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Basic training, fundamental life lessons

As Arthur Ball looks ahead to a life of excitement and new experiences, his mother struggles to let go.

By MICHELE MILLER and LANCE A. ROTHSTEIN
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 2, 2002


For Arthur Ball, 18, joining the Army meant the start of a life of adventure. "I can't wait," he said last week. "I want to be out there in the field doing maneuvers and jumping out of airplanes."

For his mom, the emotions were more complex.

"He's been my life -- it's all him," said Carmelita Rose Hernandez.

The two have been on their own since her divorce when Arthur was just 6. Their house in Port Richey is filled with her son's artwork and various toy figure collections; Star Wars, Ninja Turtles, Dragonball Z, the Simpsons and G.I. Joe.

"I have a whole shed filled with stuff from the first part of his life -- bags and bags of his papers from kindergarten," said Hernandez. "I'm his mother, so I still see him as a little boy. I have this instinct to protect him."

But her little boy is now 6 feet 3, weighs 200 pounds and no longer needs her protection.

For Hernandez, that means a chance for a new start.

"Now that he's gone," she said last week, "I feel like I did when I was 18 -- like "here we go' with a little more wisdom. I have the same aspirations I had when I was 20 but now I'm 52. It's going to be tougher, and I'll be alone. I'll be the only one patting myself on the back.

* * *

Arthur found his senior year at Gulf High School "pretty boring. I didn't go to homecoming or prom."

A graphic arts class was "pretty cool," and he enjoyed spotting gymnasts at the Suncoast Academy. He graduated on May 24 with a 3.1999 grade point average ... "Can you believe it? Like a hundredth of a point from getting my stupid white honors cord."

The highlight of his year -- aside from the release of Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones -- was the weekly Physical Training Class at the Army Recruitment Center in New Port Richey.

There, in the back parking lot, Arthur, dressed in a gray Army T-shirt and wearing a Powerpuff Girls pendant his mother gave him, learned to march to the sound of Staff Sgt. William Griffith's cadence -- and the seagulls fighting over food scraps in the trash bin behind Durango Steak House. Afterward, he and the other recruits would march across the street to Chasco Elementary School to practice pushups, situps and running.

"He did it to get buff for a girl," joked his friend, Daniel Lewis, who for the last month did 12-mile runs with Ball on Sunday mornings. Lewis, who also enlisted in the Army, will ship out in August.

Arthur sheepishly agreed. But the work, he said, paid off.

The minimum to complete basic training is 42 pushups, 52 situps and a 2-mile run in 15 minutes and 54 seconds.

Arthur mastered all that and then some.

"When we start basic training," he said with a grin, "I'm going to be running past everybody."

It's all part of his plan. "I want to travel," he said, "I want to get out of this town."

* * *

For Carmelita Rose Hernandez, the advantages of her son's decision seemed less clear cut.

"I really wanted him to go to college," she said. She concedes, that Arthur has long had the Army in his sights. "Gen. George Patton is his hero. He has all the war movies -- Hamburger Hill, Rules of Engagement -- and he's always watching the History Channel. But I'm afraid he's living in Hollywood land.

"I think he's physically ready, but I think he's in for some surprises. He talks about getting into action, but I don't think he realizes the mortality of war. I'm really frightened for him, but at the same time I have to be strong for him -- I have to let him go."

It's a decision with just as much meaning for her.

Since her early 20s, Hernandez has worked in the corporate travel industry. The work has been unfulfilling.

"I just turned 52. I have a B.A. in Spanish, but I never did anything with it," she said. "I always felt like a failure -- like I haven't met my full potential. Now it's my turn."

Maybe she'll sell the house and go to Puerto Rico, where her mother and sister live, and attend a university there. Maybe she'll go to school in Miami and then go in to teaching.

"I've got a classical guitar I've been carrying around for the last 20 years," she said. "Maybe I'll get around to learning how to play it -- one string at a time."

* * *

Last Thursday, Arthur Ball rose at 3 a.m. He and other recruits spent the night at the Holiday Inn on the government's dime before being transported to the Military Entrance Processing Station on Waters Avenue in Tampa.

At 5:45, dozens of young men and women joining the service lined up for their first taste of the military's "hurry up and wait" kind of day.

There was paperwork, then medical processing, where the male recruits stripped down to their briefs. Arthur, still wearing his Powerpuff Girls pendant, stood tallest among those waiting to be measured and weighed.

Then more paperwork, a fingerprint check and a chance for Arthur to reflect on his mom: "She always lets me do stuff on my own. She was never overbearing. She always tried to help me get stuff I needed or wanted. She did good," he said. "I hope she goes back to school."

* * *

Carmelita Hernandez, decked out in red, white and blue, arrived at 10 a.m. carrying some last-minute items, toothpaste, nail clippers, an extra pair of eyeglasses. And two greeting cards.

"Don't make me bring this stuff with me," said Arthur, wincing. "Why do you buy me a card? Why don't you just say it?"

"Because I want you to know how I feel."

"But this is like five pages."

"I don't want you to forget."

"I won't forget. By the way, I need twenty bucks."

"I sure hope the Army doesn't disappoint you. You're going in all gung-ho and everything. I hope it's everything you want it to be."

"Yeah, me too."

* * *

Hernandez has been quietly recording her son's venture into adulthood in a tiny journal she plans to give him "one day, when it will mean something to him." It includes references to his first traffic ticket ($78), his 18th birthday party at Hooters, opening his first checking account.

It also mentions Sept. 11.

* * *

Arthur left for another briefing, then the swearing-in ceremony that had recruits standing nervously in parade rest.

Hernandez snapped pictures and promised to send one to Valerie Pryll, whose son Travis was headed to Cape May, N.J., to join the Coast Guard. The two mothers embraced, melting into tears as their sons filed out of the room.

For the next two hours the recruits killed time.

They had Blimpie sandwiches for lunch and hung out in the game room playing video games or watching the news in the waiting room.

Arthur fooled around with his video camera, "interviewing" fellow recruits Cliff Barnes, a fellow Gulf High graduate who enlisted in the Navy, and Elizabeth Ortiz, who was headed to Fort "Relaxin"' Jackson in North Carolina.

Then a familiar face stoped by.

"How are you doing?" asked, Sgt. Daren Robinson, the former station commander of the New Port Richey Army recruiting office who first talked to Arthur about enlisting in the Army.

"Is he going to be disappointed?" Hernandez wanted to know.

"He'll be okay -- as long as he doesn't get into trouble."

"His problem is that he always has to have the last word," said Hernandez.

"He won't," says Robinson, "not after basic training. He'll be all, "Yes, ma'am; no, ma'am; yes, sir; no, sir."'

At ten till two -- 1350 hours Army time -- the four recruits heading for Fort Benning, Ga., were called for a final briefing.

"This hasn't hit me yet -- it feels like he's going on a field trip," said Hernandez.

"Come on, Mom, give me a hug," said Ball.

"Wait a minute, wait a minute," she said. "Don't be in such a rush."

There was time for one more hug and a few pictures before the van took off on the eight-hour trip to Georgia.

Hernandez cried as she made her way to her car. On the way, she passed Patrick Barber, an incoming recruit from Kissimmee who was sitting on a curb, downing a Pepsi.

He was scheduled to ship out next month, he told Hernandez.

"My mom's going to be just like you."

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