I have never been a fan of platitudes, but "Only in America" was the first thing that came to mind as I sat in the bleachers at the Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May, N.J., this past June, watching my son, a newly minted Coast Guardian, pass in review.
Alyosha's story is not so simple or unremarkable as a kid growing up and joining the service. His beginnings were difficult, and certainly inauspicious. As a small child, he had been found wandering in a tiny Russian village, dirty and malnourished. Who would have thought that my life would eventually intersect with his? But it did, at an orphanage a couple of hours south of Moscow. By then Alyosha was 7, healthy and rambunctious. He had not been told that I was coming to adopt him, but when we finally met, his first word was "Papa?"
That was in 1993. In the intervening years Alyosha marinated in American culture. He went to school, made friends, learned English, and proved to be a loving son with an independent streak and a real talent for soccer. It was only upon graduation from high school that his trajectory began to wobble. College? Not sure. Work? A little of this, a little of that. Goals? Vague and undefined.
One of the lessons I learned in raising my son was never to compare him with other kids, especially his high-achieving cohorts. As I sat in the stands with other parents, watching our kids play basketball, soccer, or baseball, the conversation was often about the colleges these kids had settled upon, their desire to be engineers or architects. In some cases the parents had groomed the kids for success. One couple even announced their intent to buy Junior a house, so that he wouldn't have to worry about a mortgage.
Sitting among them, I felt like an alien. And I continued to watch Alyosha, my boy who would soon be zigzagging his way through life, happy for the successes of his friends, content to be in his own skin.
One day he appeared in my office. "Dad," he said, "I need to tell you something." He said this with such gravity that I caught my breath. And then the catharsis: "I've decided to join the Coast Guard."
In short, Alyosha, in his own good time, had found within himself the need for something more than he had. I told him I was behind him 100 percent. But this was only the beginning of the story.
The Coast Guard is very picky. It took Alyosha more than a year, with repeated testing, to achieve a grade high enough for consideration. And then, one day, his recruiter e-mailed him the one word that propelled him toward his future – "Congratulations."
In a short while he was off to boot camp. I wrote him every other day, but received only a couple of replies, one of which read, "So busy!" But I knew he was in good hands, and I believe he did as well. The eight weeks of training led to June 15. A bluebird day in Cape May. As Alyosha's unit passed in review, I searched in vain, not recognizing my son. For a moment I considered that he might have run off. But no, when his name was announced, he stepped forward, shoulders back, head high, and wearing service-issue glasses. After the ceremony I ran out to my boy and immediately found the old Alyosha – cheerful, considerate, and with a light grasp on life. The Coast Guard, however, had rounded the rough edges of his legendary disorganization. He was now, as they say in the services, "squared away."
After five days of R&R, I drove him to his duty station on Staten Island, N.Y. We passed through the gate, parked, and stood by the car for a few minutes. Alyosha hoisted his sea bag and stared at the administration building. "I'm nervous," he said. "We're all nervous at serious steps," I told him. "Thousands have done this before you. You'll be fine."
I watched as my son walked off into his future, never looking back. The Russian orphan found on a dirt road with his fingers in his mouth would now be protecting the Statue of Liberty.
Only in America.
Note: The Coast Guard station on Staten Island made it through superstorm Sandy intact. The station at Sandy Hook, N.J., though, was hit hard. In response, Alyosha helped deliver truckloads of aid to Coast Guard families in need.