Never Again Volunteer Yourself … NAVY. I stared blankly at those words etched into the gray metal wall of the bathroom stall that I had chosen to hide in. Many times before I had seen these words, every single day that I was subjected to the horrors of boot camp in Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Michigan. As I balanced my hips atop the toilet tank and my boots perched on either side of the well-used toilet lid in my vain effort to avoid detection and steal two minutes of sleep, I rested my aching head against the cool metal wall and dared to close my tired bloodshot eyes as I tried valiantly to stop the ever-threatening tears. What the hell had I done? I had scribbled my flowery signature on hundreds of pieces of paper authorizing these people to scream at me, call me names, and taunt me that I will never see my children again because I was now “POG” (Property Of the Government).
The days blurred together. Eighty females in a long hallowed out rectangle of a room that could serve as a warehouse in the future was our home for these long endless days and nights. Bunk beds stacked two high stood in symmetrical rows on either side of my temporary prison. Everything was the same. The sheets, pillows, uniforms, boots, socks, sweat pants. Identical. After a few weeks of intense sleep deprivation, even the other seventy-nine females began to look alike with their cropped hair that hung jaggedly to the ears - the wonderful work of the most unskilled government appointed hair dressers in the country.
How was I going to make it through? My mistake had been thinking that three months or so was not that long. I could place my children in the care of my mother while I breezed through basic training, and all would be fine. What the hell was I thinking? Each day was an eternity of endless worry of where my babies were, what they were doing, if they were safe. Had they eaten? Did my mother make sure they brushed their teeth? Did my youngest make it to violin practice? Having one phone call a month that lasted an entire five minutes only added to the torture of not being home.
The sudden echo of my name reverberating off the plain white cement block walls as the Chief Petty Officer screamed for me jolted me out of my reverie. I half jumped and half fell off of the commode in my haste to vacate my cell of a bathroom. “Coming, Chief!” I yelled back, running towards him. He screamed at me that I was not special and neither were my bathroom breaks. We were going to the galley for chow, and my absence was a new world crisis. Funny that he did not notice the other couple of females scurrying behind me as they took their place in the height line that we had habitually learned to form so we could march to our destination.
The closer graduation day came, the more faith I lost in myself and my ability to endure the daily rigors of this place. It was no longer shameful to lie awake in our twin sized little bunks and quietly sniff our way through what had become an endless river of tears and loneliness. I was not the only one who missed their children. There were a few others. We never spoke of our fears of not seeing them again, of our breakdowns when we just could not go any further without bawling for thirty seconds before the Chief heard us. We just looked away and gave one another the decency of a few solitary moments.
No one attended my graduation when it finally came. My mother lived in Florida so it was a no-brainer that I would graduate alone. Taking time off work was not something she took lightly. The children wanted to come but they were too young to travel on their own. I graduated in a blur, still a zombie riddled with grogginess from numerous weeks of sleep deprivation. I just wanted to get home.
It was late when I finally pulled into my mother’s house. Perhaps I should have waited to wake them up. They were sleeping on the couch in the living room, sprawled over each other, a light blanket haphazardly thrown on them to share.
I tapped my youngest daughter’s shoulder and whispered her name. Giant green eyes opened in my direction and disbelievingly focused on me. She was not even off the couch yet before her arms and legs were wrapped around me in a death grip. This kid was not letting go. “Are you home now?” said the scared whisper in my ear. I nodded and tried to swallow the tears in my throat. My legs were shaking so I sat down where she had lain. My oldest popped open her eyes but did not make a move. “Am I dreaming?” she asked, almost demanding. I pried my arm out of its death grip, and I pulled her close to me. Another death grip to squeeze out my remaining oxygen. I didn’t care. I squeezed them right back just as hard.
My shirt was wet from the crocodile tears of happiness my daughter’s expelled, and my cheeks were sopping wet from my own tears of relief. Relief of being home. Relief of knowing that feeling of physically holding these little bodies in my arms again. Relief that somehow, some way, I was going to do whatever it took to keep us together. I had three and a half more years of service before I could receive an honorable discharge. But my daughters knew that I was doing this for them, for us, for our little family that consisted of just the three of us.
I had never received any child support. Never any kind of support from their fathers. Only pity from people who shook their head in disapproval that I was a young single mother struggling with two kids who was obviously stricken with some sort of horrible inability to keep a man in my life to take care of us. Well, guess what? I never had any help raising my kids. And I think I have proven many times over that I don’t need any. If I can make it through military boot camp, I think I can make it through single motherhood.