He walked wearily toward us, a lone sailor in a sea of jubilant families.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert Berry appeared out of the sun-splashed blur of welcome home signs, American flags and yellow pompoms held high.
In crisp whites and lugging a green duffel bag, he looked dazed as he scanned the throng on the pier at Naval Station Everett. He looked tired.
No one was there to greet him, but Berry was ready to go home.
I was there with 30 members of the Everett Rotary Club who held neon-green signs offering "FREE RIDES."
"Seattle?" he asked.
Sure, I answered. I had volunteered to join the group for the day as a Rotary taxi driver for sailors in need of transportation.
The 33-year-old avionics technician was my first passenger Tuesday. I gave him a lift. In exchange, Berry put a face on what will surely be remembered as one of the greatest days Everett has ever seen.
And from Berry came a reminder: Behind picture-perfect scenes played out over and over as the USS Abraham Lincoln came into port are real lives, each with its story and its travail.
Berry’s wife, Kathy, suffers from lupus, a chronic disease that affects the skin and the immune and nervous systems. They live with their three children in military housing at Old Fort Lawton in Seattle’s Discovery Park. Kathy Berry couldn’t make the trip to Everett Tuesday.
But she waited at home with her husband’s favorite tuna sandwiches already made.
"That’s the one thing I want to eat. It’s the simple things you really miss," he said.
Berry will never forget the highs or lows of the nearly 10-month deployment, including the New Year’s Day announcement that the Lincoln wouldn’t be coming home as scheduled.
"That hurt," Berry said. "Today is great," he added. "And I shook the president’s hand. That was my high point," he said of President Bush’s visit and speech aboard the carrier before it docked in San Diego last week.
A quiet man who spent 10 years in the Army and a short time out of the military before joining the Navy two years ago, Berry plans to stay in until retirement.
"I didn’t make a good civilian," he said. "I miss my kids, but somebody’s got to protect the country. Why not me?"
Outside their modest home, Berry unloaded his bag, shook my hand and thanked me abundantly. He declined to invite me in for the reunion — a family time.
Back on base in Everett for a new carload, I got myself a whole new ballgame.
I followed Rotarian and Everett resident Ed Rubatino, whose big Lincoln carried the other half of my bunch of Navy buddies. These young fellows were headed for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, but their flights to Minnesota and other points east weren’t leaving until today.
We left them at a Motel 6 on Highway 99 near the airport, their base for a night on the town. The location wouldn’t have been my choice, but it suited them fine with an exotic dance club within walking distance and Southcenter Mall a short hop away.
Airman Apprentice Jamie Glatz, 22, spoke — a lot — for the restless group. At one point, he said he was "sorry ma’am" for "swearing like a sailor."
"That’s OK," I replied, "you are a sailor."
A native of Fulda, Minn., population 1,200, Glatz said if the long deployment taught him anything it’s that a long Navy career isn’t for him.
"It’s like that movie ‘Groundhog Day.’ Every day was always the same. No one knew what day it was," Glatz said.
During the war, "I worked every day sending bombs to the flight deck," he said. "The greatest day for me is when they said we could go home."
This morning, he’s on his way to Fulda to marry his fiance, Gina Johnson, and spend a 20-day leave. Let’s not think about the headache he might have on the plane from his night on the town.
I left the group I’ll always remember as "my Lincoln boys" in the motel parking lot with some yellow pompoms and instructions to eat a healthy dinner. They just laughed.
I doubt we’ll cross paths again, but what a wonderful day it was.
My younger riders were too busy checking out women in other cars to discuss their place in history. Petty Officer Berry actually thought about my question.
"I’m not sure it’s completely sunk in yet," he said.
I looked at him, looked at his sailor cap resting on my dashboard, and thought about where he had been.
Ten months, a war — it hasn’t sunk in yet.
One day, a homecoming — it hasn’t sunk in yet.
Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or email@example.com