I want to talk about my friend Raymond Ramos. My friend is dead. He's been dead for nine years, and I still miss him.
One night while deployed to Iraq, I found myself "on duty". At this particular instance, my duty was to inflate the ego of the CO and SgtMaj, and relay useful news to anyone who happened by the desk. While armed. In theory, if Al Qaeda came by, it was my job to kill them, but in reality there was no way for them to not have the jump on me, and the best that I could do is die a loud death. Even in Iraq, Egos must be stroked. And they were.
While I sat bored, uncomfortable, and awaiting zealous but non-specific rage (or a passing ego), someone who knew both of us told me that Ray had died. My friend, who had been honorably discharged months earlier, had died in Alabama while traveling for a job interview. My assistant took over the watch, as I walked away in tears.
He had made it through his enlistment. He was supposed to have been safe. That's probably what had hit me the hardest; "unsafe" was a deployment to a hotspot, or a mission. "Unsafe" meant armed, briefed, and geared-up. He was supposed to have been safe. He made it through his enlistment intact. Game over, you win, enter initials.
Nope. See, "unsafe" is a sliding scale. While I was on the far side of the scale (but not all the way over), in my mind, he was swaddled safe in civilian life.
While our CO was a raving asshole (which contrary to public image, is absolutely not normal), he did say exactly one useful thing when we landed in-theatre. I don't recall exactly what he said, but what I absorbed is this: "Death can be a lightning strike on a clear day. It can come at any time, from any direction. When it's your time, there's nothing to do about it."
I'd absorbed this for myself, and my friends and colleagues in-theatre. But Ray had been safe.
I never got an official story, but this is what I recall being told. Ray had been driving for a job interview, and lost control of his car, went off the road, and was severely injured. I seem to remember that he'd left messages for his girlfriend, but she didn't get them until he had died. I wonder if he didn't have cell reception, and just left voice memos. As I'd heard it, the last one (possibly the third), he was resigned to death, and said goodbye.
When a Marine departs a unit (whether a change of duty or when leaving service), it is customary - at least for those in good standing - to receive a plaque commemorating their service. Naturally, the more rank that one has, the more extravagant the plaque. Those who won't be missed get something generic, but a good plaque is apparent. Ray was Corporal when he got out. He may have picked up Sergeant right before he got out, but it would have been on his way out.
Normally there is a collection is taken from among everyone in a given unit for a given Marine's plaque. You pay into each plaque as one of the best and most direct examples of "paying it forward" that there is in this world. Plaques usually come from a local awards company (where you'd go have bowling trophies made), and the standard no-effort plaque has the Marine's name and dates with the unit, and the unit logo. Perhaps a motivational phrase or a quote that the Marine was fond of saying.
Now, Ray wasn't what you could call a "Marine's Marine." He wasn't "hard-core" or "gung-ho", or any of that bullshit. You couldn't imagine him shouting "Let's take that fucking hill" outside of a joke. In fact, Ray's demeanor could be said to piss some people off; Sergeants Major either loved him or hated him. You could reliably predict how much a given Staff NCO would like him based on how comfortable they were with technology newer than, say, the typical ballpoint pen. If they were the kind to send a "runner" than a email, they hated him; if they theoretically knew the difference between "Reply" and "Reply All", they probably loved him. (NOTE: Senior Staff NCOs are very rarely more savvy than this.)
No, Ray was never going to win a "Marine / NCO of the Quarter" board. He didn't really know Marine Corps history. He knew the day-to-day customs & courtesy, but not much beyond that. He shuffled when he walked, and never re-soled his boots, so much so that he and a few of our friends referred to them as his "Combat Slippers"; it didn't help that they weren't polished, and were only barely what you could describe as "black". His uniform looked like it had once met an iron, but they weren't more than casual acquantences. This was very foreign to me coming from an occupational field that was very starch-and-polish, as well as dirty-in-the-field; I was used to being one or the other.
Please keep in mind that this was circa-2004. Google was around, but not in common use yet. Technet and MSDN were around, but search sucked, and information was categorized. (Which meant invariably that the taxonomy made sense, but not to you.) There was no Stack Overflow. While Windows XP/2003 were out, most of our domains were NT, groupware was Exchange 5.5, and workstations were either NT or 2000. The only Unix was in the specialized Intelligence boxes, and I was probably one of 10 people on the base who'd even installed Linux. This is what we had.
Ray and I were SysAdmins. SysAdmins in the Marine Corps don't code. Programmers code, and SysAdmins aren't Programmers. Being a Programmer in the Marine Corps means that you will be spending 80% of your time working on the CO's Pet Project, which is usually some stupid website that nobody will really use and won't survive your departure. The consequence of this is that the work that you should be doing falls to your compatriots, who are few in the first place, and already barely keeping things afloat.
But he had this insatiable curiosity, and this provided a great intellectual focus for him. Unfortunately the big boss found out, and the next thing you knew, a Pandora's Box of pet projects exploded in our office.
So, one day Ray's hacking on something like a CMS for shit nobody cares about, or an in-browser chat client, and he's pondering. Pondering hard. "How can I....?" I don'
t remember if he exclaimed "EUREEKA!", but it might as well have been. Next comes "I KNOW! I'LL DO IT WITH A COOKIE!" This was the first time I'd seen demonstrated the pure joy that comes when a solution presents itself.
So, when it came time for him to leave, knowing that the unit would get him something generic, I took care of it. I wanted him to have something special.
Ray loved him some Star Trek. Original, Next Generation, whatever. So, I went to a hobby shop, picked up a roughly 10" version of NCC-1701, assembed, painted, and decaled it. I took it into the awards shop with an idea and a quote, and they said "no problem."
While the quote that Ray was most fond of was to reply to statements with "...But does that make it right?", what I had inscribed on his plaque was "I'll do it with a Cookie!"
A going-away party in the Marine Corps can range from a don't-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-ass-on-the-way-out just about all the way through a weekend-long Roman orgy of an alcohol-and-grilling bender. Most of the time, it's making sure that your immediate office and some unit friends have lunch before you leave. Often it's with said Marine's car packed, and they're about to drive off base for the last time.
Ray's going-away party was a lunch at El Cerro Grande, the local Mexican establishment. We had a pretty good turnout. There were stories told, and a few last-minute items he'd forgotten. After the food and nostalgia finished, and the awkward and anxious quiet settled, some of us gave mini-speeches. MSgts Brown and Ayo said something, and they turned it over to me. I said a few things, reflecting on our past few years. Then I presented his plaque.
He cried and hugged me. I cried.
This is how I remember my friend Ray.
Ray indirectly taught me much more important things than he directly taught me. The most useful to my life and career is that being autodidactic is very useful. Being able to state a problem, ask an actionable question, and research an answer is amazingly useful. He also taught me that Programming is not (necessarily) evil, and formal training is not required to learn it.
Let us end with a toast. "To Absent Friends..."