Today is June 6. It’s been about a year since my last blog post. Guess it’s time to write another one…
This is also the 40th anniversary of the day I joined the Marines. I’m thinking back 40 years. I was 17. Fresh off the farm. Flying to Parris Island, South Carolina, for Marine Corps boot camp.
It’s a cliche to say life was different in those days, but it was. Life was always harder in the old days. People were harder. People were meaner. No doubt you will see that, too, when you’re my age. I think you have to live it, get old and look back. Everything changes. Life gets softer, even if the world doesn’t.
I’m going to tell you a few stories, memories of that special time 40 years ago:
Certainly, the Marine Corps was a tougher place back then. Not to say Marines today are any softer. Certainly they are better trained and equipped. They are some badass motherfuckers, no doubt about it. I think the tough old Marines of my day didn’t necessarily make better fighting men. It was just a different time. Marine drill instructors could hit you, push you harder, make you wish you were dead, in ways they cannot today. And the swearing… My god. They can’t swear these days, because someone’s mommy wrote Congress and complained. In the ’70s, though, swearing was an art form. The word “fuck” could be used as a verb, noun, adjective, adverb, personal pronoun and adverbial phrase. Sometimes all in the same sentence. It was fucking hysterical.
Everyone goes through some kind of homesickness when they first move away. Kids go to college and spend a year driving home every weekend so mommy can do their laundry and cook eggs just the way they like them. No one has that luxury at Parris Island. You had about a day and a half of homesickness and then a drill instructor would beat it out of you. You got no time to pine for home when a Marine drill instructor is screaming in your face. You just hope to survive the day.
Looking back at that time, I have certain memories so vivid they stand out in my mind as if they are happening right now. Like getting off the bus in the middle of the night. Standing on the famous yellow footprints.
Marine Corps drill instructors have a real sadistic streak in them.
On day two, we were sitting in a barracks waiting to get our hair cuts. We sat at attention, backs straight, legs together, feet at a 45-degree angle, eyes front. Two and three at a time we were called to the adjacent barber shop where men who had no right to call themselves barbers sheared us like sheep.
And then, a commotion. One young man summoned the courage to approach the drill instructor sitting at the desk in the front. There’s been a mistake, he said. I’m not supposed to be here.
That caught the attention of two other DIs. They circled him like jackals, with the same jackal smiles. The guy was young and pretty, with beautiful long blond hair. He stood at attention in front of the DI desk and explained that he had been a wrestler in high school and had injured his back.
“My recruiter told me to lie about it so I can join,” he explained. “I shouldn’t be here.”
The sharks smelled blood in the water.
“Oh, is that right?” one of the drill instructors said. “Well, we’ll process your discharge right now.”
“I can go home?” the kid asked, now smiling.
“Oh yeah. But first you’re going to get a haircut.”
The kid screamed. The DIs grabbed him by the arms and legs and dragged him into the barber shop. We could hear him screaming as those beautiful long locks fell to the floor.
After a couple of days in the receiving barracks, we were taken to another barracks and introduced to the drill instructors who would train us for the 12-weeks it would take to mold us into Marines. It was the classic moment when a bunch of kids with newsletter bald heads scrambled from rack to rack while drill instructors screamed at us and tried to make us shit our pants, with some success I might add.
On the second day, one of the recruits tried to kill himself. We were on the top floor of a three-story barracks. The kid jumped off the stairwell. He lived, but broke his leg in the fall.
Our senior drill instructor gathered us on line, in front of our racks, and addressed us. He told us about the attempted suicide and then his voice got soft.
“I didn’t realize we were being so hard on you all,” he said. “I didn’t think this place was so bad.”
He paused and thought for a moment.
“Look, if any of you want to leave, I will understand,” he said. “Anyone who wants out, right now is the time to say so. Just march on up to the quarterdeck and we’ll process you out.”
I admit, I thought about it. But I wasn’t that stupid. Five recruits went to the quarterdeck, the rectangular piece of concrete at one end of the barracks, that separated the DI office from the head, Marine talk for restroom and showers.
The drill instructors approached the men with notebooks in hand and started taking names. The senior drill instructor, Staff Sergeant Downey, screamed, “Get those names! Now I know who’s disloyal! Now I know whose lives to make miserable. You motherfuckers are going to wish you could kill yourself by the time I’m done with you!”
You can get used to anything in time. Boot camp was not so hard; mostly it was about dealing with the mindfucks every day. But there was brutality. Our first night in our new barracks we had to sleep at attention with our rifles by our sides. In our skivvies and T-shirts on the bunk. If you moved around in your sleep, the guys walking guard duty — what we called “fire watch” — woke you and told you to get back to attention.
In the middle of the day, our whole platoon of 80 recruits would be sent outside for punishment calisthenics. Push-ups on hot pavement. I had heat blisters on all ten fingers and the heel of my palm. That night in my rack I bit through the blisters to drain them so I could push up another day.
We went to the rifle range and I learned how to kill from 200 yards, 300 yards and 500 yards. I was a crack shot. Really. I could knock the dingleberries off a fly’s ass from 200 yards. I was high shooter of my platoon, with a score of 234 out of a possible 250. They made me a private first class for that. Got my first stripe.
During the final phase of our training we were lean, mean killers. We ate so fast we hardly sat down. I left the chow hall still hungry after every meal. There was no down time; we were awakened, rudely, at 5:30 a.m. and never stopped working and training until lights out at 10. We lay in our racks and sang the Marine Corps hymn, finishing with “Good night, Chesty, wherever you are.”
Boot camp was just like the first half of the movie “Full Metal Jacket.” We sang running songs that would never be allowed today.
“Runnin’ through the jungle with my M-16, I’m a mean mother fucker I’m a U.S. Marine!”
“Birdy, birdy with a yellow bill! Landed on my window sill! First I fed him a piece of bread! Then I crushed his fucking head!
We fought each other with pupil sticks and learned how to kill in hand-to-hand combat. One instructor explained the importance of learning the killer instinct. It would, he said, save our life in combat.
“You want to know how tough you are? How to kill?” He screamed. “Go out and find you a stray cat. Hold it up and gouge out its eyeballs. If you can do that, you’re a killer.”
Your mother would not approve.
The day before we graduated, we were allowed our first and only trip to the post exchange, the PX, where you could buy actual candy bars and ice cream and coffee mugs with the Marine emblem. I was there, wide-eyed, feeling like a Spartan in town for the first time, when I spotted one of my drill instructors talking to a colleague from another unit. He saw me, elbowed his buddy, and barked, “Koopman! Bends and thrusts!”
I dropped to the floor instantly. Before I could begin, he ran to me and stopped me. “Get up! Get up! Get the fuck out of here!”
Apparently, they weren’t supposed to do that in the PX. I didn’t care one bit. If my drill instructor told me to eat a pile of dog shit I would have done it. I was a Marine, motherfucker.
That lasted about two months…