Note: The following is an excerpt from “My Father’s Son,” written by Andy Symonds. He’s an award-winning journalist based in the Washington, D.C. area. His father is a thirty-three-year veteran of the U.S. Navy, and he grew up on military bases throughout the world. You can visit his website at AndySymonds.com.
Synopsis: When Nathan’s father, a decorated Navy SEAL, is killed in combat, he must rely on his father’s teammates for direction while learning to become a man. The normal struggles of adolescence are amplified while growing up in the shadow of a war hero, and a young man’s future hangs in the balance. No one is safe from the scars of war in this funny, heart-wrenching, poignant novel.
It was my mom’s scream from downstairs that finally shook me out of bed that morning. It couldn’t have been more than a moment after the doorbell rang and she left my room, but somehow I had managed to drift back into a protective sleep.
Suddenly I found myself standing at that sunny window in my bedroom, shades ripped back, my short breaths fogging the panes that just minutes before had brought light into the room. Now, through that same lens, my panicked eyes focused on a dark blue sedan parked in the driveway. Two ashen sailors were adjusting their covers as they respectfully stood at attention on the front porch. One appeared to be a chaplain while the other was wearing standard Navy dress blues—with one difference.
My eyes instinctively went to the large gold pin on the stockier man’s uniform. It rested proudly on his upper left breast and blazed brightly, like it had a life of its own. The anchor, trident, eagle, and pistol. A relatively small object that told a much bigger story. That signified its wearer as a warrior elite. A U.S. Navy SEAL. It was the same pin that I had looked upon with fascination on my dad’s uniform.
The same pin that when he let me hold it, under his direct supervision, I cradled in my cupped palms like the treasure it was. My eyes ignored the other ribbons and medals on the man’s uniform, the white collar on the chaplain’s dark suit. I stayed focused on that symbol of strength, drawing solace from the trident. Not crying, barely breathing, but knowing what their presence meant. I watched their faces register devastation as a second shriek
echoed throughout the house. She must have been standing at the large plate glass window in our living room. From that window she would have a clear view of these nervous sailors standing on our stoop, bouncing on the balls of their feet. I knew she was hoping that if she didn’t open the door, didn’t invite them into her home, didn’t hear their message, then the inevitable wouldn’t have happened. I knew better.
Looking back, I gravely wish that I had walked down those stairs to comfort my mother and stand with her to face the notification team. As a matter of reason but not excuse, I can only say I was frozen in my confusion and rising heartbreak, which lead me to merely observe the scene from the distance of my bedroom window. My inaction that day is one of the great regrets of my life, and something I reflect on often.
While I watched them wait for someone to answer the door, I tried to pause time. No, I tried to rewind it. Not to reverse what had happened—I knew that was asking too much. But just to bring it back a few minutes, back to before the doorbell rang, before my mother retreated from my bed, before these two men came to the house that I lived in with my sister, my mother, my father.
I knew that if I could just go back to that minute, to those precious seconds before I knew, back to when my mom’s cool hand was on my forehead, when everything was still fine—if I could just feel that peace and security one more time, I would never let it go. I scrunched my eyes as tightly as I could that morning, willing myself back to that place, as even now I still occasionally do. Sometimes, I almost get there. Almost. But as I unclenched my eyes that day, I knew nothing would ever be as it had.
What had been a sluggish swirl of motion quickly sped up, sending a rush of blood and adrenaline to my face. For a moment I thought I was going to barf, right there on the damn window. I was frozen to it, watching the chaplain and SEAL walk through the front door, my muscles contracted and tight. My stomach finally quieted and the sourness subsided. Time and sound seemed to pause, nonexistent for how long?
“Nathan, what’s going on?” Cheyenne’s tiny voice cut through cluttered chunks of broken time, finally moving me to action.
She was standing in my doorway in her favorite Hello Kitty pajamas, sporting untidy pigtails, disordered, rubbing her eyes. There was a sudden realization that at thirteen, I was now the man of the house. As Dad had always told me I was when he was gone. And now, he was.
“I’m not sure, Chey,” I told her truthfully. “Some guys that work with Dad are downstairs talking to Mom.”
“Someone screamed.” “I know. Mom’s upset.” “Is everything okay?” “I don’t think so.”
“Is it Daddy? Did something happen to him?” Even at seven, the realities of having a father at war were not lost on her.
“I think so. I—I’m not sure exactly,” I stammered, feeling my chin quiver and neck flex. Determined to stay strong for my sister, I gritted my teeth. Again, bile rose to my throat. Deep breaths pushed it down, deep breaths slowed my heart, deep breaths deep breaths deep breaths.
I walked toward her. Her face was angelic; innocent and clean. She had these really intelligent eyes, like a good teacher’s, and they tore into me, reading my body language. Eventually a tear formed, slowly falling onto the bridge of her nose, picking up steam as it slid down her cheek. Now she knew.
I reached her just as the complete sadness and realization hit her little body. I wrapped her in my arms, feeling wet on my shoulder, her sobs uncontrollable.
“I want Daddy, I want Daddy,” she slurred over and over, too many times to count. Her breaths quickened and came in shorter and shorter bursts. I worried that she would hyperventilate.
I closed my eyes, pulled her tighter, but still not crying myself.
I thought back to the last time I saw my dad. We had dropped him off on base at Little Creek a few months earlier for another deployment to Afghanistan. Mom had been sitting in the passenger’s seat of our brand new Ford Explorer, Cheyenne asleep in the back. Dad’s big, calloused hand securely enveloped my neck as he led me across the gravel parking lot ringing the headquarters of SEAL Team 2.
The drab, prefabricated building carried no identifying markings. Bright exterior lights buzzed – it was still hours before daylight. They gave off a murky glow, humming animatedly while imposing a lulling effect on moths and young boys alike.
I had never before been inside Dad’s “office,” but had certainly spent many an afternoon daydreaming about what the SEAL compound looked like and what went on inside. He nodded at the uniformed guard standing at the gate, showed his ID, and we were soon on the other side of the chain link fence. Four hopeful eyes looked back to Mom, not sure if we were allowed to do this. A complicit look gave us all the permission we needed. This was between the men, or at least that’s how I interpreted it. The next thing I knew the heavy metal door swung open and we were inside. The business-like bustle and energy inside was a stark contrast
from the early morning stillness. A quiet confidence radiated among the few dozen tough, serious men walking the Spartan halls, sipping coffee, assembling weapons, reviewing documents. Their green duffle bags and assault kits littered every open area. An organized clutter. Most acknowledged my father with a tight smile or raise of the eyebrows. A lot of them were men I knew, some well. The guys who came over for summer barbecues and home-cooked meals.
The few months out of the year when their platoon wasn’t deployed or train ing, these were the men who came to my house for Thanksgiving dinner, who went to the boardwalk restaurants with my parents and played golf with my dad. The guys who had taught me curse words and how to play poker. The guys who treated me one way when my mom was around and tried to choke me out when she wasn’t. One of whom—I still wasn’t sure who—had covered my toilet bowl in clear plastic wrap last year. I saw Mr. Vaughn, Bull, LT Hagen, all making their final preparations for war.
“Mo.” Uncle Spencer walked over, shaking my dad’s hand and placing his free one on my head. Like most of them, he was either spitting into or sipping from a Styrofoam cup. It was difficult to tell which.
Spencer Detse was one of the youngest men on my dad’s team, a single guy from Nebraska who was like a younger brother to my father and a fun uncle to me.
He had joined the Navy soon after high school and had made it through BUD/S, the legendary SEAL training program, soon after. Spencer was short, especially for a SEAL, and made up for that by resembling chiseled stone. He loved Cornhusker football and playing practical jokes, often on me. He had once pinned my pinky finger into my palm for the entire halftime show of the Super Bowl, telling me he wouldn’t let go until I said “uncle.” Despite my mom’s pleas (if it wasn’t for her I’d probably still be curled under the coffee table, arm contorted above my head) and the excruciating pain, I’m proud to say I didn’t give in.
“Hey there, Little Warrior.” That’s what he had called me since then, and I thought it was the greatest nickname in the world. “What are you doing in here?”
“Hi, Uncle Spence. Dunno, Dad brought me in. We came to see you guys off.” We always came to see my dad off and pick him up from every deployment and training exercise, no matter what time he had to report.
“You know this is top secret stuff in here, make sure you don’t give the enemy any intel.”
“Ah, it’s just you guys and your guns. I’ve seen it all before.” He cracked a smile before threatening me with a wedgie. I expertly dodged his halfhearted attempt, not bothering to look to Dad for help. I knew he expected me to defend myself.
“Don’t even think about it, Napoleon,” I said as menacingly as I could muster, using his Team nickname. I tried my best to sneer, and even balled my fists. Then, really going out on a limb: “Don’t make me kick your ass.”
His eyebrows shot up in surprise and mock-anger, but I hardly noticed. My focus was on Dad, his reaction. To my relief, there was none. Maybe an accepting acquiescence? Grudging respect?
“You win this round Little Warrior, but I’ll be back for you.” I knew he would. I’d probably have to “pay the man” at a later
date, but that was okay with me. He left us, passing by Bull as he waddled down the hallway.
“The hell’s the matter with you?” Dad asked.
Bull, as his name belied, was a hulk of a Southern gentlemen, ultra-proud to be from Arkansas. Although a religious man, his teammates appreciated the fact that he wasn’t a Bible-thumper. Dad told me that before every mission Bull was the one who said the prayer and even the non-religious guys would partake. I guess they figured they’d cover themselves. You know, just in case. I always thought how interesting it was for such a devout man to be a trained killer.
“Too much coffee and protein bars,” he replied, barely slowing or glancing in our direction. “Gotta use the head. Nate. Mo, see you on the quarterdeck.”
“Going to take a shit?” my dad called after him. I looked up, surprised and flattered he felt comfortable using the four-letter word in front of me.
Bull’s gait slowed, shoulders clenched. While his snarl may have scared me, it didn’t have the same effect on his platoon mates. To me, his nose alone was tough to look at. Broken who knows how many times, it was flat and jutted out in at least three different directions.
There was a smattering of laughter from Dad and a few of the other SEALs in earshot. The thing was, Bull endured a rare affliction, particularly painful for a SEAL, and one that he suffered for often. You see, he didn’t curse. And worse, cringed when others did. Needless to say, the standard foulness common in special operations was often exaggerated for his benefit.
“That’s like a lawyer who can’t tell a lie,” LT Hagen, their OIC, once explained to me.
I watched Bull saunter down the hall before feeling Dad’s hand on my neck once again. I looked up at his rugged, newly bearded face, and smiled. He returned it, leading me towards a wall with a huge blue circle painted on it. The circle had a black seal hovering over the number “2” and the words “SEAL TEAM” on the top.
Off to the right was the ready room. It housed a pool table, some worn couches, an old big-screen TV, and a wobbly conference table. A few laptops were sprinkled around the room, sitting on ugly and mismatched government furniture. Poking my head in, I recognized a few of the burly guys lounging in front of Fox News, checking and re-checking gear. Several had cleaning supplies out, disassembled guns in their hands. I recognized M4 assault rifles, MP7 submachine guns, a Heckler & Koch PSG-2, which I knew was a sniper rifle, and some standard SEAL issued Sig Sauer P226 pistols.
I acted nonchalant as I looked over the men’s hardware, but inside my heart raced with excitement. Dad had showed me most of these weapons before, and I had even helped him clean his guns after deployments and trips to the range. But it was still a huge rush to see up close the powerful tools these warriors would take into battle. If there was one thing I had learned at an early age, it was to respect firepower.
The walls in the room were covered with framed pictures of men in uniform, wooden plaques and other awards. There was a photograph of President Bush shaking hands with a large, unidentified SEAL in the Oval Office. I saw a dartboard with Osama Bin Laden’s picture on it, covered with tiny holes. The far right wall featured photos of girls, some naked, pinned haphazardly under a handwritten sign reading “Wall of Shame.” I let a giggle escape before quickly looking up at my father, embarrassed by my reaction, hoping he hadn’t heard me. He shook his head understandingly, and led me back outside into the cool morning.
Twilight’s gray soupiness was a stark difference from the glaring florescent lights burning inside the building. I blinked several times, finally getting my bearings. Gravel crunching under our feet was the only sound, seemingly muted by the haze. We exited through the same gate we had entered only minutes before. I could make out my mom standing at the back of the Explorer, Cheyenne sleeping on her chest.
“Here, let me take her,” my dad offered, extending his arms. Cheyenne barely stirred while being transferred to our father, and quickly had her head resting peacefully on his large shoulder.
“You didn’t sign anything, did you, Nathan?” my mom asked, mock-worry on her face.
“Nah, not for five more years,” I told her.
“In five years you’ll be starting college,” Dad stated firmly. I shrugged, knowing now wasn’t the time to make my argument.
“Alright baby, it’s that time,” my father said. He put a groggy Cheyenne on her feet, placed both hands on Mom’s cheeks.
“You’re my light, my life, and my inspiration. Everything I do is for you.”
She gave him a brave smile, and said the same thing she always did:
“You know the rules. Come home.”
“I promise,” he replied.
As far as I know, it was the only promise he ever broke. He wiped away a tear with his thumb before leaning in to kiss her. Their embrace lingered. Cheyenne held my hand. The combination
of holding back tears and the immense pride I felt made my chest feel like it would burst. It was an honor to be his son. He was the toughest, most honorable man I knew, and it gave me great pleasure knowing what he did for a living. But also great trepidation, even if I hadn’t recognized it at the time. To me, war had just been a part of life, a part of my family. We’d been in it ever since I could remember.
Then he knelt down in front of Cheyenne, tickling her armpits. She squirmed sleepily, letting him lift her high in the air and kiss her belly. “You be a good girl for Mommy, okay, Munchkin?” he said, setting her back down before turning to me. He looked me right in the eye, and I didn’t look away, just like he taught me.
“Nathan, make me proud. Remember, integrity is doing the right thing even if no one is watching. I trust you more than you can know, and can’t tell you what a comfort it is knowing that my son is here to look after the family when I’m away.”
I nodded, remaining stoic. He shook my hand, and told me what he always did: “See you on the other side.”
As I stood at my window it occurred to me that would be the last time I would ever speak to my father. The realization made me rack my brain, searching for that memory, needing to save every sound and scent of it. With a wash of anxiety I feared that some parts of it had already slipped away. Did I walk out of the gate first that night, or had he? Did he tell Mom he loved her? I panicked, not remembering if he had been wearing a hat and wondering what else I could have forgotten.
I was looking at the top of Cheyenne’s head, feeling her tears on my arms, when I sensed someone else in the room. I spun around and saw a uniformed SEAL standing uncomfortably in my bedroom doorway.
“Hey guys. Can I come in?” I think his name was Mike. Just Mike, no last name, no nickname. And that suited him perfectly. Short blond hair, tall, thin, unremarkable save for the fact that he was a United States Navy SEAL.
“Free country,” I said, and immediately felt stupid. He nodded understandingly and came closer.
“Hi Cheyenne,” he said, kneeling gingerly in front of her. It reminded me of my father’s goodbye two months earlier, and irritated me. I didn’t want to share that with anyone.
“It’s my dad, right?” I challenged, looking him dead in the eyes. He turned to me, not breaking eye contact, and took us both into his arms. I quickly escaped, having no interest in his embrace.
“I wanted to let your mom be the one to tell you, but she’s lying down right now. Yes, it’s your dad. There was an accident, and he’s gone.”
“Where did he go?” Cheyenne asked, wriggling out of his grip. He struggled with her for a minute, words eluding him. It was clear that a lifetime of expected and constant success left few people on the planet worse equipped to deal with loss.
“He went to be with the angels, Cheyenne. Daddy’s in Heaven now,” I explained, staring at Mike. “Right?”
“He died for his country and teammates, for his brothers. He died for his family, his kids and his kids’ kids. Your dad was a true warrior and hero,” he said.
So as to not confuse Chey, I didn’t say “no shit,” even though that’s exactly what I was thinking.