By Mike Hixenbaugh
Michelle Kirkpatrick climbed out of bed before sunrise, slipped on a red, white and blue T-shirt and drove directly to Norfolk Naval Station.
She wasn’t going to miss her baby – not again.
Her son, Petty Officer 3rd Class Kris Chrisp, was among thousands of sailors who returned Wednesday following a long and complicated year aboard the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Kirkpatrick and her family – including Chrisp’s grandparents, niece and girlfriend – had driven into town a day earlier. They checked out of the hotel early and arrived at the pier by 8:30 Wednesday morning, a solid six hours before the ship was scheduled to pull into port.
Seven months earlier, when the Ike returned for two months from the first half of its unusual split deployment, Chrisp, 22, told his mom not to worry about coming into town to meet him at the pier. Don’t make a big fuss, he told her.
Kirkpatrick gave in and instead watched a live Internet feed of the December homecoming from her home in Burlington, N.C. She strained to spot her son among the crowd of white uniforms in the grainy Web feed. She watched as hundreds of loved ones, many of them holding homemade signs, hugged their sailors on the pier.
And she wept.
“I had tears streaming down my face, and I said, ‘Never again,’ ” Kirkpatrick said. “I’ll never miss another one.”
The pier was mostly empty when Kirkpatrick showed up with her homemade signs and lawn chairs.
Hours passed before the mammoth ship finally appeared on the horizon. Kirkpatrick and others in the crowd screamed and waved. “Here he comes!”
A veteran military spouse sitting nearby shook her head. The first sight of the ship is always a tease, she said, looking up from a newspaper. “They won’t be off for a few more hours.”
Kirkpatrick was shocked two years ago when she got a call from a recruiter informing her that her youngest son had decided to enlist in the Navy. “Are we talking about the same Kris?” the mother asked.
She never imagined that her prankster son – the one who is scared to drive over water on high bridges – would sign up for the armed services. But she couldn’t be more proud.
“That’s a pretty sight right there,” Kirkpatrick said with a huge grin as tugboats pushed the carrier into position along the pier.
Moments later, as crews worked to tie up the ship, Kirkpatrick answered her cellphone.
“Hey, Baby, where are you at?”
Chrisp was among a crowd of sailors standing on the flight deck. His mother tried to describe the family’s location on the pier.
“We’re down in the corner by all the news media. … You’re where? … We’re under the huge red, white and blue umbrella. … Well, get down here!”
Then Kirkpatrick spotted him. He waved from the deck; she jumped up and down and waved back. Although more than 100 yards separated them, the mother said, she spotted her son when he smiled.
“That’s what he does,” said his grandmother, Sandra Poteat. “Kris is always smiling.”
Another hour passed before lower-ranking enlisted sailors were finally allowed off the ship. Kirkpatrick stood tiptoe and searched the crowd as husbands kissed wives and children went charging into the arms of returning parents.
Finally, she spotted her 6-foot-4 baby boy. She leapt into the air and waved. “Kris! Kris! Kris!”
He smirked as he casually walked toward his frantic mother – who, to welcome him home, had bought 100 freeze pops, because “my boy loves Popsicles.”
Chrisp gave his mother a hug and – even if she did go just a bit overboard – he told her he was happy she came:
“It’s good to be home.”