Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Party Crashers

What is the sound  of 10 West Point cadets talking animatedly in your living room? I can tell you.

A combination of habit and circumstance has resulted in our house being the site of the annual ski-patrol groundhog's day party. One of the patrollers at our little mountain also spends some time at an even smaller hill at West Point, training young cadets not in ways of war, but in treating injuries sustained from losing battles on the slopes. As fate would have it, these 10 young men were in the area last Saturday night.  And then they were at our front door,  a very different group of guests.

They moved around the party as a pack, all short hair cuts and smiles. I kept my distance, playing host to what turned out to be a very large gathering in pretty tight quarters. As the crowd thinned, I expected our new friends to be among the first headed out the door. But, apparently the next stop, an overnight stay at a local armory, was not as enticing as the food and beverage before them.

Soon there were but a few stragglers and this group was situated around the dining room table, exchanging laughs and stories. My son,  in very different circumstances in life, was clearly enjoying their company. On the other end of the table from him,  one of our feistier patrollers was giving anyone within earshot a hard time about anything and nothing.

In the back of my mind, and I am sure many others that evening,  thoughts inevitably turned to what the near future held for some at that table. Unknown to the cadets was the fact that one of the families at our house has a son deployed in Afghanistan. The night before they had been able to speak with him, but his whereabouts remained an absolute secret.

Apart from the repetitive "sirs" and "ma'ams", this young band seemed no different from the friends of my son and daughter who had inhabited these quarters in the past, and who, in the coming weeks would be sleeping in large numbers in our beds and on the floors,  enjoying the moment. But the course for these cadets would hold very little in common with those who would soon take over our residence..One momentous decision had dictated a different path for the 10 who sat before me.

With the firmness and certainty of a commanding officer, our patrol friend who had been delighting in shocking the cadets with her brashness, barked out orders that the party was at an end. With much gratitude and fond farewells, the assembled moved out as one into the night.

But the tale does not end here, for the next morning my son and I caught up to a few of our new buddies at our little mountain. Like so many others of the same age, they seemed eager to impress with their ability to ski better and faster than I imagined boys from Tennessee or other areas of the country, far removed from snow, might perform. The tales of growing up and of a planned trip out West during their next break from school filled the air in the rides up the lift.

As we parted and said our goodbyes, I let them know that I hoped I got a chance to see some of them again. There is more of an urgency  and meaning to our words and our thoughts when what we take for granted as life's natural course does not necessarily apply. And so it is my wish that many years from now, a few of these boys will be at another one of these groundhog day gatherings, recounting tales not only of war and turmoil, but of slopes skied and mountains conquered.

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