By Andy Weddington
Friday, 16 October 2009
Not quite four weeks ago I received an out-of-the-blue email from a woman who had stumbled on my gallery website. Actually, emails from strangers--men and women alike--are quite common inquiring about the availability of paintings and books, pursuing a commission, or just offering a kind comment. That's the whole point of having a website and e-commerce--world-wide accessibility. But this particular email, from Dawn, was different.
Dawn introduced herself by mentioning a name (images of a pretty blonde--and her brother--came to mind deep from the memory bank) from my childhood I had not thought about for well over three decades. Turns out Wendy was a lifelong friend of Dawn's and the two of them, new to FaceBook, were trying to locate anyone and everyone they could think of from their youth. During their search, the name of one of my younger brothers--who they had graduated a year behind in high school--and mine came up. In her note, Dawn commented that we had never met. She is correct; a portraitist from an early age, I do not forget faces--or names.
Dawn went on to say that stumbling on my website was a fluke as she believed she was searching FaceBook, vice Google, when she entered my name into the search window. As it turned out, she confessed, her mistake led to the better part of an hour perusing paintings. That's always nice to hear! So impressed, a few days later she bought one (even better). Ironically, the painting she bought--one from the Bahamas, I had received a query about only the day before she sent her note. Her purchase validation that there is something to be said for the adage, "He who hesitates loses." The first inquirer about the painting--when informed it was sold--humorously sent me a note that such was the story of his life and he inquired about a finder's fee. His query struck me as really funny since he had no connection with Dawn. So, I laughed--out loud--and told him so and suggested he pick out another painting. Well, Joe?
But there is more to this story. As Dawn and I corresponded to coordinate payment and shipment of the painting, the names of more and more people from our much younger days began to surface--many we had in common. In most cases, people I had lost contact with and not thought about for nearly 35 years. Dawn (and Wendy with sidebars with Dawn) and I had some interesting "conversations" and it was more than a bit intriguing not knowing whose name would next come up.
And the story gets better still...
Dawn, having read I was a retired Marine, offered that after a year of college she realized she was not yet ready for that life and it was time for a change--so, rather than half-step, she took a great big, bold, courageous leap and enlisted in the U. S. Marine Corps. Alright, now I am beginning to learn a bit about Dawn and a big part of her character.
Shortly after business with her recruiter was complete and like all Marines--Dawn found herself on a lonely, late night bus ride heading for Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island--the historic, and to some, mysterious, spit of land in the South Carolina low country surrounded by tidal swamp and protected by big alligators and rattlesnakes. That bus ride is purposively designed to build anticipation and a bit of anxiety, and give recruits quiet time for some serious soul searching. For once aboard the Depot, life abruptly changes. Debarking the bus, a pair of yellow footprints--the starting point--awaited Dawn. For the three months that followed she was transformed from civilian to Marine--and would never be the same; as you will read. She graduated from recruit training--having passed every mental and physical test the Corps threw at her. Now a basic Marine, Dawn had earned her eagle, globe, and anchor, and title--for life--"Marine."
Dawn served for one enlistment during the early '80s. She wrote me that her time in the Corps was a life-changing experience--for the good. But as Marines well know, there is no such thing as "Ex" or "Former" Marines. Marines are: active duty, reserve, retired, not in a uniform duty status, or dead. That's it. Master Sergeant Paul Woyshner, USMC, said it best, "Once a Marine, always a Marine."
Rather than re-craft Dawn's memories, I thought it best to simply share bits of them as she recollected for me a time in her life--that began 29 years ago--that changed her forever.
"...After I graduated from HS, I attended college for one year, but was in no way ready for college. To this day, I do not know what made me do it but I enlisted in the Marine Corps. My brother had just received an appointment to the Naval Academy, so I suspect that was my impetus. [After recruit training] I attended basic electronics school for one year in 29 Palms and then the remainder of my sole tour was spent in Cherry Point. After 4 years in the USMC, I was more than ready for college. It truly changed my outlook on life and I am grateful for the experience."
As fate would have it, my brother, whom she mentioned and was searching for on FaceBook, was flying attack jets--AV-8As (Harriers)--at Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point, NC, during the same timeframe Dawn was there. They did not know of each other's presence. Small Corps--I believe I've mentioned that just a time or two in previous Commentaries.
"...After school in 29 Palms, I was stationed at Cherry Point in MACG-28 MTDS. I was one of 3 WM's [Women Marines] in the squadron which had roughly 270 men. We had a very ambitious CO [Commanding Officer] and as a result, I was one of the first women in the Corps to qualify with an M-16. I went to the rifle range every year with the rest of them!!! I have to tell you though that I loved it. There is nothing like sitting in the pits, pulling targets and listening to the conversation of a bunch of Marines!!! I went on every field deployment and many NATO exercises. Most of my time was spent living in the field. I suspect that [today] it is pretty common place for WM's, but when I was in, there were very few women going to the field. While in basic training, I managed to ace all of the tests that are administered to the recruits. This fact was discovered upon my arrival at MACS-6 and as a result, I was "allowed" the opportunity to attend virtually every single school offered aboard Cherry Point. I was the first WM to graduate at the top of the class in NBC school, but when my name came up on the selection roster for DI...I had to bid my friends a fond farewell. There was no way in hell I was waking up every day at 3am!!"
Interestingly, had Dawn reenlisted and been ordered to Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, for duty as a Drill Instructor, we'd have been there at the same time. Though Parris Island is quite small, it is possible, but not probable, our paths would have crossed. Since males and females were trained in separate commands there would have been no professional reason for us to interact.
"My life is so vastly different from those days. My husband owns a very successful company and I am lucky enough to have been afforded some of life's "goodies." My days are spent volunteering at the NC History Museum and a handful of other charitable events. As the years have passed, memories and emotions have dimmed to an extent, but I recently experienced a surge of pride that caught me totally by surprise. At a fund raising benefit, an acquaintance announced to a large group that her son had just been accepted to West Point and that her family was so thrilled. One gentlemen had the ignorance to ask why they were all so excited... that there were far more distinguished careers to be had. I really thought I was going to come across the table (ball gown and all) and grab him by his throat. That was the night that all of my friends of 20+ years found out I was a Marine!! I may not have changed his mind, but I suspect he will never verbalize his ignorance again."
Ah, yes, the Marine spirit--it burns for life! Responding to her fund-raiser story I wrote back, "As to that buffoon of a loudmouth gentleman who made the derogatory remark in reference to your friend's West Point appointment--without even so much as fair warning, you should have cold-cocked him and left your Marine calling card! Now that would have left an indelible impression--on him and everyone else."
"The only other person in my life that I have kept in constant contact with is BJ (Barbara Jean) Younger, one of the finest WM's that the USMC has ever had. Together, she and I ran daily in our combat boots, smoking cigars and stepping on baby copperheads. Together, we waded through knee deep mud in Denmark setting up radar huts and rolling cable. Together, we went 32 days without the benefit of a shower, worked 4 days straight with a total of 6 hours of sleep and embarked the entire MTDS/OP Comm portion of the squadron back to Cherry Point. Together, we weathered a total of 4 field trips to Bogue Field and 3 to Radar Island. Together, she and I practiced endless hours to master the manual of arms so that we could stand with our male counterparts during parades and inspections and it was BJ and I that requested mast with the Commandant of the Marine Corps when our CO refused to let us march in the parade in which our squadron was given a medal for its participation in the Denmark NATO exercise. Our friendship transcends both time and space and always will."
I learned much about Dawn--who left the Corps as a Sergeant--during our few emails. She is still every bit a Marine and exemplifies what the Corps strives to do with everyone that serves in the elite brotherhood--whether for one enlistment or 40 years. That is, return them to their community a better citizen. No question, Dawn is a Marine Corps success story. She is a better citizen--individual, spouse, mother, friend, etc.--for being a Marine.
She told me she would love to see her teenage high school daughter become a Marine officer. Her hope would be that such come about, "...through an appointment to the Naval Academy...my personal thoughts are that it just doesn't get any "sweeter" than that!! She would have my full support at all times!!!"
Quite a testament to the impact the Marine Corps made on Dawn. Time will tell what her daughter decides to do--as Mom (and Dad) continue preparing her to tackle the world. I have never met Dawn, her husband, or her daughter. But, I would not bet against her daughter one day becoming a Marine.
The most recent tidbit I learned about Dawn and her time in the Corps is that she also had quite a positive and memorable experience serving with 3rd LAAM (Light Anti-Air Missile) while stationed at Cherry Point. In short, the dynamics of that unit was a team, composed of a company-grade officer--typically a First Lieutenant--and an NCO, trained and operated together. Of course, radio communications required use of call signs. Initial call sign naming privileges for the NCO rested with the officer and the call sign followed the NCO for the remainder of their service. In Dawn's case, the lieutenant she worked for had been an involuntary drop from flight school due to medical problems that could not be resolved. Reassigned to a ground specialty, he reported to Cherry Point for his new duties. He kept his flight school call sign--"Dog Chow." Though Dawn regularly queried him for her call sign he had yet to decide on the right one. And one day it finally struck him--"Puppy Chow." In her words, "It was perfect. We were a great team."
And so Dawn honorably left active duty with another memento from her days in the Corps--one in which, to this day, she cherishes and takes much pride in. Dawn told me "Dog Chow" retired a colonel a few years ago--about the same time as me. I did not know him. I wish I did--what a nice fit to this story that would have been.
There is no doubt "Puppy Chow" was and remains a great Marine. And how fortuitous for me to have another Marine friend--especially one from back home in North Carolina. As I have many ties--family and friends--to the tarheel state, one day Dawn and I will meet; a day I look forward to. Thanks, Dawn, for making contact and giving me another small world Marine tale to spin into a light Commentary.
Semper Fidelis, my friend. And, "Keep the Faith!"
For more insight and humor on call signs, read the Commentary, "BANANA CALLS "BINGO"--HEADIN' HOME" posted on Friday, 02 October 2009.