On Friday, April 24, 1970, I graduated from boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C. For three months, I had been a member of Platoon 223, Second Recruit Training Battalion. For much of that time I looked forward to having my family present and watching me graduate.
It wasn’t to be. Shortly before the graduation date I received a letter from home informing me that my folks would not be able to make the journey.
On the date of graduation, a day that still ranks as one of the proudest in my life, I donned my uniform, pinned on the National Defense Ribbon, affixed the Expert’s Badge attesting to my success on the rifle range with the M-14, and, with the slick sleeves of a private, prepared to march with hundreds of new Marines on the “grinder,” or parade deck, where the ceremony would occur.
After graduation, when most recruits were spending time with their proud families, I joined with several other men whose families were not present and had a few hours off.
The next day, most of the platoon left for Camp Lejeune, N.C. A few, including a friend from Johnson City, Tenn., and I, had a few days leave before reporting for duty at a base in Virginia. I hitched a ride home with him and his family.
During the long ride across South Carolina and North Carolina, headed to the northeast tip of Tennessee, I reflected on what had happened during the longest three months of my life. I was intensely proud to have made it through Parris Island. I was a United States Marine! Having no civilian clothes with me, I wore my uniform on the trip. In Johnson City, my friend’s family took me to the parking lot of Science Hill High School where my ride to Kingsport, some 20 miles to the west, would be waiting.
As we pulled into the parking lot, I recognized a two-tone Buick that I knew well. The door opened and out stepped my grandfather, Charles Duckett. I couldn’t have been happier. Grandpa had requested that he be allowed to pick me up and my parents assented.
He was the first member of my family to see me as a Marine. My mom’s dad, Roy Luster, had died in his twenties of a fever, leaving my grandmother with three small girls. In time, she met and married the man I knew as Grandpa. He was one of the most important people in my life and, as he looked approvingly, I beamed with pride.
Three years later, now married and with a young son, I was a non-commissioned officer with just a few days left in the service. On Wednesday of that week I received the shocking news that Grandpa had died. I was officially separated from active duty on Friday and, on Saturday, I and my family attended the funeral.
My gunnery sergeant said it would be permissible if I wore my dress green uniform to the funeral so I did. During the service I sat stoically and, at the grave side, I stood rigid and unblinking as Grandpa’s casket was lowered into the earth.
Eventually, everyone departed to go back to the family home. I put my wife, my son, and my teenage brother in the car at the foot of the hill and said, “I’ll be back in a minute.” Alone, I walked back to the grave, stood there for a few minutes, and finally said all the things I wish I had said to the man who had enriched my life.
And, when I was assured that no one was looking, I cried. I cried until the tears would come no more. Finally, to the man who had been too young for World War I and too old for World War II — to the man who had been there for me all my life and who had been the first to see me in uniform and to the man for whom I would wear the uniform for the last time — I saluted.
I still have that uniform hanging in the closet. It no longer fits and sometimes I think of getting rid of it. And then I think of Grandpa and the look on his face on that Saturday afternoon in April 1970 when he greeted a 19-year-old boy who had become a man.
I think of the last time, when, 39 years ago, I wore it to honor a man who never had any children of his own but who became a father to three girls and a beloved Grandpa to six children. And then I put it back in the closet, close the closet door, and wipe away yet another tear.
[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA 30277. Services are held Sundays at 8:30 and 10 a.m. (www.ctkcec.org). He is the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese (www.midsouthdiocese.org). He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]