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the night I ate a poem in boot camp

March 11, 2011

It’s slowly warming up here.  What would have been snow last week is now a

steady rain resolutely melting a winter’s worth of drifts.  Plans for the chicken

coop and an upgrade to the pond dock are firming up.  Spring calls to us, sweeter

than a Patsy Cline song.

Since the community and farm isn’t stirring much, I thought I’d share some more

of my back story.  In fact, I’d like to start a three-post arc about the funnest place

on earth, Marine Corps boot camp.

First I want to express my gratitude to Susie G., a former high school classmate

who keeps our class in touch with an e-newsletter.  I asked her Wednesday to

please mention the blog in the next edition.  She did yesterday and readership

quadrupled.  Now we know who has the media clout way down south.  Thank

you so much, Susie.

So grab a brew and loosen the strings on your combat boots.  Go through basic

training vicariously with me because it’s much easier on your feet.  Please keep

in mind that I did this in ’66.  I have no idea how it’s done now.

It started at the airport, the sense that I was giving up control of my life.  The Ma-

rine driving the bus yelled at us to load quicker, quicker.  Enroute to the base, he

yelled at us to sit at attention and put any cigarettes we had on the seats.  We didn’t

know at the time that you can’t do both things simultaneously.  But we complied.

He might have been a general.

The possible general took us to receiving barracks, yelling at us to unload quicker,

quicker.  We did.  He drove away with a month’s supply of smokes.  We were now in

the leatherly hands of the drill instructors.  They demanded even more speed, but

were nice enough to point to exactly where they wanted us to go.

Our first stop was at the barbers to lose that pesky hair that encouraged individual-

ism.  There were two rows of 6-8 chairs facing each other.  A man with large electric

clippers stood behind each chair.  We were shown to our seats.  It took about five

seconds and three swipes to clear-cut our scalps.  All of us but one.  The barber did

the side swipes easily.  Then he hit a mole on top of that chap’s noggin.  Blood

burbled out like a champagne fountain.  He went one way, the rest of us the other.

At the second stop we stripped down and faced each other in two long rows while

doctors checked our coughing ability.  There were just a few of them.  It took a long

time, perhaps so they could savor our humiliation.  Even though I was terrified, it

was hard to look at other terrified kids with heads that looked like plucked chicken

butts and not laugh.  I swallowed the hilarity.  There was no telling when I’d need it

to cheer myself up.

The final stop had us again in two rows as we filed by supply clerks who glanced at

us and threw us utility trousers and caps, T-shirts, socks, underwear, tennis shoes

and a yellow sweatshirt.  We put it on.  A clerk said “if any of this doesn’t fit, tell me

now.”  My shoes were way too tight, but when I tried to say “sir”, nothing came out.

The ten-second window for exchanges expired and we were whisked to our unit.  It

was then I had a thought I’ll wager every recruit who has scrambled off the bus has

had: “I want my mommy!”

Our platoon had about 75 recruits.  We were shown to quonset huts.  A D.I. in each

hut told us to put all our civilian clothes into the boxes he had thoughtfully pro-

vided and address it to home.  He told us to keep our wallets.  The whole venture

had been so invasive already, I guessed he’d go through them, too.  I remembered

that I had a love poem I’d written my wife with me.  I snuck it out of my wallet and

stuck it in my mouth when the D.I. had his back turned.  It eventually got soggy

enough to swallow.

With just our billfolds left to remind us that we were once humans, we made our

beds as shown.  The lights went off.  We slept as best we could, wondering what our

first day as Marines — or “maggots”, as the D.I. affectionately called us — would be

like.  I was so upset that all I could think about was if I’d ever get home again to see

Zeke and Hunk and Hickory in the barnyard.  And if I’d ever sit down to supper

again with Uncle Henry and Auntie Em.  And if that witch Miss Gulch would ever

stop hating my little dog.

Then I realized that I was so upset that I was thinking about “The Wizard of Oz”,

so I got a grip and went to sleep.

  1. Charlotte Wales permalink
    March 13, 2011 8:27 am

    Allen – I LOVE your writing – – you do realize I’m a Marine Corp brat? Dad quit college at 19 to go fight in WWII; I’ve got all of his letters he wrote his mother during the war, and duplicates of his 8 medals and 3 bronze stars (lost the originals in a housefire, and the Marines replaced them for me!). He fought at Tarawa, Guadalcanal, etc.; I correspond frequently with a wonderful lady named Doris Welsh from New Zealand who knew him (his Division was stationed there, inbetween battles). She contacted us a few years back after her husband died, as she never forgot my Dad. The first song I learned as a baby girl begins “From the halls of Montezuma – – – –

    • March 13, 2011 11:58 am

      I did not realize you were a Marine Corps brat. I would have liked to hoist a few with your dad. I know he had some great stories. “If the Army and the Navy, ever look on heaven’s scenes, they will find the streets are guarded by United States Marines.”

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