In the sweltering August of ’66 we were in training in Marine Corps boot camp, in the mosquito swamps of Parris Island, South Carolina, getting ready to go to war. The build-up for Viet Nam had begun. We were thousands of kids, from the lower middle class mostly, the nation’s usual cannon fodder, young bucks from darkling hollows of Tennessee or hopeless tenements of Chicago or the green twilit silence of the Mississippi Delta or the black-lung fields of the Cumberland Plateau. We were readying ourselves to fight in a country we had never heard of, for reasons we couldn’t articulate, against an ideology we could neither spell nor explain.
PI was isolated, flat, buggy, covered with rifle ranges, PT fields, obstacle courses. Today they call them confidence courses, because what matters is how you feel about yourself. What counted then was whether you could get over an obstacle. There was no free time, just running, rifles, bayonet, .45s, running, PT, more running, more PT. Training was tough, for good reason. The DIs knew most of us were going to Asia, and Asia was tough. Many of us would come back in body bags, or gutshot, or blind, or missing parts of our bodies.
The DIs knew it. They wanted us to be as ready as possible. They didn’t cut us any slack.
Most of us could reach down inside and do it, sometimes to our surprise. McKinley couldn’t. He was a tall, scrawny, doofus-looking kid, almost emaciated. I guess he might have weighed twenty pounds if he’d been wearing a thirty-pound pack. He couldn’t do anything right. He marched funny, couldn’t get the operating rod back into his rifle, got knocked on his butt repeatedly on the pugil-stick floor. McKinley was weak as a kitten. He always had a wondering expression and his voice was soft. He wasn’t a homosexual. He was just . . . in the wrong place.
The DIs wanted him out. They knew where we were going. A Marine who had trouble assembling his rifle, who couldn’t carry the weight, would get killed and get others killed. The DIs didn’t dislike him. They wanted him to be somewhere else. So they rode him.
We’d do close-order drill under the blazing sun of South Carolina and McKinley would screw up. The DIs would drop him for pushups, which in his case were more like let-downs. He always got knocked silly with pugil-sticks — just wasn’t aggressive enough, didn’t have the mass, the muscular power. As the DIs put it, “You gotta want to knock the dog-snot out of the other sumbitch.” McKinley just didn’t, quite. He got no mercy.
He just flat couldn’t do PT. On the rifle range the little red flag usually waved across the target: Maggie’s Drawers. He had missed the target completely. In the Marine Corps of the time, you could molest goats, or sacrifice virgins to unheard-of gods, and it would be overlooked as just letting off steam. Poor marksmanship was not overlooked.
Most of us got through, even thrived. A nineteen-year-old boy from Kentucky is hard to wear out. Young studs rise to a challenge. PI was one. I think a lot of us refused to drop out because we weren’t going to give the DIs the satisfaction. Besides, the Island was designed to build recruits up. It did. I went in at a wiry 139 pounds and came out at 163.
McKinley didn’t build up. He had nothing to build.
By the time my platoon came long, McKinley had been at PI for considerable time. Twice he had been set back and sent to Strength Platoon. The latter amounted to weeks of heavy PT, intended to bulk up suburban delicates into something resembling men. McKinley didn’t bulk.
The DIs wanted him out.
They made him stand on a table and roar.
McKinley couldn’t roar.
“A Marine Corps roar, McKinley.”
“Make a muscle, McKinley.”
McKinley didn’t have a muscle. His tensed arm looked like a broom handle.
The DIs did everything to get him to quit. They told us this later. They offered him honorable discharges, medical discharges, administrative discharges, maybe even thought of accidental discharges. He wouldn’t go. It turned out his big brother had come through PI earlier and been some sort of all-time outstanding super-Marine. McKinley, it seems, wanted to make his brother proud. He wasn’t going to quit.
Except he had to.
The DIs knew, as we didn’t yet, that after PI came AIT — Advanced Infantry Training — at Camp Geiger, North Carolina. PI built strength. You got plenty to eat and enough sleep. Geiger just beat the bejesus out of you. Day after day after day you hit the rack at midnight, got up at 0345, and humped for mile after unending mile through greasy clay of a rainy autumn. You humped till your chest hurt and your legs knotted up and cold rain ran down your spine like something evil looking for a vital nerve. On rare occasions when you moved by cattle car instead of on foot, you sat with the butt of your smoke pole on the floor and your helmet over the muzzle, and slept with it for a pillow.
McKinley couldn’t have done it. There was no way.
People think that training teaches recruits how to do things — fire a rifle or, in those days, use a bloop tube or rig a stick of C4 with det-cord. No. Or yes, but more importantly, what it teaches them, or taught them in 1966, is just how godawful miserable they can be, how whimper-ass, beat-down, oh-god-get-me-out-of-here unhappy, exhausted, almost hallucinating from lack of sleep, and still somehow get things done. A war zone is a bad place to make up for training you should have gotten earlier. We didn’t understand this yet. The DIs did.
But McKinley wasn’t going to quit. He was going to make his brother proud. It was sad. He had the guts of a battalion of Marines, but the physical attributes of someone in an iron lung. I suspect the DIs respected him. They weren’t evil men, or probably even heartless (though you couldn’t prove it by me.) They admired guts. But McKinley just needed to do something else.
One day he disappeared. I don’t know how they did it. Given how far he got with absolutely nothing to work with, his brother should have been proud.