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Cadet - 22. Cadet First Class • VII

“I hate shaving. I’m considering converting.” Joel looked funny with blood soaked pieces of toilet paper stuck to his face where he had nicked himself.

“You need something better than those cheap-ass, disposable shavers, bro.” Ritch and the others in The Wing had allowed their beards to grow while in California. The day before returning to the Academy, all had taken a trimmer to their facial hair, before using a blade to scrape away the remaining stubble. Joel’s complaint was not new. “And what would you convert to anyway?”

The Air Force prohibited beards except for medical reasonsmostly African-Americans who suffered from painful razor bumpsor religious convictions. “Islam’s out. No way do I want to be circumcised at our age. I’ve heard it’s painful as shit.”

Ritch grimaced and unconsciously grabbed his crotch.

“Becoming a Sikh’s a possibility, but I don’t think I can pull off the turban. That leaves Norse Heathen.”

“Yeah, right. I bet all you’re interested in is naked pagan rituals with a bunch of Vikings. You want Thor and his big hammer.”

“And your point is?”

 

Time either flew by or inched along after returning to Colorado Springs. The weeks between spring break and graduation were busy, but in reality not much more than others. Ritch felt calm in the middle of the storm, at peace with the world since he knew there was no chance he would not graduate. Although neither he nor Joel would be recognized as outstanding scholars, both had high enough grades not to be embarrassed.

“Bro, I’m so ready to be done.” Joel moved his chair away from the desk and put his feet up. “Thirty days leave, and Texas warmth and sunshine after. I’m not gonna miss Rocky Mountains weather.”

Ritch chuckled.

“What’s so funny, Peterson?”

“I think I’ll miss it a little.”

“The fuck?”

“No, really. When I moved from Miami to Washington, it took me a bit to get used to the cold. By my second winter in D.C., I was loving the seasonal changes.” Ritch recalled piling on several blankets while watching TV in the living room during his first visit to Washington. Nobody else minded the chilly house, so he did his best to keep warm. “I thought the move here would bother me just as much, but it didn’t.”

“Why?”

“The mountains. I’ll miss being able to hit the slopes almost any weekend for six straight months. Any leave I get in winter from now on, I’ll try to come back to Vail.”

“Unless you get stationed in Europe and you end up skiing in The Alps.”

“True dat.”

 

As the end approached, Ritch traded messages about logistics with his fathers. Mostly with César, since he had taken upon himself the responsibility to coordinate travel and lodging for the family.

On Monday before graduation, the fathers called Ritch to let him know they were in town and would see him the following morning. The graduation Awards Ceremony, scheduled for 10:00 a.m. Tuesday at Clune Arena, was open to honorees and their guests. Ritch had been informed his attendance was required.

Because their squadron commander was being honored, the entire Dirty Dozen managed to wrangle admissions. As a unit, they stood and applauded when Kyle Bryson was announced as a presenter. The executive director of Heroes Haven–Colorado Springs was visibly embarrassed.

When the crowd quieted, he grinned. “Well, that was unexpected. Thank you. I’ll assume those who hollered the loudest know me, and that they’re members of the Dirty Dozen.” He had to stop when the squadron’s men and women again vociferously cheered. “For anyone who doesn’t know who I am, I help run an organization in town. We’re building a village of tiny houses for homeless vets.

“My inspiration for Heroes Haven was a documentary I watched, and some of you may be familiar with, about a similar community in Delaware. Imagine my surprise when a cadet approached me, offering manpower, and assistance raising funds. Mama raised no fool, so I accepted. The unassuming young man was intimately familiar with A Home for Warriors, the aforementioned documentary. One of his close friends, Army Ranger Bradley Kennedy had narrated it, and the cadet’s family had underwritten production.

“As I got to know the cadet, I learned more about him and his relatives. Their philanthropy did not usually lead to winning Academy Awards as with the documentary, but their behind the scenes work for multiple organizations was as significant as that film. I consider the day he first visited our site one of the best in my life.

“Not only did he draft his squadron into helping build homes, but those young men and women infiltrated our organization in such a way, I’m not sure we could have accomplished what we have in such a short period of time without them. I was therefore humbled and honored when the Academy asked me to be here today.

“It is now my distinct pleasure to present the Humanitarian Service Medal to Cadet Lieutenant Colonel Richard Leonard Peterson. Ritch?”

“OORAH!” Brett’s loud reaction was heard by everyone in the arena. Ritch groaned, and he was certain César had done the same. Joel, sitting next to Ritch, elbowed him and mumbled something about effusive responses by a jarhead father. Many in the audience cheered along with the Marine. Ritch imagined his father sitting coiled to strike at the right time after figuring out it was his son’s turn to be recognized. His shout was followed by the rest of the attendees standing and applauding, while Ritch climbed on stage.

“Dude, I’m so fucking proud of you.” Brett’s never-ending hug drew smiles from some of those attending the post-ceremony reception. “Four years at the Academy, busy as shit, and you managed to influence countless lives. Thank you for bringing the animal shelter and the homeless houses to our attention.” When Brett disengaged from his son, he discretely wiped away tears.

César waited until Brett was done. “He’s right, son. You’ve made both of us and the rest of the family, proud. And I get the feeling this isn’t the end. You’ll kick ass as an Air Force officer, and as a member of whatever community you live in. We’re behind you all the way, buddy.”

As squadron commander, Ritch had to attend two other ceremonies in the afternoon; the fathers would return in the evening. “We’re gonna head back.” Brett steered his son towards the hall’s exit with an arm draped over his shoulders. “CJ, Ozzie and the kids should be arriving about now. We’ll go help them get settled, and we’ll see you tonight. Did you bring your car keys like I asked?”

Ritch slipped a hand into his trousers and retrieved the fob. “Still don’t know why you need it. Didn’t they rent one?” His brother, brother-in-law, and their kids were scheduled to arrive at Denver International that morning and planned to immediately drive to Colorado Springs.

“We lied to you. We didn’t ride an Uber this morning.” César’s grin was a dead giveaway something was afoot.

Considering Ritch was well aware of how devious his fathers could be at times, he was surprised it took him so long to figure out why they had asked him to bring the keys to Heinrich with him. Excited by the awards ceremony, his exhilaration ratcheted upwards when the proverbial light bulb turned on. “You stopped at the dealership this morning, didn’t you?”

“Actually”Brett’s grin had a malevolent twist“we did it last night.”

“And I had to confiscate the keys so Brett wouldn’t steal it and speed out of town.” César tossed a fob upwards, and Ritch snatched it midair.

“Where is it?” After talking about it since the previous summer, Ritch vibrated with excitement.

“In the visitors’ lot.”

Ritch walked a little faster and his fathers both chuckled. “What’s the rush, flyboy? Not like it’s gonna take off without you.”

“Shut up, Cap.” Faced with a seemingly endless sea of vehicles, Ritch was unable to pick out his new car. He clicked the security fob, and grinning like a little kid, hustled in the chime’s direction.

Following his conversation with Abuelo Sebastián the previous summer, Ritch had confirmed with his fathers they would be jointly buying him his dream car as a graduation present. As soon as the 2024 models were announced, he visited the Porsche dealership in town. The same salesperson who had helped him when he purchased an SUV before, assisted him with a much improved attitude. He was now aware Ritch could afford whatever he wanted in the showroom.

Ritch knew what to expect but was nonetheless dazzled when he saw it. He abruptly stopped his jog and smiled so wide the edges of his mouth hurt. “It’s fucking gorgeous!”

“It’s a pretty nice ride too. If it wasn’t because we need the Cayenne to transport people, I wouldn’t have let César talk me into dropping it off today.”

Ritch graced Brett with an evil look. “Asshole! I was supposed to be the first one to drive it. The dealer could have delivered it on a flatbed the same way they did with Heinrich.”

The metallic ice-green Porsche 911 Turbo S Cabriolet was bewitching. Ritch ran a hand over the car, thinking it looked fast even standing still. With 640 horse power, acceleration from zero to sixty in 2.4 seconds, and a top speed of over 200 miles per hour, the marvel of German engineering was everything he had dreamt of. All that was left was to get it out on the road. Unfortunately, that would have to wait.

“Interesting color you chose.” César and Brett had seen the spec sheet when Ritch ordered the car. They had asked to review it before forking over a little over two hundred thousand for the vehicle. “I thought the contract said it’d be gray.”

“I saw an earlier model drive in for service and changed my mind. This is an old Porsche color, and it had to be special ordered. I took care of the difference.”

“You shouldn’t have. This is a present, and we agreed to pay for it. I’ll assume you put it on your Amex, so we’ll take care of the difference too.”

As part of taking control of his finances, Ritch had been handling his own bills since Christmas. Because he was still a dependent, the fathers increased his monthly allowance accordingly. That would end with graduation.

“You don’t have to, Mr. A. I’m perfectly happy spending a couple thousand out of my own money.”

 

“Uncle Ritch!”

Waiting outside Arnold Hall, Ritch squatted when his niece slipped her hands from her fathers’ and ran to him, wrapping her arms around his neck.

“Hey, munchkin. You’re getting big.” They had not seen each other since Christmas, and the girl had turned four the previous month. “Gun show!”

Smiling, Liebe raised her arms in the classic double biceps front pose. It was something he had started with her the previous summer while working out in Riley and Phil’s basement. Ritch repeated the request whenever he video called.

He glanced at Cesar and Brett, each holding a toddler in their arms. “Those two have grown too.”

“Hey, mate.” Owen hugged his brother-in-law when Ritch stood with Liebe in his arms. “All three have grown, but we don’t notice it as much. We see them every day.”

“Congratulations on your award, bro. The dads told us all about it.”

“Thanks, CJ. You own a piece of that medal. If you hadn’t gotten involved with the original HH, I wouldn’t have written that initial check to the Colorado Springs one.” Ritch hugged his brother and turned his attention to his nephews. “Hey, Roo, Jeffer.”

“Hi.” Jefferson grinned while Roosevelt buried his head in César’s chest. The boys were still indistinguishable to Ritch, but having their first names embroidered on the left breast of their sweaters, made identification simpler.

“I want kisses.” Ritch handed Liebe to CJ, and kissed Jefferson’s forehead. He repeated the move with Roo, after prying him away from César. “Where’s Melissa?” His aunt was one of the guests making the trip to Colorado.

“She was riding with the Benders. We crammed ourselves in one car.” Brett turned and scanned the arriving crowd. “They should be here by now.”

“Win Bender’s a trip.” César took Roo back, so Ritch could pick up Jeffer. “We met him and Sarah earlier, and he blamed me for turning his son into a liberal.”

Will Bender, a Wing member, had been Ritch’s roommate their first two years at the Academy. Win and Sarah were Will’s parents. “Four years later, and he’s still harping on that?” Ritch thought it amusing. “He hasn’t forgiven Will for voting for Biden instead of Trump.”

“RITCH!” Melissa Griffon fast-walked to hug her nephew. “You might be my nephew, but I think I’m in love with your niece and her brothers.” She had met Liebe when the family had gathered in Vail over Christmas a couple of years before; the boys she saw in person for the first time earlier in the day.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah… Go ahead, toss me aside like a crumpled Kleenex. Thanks for coming, Melissa.”

“You couldn’t have kept me away if you tried.”

Although the performancesselections from Les Miserables by four cadet groupswere entertaining, Ritch’s favorite part of the evening was watching the interactions between The Wing’s families. César and Brett had met Edrice King’s parents the previous winter. Joel’s nephew was the same age as Liebe, and they cried when forced to separate at night’s end.

The one parent he paid special attention to was Federico Rodriguez’s mother. Aware finances were tight for her, Ritch had gifted Fred enough credit card miles for her flight. He made sure she was seated by his own grandparents the next day, since they had language and geography in common.

 

Ritch’s family was not blind, rah-rah patriotic. Under the tutelage of his fathers, he had learned to love his country, while acknowledging its imperfections. The United States was a work in progress, and at times it felt unable to surpass conflict and rancor due to differences in race and class. Brett and César did their part to encourage forward movement through philanthropy. CJ did it though activism, and Owen worked behind the scenes to improve the world Liebe, Jeffer, and Roo would inherit.

Ritch hoped to do his part as an Air Force officer. He would leave the overzealous flag waving to others. However, at the moment, he felt as proud of being an American as ever. The Air Force Academy band playing John Philip Souza’s Washington Post March may have had something to do with it. The famous composer’s music was the soundtrack for every patriotic holiday celebration back home.

He caught himself drifting and refocused his attention on putting one foot in front of the other. It would not do for him to screw up the formation. Every cadet at the Academy had marched on the field by squadron. Once in position, the fourth classers separated themselves and stepped away. The new commanders moved front and center to lead their squadrons through the remainder of the program. Ritch recalled doing the same the previous year.

The graduate wedges moved in unison towards the stage and bleachers on Stillman Field’s south side. Ritch could not wait to see the Graduation Parade video. The performance was the culmination of four years of endless marching and intense practices over the preceding weeks.

The subsequent reception for graduates and family was forgettable; the Commission Ceremony was memorable. Although technically it did not take effect until the following day, that afternoon, Ritch and the other Class of 2024 members were sworn in as second lieutenants in the United States Air Force. The first person he hugged and kissed afterwards was Lucy. She had arrived earlier, about the same time as his grandparents, Olga, Rosario, and Sebastián.

 

“Ladies and gentlemen, The President of the United States of America.” The announcement was seamlessly followed by the band striking up Hail to the Chief.

Waiting out of sight, Ritch and his fellow cadets knew the presidential march was their cue. The joking and shouting comments faded away, and final adjustments were made to their clothing, particularly the yellow sashes around their waists. The cadets were ready to make their entrance.

“Thank you for joining us. Welcome to the sixty-sixth United States Air Force Academy commencement ceremony. The graduates thank you for sharing this special day with them. It is now my honor to welcome the class of 2024.”

As one, close to a thousand young men and women, raised their left foot off the ground followed by the right one. They marched in place until a signal was given. Their moves perfectly synchronized, they inched forward. The ceremony’s solemnity was broken by frequent spectator cheering.

Their steps were slow and calculated. They entered Falcon Stadium at a snail’s pace. Moving in single files, cadets aligned to enter the space between the rows of chairs on the field. When they stopped moving, with every cadet in front of their seats, they were instructed to turn. Their backs to the audience, Ritch could feel the standing ovation’s vibrations. About half the crowd had stood when they entered. By the time the graduates reached their position, Ritch could see everyone was on their feet.

 

Ritch was unable to pay close attention to the President’s speech due to his overwhelming excitement. Later, he would recall bits and pieces.

“…the security of the United States and our fellow Americans may be placed in your hands. You, the future leaders of our nation, will have the best equipment and support we can muster. I am today announcing a modernization…”

It droned on for a while, but Ritch was not interested in hearing about new planes or policies. He would read about it tomorrow. At the moment, he wanted the damn thing over with, so he could join his family. He at last gave the Commander in Chief his full attention, when the President announced there was one final, small item to mention.

“I would normally not single out an individual cadet in this type of ceremony, but I feel the need to do so today. Nearly a year ago, we placed a call to a State Department official who had returned to the U.S. after a difficult situation overseas.”

“Oh, fuck!” Ritch immediately covered his mouth with a gloved hand, but it was too late. Those surrounding him heard it, and a couple of them chuckled.

“Sounds like you’re about to become famous, Peterson. That has to be your brother the White House called.”

Ritch had not mentioned the conversation to anyone at the Academy; he did not believe anything would come of it. He should have known better. If this President promised something, you could count on it being done. At the moment, no matter how much he hoped it would not happen, it did.

“During the conversation with our diplomat and his spouse, they informed us his brother, a cadet at the Air Force Academy, was listening. After greeting the young man and thanking him for his commitment to our military, he mentioned his fellow cadets would be thrilled if the Commander in Chief would speak at his graduation the following year.”

Ritch grunted. The elbow to his side was not gentle.

“You didn’t. You mean we got POTUS as our graduation speaker thanks to you?” There was no disguising Joel’s surprise, or those close enough to hear. Commencement speakers at the military academies rotated between the President, the Vice-President, the Secretary of Defense, and the head of the particular branch. The Secretary of the Air Force had been bumped off the schedule when the President decided to address the graduates.

Ritch barely nodded.

“Fucking A, Peterson! Way to go.”

Ritch bumped the offered fist.

“When I inquired about the one cadet earlier today, I was informed he had been awarded the Humanitarian Service Medal. Congratulations to you, young man. Not only have you sworn to defend your country, but you have shown how our military officers can be a force for good within their communities.

“I understand you have some leave coming, and I assume you’ll be going home to visit your family. When you’re in Washington, I expect you to stop by the White House for a visit. My people will call your people. We’ll do coffee.”

The small joke earned the President laughter. Any cadet not aware it was Ritch being talked about was probably in a coma. Everyone sitting close enough to him had a comment. The President’s conclusion flew past Ritch. Before fully realizing what he was doing, he stood with the rest of the graduating class, applauding.

The cadets would mount the stage to accept their diplomas by squadron. Since the Dirty Dozen were the twelfth, there would be somewhat over 250 before Ritch rose. The grin on his face matched those on nearly every other graduate, as one by one, cadets climbed steps on alternating sides, accepted their diplomas, and saluted the Commander in Chief. After shaking hands with the President, they turned, faced the audience, and saluted again. Leaving the spotlight, each pair stood facing the stage. Each new set replaced the previous one. Hugs were abundant. When it was Ritch’s turn, he got a conspiratorial wink from the President.

The wait felt interminable, but at last, the fortieth squadron was done. The Superintendent stood at the microphone, not saying a word, while the crowd anticipated what everyone knew was coming. The female officer standing next to him, staring at the sky, at last nudged the man. As the Thunderbirds roared over the stadium, the words all graduates wanted to hear were at last uttered: “Class of 2024, dismissed!”

A thousand white caps flew into the sky.

Copyright © 2021 Carlos Hazday; All Rights Reserved.
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My thanks to Mann Ramblings, Parker Owens, and WolfM for their assistance. The story is better that it would have been without their assistance.

Story Discussion Topic

Welcome to the discussion thread for CJ’s series. All things CJ are fair game, I simply ask you be respectful of others. I will actively participate in the discussion. Ask questions, speculate about what’s coming, or bitch about what happened. We’re now open for business!    

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Chapter Comments



13 hours ago, Bft said:

Me too

Need a tissue? I kinda do it too when reading the last part.

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“And your point is?” -- GO FOR IT, JOEL!!! Watch out, tho, Norse Heathen can be mighty white supremacist.

typo alert: His brother, brother-in-law, and their kids where scheduled -- I think you mean "WERE"?

metallic ice-green? It ain't easy being green! And what's he going to do when he's posted to Incerlik?

"Go ahead, toss me aside like a crumpled Kleenex." -- Could be worse, like a used . . . 

Under the tutelage of his fathers, he had learned to love his country, while acknowledging its imperfections. -- OMG!! What are they teaching at the AFA? CRT? Pure Commanizm, I say, COMMANIZM!!!

Will CJ speak to the AFA graduates as his first academy commencement, or will he do it all four years?

A thousand white caps flew into the sky. -- I was surprised to learn that not all the caps go airborne. Because of the damage of landing and getting stepped on, and simply getting lost or taken (mistakenly or not) from the field, some graduates opt to hang on so they don't have to replace them.

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18 hours ago, BlueWindBoy said:

“And your point is?” -- GO FOR IT, JOEL!!! Watch out, tho, Norse Heathen can be mighty white supremacist
You mean they're all closet homos?.

typo alert: His brother, brother-in-law, and their kids where scheduled -- I think you mean "WERE"?
Thank you! Fixed

metallic ice-green? It ain't easy being green! And what's he going to do when he's posted to Incerlik?
Best utterance ever of Kermit's lament: Billy Joel when Elton John sat on the piano abutting his on stage
I'm outlining a story that mentions Ritch's initial posting and haven't decided what to do about Portia yet.

"Go ahead, toss me aside like a crumpled Kleenex." -- Could be worse, like a used . . . 
Q tip, right? I mean, you wouldn't mean a tampon or condom, would you? :P

Under the tutelage of his fathers, he had learned to love his country, while acknowledging its imperfections. -- OMG!! What are they teaching at the AFA? CRT? Pure Commanizm, I say, COMMANIZM!!!
PLEASE PAY ATTENTION Under the tutelage of his fathers... Are you nuts? The AFA may pay lip service but otherwise I'm afraid they have a ways to go.

Will CJ speak to the AFA graduates as his first academy commencement, or will he do it all four years?
Annapolis in 2045

A thousand white caps flew into the sky. -- I was surprised to learn that not all the caps go airborne. Because of the damage of landing and getting stepped on, and simply getting lost or taken (mistakenly or not) from the field, some graduates opt to hang on so they don't have to replace them.
I did notice watching graduation videos some cadets did not toss them. But I think the majority did.

 

Edited by Carlos Hazday
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