It was a hot day yesterday.
My wife and I had gone to Walmart and after purchasing our weekly groceries and she wanted to look at some other things (translation: get lost for a while). I pushed our loaded shopping cart to a wooden bench in the entryway where a slight air-conditioned breeze made its way to me from inside the store. I sat, removed my utility cover, mopped my brow with a handkerchief, and wondered how long she would be diddling around ‘looking at other things’. I put my cover back on and tried to get comfortable, as much as my arthritis on a hard wooden bench would allow. I dug out my crossword puzzle book.
“Hey, Mister, were you… ummm… like, a Marine?”
I turned to see a young boy of maybe eight or ten year’s old standing near the end of my bench clutching a soccer ball nervously. He probably thought all old Marines were miserable grouches.
“Yes, son, I sure was,” I said with a smile, “a long time ago”. He was wide-eyed.
“Cool! Were you then like, in World War Two ‘er somethin’? Did’ja win any medals?”
“Son, I’m old, but I’m not quite that old!” I said laughing, “I was in the Marine Corps in 1963. Not much older than you are now. The only medal I won was for Expert Rifleman, but a lot of guys got those.”
“My grampa was in the Vietnam War,” he said, loosening up and plopping down on the end of the bench, “he was a Marine too.”
“Oh, well then, tell your grampa another old Marine said ‘Semper Fi!”
“Oh,” the kid said, “I can’t, he’s dead.”
“Geez, kid, I’m really sorry.”
“Oh, that’s okay. He died a long time ago. He was way cool! Hey, can I ask you somethin’?”
“Sure! What do you want to know?”
“What kinda guys get to go in the Marines? Do ya gotta like, be really tough er sumpthin’?”
“Well…” his question caught me off guard for a moment. I was about to give the Marine stock answer for this question: only the best of the very best get to be Marines. I flashed back 51 years to the men of Platoon 275.
We were just mainstream American boys, mostly immature adolescents barely out of puberty packed into the bus from San Diego International Airport to Marine Corps Recruit Depot. We were anxious and sweating boys trying to be cool and impress our peers with nervous chatter. Someone farted loudly and everyone giggled. We tried hard not to show our fear and apprehension for the Big Unknown looming just minutes ahead.
I distinctly remember some loudmouth telling us, “Hey, man! All you gotta do is just show those sergeants you ain’t takin’ no shit from ‘em an’ they’ll leave you alone! Guar-an-teed!” He sounded rather experienced and while I heard his advice, I considered myself fortunate I didn’t act on it. In fact, within seconds after arriving at MCRD, I saw no one who did. It is difficult to put on a tough front with two big sergeants screaming at the top of their lungs into your ears.
Most of us were fresh out of high school and several were high school dropouts. There were three whom a judge had ordered, “Go in the Marine Corps or go to jail!” A few Don Juan’s tried to convince of us they were God’s gift to women. A couple others argued incessantly over the coolest way to customize a ’57 Chevy. Some had been quite popular in high school; a class president, one of the starting five on the basketball team, and one told us he was the captain of the football team at a high school in Denver. Some saw themselves as tough bad-asses and one loner told us in heavily accented English he was a Pachuco in an LA gang.
We had ‘fraidy-cats, cowards, bullies and two who immediately endeared themselves to everyone by being complete assholes.
We ranged in size from the 120-pound, five-foot-six feathermerchants to the 250-pound lard-asses at six-feet-six with every size in between, including scrawny kids and those with a roll of flab around their middle. Many of these lard-asses would end up at the “Fat Farm” on a near-starvation diet of greens and PT’d to the point of exhaustion.
Several were the “nerdy” type, although the term “nerd” didn’t exist in 1963 that I’m aware. Perhaps they had been bullied in school and joined the Marines to learn how to be tough. One guy was a super brain in that he seemed to know something about everything. Some were bookworms and others who were dumber than boxes of doorknobs. There were the ignorant, the shy, the timid and the dumb-asses. Three of the recruits couldn’t write their own names while another had two years of college. At 21-years old, he would be the “old man” of Platoon 275. Many were perpetual screw-ups whom the DI’s tagged as “Shitbirds”. Some thought of themselves as hilarious comedians and others had the sense of humor of a truckload of manure. There was one oddball everyone thought had read too many Superman comic books.
One was a well-mannered, meek, soft-spoken and small-framed lad who was always cleaning his thick glasses. He would be the platoon’s high shooter scoring a 234 on Record Day. Several others had all the savoir-faire and refinement of a Neanderthal. Some were oafs, boneheads and birdbrains who could screw up a free lunch. Several came out of poverty-stricken homes or the ghettos arriving at MCRD wearing the only ragged clothes they owned. We had egocentrics, athletes and one man whose family were multi-millionaires. He enlisted to get out from under their rigid control.
There were a few amateur crooks, thieves, shoplifters, thugs, guys with prior records trying to get a fresh start, religious zealots, “Honest Abe’s”, liars, racists, and gamblers. In the civilian world, we had been grocery store clerks, hamburger flippers, farmers, mechanics, construction workers, gas pumpers, carpenters, laborers, plumbers, cowboys, food store stockers, janitors, miners, workers in family-owned businesses or unemployed. One man told us he enlisted because his unemployment ran out.
Some were fanatical neatniks while others were slobs who delighted in dirt and squalor who would soon clash with the DI’s. They will lose. Some were puny, bad-postured and sickly-looking and one well-muscled weightlifter. A handful were mentally strong and were destined to become good NCO’s and officers while others appeared on the verge of breaking down in tears. Some actually did. There were hard-hearted and softhearted ones, the merciless and cruel, the generous and kind, spendthrifts and misers. One or two were movie-star handsome whose beautiful wavy hair would very soon end up on the barber’s floor along with everyone else’s. Others were butt-ugly, plagued with rampaging acne and buck-toothed. A few were devout pacifists and others who loved fighting for any reason.
We were from a dozen ethnic backgrounds. I heard subtle accents indicating a wide geographic background as varied as their personalities; New England nasal twangs, the ‘yawl’ of the southern states, the slow speech from the west, the omnipresent “eh?” of the northern states along the Canadian border. Two Latinos spoke Spanish softly to one another the entire trip. Several had accents of first and second generation Latinos, Germans, Latvians, French-Canadians, Ethiopians, Chinese, Russians, Samoans and Italians. One young man with a thick brogue had been a Catholic priest in Ireland and had left the church to join the Marine Corps. Our skin pigmentations ranged from milk-white Scandinavian to Ivory Coast black.
Nonetheless, we were all American kids.
We were not a bit different from the thousands of other recruits arriving at any Army, Navy or Air Force recruit training bases. However, the Marine recruits began a marked difference from the other services’ recruits within mere seconds upon arriving at MCRD. The difference would be sudden and by no means subtle.
With the loud hiss of the air brakes, the bus stopped in front of Receiving Barracks. I braced myself. I was sure now was when some husky, rock-jawed sergeant would board the bus, giving us the old John Wayne evil-eye and administer a five minute ‘Gung Ho’ speech that we would become Marines because we had a big job to do defending our country against the enemy—whoever they might be.
Not even close.
The door swished open and a tall, thin Marine sergeant wearing a Smokey Bear hat jumped aboard and immediately roared out just ten words that rattled every corner of the bus:
“YOU PEOPLE GET YOUR STUPID ASSES OFF MY FUCKING BUS!”
I was terrified. It was not supposed to be like this. In a space of four seconds, I came to the full realization that every scrap of information I had gleaned from the books I read and the movies I saw vanished out the window. As one of the recruits shot past me heading for the door, I noted with grim satisfaction it was the guy who had told us, “Don’t take no shit from the sergeants and they will leave you alone!” He was as white as a sheet.
We had now arrived at the portals of the United States Marine Corps and there would be no going back.
From that moment forward, my life changed forever.
Oh, my God, what have I done?
I looked back at the young man sitting on the end of the bench awaiting my answer to his question; “What kinda guys get to go in the Marines?”
“Son,” I said, “they were the best of the very best.”
About the Author: Jack quit high school in 1963 and enlisted in the Marine Corps at the tender age of 17. When asked about his service in the Corps, Jack is quick to say, “I enlisted, I served, I was honorably discharged. I was never any hero, a Chesty Puller I was not.” Upon his discharge, Jack finished high school and went on to earn an MS degree in natural resource management and foreign languages the University of Wyoming. Jack’s computer is stuffed with book-length manuscripts and short stories and writes three to five hours a day. Today, working as a home health care nurse, Jack and his Colombian wife live quietly in Colorado.