Manhood is caring about people you don't know.
Not the, "Hey, how you doing," elevator talk kind of caring. Not the nod of the head you give to strangers. Not the peace sign you flash or the happy face you end your email with.
Manhood is waking up in the middle of the night wondering about the well-being of someone you have never met.
Manhood is seeing the crowd, one face at a time.
One person at a time.
One family at a time.
It's caring for the crowd, one human being at a time.
A young soldier in Iraq taught me that. I'm 58 years old; he's as old as some of my socks. Yet somehow the words I write touched him, and in doing so, his words have touched me:
Since that email arrived in my inbox around Christmas time I have become part of a family I have never met.
E-mails from Moms.
E-mails from Dads.
E-mails from Aunts and Uncles.
E-mails from girlfriends and cousins.
Hugs and teddy bears have suddenly appeared on my Facebook page.
I am a part of Cpl. Will Bennett's family. And he's a part of mine.
Based on words I wrote in Connecticut that made their way around the world to a young soldier in the sand of Iraq.
A young soldier in love with his family, in love with his girlfriend, Amanda, in love with his county, in love with being inside the outside, and in love with bass fishing.
The best of America is in a helmet and fatigues.
In the original story I wrote, Comes Santa for a Soldier, my response to Cpl. Bennett's email, I said that Cpl. Will Bennett gave me a Christmas present I would never forget.
I was wrong.
Cpl. Will Bennett gave thousands of people a Christmas present they will never forget.
Cpl. Will Bennett put a person with the headlines. The crowd of camouflage suddenly had a face: Will's.
And I had another family.
From Amanda's Mom:
"Thank you DB, for everything. It seems so little to say to express the profound way you have touched deeply, not only Amanda and Will, but our whole family. Will was right, your writing made their days better."
Amanda's Mom … "everything," is nothing. I just wrote a story, Cpl. Bennett, and all those like him did, "everything." And the "profound" you speak of, let me share this with you.
Last weekend I was at the Hartford Boat Show, spent some time with the folks of the CT Bass Federation Nation. As I was leaving a guy about my age, waist size, and hair "style" came up to me …
The guy: "You that Barone fella?"
The Barone fella: "Uh …"
The guy: "You write that story about that boy in Iraq and the Bassmaster Classic."
The Barone fella: "Ah huh."
The guy: "I'm retired Marine … Vietnam you know … you tell that boy this, you tell that young man thank you … and tell him I love him."
We stood toe to toe for a second, and all I could do was nod my head. Same for the guy. I took the escalator down, he took the escalator up, strangers with profound feelings on motorized steps.
The Last Convoy
Dreams measured by the highway.
Every exit outside the bus window brought them closer … to home.
In front of them, family.
Behind them, brothers and sisters in the sand … of Iraq.
This week, North Carolina's 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team CAME HOME.
214 soldiers stood at attention one final time.
214 soldiers heard nice things said about them.
214 heroes amongst us.
214 listened to hear just three words; the sweetest words they will have heard in the last nine months.
214 sets of eyes straight ahead, fingers slightly twitching, lips being bit, toes inside boots tapping, just waiting to hear.
"At ease … DISMISSED."
And then the 214 who drew the line in the sand between freedom, and otherwise, were magically transformed from soldiers of war to …
The guy at Home Depot.
The lady at Wal-Mart.
Your car mechanic.
People who live and work in your town who have traveled halfway around the world to protect your town. And you.
North Carolina, 214 of your neighbors came home this week.
Five did not. They were killed in action — your neighbors.
And for that reason, we should never truly come to, "AT EASE."
For those who will never hear those two words.
And for the families of those killed in action who will never be "AT EASE" again.
This week a bus pulled into Smithfield, N.C., with 85 faces looking out the windows.
And one of those faces was that of Cpl. Will Bennett.
After his second tour of duty, the war for Cpl. Will Bennett ended in a parking lot after a bus ride from Ft. Stewart, Ga.
Behind him: the war in the sand.
In front of him: the country he served.
Who, like the other families she stood with, served her country along with Cpl. Will Bennett.
Served her country with her tears in the night, with her dread of doorbells, late night phone calls, holding her breath through the nightly news, the morning paper, yellow ribbons, stars pasted in windows, and cemetery flags.
Thank the troops.
But thank the families of the troops as well.
When America goes to war, it's just not the guys with the weapons doing the fighting.
Wherever the war is, the battle always comes to Main Street.
As the bus door opened, Cpl. Will Bennett, and his brothers and sisters of combat behind him, stepped on the soil of home.
And into the arms of those who love them.
And into the arms of their future.
And into the arms of America.
Cpl. Will Bennett, I have a surprise for you, not only is BASS bringing you and Amanda to the Bassmaster Classic as their guests, they taking it a step further. Here's an email to me from one of the bosses of BASS:
"BASS will provide special seating at the Bassmaster Classic to servicemen and women during our patriotic tribute on Friday, as well as during Saturday and Sunday's weigh-in shows. The first 50 people showing a military ID card at the BASS credentials booth in the Expo area will receive two free tickets to the 'Livewell' section."
And when the rest of the arena looks out at that section, this is what they will see. Stands filled with …
Daddies. Mommies. Brothers. Sisters. Boyfriends. Girlfriends. The guy at Home Depot. The lady at Wal-Mart. Their car mechanic. Their CPA. Their fishing buddy. Their neighbor.
Thank you, North Carolina 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team.
Thank you, Will Bennett.
And thank you to those who will be in the Livewell Section.
Don Barone is an award-winning outdoors writer and a member of the New England Outdoor Writers Association and the Outdoor Writers Guild of the U.K. You can reach db at www.donbaroneoutdoors.com.