The very first name on the plaque is that of Noel Cline, Class of 1996. She didn't just play three sports for four years; she starred in volleyball, basketball and softball, and she starred in the classroom as well. After graduation, she went off to Washington University in St. Louis, where she played a little basketball and earned a degree in mathematics.
Upon graduation from college, she joined the Army. She had been involved with ROTC at Washington and had appreciated the discipline and physical fitness challenges it presented. Nevertheless, her entering the military was somewhat puzzling for those who had known her growing up. Noel had been brought up in what is essentially a hippie household. Her mom, Annette, is a pacifist, a proselytizing vegetarian, an environmental activist and pretty much a walking echo of the late '60s and early '70s, a time when people had ideas instead of just slogans. Except for that vegetarian nonsense, she and I agree on a lot of issues.
I currently coach Noel's younger sister, Nora Gustafson, a sophomore who starts for me and, because of her size, athleticism and complete lack of preconceived notions, can play all five positions on the basketball court. Not at the same time, however; that would be too difficult, even for her. Nora recently made all-state in volleyball, and I expect her to do the same in basketball and softball someday. She's at the top of her class academically and, as a person, is a completely delightful jumble of contradictions.
Despite our largely aligned politics, whenever I have the occasion to speak to Nora's mom, she looks at me as though I just sneezed on her. One time, I was refereeing a boys' basketball game, and a couple of the kids got heated and squared off. I jumped in between them and said, "Y'all sissies wanna fight, go outside!" After the game, Annette Cline took me aside and lectured me on using the term "sissies," claiming that its negative connotations can have wide-ranging ramifications. I finally got her to stop after explaining that it had taken me years of sensitivity training to change the first two letters of the word to "s-i."
Noel has been in Baghdad for several months now. Annette passed along to me an e-mail that her daughter sent the day after Thanksgiving. In it, Noel tells how she just missed seeing President Bush when he was there. She notes that the chow hall we saw on TV is where she eats all of her meals. She was supposed to be eating there when the president showed up but was called to a meeting at the last minute. "The only sucky part was that I missed lunch," she wrote. "AND then I was locked into the office because of the whole president thing. But luckily I finally made it to ... dinner at 8:30. Thank God I got my pumpkin pie. I was going to be pretty depressed if I didn't get my pie."
A few weeks ago, her mother had e-mailed her and asked how she was reconciling her pacifist upbringing with the very harsh military reality of her present circumstance. This, Annette points out, is a kid who wouldn't even kill spiders in her room. Noel responded:
"I am truly proud and actually thankful that I have been given the opportunity to be over here. This experience is truly an experience of a lifetime. I am proud to be a member of the greatest military in the world and I will tell you why. The Army is full of the most amazing people you would ever meet. I have never met more mature, hard-working and committed people. Soldiers truly love what they do, they literally throw their all into their jobs. Having the chance to be a part of this ... is amazing.
"I am proud and thankful to be here doing what I am. Man, does it sound like I have been brainwashed, but you know, I've never been more at peace in my life."
She ended the e-mail with a poem. I like Smokey Robinson song lyrics and certain commercial jingles, but I don't like poetry. In fact, I don't want to read a poem unless the first line ends with "Nantucket." But people who like that sort of thing tell me the poem is pretty good. It's just hard to imagine somebody sitting in the middle of a war zone (despite what George W. Bush calls it) and writing poetry.
A whole lot of Americans are going to be spending Christmas halfway around the world. Fortunately, given the cynicism of Republicans in general and presidential election-year politics in particular, it's highly unlikely that many of them will be spending Christmas 2004 in that God-awful place.
I remember Christmas Eve 1968, when I was a teenager. It had been a dreadful year for America, certainly the worst of my lifetime. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been killed within two months of each other; the Chicago police had rioted outside of the Democratic Convention in Chicago; the Tet Offensive had knocked the United States back on its heels in Vietnam; and Richard Nixon had been elected president. But on Christmas Eve, three astronauts were orbiting the moon in Apollo 8 and reading verses from the Bible to the people back on troubled Earth. Those astronauts, a quarter-million miles out in space, somehow gave us hope for the future.
Not everything has worked out all that well since that night, but we still have hope. Noel and all the other soldiers have our prayers of comfort and strength.