Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Great Hole in the Ground Tour

Amazing how time passes ever more rapidly with the onset of advanced age. I was reviewing the last few years of my time in the Marine Corps as part of a discussion with a friend, and stopped short at the realization that the period of time in question was over ten years ago. It got me thinking about the summer adventure that began for our family in June of 1996.

I had been the junior of two Marine representatives on the staff of the Air Force's Air Command and Staff College in Montgomery, Alabama. The senior Marine was a fellow Mississippian who went, and still goes, by the call-sign Tango. He was a helicopter pilot and the two of us considered ourselves the embodiment of the Marine Corps' air-ground team ethos. We had great fun poking holes in fighter pilot egos and the Air Command and Staff College was a target rich environment. We particularly enjoyed Fridays, as that was the day the commandant of the school called "Warrior Day" and allowed the wearing of flight suits. Tango and I would stand in the doorway of my office as the be-scarved jet jocks walked by in the hallway, and entertain ourselves by announcing in loud child-like voices, "Oooo, look, Daddy, a waaarioor!" By the third or fourth week of classes, traffic down that particular hallway had been reduced to a trickle on Fridays.

Tango and I had both been selected for commands earlier in the year and we left our Air Command and Staff College "vacation" that same June. He headed for California to take command of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit and I had orders to Hawaii to eventually assume command of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment at Kaneohe Bay. Tango's career is still humming right along, by the way. He has two stars on his collar and will undoubtedly add one or two more. Of all of the Marine officers with whom I served, he is the only one I was sure would reach general officer rank--and that includes a few who now wear three and four stars.

My orders were for my family and me to fly to Hawaii. We could have flown straight from Alabama. But, I had never traveled across the western two-thirds of the United States and there were lots of sights out there that I had been reading about my whole life. This, I figured, was a great opportunity to visit some of them and also provide an educational opportunity for the kids. We could drive out to California, put our car on a boat, and catch a flight from there to Honolulu. So, we loaded up the five of us, two adults and three teenagers, in our small SUV, and headed west.

First stop was Carlsbad Caverns. Deep hole in the ground. Lots of bats. Real cool. Dad was in his element, dredging up all he had ever read about the caverns and spewing it out in walking lecture format to the wife and kids. They were enthralled. Well, okay, mildly interested. Alright, bored to tears. But Dad was loving it!

Next stop was the Petrified Forest. Desert. Lots of rock logs. Way cool. Dad was in his geologic glory, providing a non-stop peleolithic windshield tour as we drove through the park. The family was amazed. Well, okay, slightly aware. Alright, fast asleep. But Dad was having the time of his life.

Third stop was Meteor Crater. Deep hole in the ground. Lots of rocks strewn about. Awesome sight. Dad's brilliant two-hour monologue spanned astro-physics, the evolution of scientific thought, and the history of geologic discovery. The wife and kids were captivated. Well, okay, moderately attentive. Alright, there were enough deer-in-the-headlight stares to give an insurance underwriter the shakes. But Dad was thrilled!

Fourth stop was the Grand Canyon. Very wide and very deep hole in the desert. Lots of tourists. Dad was speechless. Kids were awed, really. We took a hike down a trail into the canyon a short ways. Suddenly, my beautiful bride, and ever attentive mother of my progeny, stopped and did a quick head count. One chick, #1 son, missing. From above us came said son's voice in the tone we had long come to know accompanied some feat of daring-do. We craned our necks up to see #1 tight-roping well out onto a ledge twenty feet above our heads and two thousand feet above the next earthly surface. His mother said what all mothers say at a time like that, "Don't Fall!" Think about the lack of synaptic functioning present in the brain-housing group of an eighteen year old, that he has to be told not to fall from a height from which freefall would easily reach terminal velocity.

By the time we reached the left coast, my ever respectful and appreciative children had begun calling the greatest vacation we had ever taken, "Dad's Great Hole in the Ground Tour." Little did they know that we would spend the next three years living on the shore of a great collapsed volcanic caldera and that their dad was a frustrated vulcanologist.
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