I first heard about Fred during my first week at the current gig, three months after he'd left. Fred had been the head of the tech department, so just about everyone came in contact with him sooner or later. Whenever his name came up, testimony was remarkably universal; everyone was 1) impressed by his character and personality, and 2) dismayed that, as a longtime National Guardsman, he was about to ship out to Iraq.
His tour would last 18 months, but nobody knew when those 18 months began. The day he left his job? The day he arrived for basic training? The day he was "boots down" in Tikrit? It was a moot point, anyway, since the Army could just extend his tour if it chose to. After he landed in Iraq, we sent several care packages over to him (the most prized contribution: Baby Wipes), and excerpts from his e-mails filtered into hallway conversations. And the Legend of Fred grew.
When I first saw him, he was home on an emergency two-week leave for the birth of his first child, Emmie. He bounded into the workplace wearing fatigues, as you do when you're still on active duty, and he was so surrounded by colleagues that I couldn't get near. Those of us who didn't know him sort of sat back, marveling at his following. For about half an hour he stood proudly amid the throng, smiling broadly and shaking every hand that was thrust his way.
Then Emmie was born, and within a week he was gone again. I thought about him a lot after that, whenever life at home was particularly dirty, or chaotic, or sleepless, or asphyxiating. Whatever my problem, I thought, Fred has it worse. And every once in a while, maybe during a quiet moment while TwoBert sucked my nose, I would think, Fred is missing stuff like this.
Fred helped me keep a strong perspective through some really weird times, and I told him so when I finally met him this morning, his first day back at the job. He is exactly as advertised: a funny, brilliant, genuine, charismatic nerd. As we spoke we learned that Emmie and TwoBert were born less than an hour apart, and it suddenly dawned that Emmie was conceived while he and his wife were at Fort Dix, waiting for orders that could come down at any moment. The timing and motivation seem entirely understandable.
Fred still helps me keep my balance, because at any moment the Army can tap him on the shoulder and send him back. When he left last time, Emmie was a barely-responsive larva. Now she's a girl, and if he has to detach from that sweet little face for another year, it will be brutal.
Whatever my problem, Fred has it worse.