CLEARWATER — Robert Utley sat on the front porch with his mother one last time. They stared out at a row of decaying trailers, all silent as tombstones.
His mother broke the quiet with promises. Cyntthia Sterba, 48, vowed to keep his bedroom the same, to purchase him some phone cards, to write often.
"Can I give you a hug tomorrow?" she asked. Her eyes were red and swollen from crying.
"I don't see why you couldn't," he responded, matter of fact.
For five years, their lives had teetered on the edge of financial calamity, through four states and countless sofas, motel rooms and sidewalks. They had finally landed a place of their own, a 1956 trailer in Clearwater. Now he was 18 and their fragile existence together was ending. Robert was joining the Navy.
"What time does the bus get here?" Cyntthia asked.
"9:10." It was time to go.
He stood up and grabbed a small backpack and hugged his sister and patted the cats. Then he set out down the street toward his future, his mother and sister straggling behind, the urgency in his step widening the gap between them.
He had earned this independence, but he had not done it alone. His life had often lacked so much — a safe place to sleep, food, a father — but when he needed it the most he had found someone to guide him, and that had made all the difference.
His mother and sister caught up to him at the bus stop. He hoped they would come to his swearing-in ceremony the next day, but their pickup had broken down.
The bus came into view. He hugged his mother.
"It'll be okay," he said.
Then he hopped aboard and the door shut behind him.
• • •
The day before, a cream-colored Lexus pulled in front of Cyntthia and Robert's trailer. Mike Cariello, an airline pilot from Tampa, stepped out.
"Where is it?" Cariello asked Robert. "I want to see it."
Robert passed through the kitchen and bathroom of the trailer in three strides, into his mattress-sized room. On the wall, he had taped the Sailor's Creed, which he'd memorized. On another, he had hung a framed picture of an F/A-18 Hornet, which Cariello had given him the year before.
Robert returned with his high school diploma.
"We need to get this thing framed," Cariello said, patting him on the back.
"I'll do it while he's gone," Cyntthia said.
Robert and Cariello, 52, had met three years before. Robert was living with his mother in a homeless shelter and they were featured in a Tampa Bay Times story. Robert was 15 at the time. He and his mother had spent the previous year living in a church alcove, in front of a soup kitchen, behind a stage in Clearwater. They got around on bikes and hid their possessions. During the day, they inhabited the Clearwater Library, where Robert was trying to finish middle school on their beat-up computer. He had no friends except for those he met on an aviation buff website. He wanted to be a pilot.
Robert and Cyntthia had a home once, on an Air Force base in Kansas, with one of Cyntthia's husbands. A chain of abusive relationships and lost jobs followed, during which Robert went to live with a family friend and his sister. They ended up in Clearwater, where Cyntthia couldn't find a job. She earned $588 a month in cash and food stamps.
Cariello saw something of himself in the teen. When he was 14, Cariello's family moved from New York to Bradenton. A few weeks later, his mother choked on a piece of meat and died. His father didn't have a job, and he and his four siblings struggled. He and his father didn't get along, so he left home. A friend's family took him in. They encouraged him to go to college. He went to officer training school in the military, graduated top of his class. He was selected to attend the Navy Fighter Weapons School, where he became a flight instructor. He racked up 2,000 hours on the F-18, 10,000 hours as a pilot with American Airlines.
During that first meeting with Robert, Cariello had warned him to watch out for pitfalls. "It worked out well for me, but there were a thousand times along the way my life could have changed. At least a thousand. You do what you have to do to make things work out."
Three years later, he was still there for Robert. They talked on the phone or visited once or twice a month. He'd taken him flying. He'd encouraged him to get his high school diploma and to keep the job at Panera Bread that Robert had taken at 15.
At one point, when Robert was 16, a 27-year-old co-worker showed a romantic interest in him. Cyntthia didn't know what to do; Robert was gone a lot. She called Cariello. He encouraged her to press charges against the woman, which she did.
Robert wasn't happy they had intervened, but he got back on course, continued to work full time and finished school online.
Now here was his diploma.
"This is the beginning of a big journey for you," Cariello said, "one that will take you straight to manhood and better things."
"It's hard not to tear up," Cyntthia said in the doorway. "I'm so overwhelmed by pride."
Robert stood there awkwardly. "Let's go," said Cariello. "I'm hungry."
• • •
"So are you getting excited?" Cariello asked once they were seated at Smokey Bones.
"Yeah, I'm a little nervous," Robert replied.
The next day, he was headed to Great Lakes, Mich., for nine weeks of recruit training, followed by a three-week engineering program. He had qualified to be a fireman apprentice and would work with engines and propulsion. He still hoped to be a pilot one day.
Cariello recalled the day he entered the Marines.
"It was feet on the line, look up, and stand at attention," Cariello said, "and the harassment begins and the first thing you will ask yourself is, 'What did I do?' But it gets better and better every day. It's all designed to break you down and build you back up as a unit. It works, and you think you can't handle it anymore, but you can."
Robert listened intently. He'd been bullied as a kid. Not much bothered him anymore.
"Keep a good attitude, work hard and you'll be fine," Cariello continued.
"I have a pretty good attitude," Robert said. "I should be fine."
"Let me see you salute."
Robert lifted his arm like a wing, touched his index finger to his temple.
"It's supposed to be the edge of your eye," Cariello said, performing his own salute, "and you snap it down. There are certain things you want to do well, and that's one of them."
Their barbecue arrived. Robert devoured his.
Cariello told Robert how proud he was of him. Cyntthia had gotten a part-time job and made a down payment on the trailer with a child support claim she'd received. But it was Robert who had paid off the entire trailer with his earnings from Panera.
"A lot of people could have said 'woe is me' and let this take over," Cariello said. "You didn't do that."
He reached into his pocket. He dropped a bronze coin enameled with a red fighter jet on the table. Robert picked it up.
"It's a symbol of the Navy, the Top Gun school. I want you to keep it in your pocket to remind you to strive for excellence at all times."
Robert thanked him and slipped it into his black basketball shorts.
"What are you afraid most about the military?" Cariello asked.
"I don't know how to feel or what I feel, but it will definitely be good to be out on my own," Robert said.
"Now the U.S. Navy is going to be your mother," Cariello said. "They're going to tell you what to do."
• • •
Robert waited with other recruits in a gray military processing facility in Tampa.
He'd reported the day before, transferring buses twice to get there. He'd filled out paperwork and taken a drug test. They'd checked his weight, his height. He'd spent the night in a Hilton DoubleTree. His mother and sister had promised to be there, but the family's pickup had broken down. He wondered if they would make it. Cariello couldn't be there; he had to pilot a 767 to Ecuador.
When Robert walked out into the waiting room, he was relieved to see his mother and sister. They'd borrowed a car from a friend.
Soon they were ushered into an oak-paneled room with a podium, a red curtain, flags and giant gold medallions representing each branch of the military. Robert stood before the podium, arms crossed behind him.
A captain called out the oath and he repeated it.
"I, Robert Utley, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies…"
She told them to say their goodbyes. Cyntthia approached her son.
"Can I hug you now?" she whispered.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at (727) 893-8640.