If I were to tell you I wasn’t scared I would be lying. The gym was about one quarter filled with sleeping cots lined in perfect rows as we filed in one by one. “Welcome home ladies” the stocky young drill instructor facetiously barked as we entered the cavernous room. “Home”for the next day or two was “Dan Daily Recieving Barracks” the infamous hall, named after a double Medal of Honor winner. A place where each day’s newly arriving recruits were being pooled together. Awaiting the total of 80 new recruits who would form our “band of brothers” platoon, soon to begin training together for the next 56 days. One thing that sticks out most in my mind years later were the guys who were panicked by the screaming DI’s. As they rushed to shave and bath cutting themselves in the process, with cheap disposable razors, leaving blood streaming down their faces.
“BANG BANG BANG”crashed in my ears as blazing lights broke the 5am dark, startling all of us into a groggy consciousness, that first morning in our new quansot hut home. “What the hell is that”I asked myself as I leapt from my top bunk and snapped to attention on the cold cement floor. The “that”was our three newly assigned drill instructors. “Gently” awakening their 80 fresh charges to their first full day of platoon life in Marine Corps boot camp by banging axe handles on trash can lids. What an introduction to life as I would come to know it for the next 8 weeks.
There was a war going on in Vietnam and these DI’s didn’t want any Marine’s blood on their hands because they hadn’t done their job. Their assignment was to take these raw recruits and tear them down, both physically and mentally. This was their task during the first few weeks of training and then build them back-up—transforming the young boys into hardened Marines—the toughest fighting corp of men the world has ever known.
Marines are also famous for their ability as professional sharpshooters and “snapping in” is the training that makes this happen. The course consists of two intense weeks of specialized training carried out at Camp Pentelton the big Marine Base about 35 miles north of MCRD, San Diego. Qualifying with the M-14 rifle was the goal and duty of every young Marine who goes through recruit training. These two weeks had been nervously anticipated by us all. However, I did not expect what was to follow.
“See me in the duty hut after chow” Sargent Stucker growled at me and private Calloway as we stood in line single file waiting to eat dinner. Our crime— whispering back and forth in line—a big no no and we were busted. “Oh shit” I thought as we entered the duty hut. As there we unfortunately found each of our squad leaders and our platoon leader—not a good sign. Of our three DI’s Sargent Stucker was the platoon “hit man” with a well earned reputation. He was a real sadistic bastard and this night he would not disappoint.
“OK privates so you like to talk?” Stucker said, “So start talking. And while they’re talking you other three pukes jump up on these lockers and hang by your elbows until there done”. I’m not sure just how long they hung onto those 8 ft. high steel lockers. Calloway and I continued our forced little chat while they hung there with their hands clasped behind their heads, the locker’s top edge cutting into the backs of their upper arms. But it was sure long enough for them to start groaning and moaning before Stucker finaly gave the order to “drop to the floor”.
My squad leader, Dan Kniezel, was a bad ass, good ole boy from Waco, Texas, but there was nothing good about the look in his eye as he glared up at me. As I stood at attention, he sat in a crouched position, sweat pouring off of his flushed and reddened face. “They’re all yours”, Stucker grinned. With his release given, Kniezel swung from the ground up—SMACK— hitting me full force and flush against my face. His open hand knocking me backward as I spun a complete 360 over the DI’s desk in front of which I was standing. I rose slowly shaking my head while thinking “just another day of fun and games in Marine Corps boot camp”.
The time was 1966 and the Vietnam War was really heating up. Over the years I have often thought of how many of these strong young kids, who I would never see again— ages 17 to 23—ended up in Vietnam and what then was their fate? Wounded or killed in action? We all believed in the mission and the honor of the Corps—just a “band of brothers”—80 young guys molded together by 56 days of sweat, pain and fear. Guys who believed in America and who were just trying to do their very best for the country that they loved.
More lessons from the Marine Corps—-
The first time I said “I think I am getting too old for this” I was probably about 25. Too old for what you ask? Too old for Christmas stockings hung by the fireplace or too old for running up a long flight of stairs on his way to the 5th floor. Is this a question to be asked of a person growing out of adolescence or one thinking like an old man aging before his time. In this case the truth be known I was actually a young person thinking like an old one. This weak attitude was driven by an unwanted thick layer of fat which had settled in around my belly for the first time in my still young life, brought on by the usual suspects of too many calories and too little exercise.
Look here’s the point—I was out of shape and over weight thereby justifying in my mind the feeling that I was already too old to participate in certain activities which I perceived to be beyond my age related capabilities. In other words I was just being plain lazy. The truth is that many of us can always find a reason to not do something which we feel is too uncomfortable. This is a mind set born out of an attitude that looks for an excuse not to do something rather than a mind set that says I can do anything given enough time and determination.
The Marine Corps, I learned at 23, is a great example of a place where you are pushed to do things you never thought possible. Boot camp drill instructors are trained to push their young recruits, both mentally and physically, to go far beyond the places where their preconceived notions of their current abilities could ever take them. I remember thinking I can’t do another push-up or march another step until the extreme fear of the DI’s painful retribution moved me forward to new previously unimagined levels where I never thought I could go.
Transferring the drill instructor’s skill of meeting and overcoming the impossible, would prove to be the key to conquering future challenges in life that would have otherwise been for me impossible. I have oftentimes thought back, when facing difficulties, to the visual image of the drill instructor saying “we’ve been trained to know your ultimate limits and that’s where we’re goig to push you”. This instilled in me the fact that what ever it was I thought I couldn’t do, be it physical or mental, I was wrong.