Of the few thousand miles I ran last year, seven stand out.
Not necessarily because of the small arms fire to the left of me, or the heavy artillery explosives to the right, though that’s reason enough to remember them.
These particular miles — the steps I took, the stops I made, the scenes I passed — will be forever etched in my mind because this place, Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, is where my youngest son called home for his basic training with the United States Army last year.
This is where he underwent physical and psychological demands to become a member of the U.S. Army. It is described as the toughest nine weeks of a person’s life. From what my son tells me, it was. He did well, completing the training at or near the top of his class. That was not a surprise. Because while I stand 5 feet, 9 inches tall and weigh all of 150 pounds, Ray is a shade over 6 feet and a rock-solid 200 pounds. He is physical and mentally tough and can handle anything that comes his way. Where I hesitate, he charges ahead.
Funny. I recall, when he was growing up, we played a lot of one-on-one in the back of our Idaho home, where a hoop was attached to the garage. I could take him when he was, oh, 10, 11, 12 years old. There were days I could push him around, back him down, bull my way inside for layups.
But when high school rolled around, it wasn’t long before he was bigger, faster and stronger than me. I had no chance. I found myself bouncing off him as he held his ground. I found myself heaving up desperate long-range bombs as he chased me around the perimeter. And my only hope of stopping him from scoring was, of course, fouling. That means pushing, grabbing, hitting and hacking. He was, most of the time, a good sport about it. He even let me win at times.
When he decided he wanted to join the Army, my wife and I weren’t wild about it, because we love him and want him safe and sound, not somewhere there will be guns and bombs aimed at him. But we supported him. When he graduated from boot camp, I, along with my wife, our oldest son and Ray’s then-fiancee (married now) traveled to Fort Leonard Wood, from Kauai, some 10,000 miles roundtrip. It was a proud moment when his name was called and he walked across the stage, very serious, strong and tall.
He spent a day with us before he was shipped out to Fort Sill, in Oklahoma, for his advanced training. The day he was to leave on his bus, we were waiting at Fort Leonard Wood for our small Cape Air plane ride to St. Louis, where we were to catch a plane for Seattle, then to Kauai.
I decided, since we had a few hours until our plane’s departure, to go for a run. I assumed that was OK, to be running on this military base, and headed out on a paved path that ran parallel to a road. As I ran, I passed training sites on my left, where soldiers were practicing with small arms. Beyond the thick brush and trees across the road to my right, explosions boomed. No one, I presumed, would be shooting in my direction, so I ran on.
I passed more soldiers, more gunfire, more large-caliber mortars, even a small military cemetery. I stopped and watched the young men, silently thanked them for their courage and prayed for their safety. This was to be my son’s life in the years to come.
As I was turning back, a text message arrived from Ray. He was heading out, aboard a bus. I watched for it on the road below the path I was on and, sure enough, a few minutes later, two buses of soldiers rumbled down the road. I stopped and waved to both. I had no idea if Ray could see me. I imagined these soldiers were amused by a shirtless, middle-aged man wearing running shorts standing there waving frantically with both hands.
“Look at that crazy old man,” might have been something one of them said.
I’ll give you crazy.
As the buses rolled out of sight, I started running again and glanced at my watch. Whoops. I had about 30 minutes to our plane’s departure and a few miles to cover to get there. Go man.
I ran hard. No more sightseeing. No time to wave. No watching soldiers training. But, as easily distracted as I am, I stopped when I saw several bald eagles swooping and gliding near the tree tops in the distance. They were coming my way. Closer, closer, until one passed right over me. A good sign, I thought. It must be a good sign. Had to be.
I ran again.
A few minutes later, I arrived, just in time to clear security and board our small plane.
As we flew away from Fort Leonard Wood, I stared out the window and surveyed the base. It was sprawling, and seemed to stretch out for miles. This is where my son learned to be a soldier. This is where he learned to fight for his country. He was trained in handling small arms. He knew how to fire heavy artillery. He could take care of himself, and others, too.
He’s a warrior now.
As for me, I’m thankful for the freedom to run seven miles.
Bill Buley is the editor-in-chief of The Garden Island. He can be reached at email@example.com.