Into the Black, Red, and Gold Wood
I got the job.
Assistant manager of the Kinston, North Carolina Hardees hamburger joint. I was a seventeen year old whiz bang cock a doodle doo!
Since hitchhiking up from Florida five weeks earlier, I had hunkered down in New Bern, North Carolina, humid cradle of my Tarheel birth. I was home, just a bubbling little dumpling in the collard pot of my ancestral DNA. Recovered from the bone-deep fatigue of the escape from Tallahassee, I had taken a promising position as burger and fries assembly technician at the Hardees Hamburgers of New Bern. After one week, I was promoted to cashier; another week, shift manager. The burger joint talent pool was thin in my home town. Just shy of a month in my burgeoning burger business, I was invited to Kinston, thirty-five miles away, to interview as assistant manager. Whooooeee!
The interview was a stunning conquest. I knew every word the manager said, even those with two syllables, and I was able to respond to every question in complete sentences. Spitting a delicate line of tobacco juice into a milkshake cup, he expressed his admiration for my education and every confidence in my leadership potential.
I was hired on the spot.
Congratulating myself, I strolled down the streets of Kinston, heading for the bus station, when I saw something me that jerked me to a halt. On a sandwich board in front of the Post Office, in square-jawed splendor, A United States Marine was starring at me, warrior to warrior. On that sign were the words “Ready” and “Join U.S. Marines.”
I stood frozen, deliberating upon the glamour and excitement of my newly acquired position as a Hardees Hamburger captain. I compared that glory to the pain and suffering guaranteed by the Marines mythos. These things I mulled over for, say, three seconds, then executed a snappy . . .
“By the right flank . . . Har!”
(Just a note of clarification here. When calling close order drill commands, Marines don’t actually say, “March!” The call is more like “Huh” or “Haw” or “Hoo” and it’s kind of grunted with a forceful expulsion of air. Each drill instructor does it differently. It’s a personal thing. But it’s never “March.”)
The Marine recruiting sergeant (who looked just like the one outside on the poster ) delivered the obligatory admonitions. “The Marines are not . . . boot camp is the toughest . . .you may not . . . many fail . . . .are you sure about this?” Growing up as a military brat, a Marine brat in fact, I had heard all this stuff before. But was I sure? Was I?
Suddenly I was. I really was. I was dead certain that this was the right choice for me at this empty time in my life.
“Don’t call me ‘sir,’ I’m a sergeant. I work for a living.”
(Walked into that one.)
There was, of course, the issue of my age, seventeen. The recruiter assured me there was no problem . . . as long as I could obtain parental consent. He was, in fact, eager to help me overcome this minor obstacle. Recruiters have quotas to fill, and I was prime beef stumbling in off the street to the slaughter. No way was I busting out of his corral. He would telephone his counterpart in Tallahassee who would, in turn, pay a personal visit to my parents and persuade them to sign the papers. No problem, my dad was a former Marine, right?
Well that part was fine, but there was a . . . hitch. A mind-blowing, ground shaking, soul rattling, thermonuclear hitch. Dad was not. Was not my dad. Not. My. Dad. Luther S. Smith Jr., Major, USMC (ret.) was not my father.
I had always known that Lu Smith was my stepfather, but he told me that he had adopted me as his son. The truth was . . . he had never quite gotten around to it. I had grown up as Bob Smith, “Smitty,” to my friends, gone to school as Bob Smith, but I was really Bob . . . Jenkins. What? Chew on that, Bubba, at seventeen, with one phone call, you change into somebody else.
My mother signed her half of the permissions, but I had to locate my bio-dad to get his signature on the Semper Fi line. Locating my “real” father, Robert W. Jenkins, wasn’t difficult. I had been sleeping on his couch in New Bern for several weeks.
Let’s stop for a moment. Imagine the joy that washed through the remnants of the Jenkins family when they heard the news that I was still Bob Jenkins. Not only had the prodigal son returned, but he had brought home the family name itself. As the only son of an only son, my alleged adoption had ended the Jenkins lineage. Now the line was back in business!
I once was lost, but now I’m found,
Was Smith, but now I’m Jenkins!
So Big Bob Jenkins signed the permissions for Little Bob Jenkins. Dear Old Bio-Dad even drove me back to Kinston and stood behind me as I stepped up to the gold line and faced the flag.
“Raise your right hand.”
I raised my hand.
“Do you solemnly swear that you will preserve and defend the Constitution of the United States of America from all enemies, foreign and domestic?”