SAN RAMON, Calif.—Before you saw Kyle Crowley, you heard him coming.
The hip-hop beats declared his arrival, rattling from the weathered brown 1980s Cadillac with the beefy stereo and the Marine Corps sticker he'd slapped on the back.
Crowley—his friends called him "Crow"—would sit low in the driver's seat, dressed in a ribbed tank top, baggy jeans and boots, arm fully extended to the steering wheel.
Small and lean, he carried his tough look around the wealthy suburbs east of San Francisco. Beneath that veneer, loved ones said, was a caring boy with a goofy streak, a rocky home life and abiding loyalty to friends.
"He knew for certain, always, that there were things worth fighting for, and dying for, even if the rest of us in high school weren't sure," said Angela Hale, 19, who met Crowley when both were freshmen at California High School in San Ramon.
Among the college-bound students at school, Crowley struggled to keep up in class. He didn't like homework. He was a gym rat, and valued his friends over his schoolwork while he plotted a future in the military. His grades burrowed lower.
"He was putting in his time. All he needed was to graduate high school to become a Marine," said Cindy Bonagura, who taught Crowley in computer classes. "Friends were his deal."
Once, when a guy cheated on a friend, Crowley trashed the guy's car, a friend said. At a barbecue restaurant where he bused tables, the boyfriend of a pregnant waitress broke up with her on Valentine's Day. Crowley bought her a dozen roses.
Crowley thought about becoming a firefighter, but at 15 homed in on the Marines. In his room, he hung American flags and a Marine Corps flag, and he wore Marine shirts to school, friends said.
Earlier, he'd talked about it with his great-grandfather. Lloyd Speights, a World War II Marine who served on the battleship USS Iowa, would take young Kyle on long walks up to Feather Falls, or fishing for trout in the Northern California woodlands.
"I said, well, it's not an easy deal. I said it's tough," said Speights, 80. "Oh, but he was going to be a 20-year man. I think he wanted to be a sniper."
His father, Mark Crowley, said his son also saw the Marines as a way to stay close to his girlfriend, Trisha Johnson, who was headed to San Diego State University, near Camp Pendleton. When Kyle turned 16, he pre-enlisted. Mark Crowley, who'd served four years in the Army, opposed it, but relented and signed the papers.
Kyle's parents split up less than a year after he was born, and four years later his father had sole custody of him. His sister later left their mother and joined them.
When Kyle was young, his father took him fishing and hunting for pheasant, chucker and quail. They were inseparable, Mark Crowley said. He taught Kyle to shoot .22s and BB guns at age 7. When Kyle was older, he hung off the fence behind his house with friends, shooting a BB gun at cars.
Later, father and son sparred over grades, house manners, respect. "Kyle was a renegade," Mark Crowley said.
"He needed to go do something," said Robert Rinaldi, the owner of the restaurant where Kyle worked.
In the months before boot camp, Kyle left home, spending the night at friends' houses or sleeping in the Cadillac, which was packed with his belongings, friends said.
When he returned from boot camp, Crowley had shelved hip-hop for country and traded the tank tops and baggy pants for plaid shirts and tight jeans. He also took on the Texas twang of fellow Marines he met at Camp Pendleton.
"The Marines really did help him and make him feel good about himself," said Johnson, 19. "He was just really proud."
Crowley also came back from boot camp 20 pounds leaner and more serious, said Steve Johnson, Trisha's dad, who befriended him.
The young Marine went back to his high school campus, talking to old teachers and admonishing students to behave.
"He said, `You listen to this lady,'" said English teacher Barbara Foss, who remembers Crowley as a freshman, writing poetry in her class. "He was telling them the same stuff he would have not been too receptive to back then."
Crowley, 18, was killed April 6 in Iraq.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.