Part One — Thomas Calabrese …You wouldn’t be wrong if you said that Hodge Evans had a rough and challenging life. His mother was a teenage runaway who got pregnant and abandoned him at a fire station in the middle of the night when he was three days old. She died several months later from a drug overdose. He was put into the foster care system and was eventually adopted at the age of three. His adoptive parents were wealthy at the time, but an unfortunate series of financial setbacks plunged the couple into bankruptcy. The husband borrowed excessively to stay solvent, but when he couldn’t repay the loans, he was forced to sell his house to pay his debts. The family moved to a three bedroom apartment in a bad part of town. Not being able to live in poverty and accept the harsh reality of his situation and the enormity of his failure, he killed his wife and committed suicide. Hodge came home from school to find the dead bodies. Once again, he was placed in state’s custody and between the ages of 5 and 14, he was in six different foster homes. At his last one, the couple had four other children and while they were goodhearted well- meaning people, they were overwhelmed by their parental workload. The other children all had psychological issues that required medication and ongoing therapy.
Hodge did his best to help out, but eventually came to the realization that he was only in the way and needed to move on. He had just turned 15 years of age and wasn’t about to go back into foster care so he told his foster parents about his intentions. “I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, but I need to leave.”
“Need to leave for where?” Barry Wayne asked.
“I haven’t figure that part out yet. I’m hoping I know when I see it,” Hodge said.
Barry and Natalie Wayne tried to dissuade Hodge. It was a half-hearted effort for two reasons, first one was that they knew their foster son was a strong- willed individual who wasn’t inclined to change his mind once he made a decision. The second was that Hodge was an independent and self- sufficient individual who never needed that much from them, emotionally or otherwise. The young boy put his personal belongings in his backpack and sixty five dollars in his pocket and went to the bus station in Bakersfield. Not having any particular destination in mind, he asked the ticket agent, “When’s the next bus due?”
“Where is it going?” Hodge inquired.
“Oceanside,” The ticket agent replied.
“One ticket please.”
It was June 15th and it was not unusual for the coastal city to be blanketed by low hanging clouds at this time of year. Locals called this type of weather, ‘June Gloom.’ After disembarking the bus, Hodge headed to the beach where he sat on a bench for three hours, looking out to sea. He found the sight and sounds of the waves mesmerizing. When it started getting late, Hodge had the option of using his limited financial resources for a motel room or find a place to sleep that would be cheaper. It was almost 10PM when he crawled under a bridge overpass. At sunrise he awakened from an unrestful night’s sleep and minutes later and began his job search. He had almost walked from the harbor to West Vista Way when he saw a help wanted sign in an Ace Hardware store. Hodge placed his pack behind a dumpster located in an alley and went inside. When he encountered an employee, “I saw your sign in the window.”
The employee called out, “Hey Ben! There’s a guy here about the job.”
Ben Allen was 58 years old, a former Marine who took over the business from his father when he retired. He was solid as a rock with a thick neck and military haircut. He could be gruff and abrupt at times, but he was also fair to his employees. When he saw Hodge, he quickly evaluated the young boy and kept his words to a minimum, “The job pays minimum wage, and it entails janitorial work and stocking shelves. Any questions?”
“No sir,” Hodge answered quickly.
“I don’t like to micro-manage my employees. I tell my people what to do and they do it. If they got a question they ask me. If they make a mistake, well that’s part of being human. I can accept that if they did their best. I won’t accept lack of effort as an excuse.”
“Yes sir,” Hodge replied just as quickly as the first time.
Ben liked the way that Hodge stood straight, shoulders back and made eye contact when he spoke. The fact that he used the word ‘sir’ also helped with his decision. “We start work at zero seventy-thirty hours. I’ll see you tomorrow…don’t be late.”
As the young boy walked away, Ben called to him, “What’s your name?”
“One more thing…I’ll know within a week if I want to keep you on,” Ben warned.
Hodge arrived an hour early the next day and when he began work, he approached every assigned task like it was the only thing in his life that mattered. A week passed and Hodge continued to impress Ben with his work ethic.
Three weeks later, Ben was out late after coming home from a friend’s birthday’s party and decided to take a ride by the business to see if things were alright. When he drove around back, he saw some movement coming from inside a large box. He got out of his car and called out, “Whoever is in there needs to come out now!”
Hodge crawled out and got to his feet. Ben made an educated guess, “You’re homeless.”
Hodge responded with a boyish grin, “I’m in between residences.”
“I don’t like this…I don’t like it one bit.”
“I’ll pack my stuff and be on my way,” Hodge said.
“I’m not mad that you’re homeless, I’m mad that you didn’t tell me,” Ben said.
“With all due respect, sir…why would I. I’m not your responsibility and this isn’t your problem.”
“Grab your gear.”
Ben drove to a quiet residential neighborhood in the Rancho De Oro area of Oceanside and parked in the driveway, “I bought my home after I retired from the Corps. That was 20 years ago and since that time, I’ve gotten divorced, my son moved to Texas and my daughter got married and is living in Ventura. I live alone and I’ve got extra space.” Ben led Hodge inside the modestly decorated home and declared, “Now you’ve got a roof over your head. Your room is located at the end of the hall, it has its own bathroom. I’m not your maid, you clean up after yourself…understood?”
Ben awakened the next morning at 630am and knocked on Hodge’s bedroom door, “Breakfast in 15 minutes.” When he didn’t get an answer, he opened the door and found the room empty. The bed was made and it didn’t look like anybody had slept in it. “Damn…I should know better.” Ben searched the house to see if anything had been stolen, but nothing was missing. He was still upset with himself as he drove to work and was dumbfounded when he pulled up to his store and saw Hodge waiting for him. “What the hell!” Ben got out of his car, “How did you get here?”
“I walked,” Hodge replied.
“It’s six miles from my house!”
“I actually ran part of the way,” Hodge smiled, “It wasn’t so far.”
“Why would you do that?” Ben asked.
“You offered me a place to stay, nothing was mentioned about rides to work,” Hodge said.
“Rides are included from now on!”
As time passed and it got closer to September, Ben approached Hodge, “Have you thought about school?”
Hodge was stocking heavy boxes of nails at the time and continued with his work, “A little, sir.”
“You can use my address as your home of record. We’re in the El Camino High School district, I’ll take you over there to get you enrolled.”
“You’ve already done too much for me,” Hodge replied.
“That’s my call, not yours,” Ben stomped out.
Hodge started school as a junior and played football, basketball and baseball. He was a diligent student and a good athlete. No matter how much the young boy took on, he always found a way to get it done. Ben’s neighbors took a liking to Hodge, who was always willing to help out. An elderly woman, Karen Blake with two rescue dogs was especially fond of the young boy. Hodge would put her trash containers out on Monday and put them back on Tuesday. It became part of his routine and when she didn’t feel up to it, she could always call on Hodge to take her dogs to the park. Every time she saw Ben, she sang the praises of her young neighbor, “That’s a good boy, you got there.”
“I know,” Ben would reply and he couldn’t have been more proud of Hodge even if he was his own flesh and blood.
Ben came to realize that Hodge was truly a special boy, he had no sense of entitlement, took nothing for granted and was one of the hardest workers he had ever known and that was saying a lot. There were times he had to remind Hodge to take it easy and the young boy would shrug and reply, “I’m fine, sir.” It had almost been two years since the homeless boy moved in and he still addressed Ben as sir.
During the spring quarter of his senior year, Hodge told Ben, “I’m thinking about joining the Marines.”
Ben was conflicted, he was extremely proud that Hodge wanted to serve his country, but on the other hand, he hoped that he had not unduly influenced the young boy with some of his military stories, “I hope that you’re not doing this as some kind of repayment to me.”
“No sir, I would never dishonor your service by doing that. I figured that if the Marines were good enough for you then they are more than good enough for me. If I’m lucky, maybe they’ll help me become a man like you.”
Ben was so touched that he could hardly speak, “That means a lot coming from you, but you’re more of a man right now than most men I know.”
Hodge joined the Corps and put 100 per cent effort into becoming a good Marine because he didn’t know any other way to do things. When the opportunity came up, he applied for the Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team (FAST) and was accepted. He was sent with his unit to Eastern Africa to help combat terrorists. Al-Shabaad was working with poachers to destabilize the Kenya economy by making it too dangerous for tourists to visit the wild animal parks. The Marines’ mission was to support the park rangers and while conducting missions to eradicate the terrorists.
The young Marine had been promoted to corporal and his platoon was currently assigned to guard the low lying hills along the western area of the animal park. While on patrol, they were ambushed by a large group of terrorists and surrounded. Platoon Commander Lieutenant Ward Billings quickly assessed the situation and ordered, “Move to the ravine, we’ll set up a defensive perimeter.” While the Marines were running 50 yards across open ground, Lt. Billings was shot in the leg and went down. Hodge saw him go down and did not hesitate to stay behind and render first- aid. When the other Marines made it to the ravine, they provided suppressive fire, but it wasn’t enough to prevent the capture of Hodge and his platoon commander.
Hodge and Lt. Billings were taken to a makeshift camp about 15 miles away. Their hands were tied behind their backs with leather straps and then they were strapped to a tree. The terrorists repeatedly punched and kicked the Marines. Lt Billings’ leg wound needed professional medical attention and he was getting weaker by the minute from loss of blood and was lapsing in and out of consciousness. Hodge guessed that this was only a temporary camp and the terrorists would be moving out soon. He noticed that if he pulled with all his strength, he could get the restraints to stretch about a quarter of an inch. Throughout the night while the terrorists slept, Hodge alternated between pulling for five minutes and resting for thirty seconds. Six hours later, the leather straps had cut deep into his flesh, but they had also stretched eight inches. Hodge was now able to reach them with his teeth. Thirty minutes later, he managed to chew through the leather. It was now 30 minutes before sunrise.
When one of the men walked by and attempted to kick Hodge with his steel toed boot, the Marine grabbed his ankle flipped him on his back and snapped his neck. Hodge took a knife from the man’s scabbard and cut Lt. Billing loose, “We’re going to have to make a break for it. Are you up for it?”
Lt. Billings could barely speak, “Leave me…save yourself.”
“Not a chance,” Hodge responded and knew at that precise moment, he would have to carry his platoon commander. He also realized that he had to find a way to change the odds. When another terrorist walked by in the darkness, he punched the man in the throat and crushed his windpipe. Hodge took the man’s AK-47, made sure it had a full magazine in it, then moved to a position where he could see the silhouettes of the remaining 30 terrorists in the dim light. He flipped the selector switch to fully automatic and opened fire. He quickly popped in another one and emptied it, then popped in another magazine and ran back to his fellow Marine. He put Lt. Billing over his shoulder and escaped into the fleeting remnants of darkness.
Gasping for air after running at a full sprint for almost five minutes, Hodge found another level of strength and endurance to keep going after sunlight illuminated the area. The terrorists would not be far behind and there was no good place to hide in the savannah grass. From out of the glare of sunlight, five elephants came walking toward him. Hodge did not sense danger so he stood his ground. The largest elephant picked up Lt. Billings with his trunk and walked off. Hodge knew that the terrorists would eventually catch up to the elephants, kill them and his platoon commander so he reversed direction and went back to engage the enemy.
Hodge saw the dust of approaching vehicles and opened fire on two Toyota pick-ups filled with men when they came into his kill-zone. While keeping them pinned down, two Huey gunships on a search for him and Lt. Billings came into view and joined the attack. Their machine guns and rockets destroyed the trucks and the enemy was killed. Lt. Billings was found two miles away by a watery hole with the elephants surrounding him for protection. The powerful beasts would only let Hodge get close enough to carry his fellow Marine to safety. The situation had such a profound effect on him that he swore to return, somehow, someway.
End Part One