Memorial Day takes me back and helps put my personal and professional priorities where they properly belong. The name Michael Eugene Hoppers invariably appears front and center in my thoughts, but he represents many. This year is no different.
Ours was one of those neighborhoods that reliably produced over its quota of Marines. We entered in pairs or handfuls the year after high school graduation. Some of us collected on November 15, 1967 at the armed forces induction center across from Kansas City's old Union Station and boarded a bus for the ride over the river to Municipal Airport and our first airplane ride. We began boot camp that night at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in exotic San Diego.
One of the Depot's central features was the Parade Deck, the "grinder," a huge black slab where formal ceremonies were held and recruits learned to march in formation -- "troop and stomp." Mess Hall 405 sat on one long side of the grinder in the midst of World War II Quonset huts housing recruits during their stay. On the far side was a mysterious foreign land where civilians were frequently seen. "On the Parade Deck facing the anchor" was a common refrain that quickly unloaded the Quonset huts and produced a perfect formation of 50 recruits facing that mysterious land on the far side. (We assumed there must be a spectacular globe, eagle, and anchor just beyond the wall and out of sight. We later found that the Anchor was a San Diego bar frequented by off duty drill instructors.) At one end of the grinder was the base flick where regular Marines watched movies and recruits attended weekly chapel. At the other end, we were told, lived the commandant. The grinder was for ceremonial parades and for troop and stomp. If an individual needed to cross, it was to be done at double time. If a group crossed, it was to be in proper formation. We were assured that the commandant had nothing to do but peer out his window night and day to ensure that the rules were followed.
One morning, as Platoon 2213 dribbled out of Mess Hall 405 and into formation on the grinder, the old platoon commander was especially agitated by a couple dozen seagulls malingering on his beloved parade deck. He immediately dispatched Private Hoppers to clear the deck. Hoppers sprang into action running toward the gulls yelling and flailing his arms about. The gulls calmly lifted off and as Hoppers returned to his place in the platoon they came back down 30 feet away. The platoon commander was outraged and sent Hoppers back to engage the enemy in its new location. The cycle repeated several times as the rest of us stood at attention wondering what Staff Sergeant Porta had in store for Hoppers. We were all prepared to join in the attack. Mike improvised new tactics. He approached slowly, halted, came to attention -- heels together, feet at a 45 degree angle, chest out, thumbs along the seams of his trousers -- and bellowed, "SEAGULLS... Fall In!" If he couldn't drive the gulls away, he would for sure put them in proper formation. The old platoon commander knew when he had been bested. Private Hoppers was recalled, and we resumed the regularly scheduled training day.
About six months after our first airplane ride, on May 20, 1968, a World Airways Boeing 707 touched down in Danang. One of the stewardesses cried as over 100 young Marines spilled out onto the tarmac, some into the welcoming arms of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, 3rd Marine Division. Five days later, May 25, 1968, Private Michael Hoppers was killed in action.
Mike comes to mind often, bringing both a smile and a tear, but I let myself dwell in his memory on Memorial Day, Veterans Day, the Marine Corps birthday, and Election Day. Election Day is the day I show my respect in action. Election Day is the day I vote for representatives, senators, and presidents who I believe will commit our troops with the appropriate humility, caution, and wisdom. That respect is owed each generation.
But today, I make the long drive across Kansas City to the old neighborhood for a barbecued beef sandwich and a cold beer in a corner booth. Here's to you, Mikey. Wish you were here.