Gerald Waters knew.
The abrupt hang-ups on the phone told him. So did the times he caught the sirens in the background, and the echoing "Alarm red" warnings over the loudspeaker. The only thing he never heard were the explosions each time his mother, Polly Rice, a senior Master Sergeant in the Air Force, would call him from Balad Air Base in Iraq.
During his mother's deployment from May 20 to Sept. 29, he lived with his older sister, Jessica. While Rice handled traffic management at Balad, which is known by those who serve there as "Moratar-itaville", Waters plunged himself into football. To distract himself, the 6-foot, 170-pound senior wide receiver for Haverford (Pa.) High, played a game of looking the other way, never revealing to his mother the fact that he knows the danger she was in and will be again.
She was a half a world away, but it seemed like a half a universe, compared to his insular world of cheerleaders, pep rallies, marching bands and football games.
"We lived the war through crawls and new briefs," says Waters " [We] lived it in real time, through constant telephone calls."
Waters' mother tried to explain the unexplainable to an 18-year old who didn't want to believe she was in any kind of danger. Waters never talks about Iraq or anything like that with his mother. "We'd get on the phone and talk about football, because I never like to talk about the war, not with her," Waters said. "My mother gets upset, if I get upset, so I put up this front like I didn't know anything. I knew. She never knew I used to catch what was going on in the background. I heard the sirens go off. I heard the guy on the loudspeaker telling everyone to scramble for cover. I just couldn't let her know that I knew."
Many of Waters' friends didn't know his mother served in Iraq until a special ceremony prior to Haverford's Oct. 5 game against area power Ridley (Pa.). Before the game, a special presentation was made to Fords' coach Joe Gallagher, awarding him with an American flag that flew over Iraq for watching over Waters while Rice was deployed.
"Look at the sacrifice and commitment and look at Polly's story, it really does bring everything into reality," said Gallagher, who will have the flag framed and mounted in his office. "We lost a football game that night against Ridley, but when it's all said and done, it was just a football game. Having the experience of what Polly went through, it makes me feel fortunate to be close enough to know this woman and see first hand what high school sports is and what real life is. It's really a lesson for us all."
Rice has served in Kuwait, Qatar and Iraq. Each time she was about to leave, she had to brace herself before explaining it to her children. She'd get nervous, fidgety, though she was constantly torn, knowing what her "extended family" in the Air Force was going through.
"I had to volunteer to go, and there was no other place I was willing to go, if they did send me," Rice said. "There is a war going on there in Iraq every day, and I lived in it. People in the United States have the misperception that nothing is going on, that this thing is over. It's not. People are dying there every day and are at risk. When I was over there and I saw the young people over there, our young people, it gives me hope for the future of this country."
After his final high school game on Thanksgiving Day against Upper Darby (Pa.), Waters, who has drawn some attention from Division III schools like Wagner, Stony Brook, Albright and Wesley, sought out his mother in the overflow crowd that spilled on to the home field. Whereas parents gave a brief hug to their sons, Waters' embrace with his mother had deeper feeling. It meant more knowing his mother was there in the stands, watching him play -- and she survived a war zone to do it.
"It means everything," said Waters, who was the leading receiver on a Haverford team that qualified for the PIAA District 1 Class AAAA (large school) playoffs for the first time in school history (Haverford was knocked out by Southeastern Pennsylvania powerhouse Central Bucks South in the first round). "My mother and sister raised me. They're my heroes."
Waters says he's prepared if his mother is sent back to Iraq. He'll go through the charade of keeping his emotions in close, not revealing what he really knows: "That my mother is the bravest person I know."