Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

The next guy in line

For some reason, I started thinking recently about a fellow I have not seen in about 34 years.

Our paths came together in my early days in the Marine Corps, and by early I mean before we even arrived at Parris Island for basic training on Aug. 3, 1978. I last saw him on Oct. 31, 1978, graduation day at the island. Like so many in the military, we went our separate ways and I never saw him again.

I’ll call him Luis. He and I got to talking on the flight from JFK to Charlotte, N.C., as we were heading to basic training. I didn’t catch his last name at the time, but I realized that while he was of Puerto Rican descent, and I was of Italian descent, he and I did have one thing very much in common. We were scared shitless of what was waiting for us at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot.

The plane was scheduled to stop in Charlotte, and then we’d change to a plane making a 20-minute hop from Charlotte to Charleston, S.C. We Marine recruits boarded the plane and were told to grab any seat we wanted. I was glad to get away from Luis.

The flight to Charleston was very bumpy and we spent it securely fastened into our seats. In the meantime, I heard a retching sound and was told that Luis had vomited his dinner from the previous flight; most of it landed in the air sickness bag. Again, I was glad to not be sitting next to him.

The plane landed hard at Charleston and we got off the plane, then walked to where the Marine recruits were supposed to go. I saw a Marine corporal there. He looked pretty mean. We lined up at what we thought was attention, and finally a sergeant made some announcements. Basically, we could enjoy some more freedom because the bus wasn’t leaving for about two hours, but when we came back and sat down, we could only go to the bathroom and had to ask for permission to do that.

“Don’t talk to the girls, and don’t play the pinball machines,” the sergeant concluded, then released us. I went and used the bathroom, then called my parents at home to tell them where I was.

Finally, I sat down and surrendered myself to the Marines. An hour later, we were counted and lined up for the bus ride to Parris Island.

It’s interesting because all the bravado you had before, when you had joined under delayed entry, fell away when you were faced with the consequences of your decision. Your friends and family, to whom you had bragged so much about how you were going to be a Marine and they were not, were not on the bus with you as it rolled down the highway toward the base. It was just you, the other scared guys and your own thoughts and fears.

The low point came at around three or four in the morning, when the bus rolled through the sleeping town of Beaufort, S.C., and then we saw the base entrance. A Woman Marine MP waved the bus onto the base, and soon the bus was on the causeway to the dreaded island.

Looking out the window at the night-lit barracks, I realized that I had no say in my future. “My god,” I thought, “it’s really real. I’m really doing this. I am so, so scared.”

Soon, the bus was maneuvering through the streets of the base, and I could see, lit up by streetlights, the old wooden buildings that served as offices and receiving barracks, the squat buildings that were the chow halls and the Quonset huts that were used for issuing gear to recruits and turning us into receiving barracks recruits.

The bus stopped. In the movies, the drill instructor gets on the bus and shouts and screams at the new recruits to get off his bus, and they race to obey. In my reality, he got on the bus and calmly but with total authority told us what to do. Get off the bus, line up on the yellow footprints and don’t move.

We did as we were told, got ourselves organized and waited for instructions. I was eyeballing the area like mad. Parris Island looked weird, with the pipes above ground and some birds enjoying the show below. A bird flew away, and one thought that has stuck with me for decades is this: “They’re free, and I’m so stuck.”

I would have given a lot to trade places with that bird.

Soon we were ordered to walk into one of the buildings and take seats in a classroom. Then we did paperwork. Most of it was the same paperwork we had signed at the recruiter’s office an eon ago, just before we left for the island. But I had heard that even after arriving you could still refuse to sign, and they’d process you out of the military. No one did try to get out, but a few recruits still in receiving barracks did attempt it a few days later, to no avail.

I was tired, and the instructions were coming in rapid fire. Fill this out. Sign this. Initial that.

A postcard was next. To my next of kin.

How are you? I am fine. I am eating three square meals a day. They keep us busy here.

When are they going to let us sleep? I was exhausted. But sleep was a ways away. There was a full day ahead.

Two recruits wearing helmet liners – called “chrome domes” – walked in and a receiving barracks drill instructor gave them orders. “Yes, Sir,” the two said in unison, then left the room. The two had probably all of three or four days in the receiving game, but to me they looked like they belonged here. When would I look like them? How would the transition happen? That’s what went through my head at the time.

Soon, our leaders had us stand up, line up and go outside. It was about 5 a.m. now and the island was hopping. From seemingly everywhere, Marine recruits were marching in formation and wheeling, their flashlights making little ovals on the ground that moved in unison with their arms. At some point, I thought, I will be one of them. How would the transition happen? Would I be able to handle it? Like most teenagers, I saw everything in terms of what it would mean to me.

My group looked like aliens from another planet. For one thing, we still had our civilian clothes, but what made us stand out was our hair on our heads. Parris Island was like heaven for barbers, with everyone going once a week for a high-and-tight. We hadn’t met the man with the clippers yet, but I guess it was part of the training that the more-advanced recruits got to see how far they had gone, while we got to see how far we had to go.

We looked slovenly and undisciplined in the rumpled civilian clothes we had put on almost a day earlier. They looked military and squared away.

Waiting on line on an upward ramp to enter, we got quick instructions on how to hold our food trays, and waited for the line to move forward. Suddenly, a body was coming back toward me, bouncing off others as it fell down the slight incline of the ramp. It turned out to be Luis. As he passed the end of the wall, he fell into the bushes below, stone unconscious. Poor guy.

I hate to say it, but while I was hoping against all hope to never see Luis again, my one thought was that you had to say this. Compared to him, I had my stuff together. At least I hadn’t fainted in the chow line.

We entered, got our food and sat down to eat. We stood out like grunge rockers at a black-tie affair. But I lit into the food, and tried to overhear the conversations of the advanced recruits, if only to get an idea as to what was to come in the next few weeks.

After eating, we emerged into the sunshine of an early Parris Island morning and went back to the receiving barracks for more of the Marine Corps’ idea of fun in a low-stress environment, including the dreaded haircut. Luis, who still was with us, forgot to tell the barber about a bump on his head, and bled profusely. As for me, I looked at myself in the mirror and saw a scared shitless bald gnome.

We finally got to go to bed at 9 p.m. that first day.

Those days in receiving after the first day were kind of weird. It was about three days spent going through various things, but mostly being bored. A few fellows tried to talk their way out of the service, and one day a gunnery sergeant sat us down and talked to us about what we could expect. The next day, he said, we would meet our Drill Instructors and our training soon would begin. I was glad that someone was telling me what was going on. I thought they had forgotten about us.

One other day, we saw another glimpse of our future, as a platoon of recruits was marching down the road with their rifles under the watchful eyes of three Marine drill instructors. Wow, I thought, that’s going to be me soon. They snapped, popped and did drill with their rifles. No tricks, like with the silent drill team, but right shoulder arms, left shoulder arms, order arms, etc., as well as forward march, column left, march, and more.

I can still remember the cheery words of the receiving barracks sergeant that fine August morning as he flicked on the lights and woke us up. “Good morning, recruits. Today is a big day in your lives. Today, you will meet your drill instructors.”

I knew Luis was in the same barracks room as me, but he was not near me in rack assignment or anything, so I figured I was safe. I didn’t know his last name, either.

They took us through the hard day of getting ready to hand us off to the drill instructors, and it was in the afternoon when we walked with our seabags held in a bear hug and sweated as we made our way to the barracks. Then we went up the stairs to the third floor, huffing and puffing, but I managed to catch a glimpse into the second-floor squadbay, and saw recruits standing at attention. My future, again.

We had each been assigned laundry numbers. Mine was 56. I don’t remember who was number 57, but I know like I know my name who was number 55. Drawn on the floor in chalk was a circle with my number on it. There, I was supposed to plop my seabag. I did.

Next to me was Luis.

We assembled in the center of the long squadbay and sat down. After speeches on the quarterdeck by the series commander, a first lieutenant, and the drill instructors’ supervisor, a gunnery sergeant, we saw the man in the black belt: Senior Drill Instructor Staff Sgt. Vinson.

He introduced the two junior drill instructors, Sgt. Bostic and Sgt. Holden, who came out and snapped to attention, then relaxed to parade rest. Vinson talked calmly about our training, and what was expected of us.

The final words I heard from someone in authority there, probably for the next week or so, that were not shouted at me, came from Vinson.

“Now, privates, I am going to give you the word and when I do you’re going to stand at attention on line, facing inboard, and your drill instructors will begin your training. Do you understand?”

The voices of something like 66 scared boys shouted, “Yes, sir!”

“Then, move.”

We weren’t on our feet before we heard the two drill instructors launch into instruction, Parris Island-style.

“There’ll be no running down the center of my squadbay!” Sgt. Holden shouted as he strode quickly from the quarterdeck.

“Lock your bodies up at the rigid position of attention and don’t move!” shouted Sgt. Bostic as he came up from the side.

Soon, Bostic, Holden and Vinson were shouting at us, correcting us, ordering us. It was like chaos broke out.

I stood there and managed to avoid attracting any attention. One guy quickly adjusted his glasses.

“I saw you!” Bostic shouted. “With a large group of people, you stand out when you move. You pull that in Vietnam, you’re dead! Who told you to adjust your glasses?”

“No one, sir.”

“Then why’d you do it?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“I? I?” Bostic said. “This is an eye, private,” he shouted, pointing to his. “And get your eyeballs off me now.”

That was the beginning of my Marine adventure in 1978.

And for about a third of my time on Parris Island, Luis was next to me.

I’ll tell more later.

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September 30, 2012 - Posted by | Education, Life lessons | , , ,

3 Comments »

  1. Also, “Yew”, a female sheep? I am sure that I had it better, being a hollywood Marine. I was surprised that many recruits weren’t tough. I was seventeen and was surprised how many of the recruits upset me because they assumed they were tough and tried to take leadership positions. Especially the little pukes that had military training in a school or whatnot (ROTC). Most of them were quickly booted from squad leader positions or as the guide. I never have liked bullies and always seemed to get into it when confronted. I was sorely disapointed in phase II. It was my understanding we could settle differences with the pugle sticks. (not) It should be noted there were alot of good guys and though my life long Marine friends came from permanent duty stations, I still recall fondly some good ol boys. The scariest part for me was when we went thru the gas chamber. I was petrified and as I came out with snot running down to my ankles, a drill instructor that didn’t particularly care for me (he hated everyone), said I didn’t properly secure my mask and ordered me back in. There was one particular big bully that I had a run in previously that was being made an example of in the chamber. The bully panicked, rushed for the doors and the instructors restrained him wheras he flopped on the ground in convulsions. Talk about scared straight? I went up to the senior instructor and requested to show the other recruits what was expected of them and what to say,and how to do protocol as it was my 2nd go around. The instructor agreed. Carry on.

    Comment by Don Woolbright | October 1, 2012 | Reply

  2. Sorry for the lack of breaks in my sentencing. As Tom Cruz said when being dismissed in “a few good men, “I always forget that part.”

    Comment by Don Woolbright | October 1, 2012 | Reply

  3. Don, my platoon did not seem to have anyone from a military school or Navy Junior ROTC. I think some guys just took to it naturally; I had to learn it all from scratch. We had one guy in the platoon who had made the mistake of getting a tattoo of the Grim Reaper and the words “Killer Kelly.” The drill instructors gave him hell over that tattoo.

    I think the one thing that blew me away was talking to this one recruit who was about half again as tall as me, and with muscles atop muscles, but who couldn’t do a single pull-up. And when the drill instructors started yelling at him, he began to cry because no one had ever yelled at him or intimidated him before. Me, being short, always had people giving me the business, so I was used to being made to feel small.

    I remember reading in “Making the Corps” by Wall Street Journal and Washington Post military correspondent Thomas Ricks that small guys made better Marine drill instructors because their legs could take the pounding from all the running they had to do. Was that your experience?

    When he followed a platoon in the late 1990s through Parris Island, he found all types there: intellectuals, ex-gang members, tough guys, etc. Oddly, the ones who finished in the middle in boot camp tended to do best in the fleet, though he noted a couple of guys at the top of the platoon he followed who had stellar careers in the Corps. One guy who finished near the top with high evaluations just couldn’t take the freedom after Parris Island and ended up going AWOL and getting discharged (before 9/11, of course).

    I was not a fan of the gas chamber, either.

    As for Tom Cruise, well, he was a joke in that movie. It’s a great film, but considering what he’s pulled in Scientology (read the latest Vanity Fair article about how the “church” tried to find him a new girlfriend) I guess he decided the fake Navy was better than the real thing.

    Comment by Vincent Safuto | October 1, 2012 | Reply


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