FREMONT, Calif.—Diane Layfield remembers dancing with her son Travis last year at a Brooks & Dunn concert on top of a grassy hill under the stars. She thinks to herself how lucky she was that her teenager chose his mother as his date.
She clings to that memory. She spends free time filling boxes in her living room with photos, letters, articles, anything at all that connects her to her "Travi."
Lance Cpl. Travis Layfield was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment. His family said he'd been promoted to radio operator and was the first one out of the Humvee during the mission in which he was killed on April 6. He was 19.
"He was a good kid," his mother said. "He never really gave me any trouble."
Well, she said, laughing. That's not exactly true. Inspiring him to do well in school was always a challenge. And when he was 16 he ran away with a woman about 10 years older, only to call his mom teary-eyed late at night a year later to say things weren't working out.
Travis Layfield had two sides. He was a Rambo-style Marine who loved monster trucks and weapons and wanted to "kick butt" in Iraq. He was also a sweet romantic who took a girlfriend a rose on their first date, danced with unattractive girls at school to make them feel desirable and stayed by his "Auntie Tanya's" side in the hospital when she broke her arm.
"He's like me," said John Layfield, 47, a forklift operator at the NUMMI car manufacturing plant in Fremont, still using the present tense to describe his son. "He's a caretaker and he's a shy Casanova. He'd do anything for a laugh, and then he'll get embarrassed that he did. I also get beet red."
John Layfield at first thought a regimented military life would be good for Travis, who got by with C's and D's in school. He liked the fact that Travis initially was interested in the Navy. Travis' maternal grandfather was a Seabee in World War II, and Travis had always enjoyed playing soldier.
But when Travis enlisted in the Marines in 2002, about the time President Bush was talking of going to war in Iraq, John Layfield was filled with fear.
"I tried to talk him out of it," he said. "What did the Iraqi people do to us?"
He said Travis listened, but had a mind of his own.
"He had that teenage mentality," his father said. "He said, `I'll be OK. I won't get hurt.'"
Travis entered boot camp in June 2003. His first overseas assignment came on Feb. 16: He was sent to Germany and Kuwait and then to Iraq in March.
Today, John Layfield cries often. He's been sent home from work at least four times because the pain is unbearable.
He's bitter and angry at President Bush, and at God.
To keep a tangible connection to Travis, he's restored his son's prized possession, a sky-blue 1962 Ford Galaxy. He carries Travis' last letter with him. It's dated March 31. He received it 16 days later, the day he buried his son.
In the letter, Travis described in simple yet horrifying detail how some of his friends had been blown apart, one in half, and how another had an eye dangling out of its socket. In that letter, he promised his father he'd come home safe.
Travis was born on May 26, 1984. It was Memorial Day weekend, and his mother decorated everything red, white and blue.
His father coached Travis and his younger brother, Tyler, now 17, in Little League when they were kids. Everyone said the Layfield family was tight-knit. His parents split shifts so one parent could be home with the children.
Diane Layfield has two older children from her first marriage. Her daughter from that marriage, Tiffany Bolton, 32, of Sunnyvale, Calif., baby-sat Travis, who was 12 years younger. When the Layfields divorced amicably in 1998, they remained roommates for a while for the boys' sake.
Family friend Laura Oliva of Hayward, Calif., said it was the kind of family in which everyone said "I love you" before heading out the door.
Travis never liked school, but his mother said he steered clear of trouble. He did what he wanted without fearing what others would think, she said. His friends wore baggy pants down to their knees, but Travis preferred form-fitting Levis. Tyler liked to watch sports on TV; Travis preferred the History Channel.
Underneath his crew cut and gentlemanly behavior, Travis enjoyed a good time. He never missed a school dance. And in a photo taken before he was deployed, the Layfield family is seen sitting in a Tijuana restaurant wearing crazy balloon hats.
"He was a real goof," his mom said. "He loved to have fun."
When Travis was about 9, his family went to an air show at Moffett Field in Mountain View, Calif. The airplane hangars were wide open.
"He saw kids in uniform," Bolton said. "And he said, `I want to sign up.' That's where it started."
He enrolled in a Navy ROTC program in Hayward. He loved carrying flags in parades and eating mess-hall food with his friends. He began saying, "Yes, ma'am. No ma'am."
While he embraced Marine life with gusto, sporting a "Devil Dog" tattoo on one shoulder and a feather tattoo, symbolic of his Lakota Sioux ancestry, on the other, Travis also expressed some doubt. In letters to Mom and Dad, he talks of the "rush" he felt during raids of Iraqi homes looking for weapons and wanting to "kick butt." But he also wrote that he wondered why the United States was in Iraq. The people hated the American presence.
Some mornings, Diane Layfield wakes up and thinks about the fact that Travis will never marry or give her grandchildren. She knows they'll never again have a mother-son dance to country music.
She wants to make it an annual tradition to go it to every Brooks & Dunn concert when they play at the Shoreline in Mountain View.
"Yeah, it will be sad," she said. "Every day is sad. But I know it'll be positive and I know he'll be there in spirit with us. "
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.