Meet my new friend Gary. Wide as he is tall.
Gary had been carved out of a decent block of granite. His US Navy dress uniform was sagging under the weight of battle decorations.
We were having lunch, with a few hundred others, on board his ship. He was kind enough to invite me to share his small table.
He may have been concerned that I was about to spill my over-loaded plastic plate onto the shiny deck we were standing on. Like any good officer, solving problems early.
We began chatting. He called me Sir. In every sentence. Such courtesy wasn’t necessary, but I wasn’t game to argue. He had biceps capable of hurling me to the other side of the river.
Gary loves Australia. Told me the drunkest episode of his life took place in Sydney, on his first tour.
His favourite memory of that night is how some Aussies carried him and his buddy back to their ship. I reckon those doing the carrying must have been weightlifters.
Two junior officers joined us. The Sirs now came in triplicate.
These two were almost as thick-set as Gary. For a brief moment I lost sight of the sun.
They had promotions pending, and were banned from the grog. Gary teased them with an icy cold Australian beer, which he demolished in seconds. They shook their large, bald heads, and smiled. I could tell they looked up to him.
The junior giants moved on, removing themselves from our table of temptation, and Gary started telling me a little about himself.
His career in the Navy started 22 years ago. He’d been around the world several times over. Lots of war zones.
Last year, he’d been at sea for 270 days. About 9 months of the year away from loved ones.
He hasn’t been at home for Christmas Day since 2006. Following orders, in another time zone. I told him my girls get upset if I’m not sitting with them opening presents by 5am.
Gary laughed at that. And he wasn’t complaining. But it was clear that missing such important events was troubling him. The downside of dedicating your life to protecting others.
For just a second, I thought the tough-as-teak Navy man might shed a tear. His daughter had just turned 16. And he wasn’t there. He sent his love, long distance, over the phone.
She understood. Proud of what dad does. But not before she reminded him that it was the sixth consecutive birthday he’d missed. Since she was 10. That’s a lot of cake.
Her phone call had him thinking seriously about the future. We stopped talking, as he gazed across the river. It became clear that under that giant exterior, a heart was aching.
We stood in silence for a while. Then Gary outlined his grand plan, for when he returns to civilian life. He wants to train security officers. Maybe join the office of Homeland Security. Even his local police force.
But to do that, Gary would have to move. His voice lowered, as he told me that there was too much racism where he was raised. Still.
This proud African-American, who had risked life and limb for his country over two decades, wasn’t seen as a hero in his home town. Just another black man. No place to keep a family.
So sad. On his ship, his second home, colour and ethnic origin mean little. As long as you pull your weight, you’re part of the team. Everyone fighting for the same side.
It was time for visitors to go. He flashed a smile, shook my hand with his giant paw, and thanked me for sharing lunch. The pleasure was all mine.
I said that if he had time between fighting wars and soothing daughters, I’d like to keep in touch. He thought that sounded like a fine idea.
Through e-mail, we’ll keep tabs on how life pans out. He’s promised to give me a full description of that birthday party. And how the family settles into their new home, in their new state. They’ll be lucky to have him.
I admire my new friend Gary. So sad that a blind few in his own country can’t see that he’s a hero. His daughter will remember though, when he’s producing giant gusts to blow out those candles next year. I’ll let you know how he goes.