Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Mama, Mama, Can’t You See?

5 comments

Marine Corps cadence:
Caller: I used to sit at home all day
Called: I used to sit at home all day
Letting my life just slip away
Letting my life just slip away

Then one day a man in blue
Then one day a man in blue
Said "Son, I got a job for you.
Said "Son, I got a job for you.

It's January, the snow is heavy on the roadsides and piled high in parking lots; it's too cold to be out so I'm at the Perinton Community Center running the track. It's 16 laps to the mile, repetitious, monotonous, an unchanging view as I circle around. I'll run 3 miles this morning, 48 laps, plus a few warm-up and cool-down laps. It would be so easy to stop, out of boredom, out of fatigue. But I don't stop. The Marine Corps Drill Instructor calling cadences in my ear won't let me.
Come August, my first born, my son Nick will leave home to join the Marines. He'll head to boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, where he'll endure the hardest physical training of his life. It is the rite of passage, as much into manhood as Marinehood. He must get strong, be strong, stay strong to pass. Being a Marine is the only thing he wants to do with his life, the only path worth traveling.

Nick has been training with the Marine recruiters in Rochester NY since his acceptance into the Delayed Entry Program last August, the day after he turned 17. He works out with the other enlistees. It's a taste of boot camp, a glimpse of what is to come. Nick comes home sweat-stained, aching, and deliriously happy.

At Saturday PT (physical training), the Staff Sergeant pushes the enlistees through pull-ups, sit-ups, mountain-climbers, more forms of push-ups than Nick ever knew existed, and then the run. When the weather is good, they run as a squad through the streets of Rochester, the leader carrying the Marine Corps flag. The Staff Sergeant calls cadences, the enlistees puffing back the responses while trying to keep up. At first, Nick lags far behind, unaccustomed to running at all, let alone at this quick pace, but he works hard to keep up so that he can hear the cadences and be part of the answer.

In the Fall, we ran together weekdays on the towpath along the old Erie Canal. It's flat and quiet and he doesn't worry about anyone from school seeing him struggle along. I can outrun him, not in speed but in distance. I slowly plod along, keeping a steady rhythm. He dashes off out of view and when I catch up, he's sitting under a bridge waiting for me. We are the tortoise and the hare until we both tire and walk a portion together. He tells me about the book he's reading on the life of famous Marine Chesty Puller, or what questions were asked on Mail Call, a military question-and-answer show on the History Channel. Or we talk about Keeping Faith, a book about boot camp that we have both read. The author, recruit John Schaeffer, had been a cross-country runner and he found boot camp difficult. I don't say anything to Nick but I wonder how he will make it, not having played high school sports at all. When he reads the book before bed, he tells me, he gets so jazzed up, he can't sleep.

When we start to run again, he tries to call a cadence from Saturday morning PT:
Mama and Papa were lying in bed
Mama rolled over to Papa and said
Gimme some!
PT!
Good for you!
Good for me!

He calls, I answer. He only remembers snippets and mumbles the parts he has forgotten. I mumble likewise in response.

***

For Christmas, I ordered a CD for him: Running to the Cadences of the Marine Corps. He loves it. Designed to keep you running on pace, it's 41 minutes of real Drill Instructors calling cadences and real recruits responding. Their boots pound in rhythm as they run. Recorded at Parris Island, this is the real thing.

I hear the cadences playing in his room, the DIs calling, him responding. I get the urge to run to the cadences. I wonder if Nick feels it too. Now that the snow has made it impossible to run on the towpath, he's stopped running during the week. I suggest the track at the Community Center but he doesn't want to do that. It worries me that he's not running enough. I'm afraid he won't make it through boot camp and then, I don't know what he'll do with his life. He has no contingency plan, he feels that certain. He will be a Marine or nothing at all.

I buy a small MP3 player and load the cadences onto it. Alone, I take it to the track at the Community Center and start to run. It's a challenge to keep the faster pace the Drill Instructors set. I'm winded after 20 minutes rather than my usual poky 30 minutes. Next time, I push myself 25 minutes, then 30, 35. By March, I can run the full set of cadences: 4 miles in 41 minutes.

***

Caller: Mothers of America, meek and mild
Called: Mothers of America, meek and mild
Give to me your sweet young child.
Give to me your sweet young child.
We'll make him drill and we'll make him run.
We'll make him drill and we'll make him run.
We'll make some changes in your young son.
We'll make some changes in your young son.

It is August and the time has come for Nick to leave. Over the past weeks, he has cleaned out his room, tossing out junk and packing away the things he wants to keep. It is hard to watch. Unlike his peers who are going away to college but will return home, he is acutely aware that when his enlistment is completed in four years, he'll be too accustomed to being on his own to ever live at home again. He will be back only as a visitor when he receives leave. He is 17 and after years of preaching independence to him and encouraging a life of his own, of putting my voice in his head that nags him to Do Something, it now seems unreasonable that he should go until he's at least 30.

Thousands have taken this path before at this age or younger, and I realize I'm being irrational. It's not that he's too young; it's that 17 years has gone too fast. I need more time, more days with him. I want to do it all over again. I want to feel him percolating inside of me, expanding my belly, giving me the stretch marks I wear as medals. I want to feel the pain and glory of his birth, the incredible feeling that my body, the one I always thought of as too short, too fat, too lazy, actually produced this tiny being of perfection. I want to feel the relief as he drains my breast and watch the sensation throw him into a spasm of joy, his eyes rolling back in his head in delirium. I want to change his diapers again, especially the ones I complained about. To watch him roll over, sit up, crawl, walk, run, climb a tree - watch it all like a rewound video tape, this time in slow motion. School starts and he learns to read. Homework, teacher's conferences, hockey practice, science fairs, karate classes. Then the dark years after the divorce when he secluded himself in his room, seeking refuge in online friends, video games, and TV. Then the emergence from his cocoon, the day he told me he wanted to be a Marine. And all the days that followed when I said, "No, you cannot be a Marine in war time" because I was afraid, day after day until I saw that he was not afraid, that my fear was for me, that I could not bear to have him in harm's way. Unable to let my cowardice hold him back from what he was willing to do, needed to do, I signed the enlistment papers and let him go.

He is ready to go. His recruiter arrives in the white government car wearing his dress blues, looking sharp. We take pictures with him where I'm smiling, laughing, proud, and happy. I am so damn proud of him: for choosing this difficult thing, for actually doing it, for being so focused and motivated.

Then it is time to go. I hug him and he still feels like my baby. I start to cry. I bury my face in his neck and although he is hard with thin muscle and bone, he still smells like my baby. I want to tell him how much I love him but I only sob. I can't let go. He pats my back and tells me it's OK. He wants me to let go, I'm embarrassing him, but I can't. I don't want him to go but he can't stay and be my perpetual baby. I want him to go. I want him to stay.
He slips into the front seat of the government car. He looks so happy that he's finally on his way. I wave and blow kisses and he smiles shyly. As the car pulls out, I resist the urge to run after it, demanding the return of what once was mine.

***

The next day, Nick calls at 9:30 a.m. from Buffalo. He has passed the physical and the drug test, and sworn the Marine's Oath of Enlistment. He will soon depart for the airport.
"Where are you flying into, honey?" I ask.

"I don't know, Mom. I just go where they tell me to go and do what they tell me to do." He is already adapting to the process.

He tells me he has to go, I tell him I love him, and then he's gone. It will be the last time I will talk to him until I see him at graduation thirteen weeks from now.

On this day, he'll fly south, maybe to Atlanta, maybe to Charleston to meet up with the other enlistees. They will be herded onto a bus and driven to Parris Island under the darkness of the coastal night. They will sit in silent anticipation, fear, dread, excitement hovering over the seats, fogging the windows. In the black silence of the night, a Drill Instructor will thunder onto the bus, declare it property of the United States Marine Corps, that its current inhabitants are not Marines, they are sloppy civilians, and therefore do not deserve to be on his bus. He will order them off to stand on the yellow footprints printed in tight formation on the still hot pavement.

I remember Nick's first day of kindergarten. That morning, he packed his supplies in his backpack, put it on his back the way he saw the big kids do, and was good to go. We waited at the end of the driveway until the big yellow bus came and swallowed him whole. I was happy to see him go. He could have stayed home with me too easily. Things were smooth between us, comfortable, as if we had known each other for eons instead of just five short years. He would have been satisfied to play with his toys: Batman, the plastic medieval castle, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He didn't need to learn to read because I read to him. No need for math because I could figure out any numbers he needed to know. I was even good at snack time. But he couldn't stay with me, letting me take care of him. He needed to venture outside the faded walls of our suburban split-level.

At the end of the school day, I waited for his bus at the end of the driveway. I heard it rumbling up the long hill, watched it slow at the driveway, then take off without releasing Nick. I ran after it, waving my arms and shouting. The driver stopped, asked who I was looking for, then called back for him. Looking very small, Nick emerged from the bus. When I asked him why he hadn't gotten off, he said, "Nothing looked like home."

On the night Nick's bus is due to pull into Parris Island, I wait up. It's midnight, one, two, and as I lay awake in bed, I imagine him looking as small and lost as on his first day of school. This time, there will be no bus to bring him back to the driveway. For the next three months, the beginning of his adult, independent life, he will live and drill in a place that looks nothing like home.

I am waiting up for him because I want to know he has arrived safely, that he has begun what he planned for, read about, prepared for, what he wants most. I am waiting up to make sure he gets a good start. Somehow, I don't know how, I will know when he has placed his sloppy civilian sneakers on the yellow footprints, taking the first step to becoming a Marine.

Finally, at three, I sleep. When I wake at eight, I dress in my running shorts and t-shirt. On the canal path, I plug in the MP3 player, turn up the volume, and wait for the DI to order me to double-time. I run and I wonder if Nick has taken the run test: 1.5 miles in less than 13 minutes. I wonder if he has passed.

I run. Not fast but as steady as the call of the cadence. Left, right, lo-righty, lefty, right. Maybe Nick is running now; I run so that he will run better, my strength fueling his, the only thing I can think of to do to ease my desire to help him. We run together this way, DI calling, platoon answering, steady bootfalls in our ears, pushing us on, running together 800 miles apart.


Gretchen Stahlman is a writer living in upstate New York, where she raised her two sons. Using running to cope with her son’s service and two tours in Iraq, she has run several half and full marathons. Nick, however, has completed his service and vows he will never run again.


More from



That was so awesome! It was like I was there with him as well. Your story swallowed me up like the big yellow bus swallowed the 5 year old taking him off to school. It was mesmerizing...as I am sure the cadence is mesmerizing to you when you run. Thank you for your heart-felt story. I was crying and laughing at the same time.
Beautiful. I appreciate the way you stuck to your own perspective and left out any suppositions you may have had about your son's perspective. The result is a thoroughly engrossing narrative that truthfully mirrors what I feel when I anticipate my child heading out on his own. Thank you for a moment of literary connection.
Tears. Everywhere.
Unexpected and beautiful. Thank you.
I couldn't stop reading this. I'm a mom of two baby boys and my younger (adult) brother just enlisted with the Army. As much as I rebel at the thought of my babies one day following in their uncle's footsteps it will ultimately be their choice. Reading your story helped me see how I could live with that choice. I hope your son is well and safe and living the life he dreamed of.
Comments are now closed for this piece.