My wife and I were in a restaurant making small talk over coffee the other day. I had removed and placed my green Marine Corps utility cover to one side of the table. I do not wear any hat while in a building, especially when eating in a restaurant as it is one of my pet peeves to see some guy eating in a restaurant while wearing a hat. As we were chatting, a man about my own age approached, stuck out his hand and said, “Semper Fi, Jarhead!” I returned the greeting. When he left, my Colombian wife asked, “What is this ‘Semper Fi’ thing you say to people?”
It dawned on me that I had no glib, tip-of-the-tongue response to explain Semper Fi. Truth be told, I don’t think there is an explanation. Since my wife’s Spanish is far better than her English, I explained that the Marine Corps motto “Semper Fidelis” is Latin and in Spanish is Siempre Fiel. However, I went on, Semper Fi isn’t quite the same as Semper Fidelis. Not really. She was now more confused than ever. I felt like I was trying to describe a ladder to someone who had been born blind.
Just what is Semper Fi?
The Marine Corps motto Semper Fidelis was adopted officially in 1883, but Semper Fi appears to have come into widespread use during World War II. My father, a veteran of Bouganville and Guam, summed up Semper Fi briefly when he said; “When I first went in the Marines, I thought Semper Fidelis meant ‘Always Faithful’. A little later I thought it meant ‘Seventy-five dollars’, (when Marines were paid $21 a month) but after we went into combat on Bouganville, I found it actually meant ‘Hooray for me and screw you!’”
It’s basically still the same thing today.
Semper Fi is more sincere than ‘hello’ and far more final than ‘goodbye’. A softly spoken “Semper Fi, Bro” may be a final goodbye to a fallen friend. It verbalizes esprit de corps and Gung Ho. It is a mindset, it is, a perspective, a mentality, an attitude. It is a noun, an adjective, a verb, a modifier, a hyperbole. It expresses pride, anger, admiration, frustration, fear, resentment, sarcasm or snide.
Semper Fi to the Corps might be akin to what Excalibur was to King Arthur: a phrase embedded deeply in Corps traditions used by and for Marines only. Semper Fi rolling casually from the lips of a non-Marine is considered by many to be sacrilege. It is a seventy-odd year old omnipresent catchphrase used by newly-minted six-month reservists as well as Old Salts with 40 years of hash marks yet is not found in any Marine Corps manuals.
Whatever it is the Marine Corps does to drum the concept of brotherhood into us, this brotherhood is permanent, forever and eternal. It is well defined in Full Metal Jacket when R. Lee Ermey said; “… you are Marines and you will be Marines until the day you die..” Semper Fi might be considered a simple expression of this unique brotherhood and is as profoundly fixed in Corps tradition as the eagle, globe and anchor itself.
Several weeks ago while standing in the checkout line at the local food market I placed my few purchases on the counter while the young girl finished bagging the items for the woman in front of me. A very old man hobbling along slowly on a walker got in line behind me. In the small basket affixed to his walker he had a quart of milk, two bananas and a small box of cookies. The emaciated-looking man appeared old beyond his years, in his nineties, I am sure.
His thick glasses, sitting slightly askew, made his rheumy eyes appear three times larger and were sunken in a face as heavily lined as an un-ironed shirt. His clothing, although clean, hung on him as though draped over a branch. A few wisps of white hair protruded from beneath the bright red baseball cap he wore. The old man withdrew one of those old, soft leather coin purses with a clasp and was digging through the change inside, probably hoping he had enough to cover his purchases.
When I looked at his baseball cap, I handed the cashier twenty dollars and said quietly, “This should take care of this old man’s purchases, and give him the change, please.” Then I left.
The front of the old man’s cap had just one word in large yellow block letters: TARAWA.
That old man is Semper Fi.
How does one explain that?
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.