Carston Miller stood under the 700-ton granite U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. He felt used and manipulated by these men that he had looked up to ever since he could remember. His life felt destined to be another name inscribed at the bottom of a rusting plaque, just like his grandfather’s would soon be. Carston did not desire fame or even money. He still revered the service of the fallen Marine men who the Millers had come to honor. But he had felt forced into being a Marine. He felt trapped between what he wanted for himself and what his family wanted for him, for them. More than all, he resented the expectations and traditions that his father had placed on his shoulders. Expectations and traditions he was about to defy.
Carston Miller’s path to the Marines had been set for him from the moment he was born. Underneath his picture in the fifth-grade yearbook from Central Cunningham Elementary, he wrote “When I am older, I want to be a Marine.” When he brought the yearbook home the following fall, his words came as no surprise to his two parents.
The front porch of the Miller’s house in Cunningham, Illinois appeared to be straight out of a commercial for the American government. The stars and stripes hung out over the lawn in front of the Adirondack chairs beside the stoop. A shiplap sign with the words “Tradition, Faith, and Family” hung over the front door, visible to anyone walking past the house on their way to town. The Marine slogan “Semper Fi” hung on a flag over the back door, a constant reminder of the roots of the Miller family. Carston was raised on these values. But as he entered his junior year of high school, the boy that once dreamed of becoming a Marine had begun to resent the traditions that would soon be forced onto his shoulders.
Entering his third year of high school, the football, basketball, and baseball star towered over his teammates and the opposing players at six-foot-four 190 pounds. As the infamous, grueling summer football workouts lay ahead, Carston faced a seemingly impossible choice. Although he had had a football in his hands for as long as could remember, Carston was now in love with the game of basketball. The creativity and the freedom on the court were a distant cry from the rigid formations and play calls on the gridiron. Carston’s elegance with the basketball was lost to the brute force, rough and tumble style of football. The concussing hits that men such as his father adored were no match for the swish of the net to Carston Miller. In fact, his athletic build, refined skills, and strong work ethic on the court had even attracted the attention of several small division one basketball programs. But if Carston wanted to truly impress the college scouts, he would need to quit football and focus his time on basketball during the fall and summer.
There was only one thing stopping him: his father. Carston’s parents had placed him in peewee football the day he was eligible; Rick Miller believed that football taught life lessons that nothing else could. Football was supposed to provide Carston with the toughness, grit, and spirit to succeed when he would inevitably become a Marine like his father and grandfather. Carston thought that notion was rather dumb. His father, Rick, a retired gunny sergeant who now worked as a carpenter after leaving the Marines five years ago, used to kick his ass in their morning workouts; now he could barely keep up. Carston’s father had even been a star at running back for Cunningham High School. However, upon graduating he turned down numerous football scholarship offers to follow in the footsteps of his father, Arnold, and enlist in the Core.
Two days before he was set to show up for football preseason in mid-June, Carston summoned the nerves to tell his father that he would be quitting.
Carston looked up at the Marine slogan “Semper-Fi,” meaning “always faithful,” as he walked from the driveway where he was shooting hoops up onto the cedar porch where his father sat reading the daily newspaper. The title of the headline article in the sports section read, “Cunningham High Looks to Stars to Boost Promising Football Season.”
“Nice hat,” his father said as he sat down at the wooden table he and Rick had built when Carston was entering sixth grade. He realized that he was wearing his worn-out Marines hat that his grandfather had given him over five years ago; when Carston first got it in middle school, he ate, slept, and went to school in the camo hat. The now ratty cap had practically lived on his head. As Carston prepared to tell his father that he wanted to quit football, he fiddled with the Marine dog tags he had worn since second grade: he did this when he was nervous. He ran his fingers over the cool stainless steel and the engraved letters that spelled out “Miller.” The tags used to bring him comfort when he was away from his family for an extended time. Now, he would fiddle with them before a big game or before an important test. The dog tags symbolized tradition; a tradition he was about to break.
Several seconds of awkward silence passed before Carston finally managed to force the words out of his mouth. “Dad, I want to quit football” is all that he said. Rick Miller sat in silence as Carston bit on his dog tags, waiting for a response. To avoid looking at his father, Carston gazed out at the backyard; he wished he could still go climb on the treehouse and swing freely on the rope swing. However, his father sat indifferent, staring at his son. His emotionless look is what Carston imagined was drilled into Marines like Rick, who still had a high and tight haircut typical of the Core. Carston had grown his hair out once he reached high school. “Are you sure?” his father asked. “Yes,” said Carston. Rick got up from his seat and walked back into the house, where he proceeded to have a long and rather heated discussion with Carston’s mother. His son sat in confusion, wondering what they were possibly talking about.
Several days later, Carston’s parents announced that the family would be taking a road trip to Washington D.C. Arnold Miller, Carston’s grandfather, had been “selected” to receive a plaque at the US Marine Corps War Memorial. Arnold had served as Private First Class in the Core, and Carston knew that his honorable service demanded respect from others. However, Carston got the sense that the visit to the monument was less about honoring his grandfather and more about the tradition that he was expected to uphold. Regardless, he wasn’t looking forward to it. He would rather spend his waning summer days playing pickup at the park.
It was August by the time the family, including Arnold Miller, headed to the nation’s capital. Rick Miller had still not attempted to convince his son to return to playing football. In their first two days on the trip, the Millers visited the typical boring tourist spots: The Smithsonian, the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, and several others. Carston’s sisters had been relatively disappointed with the first two days, as the family usually traveled to the beach or somewhere a bit more entertaining. But this trip was different. On the third day, the Miller family headed to the monument to witness the unveiling of their grandfather’s new plaque. The cloudy overcast of the humid summer morning had given way to warm sunlight by the time the Millers arrived at the memorial. In their usual fashion, they had arrived before any others that would be coming to see the monument and pay their respects.
Carston had expected to be greatly moved by the significance of the monument. He had watched countless movies and read endless books about stories of courageous, heroic Marine men and women. He had experienced firsthand the life of a Marine, and he understood the sadness and tragedy that came with the job. His father and grandfather had been in a state of dejection since they had woken up that morning; they knew the power of the sacrifice that the fallen soldiers had made for their country. As the family walked around the memorial reading the names of the deceased, Rick and Arnold Miller became emotional, which was something that Carston had hardly ever experienced from his father and grandfather. Rick even pointed out two men in his battalion that had been killed by a landmine in the Gulf War. Carston recognized the names of these two men: a picture of his father and them in front of a large dune in Kuwait was propped against the fireplace mantel. However, Carston did not feel the emotion and weight that he could see in the faces of his father and grandfather. With his family’s dog tags wedged in between his teeth, he stood underneath the image of six Marines raising the American flag over the Japanese island of Iwo Jima. To the sixteen-year-old, the ten-foot-high granite memorial was impressive, yet no different than the others he had seen in Washington D.C. earlier in the trip.
By the time the plaque was set to be unveiled, Carston’s feelings toward the Marine monument had still not been affected in the way that his parents had hoped. However, while walking to the site where the plaque was to be revealed, Carston realized many other families similar to his who all seemed to be waiting around the memorial. The curtain was drawn over the new section of the monument, which included Arnold Miller’s plaque, to the applause of the crowd that had been gathering. As those around him whistled and cheered to honor the new names, Carston pulled out his phone and found the Marine memorial website. As he scrolled to the bottom of the page, he was shocked to see an image advertising the purchase of a plaque at the memorial. All this time Carston had believed that his grandfather had done something particularly outstanding to receive this recognition, when in fact it took his parents simply paying a $600 fee. Carston began to question why they had even come to the monument. If it was not to honor his grandfather, then what was the point?
But Carston’s spiraling mind was halted by his father, who scolded him for having his phone out and disrespecting the men and women whose names now were inscribed in the monument. “Who knows,” Rick Miller said, “maybe your name will make it up there someday too, son.”
At this moment, under the monument honoring those that he had looked up to all of his life, Carston realized that this trip had very little to do with honoring Arnold Miller. Instead, his parents, but especially his father, had tried to use this “vacation” to get to Carston, to convince him to become a Marine and forget his passions. Much of what Carston has done in his life, except basketball, has solely had the intention of guiding him to the Marines, just like his father and grandfather. The signs above the door haven’t been there to remind Carston to live faithfully and honorably. They have been there to brainwash him into following the path that his father has set for him, which was the path that his father’s father had set for him. Carston realized how he had been used, even manipulated, by his parents, and he hated that. He hated that if he didn’t play football or he didn’t get the sides of his hair tapered like his father’s, then he would never be a real Marine.
But as Carston bit on his dog tags in angst, he also realized that he, in fact, no longer wanted to be a Marine. All that he had ever known about serving in the Core was what his father and grandfather had known; never had Carston thought about what he truly wanted. It took until the family’s trip to the monument for him to understand the manipulation that he had experienced, and he resented his family’s actions of pressuring him into their desired path. Carston still loved his family, even his father, but he no longer desired to hang Marine slogans in his house or raise his kids to become Marines. In fact, at the monument, Carston decided, and knew, what was right for his future. And it was not the Marines.
But little did Carston know the disappointment that he would bring to his father and his family with his decision to pursue his interests instead of what his father had wanted for him. When he told his family as they returned to Cunningham after their road trip to D.C. that he wanted to play basketball in college instead of enlisting, the tears from his mother spoke for the silence of Rick and Arnold Miller. Carston had never heard his mother cry before; he did not think she even was capable.
Carston never regretted his decision to go against the wishes of his family and play basketball in college. But standing under the monument at sixteen years old, Carston could not understand how he would feel as he watched his father’s mahogany casket being lowered into his grave. He could not predict the stream of tears that would cascade down his face and onto the dog tags he still wore as he reflected on the disappointment that he had brought his father. But at the same time, he knew he would never forget the manipulation, the way Rick Miller forced him to follow the only traditions he had ever known. While Carston had always loved his father, he would not forgive him until the priest recited the final prayer over Rick’s grave in the cemetery where three generations of Millers before him had been laid to rest. In the moment before he turned to leave his father for the last time, Carston’s anger briefly faded in sorrow and remorse. Carston knew that his father would never have called him a disappointment, but he knew that he would never have called him a Marine.