Marines are known for their toughness. Down through the years the battlefields on which they have served have become legendary examples of America’s greatest warriors. The reality is that those battlefields, while fostering a legendary status, also cost untold lives on all sides. Nevertheless, when I enlisted I knew those destinations were a possibility. So it was with mixed feelings I found out my first time overseas was a short trip to that hot spot, known for death and danger, Denmark. The family joke has always been “someone had to go settle em down,” and “look, they haven’t caused any trouble since we visited them in 1981.” great jokes, never get old.
But the truth of the matter is that one of my life-defining moments occurred in Denmark. We arrived on big planes and were immediately trotted out to fields outside the cities. We were actually on a private farmers land and we would have to stop working (drilling) every time he and his grandkids came through. It was their land we were renting.
The US Marines provided us with everything we needed but, on the quizzical side of the conversation, the Danish government provided us with soft drinks and they were all generic versions of American products so cola for Coke/Pepsi or lemon line soda for Sprite and so.
Where we were parked we were using a shelter half, one shelter half for each two Marines. A shelter half is what some would call a pup tent.The hills were lined with tents, row after row and the hills were hilly. They we were not flat plains but rather at an angle so you have to tweak about to get comfortable while sleeping, That also meant there was a place to climb up and sit and watch the view.
My rank at this time was PFC, almost the lowest rank possible in the Marines. I was a new, wet-behind-the-ears, fresh-outta-boot, Marine, who was a product, and this is important, of a conservative religious home where alcohol was forbidden.
One night as I was hanging out by my shelter half, one of the unit’s Gunnery Sergeants (gunny) came by and said, “hey Marine, grab a couple colas and let’s go chat.” So I grabbed two cans of cola and we walked up the hill away from the “tents.” It was a cool evening and we got clear of the lights and the sky was brilliant with stars. It was a lovely evening.
This Gunny, and it’s criminal that I don’t recall his name, was an older Marine. He had completed his twenty years so could retire whenever he chose.
We sat on the hill and he started to talk about his time in the Corps. While he was talking he pulled out a flask and said “pour out some of your coke,” which I did. Then he poured rum from his flask and, I am pretty sure it was not top shelf. The drink was ridiculously strong. And there we sat, the young and the elder. He became one of my mentors.
Here is the point of this little insignificant story. I have a wonderful memory, of being a young Marine, sitting on a hillside in Denmark, under a sky full of stars with no clouds, drinking the worst rum and coke ever, and this wonderful, patient, bigger-than-life Gunny sharing his insights. And even though I was a kid, I knew this was one of those moments I would remember and treasure. I left the Corps and moved on with my life. But now, forty years later, I wish I could tell him how that simple gesture on that night, sharing rum and wisdom and time with a young Marine, had a lasting, indelible effect.
Thanks Gunny! Next rum and coke is on me!