Last year, my birthday had special meaning. That day, Oct. 25, 2019, I was able to watch my son, Lars, graduate from basic training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Couldn’t have asked for a better birthday present.
A year ago, I never would have imagined this day happening. But your kids can surprise you.
Lars, who I label as Son Number Two, had been living in Germany, brought up by his German mother after she and I divorced in 1992. Coming of age, he joined the German police (Son Number One, Michael, had joined the German Army). After almost a decade in the Polizei and getting serious with a nice German woman, Lars suddenly chucked all of it and moved to Hawaii. We were all stunned.
Then Lars announced he was joining the Air National Guard, but then he did a 180 and ended up enlisting in the Army and shipping off to Fort Sill for basic training, and then advanced training as a 13F—or forward artillery observer—with airborne training to follow. I would have preferred something less dangerous, but given my Army track record, who was I to lecture?
We kept track of his training through Facebook, so I knew when he was graduating. I considered driving down for it. Seems my ex-wife had the same idea. Wouldn’t that be fun?
We hadn’t ended on good terms. Oh, well, time heals old wounds. So does a bottle of rum, which I stashed in my travel bag.
We rendezvoused at the airport, rented a car, and began the two-day trek to Oklahoma.
About every 30 miles or so, we pulled off the highway so Conny could take a smoke break. Conny and her daughter were always excited to see herds of cows, or rustic, falling-apart barns, and Christine wanted to stop to take photos of farm equipment. We found a John Deere dealership, and I swear she about lost her mind with excitement. Conny was also on a mission to find a real American trailer park to show her daughter. You know, culture.
I made a point of finding liquor stores.
Not soon enough, we arrived at Fort Sill. It had been years since I had stepped foot onto an Army base, and I knew entry was a bit more controlled now than it had been when I was in the military. Getting in wasn’t too difficult, though. I waved my retired ID card and I was in. I had never been to Fort Sill before and was surprised how big, new, and stylish it was, despite its long history. Even the barracks and administration buildings were aesthetically pleasing. All those World War II-era wooden structures that were a fixture in my day were gone. I asked a soldier where the Class VI store was. He had no clue what I was talking about. What had happened to my Army?
We arrived the same day as the graduation ceremony. It rained lightly, but luckily the event took place in a community center. Family members packed the place. They had video cameras set up, special lighting, numerous guest speakers, singers, and fancy handouts, and the graduates were spiffed up in dress blues! Good grief, this was nothing like my pathetically bare-bones graduation in 1983. Apparently, the military had become more family-friendly.
We looked for Lars among the long lines of seemingly pubescent graduates. Despite being the oldest trainee in his class at an ancient 31 years old, Lars had performed in an exemplary manner throughout his training and was marched out with the honor graduates. As each soldier came forward, they announced his or her name, and the new soldier accepted a diploma, I nudged my way closer so I could record my son’s moment.
Lars strode to the center of the stage.
“Lars Boe, Wallhalben, Germany!” he boomed out, with his German accent.
Then he took his diploma and marched off. I caught his eye and gave a half-wave, half-salute. He smiled slightly, then reverted to taciturn Pvt. Boe.
After the ceremony, the families hustled outside where the graduates formed up in the drizzle. We were allowed to take photos and talk to our soldiers, but they weren’t allowed to talk back or react at all—just stand at attention and get wet. I got up close and took a couple of photos of Lars, and I told him congratulations and that I was proud of him.
He kept his cool.
I returned to the crowd line and looked for Lars’ mom and sister. I found them talking to a young woman in a friendly, knowing way. Conny introduced her as Sylvia, who came all the way down from desolate Grand Forks Air Force Base to see Lars’ graduation. I shook her hand, deducing she was in the Air Force. But still … who in the hell is Sylvia? Conny said Sylvia knew Lars from Germany when she had been stationed at Ramstein Air Base.
Yeah, but why in the hell would she drive all the way down from … ohh.
So, clueless dad, Conny, Christine, and now out-of-the-blue girlfriend Sylvia spent the next few days visiting with Lars, which included dinner at a German restaurant. We spent one full day exploring a nearby wildlife preserve where we saw buffalo, elk, rabbits, longhorns, and two lovebirds who couldn’t keep their hands off each other. Observant dad saw this relationship as serious. Indeed, on the last day of our visit Lars and Sylvia announced wedding bells in the future. This was the last thing I expected coming down to Fort Sill, but I was fine with it. They made a cute couple. Sylvia was pretty and nice, and Lars was handsome and happy.
Like his dad.
It was surreal. In less than a year, my son had completely changed his life, professionally and personally. It was like father, like son. We both felt compelled to make a change in our lives—me in 1992, and Lars in 2018.
On our last day together, Lars and I had some private time for some heart-to-heart man talk. I gave him some sound military advice, like not jumping out of functional airplanes or listening to second lieutenants. He ignored the former. I apologized that I hadn’t seen him or his brother much since I had moved back to the States. He said he understood, that he was proud to be my son, and proud of what I had done in the Army and my federal work for Congress. Ancient history for me, but apparently an inspiration for him.
Given the struggles I had had over the years—post-traumatic stress, alcohol, second divorce—this was comforting to hear.
Saying goodbye in front of his barracks wasn’t comfortable, but I’d played out this scenario many times before with loved ones while I was in the service. Lars and I were stoic: We shook hands, did the manly slap-on-the-back hug, and he handed me a belated birthday present, not to open until later.
Heading back to Minneapolis, we detoured to Fort Riley, Kansas, where I had been stationed with Conny from 1987 to 1990. The base had gone through an extreme makeover. We saw the soon-to-be-torn-down Army hospital where Lars was born in 1988. I stopped by the public affairs office and was allowed to scrounge around its “morgue” of old post newspapers and take photos of some stories I had written for it when I was temporarily attached to the office.
That was cool.
The night before we parted ways, we spent time with an old Army buddy from my first duty station at Ramstein Air Base who lived in Minneapolis. We went out for drinks. As it turns out, it was nice to see my former wife again after all these years, and I told her so. What had happened between us years ago was in the past. All said, time heals wounds. More importantly, we were bonded as parents to two grown boys.
I reflected on this. I told her she was a good mother.
My boys. Both were carrying on the Boe tradition of service to country, like their father, grandfather, and great-grandfather (who fought the Germans in World War I)—a four-generation bond I’m proud of. I’m reminded of it every time I wear the present Lars gave me for my birthday: a T-shirt that says, “Proud Parent of a U.S. Army Soldier.”