Twenty-five years ago tonight, I sit on a darkened bus along with fifty or sixty other guys, wondering if I’ve made a huge mistake.
Then the doors open and the lights come on, and a muscular man steps aboard, wearing a uniform with razor-sharp creases and shoes that reflect the overhead illumination like a pair of spotlights. His face is all but cloaked in the shadow cast by the wide brim of the hat–sorry, “cover”– he wears, and he tells us in no uncertain terms to get our asses off his bus. The next few seconds remain a blur, but somehow I get off the bus and onto the pavement, placing my feet atop a pair of yellow footprints–one of 72 pairs painted on the asphalt–and standing mere inches behind the man in front of me. Most of my field of vision is dominated by the back of the guy’s head, and I can feel the fear emanating from him, the two men standing shoulder to shoulder to either side, and the guy behind me. The effect, amplified by the near-total darkness and the warm, humid, unmoving South Carolina air, is almost suffocating.
We’re herded like cattle into a large wooden building (which has since been replaced with a more modern facility, but for us it’s a relic of a bygone era; a re-purposed barracks building originally built at some point prior to World War II) and into what at first glance appears to be one of the high school classrooms I left behind not all that long ago. Rows of desk-chairs await, and we’re told to quickly get to them. We’re informed that from this point forward, we’re subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, violation of which could result in punishments ranging from fines to imprisonment and discharge from the service we’ve barely entered. We’re given a form letter to sign, which informs the recipient that we’ve safely arrived for training, that we’ll write when we can, and not to be alarmed if you don’t receive mail from us for the first few weeks, as we’re very likely to lose track of the days due to the training schedule and sheer exhaustion.
Yeah, this might’ve been a bad idea.
We’re directed to a bank of pay phones and line up behind them. We’re instructed to call someone–parents, wives, girlfriends, but someone has to answer the phone–and inform them of our safe arrival. What we’re allowed to say is printed on a sign set next to the phone. I dial my home phone number and my father picks up on the first ring, I read the scripted message into the receiver and barely hear him say, “Good luck, son. I love you,” before I hang up the phone and make way for the next recruit. It takes less than five minutes for sixty young men to make this same call, and we’re all back at our desks, waiting to see what happens next.
As we did with the phones, we’re instructed to line up before one of the six Marines standing behind a row of tables at the front of the room, and one at a time, we empty our pockets. Now, it’s worth mentioning here that I carried pretty much nothing with me on the plane from Tampa. No carry-on bag, no shaving/grooming kit, no books, no extra clothes, nothing. All I had was my wallet, whatever loose change might be in one pocket, my wristwatch, and the envelope carrying copies of my signed enlistment contract and my orders directing me to report for training. I turn out my pockets and the Marine before me goes through my wallet, finding nothing to which he might take exception (on this much, I was briefed by my dad). I’m instructed to remove my watch and the chain around my neck, from which is suspended one half of a locket. My girlfriend has the other half, but I won’t be needing my portion. I’m given a small, blue nylon bag with a white label on it, and instructed to write on it my name and the 4-digit number I’ve just been given: 3003. That’s my platoon number, and I’m told I’d best remember it, for it will come to define my existence in the days ahead. My pitiful personal possessions are swept into the bag and I’m instructed to carry it in my left hand back to my desk. Eventually it will be secured inside my footlocker, where it will remain for the duration of my training except for random occasions over the ensuing eleven weeks when I’ll be ordered to inventory and record its contents on a form. Any deviations from previous such inspections–especially anything pertaining to the increase or decrease in the amount of money I possess–will bring with them unwanted attention from my drill instructors.
It’s well past 1:00 am at this point, or “Zero One Hundred,” as we’ve already been instructed to say. Having been up since 4:30am the previous morning, I’m feeling fatigue starting to settle in. I have no idea at this point that it will be well past sundown of the incoming day before I’ll be allowed to sleep. The ensuing 18 hours will be filled with several activities which will, bit by bit, transform me from an individual to but one component of an amorphous green mass. My hair will be gone before sunrise, as will the clothes I’m wearing. The jeans, T-Shirt and long-sleeved shirt I came with will be folded and put into a paper bag labeled with my name and platoon. I don’t know it yet, but when I try them on three months from now, I won’t be able to pull the pants on past my thighs because of the changes my slim, almost-underweight physique will undergo. The only thing I’m allowed to keep are the running shoes I’d bought three weeks earlier, as I’ll be getting plenty of use out of those in the weeks to come. The Marine Corps will supply everything else I need, and it will look exactly like the gear belonging to the recruit on either side of me. Of course the uniforms are the same, but so too are the toothbrushes (red), razors (blue), cans of shaving cream (Barbasol), and even the stationery on which we’ll write those letters home. By design, nothing–not a single item–betrays even the slightest hint of individuality.
The first day is a whirlwind of chaos through which I plunge at breakneck speed. Like most of the 80 days or so which will follow it, I have no idea where I’m going until I get there, and I don’t know what’s expected of me until the moment I’m instructed to carry out some task–and I do it quickly and loudly. For the next eleven weeks, the world beyond my immediate field of vision will cease to exist. Everything I need to know will be relayed to me by one of the drill instructors charged with my training. If knowledge is power, then my fellow recruits and I are the most helpless creatures on the face of the planet. We will never possess advance knowledge of any activity in which we’ll take part, not even when we might eat our next meal, sleep, or be allowed to take a piss. Once in a great while, I’ll spy a clock and know what time it is. I’ll keep track of the days in the small notebook I’ll carry in my pocket. Nearly every waking thought will be focused on whatever task lies before me. When I’m permitted a moment’s peace for rest or reflection, my thoughts will turn to home, but I won’t have the time or energy even to feel homesick because, inevitably, I’m drawn back to the present and the next demand on my body and mind.
There will be interesting moments along the way. Shortly after being issued my M16 rifle, I’ll show a seemingly natural facility for the rapid disassembly and reassembly of the weapon (something I’m pretty sure I can still do, and blindfolded, to boot). I’ll explain to my suspicious drill instructor that I had learned the process by reading the small manual we were given, rather than admit my father is a retired Marine and it was from him and a few of the Marines who used to work for him that I learned how to fire and care for such a rifle. Though I’ll struggle with some of the more demanding physical challenges, I’ll have an easy time with most of the early classes we’ll take–history, customs and courtesies, protocol, uniforms, and so on. I’ll be afraid to admit where I obtained such knowledge for fear of inviting some form of reprisal from one of my drill instructors, in particular the one cast in the role of the hard-line disciplinarian or “heavy.” Yeah, he’s to be avoided if it’s at all possible, which it’s not because the bastard is everywhere, and he sees, hears, and knows everything.
I’ll write letters to my father, who some 20 or so years earlier was a drill instructor for the same recruit training regiment that I now call home. I’ll include with one early letter a hand-drawn map of the compound, with a dot indicating the barracks in which I live. He’ll return it with marks noting where he lived, trained recruits, and so on. Other maps and anecdotes will follow as I share stories of my training and he responds with some comparable memory of his time here. My mother, with the best of intentions, will include with one of her letters an old photograph of my father in full drill instructor ensemble. That photo will be seen by one of my drill instructors–the aforementioned “heavy”–and he’ll realize why I’ve shown an aptitude for many aspects of my training. From that point on he’ll make me wish I’d never been born to the family of a retired Marine.
All of that is weeks away at this point, however. For now, it’s still October 1, 1985, and my world has changed forever. What happens next?
Well, maybe that’s fodder for reminiscing some other night.