Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

The next guy in line … Graduation!

When I think back at the last two weeks in October 1978, I remember that it seemed like things were all coming together for me.

I was deep into the Third Phase of training at Parris Island, I had most of my future uniforms in place and I was looking forward to more than a week of leave back in New York before reporting to my next duty station for aviation and electronics training.

But Parris Island still offered plenty of obstacles to overcome. My failings at the dreaded Confidence Course were legend, and I nearly got recycled to the beginning of Third Phase after Bostic, upset at my lack of effort on the course, took me to see for the first time a commissioned officer in the Marine Corps.

The series commander, a first lieutenant, rightly ripped me up one side and down the other, but after I promised to try harder decided to let me stay. A few fellow recruits were shocked to see me return that day after that session.

Except for the Confidence Course, Third Phase was pretty enjoyable for me, as I recall. The very basic infantry training had been fascinating, and I soon learned all the hand signals and other rules of being in an infantry squad. I never used those skills again, but I wondered if maybe I would have done better as a “grunt.”

Today, I know that everyone has to go through advanced infantry training after Parris Island and before their specific MOS training, which is a good thing with the country still deploying troops. I was thinking recently of that airbase attack in Afghanistan, where the aircraft maintenance Marines has to take up weapons to defend the base. Back when I was in, we didn’t have the skills. The old saw, “Every Marine a rifleman,” probably should have been observed more back in the late 1970s.

One of the things about Sgt. Bostic that I remember was that he had a flair for the dramatic, and would let us know when we had screwed up as a platoon.

Back in the 1970s, there was a song titled “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.” For some reason, the Marine Corps picked it up as a sort of basic training anthem, and especially the notion of the rose garden. That was where a platoon that was lagging and unmotivated got its incentive PT for punishment.

On one occasion, we had been taken to the area called the rose garden (oddly, there weren’t any rose bushes around) and given about five minutes – a “taste,” Bostic said – of what awaited us if we didn’t get with the program. Finally, the same day I was picked up by 2066 again, just after they were coming off mess and maintenance, Bostic had just about had it. He went to the senior drill instructor, Vinson, who went to the series commander, and got clearance to take us to the rose garden.

We fell out without rifles and lined up. “Please, senior drill instructor, please take us to the rose garden,” Bostic said sarcastically. “We want to go there.”

Vinson began marching the platoon, then called “Column right, march.” That was a direct course to the rose garden.

Bostic cackled. “See, privates, you kept asking the senior drill instructor to take you to the rose garden, and now he’s taking you there.”

I don’t remember exactly what happened in the rose garden that day, but it wasn’t fun, that’s for sure.

Near the end of basic training, I could march 10 miles with a full pack and even, at the end, double time back to the barracks. I felt like a real Marine.

Standing in the way was final inspection, the day when it all had to come together. We had our summer service alpha uniforms on, with our shooting badges (no ribbons), and spent the night before preparing our barracks and our clothing for the ordeal to come.

The barracks had to be so clean, and the “heads,” too. So much so that we were advised that for that night only, “Head calls do not exist.” A few of us slipped to the adjoining heads and used them for our needs that night.

The next day, the platoon shone, the barracks shone and we dressed carefully in our new uniforms for the big test. It was quite a day. Lined up outside the barracks, we saw officers of a rank rarely seen by recruits – captains and majors – and stood stock still as our fellow recruits were grilled.

The drill in final inspection was that you stood at attention with your file, then waited until the officer was in front of you. Then you took your M-16 and did the “Inspection Arms” movements, ending with you holding your rife at port arms.

I stood there, looking at a Marine major who had been brutal with the other recruits in my platoon. Now it was my turn. Suddenly, he snatched the rifle out of my hands, I brought them back to my sides, and the questions started.

I was good with history, and nearly all his questions were about Marine Corps history. He kept asking and I kept answering, correctly. Finally, after checking my rifle in every way possible. He held it out to me. I took it in the prescribed manner, closed the bolt, snapped the trigger and brought the weapon back down to order arms. Then the major, with two of my drill instructors at his side, right-faced and started down the next file. (I was at the end, according to photos in the platoon book.)

Had I passed?

After it was over and we secured our weapons, Bostic announced that we had one more job to do before we became members of “the Brotherhood,” “and you better not screw this up.” We crossed the street and had our picture taken as a platoon. I still have that picture.

That evening, I called home for the first time from a previously prohibited phone booth, and couldn’t contain myself. “I’m a Marine!” I told my mother, to the derisive hoots of a few others.

My family wasn’t coming down to see me graduate, but others’ families were. In the three days before graduation, on each day we had several hours of base liberty plus administrative things to be done. There was equipment to turn in and tickets to buy for leave and to the next duty station. I felt like I could run forever and that I had – for the first time in my life – proven that I was a real man.

It’s pretty heady to be 17 and have that feeling. On Oct. 31, 1978, the day before my 18th birthday, I would graduate from Parris Island. Oh, what a feeling that was. That day hung before me like a phantom and, after trudging toward it seemingly forever, it was within reach.

Base liberty was a blast. I went to the bowling alley, and drained Cokes with fellow members of the platoon as we bowled and talked about our training. The liked, respected and feared Sgt. Holden had been relieved due to an allegation made against him in the second phase, and his replacement, Sgt. Maltese, was not as good. One of the guys in the platoon liked to make little jokes, and he called Maltese (the cat in the hat). (In Marine terminology, the campaign hat drill instructors wear is called a “hat,” but never to their faces. A “hat” also is a term for a drill instructor, as in: That platoon has four “hats.”)

“They don’t have TV in the Correctional Custody Platoon,” this recruit would say. “But they have the cat in the hat.”

Someone told me that while I was in the Physical Conditioning Platoon, Maltese had had trouble while marching the platoon and had forgotten the right command for a movement. To get everyone straightened out, he had called out, “For instructional purposes, face half-right.” That got the platoon in a position to march again. Sometimes he called commands on the wrong foot. A platoon that respected its drill instructor would compensate automatically, but sometimes we didn’t for Maltese. I’m sure he was a great guy and an outstanding Marine in a tough position, and in a way I feel sorry for him. I hope he did well in his career and got a better platoon next time around.

In Thomas Ricks’s book, “Making the Corps,” set in the mid-1990s, he describes parents so joyful at the reform wrought on their sons that they buy the drill instructors, who attend base liberty with the almost-graduated recruits and their families, beer after beer.

Maybe because back then we were expected as kids to be a little wild, the change didn’t seem so apparent. We snapped and popped, for sure, and showed respect. I think one mistake people often made was assuming that the transformation was complete on Parris Island, so they tried to replicate it to turn around the lives of young boys in the ghettos through boot camps run by the police. Unfortunately, the results weren’t as good. Sure, there were Parris Island graduates who self-destructed in the Marine Corps itself, but after boot camp you went on into the regular military, where there were controls and rules to keep you in line.

That doesn’t exist in the ghettos. Often, graduates of corrective “boot camps” go right back into the environment where they offended originally, and cannot sustain the changes. That’s not so in the military.

Before graduation, SSgt. Vinson gathered us and told us about what we could expect in the real Marine Corps. As the senior drill instructor, he wasn’t the “heavy hat” — that was Bostic – and he wasn’t the “nice guy” – that had been Holden. He could be tough on us, but always gave the perception of being approachable.

Vinson noted that sometimes senior drill instructors doubled up, and were guiding one platoon toward the last days of graduation while picking up another for Forming, though he didn’t tell us if that had happened to him.

One incident with Bostic that I remember well was the time that he must have thought I was going to report him for physical contact.

It was in Third Phase, and we were being disciplined as a group in the squadbay for being slow at something, so Bostic had the platoon hold back the bolts on the M-16 rifles. With the large return spring in that piece, it was agonizing, and I was losing the battle. Despite the air conditioning, my hand was sweaty and the bolt was slowly edging up when Bostic walked past me while checking to see that the platoon was complying.

Bostic walked over, put his hand over my right hand, pressed down hard and said, “Goddammit private, I TOLD YOU TO HOLD THAT BOLT BACK!” Then he grabbed my hand and pulled it back.

I managed to hold it back then, and he continued down the line. A few minutes later, he relieved us and told us to shine our dress shoes. A minute after that, a voice emerged from the “DI house”: “Private Stufo, report to the drill instructor!” The whole platoon repeated it.

(None of the drill instructors wanted to engage in the verbal gymnastics needed to pronounce my name right, and I learned to answer to Stufo, like it or not.)

I reported by knocking on the red-painted block: “Sir, Private Safuto reporting to the drill instructor as ordered, sir!” “Get in here, Stufo,” Bostic said.

In the office, I stood at attention as Bostic looked at me.

“Do you remember what just happened out there, Stufo?” Bostic asked.

“No, sir,” I said.

“You remember,” Bostic said. “That little incident.”

Bostic must have thought I was dumb. Then I realized it. He had made physical contact with me. I had forgotten about it because he had not hit me but had been correcting me, and in the process deliberately made contact with me. I had heard that drill instructors got relieved for less.

“Oh, that, sir. The private remembers, sir,” I said.

“Are you man enough to take what we’re dishing out here?” he asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“Then go away.” That means leave the office and go back to what you were doing. I did. To this day, I feel bad that Bostic thought I might report him for pulling my hand back. To me, it was a deserved correction.

Finally, we finished getting ready. Our rifles were turned in, our footlockers were empty, our seabags were packed, our new uniforms – less the one we would wear to graduation – were in our garment bags. We were ready for the next phase in our evolution as Marines.

On the night of Oct. 30, 1978, we bedded down in anticipation, many of us too keyed-up to sleep. I slept most of the night and awoke about a half-hour before reveille, then lay in the rack waiting for the lights to come on. That morning, we raced to the line, raced through getting dressed, breakfast – where we ruled, at least for a day – shouted at First Phase platoons, “We’re graduating!” as they marched past for another grueling day of training, and we put on our dress uniforms for the big event.

One last time, we fell out as a platoon and marched as men, Marines, to the “grinder,” where we had learned the intricacies of close-order drill under the brutal summer Parris Island sun, and so much more. Now we would become Marines on that same piece of land.

The ceremony went well and there was quiet joy when we were addressed as Marines for the first time, and then the recruits of 2064, 2065, 2066 and 2067 passed in review and waited for the big moment to come.

Finally, the series commander called out, “Senior drill instructors, dismiss your platoons!”

Off to the left, I heard the 2064 SDI call out, “Platoon 2064, dismissed.” “Aye, aye sir,” they shouted.

I heard the 2065 SDI call out, “Platoon 2065, dismissed.” “Aye, aye sir,” they shouted.

Now it was our turn. Vinson shouted, “Platoon 2066, dismissed.” “Aye, aye sir,” we shouted, then took a step back and did an about-face.

From the right, the 2067 SDI called out, “Platoon 2067, dismissed.” “Aye, aye sir,” they shouted. And did the same move.

We stood still. “This is it,” I thought. And then suddenly the music erupted from the band.

We were free! We had made it!

I found my drill instructors surrounded by families and fellow recruits, and quickly shook hands with Bostic and Vinson, thanking them for everything. Then I went back to the barracks to pick up my gear and get on the bus off Parris Island. Holden had shown up, and I made sure to thank him. In retrospect, I feel sorry for Maltese. No one wanted to thank him, but he had done his best. Life can be so unfair sometimes.

Heading back to the barracks was like walking on sunshine, and a few other graduates were walking along, just enjoying the wonder of being free to do so. I re-entered the barracks, and saw that it had been rearranged. There was a little party going on, with soft drinks and food, and lower-phase recruits were standing at parade rest between the bunks. I’m sure they felt like hell, seeing us graduating, but they’d get their turn soon enough.

For a few minutes I stood around and socialized, said my goodbyes, then got my seabag and other small baggage and went out to catch the bus to the Charleston airport.

Soon, I was sitting in a bus, and a much more comfortable bus, I might add, waiting for the ride to the airport. As I sat there, I ran through my mind all the experiences, good and bad, I had had at Parris Island. I had arrived in the dead of night not far from where I was sitting, a terrified, exhausted kid trying to make sense of the whole system, and left feeling like I had one place where I belonged. I knew that no one could take this achievement away from me.

Finally, the driver boarded the bus, started the engine, closed the door and we began to inch away, gaining speed as we left the narrow streets of the training base behind for the wide causeway. I was a little sad and worried. I was leaving the known for the unknown. It had to happen, but Parris Island had grown on me a bit.

We crossed the causeway, the one we had ridden across on that terribly frightening early August night. I saw the future in the town outside the recruit depot, the fast-food joints, tailor shops and other accoutrements of what others called “the military suck,” the town that grows up just outside the gates of any military base. Soon, we were on the highway and even got a glimpse of a Marine Corps F-4 Phantom fighter coming in to land at nearby MCAS Beaufort. Then the bus was on the highway to Charleston, where the airport looked different in the light of day when you’re a new Marine holding a plane ticket to annual leave.

A few of my fellow Marines were on the flight to JFK airport in New York City, and I fell asleep on the flight. I awoke to see the shadow of the twin towers in the afternoon sun, and realized I was nearly home.

The plane landed and I got off. I think my mother was in shock. I was glad to see the family and we rode home to the house on 80th Street. I had dreamed of the place, my room, the neighborhood, etc.

That night I went out to the old hangout and met my old friends. They were stunned. That was good.

So many adventures awaited me in the next three years and nine months, but that time on Parris Island is something special to me. A few months ago, someone who had been in the platoon contacted me. He had eventually become a drill instructor himself, and had retired as an E-7, gunnery sergeant. I wondered if he had ever remembered being a recruit in Platoon 2066 and trying to figure out the intricacies of Parris Island, as he molded a new group of recruits.

Today, 34 years later, I have never been back to Parris Island, and never made contact with Luis. Maybe I will go one day, and be one of those old men the recruits see, who say to each other, “Look at that slimy civilian,” as I walk along and admire the place where I became a Marine, and a man.

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October 18, 2012 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , ,

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