DADE CITY — Tiffany Hutton felt a deep-down nervousness before Friday's graduation ceremony at Pasco High School.
It was deeper than the nerves brought on by grades or tests or even the weighty notion of impending adulthood.
"The guy I love's going to go off to war," she said. "And he can't wait."
"I'm not going to war. I'm going to the Marines," the guy she loves responded.
"There's a difference?" she wondered.
Mike Vander Krake, at age 18, has decided to join up, to leave behind his loved ones and his job at McDonald's, to serve his country.
And it's true — he can't wait.
"I guess it's just the honor," he said. "I'd really like to have that honor, that title of United States Marine. You carry that title your whole life."
Mike is one of five from Pasco High's Class of 2008 heading into the military. They're leaving their scrappy, proud high school, their tight-knit town, to pursue paths of service and bravery, and almost certainly, of war.
"It's kind of scary, but I'm ready for it," said David Roberts, who is joining the Air Force. "I have been here my whole life. I want to see as much of (the world) as I can."
Mike signed up with the Marines in September. His grades had slipped, and he thought the military was his only shot at a decent job.
Now, he has everything mapped out. He is already training for the Marines' grueling three-month boot camp, which he starts in July. He wants to become a scout sniper, which is just what it sounds like — the first guy in, who sneaks across enemy lines.
He wants to get engaged to Tiffany Hutton. He wants a son to carry on his family's name and follow his dad into the Marine Corps.
Tiffany, 17, plans to live at home and go to Saint Leo University in the fall. She wants to be an elementary school teacher. For now, she wants to spend as much time as she can with her future husband before they are separated.
Heavy stuff for a couple of kids in caps and gowns.
All around them Friday evening, their classmates took pictures and sent text messages and fidgeted with their mortarboards. Then the procession finally began, from the gym to the football field, under a brilliant sky left by a flash thunderstorm. Inside the stadium, a charged crowd of a thousand awaited them.
The graduates listened to songs and speeches and were cheered by their families when their names were read aloud.
Crossing the small stage and grasping their diplomas, they smiled big. Some did little dances or stopped to hug a teacher. They stood together for a classmate who died only weeks ago.
At Mike's turn, he looked serene. As he walked, the dogtag around his neck bounced lightly against his chest.
Molly Moorhead can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6245.