“Oh my God, you would think a line going into a military base would move slightly more efficiently.” My sister said as our car jerked to yet another stop. The line was just as slow as it was long. Each car ahead of ours was filled with families and friends, just like us, anxious to see their sons and daughters for the first time in what felt like forever. Christian, my best friend since I was little, was graduating from Marine Corps boot camp and even knowing I was just a friend as opposed to the cars filled with close families, I couldn’t help but think I was the most excited girl in the gruesomely long line of people waiting to see their Marine. We were supposed to be a happy little surprise to him and the excitement of knowing he was totally in the dark physically pained my body.
“Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” my littlest sister teased as we finally were next in line to approach the security worker letting people through. The man wore a black uniform with the word “SECURITY” written boldly across his chest and carried more weapons than I thought humanly possible, including an enormous gun that I had only ever seen in movies. Swallowing unnaturally hard, I tried my very best to hide how outrageously intimidated I was and at all costs avoided eye contact.
“Can I see a form of ID sir?” the guard leaned in towards the car and waited patiently as my dad pulled out his fancy government full security clearance card and showed it to him. No further questions were asked. The man with the large gun just nodded his head and we went on our merry way through the gate. The roads were cleanly paved and traffic was little to none at all. There were buildings on all sides of the road and weird pipes of all shapes and sizes randomly lining the roads, grassy areas, and sidewalks. Slowly the feeling of excitement was overtaken by an overwhelming feeling of anxiety. It had been what felt like years since I had seen Christian and when he left for boot camp, I was very mad at him for many reasons that filled my head very abruptly. I did not write him one time while he was away. I didn’t say goodbye before he left and I most definitely didn’t want anything to do with him until a very short time before graduation. But, I mean, there comes a time when a grudge just isn’t worth it anymore, you know? But what if he didn’t know?
My dad, being a former Devil Dog himself, was reliving his time in boot camp as we past the barracks.
“Boot camp is the best worst time of your life. Our boy is behind the walls of one of those buildings.” he said as a smile appeared on his face. Dad’s pride, although he was hard headed at showing it, was shining through with everything he said and did. I sat in the back seat and took it all in. Dad’s excitement, the large buildings filled with Marines or men and women working their way to the title, the water town with the words “WE MAKE MARINES” written proudly across it, the platoons marching quickly along the sidewalks. It was all so fascinating to see in person.
“A once in a lifetime experience.” I accidently thought out loud. Mom turned around in her seat and smiled at me brightly. It gave me a sense of calming. The anxiety from before slowly faded and turned back into another form of unbearable yet containable excitement as we were pulling into the small parking area near the stadium where the graduation ceremony would be held. Since we were there fairly early the line to get in wasn’t long, so we took our place next to Christian’s family in line and began the long wait for them to open the roped off area for us to begin to file in.
Everyone around us was in uniform. If you weren’t family, you were either across the street screaming at new recruits in bright yellow shorts or at the front of the line wearing the Marines finest uniform of all, their Dress Blues, the slickest and best looking in all the branches if I do say so myself, but maybe I’m bias. My dad who also has this uniform, had “grown out of them” or he would have been in them as well.
As we were waiting in line, a man walked up to us. Christian’s dad, John Bakner, who is a member of the United States Air Force, and was wearing the Air Force Dress Blue Deltas was the first to be approached in our group.
He put his hand out for a handshake and with a scratchy voice said, “Thank you for your service sir.” and as we thought he was about to walk away, he stopped in his tracks and yelled out to the front of the line at the other men and women in uniform, “LET THIS MAN AND HIS GROUP TO THE FRONT OF THE LINE!” He then proceeded to walk in the direction of the front with a small wave to us that said, “Follow me please.” People eyeballed us as we made the march to the front. Some rolled their eyes and others made verbal comments too small to catch the ear, but loud enough to know it was directed towards us and wasn’t good. Not that we cared of course. We just had our eyes on the prize. The prize being the best seating on the bleachers, closest to our Marine.
“The forecast says an 80% chance of rain guys.” Christian’s mother, Emilee said sadly. My heart dropped as I looked at the sky, only to see dark clouds ready to hit us with everything they’ve got. If the rain started before the ceremony we would be forced to move inside. Which didn’t sound too bad.. If you’re immediate family. Friends would be sent to the auditorium to view from a movie screen. Our families would be split up and the last thing we wanted was the one thing, just looking at the sky, would more than likely happen. Although I am not religious, I was literally praying that the rain would just hold off until the graduation was over.
“Okay, we need everyone in a single file line please.” a woman in uniform started to say repeatedly as they began filling people into the stadium area. The bleachers were sectioned off into areas where each platoon would be standing. We sat down in the area marked “platoon 1017,” Christian’s platoon. So that we knew for sure we would see him.
“Best seats in the house guys.” I said as I smoothed my dress down in preparation of sitting on the most uncomfortable seats I would ever have the pleasure of placing my body. I glanced up at the sky in hopes that my prayer was answered, but still the clouds over the barracks looked absolutely horrific and ominous. My head was bouncing around trying to take in all of my surroundings. The large groups of people still filing into the bleachers, the men and women in uniform directing the groups, the enormous concrete area where the Marines were soon to be. It was all too wonderful and new to put into proper words. My attention was suddenly put into one place when the barracks doors on the far side of the concrete slab in the center flew open and huge groups of men in their Dress Blues began walking out. My excitement was now at its highest knowing I was so close to seeing the ceremony and Christian.
“Where are they going?” Christian’s younger sister, Belle said what we were all thinking. The Marines weren’t heading in our direction. In fact, they were marching right past us. My heart dropped as I looked off into the direction they were walking towards. “That is the way to the indoor seating and auditorium they have for graduation. I saw it when we were on our way in earlier.” I said with the utmost sadness. I placed my camera, which I had been lugging around all morning in hopes of seeing something super awesome to take a photo of, back into its bag, knowing the rain was soon to begin.
“Okay, here is the deal.” Christian’s mom started, “Since Hailey has her camera we should take her with us into the auditorium when they start to move us.” she finished her statement to my mom who followed with a sad, yet certain, “that’s fine.”
And with that, a roaring boom of thunder came rolling in with the storm clouds. We all mutually jumped up and started heading for the indoor graduation area as the rain began, pelting us far harder than than clouds led us to believe they would. The drops were heavy and pushed my hair down into my eyes as I followed Emilee through the enormous crowd of people charging for the doors, and trust me, they showed no mercy. Mothers and fathers, were yelling for their children standing directly beside them. Friends were running like idiots and cursing at one another to, “hurry their asses up.” There were even people in wheelchairs rolling for their lives. As we approached the doors ourselves, I glanced back in hopes of finding the rest of our group, knowing that they wouldn’t be there, yet still hopeful. My family of course was on their way to the auditorium, a whole other building across the street from the actual ceremony. As for John and Belle? God only knew where they were.
Emilee pulled out her phone and held it carefully underneath the sweater she was wearing over her dress in order to ensure its safety from the stinging rain still coming down from the sky, which still was so dark it looked like the middle of the night. She put her phone up to her ear after a second of hearing it ring John’s voice came in from the other end.
“Where are you guys at?” They both yelled over the crowd at the same time. Emilee raised her umbrella, which, may I add was closed the entire time because it was more hassle than help. “CAN YOU SEE THE UMBRELLA, IT HAS POLKA DOTS… YES DOTS… POLKA DOTS JOHN OH MY LORD!” Em started yelling over the phone. I took a step back and let her do her thing, following if she moved anywhere else to swing her umbrella in the air in hopes that John and Belle would see it amongst the over hundreds in the crowd. A woman near us, who I believe was just getting tired of hearing Emilee scream at her husband about a polka dotted umbrella, began swinging her neon yellow one in the air as well to assist in the search for the lost half of our group.
“I see you, I see you!” I heard John on the other end. I looked up to see him on the other side of the walkway, holding Belle’s hand and waving aggressively in our direction. We ran over to meet up with them, before we got cut off again and would have to continue to dangerously swing an umbrella around in hopes that they would find us a second time.
“This is insane.” I said to myself, sort of wishing my family wasn’t having this rough of a time trying to get to where they were going. We bolted through the crowd of people, into the front doors, and finally made it inside.
A man tapped John on the shoulder to get his attention, “Come with me sir.” and he walked off into a small doorway leading to the second floor of indoor bleachers. The crowded room smelled like rain, swampy earthworm, and body odor. I followed Emilee down a set of bleacher stairs and as I glanced back over my shoulder to ensure that John and Belle were still trailing near, I found them on the other half of the bleachers far from us.
“Uh, Em.. We got split up again.” I tapped her on the shoulder and pointed across the crowd at her husband and daughter, who managed to find a place to sit and enough space for us to find a way over there to sit with them. Emilee turned around and started pushing back through the crowd. I was overwhelmed with crowd anxiety as I turned around to follow her. She was already half way back up the stairs when my whole life began to flash before my eyes. As I took one more graceful step towards the top of the bleacher stairs, I tripped over my own feet. “Oh God, this is the end.” I thought as my body slammed to the ground in front of a small old lady just trying to find a seat.
For a second I sat there, my face hot and red from embarrassment. Emilee, who hadn’t even noticed I fell in the first place was still on her way over to our saved spot. I stood up and brushed myself off. “Holy God what if Christian saw that.” I laughed in my head and started walking to the rest of my group, this time each step being carefully placed onto the stairs one at a time. When I finally made it to my destination, I had made the decision to keep the fall to myself. What they didn’t know, wouldn’t hurt them.
“WELCOME FAMILIES AND FRIENDS!” a woman in uniform came over a microphone to get the ceremony started. Everything after her welcome seemed like such a blur. I was so focused on finding Christian in the crowds of platoons that I almost forgot to pull out my camera and take photos. The crowds of people around me hardly even bothered me anymore. I was just so glad to have finally made it inside.
“Now please rise and remove your hats for the playing of our national anthem.” The woman said as we all stood in unison to face the flag. The Marines down on the floor stood firm. It was an absolutely breathtaking thing to witness. My eyes teared up with pride, not only for Christian, but for all of the people standing there.
When the anthem ended, we all clapped and took our seats. I was so in awe about the whole thing I was the last one to sit before the real start of the graduation. Remembering that I had yet to pull my camera out for photos I reached down to get it out of the bag, not once taking my eyes off of the speakers introducing the platoons and congratulating them on their accomplishments.
“Character is not just a mark left on us by life. It is also the mark we leave on life. So whether you serve for four or more than twenty years, make your mark. This is your time to make your mark. To make your contribution. And add to the legacy of the United States Marine Corps. The finest fighting organization in the world. Semper Fi Marines.” The woman ended the ceremony with some of the most beautiful words I have ever heard in my entire existence. These people really were going to make their marks and I was there. Watching them take some of their first steps in that journey.
The crowd went ballistic with tears, screaming, whistling and clapping as they broke off and started heading towards the place where the newly graduated Marines had been standing, teasing us with the urge to run down and hug them the entire ceremony.
It was time.
We rushed down the bleachers, completely disregarding the fact that stairs had been invented and frantically searched for Christian. Then through the crowd, we spotted him. John quickly shoved me behind his back to hide me from sight. “We have a surprise for you Squirt.” He said and slowly moved to the side to reveal me in all of my rain soaked and smelly glory. I peered out around him. My heart was pounding so hard I could feel it in my finger tips.
There he was and before I even got a chance to say hello, he bolted towards me and grabbed onto my body so tight I could hardly breathe, but who needs oxygen anyway, right? All words had slipped my mind. All anxiety had disappeared. I was just him and I. After a second of slow sobbing and tight squeezing, I finally managed to utter the words.
“I’m so proud of you.” without skipping a beat.
Christian grabbed the back of my head to pull me in closer, whispering in my ear. “I watched you fall down the stairs.”
By: Hailey Hoffman