I remember a time back in the 90’s when I was in boot camp. Aside from the “old guy” in our group (who was 24!!) we were all teenagers. For most of us it was our first extended time away from home. We came from all parts of the US and some from other countries. We were all pretty scared but most of us didn’t show it….until lights out. I never was very fast at falling asleep, even when the normal day consisted of waking up at 4:45 AM for “Reveille”, getting into formation and then punishing our bodies for the next 16 hours until “Taps” played and lights went out at 9:00 PM. I think I was always the last one to fall asleep and after about 20 minutes I could hear some sniffles…guys missing their girlfriend back home, friends and family. It was one of the only times that we were by ourselves and could actually think about that stuff. About 5 weeks into it (and about 6 recruits less then at the start of boot camp) my friend Keanu told me that he had just gotten engaged to his girlfriend right before he left Hawaii. Internally, I thought he was nuts as I saw a “Dear John” letter in his future but he was kinda down about it so I always tried to cheer him up when he mentioned her. He also had a very good voice and would lead all of our cadences. Remember the “old” guy I mentioned at the start? Well he was a tattoo artist in Georgia before he joined and he had somehow snuck in a bottle of ink. About 6 of us went into the latrine one night around 10:30 PM with sewing needles wrapped in cloth and decided to get homemade tattoos of our units motto “Onward To Be The Best”. But when Keanu had translated what that meant in his native Hawaiian, we knew what we were going to get inked “Imua Kakou I No Ka Oe”. I think it was about our 8th week and those of us that were still left knew we were going to graduate so we were in pretty good spirits. After “Taps” played and it was lights out, I heard some quiet singing, almost a whisper, from the bunk beside me. It was very faint but I knew the melody. It was “My Girl” by the Temptations and it was coming from Keanu. I listened for a few minutes and then I joined. Before I knew it, most of the guys were singing that song in the dark with Keanu leading the way. It was so surreal. When it was all over, Keanu said “Thank you brothers” and we all went to sleep. I know that meant a lot to him and it was one of the most spontaneous, heartfelt things I had ever experienced. We all graduated soon thereafter and I never saw Keanu again. I don’t know if he got married or if he ever got the “Dear John” letter. I hope it was the former.
But when someone asks about the tattoo on my shoulder and I tell them what it means, I always think back to that hot summer night and our late night chorus of “My Girl”. This is one of my favorite renditions of the song by the great Otis Redding.
“My Girl” – Otis Redding