Thursday, we went to the base to welcome Steve home, which was an interesting event. It was a pretty subdued occasion, only like a dozen soldiers were coming home, so even with a full family there to welcome each one you're not talking about a mob or anything. But it was definitely memorable.
To set the scene, we're inside, in like a big garage- or cafeteria-type room (concrete floor, tall ceiling, bare walls, and a garage door leading in). There are maybe 12 tables set up, and a big table with coffee, kool-aid, and pastries (manned by USO volunteers). You've got fifteen to twenty family groups here, toddlers with "welcome home daddy" signs and older parents looking kind of serious. You've got Marines in camo milling around talking to the families. There's this sort of "everything is normal, how's the kids, how about those Pats, lousy weather today, eh" vibe going on, which slowly erodes as time passes and people realize how close they are to seeing their loved ones again.
Then I was able to witness a cool event; I heard one person tell another "they're almost to the front gate." This got repeated through the crowd until I heard (seconds later) someone say, "They're in the parking lot!" It was like all the pent up energy keeping the crowd near-silent came to a boil and everybody was chattering and moving around to get ready. There are all these flashes going off as people took pictures, and this look of deadly seriousness started to appear on some of the women's faces. "My husband/son/whatever is about to see me and I'm locked in" kind of look. Hard to describe.
When the garage door opened, the whole crowd started clapping. The bus pulled in and as the door opened the applause got louder and people started hooting and whistling. Marine after Marine stepped out and got swarmed by their loved ones.
Steve got out, and his two sons threw down their signs and charged him. I actually got off a picture of him on his knees with his two boys in his arms, his daughter and wife a couple steps away running towards him. It was a magic moment. Seconds later, all four of them are totally burying him and he's practically hidden from everyone else. Finally they let up and he gets to shake hands and hug everybody who was there. Maybe 10 minutes of "hi, thanks for coming" "welcome home" "we missed you" etc went by, and then Brenda pushed him into the minivan and they drove off.
And we went home. It was kind of surreal, because you had all this anticipation, all this emotion, and then it was over. On an intellectual level we knew he was home, but something about it didn't feel solid, because the event itself took place at a weird spot.
This was cured on Saturday when we went back out there and spent a few hours with him and the family just shooting the shit. It was a relaxed time, and it sort of re-established the fact that he was home and things were returning to normal.
Welcome home, Steve. We missed you!