Excellent question, Exclamation Point. (I’ll never get used to these “new wave” names.)
It’s always tough to break bad news to your parents. (This is assuming, of course, that you have a good relationship with your elders. My cousin, Ralph Bostwick, was so unliked that his declaration of intent to join the military was greeted with a small impromptu parade that began in his high school parking lot and traveled through town to his bedroom, where his possessions were cheerfully thrown out of the second story window, along with his remaining dignity.)
There are several ways to go about this. One option is to post an anonymous letter in the local paper, informing your parents of your whereabouts while still leaving just a hint of doubt in the minds of others who are less acquainted with you. This presumes, of course, that your parents still read the newspaper rather than just track the whereabouts of various celebrities via Google News.
Another option is to send an informative postcard from wherever you’re stationed with just enough verbiage to communicate that they won’t be seeing you for up to four years. This is best handled within the first few weeks of boot camp, as the latter weeks’ intensity may find you without the strength to lift a pen.
Of course, don’t put this off for too long or you’ll be sending this postcard from behind enemy lines or from within a POW camp. If this is the case, be sure to mention your exact whereabouts and specify that they forgo the usual selection of handmade cookies, audio cassettes and condoms and send you something more useful, like reinforcements or a large cash bribe.
However, this is a digital age and your options are much more open than mine were. You can send it via chain email (remember to include a vaguely-named attachment), update your status to “In the military for the next four years. Don’t touch my stuff. That means you, Doug,” on Facebook or just direct them to your vanity Wikipedia page and indicate that “recent updates” have been applied.
We had none of these during the 1950′s. If you didn’t tell them in person or write a longhand letter, it may as well have not happened at all. Some of my platoon put this on hold indefinitely, which usually resulted in a form letter from the Uncle Sam informing the parents that their son had been killed or injured severely in the line of duty, thus turning the procrastination from “indefinite” to “just recently.”
Of course, the military had its share of screwups as well. My good friend Stacey Aaronsen was felled by a sniper in the line of duty and the corresponding letter was sent to his parents, who were convinced his sudden and long disappearance was just a phase he was going through.
However, the myopic clerk in charge of hand-addressing the envelopes dropped the crucial “e” from Stacey’s first name, resulting in the letter arriving at the home of Stacy Aaronsen, a lifetime civil servant who had been married for nearly 30 years at that point. This letter was opened and read by his wife, who sat still for nearly ten minutes straight after completing it, finally wheeling on her husband with panicked queries as “Who the hell are you?” and “How did you get in here?”
After a long and pointless discussion, they agreed to disagree and parted ways after 28 years of marriage. Stacey (with an e)’s parents endured the years of silence with good cheer and vague rumblings about the length of late-adolescent “phases.”
Exclamation Point: your best bet is to tell them straight out. Not only will this save their marriage and save you some embarrassment, but it’s incredibly hard to find anywhere that sells postcards these days.
Clifton L. Tanager