In the summer of 1981, I joined the Marine Corps and was sent to Marine Corps boot camp, Parris Island, South Carolina where they turn young people into Marines. The way the Corps worked it at that time, before you graduated, your family was allowed to visit on the day before graduation. It was the first communication or contact, other than letters, in three months.
Prior to their arrival, recruits had been there for three months of training. The Marine Corps boot camp is divided into three distinct phases; third phase culminates in graduation. When dealing with recruits, the Marine Corps is always very clear about its expectations. The rules were never vague. For this day, which as I said was the day before we graduated, we were in our dress “C” uniform, wool slacks, khaki shirt, and black shoes polished to perfection. We weren’t allowed to touch our family, no hugs, kisses, or other such carrying on, just greet them, welcome them to The Island, show them around, and set the expectations for graduation day. Even though they were civilians, they were now on a Marine Corps base.
So the day arrives, we members of the mighty 3033 of the 3rd Recruit Training Battalion were waiting as the cars pulled up. I saw my family pull up which included my wife, whom I had not seen in 90 days. That’s important because, as is completely reasonable, she thought she would get a hug and a kiss when she got out of the car. No, we were in uniform but, we were not Marines yet, we were just recruits for another 36 hours so, military decorum was the order of the day.
I still recall how hurt Mare looked when she approached me with a smile and expected a hug and I, hurriedly shook her hand; she was OK later when I explained what was up. I showed them around the welcome center and then offered to show them a tour of The Island. Since I knew my way around (I had hiked the damn thing for three months) I took the wheel and drove.
At one stop we were in a parking lot overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. There was a small brick building to the left side and a walkway that led to a beautiful view that looked out over the Atlantic Ocean.
As we walked back to the car, I saw a Staff Sargent, who happened to be a woman (that is relevant, I promise) who stepped over and asked to speak with me for a moment. We stepped away from my family and spoke. Now as I said, the Marine Corps was always very clear regarding rules and expectations. The weak link was always me.
The Staff Sargent asked me if I was a recruit getting ready to graduate and I said “yes.” She looked at me and said, “You do realize you are not allowed to drive on base until after you graduate?”
“No ma’am, I don’t recall those instructions.” So let’s take a look at my score, mistake one, driving when that was not permitted, mistake two, implying my Drill Instructors had not made that detail clear.
The Staff Sargent looked at me and said something to the effect of “recruit, stop that weak-assed shit, you screwed up,” and in that moment I could see in my mind’s eye, my family driving away without me and in this scenario, I am reporting to a new platoon to repeat third phase.
She was smart. I know for a fact she could hear my heart pounding and see the wave of ”oh, now what have I done” washing over me.
Then she smiled, and said, “Toss the keys to your brother,” which I did. Then she shook my hand and said “congratulations, on becoming a Marine as of noon tomorrow.”
A few comments here:
- I am sure a male Marine would have had the potential to be kind but it seemed intuitive to her and she was very gracious.
- I could not have been more grateful for her kindness, thanks to her, my time as a Marine began on a high note and was not tarnished by a dumb mistake
- Despite her kindness, she was a non-commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps and I have no doubt she could destroy anyone or anything she chose! She chose to be kind on this occasion, which should not instill any illusions re her toughness..
- I learned to work on my listening skills. I am still working on those.
Next morning, 5:00 am chow, we squared away squad bay, and put on our dress uniform “A” consisting of wool slacks and jacket, khaki shirt and tie, black shoes polished to perfection, and a cover. We fell in and Staff Sargent Donald Graham called out the cadence as he had for the last ninety days. And each command was punctuated, “Recruits, forward,” or to the right, and so on. And then abruptly, marching to graduation, he says, “Recruits halt.” And then, finally, “Marines, forward ho.” Seventy-seven chests in unison got a little bit bigger. We were Marines.
What a day! It lives in my memory. We didn’t have cell phones to record everything and any pictures taken have long since faded but, when I remember that morning, those two days, I feel it like it was yesterday.