Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

The next guy in line, Part Two

In 1978 at Parris Island, the Forming Phase was really when training began, though not in earnest.

For about a week, the drill instructors prepared us for the arrival of Training Day 1, and to us it seemed like every day was a slow trip through hell. Making that transition from a 17-year-old civilian who can get up when he wants, dress how he wants (and have to start over if someone in the platoon is too slow), go to bed when he wants, use the toilet when he wants, eat when he wants, etc., to a Marine recruit who basically cannot do anything without permission can be a pretty trying experience.

The older guys in the platoon had a problem with some of it, but I was looking to get along and keep a low profile. My goal was that the drill instructors would have no idea who I was until I shook their hands on graduation day. Fate, however, had different plans.

Luis was right next to me on line, and I suppose it was a sign of my astounding ineptitude and incompetence that I needed to be next to someone worse off than me. I still recall one night, probably the third day of Forming, when a new rule was announced. No visits to the head for an hour after taps or before reveille. If you had to go, stow it until you were allowed.

An even bigger rule was that no one was to get out of the rack for any reason in that hour after taps. The firewatch was there to enforce the rule, and the drill instructors would quietly patrol around the squadbay to try to catch someone out.

I recall that for the first few nights, at least, firewatch was walked by higher-level recruits. Eventually, recruits from our own platoon would stand the duty. It was necessary, but it also messed up your sleep. If you had first or last firewatch, it wasn’t so bad, but if you were in the middle, you’d get awakened in the middle of the night about 10 minutes early, get dressed, walk firewatch for an hour (I think that was the length) and then go back to the rack and try to get back to sleep.

Fortunately, most of us were so dead tired by the end of the day that we could sleep anytime. Unfortunately, falling asleep on firewatch and being caught was an all-expenses-paid trip to the Correctional Custody Platoon, and no one wanted that.

So it probably was the second or third night of Forming, and the boys of Platoon 2066 finally bedded down and the lights went out. I was lying in the rack and luxuriating in a few moments of free thought before sleep took me, when all hell broke loose.

“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING OUT OF THE RACK?” Sgt. William Bostic shouted near me, and I heard Luis give a shout of terror and then try to explain that he was adjusting his seabag, but Bostic would have none of it. We lay there in terror as Bostic lit into Luis, and I was secretly glad it was him and not me. Of course, my turn would come soon enough.

Later, at breakfast the next morning, Luis said he was just trying to adjust his seabag and that Bostic had come up behind him and startled him.

The truth was that we all were pretty screwed up in that phase, and Luis didn’t corner the market on ignorance. We all were trying to learn a new routine that seemed to have pitfalls and traps that we didn’t find until we stumbled into them. And then all hell would break loose. You’d watch some poor recruit surrounded by drill instructors and being yelled at, and all you could do was be glad it was not you. Until it was you.

One of my grand screw-ups, for which I was never caught, by the way, (I sure hope the statute of limitations has expired) was the time I fell in after chow with the wrong platoon. We were still in forming, and our platoon guide held the guidon with our platoon flag, which had the number on it, but it was furled until training started.

All recruits in Forming look the same – bald and scared to death – and so I came out of the chow hall, and fell in with a platoon that sure looked like 2066. I don’t remember if we were assigned positions in the marching order, but I think not. I do remember that the platoon guide came through and counted us, and counted us again. I wonder if he realized that there was one extra body in the platoon – me.

We snapped to attention when the drill instructor came out, and I suddenly realized that I was in the wrong platoon, 2064, when I saw the drill instructor. I didn’t know much about my own instructors, but I knew they were Caucasians. Well, here was an African-American drill instructor. I was definitely in the wrong platoon. Oh, no, I thought. I’ll be doing bends and thrusts forever when he finds out.

The guide marched over to the drill instructor, and recited the formula every Marine remembers: “Sir, the count on deck is 67 highly motivated, truly dedicated United States Marine Corps recruits, sir, and one highly motivated, truly dedicated United States Marine Corps drill instructor, sir!”

And then we’d repeat that, the drill instructor would say, “Post!” and the guide would take his position at the head of the platoon. He marched us to the barracks, and I knew I had to think fast. I could wait until we were dismissed to go back into the barracks, and then approach him and confess that I had fallen in with the wrong platoon, but I suspected that I’d be paraded and humiliated, and then presented to Sgt. Bostic, who’d not only have me up on the quarterdeck doing bends and thrusts forever, but would entertain the platoon with the tale of how dimwitted Private Stufo (he refused to call me Safuto) had fallen in with the wrong platoon.

Finally, we were back at the barracks, and the drill instructor dismissed us. I held back and made it look like I was racing to get to the stairwell, but when the coast was clear I turned around and hurried back to the chow hall, and fell in with 2066. The guide gave me a dirty look because he had to count us again, and must have wondered what I was about since I was clearly coming to the platoon from a direction other than the chow hall, but I fell in with the platoon and that was it. Soon, Bostic came out and we marked back to our barracks. No one ever knew I had fallen in with the wrong platoon.

It seems to be a universal thing that mornings are the worst for young men in basic military training. You are jerked from pleasant sleep into the cruel and noisy world with no warning and set to work getting dressed and then cleaning your barracks. It’s still dark outside, and marching to chow the air is cool and smells like sugar. That smell still takes me back to mornings on Parris Island. I’d be dusting a windowsill and would look out into the darkness that still covered the base, and wonder about what I was doing there.

Weekends were also hard. On Friday night, you’d think about your friends at the mall or back on the block, though the drill instructors would make sure you knew that you were cut off from them forever. This was your new home now. Six nights a week, you would get one hour of free time, which you could use to talk, study, write letters or shine your boots. On Sunday afternoon, you got three hours of free time, though there was other free time called “commander’s time.” In any case, it was a reduced routine.

Mail call was like manna from above, and not getting a letter could put me in a blue funk for the night and the next day. You just wanted some evidence that there was still a world out there, and people who saw you as more than a warm body who couldn’t tie his shoelaces, and those envelopes and letters were that contact.

Finally, Training Day 1 arrived and we began to learn the ins and outs of the new life we had embarked upon. I have to confess that physically I was not a top specimen. I was good with the academic part of boot camp – what little there was – but I had thought I could just get by. Boy, did the Marines have a way of dealing with that.

At the end of first phase, I flunked the sit-up portion of the Marine Physical Fitness test, and was dropped to the Physical Conditioning Platoon. While my platoon headed off to the rifle range and then a week of mess duty, Sgt. Bostic accompanied me to the bus for my new home, with the assurance that I might be able to be picked up by 2066.

Worst of all, as I waited for the paperwork to be finished, another series had just graduated and were now full-fledged Marines. Seeing them made me even more depressed, and I thought it might be a long time before I’d get off Parris Island.

Luis actually got dropped, too, to the Marksmanship Training Platoon, after violating nearly every safety rule on the range.

One day in First Phase, he had managed to make an officer’s voice go up about five octaves. It had all started because we were to get penicillin shots in the butt. Of course, we all bled like stuck pigs into our boxer shorts, and Luis had really bled. We were getting ready for the rack, and the series commander was coming through the barracks to inspect us while we faced outboard, meaning away from the middle of the squadbay. The drill instructors made sure we knew how to answer. If the series commander, a first lieutenant, asked about the blood, we were to say, “Sir, the private had a penicillin shot today, sir.”

So we stood there at attention, eagerly awaiting the command to mount the rack, as the lieutenant walked past. Suddenly, he stopped and asked Luis, “Private, where is all that blood from?”

“Sir, the toilet, sir!” Luis said.

“THE TOILET?” the lieutenant asked.

“Yes, sir!” Luis said.

I thought the lieutenant was going to have a coronary, and the drill instructors didn’t sound too thrilled, either.

(Later, Luis said that it was the first thing that popped into his head. I don’t know what remembering the details of this 34 years later says about me, but it can’t be anything good.)

Little vignettes of those days on Parris Island still bounce around my head, and most don’t include Luis.

A Marine ass-chewing
One of the funniest times was when we saw a young Marine get his ass seriously chewed out by a superior.

The thing about Parris Island was that it not only was a basic training base, there also was a large administrative school and of course lots of supply issuing operations. One day, a bunch of us recruits from various platoons in the series were sent out to this one place as a working party.

There was a Marine private first class there, a guy who was a few months past graduation, and he had come over to hang out with his friend who worked in the office. He had apparently gotten wasted in Beaufort the night before and was pretty badly hung over, but he decided that it might be fun to mess with the recruits working cleaning the office.

As recruit after recruit finished working and reported the completion of a job, he gathered them in a room and had them doing incentive PT. He was having a blast and we were pretty powerless – fortunately, I was taking my time working to avoid having to report to him, and he hadn’t noticed me yet – until a drill instructor showed up.

For once, all hell broke loose and it wasn’t directed at the recruits but toward this Marine, who was informed that he did not have the right or the authority to order anyone to do incentive PT. It was one of the few occasions when we recruits got to laugh at someone over us in status.

Laundry day
We sent out laundry every few days, and it was just a mystery what happened. Bags went out and came back, with the contents somewhat cleaner, and one day we got to see what an industrial laundry looked like.

The laundry detail was a “skate” for the most part – but you had to be on your toes. Things could turn bad fast if you weren’t careful.

I was amazed at how an entire platoon’s laundry was shoved into a giant “thingie” and washed, then dried. The details of the work escape me, but one of the funniest things was watching this one recruit from another platoon have a nicotine fit. He was dying for a cigarette, and finally asked the sergeant in charge of the laundry detail – not a drill instructor — for a “cigarette break.”

After a few tries, the sergeant finally said, “OK, take out one cigarette and give it to me.”

The recruit complied. The sergeant broke it in half, gave it back and said, “There’s your cigarette break.”

When I was in the Physical Conditioning Platoon, we were at a field meet event, and one guy kept saying, “Did I hear, ‘Smokers, draw one.’?” I wanted to punch him, but didn’t.

Elliott’s Beach
In the third phase, when I was back in 2066, we marched over to Elliott’s Beach for field training and testing. I unfortunately had to share my tent but it wasn’t with Luis. It was kind of fun being out in the field, I will admit, living in tents, using the portapotties and filling canteens from the “water buffaloes.” In my whole time in the Marines, this was really the only time I “roughed it.”

Of course, there was still reveille and incentive PT, but the routine was more focused on training. Not a lot of Parris Island was fun, but this was different from living in the brick, air-conditioned barracks.

In addition to living in the field, we had testing, combat shooting, throwing a hand grenade, firing .45s and more.

It was kind of sad to come back to those buildings, but now we “ruled.” We were on the first level and soon were being fitted for our dress uniforms, summer and winter service alpha. Only the honor man got dress blues, though you could spend a few hundred and buy a set.

I had changed from the terribly frightened kid who had arrived on Parris Island in early August. Just how much would be revealed soon.

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October 15, 2012 - Posted by | Education, Life lessons | , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. This was more than 30 years ago? I graduated recruit training less than 4 years ago and I can’t recall details as vivid as this. Luckily, my family kept the letters I sent,which help me to recall some things. But, wow.

    Comment by Jennifer Pirante | October 17, 2012 | Reply

  2. Thanks, Jennifer. I had written up my experiences several years ago, and have another chapter coming about the end of basic training, graduation and going home. It’s hard to believe it was 34 years ago, but I still have the platoon book and pictures.

    Comment by Vincent Safuto | October 17, 2012 | Reply


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