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we won’t mention the syphilis to your mom and dad

March 17, 2011

I spent about six weeks back at Camp Pendelton before I left for Vietnam.  For a

month or so I helped process the other Marines passing through camp.  One day

we had very few troops to deal with, so we were done by noon.  I took a bus into

Oceanside and found a corner in a burger joint to read.  It was quiet until 3 p.m. or

so, when the high school kids came in.  I went back to my reading and tuned them

out. I realized about 5 p.m. that they were leaving as a group.  Ten minutes later the

Marines had landed.  There was a lot of tension between the town and the base.


The rest of the time I was in Staging Battalion, which teaches skills specific to the

Vietnam War, like how to dodge booby traps.  To learn this, we had to go through a

course full of traps that splattered red paint on you if you tripped one.  Guys were

being sent through in groups of ten or so.  Almost every group yielded a “bloody”

jarhead or two.  They had to quickly run up a steep hill, touch a sign at the top and

quickly run back to an instructor.


They were learning the 11th Commandment, which was “Thou shalt not (err) up.”

I was standing in line when I reminded myself that I really didn’t like running up-

hill.  Some guys I knew had just gone through.  I stopped them for a minute, made

pleasant conversation, then walked away with them.  It’s easy to blend into the

crowd when everyone is wearing green.


One of our classes was the military version of “The Lecture”, the one where your

parents haltingly explain the changes you’ve been noticing in your body lately.

We Leathernecks were told that we’re not all leather.  If we so much as looked at

a woman in the ‘nam, we would contract . . . . . drumroll . . . . . THE BLACK SYPH!


Say it like you’re in an echo chamber.


If we, God forbid, disobeyed the Commander in Chief and caught this fatal malady,

the best they could do for us was list us as “Missing in Action”, send us to a hospital

in Japan to die, then trump up an acceptable reason for our death.  Our family

would still get the standard $25,000 life insurance.


I guess the brass believed that that would put us off thinking about sex for the 12

months and 20 days we’d be overseas.  It merely put us off thinking about the B.S.

the Pentagon was spreading.


When we couldn’t possibly retain anything else about ‘nam, they sent us there.  We

piled into another bus yet again.  We rode to El Toro Marine Air Station near Irvine.

While waiting to load, a private asked a staff NCO (read: lifer) a question.  The NCO’s

answer was shoddy at best.  The newbie said, “well, I was thinking that –“


“Don’t think! ” the lifer blurted out.  “You’re too young to think.”


I spent most of the next day in the air, pondering (not thinking) if it was possible to

go a year+ without a brain synapse.  If anyone could do it, it was us Devil Dogs.

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