except to catch our flight home.
The Great Lakes Naval Station is in North Chicago, about halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee, right on Lake Michigan. We dodged potholes and orange cones and finally made it to our hotel, which was perfect. Two bedrooms, two bathrooms, kitchen and living room.
On our way out to dinner, we stopped in the lobby to ask a question, and found out the hotel hosted evening socials during the week. So we grabbed a table in the corner and ate meatball sandwiches and salad and drank beer for awhile. Free beer is so delicious. Our table was next to a group of about ten people. I suspected they were some of my Navy4Moms (N4M) peeps but waited till I was done eating before saying hello. We had a fun meet-and-greet with three other Navy families.
It was really hard to sleep that night. I woke every couple of hours, trying to use the awesome power of my mind to make time move faster. Unfortunately, I must have forgotten to pack the awesome power of my mind because minutes …… went …… so …… slowly! But finally, the time came when we could leave for graduation and not be ridiculed. I had read a story on N4M about a mom who was so antsy and worried about getting to graduation that she showed up at the gate at 4:30am. The MPs told her to come back in two hours. So she went back to her hotel and sat in the lobby trying to harness the awesome power of her mind to make time move faster.
Friday, April 24, 2009
I will only admit to being ready a half hour before we needed to leave, so we went to the lobby in search of coffee. Even though they said breakfast wouldn’t be set up that early, it was and we took full advantage. Because we searched out the correct gate the day before, we drove right in and were directed to our first security stop. There was a portable dark-windowed security tower watching us from above, K9 patrols inspecting us from below, and lots of very polite, slightly scary MPs directing things. They scrutinized our IDs, then sent us on our way to another parking lot. We passed several MPs who aimed their M-16s at us. Intimidating! We parked where they pointed then gathered our cameras and binoculars to walk to a building across the parking lot. We left our jackets in the car because even though it was only 6:30am, it was already warm. (Remember this info because I will re-visit it later in the narrative. Blog foreshadowing is not nuanced.)
As we entered the building there was a huge sign that said “Welcome Aboard.” For those of you keeping score, this was the first episode of crying for me. (I almost cried when I saw the coffee in the hotel lobby, but I managed to hold it together.) We snaked our way through the roped Disney-esque lines to another security checkpoint. After checking our names against his guest list, he waved us through. (This marks the second episode, but I had to hide this one as my family was already making fun of me.)
I thought this was where the graduation would be held, but I was wrong. We went out the building, and across muddy construction zones of torn-up sidewalks to another huge building where we stood in yet another line to enter a side door. When we finally got into this building, I saw a rectangular interior that was a cross between a gymnasium and an airplane hangar. Bleachers hugged one long side at both floor and balcony level, and the short ends had balcony seats. Colorful semaphore flags ringed all three sides. The other long side had several small doors, three large projector screens and an enormous garage door which I knew was where the graduates entered. (Third crying episode.) The room was labeled with the numbers of the graduating divisions. 167 was at the far end. We chose seats in the last row of the floor level bleachers so we could lean against the brick wall behind us. We were in our seats by 7am but we were certainly not the first people in the hall. The graduation was to begin at 9:00. Seems early, but there’s an exponential delay getting through the parking and security lines and I knew that 750 graduates meant about that many cars and 2,000+ people. Plus, I was antsy.
As we walked the length of the hall, there were sailors standing in their dress blues at each of the Division signs. I noticed two at our Division wearing nametags with names I recognized from Adam’s letters, so I stopped and introduced myself. They both smiled like we were old friends and said nice things about my son. I asked why they were there. Turns out they were award winners. The short one was an Honor Graduate and the tall one won the Academic Excellence Award over all the recruits.
As their reward, I guess they got to stand there for two hours before the ceremony. (This might have made them cry, but they’re sailors and don’t go in for maudlin displays.)
Before the ceremony, the Navy band played lots of Sousa because Lt. John Philip Sousa left his civilian band to train musicians at Great Lakes. He created 14 regimental bands totalling about 1,500 members. Sometimes all of them would play in concert, drawing huge crowds of civilians to the base. They also entertained us with videos about Great Lakes, the Navy, boot camp life, Battle Stations, and other aspects of Navy life. I re-read my program for the umpteenth time, getting choked up each time I read they’d be singing the Navy Hymn. (Crying episodes four through eighteen.)
Finally, the ceremony started. They rolled open those garage doors and you saw the feet and blue clad legs of Division 166. My eyes swam again — as they are while I type this — and 166 marched in to the roar of the crowd. Adam’s Division 167 marched in right behind them and I tried to find my sailor but couldn’t. I didn’t mind, I knew he was there. They were in perfect precision, which might be redundant, but if you’ve never seen military men march in precision, there is perfect and there is not. This was perfect.
I watched as they marched the length of the viewing stands. I knew without turning my head whenever another division passed through the garage doors from the huge cheer that erupted above and beyond the sustained cheering of 2,000+ proud friends and family. Even the most cynical and stoic couldn’t keep their emotions checked. I’m fairly certain I wasn’t the only one having an episode. They marched in front of the stands then turned the short corner and traveled across the back of the long side, ending up as Division blocks, near where the signs had been placed on the floor before the ceremony. This is about half the graduating divisions.
I gave my younger son the binoculars with the plea, “Find him!” He did, pointing toward the front when I had been looking in back. In the picture below, he’s smack dab between the yellow flag and the red, white and blue flag.
All the years when he played tuba had conditioned me to never expect to see him at any public performance. I trained the binoculars on him. He resembled the kid I sent to boot camp in February, but THIS kid wearing a perfectly fitting uniform and traditional sailor cover on his head looked amazing — right down to the “attention face” he wore. (They call their cover a “Dixie Cup” but I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t.) After all the Divisions were in place, they got a snappy command and were on the move again, this time turning
and flipping the entire division so he was in the back. Very cool, and thank goodness he bought me a video of the ceremony so I can see it again in two months to figure out how they did it. In the photo above, he’s toward the center, but it’s like he’s the extra person in his row so he’s one person closer to the audience. (What do you mean, they all look the same?!)
The rest of the ceremony was ceremonial — flags raised, lowered, and dipped …
sabres pulled theatrically, catching the light … rifles tossed …
drummers drummed … and, of course, the Navy Hymn. (Crying episode nineteen.)
There was a short speech by the Reviewing Officer where he welcomed the new sailors to the “greatest Navy in the history of the world.” (I found out later that comment choked up my new sailor which also produced episode twenty for me.)
Then they called “Liberty!” and chaos ensued. If it was a baseball game instead of a dignified, formal ceremony, you’d call it a bench-clearing brawl. Aw, who am I kidding? It WAS a bench-clearing brawl! As God is my witness, I saw at least a dozen middle-aged women knock over men twice their size to reach their sailors.
And I’m sorry if I hurt anyone.
My daughter got to him first and I had to whack at her to get at him. I’m rarely speechless, but there were simply no words at that moment.
Soon enough, we were swept out the garage doors with the rest of humanity across the base to where we began the morning. Adam had to run to his compartment to get some things so he pointed to a tree and said, “Wait there for me.” So we did, watching the happy reunions all around us. As we waited under our tree on a bit of a hill I had a clear view of the long sidewalk running across the base toward their barracks. They all looked the same so I wondered if I could pick out my sailor by his walk. I studied the sailors returning to their waiting families. That one? No … maybe him? No. Then, as if he had a neon sign pointing at his head, I saw him. He had a new swaggery bounce to his walk and I wondered when that happened.
When he joined us, he said he had to be back at his compartment by 12:30 to catch the bus to the other side of the base where he had to check in for A-School with his new orders. That gave us about ninety minutes to buy me a Navy Mom t-shirt and for him to show us Recruit Heaven where he made phone calls and got to eat at Taco Bell after Battle Stations. We ran into lots of his buddies, most of whom were scattering across the U. S. I felt so lucky that he was staying at Great Lakes so we’d have more than just an hour or two with him. Those other moms get a higher place in heaven.
As we were walking around, I was behind him at one point and, in a motherly attempt at embarrassing him, I said, “Your butt looks GREAT in that uniform.” He flashed me a grin and said, “I KNOW! Right?” He told us later that as part of his check-in he got weighed and measured again and he gained 20 pounds at boot camp. I think it ended up all across his shoulders. Not an ounce of fat on him.
We went back to the hotel to wait for his call to come pick him up … which took for-freaking-ever. Too bad when he called he had no idea where he was! Luckily, one of his roommates gave us directions to the correct gate so we hot-footed it over there. But he was not to be found and even with our parking pass, we couldn’t come on base without him so the guard made us turn around. Before we got back out the gate, though, there he was on the sidewalk. Just past the gate, he hopped in the car.
He said, “Guess when I have to be back?”
I expected 9pm, which is when liberty normally ends.
“Nope! Sunday at 2145!”
We had him all weekend! (Crying episode twenty-one and hysterical giggling episode one.)
We were all starving so we went to dinner, then back to the hotel where I wanted pictures of the uniform he had changed into. He made sure to tell me he’s not supposed to salute me, nor is he supposed to wear his cover indoors. But today, Mom rules trump Navy rules. At least for photographic purposes.
He was thrilled to reunite and commune with his computer, his iTunes and his phone. I think I heard him whisper loving and soothing words to them.
We ended Friday night with a rousing game of Uno and the knowledge breakfast was served until 10am.
Saturday, April 25, 2009
Remember when I mentioned the weather earlier? We couldn’t have asked for a more gorgeous day for the graduation, but all Friday night and all day Saturday it rained, alternating driving downpours with steady drizzle. Did we care? Absolutely not. We played Life and Uno. We watched tv. We listened to Adam’s iTunes. We watched in awe as he ironed his uniform and his t-shirt. In boot camp they had to iron on the floor because of problems with ironing boards breaking so it was a real treat for him to stand and iron. Hearing him talk about his uniform was interesting. He showed exactly how all the buttons and seams had to line up and the special way it gets tucked in. Definitely not the same kid I sent off in February.
As a surprise, I brought some pajama pants, his favorite Flogging Molly t-shirt and his slippers for him to wear in the hotel room. I knew he couldn’t go out without his uniform, but I thought he’d appreciate having some comfy clothes. Imagine my surprise when I found out he loved wearing his uniform!
He played on Facebook, texted and chatted with friends, and checked his email. The only thing on the agenda was a bit of shopping for some things he’d need for A-School. When there was a break in the weather, we went back to base to look for the Navy Exchange (NEX). He bought a pair of jeans, more white t-shirts, shampoo and other necessaries. Then we quenched his Chipotle craving. Then back to the hotel for more hanging out.
Never has a day of doing nothing been spent so well.
Sunday, April 26, 2009
Rainy again today, but who cares? We ate a leisurely breakfast after Adam ironed his t-shirt — again — then played a rollicking game of Scrabble. We used two bags of tiles so we had quite an impressive board by the time we finished.
The maid conveniently came to clean our room just as the game was winding down and the rain had conveniently stopped, so we took the opportunity to conveniently leave the hotel. I had seen a brochure about a heron rookery, so that’s where we headed. We found it, saw a lot of giant nests in the top of trees, but couldn’t quite find the parking lot. Or the entrance. Or any of the herons. But that’s okay, because our next stop was for authentic Chicago-style pizza from Lou Malnati’s. (Again, thanks Lisa!)
We couldn’t quite find it either for awhile, but we kept trying as we were more interested in it than in herons. Eventually we found it, and since it was only a carry-out location, we took dinner back to the hotel. Delish. Now we’ve had Famous Ray’s pizza in Manhattan, and Lou Malnati’s in Chicago, so we can cross “pizza” off our life lists.
After dinner, we played another few rounds of Uno, which, with us, can be variously described as Retribution Uno, Full-Contact Uno, and/or Xtreme Uno. After our wounds were dressed, we watched some tv, but all-too-soon it was time to get Adam back to base. He’s in a more dorm-like setting now. There are three corpsmen in his room, two in another and all five of them share a bathroom. They have a kitchen and living area with a three-quarter size refrigerator, sink and microwave. Elsewhere in the building is a tv room and a large workout room with weight equipment and cardio machines. And hopefully a chow hall.
His roommates are all in different stages of their Corpsman A-School — two will be leaving in a few weeks, two will be there for a couple more months, and Adam will be there at least until August. New sailors go from boot camp graduation to their A-School, which is where they learn the basics of their new job. As a new corpsman, Adam will have the option of going to C-School for further, more specific training, or to the fleet where he will provide medical services to other sailors on his ship — shots, dispensing cold and flu care, attending to injuries, and, you know, checking guys coming back from shore leave.
Okay, yes, I cried when we dropped him off too. Big surprise. But not until he walked away, ramrod straight in his new sailor posture, stepping bravely into his new life, nervous but enthusiastic about his next challenge.
Since watching him walk away, I’ve had the Navy Hymn in my head constantly. There have been many new verses written for it throughout the years. This one is from an anonymous author in 1955, and I’m dedicating it to my new sailor and all those who created the wake he’s swimming in now, and for all those swimming behind him.
Lord, guard and guide the men who fly
And those who on the ocean ply;
Be with our troops upon the land,
And all who for their country stand:
Be with these guardians day and night
And may their trust be in thy might.