SAN DIEGO - It was just around midnight Tuesday night, and the outdoor courtyard at Dick's Last Resort was throbbing with the rowdy energy of a spring break bacchanal. There was loud rock music blaring out of the stereo speakers, and the air was filled with the distinct and somewhat revolting aroma of deep-fried bar food, cigarette smoke and spilled beer.
Dick's is the sort of bar-restaurant ideally suited for Super Bowl week mischief, because it has a down-and-dirty roadhouse feel to it. The waiters, waitresses and bartenders are charmingly rude, and the wood floors are covered with sand and all sorts of indistinguishable debris. The clientele on this evening is a fascinating mix of twenty-something college kids, thirty-something conventioneers and 40-something Super Bowl high-rollers.
Yet there was one table in Dick's courtyard Tuesday night that was noticeably different from the others. There were six young men at the table and one young woman, and while they were drinking like everyone else in the room, there was something all too serious going on at this table that let you know that their thoughts were a long way from the mindless frivolity of Super Bowl week.
Maybe it was the close-cropped "barracks haircuts" that gave them away. All the men's heads were cut in that familiar look of a professional soldier, skin-close on the sides, and on top a tight shock of hair that resembled new shoe-brush bristles.
"We're Marines," one man told me. "And tomorrow we're boarding a ship for . . . well . . . I really can't tell you where, but you know."
Of course we knew. In less than an hour, they would report back to a ship docked along the Southern California coast, then on Wednesday head across the Pacific Ocean, bound for a potential war in Iraq. So this was no Super Bowl party for them. This was their last night out on the town. One Marine was saying good-bye to his wife. The others were not so lucky. They all just sat around the table, throwing back beers and wrestling with the sobering uncertainty of the rest of their lives.
"We're going to war and none of us knows if we're ever coming back," said another Marine, a 28-year-old from Southern Illinois. They all requested that I not use their names. "Just tell 'em we're the men of (Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 39)," they said.
On Super Bowl Sunday, the men of MALS 39 will be watching the game from the mess hall of their ship. "That is, if we're lucky and the weather is good and it doesn't interfere with the satellite signal," said the Marine with the bald head and burnt-orange shirt. "But I gotta tell you, I'm not that big a sports fan anymore. It's going to be the first pro football game I've watched in . . . I can't even remember." Why is that?
"Well, here's my problem with pro sports today," he said. "I don't care whether it's football, basketball or baseball. Guys are complaining about making $6 million instead of $7 million, and what is their job? Playing a damned game. You know what I made last year? I made $14,000. They pay me $14,000, and you know what my job description is? I'm paid to take a bullet."
When he said those words, it positively staggered me. Fourteen thousand dollars to take a bullet. Not a day goes by that I am not reminded of what a wonderful life I lead. I am paid to write about sports and tell stories on radio and television about the games people play. But sometimes, even in the midst of a grand sporting event, something happens to put the frivolity of sports into its proper perspective, and this was it.
Fourteen thousand dollars to take a bullet.
As I sit here writing from my hotel room, I can look out my balcony window and I see a Navy battleship cutting through the San Diego Bay, heading out to sea. I can see the sailors standing on the deck as the ship sails past Coronado Island, the San Diego Marina and the downtown Seaport Village, and I wonder if any of the men from MALS 39 are aboard.
It was only 12 hours ago that I was sitting at the table with my guys, buying them beers, and listening to their soldier stories. The Marine from Southern Illinois who sat to my right pointed to the bald Marine in the orange shirt who was seated to my left. "You know, I don't even know this guy, can you believe that? We just met a few hours ago when we came into Dick's. Oh, I've seen him on the base, but I've never met him before tonight. But here's what's so special about that man, and why I love that man. He's my brother. Semper Fi. I know a guy back home, and he is my best friend. I'm 28 years old and we've known each other all our lives. But today, that friend is more of a stranger to me than that Marine sitting over there, who I've never met before tonight. That's why they call it a Band of Brothers."
The little Marine in the orange shirt lifted his glass toward the Marine from Southern Illinois and nodded his head. "That's right," he said. "That's my brother over there, and I'm gonna take a bullet for him if I have to." He said it with a calm and jolting certainty. There was a moving, but chilling, pride in his words.
All around them, people were drinking, shouting and laughing. The college kids and the conventioneers and NFL high-rollers were living the good, carefree life. Across the street, a storefront that was vacant two weeks ago was now filled with $30 caps, $400 leather jackets, $40 mugs and $27 T-shirts with the fancy blue and yellow Super Bowl XXXVII logo embroidered on it.
From every end of the streets of downtown San Diego's fabled Gaslamp Quarter, Super Bowl revelers toasted the Raiders and the Bucanneers with grog-sized mugs filled with beers and rums. But just around midnight in the middle of the courtyard of Dick's Last Resort, a far more deserving toast was going up to the men of MALS 39. We clicked our glasses together, and a few minutes later, they quietly slipped out the courtyard gates.
Suddenly, the Super Bowl didn't seem so important anymore.
God bless them all. They don't do it for the money. They do it for us. No matter what your feelings about the future events that are unfolding, thank those that serve & protect us.
© by Bryan Burwell
St. Louis Post Dispatch