Saluting a Friend
By Bill McFadyen
They were very familiar to me at church that morning. She was graceful and comely. He was that angular, trim guy, obviously military, certainly an officer with rank. They had regularly been to church here before, I was sure. They had gone away, and now they were back.
I spoke to them as if I remembered their names. We had sons in the same grade and daughters close in age. Their daughter was who I remembered most.
Half a dozen years ago, First Presbyterian Church tore down a crumbling building and built a state-of-the-art one. Fundraising was essential. My wife and I were involved with the junior high youth Sunday School at the time. At home, we also had taken on a new brood of one dozen chicks, the next laborers of our Eastover Egg Company. (It never made us rich; we always ate the profit.)
For a class fundraiser, we held the first ever First Prez Chicken Derby. Most Presbyterians believe that anything is okay in moderation, and so we figured gambling on the grounds was not a mortal sin, as long as the proceeds went towards the new building. For our racetrack, we brought in a round horse watering trough, turned it upside down as an elevated infield and strung fluorescent vinyl fencing in a larger circle around it. The open ground between the vinyl fence and the horse trough was the racetrack.
We named the peeps things like Barbie Q, Cordon Bleu and Sonny Side-up. We asked $5 for each prediction of which peep would be the fastest to cross the finish line. The winner’s name escapes me, but the kids raised several hundreds of dollars and everyone at church from that time remembers the Chicken Derby.
One of the lasting memories from that day was a photograph of a pre-teen student holding Barbie Q. Both the peep and she have the most tender looks on their faces. That girl in the picture was Madeleine Clarke, and on this day she was standing in front of me as a young woman. Her family had returned to Fort Bragg and to our church family. She attended with her parents, Richard and Suzanne Clarke, and her brother, Will.
After a few more reunions and re-acquaintances at church, Susie and I invited Rich and Suzanne to our house. It was the day of the Holy Trinity Lobster Fundraiser, when the Episcopalians ship in live lobsters for anyone willing to pay the price. We bought four.
It was a frosty night. Susie put on her show for Suzanne in the kitchen with fancy niblets and apéritifs. In the garage, Rich and I cranked up the Bose via Bluetooth. It was a Tom Petty-themed Pandora station and we opened two brown bottles of Amstel Light. The propane blower kept things at about 60 degrees. The pot was boiling over the gas cooker. We were happily comparing life histories.
Then came the seminal moment when I socially blundered. Fortunately, it was also the moment when an abiding friendship was born, complete with a rapid growth curve taking a new friendship to life-long status.
“Rich,” I said, “you are a full Colonel, aren’t you?”
He paused just a moment, choosing a gentle path down which his correcting words would take: “Well, Bill…actually, I am a General.”
I put my foot in my mouth. Still, in an effort to save an ounce of cool, I responded, “Well, congratulations on getting your star!”
“Well, Bill…actually I have two stars.” Geez. Royalty. I may as well have offered a Sun Drop to the Queen of England. Then he said this: “But I am really kind of glad that you did not know.” It meant something to the man that until that moment, Major General Richard D Clarke, Jr, Commander of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, was just a really cool dude from church that I wanted for a new pal.
As the night passed, four lobsters sacrificed their lives to give birth to a wonderful friendship between the Clarkes and the McFadyens, and between our children as well. We listened to Dire Straits and the Rolling Stones, swapped vignettes of our college days and marriages and parenting and careers. We talked about Fayetteville. We talked of God and Country.
When the invitation was returned, and as the McFadyens drove to their house on post in my truck, the one with the expired license plate, security rightfully would not let us in. We retreated. Rich and Suzanne met us at a convenience store. Rich got in with me and drove my truck and Susie rode with Suzanne in their vehicle. We approached a gate reserved for military personnel. The young soldier came seeking identification. Before he could ask, Rich handed it out the window and earnestly asked how everything was going. I was struck by the sincerity and compassion that this highly-ranked officer displayed for this pup of a soldier pulling weekend night duty at a guard station. And then I was struck by how many additional vertebra the enlisted man sprouted when he saw the proffered ID card. With a solemnity befitting Arlington, he dignifiedly saluted and said words I don’t think I ever noticed before, but which I have heard and remembered in context so many times since: “All the way, sir!”
Neither dinners downtown with us nor weekly Sunday School lessons nor beers at The German Diner could sway the Clarkes to stay here once the Pentagon called, inviting General Clarke to take an open chair at one of their desks. They left Fort Bragg in early August. It was the 19th move during their married life. Rich jumped out of an airplane in July before leaving and he ran PT with random platoons all the days until he left. General Clarke is a soldier’s soldier. He is a patriot. He is a watchman in the night for other sleeping Americans. He will do his duty at his desk as he always has on our nation’s literal battlegrounds, but I know he will long for open doors of C-130’s and for morning runs down Longstreet.
just hope he longs to, one more night, be a full Colonel again, eating a
hot lobster tail in a cold garage with side dishes of rock and roll
music and propane fumes. I hope me misses me like I already miss him.