Remembering Dad and never doing a touchdown dance

There’s a scene in the movie Parenthood where the older father (Jason Robards) is asking his son (Steve Martin) for parenting advice. The scene was interesting when it came out and I was in my early twenties, but now that I’m the father of two twentysomethings, I realize Robards was dropping a real truth bomb.

No matter how old your kids get, you worry about them. You say things like, “well, their adults now, they’ll have to figure it out now,” but you worry about them. As Navy parents, you may say things like, “well, (he or she) is a warrior, they’ll figure it out,” but you worry about them. You always worry about them.

And sometimes the worry is well-founded.

Fair winds and following seas, Aaron, your shipmates have the watch.

Lt. j.g. Aaron Fowler died last week during training in Hawaii. Aaron took the long road to USNA, enlisting in 2012, earning entry into the academy, and commissioning in 2018. I don’t know that my son knew him (they were in the Brigade together for two years), but as any USNA parent understands, that doesn’t matter because #YourMidIsMyMid.

As I’ve written before, military deaths have become much more personal since Noah barked out “I do!” in T-court on the sultry June day back in 2016. This was hit even closer to home, not only because he was a contemporary of my son, but also because he was an EOD.

One of my son’s best buddies went EOD which would bring it even closer to home, but it reminded me of my father.

My father was a Marine EOD during the Korean War, though he always referred to hit as “bomb disposal.” More than once I’ve been asked about my childhood and I always sum it up in one sentence – my father lied about his age to get into the Marines during the Korean War and chose to go into bomb disposal. Most people get it.

Dad never saw active duty during the war. Apparently, his boss in 29 Palms found him too valuable to the office operations there. While dad didn’t share a lot of details about his time in the Marines, he was obviously very proud of his service and asked to be buried in his blues. One of my favorite stories involved my mother, who passed away when I was only 10 or 11. For those not familiar, 29 Palms is not exactly California’s garden spot and I definitely got the sense Mom was clear about her disdain for its dusty nature.

As dad told the story, he was working at his desk when someone handed him orders. He was shipping out to Hawaii. He raced home to share the news – “Joan, we’re going to Hawaii!” After Mom stopped crying, she began packing and Dad raced back to the base to tell his boss the news. His boss looked my father in the eye and said, “Smith, if you think I saved your ass from going to Korea so you could sun yourself on the beach in Hawaii, you are sadly mistaken. You will serve the rest of your time right here.”

So when I saw Aaron was an EOD in Hawaii, I thought of my dad sharing the momentarily good news with my mother. And then I thought of a line Dad would often share when he mentioned being a Marine EOD – “… and I was the only one in my platoon to leave with all 10 fingers.”

I can’t vouch for that story’s validity, but it always drew a laugh. Now it reminds me that there was danger involved. And that’s something everyone in the Navy and Marines, including the graduates of the Naval Academy, faces even if it’s not a wartime situation. Every job has its dangers, I suppose, but it’s a different level.

The Navy has been wrestling with more than its share of tragedy as beyond Aaron’s passing came word that at least five shipmates on the USS George Washington died by suicide in the last year, including three in the last month. A young person’s death is hard to handle but suicide creates a different set of heartbreak. For someone to get to the brink of choosing, as a wise person once said, “a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” makes you grieve for the depth of despair to which someone has sunken.

All in all, somber reminders that there is no end zone, there is no touchdown dance. God bless these sailors, their families, and their shipmates.

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