Meg Heckman's Award Winning Story
Sticks to guns, Generals to soldiers
Seven members of 1999 lacrosse team serve in military
This is the story for which Meg Heckman won second place for feature writing in the 2003 New Hampshire Press Association contest.)
By MEG HECKMAN
March 26, 2003
The spring of 1999 was muddy, and war with Iraq was just a misty, grade-school memory for the boys on the John Stark Regional High School lacrosse team.
The day the Generals posed for their team picture, the boys woke up in their childhood beds, begged the lunch ladies for extra fries at noon and, after school, ran laps in a red-faced line, cradling their sticks and kicking up mud.
In the years that followed, seven of the boys on that year's team went from sticks to guns, Generals to soldiers. They left the lacrosse field in Weare for a battlefield in Kuwait and other far-flung posts.
When the first bombs rained down on Baghdad last week, Adam Sheldon - the grinning freshman who wore No. 8 - was poised on the Iraqi border, ready to head for the capital with the rest of the 3rd Infantry. Matt Bumford, No. 16, was waiting in Germany to leave for Kuwait with his MP unit.
Three more former players were stateside, one guarding the president, another working as an MP and a third ready to follow the planes he maintains to the Persian Gulf. Two more were in Korea, one as a Navy diver on a submarine and another patrolling the DMZ, so close to the border he can see the North Korean flag from his barracks.
Their parents spent years on the sidelines watching the boys play. Now they watch war broadcasts from their living rooms.
"There's so much information, so many pictures, it's surreal," said Jean Durgin, whose twin sons are in the service. "Yet I know it's really happening, and these boys are becoming men very quickly."
"To watch the news and basically not to know how these kids are doing is scary," said Coach Norm Bumford, holding the team picture and pointing at face after smiling face.
His son, Derek, No. 4, is a Marine guarding the presidential helicopters. Ben Sheltmire, No. 6, was a co-captain that year and had already decided to join the Navy. He's now a diver on a submarine in the Pacific. No. 7, Adam Chase, is a an MP in North Carolina.
The Durgin boys, Sean and Russell, were on the team in 1999 but didn't show up for the picture. Russell is an infantryman stationed in South Korea. Sean, an Air Force mechanic in Arkansas, has promised his mother that he probably won't be deployed, but all the planes he works on are already gone.
There may be continents and oceans separating the former Generals, but the year of the picture the boys were as tight as a team can get. Jessica Gilbert, the tiny blonde team manager, calls them the "old boys." She remembers spaghetti suppers on game nights, eating contests at a Chinese buffet in Concord and the boys listening to country music and tinkering with their trucks in the school parking lot. On prom night, the guys wore cowboy hats with their tails and cummerbunds.
The team was close for many reasons. The boys' hometowns were small; some of them had known each other since preschool. When they got to Stark, the lacrosse team was in its infancy, and they had to work for everything: field space, equipment and respect.
From the very first practice, Bumford harped on teamwork. If you just want to sit back and get a varsity letter, this team's not for you, he'd say.
If you don't understand something, ask a question. If your grades aren't good, see an upperclassman. "He will help you," the coach told the freshmen each year.
At practices, on bus rides and at post-game parties, the juniors and seniors talked about their plans for the military, not in depth but always with pride. Denise Sheldon thinks this enthusiasm is part of why her son Adam joined.
"Being with the Durgin boys and talking to them is when he started to gain quite an interest," she said.
The team was tight, but the mothers were tighter, cheering at almost every game, snapping pictures and learning the rules with their sons. Since the war started, they've been gravitating back to one other. Sheldon gets notes and phone calls from team moms. Jean Durgin and Ben Sheltmire's mom, Sande, swap information about their sons.
Memories dilute the constant news broadcasts. Karen Bumford, Matt's mom, remembers how hard the boys played. Sande Sheltmire recalls the weeks she and Ben spent sewing a 6-foot-3-inch Chewbacca costume for his role in a Star Wars spoof written by Stark students. Jean Durgin giggles about the night Russell danced the hula in drag at the Mr. John Stark pageant. Denise Sheldon remembers the two years Adam spent rebuilding his parents' 1979 Chevy pickup.
But mostly the moms remember the games, where they passed out Gatorade and cringed every time a boy got hit. From the sidelines Jean would yell at the other team, "Hey, don't hit my kid!" If someone got hurt, she was usually one of the first at his side. Now she's hundreds, even thousands, of miles from her sons and their teammates.
"I should just get my passport and get on a plane and go take care of these guys," she said. "That's what I want to do."
This year's Generals held lacrosse tryouts Monday night. In a gym heady with sweat and rubber, two dozen boys tossed lacrosse balls and tried on helmets until Bumford called them together. He held up the 1999 team picture.
"Everybody knows we're at war with Iraq," he said. "This picture I've got here has five guys in it that stood in this gym, and they're now fighting. . . . I'm doing this season for them."
Among the silent players was the coach's youngest son, Ryan Bumford, wearing his brother's old No. 4 jersey and a U.S. Marines cap. Right now he's the team captain, but in July he'll be on the way to Parris Island for basic training.
As his father spoke, Ryan was motionless for a moment. The boy who captained the Generals last year is now Pvt. 1st Class Sheldon, and Monday night he was 60 miles south of Baghdad.