Master Sgt. Travis Parker’s kids barely noticed the bass, blue gill, carp and catfish swimming in a massive tank behind him.
Their eyes were fixed on their daddy.
Parker, who has spent the past six months in the Middle East, sat on a bench in front of a massive fish tank Monday afternoon when his wife and children walked into Bass Pro Shops in Cary.
He and his wife, Amber, had hoped to surprise their kids – and they did.
Little did Travis Parker know, but his wife was in on a surprise for him as well.
As his children hugged him and wiped the salt from their eyes, Parker’s sister, Lori Rodriguez, and extended family members – some from as far away as Texas – stepped out of a camping tent to his right.
Travis Parker, 32, shook his head in disbelief.
“I wasn’t expecting to see my sister, my uncles,” he said afterward. “This was something they really got me with.”
About two dozen shoppers and Bass Pro employees looked on and cheered as Parker hugged and kissed his family members one at a time. Red, white and blue balloons fluttered to his side as stuffed forest animals bared their teeth atop the elaborate fish tank behind him.
The Cameron resident chose to meet his kids at Bass Pro Shops because it’s near the airport and is one of his favorite stores.
It almost surely gained more favor with his family after the reunion party was planned there in less than a day.
Travis Parker didn’t tell Bass Pro about his plans to surprise his kids there. But Rodriguez called the shop early Monday morning and asked whether management could help her family give her brother the surprise party he deserved.
Bass Pro was happy to oblige with a cake, chips, soda, apparel and gift cards for his family, said Kelsey Mahan, the store’s special events coordinator.
“We support the military troops and wanted to make sure that we could give him all the gratification that we could,” Mahan said.
Rodriguez, of Sanford, said the celebration was more than she could ever have asked for.
Travis Parker, part of the 1st Battalion, 7th Air Defense Artillery Regiment based at Fort Bragg, has been in the military 12 years. He often is jet-lagged when he returns home, and they typically celebrate with cookouts and family dinners.
Rodriguez said she wanted to do something more elaborate this time because, as his family grows, so does his sacrifice for the country. He now has five children, ages 2 through 12. All but one were at the homecoming.
“I just want him to know that we love and appreciate him,” Rodriguez said. “He’s gone through a lot. (Amber) is here and has us, but he’s over there and has no one.”
The Parkers’ 8-year-old daughter MaKenzie walked over and buried her face in Rodriguez’s shoulder, overwhelmed with emotion.
“She’s such a sweet little girl and loves her daddy,” Rodriguez said.
Parker whispered in MaKenzie’s ear that he loves her, too. He said he can’t wait to take the whole family to the beach this weekend.
But first, he’s got some bass fishing to do.
Parker and his dad, Erby, planned to wake up early and get a biscuit at the Jordan Dam Mini Mart in Moncure before heading out on Jordan Lake.
The duo had no plans to sleep in Tuesday, despite Parker’s two 8-hour plane rides, including one from Jordan.
“I’ll be at his house at 5,” Erby said.