MacDill AFB, Florida, 1986
First, I love you more than you’ll ever know, and every single day I’m not home I miss you and your mom so much. I wish I could be there for you all the time, but I made a choice when I joined the military, and there are a lot of good guys on my team who are counting on me. As John (my former commanding officer) would say, it’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it. Which is a cliché , but… it fits. I don’t know how much you’ll ever be able to know about what I do, but every day I get up in the morning, and every mission I go on, I hope I do my job so that you’d be proud of your dad if you knew.
If Colonel Evers wasn’t happy with my boots, I decided, he could damn well buy me a new pair. I shoved the can of polish aside, folding Jack’s letter and stuffing it in my pocket.
“Come on.” I swatted his arm, and he looked up, startled, from contemplating the concrete floor. “Let’s get out of here.”
He didn’t say anything, just followed me out of the hangar toward the motor pool. Heat poured off the black parking lot in waves, as we got in one of the base’s nondescript black cars. It was almost 1600, and the sun beating down reminded me of the time we were stationed in Key West, seven years ago.
We spent four weeks there, out of a year of Special Ops training, for the Navy’s combat diver course. We were both twenty-four, still getting to know each other. I was still getting used to his wacky sense of humor (and his unfailing ability to get us both in trouble), and he was still getting used to the fact that I actually took all this shit seriously. It became something of a tradition for us, on our rare days off, to watch the sun rise on the beach. Eventually it turned into a contest, who could wake up the earliest and get down to the beach first, and the loser got to buy the drinks that night at the officers’ club.
Jack never wanted to hear that days off in the middle of Spec Ops training were for catching up on sleep, not getting up at 0500 to watch a sunrise. He always said there was only one reason he put up with training in Florida during the summer, and that was the beaches. I’m teaching you how to enjoy life, Cromwell, he’d say. Someday you’ll thank me.
The guard at the gate saluted as we passed, and I rolled the windows all the way down as we left the base. Billboards and palm trees lined the highway, stretching flat and black away west. We were miles away from the nearest beach, but we had the rest of the day off and I’d be damned if I was gonna spend it sitting in a hangar with no air conditioning. Particularly when my best friend so clearly needed a change of scenery.
Jack squinted at the dash, playing with the radio, eventually finding a station he liked and turning it up loud enough so we could hear it over the wind through the open windows. Then he pulled his hat down over his eyes, leaning back and letting one arm hang out the window. I didn’t say anything. He knew me well enough by now that I didn’t have to.
We hadn’t been on the road long when it started raining. When it rains in Florida… The first fat drops hit the windshield when we were about halfway there. Five minutes later I could hardly see the road ahead, and the sky had turned a sickly greenish-gray.
We rolled up the windows and turned up the air, slowing down as red taillights winked to life in front of us. I glanced at Jack. “Okay, so maybe this wasn’t such a great idea,” I said wryly, flipping on the turn signal to get off the highway and turn around. He just stared at the water lashing furiously against the windshield. When he looked at me, though, there was a gleam in his eyes I hadn’t seen since we got down here.
“Come on, Frank, didn’t you ever go to the beach in the rain when you were a kid?”
The guy’s been moping around for the past week, doesn’t even crack a smile when we finally get the hell off the base and head for the beach. It starts raining buckets and now he’s happy?
I will never understand this man.
“I grew up in Tennessee, Jack,” I reminded him, flicking off the turn signal. Hell with it. We’d come this far, why turn around? “I never went to the beach ’till you and me were in Key West.”
Now he’s gonna say I was deprived as a child, I thought. There was a time when that exaggerated look of shock, and the way he was shaking his head, would’ve annoyed the hell out of me.
That was a long time ago. I was relieved now, just to see Jack being Jack again, instead of walking around like he was a hundred miles away.
“Jesus, Frank,” he said. “Were you deprived as a kid, or what?” It’s scary how well I know this guy. “I grew up in Chicago, and I went a couple times every summer.”
“In the rain?”
“Rain or shine.” He grinned. “You know, I still can’t believe you sometimes.”
I laughed. “Feeling’s mutual, Jack.”
The beaches were all deserted when we got there. It was still raining, and the sky was getting darker. There was a gate across the entrance to the first public beach we came to, but seven years in Special Ops had given me a certain disregard for rules. The car lurched as we drove up on the grass around the gate, pulling into the parking lot and coming to a stop right at the edge where the blacktop ended and the sand began.
I turned off the engine, watching as the wipers stopped beating and the view through the windshield turned to wavering silver. Jack didn’t get out, so I didn’t either, leaning back and searching for the lever to make the seat recline.
The raindrops made a hollow rattling sound against the roof of the car. I pulled out a cigarette, lit it, and held the rest out to Jack. He took one, held it to mine until the end glowed, then sat back and pulled his hat down over his face again. He didn’t say anything for a long time.
“You know what I miss most about being home?”
His voice was quiet, reflective. I looked sharply at him, taking a long drag on the cigarette, knowing I couldn’t hide the worried look from him if I tried. “What?”
Thunder rumbled overhead, and through the water streaming down the windshield I could see the ocean, the line between the sky and the gray-blue waves blurring in the storm. “I miss driving my own car.”
Jack was always coming out with stuff like that, totally out of nowhere. I just raised my eyebrows at him. “You could’ve said something, I would’ve let you drive.”
He shook his head, taking off his hat and throwing it on the dash. “Not one of these Air Force cars,” he said, tapping his cigarette against the ashtray and sighing at the center console. “It’s like… going for a seven-mile run in somebody else’s boots. Mine are all nice and broken in, but if I tried to wear yours… ”
“I’d make you clean the damn things,” I finished for him. “You’ve had that truck since before I met you. This thing — ” I smacked the dash “ — runs a hell of a lot smoother than yours.”
“But it’s so damn boring!” I couldn’t help laughing. “My truck’s got personality, at least.”
“Personality? Is that what that weird noise is when the engine starts?”
He just gave me a dirty look. “Someday when I’m home for a while, I’m gonna get a new car.”
I blew smoke in his direction. “Oh really?”
“Yup.” Lightning flashed, a crackling cord of fire cutting the sky in half, illuminating half his face starkly and throwing the rest into shadow. “And I’m gonna paint it myself. ’60’s psychedelic or something. Neon pink and orange.”
Both eyebrows up. “Neon pink and orange?” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, for about the hundredth time. Life with Jack O’Neill is never boring. Wonder what Sara will think of that?
He was nodding enthusiastically. “Maybe I’ll put ‘US Air Force’ on the hood, in blue glitter or something.”
“Blue glitter.” Sure, Jack, whatever you say. Nod and smile, Cromwell… just nod and smile.
He threw back his head and laughed, the first time I’d heard him laugh in a week. “For cryin’ out loud, Frank, you should see the look on your face.” I was picturing Jack in dress blues with those new sunglasses he just got, driving through the base in a neon pink and orange car, blasting old ’60’s music with the windows down. They say Special Ops attracts all the crazies… “I want a car people will recognize. I want people to see it coming and be like ‘look, that’s Jack O’Neill!’”
I snorted. “The way you drive, people already see you coming and run for cover.”
“No need to get insulting,” he protested.
He seemed to turn serious then, looking away from me and watching as the glowing ash fell from the end of his cigarette. The thunder sounded closer this time, fading just as the lightning flashed again. He’d gone into his closed-down mode again, his face showing nothing, but I knew he was thinking about his family.
“Did you read it?”
No need to ask what he was talking about. I pulled the letter out of my pocket, unfolded it and smoothed it against the steering wheel. “Yeah.”
Second, I love my job, and I love the guys I work with, and if I die in the line of duty I want you to know I died doing what I love. I knew the risks when I signed up, and if I was killed serving my country I want you to know that was a sacrifice I was willing to make. I know I’ll wish I could have had so much more time with you and your mom, but I hope you’ll understand.