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Mother leaned wearily over the sink, washing dishes.
“I can enlist right after my birthday in April, and they can keep me in the delayed-entry program until I finish high school,” I gushed, too excited to hide behind my usual stoic demeanor. “With a guardian’s signature I can enlist now, even though I’m only 17, but that’s a lot of trouble and I can’t go to basic training until after I graduate anyway.”
She only hesitated a moment. “I’ll sign.”
“No.” I shook my head and kept my gaze steady. “Daddy won’t like it, and I don’t want to cause trouble.”
“He lost the right to decide when he left us. I’ll sign.” She planted her hands on her hips. Her mind was made up.
So was mine. “No, Mother. This is my decision, and I want to take full responsibility for it. I need to do this on my own.” I didn’t say please, but she must have seen it in my eyes.
“Okay,” she said. That was the end of the discussion.
I spoke to school officials as soon as my decision was final. They were willing for me to miss two days during the first week of April. My grades were already well above average, and I had not used a sick day in a long time. Monday, April 1, 1985, I celebrated my 18th birthday by baking and decorating my own cake. On Thursday, I flew from Odessa to the military processing center in El Paso. I passed the physical, almost aced the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB, and raised my right hand for the oath. I was officially property of the United States Marine Corps. The flight back passed in a daze, but on Saturday I marched to the front door of Mother’s house feeling like an adult. When I’d left Daddy was still gone, so there was no need to defend my decision yet. I was unprepared for what happened when I opened the screen door.
Daddy had unexpectedly returned. He brooded at the kitchen table, his face puckered and set like the mug on a bulldog. He didn’t say a word when I told him what I had done. Picking up a deck of cards, he shuffled them twice and set out a game of solitaire. I walked to my room and put away my things. The subject never came up between us again.
Summer of 1985 passed quickly, and I left my parents in the middle of September to train at Parris Island, South Carolina. By January 1986 I found myself in Marine Corps green, reporting for duty at the Naval School of Music at Base Little Creek, Virginia. Even though I had my own saxophone, Uncle Sam issued me another one to play. It was six months of music theory, performance, and drills. Small squads were sent out regularly to play at the commissioning or decommissioning of a ship, at a change of command, or at any other ceremony that required music. We had physical training every day and rotated guard duty.
It was outstanding.
For a small-town girl, it was also a culture shock. I met people from all over the world. I had a semi–social life. Many of us would gather at the bowling alley on the base. Some drank beer to relax. I took a book along and tried to read.
“Where are you from?”
The voice carried a familiar Southern accent. I looked up to find a man sporting boots, a western shirt, and the favorite haircut for gung ho Marines, a high-and-tight.
“Texas,” I replied. “What about you?”
“Tennessee,” he said. “Want to see a movie?”
“Sure. What’s playing?” I marked my place in my book and stood. We were almost the same height. He seemed harmless enough.
“Lady and the Tramp, I think.” He grinned. Even his smile was Southern. “There’s not much choice on base, and my Nova’s not running right now.”
We left together. We became almost inseparable.
Unfortunately, I depended on him to provide the protection during our more intimate moments. He was not very reliable. Two months before graduation from music school, I learned I was expecting a baby. By the time the pregnancy was confirmed, the father had flunked out of his training and was on his way to another base for grunt work. I was on my own.
A military mother-to-be must sign over custody of her child to another legal adult, a safeguard in the event of her death. I had no one. My parents were too old, and my brothers and sisters were caring for their own grandchildren. I turned to a friend I had known since high school and explained the situation to him. He offered to marry me and take care of us, provided I left the military. After a long and heartbreaking internal debate, I decided to take a medical discharge and return home. My re-enlistment status was 1-A, verifying that I could join any branch of the military at any time I chose, as long as age and physical ability did not interfere. In my mind I was not turning my back on my future, just reorganizing it. I would have a family first, and then I would have a career.
My dream had already withered. I just didn’t know it yet.
I married in October 1986, confident that I could be settled and have a nursery ready for the December delivery date. With help from friends, it was ready two weeks before Thanksgiving. My little boy was born on November 24. It was a full week before the due date, but it was two days too late.
My last prenatal checkup was on a Thursday, when the stoop-shouldered country doctor searched for 15 minutes to find the baby’s heartbeat. He claimed he found it and that nothing was wrong. I believed his assurances that any worries I had were only jitters. That night the baby tossed and tumbled in my belly so forcefully that I could not sleep. It was the last time I felt him move. Late Saturday night in the emergency room, an ultrasound verified that his heart was not beating. On Sunday afternoon, Brian James Spann came into the world feet first and as lifeless as a lump of clay. The following Friday, one day after Thanksgiving, I watched as the tiny box was lowered into the hard Texas ground.