It started on weekday mornings in Locust Valley some 15 years ago when Robert Hendriks would say goodbye to his dad, Erik, at the school bus.
“Three,” the two would tell each other — a secret code for "I love you," a discreet workaround drummed up to spare a boy from being embarrassed in front of his schoolmates.
It came to an end April 7 when Hendriks, now a Marine reservist serving in Afghanistan, texted with his mom from Bagram Airfield.
“K3,” Felicia Arculeo wrote — their playful shorthand for “OK, I love you.”
“3,” Hendriks texted back.
It was his last message home.
On Tuesday, family and friends of Hendriks gathered for a wake at Whitting Funeral Home in Glen Head to remember the fallen Marine.
Hendriks, 25, and two other Marines — Staff Sgt. Christopher K.A. Slutman, 43, a New York City firefighter, of Newark, Delaware, and Staff Sgt. Benjamin S. Hines, 31, of York, Pennsylvania — were killed April 8 when their armored vehicle struck a roadside bomb near Bagram Air Base, 20 miles north of the capital of Kabul.
“I had heard something bad had happened there, so I sent him ‘text me you’re OK,’ ” Arculeo said Friday, an hour after a motorcade carrying Hendriks’ flag-draped coffin back to Long Island made its way along streets lined with friends and strangers alike solemnly clutching flags.
“I never got his text,” she said.
In the days since Hendriks' death, his friends and relatives have spoken reverently of “Robby,” the son of a New York City homicide detective and a Freeport municipal customer service agent.
They reminisced about a man who seemed destined to serve his country — the kid who played war games with friends in Locust Valley and wanted to follow in the footsteps of an uncle, a cousin and a great-grandfather who had all gone to war; the high school senior who signed up for the Marine Corps before he was even old enough.
“He came to us and said ‘This is what I want to do,” Erik Hendriks recalled, adding that his son needed him and his mother to sign a waiver so he could enlist. “It was his decision, and we didn’t stand in his way.”
Hendriks signed with the 2nd Battalion, 25th Marines, a reserve infantry battalion based in Garden City.
His friends described a kid who liked some of the same rough sports as his dad and shared his dad's fondness for over-the-top tattoos.
He trained in boxing and martial arts. His hours of pounding the heavy bag showed: chiseled abs and defined shoulder muscles. He was so passionate about paintball that he traveled to tournaments out of state.
Hendriks had a national tournament in Florida penciled in but had to cancel when he found out he was headed to Afghanistan, his dad said.
Those who knew Hendriks well described him as a free spirit who still recognized he was a cop's son — and he acted right. He enjoyed working on cars with 1950s music blaring in the background. He lifted weights to The Righteous Brothers. The doo-wop singer Dion was another favorite.
And there was a protectiveness about others.
Chris Tasso talked about how Hendriks, his close friend since elementary school, respected his father’s career and had an innate desire to want to be part of making things right.
Tasso told about how a laptop and a cellphone had gone missing from a house where he and Hendriks were at a party. Tasso figured a few partygoers had taken the electronics and driven off.
Tasso told Hendriks what he suspected and asked for his help in catching the thieves.
“He said ‘Say no more, I’ll be right there,’ and we were able to get the stuff back,” Tasso recalled.
“We could have gotten jumped, who knows,” Tasso said. “But Rob didn’t hesitate. He was someone who I could have trusted with my life.”
Several friends talked about how Hendriks admired close relatives who had served in the military.
An uncle, his father’s brother, deployed both to Iraq and Afghanistan. A great grandfather on his father’s side served in the Navy during World War II, and once was forced to leap from a torpedoed Navy ship into Pacific waters slick with burning oil.
A cousin who lives in Carle Place served as an Army Ranger in the 1990s. And his mother’s father served as a Seabee in the Pacific’s Mariana Islands, with duties that included building airstrips and digging mass graves.
“Awful stuff for an 18-year-old to see and do,” Arculeo said of her father, Joseph Biondo, who turned 94 on Easter Sunday, and has been hit hard by his grandson’s death.
Hendriks’ younger brother, Joseph, was serving in Afghanistan at the time of the attack, and escorted his brother’s body home from the battlefield.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which occurred as Hendriks and others were conducting a security patrol.
Hendriks usually acted as a turret gunner, who looks out from the top of the armored vehicle. The position is the most vulnerable for anyone aboard, said Marine Sgt. Valiant B. Cocchi, of Burlington, New Jersey, who was in a security detail that went to the security patrol's rescue after the explosion.
For Cocchi, Hendriks embodied the qualities of a Marine Corps leader. Hendriks was promoted posthumously from corporal to sergeant, a promotion that Cocchi called well-deserved.
“He was one of the best machine-gunners I knew,” texted Cocchi, who like Hendriks is a turret gunner.
Erik Hendriks will always remember his son for his soft side.
When Hendriks was maybe 11 or 12, he gave a framed three of hearts playing card to his dad for Christmas.
The frame now rests by the son’s coffin.
“He was steel wrapped in cotton,” Erik Hendriks said, emotion gripping his voice. “Tough as nails on the inside, but on the outside, a real softy.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the surname of Chris Tasso and misstated the length of Army service of one of Hendriks' cousins.
A memorial visitation for Robert Hendricks will be held from 1 to 3 p.m. and from 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesday at Whitting Funeral Home, 300 Glen Cove Ave., Glen Head.
There will be a graveside service Wednesday at 11:15 a.m. at Calverton National Cemetery Wednesday.