continuing work on this. Not sure what it will be yet. Novel? Short story?
Johnson was nervous. It had been three years since he had talked to a woman in any serious way. He had come to my room drunk on Friday night, rather beside himself. Some woman he had known for nearly 7 years but hadn't spoken to in almost 3 had reached out. “ I'm out of practice man. I have no idea what to do.” “Well lets see what she said then.”
He'd done a good enough job simply making conversation so far, but it was clear she wanted the conversation to go forward. I followed Johnson to his room and shared a drink and a cigarette with him. A common thing among marines on a Friday night. I coached him as he texted with her, guiding him through what to say. It seemed to work very well. Soon enough they were sharing intimate details.
30 minutes later we were out of cigarettes and beer. We found my roommate sober enough to drive us to the liquor store, and soon we had plenty of both. I kept the conversation with the girl going for Johnson, while he paced and smoked. He alternated between cursing me and singing my praises. We finished the cigarettes in an hour.
Johnson was perhaps one of my best friends in the service. It had been over a month since I'd seen him. He had been out on field operations while I remained in garrison speaking regularly with a therapist over my depression and drinking. It was the first night we had spent hanging out together since he had left. Between the texts I made for my drunken friend I couldn't help realizing how much I missed being with him and the others in my platoon.
When we heard there was to be a brawl with the company in the next barracks over we went and stood with our fellows to posture and bark, but nothing ever came of it other than a few shouted insults and some laughter. Eventually it resolved itself into more drinking, which all Marines enjoy. After another hour or so of this I bid everyone goodnight and excused myself to bed.
It had been another average Friday night.
That weekend I was paid, and being negative since my last check my bank account was a bit light. I still went on two dates that weekend, with two different women. Both were nice enough, and I made love to one, but they were essentially unremarkable. My bank account went negative again.
Monday morning came too early. 5:30am my alarm went off. My roommate had already been up for 5 minutes, slowly preparing for the day. I was dressed with my bed made, Prozac taken and water drank, standing in formation outside by 5:45. Our first sergeant didn't arrive till 6:15. When you spoke to his face or to someone important, he was First Sergeant Yazzie. When you were speaking among friends, he was “first sergeant crater face” or “the diamond” after his rank. He called us to attention and dismissed us. I ran two miles, showered and ate.
This was my routine, and it had not varied much in the two years since I had reached the Marine Corps proper. It would not change for another year, till I had left.
My journey to the Marine Corps began like many other young Americans. I had always known I would join the military. But to many who knew me it came as something of a surprise, or maybe a disappointment. I had gone to an arts school for the last 4 years in a well off area of central Florida. People told me I was an actor through and through. I had been accepted to perfectly good colleges, had good grades and was generally a model student. But I wanted something different from the average track of life that so many young people seem doomed to today. I wanted travel, adventure, and to be assured of my manhood.
The Corps, or at least its image in the popular imagination, promised me all these things. Looking back, that was certainly no accident. My recruiter was honest enough, and nice enough. Within a month I had signed a contract, after a few more all the necessary medical examinations had gone through. After one last check, I was loaded onto a van in the rain, while my family looked on. My mother and sister held each-other and tried not to cry. They failed. My father held his wife and smiled sadly and waved. Once the van was loaded my recruiter stepped up to the door.
“Don't come back unless your Marines”.
Then he slammed it shut, and the driver pulled away.
In all the books I had ever enjoyed and all the movies I had given a second thought too, the heroes were men and women of conviction, or if they weren't they learned to be. As far as I saw it, life could not be lived without discomfort to match comfort, pain to match pleasure. Adventure was only to be found in the extraordinary circumstances that exist outside of the mundane world of the office and the suburbs. My life was lacking in luster. I craved knowledge that could not be found in the pages of a book alone (although the best books will hint to it). When that van door slid shut, I was officially on the journey to find my convictions.
By the time we reached our destination, it was dark, and we were all tired. I had not slept. The nervous conversation and bravado died as we neared the gates of Parris Island, The Marine Corps East coast basic training grounds.
“Put your heads down” the driver chuckled. “No looking out the windows”.
I complied, somewhat. I lowered my head and turned to watch as my new life began.
We drove for a long time. In circles. Then we stopped. The driver wished us luck, and the door flew open, and the muggy air of the South Carolina swamps flooded into the van. Silhouetted in the door was a man in a wide brimmed hat and a short sleeve dress uniform. It was September 9th.
“Get the fuck out of my van, SCREAM aye sir”.
“I SAID FUCKING SCREAM!”
We tumbled out of the van, and stood on the infamous yellow footprints. An imposing brick building with shining steel doors stood to our right. The next few hours were a blur. Screaming. Running. Sweating. Scripted phone calls home and the issuing of ill fitting uniforms. I was thirsty and tired. I would stay that way for 3 months. I would find conviction, although not for what I had thought I would.
After a week of paperwork, shots and medical examinations, we were deemed fit to begin the real work. We filled our newly issued sea bags with the newly issued gear, and were herded into our new barracks. Large open squad bays, with about 30 racks of bunk beds on either side. The mattresses were thin. The floor, walls and ceiling were concrete. Open showers, toilets and sinks. The windows faced east and west, and looked over heavily wooded swampland. We were Platoon 3090, and it was time to meet the drill instructors.
We sat in formation, neat rows of shaven heads and sweaty bodies. It stank. Our Senior drill instructor stepped out of his office in front of us, and looked down on us with a mixture of contempt, loathing, and glee.
“I am Staff Sergeant English. You may be stupid, but you had better learn to remember my god damn name.”
3 more drill instructors stepped from his office, marching in step and lining up behind him. They looked imposing. They did not sweat. Their uniforms were crisp. Staff Sergeant English (and for me that rank will always go with his name) then gave us a short speech on what he expected of us, what to expect of him. Then he turned, unleashed his instructors on us, and walked calmly to his office. We made beds, scrubbed floors with hand brushes, and screamed responses to our instructors till we were all hoarse, and our uniforms were drenched anew. After a 30 second shower, guided shaving and tooth brushing, we were in bed. The sun was setting. I lay at attention, the lights were shut off, and I watched the sun sink and the world grow dark. My heart sank with the sun. We had only just begun.
We were coming home from Australia. We had been there 6 months. Most of what we had done was drink, fight, kill time and occasionally we trained. I had loved Australia. All but its weather. The people were as warm as the air, and the beer was cheap because it was usually Australians buying it for me. The number one complaint among my platoon was that it hadn't been a combat deployment. The general attitude was that all that leisure time would have been better spent fighting and killing in Afghanistan. “Doing something real”. For my part, I always said I was more than happy to spend my time drinking Australian beer and flirting with Australian women. I was the odd man out it seemed.
We were no longer boots, at least technically speaking. In the Marine Corps infantry you aren't worth anything till you've seen combat. We hadn't, but there weren't many combat deployments to go around at the time. So we told ourselves at least we had deployed somewhere. We were worth something now. We worked well together, had seen each-other through a year and a half of struggles; training, cheating girlfriends, cheating wives, birthdays and holidays away from home. We had earned our place as much as anyone we decided.
Our first night back in the states, I don't remember well. When I woke in the morning, I traced the night back by the different empty bottles in my room. I remembered opening the vodka with all my friends at 8:00pm. The whiskey had been opened later, with a smaller group. The Tequila, I was pretty sure, was shared by only me and two others late into the night. The half empty bottle of wine next to my bed had been opened last, by me, alone, in the earliest hours of the morning. I felt sick. And hollow.
I took a long shower. The water never got quite hot enough.
I went to breakfast with Johnson and Dreesen. We drank coffee and ate real eggs at a local cafe. The battalion had been given four days off for the first weekend back. I ended up drinking a bloody Mary now that I was 21 (I had reached the age in Australia) and Johnson joined me. Dreesen was only 19 and grumbled good naturedly.
“Well, we're back. You miss America Johnson?”
“Absolutely. Fuck Australia.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
“Everything was too damn expensive. And the food was weird. I'm not meant for travel.”
Dreesen nodded along in agreement.
“You're both high. Australia was great. I mean, it would be better as a civilian, but most of what we did was drink and goof off.”
“I would rather be in Afghanistan.”
“You don't know that. Youve never been to Afghanistan Dreesen.”
“Doesn't matter, at least I would have been doing something.”
“Getting blown up you mean?”
We laughed. A few customers shot us dirty looks, but we just ordered more Bloody Marys and coffee.
“Still though” Johnson said, “You cant tell me that last month of just sitting around didnt drive you crazy.”
“True, the walls were starting to close in a bit there.”
Johnson didnt laugh. “Yeah. Sometimes I feel like they still are.”
“It's worst on Sunday nights.”
“Yes, but Sunday mornings are awful too. Your last hours of leisure are like...stolen form you by just...”
“The dread of waking up?”
We paid our bill and went for a walk. It was Sunday, but we would be off on Monday.