On the morning of graduation, Daniel Spunkmeyer awoke feeling as though someone was cutting away the ropes that held him down tightly for the last twelve weeks… make that sixteen years. It was a hot August day, made hotter by the poor ventilation across the entire boot camp complex, aside from sick bay, which was about as cold as an icebox.
The other recruits in the compartment were getting up as though it was just another day. A few of them looked as though they had their hopes and dreams beaten out of them. Their eyes were dull, and had been dull for some time.
Sitting up, Spunkmeyer rubbed his face, sighing. The silence was like a spike being driven into his skull. It was something he couldn’t get used to, not after being born and raised in the heart of Manhattan. Noise was normal, familiar. He knew he was going to sacrifice a piece of his sanity when he made this decision, but the question remained of how much sanity he had lost.
He had lost more than just stability of his mind. Home? Gone. Familiar locale? Gone. Decent food? Gone. Baseball with friends in Central Park? Gone. His only clue about his biological father? Gone, but he had a bruise under the right side of his ribcage to remind him of it.
That was twelve fucking weeks ago, but it feels like twelve years. Spunkmeyer dragged himself out of his bunk, sighing as he set about the meaningless and mind-numbing task of making the bed. It was a habit now. That had been his existence: making the bed. Once the bed was made, he walked around to the side of the bunk to remove his graduation uniform from its protective bag. The last three days had been spent learning how to wear it properly so he had a good idea of what he was doing.
Only his pants and undershirt were on when he entered the bathroom to shave. Several of the other guys were in there as well, also shaving, and fixing their hair.
“You got family coming?” someone asked.
“Sure do,” another recruit replied. “Mom, Dad, older sister, Grandma, all coming over from Kansas City.”
“Cool. Mine are all coming from Florida.” The guy looked over at Spunkmeyer. “How ’bout you? You got family coming to graduation?”
“No,” Spunkmeyer replied.
Silence fell over the bathroom. “Really? Not even your parents?”
“I don’t have parents.”
“Oh. They gone? I’m really sorry about that, Spunkmeyer.”
“No clue. I never even met ’em.” Spunkmeyer avoided making eye contact with the two recruits, not wanting to continue this conversation. He finished his shave, and headed back out to put the rest of his uniform on. I managed to go all twelve weeks without telling anyone except the chaplain about my situation. This is fine, Danny, it’s not like you’re gonna see these guys ever again.
A few minutes after he was fully dressed, one of their drill instructors walked into the compartment, surprisingly quiet. He carefully inspected everyone’s rack and uniform, and then moved to the center of the room. “Every last one of you in here wearing that uniform is a fucking Marine now. I told y’all when you first came here that I don’t care where you came from, what your home life was like, what your beliefs are, you all came here with one purpose. You all came here to become Marines. Now, when you pass the gates of this shitty base, you’ll be moving on to the rest of your life.”
That includes me. This is it. I’m finally on my own. Spunkmeyer got in line with the rest of the males in his division, for their last breakfast in boot camp. They merged with the females, walking down the narrow corridors until reaching the mess hall. He stared ahead at the back of the person in front of him, knowing this was the last time he would ever have to force himself to stare ahead, keep his neck rigid. That combined with the inadequate bedding had created a pain, pain he was far too young to be experiencing. It didn’t matter now. He was so close to building a new life for himself.
The graduation ceremony was long, and involved a lot of standing and staring. Spunkmeyer wasn’t listening to half the things being said. He was daydreaming, and hoping, and reminiscing on his journey.
Spunkmeyer knew there was something off about him when he was little. He had heard the other kids in his preschool and kindergarten talk about their mommy and daddy. All he knew was that he had one and not the other. When asked about his daddy, he simply said he didn’t have one, and for the longest time, it felt strange. Not to mention, his mother worked a lot and never hired a babysitter or sent him to stay with grandparents. He knew the basic rules of what could and couldn’t be touched around the apartment, so he would sit and read or do his homework in his room until his mother returned sometime after seven at night.
His constant isolation stunted his social skills, making his teachers throughout his elementary years concerned that something was wrong with him, mentally. He’d heard “potentially Asperger’s syndrome” thrown around, but after a specialist had a look at him, that idea was tossed; he wasn’t showing signs of being sensitive to light or sound, and his intelligence was average across varying subjects. His reading level was normal, and he made eye contact with whoever was speaking to him, stranger or not.
His mother had to come into the school to talk to the specialist, and with the teachers, about his home life, and that was when Spunkmeyer found out the truth.
“You’re his mother, correct?” his third-grade teacher asked.
“Guardian. I’m not his mother.”
“Daniel put you down as his-”
“Well, he doesn’t know.”
What followed was a long conversation about legal issues and why this wasn’t brought up when Spunkmeyer was enrolled. None of it was stuff he could understand, but what stuck with him definitely bothered him. Why was this woman not his real mother? Who were his real parents? Where were they?
He asked all those questions at home, and was met with the same response every time: “You’re too young. I’ll explain when you’re older.”
The knowledge of being adopted weighed heavily on him, but it didn’t stop him from pursuing things every kid pursued as he made the transition from elementary to middle school. Middle school brought more activities-stuff that felt like fun rather than being babysat. Stuff like baseball. Spunkmeyer found he was pretty good at baseball, so he stuck with it throughout middle school. His little league team were all goofballs, but when it came to playing, they were good at what they did. It seemed miraculous that they all stuck together through high school. Almost through high school.
Despite his successes, Spunkmeyer dealt with a massive empty space in his heart. He felt incomplete, and wasn’t giving up on getting answers. He finally got them on the night he turned thirteen.
“If it makes you feel better,” his adoptive mother started, after taking a draw on a cigarette, “your real name is still Daniel Spunkmeyer. My last name is actually Kendriss, and… I’m the nurse who delivered you, and took you in, because your parents didn’t want you.”
“Why didn’t they want me?” Spunkmeyer asked.
“I don’t know. I didn’t know them personally. All I know is that your biological mother decided-the day she was set to leave-that she was not keeping you. I’m suspecting your father wanted you and couldn’t argue with her or afford to fight for custody, I don’t know. But, you know the cap you’ve been wearing ever since you were little? He left it with you.”
“How come we haven’t tried to find him?”
“I did when you were five or six. Got nothing. Danny, I’m sorry.”
“Miss Kendriss,” Spunkmeyer said, not wanting to call her “Mom” anymore, “if you were sorry, you woulda put more effort into making me feel like you were my mom. How come you… How come you’re gone most of the time? You-”
“I just told you; I’m a nurse. I work at a hospital. I didn’t foresee any children in my future. I took you in because I felt sorry for you, and I didn’t realize that you would take up so much of my time-”
“So, you don’t want me, either.”
“When you turn eighteen, no. I’m just giving you shelter until it’s legal for you to be on your own.”
Spunkmeyer spent more and more time away from home. He would alternate between staying at friends’ houses on the weekends, especially during baseball season. Even when their season ended in July, they headed to Central Park to keep playing and practicing-and to spit on the field as much as they wanted without their coach telling them to stop. Off-season, though, Spunkmeyer was left with few options. He wasn’t stupid-he knew wandering New York City was dangerous, especially at such a young age, but he did it anyway. He became very acquainted with Manhattan, and he considered it home. Despite that, he felt immensely alone. Am I just destined to grow up alone? That thought plagued him every night.
In high school, the boys started competing with others in order to advance into JV and varsity baseball. They still had fun, but they didn’t get any recognition unless they did well. Spunkmeyer knew he could get a sports scholarship if he was good, and that’s what he shot for. At least until late in his freshman year.
The military always sent recruiters to talk to students. A USCM sergeant showed Spunkmeyer’s class a video, and it intrigued Spunkmeyer. He approached the recruiter afterwards. “Where do I sign up?”
“You’re, what, sixteen?” the recruiter asked.
“Can’t enlist till you’re eighteen.”
“Sir, I wanna get outta here. Please, help me.”
“It’s against the law. I’m sorry. I’ll keep you in mind, kid. What’s your name-”
The recruiter didn’t get an answer, because Spunkmeyer had already stormed out.
Anger was filling the void within his heart. Spunkmeyer didn’t want to wait anymore. Eighteen. Eighteen. Eighteen. Can’t get outta here till I’m eighteen. This would be bearable if I had real parents that loved me and wanted me to succeed.
After following the rules all his life, Spunkmeyer wound up breaking them-a lot of them. He spent all summer forging documents, and once he had all the necessary information, he enlisted-making sure that his recruiter wasn’t the same one he saw at school.
Spunkmeyer snapped out of his thoughts when he realized the ceremony was coming to a close. This really was it. He was beginning a new life. After getting back his scores from the ASVAB test and talking with the recruiters, he had settled on flight training. To his surprise, his general training scores from basic were so high that he had been recommended to go for Special Forces pilot training. He had been even more surprised when he had been accepted by the RIFT flight school facility. Reconnaissance In Force Teams were the most elite of the Marines; small units capable of operating independently on the most important of missions, or going into combat ahead of or alongside regular units. He had been told that the requirement for their pilots were even higher than regular flight school, and he was anxious about whether or not he could pass, but he wanted to give his best try.
The formation was dismissed, and the new Marines went looking for their families. Except for Spunkmeyer. He sighed quietly, and slowly paced until he noticed someone familiar approaching him. “Captain Jesse?”
The base chaplain paused in front of him, holding a lightly worn black cap with a gold leaf pattern stitched on the bill, and the logo “CAT – Diesel Power” in matching gold letters on the front. “Congratulations on graduating,” he said, smiling. “I believe this is yours.” He handed Spunkmeyer the cap.
Spunkmeyer clutched it tightly as he tried to hold back his tears and disbelief. “How’d you… get this?” He had worn that cap for almost his whole life, not fully understanding why he had always felt attached to it until being told that his father left it with him as a baby. The memory of losing it still stung.
He was wearing it when he stepped off the bus upon arriving at boot camp. An instructor yanked him out of line, and took the brim of his cap. “What’s this, dip-fuck? You were told to lose all non-essential clothing when you got on the bus! Are you capable of listening?!”
“I-I wasn’t told that,” Spunkmeyer stammered.
“Yes, you were.” The instructor took off the cap, sending Spunkmeyer into a rage.
“That’s my dad’s! Give it back!”
“Drop the act.” The cap was thrown into the dark of night, and Spunkmeyer was shoved back in line, feeling as though someone had penetrated his chest and ripped part of his heart out.
If I’m truly going to let go and start over, maybe it’s a good thing I don’t have that cap anymore, Spunkmeyer thought. He continued to think that way for the next twelve weeks, but he could still feel that aching space in his heart, and it wasn’t going away, no matter how hard he tried to convince himself that he was starting over and the cap wasn’t necessary.
Jesse had found it, somehow. The chaplain patted Spunkmeyer’s shoulder. “I was in my car getting ready to go home for the night when I saw your little altercation. Your hat was flung pretty close to the parking lot, and I waited till you all had gone inside before I got out to grab it.”
“So, this was all based on luck, huh?” Spunkmeyer whispered.
“Luck, or fate. Whichever you choose to believe.” Jesse looked around, and gently took Spunkmeyer outside. “I did try to track down your biological father using the hat. The closest I managed to get was finding what store this hat was sold from, but when I called the owner, he said that the only way to find the buyer would be to go through his receipts, and he doesn’t keep any older than two years.”
Spunkmeyer felt like someone had jammed a corkscrew into his heart. “Is there… anything else I can do?”
“DNA testing. The problem with that is they’d be able to tell that you’re only seventeen, and if that gets around to the USCM, you’ll be facing some stiff penalties. Not to mention, we don’t know if your parents’ are on record.” Jesse glanced to his left, seeing several Marines leaving the hall with their families. “Boot camp is over, Daniel. You have a lot more control over your life than you may think you do now. Try not to let this blind and overtake you, because you might be missing out on opportunities to let more people in your heart and feel love that you weren’t expecting.”
“You’re not saying ‘give up,’ are you?”
“Continuing is completely up to you. However, I did the best I could, and came up empty-handed. I don’t want you whittling your life away on something that might end up being hopeless.” Jesse looked Spunkmeyer in the eye. “Do you trust me?”
Spunkmeyer nodded. “I worked hard to leave home. I came here to become independent, so that’s what I’m gonna keep doing.”
The drive to the airport was going to take several hours, and Spunkmeyer didn’t want to wait around. He packed his belongings, making sure his cap was tucked away where it wouldn’t get tossed away again, and began heading to a bus that would drive all night until reaching the airport.
Flight training was all the way out in Colorado. It would be the furthest he had gotten from home thus far, and he knew he would get farther. He was okay with that.
Setting his duffel bag on his lap, Spunkmeyer used it as a pillow, resting his head on it while gazing out the window at the stars and trees flying by. The movement of the vehicle slowly lulled him off. His posture was bad, sure, but anything was better than the thin mattress and pillow of the boot camp compartments.
Hours passed with fitful sleep. Spunkmeyer awoke, unsure of the time, and adjusted himself by hugging his knees, pressing the large bag against his face. There were less trees and more houses outside the window now, which suggested they were getting closer to the airport. Hopefully.
He arrived two hours later, and slung his bag over his shoulder. Papers in hand, he went through security, and prepared to wait a few more hours for his flight to Denver. It was a lot of waiting, and a part of him was starting to hate it. He was also anxious, and struggling to pull himself out of the boot camp mindset.
Overwhelmed was the best word to describe how he felt. It was an emotional roller coaster that he wanted to get off of. If things had just been a little better, he would’ve been asleep right now, or waking up and hanging out with friends. This experience had, in a way, made him feel more like an adult, and that was what he wanted more than ever. He wanted to be seen as an adult so he could go out into the world. Passing boot camp was his first major step.
Miss Kendriss probably didn’t even bother reporting him missing. Then again, the high school probably wanted to know where he was. Either they gave up, or it was too late to do anything. Spunkmeyer was fine with that, especially when he boarded his flight to Denver. Definitely too late now. I’m not going back. I’m not going back to someone who only took me in because it was an emotional impulse. Besides, he had a good long contract and lots of training to get through.
He had chosen dropship flight as his job because of how specialized it was. It wasn’t baseball, but it promised a lot of experience, and he wouldn’t be waiting very long to get a unit once he completed his training, given how essential pilots and co-pilots were. It would earn him respect, and make him feel valuable. He hoped it would make him feel valuable.
When he landed in Denver, Spunkmeyer looked for other Marines, hoping he wouldn’t get himself lost. He was used to wandering around crowded areas, used to navigating them. Then again, it took him awhile, even as a native, to become familiar with Manhattan’s layout.
He stared blankly at a sign while his heart ached, missing the city. A part of him was wishing he had found a way to stay and yet escape home.
A uniform caught his eye, and he saw a group of Marines gathered at a map. Nervously, Spunkmeyer approached. Some looked at him, others didn’t.
He locked eyes with a girl who had very short mouse-brown hair. She was smiling, had pretty gray eyes, and Spunkmeyer quickly realized how little experience he had with girls. When she looked in his direction, he looked down, trying to act like he hadn’t been looking at her in the first place.
Finally, he spotted a tall, thin man in a USCM uniform with corporal’s stripes twirling a set of keys while he approached the group. “Alright, ladies and gentlemen. I want everyone lined up in two rows so we can board the bus in an orderly fashion.” He was trailed by another corporal, a thin, well-built woman with close-cut crimson hair and icy blue eyes that seemed to be stuck in a permanent glare.
The young Marines tried to line up. When they weren’t in the lines in five seconds, though, the female corporal shouted, “How in the fuck did you little shits pass basic when you can’t even form a simple line?!” As everyone tried to move faster and avoid stepping on each other’s duffel bags, she was roughly grabbing people’s shoulders, forcing them to stay still, arranging everyone as she saw fit.
The other corporal shook his head. “Lay off them, Larkins.”
Larkins whirled around to face him, looking like she was going to punch him. Spunkmeyer flinched.
“Fine. You get them organized. We’re already wasting time here,” Larkins said.
Spunkmeyer caught a glimpse of the male corporal’s nametag as he walked up to the group. Evison. He was much gentler with the Marines, directing them until there were two rows. Spunkmeyer liked the gentleness.
Despite being told not to make eye contact with his instructors in boot camp, he made eye contact with Evison. For a moment, Spunkmeyer froze. His heart was in his throat, and he squeezed his eyes shut.
“Relax, son. We do things a bit differently in your regular training,” Evison said.
Swallowing, Spunkmeyer opened his eyes. He struggled to contain his emotions. This small level of kindness was so new to him. It felt… almost unreal.
Accompanying Music: Ready to Fly – Music House (Harlin James & Paul Lewis)