The afternoon assignment for Mrs. Otieno’s fifth-grade class on Friday was to write a letter to classmate Isabella Hodges’ dad, a U.S. Air Force officer, to thank him for his service and welcome him back from a 10-month deployment in Afghanistan.
Little did the kids at the West Parish School know they were about to deliver their letters of appreciation by hand.
At 2:28 p.m., there was a knock on the door and teacher Lucy Otieno, who was in on the caper, waved for the visitors to enter. In came three women, a pair of 10-month-old twins and a man dressed in military fatigues.
Along with her 16 classmates, Isabella, 10, raised her head — and there was her dad standing there, a wide smile spread across his face.
Isabella — Izzy to her friends — sat there a moment, not exactly sure of the scene unfolding before her. The last she heard from her dad and mom Patricia he wasn’t supposed to arrive in Gloucester until sometime today.
“I wasn’t sure he was really there,” she said.
Then it dawned on her that Christmas — and her dad’s arrival — had come early.
She threw out her arms in a modified touchdown salute, rushed up the aisle and into the arms of Lt. Col. Vincent Hodges, who kept repeating, “Come on, come on.”
With that, Izzy had her dad, Vince Hodges had his daughter and on a warm autumn Friday in Room 14 at the West Parish School, the world seemed whole and happy.
It is a scene that has played out time and time again, as long as battles have been fought, a looping reel of joy and relief at someone plucked from some faraway cauldron of danger and deposited back into the curiously orderly and safe place they initially left behind.
In that fleeting moment of the warrior safely returned, life felt pure — and a bit emotional.
Patricia Hodges seemed near to tears at the sight of the father-and-daughter reunion. Her sister, Katie Misuraca, and their mother, Susan Taormina, each laughingly held one of Katie’s twins, Margaret and Pearl.
Teacher Otieno, meanwhile, beamed at her student’s happiness.
“This is just so precious,” she said. “So great.”
There were other surprises to come.
Though Hodges and his daughter had kept in touch weekly through video conferencing, he was still shocked at how much she’d grown during his most recent absence. Some things just don’t show up on a laptop or iPad mini.
“You’ve gotten a lot taller since the last time I saw you,” he told her.
Then came the news: Hodges, a 20-year veteran who had put in his retirement papers, effective at the end of this tour, told his daughter he was staying in the service for at least another two years because the Air Force had offered him a new position at Hanscom Field in nearby Bedford.
“It will be great being so much closer to my daughter,” said Hodges, whose stateside assignment has been based in Virginia since 2008.
The next surprise was that he’d been promoted from major to lieutenant colonel.
Izzy’s classmates formed a line and each came forward, shook Hodges’ hand, handed him their letter and thanked him for his service.
“Thank you for being such a good friend to Izzy,” he told them.
Then everyone trooped outside and Mrs. Otieno’s fifth-grade class had a picture taken with Izzy’s dad.
No one had to tell the kids to smile, least of all Izzy.
Sean Horgan may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT