A Kiss of Freedom
by Kelly Marino
On a beautiful morning in May of 1983, I stood (not very patiently, I must say) with hundreds of other family members on a giant pier in San Diego, California, waiting for the USS KINKAID (and her attending fleet) to return home from the South Pacific. The Kinkaid, a destroyer named after Admiral Thomas Kinkaid, had just completed a 7 1/2-month trip known as WestPac, a Navy tradition that dispatched ships and sailors to patrol far-away places in the near and far East: Hong Kong, the South China Sea, the Arabian Peninsula, etc. It was the trip that we had dreaded for months.
While we all knew that our men were duty-bound to serve and protect the United States of America, we were keenly aware that their professional and moral obligations would force us to make huge sacrifices. Most of the mothers would be forced to cope with the kids’ schoolwork, play dates, and medical emergencies without any help. We became depressed, weary, and fed up with all the personal and household responsibilities that had been heaped upon us.
We ladies somehow made it through the dark and lonely times by leaning on and helping one another. We formed support groups and cooked meals for those families who couldn’t make ends meet. We babysat and did whatever we could to pass the time, but we knew that we were poor substitutes for the brave men who had collectively, albeit temporarily, sailed out of our lives.
As we all waited on the pier that sunny May morning, we were as excited and rambunctious as a group of spring phillies, because our men were finally coming back to us. Some of the women were cradling the babies they had delivered during the long months alone, and they were the ones for whom I felt the most joy. They were also the first in line to board the Kinkaid, as was the custom. Since my man and I hadn’t yet tied the knot, I was among the women who were relegated to wait at the back of the line, to board the ship dead last. But, despite my impatience, I didn’t care! He was home, and he would be all mine for a while (before the next tour would call him out again).
When it was my turn to climb that ladder, I pulled myself, with trembling hands and shaky legs, up and onto the ship. Eagerly scanning the crowd, my eyes caught sight of him amid the melee of ecstatic family members. Have you ever been stuck in the grip of a nightmare where a monster is chasing you, and your legs turn to lead and refuse to budge? Well, that happened to me on the flight deck of the Kinkaid. I couldn't move. Mike spotted me, of course, and sauntered toward me with outstretched arms and a blinding smile that gave the Sun a run for its money. The instant I flung my arms around his neck, his brother captured our tender reunion with his camera. We framed that amazingly well-timed photo and we’ve cherished it ever since.
Mike and I settled into our old routine of working, playing, and loving. Lots and lots of loving. We somehow made it through our wedding, another WestPac, his honorable discharge, a move to Staten Island (his hometown), and the birth of our first child—without killing each other!
In 1986, Parade Magazine announced their first photo competition. The theme was We The People. They were looking for 100 distinctive pictures of everyday Americans, taken by everyday Americans, engaging in activities and doing the simple things that made this great country so unique. Well, hot damn, I thought. I have just the shot!
I obtained the negative, made a copy, and sent my entry to Parade, hoping our photo would make the cut.
6 months later, I (along with 99 others) got a letter of congratulations, informing me that a grand array of the 100 winning photographs would be unveiled at a huge ceremony scheduled at The Bourse Museum in Philadelphia (where the exhibit remains to this day).
Naturally, we made the long trip (it wasn’t really that long, but when you have a 2-year-old along for any road trip, things can get pretty hairy). On our arrival at The Bourse, the Parade officials, who treated us as honored guests, greeted us warmly.
The 100 winning photos (chosen from over 130,000 entries) were stunning: regular Americans were doing marvelously regular things, but mainly, we saw people enjoying their freedom. And then, we spied the photo of a young blond in the arms of a Navy man on a giant, gray ship, and we simply stood there, hand in hand, and wept. We cried at the memory of our long separations, and we shed tears over the realization at how deeply our photo had affected several military veterans who had come to see the exhibit. Many of them wanted to get pictures of the patriotic couple in front of their winning entry. While lenses were carefully focused and flashbulbs went off, we happily re-enacted our embrace—with our daughter in our arms.
That day, I learned to appreciate how truly precious and wonderful freedom really is, but it wasn’t because of the congratulations from the Parade officials or the expressions on the faces of onlookers who clapped as we posed for the crowd. I gazed proudly at the humble sailor in that magical photo, and I suddenly realized that the lion’s share of the sacrifices in our relationship had, in fact, been HIS and not mine.
And, as I watched a man in a Benjamin Franklin costume strolling about, I heard the faint voices of the 18th-century ghosts that still lingered in the City of Brotherly Love. They gentlyreprimanded me and suggested that Mike’s homecoming on that gorgeous day had represented only one thing to me: freedom from my loneliness. Were they right? Had I behaved like a childish, self-absorbed ass? You bet your sweet Stars and Stripes I had!
Cringing with shame, I ran through a mental checklist of the many privileges that came standard with American citizenship. These blessings were handed freely down to me by the brave souls who had made heart-wrenching choices that changed or ruined their lives. Choices that bore little, if any, fruit for themselves or for their immediate families.
That picture of the sailor kissing his girl gave me so much, but in the end, it gave me a sense of patriotism and humility that, to this day, fills my heart with gratitude for having been born and raised in the greatest country on earth.