This is criminally long. It will probably leave no space on the internet for anything else. It was published in the magazine of Army Times in 1979. It describes a Parris Island that no longer exists. In fact it describes a world that no longer exists. The thought of some effeminate Sanowflake telling a Marine DI that he needed a Safe Space so he wouldn’t feel uncomfortable, poor darling–well, it just charms me. He would develop a whole new understanding of “uncomfortable.”
Anyway, the piece will resonate with a few Marine old-timers now long in the tooth. Semper fi.
Boot camp. Yawning gateway to military life, an adventure outrageously funny and frightening, source of a lifetime of lies, all growing worse with each bull session. No one forgets boot. Get two GIs together over a bottle of gin, talking about old times, and sooner or later the talk will turn to tales of boot, a few of them true.
Not many, though. It is all right for most stories to be based on fact, but the better recollections of boot have only a nodding acquaintance with truth. Facts inhibit flexibility. They stultify.
But boot is more than tall tales. It is part of American life. We talk of being a peaceful nation, but usually we have a couple of million men and women under arms and often a war going. A high percentage of Americans spend time in the military. They shape it, and it shapes them.
A particular aspect of the national character appears in the organized anarchy of military life. Literature finds the military a feast — Catch 22, M*A*S*H, A Farewell To Arms, Dispatches, and all the rest.
Boot is a gateway. Here’s to basic, as I remember it, as everyone remembers it, as I saw it in going back this year. A boy’s first great taste of life.
Next to finding a Portuguese man-of-war in the bathtub, the worst thing that could happen to a kid of 20 in 1968 was getting to Parris Island at a grainy-eyed two in the morning, flat exhausted, and meeting a drill instructor. Everyone’s heard the tales. DIs will pull your fingernails off one by one, make you run until your knees corrode, bury you to the neck in sand and leave you for the mosquitoes.
When the bus pulls into the swampy lowlands of South Carolina and Parris Island signs appear, it all becomes plausible. And there’s no…way…out.
I arrived on a chartered Greyhound crowded with Richmond boys who suddenly suspected that they weren’t a Few Good Men. It was a raw deal all around–cottony taste in the mouth, somebody else sure to get the girl back home, bus reeking of stale sweat and beginning fear, no thought yet about dying in Asia, just a sort of uh-oh feeling.
The driver had picked up a sergeant at the gate to give him a ride. “You wanna get off before the stampede?” the driver asked. Stampede? It was ominous.
On that loneliest morning I’ll ever see, my introduction to the Marines–the Green Team, the Crotch, Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children–was a little man 32 feet wide and about as high as my chin. He had killed Smokey the Bear and stolen his hat. He had a voice like Krakatoa in full eruption, and his name was Staff Sergeant Bull Walrus. At least I think it was.
He exploded into the headlights like one of hell’s more vicious demons, trembling with fury.
“GiddawfadatgawdambusNOW!” he bellowed, blowing several windows out of the bus–I swear it, three windows fell out–by which we understood his desire that we disembark. We did so in sheer terror, trampling one another and no longer worried about our girls. To hell with our girls. Bull Walrus was clearly about to tear out throats out with his bare teeth, that was the important thing.
There we were, The Few, The Proud, standing in deep shock with our feet in these silly golden footsteps painted on the pavement. Move one inch, Walrus screams, and he will do unspeakable things, after which our girls will no longer want us. I figured they kept Walrus in a dungeon by day and just let him out to torture recruits by night.
We were groggy with fatigue, minds buzzing with adrenaline, and Walrus is inspecting our suitcases to take away glass objects. So we won’t commit suicide with them, see.
I imagine myself tearing out my carotids with an Arid bottle. Suddenly he is in front of me. I lied. He’s not 32 feet wide. He is 40 feet wide. He’s got arms like anacondas and his head is held on by a bolt.
He also is confiscating porn books, to protect our morals and read later. He reaches for a book in my suitcase and glares at me with eyes of tin and death. I realize, with calm that still surprises me, that he is going to murder me. The book is Medieval Architecture.
A recruit, a drill instructor told me much later, after I had been reincarnated as a journalist, “is the funniest goddam animal alive. He’s gotta be. You get these kids, some of them are street kids from the city, some of them farm kids, and these suburban kids who just don’t know nothing–every kind of kid.
“And dumb? Jeez they’re dumb. And they’ve got about three months to adjust to a complicated life they’ve got no experience with. They’ve got to learn how to think Marine Corps. Military thinking isn’t like civilian thinking.
“Half of ’em don’t even know how rifle sights work. Like this friend of mine is teaching a class about the M-60 machine gun, and he’s telling them its rate of fire, it’s gas-operated, and this skinny recruit says, ‘But where’s the gas tank?’”
“Jeez, they’re dumb.”
Sergeant Sly is a man with a sense of humor. He’s black, strac, and cocky — the DI cockiness that says there’s nothing on God’s green earth better than the Green Team, and I’m the coolest thing in the Marines, and, Prive, you gotta sweat to be as good as me. All DIs are like that, all the good ones anyway. Sly is a good one.
Sly runs recruits along the hot, dusty weapons ranges of Camp Lejeune — hot and dusty in summer, anyway. He tries to keep his recruits from getting hurt.
“All right,” he tells a platoon, standing in sweat-soaked utilities. Nothing looks quite as dispirited as recruits in a hot sun. “While you’re in the field, you gotta take certain precautions against the wildlife. I don’t have to tell you about some of it. Don’t feed the snakes, or try to pick’em up ’cause they’re pretty.
“I’m talking about the other wildlife. Most of it’s harmless, but one kind is bad news–what people down here call the Wampus cat. It’s related to the bobcat and it’s not too big, ’bout like a cocker spaniel, but you don’t want to make one think he’s cornered.”
Another afternoon at Lejeune. The recruits listen, barely.
A few scenes are so close to boot camp that they deserve inclusion here, embodying as they do terrors near to those of boot. A massive grinder at Camp Pendleton, California. A private, fresh out of training and spending a week on maintenance duty before his school begins, has been sent to pick up toilet paper for the barracks. Battalion issue has no box in which to carry it. He ponders, has an idea, sticks a dozen rolls on a mop handle, puts it over his shoulder like a rifle.
A bird colonel rounds the corner. The Marine is new enough to the real military that officers terrify him. Panic strikes. He hesitates and, driven by reflex or some buried death wish, gives a snappy rifle salute. The colonel’s jaw drops. His hat slowly rises on a column of steam.
You learn. It just takes a while.
Boot camp is a very quick education in the ways of the world–of many worlds. For a weird collection of people, the average training platoon beats midnight in a New York City bus station.
In my platoon we had a Mexican kid named Rodriguez who couldn’t speak English, a black kid who said he was Bill Cosby’s nephew, three college students–one of them a physical chemistry major, one a tiny blond guy who couldn’t have been more than 11 years old–and a bunch of judicial draftees. (“I’m gonna give you a choice, son,” says the judge. “Four in the slammer or two in the Marines.” It’s supposed to be illegal. So are a lot of things.)
Many of these judicial draftees were burglars from Tennessee. Free enterprise seems to be broadly interpreted in those parts and usually begins after midnight.
One of them was named Mulvaney. He had been caught in a second floor bedroom collecting someone else’s silverware. He preferred the Marines to the slammer, not necessarily a wise choice in those days. I later heard he got killed outside of Danang.
Anyway, Mulvaney was built like one of those Martian robots on the late show, arms like logs and the legs of an offensive lineman, and he had gray eyes and a long, slow smile that meant he was about to break your legs in 20 places. He didn’t get mad easily, but it was spectacular when he did.
For a college kid accustomed to settling disputes by reason, Mulvaney was a revelation. He didn’t care about right and wrong. Either he liked you, or he tried to kill you.
One night Mulvaney was standing fire watch in the latrine–the Marine Corps thinks they are flammable–and he somehow got into a fight with Rodriguez. A Mexican kid from Brownsville is not the best choice to throw hands with. We could hear it all down the squad bay — terrific thumps with a splattering sound like a sack full of hog kidneys hitting a tile wall, and not a word. Neither wanted to waste energy talking. It was one of those extended fights engaged in by men who simply like fighting.
Next morning it was hair, teeth and eyeballs all over the deck, and enough gore that you’d have thought they’d been slaughtering hogs. Both combatants looked like they had lost a discussion with a cement truck. Mulvaney’s left eye looked like an egg fried in blood and Rodriguez’s nose wasn’t quite where I remembered it.
“What you pukes been doing?” snarled the drill instructor. Pukes was the nicest thing they ever called us. He really wasn’t mad. Fighting was a sin, but not as bad as falling out on a run.
“Walked into the door, sir,” says Mulvaney, deadly serious.
“Wha’ sir?” says Rodriguez, looking puzzled. His English deteriorated when he was asked inconvenient questions.
For hours, Mulvaney and Rodriguez pounded round the grinder in full packs, holding hands and yelling, “I love Mulvaney more than poking my girlfriend.” When they finished, I bet they did. It was justice of a sort.
McCoy was the saddest thing I ever saw. McCoy was very tall with a long, sad face. He was disturbingly thin — your impulse on meeting him was to feed him — and beet-brown from heaven-knows-how-many-weeks in strength-building platoons.
McCoy didn’t have any muscles to enlarge. If he had any coordination, you didn’t notice it. His voice was soft and feminine and he was funny looking, a bad thing at boot. He reminded me of a clerk from a Dickens novel.
On the grinder he stuck up above everyone else like a weed and was always out of step. He tripped over his feet and fell into other people. McCoy struggled to do pushups until tears ran down his cheeks, but couldn’t do them. His back folded until his belly touched the ground, and when he got into the “down” position he couldn’t push himself back up.
The DIs wanted to get rid of McCoy. He didn’t belong in the Corps, they said. They offered him medical discharges and general discharges, and set him back time and time again, but McCoy wouldn’t quit.
Later we learned that McCoy’s older brother had gone through Parris Island and had been All-time Superprivate or something, a really hot trooper. McCoy wanted to finish to make his brother proud. He had never amounted to much and wanted to show that he could do it too. Trouble was, he had the guts for five Marines but the body for about a third of one.
The DIs bullied him to drive him out. They were practical men, and they knew he would die in Asia, probably getting several other men killed at the same time. They badgered him mercilessly and made him stand on tables and roar for the platoon. He’d stand there on a bayonet instructor’s table, surrounded by the platoon, and the DIs would torment him.
McCoy couldn’t roar. A muted groan came from his scrawny chest.
“Louder, McCoy! Let’s hear a Marine Corps roar!”
“Make a muscle, McCoy.”
McCoy, looking sadder than ever, would tense his muscle for all to see and nothing would happen. But he wouldn’t quit because he was going to be a Marine and make his brother proud.
I forget how they finally got rid of him. If there is any possible way to do something wrong, a recruit will find it.
There was the ambidextrous kid at the grenade range at Lejeune. The idea was to stand between two walls of sandbags and throw the grenade over a high parapet. He pulled the pin and rared back to throw. Then he stopped. You could see the puzzlement in his face. No, that hand didn’t feel right. He casually tossed the thing in the air, caught it in the other hand, and threw it. By the time it exploded, the instructor was in the next county and accelerating.
I remember lying in lovely cold muck behind a log at Lejeune, firing at enemy oil barrels a few hundred yards away. It was one of those weird situations that occur regularly in the military.
Cold rain drizzling down my helmet and running neatly down my spine, my helmet slipping down over my eyes, and I’m in a firefight with a bunch of extremely dangerous barrels. The rifle is a worn out M-1 probably left over from the Napoleonic Wars, in use only because the government has several hundred billion rounds of ammunition for it.
The trigger mechanism is broken. Every time I fire it, the damned thing falls out and hangs down like a wounded clock. I slap it back. Bang, slap, bang, slap. Every fourth round, the clip pops out of the top of the rifle–spoing–and lands on my helmet.
Bang, slap, spoing, clunk, adjust the helmet. Bang, slap. I begin to see that it could be a long war.
A recruit was standing on a roof at Parris Island in the burning sun at parade rest. His DI had put him there to work on the roof and somehow had forgotten him. A passing sergeant noticed, stared curiously for a second, and bellowed, “Git down from there, prive.”
The private didn’t move.
“Goddamit, git down here,” bawled the instructor, unused to being ignored.
Nothing. The private looked deeply unhappy, but didn’t so much as twitch.
Another DI came along and yelled, but nothing moved the recruit. He gazed desperately ahead, either deaf or crazed by the sun. A group formed on the sidewalk, including a warrant officer, a lieutenant, and, finally, a passing light colonel.
The colonel snapped his crispest order. The private stared ahead. The crowd conferred, decided they had a mental case on their hands and prepared to send for a struggle buggy and some big corpsmen. Then the private’s DI returned.
“Jaworski, Ten-hut! Git your butt down from there.”
Down came Jaworski. From parade rest, you see, the only acceptable order is “attention”. The manual of arms says so.
“You see,” a drill instructor explained to me, “a recruit’s in a place he doesn’t understand at all, and nothing ever works for him. Back home, he knows the rules. Maybe he’s a big dude on the block, got it made. Not here. Everybody’s yelling at him and he can’t ever do anything right.
“So he figures he’ll do exactly what he’s told. It’s his way of protecting himself. If something goes wrong, he thinks at least it’s not his fault. This is what a drill instructor’s got to learn — nothing’s too crazy for a recruit to do if he thinks it’s what you told him. And you really got to think about it. Otherwise you can get him hurt.
“One time in winter a friend of mine, Sergeant Grunderling, had evening duty at some building and he wanted to go take a leak. So he tells this recruit who’s with him, ‘I’m going out for a minute. Don’t let anyone in who doesn’t know the password. You got that?’
“The recruit says, ‘Yes, sir,’ so Grunderling relieves himself and realizes he can’t remember the password. So he hollers, ‘Minter, open the door.”
“What’s the password?”
“I forget. Open the door.”
“I can’t do that, sir. You told me not to let anybody in who doesn’t give the password, sir.”
“Goddamit Minter, now I’m telling you to open the door.”
“‘No sir, I can’t do that.”
“Minter, it’s cold out here.”
“No, sir, I can’t do that.”
“By now Grunderling’s mostly frozen and so mad he can’t see straight, but he sees threats ain’t going to help him.
“Please, Minter, let me in. I ain’t gonna yell at you. I won’t do anything to you.”
“Aww, you’re trying to trick me.”
“No, Minter, honest, I ain’t trying to trick you. Open the door.’
“You’re gonna yell at me, aren’t you sir?”
“No, Minter, I promise.”
“Finally, old Minter opens the door and Grunderling nearly kills him. But he should have expected it. A recruit does exactly what you tell him.”
“You probably won’t see a Wampus cat,” Sergeant Sly continues, “but if you do, remember he’s fast. A cat isn’t built for endurance like a dog is, but he’s lightning in a dash. Don’t think you’re gonna tease a Wampus and run away when it starts spittin’ and howlin’.
“They’re not that fast — I mean, a Wampus cat can’t keep up with a cheetah or anything, but they’ve been clocked at 50. It takes a damn good shot to hit anything at that speed.”
A September day in a clearing at Camp Lejeune. Our company of trainees sits in weathered bleachers, scratching and, after three months of training, feeling as salty as three bosun’s mates.
A massive sergeant with a velvet Georgia accent is teaching us the care and feeding of a white phosphorus grenade, otherwise known as Willy Peter (and several other things unfit for a family magazine).
Willy Peter is an unpleasant weapon that throws white phosphorous around, a nasty substance that sticks to you and burns.
He holds the lethal cylinder in his hand, tells us what horrible things it can do to Luke the Gook–who was then the hated enemy–and announces that he will trot into the field and demonstrate.
That is fine with us, as long as we can sit in the sun and relax. We watch with interest as he lopes into the grass.
For days we’d been watching weapons specialists trot into Lejeune’s clearings, and something spectacular always happened. Something blew up or went bang or made colored smoke.
So the sergeant gets out there next to this little steel hut he’s supposed to hide in while Willy Peter does his stuff. He chucks this incredibly vicious grenade downfield and ducks into the steel hut.
Two seconds later he streaks out at roughly Mach Four, like Tony Green on a punt return. He has the unmistakable gait of a man who is flat terrified. About that time Willy Peter goes whoomp! and the air around the sergeant is filled with long smoky trails of flaming phosphorous. He streaks on as if he took showers in the stuff, ignoring it, a mountain on the move in blind fright.
Somehow all that smoking agony misses him and he reaches us panting hugely.
Training has changed. Ten years ago, reveille at Parris Island meant a GI-can lid sailing down the squad bay at oh-dark-30. The lights would come on suddenly and 10 seconds later a hundred recruits would be standing at attention in their underwear, half-conscious and miserable.
Now the GI-can lid is gone. So is much of the stress of training.
“What happened, some kid’s mother heard about it and wrote her congressman. He came down and said, Oh dear, ain’t this awful, what if they hit somebody with that lid. So they made us stop that.
“And one time a recruit died of heat stroke carrying his first issue to the barracks, so everybody’s mother started writing her congressman. Now we gotta carry recruits around in cattle cars.
“Hell, you can’t put thousands of people through military training without somebody getting hurt. It just ain’t possible. If they don’t train hard, they get killed in combat. They ought to shoot the doctor that let that kid in here in the first place. Congress doesn’t give a damn about training.
“And you know what? The recruits want training to be rough. That’s why they joined-to do something hard.”
Parris Island can make a Marine out of almost anything with a detectable heartbeat. What a kid wants most at Parris Island is out, and the quickest way out is to behave. Most kids have a well-developed sense of self-preservation and see the wisdom of obedience. A few are hopeless.
I remember a tall kid named Gurdy from the slums who was terrified of the water. He had a tiny cue ball of a head and held it to one side, like a rattlesnake. There was a mean, cautious defiance to him, the look of a trapped animal. Gurdy had lived so much on the outside of society that he didn’t realize you ever had do anything.
We were lined up at the pool for the swim test, if you could call it that. I think you had to swim about as far as most of us could broad jump. Gurdy stood there wild-eyed and strange, leaning his head one way and rolling his eyes the other. He didn’t say anything.
The rest of us were going through boot camp, but Gurdy didn’t know what he was going through. I guess he thought we were going to make him walk the plank. He was out of some remote tenement world of Chicago, and beyond even the military’s ability to handle.
We could see him getting crazier and crazier as the line got shorter. Tension was building up in him like a head of steam. Finally he broke and ran like a jack rabbit — just shot out the door and kept going.
God knows where he thought he could run to on Parris Island, where it’s hard for a fugitive in a bathing suit to hide. I don’t think he much knew himself, probably figured it was like ducking a cop in the city. It was the last we saw of him.
I had thought it was borrowed from some book like Battle Cry, but it happens: Private Mulligan walking down the squad bay at Parris Island, chanting, “This is my rifle, this is my gun…,” firmly holding onto both.
The worst hazard for a recruit is not shrapnel or even dismemberment by Sergeant Bull Walrus. It is tattoo parlors. These garish dens abound near big bases and prey on recent recruits longing for any evidence of manhood. New soldiers spend 15 minutes getting that impressive eagle, and then they spend 20 years pricing plastic surgeons to get their boyhood back.
Some recruits go stark nuts over tattoos — Wasloski, for example, a red-headed Polish kid from Chicago I met in the drab barracks of Pendleton.
Wasloski was crazy. He had an angular, pugnacious face with half the world’s strategic reserve of freckles, and claimed he had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, which for obscure reasons he called UPI, and had less judgment than a volunteer for kamikaze school.
God help him, Wasloski discovered tattoo parlors. It had to happen. He showed up at the barracks one night with a half-naked Vietnamese girl tattooed on his forearm. It was conspicuous to say the least. I mean, it had colors like a Day-Glo detergent box and probably had batteries.
Before it had healed the poor maniac had another on the other arm, and then on an upper arm. I don’t know where it ended, if it did. He’s probably got naked bar girls running up his spine.
Nothing is quite so military as a tattoo, and he wanted to be military. He just didn’t know that guys with tattoos spend the rest of their lives trying to get rid of them. If Wasloski ever has a girlfriend, which is barely possible, he’ll have to have his arms amputated. And maybe his back.
Junior enlisted men have a limitless capacity for avoiding work. Among the better recruits, this talent verges on religious inspiration. Trainees learn it quickly.
My first experience with this useful ability was watching a platoon that was walking in line across a sandy field to police up cigarette butts. Instead of picking up the offending butts, each man carefully pushed sand over them with this boots. They hadn’t planned it or seen anyone else do it. The idea simply came to them as the obvious response to the situation.
They left a spotless field. Thirty minutes later, wind blew the sand away and the place looked like a public dump. I suppose those butts had been accumulating for 30 years, buried repeatedly by generations of recruits.
Then there was McClinton, assigned to water the grass at a chow hall on a blazing California day. There wasn’t a puff of wind. The heat would have baked a camel’s brains, and asphalt was turning to a sticky ooze. McClinton was supposed to walk back and forth across the lawn, spraying each patch until it was thoroughly wet. A Russian would have done it, but the American trooper thinks for himself.
McClinton found the opening for a storm sewer in the ground in the shade beneath a tree. For three hours he stood in the shade and watered that grate. The grass never got wet, so he always seemed to be watering a dry patch. A hundred yards below, the gutter flooded.
“Now the Wampus cat isn’t any damn killer bogeyman, no matter what the locals say. All that stuff on TV about how it killed seven Boy Scouts in a swamp is so much crap. At least in my opinion. But it can get real savage, like any cat, and we do lose three or four recruits every year to it. It’s mostly their own damn fault because they don’t take the right precautions.
“When you put your tent up, just make sure you’re at least four feet from the tree line. Four feet, got it? And the Wampus cat tends to hunt on a north-south line, so I want those tents facing east and west. That’s all it takes, and the colonel won’t be chewing my ass because the Wampus cat killed one of my recruits.”
The beach at Lejeune, a chill gray day with fog wafting over greasy Atlantic rollers. A platoon of infantry trainees stands shivering beside the looming bulk of an amtrac–the old LVT P-5, the beach-assault vehicleof the Marines in those days.
It’s shaped like a steel loaf of bread with tracks. It runs up on the beach and drops its ramp, whereupon the grunts run out and get machine-gunned.
At least, that’s what the crewmen tell the grunts. The grunts are trainees. They’ll believe anything.
LVT P5. What I drove. Also known as a Wide Area Notifying Mine Detector. The gasoline tank was in the bottom. If you went over a mine, a four-hundred-foot plume of black smoke notified everyone within fifty miles.
The corporal in command yells and the trainees scramble aboard-37 of them. A trac is like a steel coffin, dark and cold inside, with only two small windows on the side.
Sometimes they become coffins for real. Once, a hatch was left open and a big roller came aboard, dragging the trac down in 150 feet of cold water. Nobody has heard from the occupants and, as this was some years ago, they are presumed dead.
The crew tell the grunts about it as the ramp closes.
The engine revs up to a deafening roar, hollow and sepulchral, for the dash into the breakers. The beast crashes into the surf and sinks to within a foot of its top, which is what it is supposed to do. Green water comes over the windows and shoots in streams through the minor leaks a trac always has.
The recruits don’t know this. They are very, very uneasy in this death trap, imagining the terrified scramble should it sink. There would be no hope of avoiding a watery grave.
A hundred yards from shore, the crewman stands under the machine-gun periscope and looks out like a U-boat commander.
He eyes the rollers, which break over the top, and says laconically, “It’s too rough up there, Charlie. Let’s take her down to 50 feet and hope the bulkheads hold.”
Three recruits faint. Trainees will believe anything.
“I had this guy Handley, couldn’t do anything right,” one DI told me. “I mean, he was the kind of guy who tries hard, but everything he touches turns to crap. Big doofus guy outa Miami. You can’t persecute that kind of guy, because he genuinely is trying his best.
“One day Handley is sitting in this 10-holer latrine we had, along with about six other guys, all with their trousers around their ankles. Well, the colonel comes in to take a whizz, and Handley stands to attention and yells, ‘Ten-hut!’”
Oh-dark-30, a frigid morning at Lejeune. Our last day of training. We line up single file to go into the dark administration shack and collect our boot pay. We are harder and heavier than we were three months ago, a little cocky, confident, aware of new muscles. Inside the shack we have to stand to attention and do some silly boot rigmarole: “Sir! Private Smith reportingforpaycall-serial number twothirtyonetwentysixfiftyone Sir!” all in one breath.
We also have to stop just outside the door and count the crisp new bills. One of the squad leaders — Bergland, a beefy kid from Alabama — has been ordered to be sure we do.
He is feeling full of himself on the dark sidewalk and well he might. For the first time in his life, he is in charge of others.
A figure comes from the shack, like 20 before him, but counts nothing.
“Marine, count them bills!”
The figure doesn’t stop, so Bergland grabs him around the waist and pulls him back, unaware that he has grabbed the meanest gunny sergeant in Camp Geiger.
“Sir, what’s a Wampus cat look like?” a recruit asks Sergeant Sly.
“I wish I could tell you. You see, a Wampus is unusual in one way: It only runs backwards. It’s one of the mysteries of science. A lot of people have seen the back end of a Wampus, but nobody’s seen the front. That’s why you gotta run your tents from east to west, so the Wampus cat doesn’t back into it. And let me tell you, if you ever see the butt end of a Wampus cat coming in, you better kiss your ass goodbye, ’cause it’s all over.”
Noon in the Lejeune woods, chilly with autumn and the slowing drizzle, gooky red mud making sucking noises under our boots. Rain-laden pine branches brush across faces like cold hands. “S” Company is coming off the flame-thrower range for chow. Why the scene sticks in my memory I don’t know, but it is my most vivid impression of training: a company of sodden recruits, shivering.
There were inexplicable moments when it all came together and we were proud to be in the service, the real world, not pumping gas or pulling frogs apart in some tedious laboratory. A fair number of us would be dead in ten weeks, but we didn’t believe it yet.
Steam rose from the field kitchen, the only warm thing in the entire world, and we held out mess kits for the cooks to fill with savory glop. At 19 you’re too dumb to know when you’re uncomfortable. We were used to 3 1/2 hours sleep, at ease with rifles and seven-eighty-two gear, beginning to feel like Marines.
One blond kid with huge, round, blue eyes has lost his mess kit. He takes chow in his canteen cup–stew, spinach, bread, canned peaches dumped on top, string beans. It all goes to the same place, he says. When you’ve been up and running since 4:30, you don’t care what it looks like.
Sergeants bark at us, but act like we’re human, which may or may not show good judgment on their part. I line up with the rest of these olive-drab warriors at chest-high log tables. We eat standing up in the soupy clay, gray clouds rolling and twisting overhead. Someone passes a rumor that we have declared war on Red China. Some believe it. Some always do.
There is no such thing as a recruit with enough to eat. Chow wasn’t bad-not like at the chow hall where, when the cook scooped up the powdered eggs with an ice cream scoop, green water filled the hole.
Along the log tables are jars of peanut butter and jelly for making Geiger-burgers-two-pound sandwiches that keep you going through the training ranges of Lejeune’s Camp Geiger. Huge wasps and yellow jackets crawl around in the jelly jars.
The man next to me eyes a hornet the size of a heavy bomber in his jar. The beast is obviously dangerous. On the other hand, the Marine wants a sandwich.
It doesn’t pay to stand between a recruit and food. With a quick twist of his knife, he forces the hornet deep below the surface of the jelly and makes his sandwich with the top layers.
Others before him had done the same thing. I count seven buried wasps, some still twitching. You do what you gotta do.