Normal Weight For 1 Year And 7 Months Baby Girl The Homecoming

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The Homecoming

Timothy Ciciora

Chief of Staff, United States Navy, Ret

Atlantic Beach, Florida

My ship, the USS John L. Hall, a guided-missile frigate, had just returned from Desert Storm to its base in Mayport, Florida. As my fellow sailors and I walked down the pier, the first thing I saw was a 500 foot long inflatable Budweiser beer can.

What the hell is this? I thought to myself. We had no idea what was going on stateside while we were abroad, no idea what kind of reception awaited us. Suddenly, it seemed, we were the flavor of the month.

A huge crowd of families and well-wishers were there to greet us, but that didn’t lift my spirits. I didn’t want accolades or honors — I just wanted to come home. My leader noticed my attitude.

“This reception is much better than the one I got back from Vietnam,” he snapped. “Then keep it to yourself.”

But after 12 years of service, I was tired of the Navy and thinking about getting out. I had enlisted right out of high school. Back in Chicago, I wasn’t the best student and I knew there was more out there than my backyard. I wanted to see the world and get a different kind of education. I wanted to be somebody. I wanted to do something good. Besides, McDonald’s didn’t offer a retirement plan.

But now I was at a crossroads. The last nine months have been long. We were sitting in Haifa, Israel, waiting for our six-month tour to end when the trouble in Kuwait unfolded. Suddenly we were in the Gulf. We escorted the first carrier in years to transit the Suez Canal — right into the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf for a three-month extension.

On the way home, however, I began to think about my Navy career and soon became sad. Although I was a Chief Petty Officer, I found it difficult to advance. I wanted a higher rank — more power, more prestige — but I had been passed over twice for promotion. So I was arrogant. If I couldn’t move on, what was I left with? Above all, I was tired of leaving my family. I didn’t get to see my three sons grow up. I even missed the birth of my second son. This would definitely be my last cruise.

Back at the pier, the carnival-like atmosphere was raging. Along with those who greeted our arrival were swarms of merchants, some with one arm slung around a sailor, all trying to make a buck. Banners reading We Support Desert Storm flew above the crowd.

I left the circus and made my way to the parking lot. Finally, I saw my wife, Terri, standing next to our car, grinning from ear to ear. I immediately felt a sense of calm.

My three boys — 11, 9 and 7 — were in the back seat, their faces pressed against the back window. The moment they saw me, they jumped out of the car and tackled me on the asphalt. I hardly recognized them — they had grown so fast! We shared big hugs, although my youngest son was a little hesitant. Like, who is this guy?

As I slid into the driver’s seat, Terry announced, “We’re going to your mom and dad’s in Indiana.” That was good to hear. I hadn’t seen my parents in eight years, and hanging out with my three brothers again would be great too. Besides, I needed to go somewhere inland, away from the water, away from those mammoth gray ships.

Although I felt good about making the trip to Indiana, I was troubled most of the way. As Terri and the kids slept through the night, I had a lot of time to think. What kind of job could I get abroad? The last civilian job I had was as a delivery boy for a medical supply store. I didn’t even know how to write a resume. But if I stayed in the Navy, wasn’t I in real danger of being killed in action? A glance at my sleeping sons in the mirror drove home this awful thought.

My mind buzzing, I didn’t stop driving until we got to Chattanooga the next morning. Thinking this would be a good place to eat breakfast, I walked into a Burger King. It felt good to see the big orange and red sign. It was like mecca for me. Overseas, they have American-style restaurants, but let’s face it, the food doesn’t taste the same.

As my wife and children adjusted to the daylight, I entered and made my way to the counter. A teenage girl walked up to the register. She was tiny, with short brown hair, probably just out of high school. He took my order and a few minutes later returned with my food. While I was looking for my money, he spoke to me.

“Excuse me,” she said in a timid voice. “Just got back from the war?”

I was still wearing my uniform. My hat was on the back of my head, my tie was untied, and I had a five o’clock shadow: But despite my crumpled appearance, my medal load was evident.

“Yeah,” I grumbled and pushed her a twenty. I knew I was being a jerk, but I had heard this routine before. Civilians always ask the same questions: “You’re a Navy Sea!” “Did you kill anyone?” “What did you blow up?” I didn’t want to hear it, nor was I in the mood for conversation. I wanted to get my food, get out of there and go home.

The young lady was not offended by my rudeness. Instead, he gently curled my fingers around the twenty dollar bill in my hand. Leaning over the counter and planting a small kiss on my knuckle, she looked at me and looked at me for a second, as if she was memorizing my face. Then he spoke a word.

“Thanks.”

Ever feel like you suddenly owe the world an apology? That’s how I felt at that moment. Here was this kid who had no ulterior motive, no agenda, no business deal to offer me. And yet he bought me my breakfast. Her register would probably be short for that shift and she would have to make it up out of pocket. But that didn’t seem to matter to her. Unlike that crowd back at base, who were all jumping on the bandwagon as if supporting the war were a fad, this young lady’s gesture had come from the heart. She let me know that she felt safe, that she knew someone was watching out for her. When he spoke that word, I didn’t just see a girl expressing gratitude. I saw an entire nation saying “Thank you.”

I suddenly felt like the Grinch feels when he discovers what Christmas is. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was meant to be in the Navy. It wasn’t about money and grades or prestige. It was about raising the flag. We do what we do because no one else can or will. We fight so that others can sleep at night. And I had forgotten about it. So this sudden, unexpected expression of thanks from a complete stranger hit me like a bolt of lightning. I had received many decorations over the years, but nothing could compare to the simple tribute he had paid me. It made me remember why I was here. It renewed my faith, not only in my military career, but in life.

I was too choked up to answer her. With a lump in my throat, and fighting like hell to get out of there before I started crying like a baby, I quickly made my way to the door. When I got back to the car, I found that the tears I thought I was holding back were now streaming down my cheeks.

“What happened,” Terry asked. “Are you ok?”

“You know,” I replied after a while. “It’s really true what they say.”

“What is?” Terri asked confused.

Then I placed a soft kiss on my wife’s forehead.

“Baking beats frying,” I said.

There was no way I would have talked about it there. So I just left the parking lot. One word from someone I didn’t even know had transformed me. It changed my life and my family’s life. I knew I would be wearing my Navy uniform for a long time to come.

As I looked for signs to get back on the freeway, the road ahead looked very clear.

Copyright © 2006 Marlo Thomas

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