NEW YORK--The skinny woman sitting next to me on the non-stop to Cincinnati wore an oversized red T-shirt. "Marines," it said. She was 20 (she told me), African-American and scruffier than the average city girl. She flipped through a glossy brochure to a page of a chisel-jawed, all-American (white) man in a dark-blue dress uniform. "You've taken the first step," it read. "You've joined a proud tradition of service. Now here are some things you need to know."
The marine ruffled through her purse. The address on some letters revealed that she lived in Far Rockaway, a hard-luck outpost of Queens beneath the JFK airport flight path. Technically, this beach-resort-cum-ghetto is part of New York City, but the two hours it takes the subway to get there from Times Square tells the demographic story. Until fairly recently, running water hadn't been available to the entire peninsula. She took out a spiral notebook, her diary. "I have never been so scared," she wrote.
This is 2007, not 2002. Who joins the military at a time like this, when we're fighting two wars, wars we're losing and that the public has turned against? I introduced myself. I wanted to learn where recruiters were finding replacements for the thousands of marines coming back from the Middle East on stretchers or in caskets.
For this native of a Rockaway high-rise housing project, Cincinnati was just a connection. Her destination was Parris Island, South Carolina. Basic training. "I didn't tell my friends until after I'd done it," she said. She smiled a got-one-over smirk. The Marines had her under contract for eight years: six in active duty followed by two in the reserves. "Plus, as needed after that."
"Are your parents supportive of ... this?" I asked her.
"They're both dead," she replied. "It's just me." She looked out the window.
I kept thinking what I'd seen her write. "Are you worried about combat, like in Iraq or Afghanistan?"
Now she forced herself to smile. "Oh, they're not sending me there," she assured me. "They're going to keep me over here."
"They are?" I said, poker-faced.
"Computers," she said. "They're going to train me to do computers--computer stuff."
The tiniest tear formed in the corner of one of her eyes. It was probably just the bright sunshine.
I changed the subject.
"Why'd you choose the Marines?" I asked. I knew she hadn't enlisted to get revenge for 9/11 or to kick Ay-rab butt. She was too New York smart for that.
"I wasn't doing anything," she said. "All I did was sit on my boyfriend's couch playing Playstation. I needed direction ... focus. I thought the Marines could help me with that."
"I'm sure they can," I said, meaning it.
"They said they can help me go to college afterward," she added.
"That's true," I said. "How much money can you get for tuition?" When I'd investigated the military as a career (I was a high school senior), the tuition benefit wouldn't have been enough for me to pay for a state college.
She hadn't asked; they hadn't told.
As we entered the jetway in Cincinnati, a tall businessman tapped my shoulder. "I was sitting behind you," he said. "Yeah?" I asked.
"Computers!" He rolled his eyes. "Right. They are so shipping that poor girl to Iraq." I watched her trudge to a bank of video monitors to check the gate assignment for her flight to South Carolina.
My return flight to New York required me to connect at O'Hare. The seat next to me remained vacant until the last passenger bounded aboard. "Good morning!" said my cheery rowmate. He was health-club fit, chipper and eager-eyed, wearing a million-dollar smile, despite the fact of it being early--not even six--in the morning.
"I am so dead," he said. He expected me to ask why. I did.
"My buddies told me I'm not going to get any sleep all weekend!" he exclaimed. "It's going to be crazy. Just the four of us guys, tearing up Austin--scamming on girls, partying like wild men, whatever we want. Insane."
My gregarious companion was white, 20 years old, and wearing a shirt by an Italian designer I like but whose clothes I can't afford. His parents, who are both alive, healthy and prosperous, live in an Arts and Crafts-style house in the upscale suburb of Cleveland Heights, Ohio. A senior at the University of Cincinnati, he had switched his major from business to psychology. Next up: med school. After that, a career as a psychiatrist.
"I'll still have a minor in business," he explained, "because it will be useful when applying for financing to open a practice." When his father had taken issue with his decision to change the focus of his studies, he had remained firm while retaining his happy-go-lucky demeanor.
"Dad, I said, if you decide not to pay for school because of my decision, I'll totally understand. I'll take out student loans and get a job and support myself. But it's my life, and I've researched the options. I've thought everything through, and I think this is the best way to go."
His old man, persuaded by the young man's focus and determination, chose to continue funding his education.
"Did you drink a lot in college?" he asked me as we landed.
"Of course," I said.
"Got any advice for me?"
"Drink one big glass of water for every drink you have before you go to sleep," I counseled, "and you'll reduce or eliminate your hangover."
The future psychiatrist bounded down the aisle to catch his flight to a wild weekend in Austin.