Barely three years have passed since I shared a nine-hour flight from Chicago to Rome with Lance Corporal Jimmy Something, USMC. And every day of my life since that chance encounter has been all the better for it.
Jimmy Something. Jesus, I can’t even remember his name. How can I not remember his name? Shameful. I’m not even sure it was Jimmy. He was definitely a Marine. Perhaps, in a way, he would like that, being remembered simply as a Marine. I can only hope that he’d take pride in knowing that he fit perfectly into my psyche’s Marine archetype.
In those days, I was very young and equally foolish. A view through the lens of time would render a view of a petulant boy, cocksure of his own intelligence, and indignant at the world for not readily giving itself over to him. I accepted little responsibility for myself, nor the consequences of my actions. I was not yet a man and had no right to be called one.
Awaiting me in The Eternal City was (quite literally) the Alpha and the Omega of internships: a chance to work in The Office of the Patrons of the Arts in The Vatican Museums. I was en route to what would surely be the single greatest experience of my young life, a chance to live and breathe and feel a world hardly touched by time that very few ever have or will get the chance to inhabit. All this opportunity had been laid before me, yet I could find little satisfaction in the moment. I was scared, wholly intimidated by the sudden enormity of a life I felt trapped in.
That’s when Lance Corporal Jimmy Something, USMC, came striding down the narrow airplane aisle in unassuming civilian dress and settled at my row. Apparently, this handsome young dude, with his high-n'-tight haircut and his perfectly packed carry-ons, had given up his seat in business class to a disabled elderly woman.
The nerve of this guy, showing up the rest of us with his humility and grace in a setting that’s often -- how do I put this? -- less than conducive to bringing out those qualities in people. Swapping his lay-flat bed and full entertainment system for a transatlantic iron maiden in coach? What an idiot.
He stowed his bag, grabbed a pillow and blanket from the overhead compartment, asked me if I’d prefer his aisle seat over my oft-coveted window (thank you but no), and sat down.
After a beat, he turned his head to face me but didn't say anything. His stare burned through my cheek, his patient eyes waited for me to acknowledge and engage him. I cocked my head up and to the left, half-smiling in that way you do when you simply want to be rid of the moment, and removed the ear-bud closest to him so as to signal, “Yes? I recognize your presence next to me. I have a new MGMT album to listen to and only so much time to be disappointed by it, so let’s get this over with.”
Immediately he reached to grasp my hand and addressed me, saying, “Hello, sir. (He called me “sir”. HA! I may be twenty-one years old, but barely look a day over sixteen. Who does this guy think he is?) My name's James Something. Real pleasure flying with you this evenin’.”
The canned introduction came off as a salutation, although genuine in its earnestness and humanity. His grip was firm, but not overbearing in a compensatory way. He spoke with a slightly strange affectation, one that seemingly served to mask a gentlemanly southern drawl. I responded in kind and cordially introduced myself, but left little room for James to further the conversation.
Now, for the very vain sake of not misrepresenting myself, I must clarify a matter relating to my personality: I’m most certainly not some introverted, curmudgeonly hermit who needs a Xanax and a glass of Merlot or three before I can endure basic human interaction. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m, typically, an extroverted, affable, and empathetic creature who thrives in social settings.
But on that particular day, with my life in flux and the times a-changin’, I wanted nothing more than to shutout the rest of the world with my ear-buds and sleep mask.
James seemed to be on a mission to make a friend in between takeoff and landing, and we hadn't even left the ground yet. Whatever subtle social cues that I thought I was using to let him know that our relationship as fellow travelers wouldn't go any further than cordial small talk were not working.
As the plane taxied and then ascended into the friendly skies, my new best friend endured to develop some sort of rapport with me. He spoke very little of himself, yet seemed genuinely interested in the affairs of my life.
Where was I from? Where was I headed? Why Rome? How was I so lucky to have the chance to live, work, and do something so extraordinarily unique? Jimmy actually cared, and it showed.
Finally, after the in-flight meals had been served and the first round of entertainment was wrapping on the headrests in front of us, the Fortress of Solitude I had built up around myself began to crumble. The onslaught of questions continued but, as time went on and the conversation evolved, it felt more akin to sitting at Charlie Rose’s round oak table than an interrogation at the hands of Piers Morgan in prime time. Jimmy was warm and inviting, his investment in our dialogue never up for debate.
Eventually, I relented. I hailed a flight attendant, paid far too much for a warm, stale beer (recall, if you will, that I was most assuredly young and dumb), and began to open up to Jimmy.
We spoke more and more freely with each other, finding common ground in the size of the families we both came from (I’m the oldest of five children, he the youngest of six or seven), our mutual excitement we had in anticipation of the World Cup, a love of The Beatles that ran deeper than their greatest hits. I confided in Jimmy, noting my burgeoning anxiety and self-doubt brought on by the sheer enormity of the circumstances I found myself stuck in the midst of.
As our conversation deepened, he revealed to me that he was a member of the United States Marine Corps and had been for five years. In the aftermath of September 11th and the wave of unbridled patriotism that swept the United States with it, his oldest brother, his hero, had enlisted in the Marine Corps. From that day on, Jimmy said, he knew that he would one day become a Marine.
Jimmy detailed his time in boot camp, alluding to drill instructors and friends I had and would never meet with a combination of fondness, nostalgia, and levity that gave way to reverent recollection. I could see, hear, and feel his passion for the path he had chosen.
He was only twenty-three years old but seemed so much older than myself, so much more confident in who he was. Above all else, Jimmy was assured of his purpose in life.
I had never met anyone quite like him before. Most of my friends were graduating from college, yet had little clue what that meant for them or where they wanted to go next. Hell, I had no idea what time it would be when our flight landed, let alone what I wanted my life to look like in one year’s time.
In that moment, I wanted more than anything to understand what it was that so distinctly elevated him above the vast majority of me and my peers. There was something, some sort of abstraction, that had granted him vision and purpose. I knew if I could get my hands on whatever that intangible thing was, I could become master and commander of my destiny.
I asked Jimmy, suddenly more of a man than I had met in my entire life, what was it like to commit yourself to something like the Marine Corps? What did being a Marine mean to him? And, at the end of the day, was it all really worth it?
To this day, I can recall his response with a clarity that very few memories in my life carry.
He leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes, and drew a breath that he held for just a second longer than he normally would. I could see him turning his answer over in his head, carefully weighing the words he was to use to formulate his answer.
Jimmy opened his eyes and spoke.
“Have you ever heard the words Semper Fidelis; ever heard someone say Semper Fi? Do you know what it means?”
Of course I'd heard Semper Fi. I’d seen Gomer Pyle lose his marbles in Full Metal Jacket and watched Jack Nicholson chew scenery in A Few Good Men. I knew it was Latin but that was about the extent of it, I was embarrassed to admit.
"Semper Fidelis,” he explained, “means Always Loyal. See, most folks think that just means pledging loyalty to the Corps. But that ain’t it. Semper Fi is bigger than that. It’s about responsibility. It’s about believing in something -- anything, really -- and owning it. It’s about being a part of something bigger than yourself. It’s about waking up every morning, getting out of bed, and taking responsibility for everything you are and everything you do.
“Always Loyal, man. Always Loyal to yourself, to those you love, to those you really owe it to. It’s no longer up to anybody but you to be you. Look out your window. This world of our’s is one hell of a big place and it ain't getting any smaller. There’s barely any room for you to be you out there. The day I figured that out was the day I had to become a man. When you figure that out, it makes everything you have to do one helluva lot easier to do.
“So, yeah, to answer your question. It’s all worth it. The Corps made me the man I am today and I’m pretty happy with the guy I see in the mirror.”
I sat in silence, digesting the knowledge Jimmy has just imparted. I came to think of how selfish I had been, how ungrateful I was in spite of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I was flying into. Over the course of the next few hours on that airplane, I completely reconsidered my outlook on the coming months and years of my life. I was ready to take responsibility for myself, to be a man.
We would go on to chat casually throughout the remainder of the flight, although we’d never again broach anything as personal or philosophical as what we had discussed before.
When our flight touched down in Rome we deplaned, said goodbye, and parted ways. I would go on to live out the single greatest experience of my life in that Eternal City over the next couple months. In retrospect, I’m sure that I wouldn't have approached and enjoyed my time in Italy like I did if not for a chance encounter with a Marine.
In nine hours time, a Marine probably names James taught me more about life and what it meant to truly mature than I had gleaned in the twenty-one years prior. What he had learned from and about his military service was that it wasn't about being able to shoot a gun or the number of push-ups he could do or how fast he could run a mile with forty pounds strapped on him; it’s about how you accept and deal with the sum of all the responsibilities that steadily add up over the course of your life. The Marine Corps gave Jimmy the tools to accept and deal with responsibility and Jimmy gave me the vision to see that I needed develop some tools of my own.
Look, I’ve never been exceptionally good at saying thank you, especially when I really mean it. But I’m working on it. So, in a long-winded and roundabout way, this is my thank you to all of our Armed Forces, active and retired, your families, and the institutions that continue to educate and cultivate men and women held to a higher standard. Thank you, not only for protecting, serving, and putting yourself in harm’s way for the sake of our well-being, but for being the higher standard we all should aspire to meet.
Thank you, James Something. Thank you, Troops. Thank you for representing the best in all of us who live under the Red, White, and Blue.
In what I can only describe as doing our little part to give back and say thank you to our troops, here’s a list of some 230+ Military discounts and deals.
Among some of my favorite are:
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