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Cadet - 6. Cadet Third Class • I

“Thank you, Peterson. It’s beautiful.” Cadet First Class Nicole Baxter—the Olympic caliber swimmer who harangued Ritch about his attire on I-Day—hugged him.

“I’m glad you like it. I… I…” Ritch did not stutter often, but around the statuesque woman, he often found himself tongue-tied. “Not sure if you remember, but you made a big impression on I-Day. And since then, you’ve always encouraged me whenever we’ve ended up working together.”

Baxter laughed and placed a hand on Ritch’s shoulder. “Oh, I remember I-Day. I was trying to be all tough and shit, hoping to scare you, and instead it was open mouth, insert foot. When I made a crack about your parents, and you mentioned they had passed, I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me.”

“You had no way of knowing.”

“Yeah, but still, man, that was embarrassing. I was surprised with you, though. You kept your cool and gave the proper responses.” Nicole stared at the ground for a moment before fixing her gaze on Ritch. “And you blew my mind again last weekend, Peterson. I saw you in town with a few of your friends, and you were wearing a Black Lives Matters t-shirt.”

“Yeah, a couple of the guys in the squadron gave me shit about it being too political, but since it’s not pornographic or demeaning of anyone, they couldn’t find a valid reason for me not to wear it.”

“Thank you, Peterson. The men who raised you did it right. Not many rich, white boys stand up for others the way you’re doing. Keep it up. I expect to hear good things about you in the future.”

Since his arrival at the Air Force Academy, Ritch had interacted with a large number of upperclassmen. A handful had not only taught him, but often provided advice and encouragement. With their upcoming graduation and commissioning, he wanted to show his gratitude. For the guys, he purchased Air Force Academy pewter tankards. The two females received small Falcon pendants.

Apart from Baxter, Cadet First Class Claire Ross was the other woman Ritch had established a quasi-personal relationship with. Ross was just as appreciative of his gift. “I love it, Peterson. Thank you so much.”

“You’re welcome.” Ritch accepted and returned the hug. “I wanted to show how much your support and encouragement has meant to me.”

“Then let me do it one more time.” The smile on her face disappeared. “The Air Force, and all the other branches of the military, are still run mostly by white men.” She glanced around but there was nobody else within hearing distance. “Many of them are miserable fucks. Misogynistic, racist, and homophobic attitudes have no place in our military. It’s up to people like you to change the culture.”

Ritch was reminded of his fathers’ frequent admonition: with power and wealth came the responsibility of being a catalyst for change. For the better. If not him, who? He may have still appeared somewhat surprised.

“Don’t look so shocked, Peterson. Yes, you. Maybe it’s all those dinnertime family conversations you’ve mentioned, or genetics. But whatever the reason, you have a good head on your shoulders, and can articulate arguments with the best of them.”

His fathers were very conservative in certain areas but rabid liberals when it came to social issues. Ritch had already figured out many of his fellow cadets were not as progressive in their thinking. Some came from smaller, rural areas and often reflected community views about race and gender. At times, it felt as if they were stuck in the nineteen-fifties.

“I can tell you’re not always comfortable speaking in public or being the center of attention, Peterson. But you have to overcome those fears. Be an example for others. Continue to stand up for what you believe in, and you’ll make a difference in a lot of lives. I consider myself lucky to have met you.”

 

Out of the three summer sessions offered by the Academy, Ritch had signed up for a course during the last. He thought he could transition from taking that one class to his first full semester as a Cadet Third Class. During the first one, he hoped to skydive. In between, he planned to visit Washington, travel to California to see and stay at the family’s new Malibu beach house, or spend a few days in Vail.

The chain of command had a different idea. They ordered him to enroll in a leadership session before a new batch of doolies arrived for Basic Cadet Training. He would eventually find out it was done at the recommendation of Cadet Claire Ross and Dr. Perry Sloane. Dr. Sloane had ulterior motives, which became clear when he introduced Ritch to Cadet First Class Trevor Ward.

“Trevor’s part of the BCT cadre, Ritch.” Dr. Sloane had started using Ritch’s first name instead of calling him Peterson after a couple of meetings in the professor’s office. Ritch did notice it was not a common practice; it was something he did with those working closely with him. “One of the seminars he’ll run is the one on diversity Claire handled when you went through the training last year.”

“Ross had good things to say about you, Peterson. She was one of my mentors, so I trust her judgement.” Trevor Ward was a tall, blond, Nebraskan with chiseled features. He had the type of look Ritch thought some of his gay friends back home would drool over. It was a struggle to refrain from grinning.

A few days later, Ritch thought the sign he held with Sgt. Bradley Kennedy on it was superfluous. It might have been needed if someone other than himself had accompanied Trevor Ward to the Colorado Springs Airport. There was zero chance he would not recognize Brad, or vice versa. He smiled when he noticed the redhead approaching and had to force himself to maintain his decorum.

“Fuck, but it’s good to see you, bro.” Brad wrapped his arms around Ritch, ignoring the precise salute the other cadet snapped.

“You gonna let me breathe, Red?”

The tableau attracted scattered attention, but most everyone ignored them. Since the airport’s runways were shared with the Air Force, most individuals using the facility were accustomed to seeing uniformed men and women on the premises.

“Don’t tell me you’ve turned into a prissy, Air Force wimp. A little hug from your older brother got you flustered?”

Ritch swallowed the fuck you, asshole about to leave his lips. Instead, he coughed a couple of times and tried to sound formal. “Sergeant Kennedy, allow me to introduce Cadet Lieutenant Colonel Trevor Ward. Sir, this is Sergeant Bradley Thomas Kennedy, U.S. Army Ranger, retired.”

“It’s an honor, Sergeant.” Ward repeated the salute but offered his hand to shake when the military greeting was again ignored.

“Bro, skip the formalities, okay?” Brad shook the cadet’s hand. “I’m Brad.”

“It’s still an honor. Peterson was assigned as my assistant for this weekend, and he’s told me a little about you. The two of you live next to each other in Washington?”

“Yep, my parents bought the house next to his a few years ago.” Brad grinned at Ritch. “I’m not sure if he mentioned it, but I have two fathers just like him. One of my dads and one of his went to college together at Berkeley and have been friends since. All through high school, Ritch and I were the only straight boys out of nine men living between the two houses. It helped us bond.”

“That must have been interesting.”

“Trevor’s running the sessions around your movie, Red.” Following the initial conversation with Dr. Sloane, the professor had contacted Brett and asked to screen A Home for Warriors at the Academy. Sporadic emails from his fathers and brother kept Ritch abreast of developments. “You’ll lead the one with upperclassmen, and he’s supposed to replicate what you do in a couple of weeks with the newbies.”

“I was surprised when you guys invited me to introduce the film, Trevor. Aren’t you afraid it may scare some people off?”

Ward replied in a serious tone. “Any cadet unaware of homelessness amongst vets, and scared by what the documentary shows, shouldn’t be at the Academy.” Then the man smirked and winked at Ritch. “It applies even more to doolies. Peterson’s class last year had some snowflakes melt during basic training. Sooner or later, we weed out admission mistakes.”

“You sound like you’ll be a hard ass with the rookies.”

Ward chuckled. “Nah, I’m a pussycat. I’m planning on medical school, becoming a psychiatrist, and working with returning airmen. I’m just realistic. Some people aren’t meant for life in the military.”

“What you reading, Red?” Ritch had picked up Brad’s backpack when Ward motioned towards the baggage claim area and noticed the top of a paperback sticking out from the front pocket.

“Your brother’s.”

Bullies Beware? Really? I figured the entire Squad had read it by now.”

“It’s like my third time.”

Trevor appeared confused when he looked at Ritch. “Wait, your brother produced the documentary and he’s an author too?”

“This came first, and CJ didn’t do it by himself. He wrote it with a friend of our fathers who’s a reporter for the Washington Post.”

“CJ’s big on fighting bullying. It goes back to our high school days.” Brad reached over, plucked the book out of his bag, and held it out to Trevor. “Here, happy birthday whenever it is. I think you’ll enjoy reading some of the anecdotes about our school years.”

Ward shook his head. “I couldn’t take it. I’ll just order a copy from Amazon.”

Brad pressed the book into the younger man’s hands. “Take it, bro. I’ll just walk next door when I get home and pick up another copy. His dads have a box full of them.”

“Thank you, Sergeant.”

“I gotta warn you, although it was a best seller, the book was criticized by educators and mental health professionals. They weren’t happy with CJ advocating violence. He wants bullied people to learn how to defend themselves.”

Ward shrugged. “Sounds like a good idea to me. Is he in the military too?”

“Ha! My brother?” Ritch was unable to contain his laughter. “The first time somebody gave him an order he didn’t like, he’d tell them to fuck off. CJ only follows instructions when he likes them.”

Brad had already done the dog and pony show a couple of times, starting with a private showing at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in his hometown of Boston. A couple of groups wanting him to introduce the documentary and moderate a discussion had offered him a speaker’s fee, but he refused them, saying he did not want to profit from the misfortune of those appearing in the film. Instead, he requested donations to a veterans’ charity.

He did accept the Academy’s offer to fly him to Colorado Springs and put him up for the weekend. They planned a small reception for Friday evening, an in-depth tour of the grounds, and dinner with Dr. Sloane and a handful of the upper brass on Saturday. Sunday, Ritch was detailed to escort him anywhere he wanted.

Located on Academy grounds, on the southern edge of the Eisenhower Golf Course and north of the main cadet buildings, Rampart Lodge was an Air Force Inns property. Resembling a chain hotel, it offered a cardio fitness room, and had a small area with a coffee bar and Air Force Academy souvenirs for sale.

Next door to the Falcon Club, the lodge was open to all eligible Department of Defense personnel, their immediate family members, and cadet families when space was available. It was where Brad would stay while in Colorado Springs.

“Damn, Ritch! They already named a base after you?” Brad, riding in front, pointed at a sign for Peterson Air Force Base, the facility sharing the Colorado Springs Municipal Airport runways.

The vehicle had been assigned to C1C Ward, and he had delegated driving duties to Ritch. “You got it, Red. I impressed the Academy so much, they’re nominating me for Secretary of the Air Force next.”

“Asshole!”

In the back seat, Ward laughed. “You guys are brothers, aren’t you? The base, like many in the Air Force, started as an Army Air Field. It was named after an Army pilot who died after a test flight accident during World War II.”

“I didn’t know that.” Ritch was surprised and vowed to follow up on his namesake.

“You should check the base out, Peterson. Their Air and Space Museum’s pretty cool. Anyway, Brad, the place’s home to NORAD, NORTHCOM headquarters, and a couple of Space Force elements.” NORAD was the acronym for the North American Aerospace Defense Command and NORTHCOM stood for the United States Northern Command. “With the creation of the U.S. Space Force, the base will become one of their facilities at some point.”

“Is this where you rent planes, Ritch?” Over Christmas, Ritch had mentioned he tried to rent aircraft and practice his pilot skills as often as he could.

“Nope. That’s at the Academy’s Flight Training Center. Their prices are better.”

“You know, my only other trip to Colorado was when we went skiing for your brother’s eighteenth birthday. I’d love to see some of these mountains from the air. You gonna take me up this weekend? I’ve never gone flying with you before.”

Ritch looked at Ward in the rearview mirror, silently asking for consent.

“Go for it, Peterson. If he’s brave enough to get into a tiny plane with you…” Trevor chuckled. “I’ll wait until you learn how to fly real ones before hitching a ride.”

Ritch was not at the reception held Friday night at the Falcon Club. The next time he saw his friend, after getting him settled at the lodge, was early Saturday morning. They had agreed to go running on the golf course, and Ward had invited himself along. “Running’s part of our daily life, Sergeant. I rarely miss a day,” Ward explained to a surprised Brad.

Halfway through what Brad claimed was his usual distance, the Army man begged for a rest. “Jesus Christ! I didn’t believe what you guys said about the altitude. I thought I was in good enough shape I could handle it.” Trevor and Ritch had allowed him to set the pace and suggested it be slower than his normal. The thin air at 7,500 feet would make it harder to breathe than at Washington’s sea level. Brad had ignored them.

“Told ya, Red. Why do you think I came out to Colorado two weeks before reporting last year? I spent the time in Vail exercising every day. I watched enough YouTube videos where cadets all warned us about the height of the mountains.”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t watch any of those.”

“You wanna start walking back?”

“Hell, no! Let me catch my breath and we’ll try it again.” The temperature was still cool, but the three runners were sweating; Brad slipped off his hoodie and used it to pat his face and arms dry. He wore a sleeveless, drab olive, Army t-shirt underneath.

“Holy shit! You have the Air Force’s old logo tattooed on your shoulder.” Ward was definitely surprised. “But you’re in the Army!”

“It’s not the Air Force logo, bro. It’s The Squad’s.” Brad winked at Ritch. “It’s the same one your boy here has.”

The look of surprise grew, and Ward stared at Ritch. “You have the same tat?”

Ritch took off the long-sleeved t-shirt and turned his left shoulder towards Ward. “There are eleven of us with it, Ward. The Squad’s what our little group of friends goes by.”

“Did you design it? Is that why it’s our old logo?”

“Oh, hell, no. I have no artistic talent. Three of our guys went to a motorcycle rally a couple of years ago, and they came back inked. Some tattoo artist drew it for them.”

“And there’s eleven of you with the same one?”

“So far.” Brad had apparently recovered, tied the sweatshirt around his waist, and did a few stretches. “The group started with Ritch’s brother and a couple of his friends in high school. When my brother and I transferred to the same school, it grew. CJ keeps adopting strays, so we may have more in the future.”

“I gotta meet this brother of yours, Peterson. You guys make him sound too good to be true.”

 

Sunday morning, after breakfast together, Brad silently watched as Ritch went through pre-flight procedures. The cadet smiled and nodded when the weather report called for clear skies over southern Colorado.

“Where we headed?” Brad asked as he adjusted the headphones.

“I made this trip a few weeks ago. We’ll overfly Mesa Verde National Park, and get lunch somewhere, before we return.” Although the National Park Service requested aircraft remain 2,000 feet in the air when over NPS properties, Ritch had fudged, flown lower when over the cliffs, and planned to do it again.

“What? We using the fly through window at a McDonald’s somewhere on top of a mountain?”

Ritch’s hand shot upwards to cover his microphone; he did not want his laughter blasting through the headphones. “Okay, that was funny. We’ll land at Cortez Airport and call an Uber. I discovered a great restaurant ten minutes from the airfield.”

“So, what’s at the park? I’m not familiar with that one.”

“Anasazi ruins. That means ancient ones in Navajo, by the way. I haven’t gone to the park and hiked yet, but it’s on my list.”

“Is it a bunch of mud huts or something?”

“Bro, cliff dwellings. Google it afterwards, but they built on the side of the mountains. Not sure how the hell they did it, but what you can see from the air is amazing. If we had time, I’d take you there or to Four Corners.”

“That’s the place where four states meet, right?”

“Yep. Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona. They have a marker on the spot and you can touch all four states at the same time.”

The Farm Bistro, located in downtown Cortez, offered local cuisine in a rustic atmosphere. Ritch knew what he wanted and did not bother with the menu. “Try the yuk burger; it’s awesome.”

“Yuck burger? Sounds yucky.” Brad chuckled at his pun.

“Idiot! Yuk, Y, U, K. It’s like a cow from the Himalayas. I had to look it up. When I asked the restaurant people if they flew the meat in, they laughed. Believe it or not, there are several ranches around here raising the critters.”

“Okay, I’ll give it a try.” Brad leaned back in his chair and stared at Ritch.

“What? You’re staring.”

“Nothing, bro. It’s just that you seem much more relaxed than you were when I saw you six months ago. Have you gotten over the homesickness you mentioned?”

Ritch slowly nodded. “Yeah… I guess. I still miss the dads and all our friends, but I’m handling it much better. I mean, I’m doing what I’ve always wanted, right? And it’s not like everyone back in D.C.’s still hanging around the dads’ basement all the time anymore.”

“Yeah, our ranks are getting thinner. Thiago’s in Atlanta now and CJ and Owen will be in Mexico City by the end of summer.”

Thiago Baravento, one of the original Squad members, had graduated from Howard University and accepted a position in Atlanta. The State Department had posted CJ to the Mexico City embassy, and he, his husband, and their daughter, Liebe, would be moving in late August or early September.

“This is all so damn different from what my high school friends are going through. Someone wanted to see my dorm room, so I sent a picture out. Damn thing went viral amongst our crowd, and most shared pics of their own rooms after. Mine was the only clean and organized one.”

Brad chuckled. “Yeah, I noticed that yesterday. No decorations except for pics on a bulletin board, and everything in its place. But I figured that was about how my cot looked when I was in training.”

“That’s it, Brad. Only people in the military get it. You, your dad, and Cap weren’t surprised by anything I mentioned when I was home for Christmas. Hell, CJ can’t even relate to being in a dorm room. Fucker went to college a block away from home!”

 

“Developing leaders of character is the mission of all of us at the Air Force Academy, whether we’re coaches, professors, staff, commanders, military trainers, or aviation instructors. At a minimum, we strive to serve as role models for our cadets.” Dr. Sloane scanned the audience comprised of every student at the Academy at that point in time and quite a few officers. “Appropriately, our guest today is someone we should all look up to. Someone we should admire for his grit and his willingness to share his experience with others.

“Bradley Thomas Kennedy enlisted in the Army while a senior in high school. Upon graduation, he went through basic training and eventually entered and completed Ranger School. Promoted to Sergeant, he was deployed overseas, and participated in special operations most of which are still classified. In spring of 2019, the vehicle he was driving struck an IED, and Sergeant Kennedy lost both his legs.”

Brad had worn his dress uniform but forgone the realistic-looking legs in favor of running blades. He had already figured out morbid curiosity would distract people. The curved, metal prosthetics took guessing out of the equation.

“As part of his recovery, he agreed to be the voice and face of a documentary about homeless veterans. For six months, he lived amongst comrades fallen on hard times. His willingness to participate in such a project exemplifies the kind of dedication and leadership we seek to instill in all our cadets.”

Sloane had glanced at Brad several times and now motioned for him to stand. “Sergeant Kennedy will address us and answer questions after the movie.”

During a pre-production meeting for the documentary, Captain Brett Davenport insisted the military and the government not be overtly blamed for the plight of Heroes Haven residents. Although their homelessness could often be traced to failure of veterans’ benefit delivery, antagonizing them might hurt future support. Instead, he requested the focus be on American citizens stepping up to help. It was probably one of the reasons military brass had favorably received the film. There had been a sprinkling of Pentagon representatives at the premiere in Washington.

Brad waved at the assembly and reclaimed his seat as the auditorium lights dimmed. After the documentary played, he spoke about his experience at Heroes Haven, the community of tiny homes featured in A Home for Warriors, and discussed some of the programs created to address issues facing residents. The questioning began slowly, but as cadets became comfortable with the discussion, they pressed Brad for details and opinions.

It took a while before he was able to bring the gathering to a close. “I’d like to thank Dr. Sloane for inviting me to speak with you today, the Academy for its hospitality, and Cadet Lieutenant Colonel Trevor Ward for all the time he spent making sure I enjoyed the experience.” Brad looked out in the audience until his eyes locked with Ritch’s. “Last, but not least, a shout out to my Washington neighbor, my friend, my brother, Cadet Staff Sergeant Richard Peterson, for mentioning the documentary and lighting the spark that brought it to the Academy’s attention. Take it easy on doolies, Ritch. Remember you were one of them just a year ago.”

Applause and laughter filled the auditorium. As the hall emptied, Ritch made his way to the front; Brad was flying out in the late afternoon, and Trevor and Ritch were driving him to the airport after lunch.

“Peterson, hold up.” A C3C jogged the few steps needed to catch up. “Hey, I’m Edrice. Are you headed to D.C. this weekend?” The first summer session would end on Friday and many cadets were headed home for their break.

“Yeah. Why do you ask?”

“I’m from Silver Spring, bro. I’ll be home this weekend too. You wanna maybe get together?” Silver Spring, part of Montgomery County in Maryland, wrapped around the District’s northern corner.

Ritch retrieved his phone from his pocket and turned it on. “Let’s trade numbers. I’m in Georgetown right next to the university. Maybe you want to come hang out on the Fourth? My parents are having people over, and we can watch fireworks from the roof.”

“I’d like that. Based on what Sergeant Kennedy said about your parents and your brother being the driving force behind the documentary, I’d like to meet them.”

Ritch chuckled. “You’re asking for it, bro. Don’t blame me later if they drive you nuts. Oh, and you’ll get to hang out with Brad too. He and his parents will be there.”

 

Although no longer required to do so, Ritch wore his uniform on the flight home; on the return, he would be in first class in civvies. He wanted to show off his promotion this time around. The newly minted Cadet Staff Sergeant proudly wore a chevron on each lapel to signify his rank. So did the majority of third class cadets. Second class wore two to five chevrons, indicating ranks from Cadet Technical Sergeant to Cadet Chief Master Sergeant. First class cadets functioned as cadet officers and wore one to six bars on their uniforms, corresponding to ranks from Cadet Second Lieutenant to Cadet Colonel. At graduation, all those promotions would disappear, and every cadet would become a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force.

Ritch arrived in D.C. early Sunday morning and once again rode a taxi to Georgetown. It was early enough his fathers were still asleep. A note he found on the breakfast bar asked him to wake them up. He started the coffeemaker before heading upstairs to their room.

 

On Eleventh Street, he found enough space between two cars in front of Everhope to fit César’s Harley-Davidson Road King he had borrowed after breakfast, backing it into the spot. Helmet in hand, he rang the front doorbell. He could not stop smiling as a little ball of energy wrapped itself around his legs when CJ opened the door.

“Tio Ritchie!” Liebe had called him that the last couple of times they had video chatted, but it still gave him a small thrill.

“Hi, munchkin.” No sooner had he picked her up, she made a grab for his sunglasses. “Don’t break them, Liebe.” He gently pried them out of her hands and stuck them in his leather jacket. “I need those for when I’m flying. But if you want, I’ll see if Ray Ban makes them for kids.”

“Hey, bro. Welcome home.” CJ wrapped his arms around Ritch, and Liebe happily squealed as she was hemmed in between the brothers. “They do make kid-sized Aviators, but she’s still too small for them.”

“Ritchie!” Olga Santos hugged her grandson as soon as he walked into the kitchen. “Oh, it’s so good to have all you kids together again.”

“I’ve missed you, Aba.” Until discovering his aunt over Thanksgiving the previous year, Olga and CJ had been his only known blood relatives. “And I miss you making me Cuban coffee.”

The words had barely left his mouth when Olga was reaching for the percolator. Ritch had placed Liebe atop the kitchen island, playing keep-away with a rubber ball she tried hard to steal from her uncle.

“Why don’t you buy a cafetera for your room?” CJ had taken the stool next to Ritch and joined in torturing the girl by hiding the ball behind his back. Her giggling was a sure sign she enjoyed being tag teamed by the brothers.

“I am getting a coffeemaker. We weren’t allowed to have one in our room our first year. But I’m getting a Keurig. That way we can have regular coffee, espresso, and even tea.”

“Still getting along with your roommate?”

“Hell yeah! Will’s cool. He’s heard so much about you guys and Liebe he wants to meet you. By the way, where’s your husband? And where’s my dog?”

“Ozzie and Wingnut went to the farmers’ market. I stayed behind with Liebe ’cause you were coming over.”

“Are we all having Chinese tonight?” Sunday family dinner was takeout Chinese most of the time.

“Yep, but it’ll be here instead of at the dads. It’s easier than having to rush home because Liebe falls asleep.”

“That works. I don’t care where we do it as long as I get to spend time with the family. I miss you guys, I missed her first birthday party, and I’ll probably miss all of them for the foreseeable future.”

“Homesick? You didn’t miss much. Ozzie wanted just family, since he said she wouldn’t remember it anyway.”

“I liked the picture of her covered in chocolate cake from head to toe. Not as homesick anymore after getting used to the routine at the Academy. Still sucks I can’t just head out for a drive at night if I feel like it. I told Brad last week none of you could relate. You didn’t even live in the dorms!”

“I’m sure Ozzie and I will be homesick soon enough.” CJ and Owen were preparing for their move to Mexico.

“When’s Aba leaving?” Olga had decided she did not want to leave the United States and planned to return to Miami instead.

“Around the end of July or the beginning of August. Ozzie, Liebe, and I are spending a few days on Fire Island, and the dads are flying down with her to make sure her new place’s all ready.” The family had purchased a one-bedroom apartment in a new building in the heart of Little Havana for her. CJ’s other grandparents had helped find the unit and referred the decorator who had done their condo to furnish it for her.

“I’m definitely not happy about not seeing you guys as often.”

“We’re growing up, Ritch.” CJ’s tone was somber, and him not calling his brother Ritchie came as a surprise. “You know we had a Memorial Day party here, right?”

“Yeah, Brad told me about it. He said you guys are now friends with two NFL players?”

“You know who they are. Riley Knight and Phil Martinez are the dudes who came out during last year’s NFL draft. Cool guys. They bought a house a few blocks from here, and they’re hiring the family to handle the rehab.”

“Riley plays for Washington, and Phil for Baltimore, right?”

“You got it. Anyway, we turned the barbeque into a farewell party for Thiago.”

“There’s another one I have no idea when we’ll see each other again.”

“That’s where I was headed, bro. The Squad’s separating again, and this isn’t like going away to college. Imagine how it feels for me with him gone. I mean, Thiago and I’ve been going to the dojo together every Friday for like six years. With him in Atlanta and me in Mexico, I’m gonna go through withdrawals.”

“It sucks to get old and have to grow up.”

“Dude! You’re not even twenty! What the heck you talking about getting older?”

 

Ritch’s actions over subsequent days corroborated his intent to spend time with family and close friends. He ran with Brad, lifted with his fathers, had lunch with Liebe and Olga daily, reconnected with high school friends, and spent time with CJ and Owen most evenings. His brother and brother-in-law were working stiffs during daytime.

On the morning of Independence Day, Ritch donned blue shorts and a white t-shirt—the Academy’s required outfit for athletic activities—as he readied to go running. The air was redolent with the aroma of hickory rising from the caterers’ giant metal smoker. Guests were not expected until late afternoon, but cooking was about to start. Ribs, chicken, sausages, and salmon were on the day’s menu.

Sometime later, Ritch chased his niece up and down the driveway, while Liebe tried to grab Wingnut. The dog would run away before circling back to give the girl another chance. When Brett shouted there was somebody at the door for him, Ritch’s father did not sound happy.

“Bro, you’re gonna have to ditch the ball cap.” Ritch pointed at the Confederate battle flag on Cadet Third Class Bruce Donovan’s headgear.

Donovan had approached Ritch soon after Edrice King did at the conclusion of Brad’s presentation of A Home for Warriors. Like King, Donovan lived in the Washington metropolitan area but in Virginia instead of Maryland. Ritch had invited him to the Fourth of July party too.

“Shit. Man, this sucks. It’s a pain to be a white man in this country. Blacks, women, and everyone else always pick on us.”

“That’s bullshit, Donovan. Another right-wing conspiracy to justify racism and more. It’s all about respect, dude. My family’s multi-racial, some of us are offended by that flag. I’m surprised my dad didn’t slam the door in your face.”

Donovan had slipped the hat off and twisted it in his hands while still standing at the entrance. “That was the Marine who opened the door, right? I’m surprised he objected to my cap, him being in the military and all. Do I have to leave?”

“No, man. You’re my guest. My dad will be okay after we hide that thing. You gotta remember the military’s as diverse as the rest of the country, even if we tend to be a bit more conservative. Come on, let’s stash the hat in my bedroom for now.”

Once again, family dinnertime conversations had seeped into Ritch’s mind without him even realizing. He had immediately figured out why Brett had sounded unhappy. He recalled one such discussion about the contemporary display of the insignia becoming popular in certain circles as a response to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In recent times, it had been adopted by white nationalists to celebrate the pitiful history of the defunct Confederate States of America.

If the hat came as a surprise, Donovan’s appearance bothered Ritch even more. The red eyes, slow speech, and silly grin suggested the man was either high or drunk. Since Ritch could not smell alcohol, he assumed it was weed or pills. Either way, Donovan was taking a risk by ignoring Academy regulations. Ritch did not mention it; he broke rules too whenever he had an alcoholic drink.

Donovan turned out to be affable and outgoing. He mingled with everyone, including the African-American guests, but Ritch noticed he did not linger around them. The concept of racism being learned behavior came to mind. Ritch viewed Donovan’s attitude, and his insensitivity at wearing the Confederate symbol, as the result of his upbringing. The area he lived in was not one of Northern Virginia’s progressive enclaves.

Ritch did notice Donovan tip a bottle of rum over his Coca-Cola can more than once during the day. When the fireworks ended and people started to leave, Donovan appeared sober, so Ritch did not say anything. However, he decided the man was not someone he wanted to spend a lot of time around. He thanked his lucky stars for his parents relaxed attitude towards alcohol and pot. Instead of telling their sons not to partake, and risk the boys hiding their usage, they encouraged moderation. It had made it easier for Ritch and CJ to give up marijuana, and it made the inability to drink in public settings bearable.

In contrast to Donovan, Edrice King was someone Ritch hoped to interact with on a regular basis. Taisha, cousin Rod’s wife, was enamored with his fellow cadet, and seemed unable to stop gushing about how wonderful and thoughtful the young man was. King ended up getting a ride home with Rod and Taisha, since they lived near his neighborhood.

 

“What up, Papa?” Ritch held the phone to one ear while covering the other one with his hand. The squeals from multiple quarters made it hard to hear. He swore Kings Dominion was the screaming capital of the world.

“Where are you?”

“Ed and I are in line for a ride. We met some girls we’ve been hanging with. What’s going on?” Ritch expected Brett to make some snotty remark about the girls. Instead, his father’s next sentence came as a shock.

“I just got a call from the cops. Your buddy, Bruce Donovan, was arrested last night.”

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



7 hours ago, dughlas said:

Wow! A lot happened in this chapter. As always it was great to see Brad again. Life moves on ... for everyone. Atlanta, Colorado Springs, DC, Mexico City, Miami, Ritch may be the pilot but others have sprouted wings too. Donovan seems like trouble but this is the CJverse, rehab happens with people too. I am curious as to why the cops called Ceasar when he was arrested. 

I've tried to contain chapters to one event or two, this one was meant to cover summer break and classes, but I couldn't fit it all in within a reasonable word count. Ended up splitting it when it was borderline too long.

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5 hours ago, pvtguy said:

How wonderful to follow the maturation of Ritch(ie)!  One can already see how discerning he is becoming in assessing people.  Great chapter!!!

Thanks, bud. The shell surrounding Ritch has been cracked and he's slowly but surely finding his place in the world.

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5 hours ago, csalazar said:

Uh oh.... the fact that the dads were called spells trouble. Cause Donovan is underage and got ahold of alcohol in the dads’ house, even if the dads were unaware. So will the dads be getting trouble for giving alcohol to a minor? 

Well, technically they didn't give him alcohol. I think most kids Ritch's age will drink no matter how stupid related laws may be. Legislating morality will use lead to law breaking. Prohibition's a prime example.

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3 hours ago, Butcher56 said:

There was a lot that happened in this chapter but I think it said a lot about the people in the story. It’s true that they’re going their own way and moving away from friends and family in order to make their own way in life instead of being left behind. I thought it was great that Brad was invited to the Academy to be the speaker after the showing of the documentary that he was in while at the Heroes Haven. The phone call at the end didn’t surprise me other than why Brett and Caesar got the call from the police after the guest that Ritch had at the house for the 4th of July got arrested, I guess we’ll have to wait for the next chapter to see what he was arrested for. I love the way this story is unfolding and the way that Ritch is making his own road through the Air Force Academy, by making his voice heard through his actions and the way he shows his up bringing after his parents died and going to live with his brother in Washington DC. 

Ritch may be ensconced at the Academy, but life for everyone else moves on. Remember he's the youngest Squad member by a few years.

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3 hours ago, davewri said:

Did Donovan run his mouth and say that the dads supplied him with alcohol? Will Donovan cause trouble at the academy for Ritch? Is this a "cliff hanger" or what?

Things were going way too easy for Ritch. Time for some drama in this story.

Cliffhanger? Where?

Ritch has enough to worry about the last thing he needs is a classmate's arrest. Unfortunately, it looks as if he'll have to deal with it.

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2 hours ago, Andre Delport said:

I echo the hope that Ritch and his dads are not in trouble. My suspicious mind thinks Bruce might have taken something from the house that was found on him when he was arrested and that is how the dad's were called. Waiting in impatient anticipation for the next enthralling chapter. Once again, thank you for the great story, Carlos.

I love the speculation! May have to start writing cliffies on purpose.

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2 hours ago, Theo Wahls said:

Another great chapter. It's nice to see events, which were only mentioned in other stories. Ranger was a great story on its own. It is nice to see Brad back and learn more of his interactions with Ritch (in the first person).

There is trouble in the future. Isn't Ritch required to report Donovan to his superiors as well as Donovan reporting himself? It is part of the Code of Honor. Yes/No?

Very good observation.

Brad's visit to the Academy was mentioned in Ranger. I think it was less than a full sentence. Since I'm writing overlapping stories, I end up mentioning something in one and developing the idea in another one. It'll happen with a few events in Cadet. Not sure he has to report Donovan drinking, but if asked about it he must tell the truth. I have a feeling the Academy will find out about the arrest without Ritch turning into a rat.

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