December 23, 2013 —
The Marine was seated across the aisle from me, in one of the end seats with his gear on one side of the seat and his head down, writing holiday cards. Desert fatigues neatly pressed, haircut high and tight, black boots glistening from the polish.
Two stripes on his arm indicated he was a Lance Corporal, one of the worker bees of the corps, the guys and gals with the task of getting the job done. As he wrote his cards, he stopped from time to time, stared out the window for a few seconds, and then continued to write. I could only imagine to whom he was writing and what the subject was. Sometimes he returned to the writing with a smile, sometimes I thought I could detect a tear in his eye, at times he just stared into space.
As passengers passed him on their way to get off the train, most either thanked him for his service, or welcomed him home. All were promptly responded to, with a “Thank you, Sir,” or “Much appreciated, Ma’am.” Our current military is fully comprised of a voluntary force; they go in as scruffy kids and come out, in this case, spit-n-polished gentlemen.
As the train emptied out at Otisville, I realized he was headed to Port Jervis when he tried to use his cell phone for a cab. I used this moment to strike up a conversation by telling him he would have no service until we were just in the station, but he would have plenty of time to call a cab.
I asked if he was from Port Jervis and he said “no,” he was from Seaside Heights in Jersey. He was on a two-week furlough and wanted to spend the first part traveling to visit his Grandmother in Yulan. She wasn’t doing too well at 87, and he felt this would be a better use of his time, rather than just heading home to his folks, whom he would see the following week.
I mentioned to him that I saw he had used his time well writing holiday cards and he looked like he put some thought into them. Personally I know some cards we receive don’t even have a handwritten signature on them—cold, if you ask me, for a holiday greeting. He said that the guys in his unit all agreed to write to each other’s families during the holidays and let them know how their son or daughter was doing.
Most of the stories are embarrassing moments he was sure his buddies would rather forget than tell his family. He stopped for a moment, then slowly continued, the hard ones were the ones about those unit members killed or wounded. This was his third tour of duty and he hoped his last overseas. During his time, the list of names had grown. The unit promised to keep writing the families during the holidays, if only to say hello and wish them well. It was a promise living up to their code Semper Fi, “always faithful.” It was a promise he kept with pride.
As we stood at the door together, waiting to pull into the station, he commented how nice it was to see snow; it had been a long time since he had seen snow. We departed the train, and I shook his hand and thanked him for his service. His eyes were smiling as he entered the cab, giving me a quick wave good-bye. Smiling on my drive home, I was thinking how happy this kid was going to make his grandmother. To be sure, this would be a special holiday for them both.