By Mark Young
My nine-year-old daughter excitedly edged through the fair crowd, going from booth to booth collecting free stuff—toys, pens and pencils, candy, free bottles of water, and balloons. She was a walking advertisement for the Republicans and the Democrats, water softeners and water savers, tree huggers and tree cutters. Everyone had their stuff out for the taking—and she took. With a cute smile and a polite “thank you,” she shoveled her loot into free bags collected on the way.
And she wasn’t the only one. There were a string of takers right behind her, of all ages and shapes. But she is a pro. This was her second fair this month, and she quickly learned the best places to grab free stuff. Forget the exhibits, animal barns, and the rodeo show. She was a girl on a mission.
It was almost inspiring how she swooped in to clean house. And no one seemed to mind.
Then she came to a small booth wedged between the carnival lot and a performance stage, where a country western band rocked out. One man in a U.S. Marine uniform stood tall, his knowing smile and friendly eyes greeting all visitors. A small crowd of teenagers—boys and girls—gathered around the Marine and must have caught my daughter’s attention.
As we drew closer, I saw the Marine sergeant holding a leather exercise ball and standing next to a convex sit up bench with a rack bar. One young man lay back on the bench, his head touching dry grass and his feet in the air, wrapped around a dumbbell bar. As the teenager raised himself, the Marine threw the ball at the young man’s midsection. With a straining red face, the teenager caught the ball and threw it back on his way up. I heard the Marine chant “fifteen” and the boy seemed to collapse.
I heard the goal was twenty reps which the boy failed to achieve. He walked away dejected amidst smirks and jeers. Another young man took his place, and this guy reached his goal. He was given a U.S Marine poster, and walked away beaming as if he’d been given a pot of gold. I heard the Marine tell him and his companions something, but I couldn’t make it out.
My daughter stood watching until all the teenagers had sauntered away. Then she bravely walked up to the Marine and asked if she could try. Without wavering, the Marine nodded and smiled. I watched with some trepidation. I knew the exercise ball would be too much for her to handle. Wisely, the uniformed sergeant modified the rules so that she only needed to do a complete sit up, hands clasped across her chest, twenty times or more to reach her goal. Still, this was a daunting task for a young girl.
I watched her sit up, face taut, arms folded, as she grimaced to complete the first rep. Then she dropped back for another. And another. And another. She passed the twenty sit up mark and made it to 21. She surpassed most of the teenagers who proceeded her. I was one proud dad.
As she finished, my daughter climbed off the bench and stood up. The Marine shook her hand, then reached into his pocket and removed a very nice silver pen with Marines and the logo inscribed on it. As he handed the pen to her, he quietly said, “Earned…not given.” She clasped the pen, pride showing in her expression. This was something my daughter worked hard for—something earned, not given.
Of all the things she gathered at the fairs this summer, this one pen meant more to her than all the free stuff combined. That Marine taught her a lot about life in just that one encounter.
Those words flashed in my mind as I traveled back to the first days of my Marine boot camp, and the subsequent training that finally led to Vietnam. To battles waged that cost the lives of my friends and fellow countrymen. That precious ground we fought for was “earned, not given.” I saw that look in the eyes of that Marine, as he handed her the pen, a look I’d seen in the faces of many other Marines. He knew the cost.
As I wrote Off the Grid, I introduced my readers to the main chaacter, Gerrit O’Rourke, a Marine lieutenant, whose Recon unit is fighting for their lives in another war, in another time.Though this international thriller is not about that war, Gerrit brings the things he learned as a Marine into his experiences as a Seattle cop, and into his struggles to stay alive as he battles against forces bent on killing him and those he cares about. As I grew to know Gerrit, I saw a lot of him in the Marines I knew in times past, and I recognized the code he learned to live by. Life is not always easy. And the important things in life are earned, not given.
There is a Christmas footnote to this story about the Marine. On Christmas morning, I unfolded the wrapping of a present from my daughter and saw the pen she had earned at the fair. As I wrote this article, I glanced at that pen next to me, a gift that I will always cherish. Later, I learned from my wife that my daughter—from the moment she earned that present—intended to give it to me for Christmas. She knew what the U.S. Marines meant to me. And she knew what the gift meant to her, a gift earned—not given.
Above the walkway at the San Diego marine recruit depot is written these words. “To be a Marine, you have to believe in: Yourself—Your fellow Marine—Your Corps—Your Country—Your God. Semper Fidelis.” Always Faithful. These words echoed in my mind as I wrote Off the Grid, a story about always being faithful. About the pride of earning your place in this world, about sacrifice and commitment.
It is my hope that what my daughter learned from that Marine at the fair will stay with her forever. Semper Fi.
Free eBook Giveaway Contest
To start the New Year and this blog on the right foot, I'll be offering free Off The Grid eBooks to five, randomly selected participants on this blog. In order to throw your hat into the ring, just leave a comment here that you would like to be considered along with any other comments you'd like to leave. I will end the contest at midnight, January 14, 2012 after which five names will be selected by my youngest daughter. These winners will be contacted as to which format they'd like to receive their copy of Off the Grid.