There’s no moral to this story; it’s just a reflection, a reflection of my first day as a recruit at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) in San Diego, California. While absolutely none of this was funny at the time, it is all kind of amusing to me now, and I remember it like it was yesterday.
I grew up in a small community in southern Illinois – Newton, Illinois – where people generally knew each other or at least knew of each other. It was – and is – a nice town. It’s the kind of town that still holds a fall parade where tractors and marching bands own the streets. People sit along the curb in their chairs while the kids play along the street. The people there cherish the tempo and lifestyle, quietly aware that if everyone lived that way, it would be a much better world.
I wasn’t exactly setting any academic records in high school so I needed a change of pace and some way to transition to a successful track somewhere, somehow. I had thought about the military, but I didn’t want to go overboard with this whole transition thing. I wasn’t sure I would be cut out for the military life and I didn’t know which branch of the service to enter. I was very certain it wouldn’t be the Marines because I was pretty sure I couldn’t make it there.
However, when the Marine recruiter called and asked if he could come over for a visit, I said yes. Almost as soon as he stepped through the door, I was in awe. I was still pretty sure I couldn’t get there from where I was in my life, but I was willing to listen. After some kind of black magic and other trickery, he had me thinking I could make it and I decided right then I wanted to become a Marine. I was caught up in all of it and had apparently separated myself from the reality that there was no way I could make it through Marine Corps boot camp. I wasn’t a very big or fit guy at the time. I didn’t run, I wasn’t strong, and I wasn’t very focused. All of that was going to change soon enough though.
I signed the papers in September of 1974, just after my seventeenth birthday and finished my high school work in January. I took a few weeks to do some fishing and camping, but came back to Newton in February in time to take a Greyhound bus to the recruiting center in St. Louis.
I spent the night in a so-so hotel in a not-so-good part of town. I didn’t get a lot of sleep because I was afraid of missing my wake-up time. It turns out I couldn’t have missed it because this sorry hotel seemed to have invested in a wake-up ringer that could have awakened the dead. They obviously housed a lot of recruits because it was not quite a gentle wake-up call.
My instructions were to get up early at a time they gave me and report to the recruiting center for processing. I had the sense that it would be a pretty quick evolution since I already had a physical and signed a bunch of papers and this was the military, known for its rapid efficiency. But I was wrong. I got there early and waited and waited. Then, we did a little something and waited and waited some more. That happened all day long until suddenly near the end of the day everyone flew into action to process us out of there and get us to the airport for an airplane to San Diego. What appeared to be wasteful inefficiency turned out to be a well-conceived plan. Very clever.
They gave me all of the paperwork for the group in a large yellow envelope because my last name came first in the alphabet among those headed out to San Diego. There were probably a dozen of us. It turns out where my last name fell in the alphabet dictated a good bit of my perspective over the next three months since we did almost everything in alphabetical order. We lined up for shots in alphabetical order and we even slept in alphabetical order. I got a good look at the back of Private Dibble’s head over that period.
We took off out of the airport in St. Louis en route to San Diego. I wasn’t nervous, mostly because I was too clueless to be nervous. However, as we made our approach into the airport in San Diego, the flight attendant pointed out the Marine Corps Recruit Depot and the Naval Training Center which bordered the airport over the intercom. As I looked down on the base which looked eerily serene and darkened except for the street lights, I suddenly felt claustrophobic. As we filed off the airplane, the flight attendant told us recruits, “good luck,” and she seemed to mean it. Those were the last kind, warm words I heard for three months.
We got out into the airport and went looking for the Marine Corps liaison at the airport. It was after 10 PM and there weren’t very many people there. We found the Marine liaison standing behind a podium near some doors that went to the outside. I took my large envelope of documents to the podium to let the liaison know we had arrived.
As I walked up, the Marine was looking down at some papers he was working on. I rested my elbow on the podium and told him the group from St. Louis was there. Without looking up and without raising his voice, the Marine told me to get my elbow off of his podium. He added some other words that seemed to double the sense of how serious he was about me needing to get my elbow off of his podium. I got the message immediately. I got my elbow off of his podium. I suddenly wished I had heeded my Dad’s words to stand up straight and “don’t lean on that.”
He told us to wait outside and the bus would be along shortly. Some other groups of recruits came outside as we waited. Almost on cue once we had a bus load, a white school bus with, “U. S. Marine Corps” stenciled in small letters on the side pulled up.
When a sergeant came flying out of the bus yelling and screaming at us, I thought, “What am I doing here?!” I almost felt like the guy from Shawshank Redemption who, on arriving at prison, cries out, “I don’t belong here…” I didn’t cry though. In fact, I didn’t say a word. I was all ears.
The sergeant yelled at us to fill the bus from back to front, from left to right. He said it so fast, you really had to be listening.
One of the guys from St. Louis was a red-headed kid who must have been somebody in his JROTC unit because he couldn’t stop talking at St. Louis, on the plane, and at curbside while we were waiting for the bus about how he was going to breeze through boot camp. Well, he might have been better off attending to his listening skills because he jumped on that bus and promptly sat in the middle of it. That’s not what the sergeant told us to do, and he went tearing back up on that bus and all you could hear was the sound of that sergeant barking in this guy’s ear, then the red-head quickly shuffling to the back of the bus. Welcome to boot camp.
The rest of us got on the bus. If there were any doubts about how we were supposed to do that, the red-headed guy’s experience clarified it for us nicely. The bus started rolling and we made our way over to MCRD on what was probably the loneliest bus ride of my short life. I had never felt more like I was being led to the wolves. I was right about that.
We arrived at MCRD, and just as there were instructions about how to get on the bus, there were instructions about how to get off the bus. This time, we were to stand on a column of yellow footprints. These yellow footprints were painted with feet at the position of attention because although we didn’t know what that was, we needed to be at it.
We got on the yellow footprints and the place was swarming with DIs, or at least it seemed to be. The time was around midnight and they told us to drop everything we had in our hands. I had that envelope with those papers, but I dropped it and never saw it again. One poor soul brought a beach ball. He must have had a recruiter with a sense of humor. Since he was coming to San Diego, he must have thought he was going to get some beach time. That got him some unwanted attention right away.
I was standing behind a guy who had long hair and a beard and he could not have looked more out of place there. While I was pretty fixated on not being the next red-headed guy, I couldn’t help think, “this is going to be interesting” about the guy who stood in front of me on those footprints.
He looked out of place, but that was about to change. Those yellow footprints were located in the heart of the recruit reception activity. Just to our right was the barbershop and it was open for business. The very first thing we did after getting on those yellow footprints was file into the barbershop for a haircut that couldn’t have lasted longer than 15 seconds. There were half a dozen barbers and they took no time at all to cut all of those heads of hair.
Just before the guy in front of me, the one with the long hair and beard, was supposed to head into the barber, he suddenly fainted right there on his yellow footprints. As the DIs and a medical corpsman attended to him, I moved quickly around him and went in for my haircut. When I came back, he was gone and an empty set of yellow footprints remained.
A short while later, though, he returned with his hair cut off. He still had his beard. He received the same express haircut I got, but as he stood in front of me, I could see he had these remnants of his long hair here and there that the barber missed. He looked like one of those old dolls that most of the hair had fallen out of (with a beard). He was very pale and not looking good at all. I remember thinking this guy’s not going to make it. It turns out he graduated from boot camp in my platoon as a squad leader with a meritorious promotion. Shows you what I knew.
So, whatever you looked like on the bus was not what you looked like back on those yellow footprints after that haircut. The red-headed guy from St. Louis was an exception.
The red-headed guy was still the red-headed guy and he was proving to be quite a DI magnet. He wasn’t doing anything right and they absolutely were on him the entire evening. Our next stop was an issue line where we were given our toiletries. Somehow, he messed that up too and the DIs hauled him outside where we could hear them giving him the business. I couldn’t understand what they were yelling, but I thought they were going to send that guy out of there that night the way things were going. I, on the other hand, suddenly found the focus that had eluded me all of those seventeen years.
We finally made it to bed. I have no idea what time it was, but I was ready for a good night of sleep. I didn’t sleep much the night before and a long day capped off with the trauma of being at MCRD with a lot of DIs who apparently had no idea of what an “indoor voice” was made me very tired. We were bunked in an open squad bay, which means it was a very large room with rows of double bunks with aisles between the rows.
I got to sleep immediately, but it seemed that almost as soon as my eyelids hit my cheekbones, the lights came back on and someone was throwing a trash can down the aisle. There’s nothing quite like that sound, and it sure gave the impression they really wanted us out of bed and standing at attention at the foot of our bunks right away. They counted us to make sure we were all still there then they gave some instructions for us to go to the head (restroom) to shave. We did it in shifts. Half went to the head while the other half stripped bunks of the sheets and blankets. As soon as the beds were stripped, it was time to rotate: the guys in the head came shuffling out and the other half went shuffling in.
We ran back out to our bunks and put our civilian clothes back on and ran outside. We assembled in a kind of a military formation and walked – because we didn’t know how to march – in that sorry formation. It was still dark outside, but as we made our way over to the mess hall – now called a dining facility in the military – we could see other recruit platoons who had obviously been there a while because when they marched, it sounded like one heel: thump, thump, thump, thump. That was something. That might have been the only time the DIs let us gawk. Everything they did was as though they were one, in perfect unison. Everything we did was evidence that we had a long way to go. The DIs had a colorful way of telling us how far we had to go yet.
We filed into the mess hall and it was all business in there too. Once we got to the serving line and grabbed a tray, the mess men behind the serving line kept saying, “keep the chow line moving, privates, keep the chow line moving.” If the chow line stopped moving, there was trouble because the DIs saw that too. Of course, the yelling of “not fast enough,” “what are you looking at,” and “no talking” were echoing throughout the mess hall. I was near the end of the chow line so I was one of the last to get my breakfast. That didn’t work out so well.
Thinking I should get a decent meal that morning so I would have enough battery juice to make it through the day, I grabbed some scrambled eggs, some hash browns, and a pastry. I should have stopped at the scrambled eggs and hash browns. I shoved that stuff in my mouth as fast as I could because almost as soon as I sat down, we were getting a countdown for when we needed to be finished. By the time we were told to get out of the mess hall, I still had that pastry sitting there. I started to get up, but one of those multi-eyeballed DIs spotted that pastry on my tray.
He told me I wasn’t going to waste his Marine Corps chow. Everything seemed to belong to these DIs and they seemingly took everything personally – my Marine Corps chow, my Marine Corps barracks, my Marine Corps dirt, my Marine Corps formation – and we seemed to always be messing up their Marine Corps things.
So, I was not going to waste his Marine Corps chow. I dropped back down in my seat and my new friend, the DI, was right on me yelling at me to get this thing eaten. I stuffed as much of that pastry in my mouth I could without gagging – throwing up right then would not have been good – and tried to chew, but it wasn’t going anywhere. It just seemed to get larger and mushier and more impossible to do anything with. I finally got the whole thing in my mouth and was still trying to chew it when he yelled at me (in his outside voice) to get out of there. I must have chewed that ball of grease and dough for an hour, but I finally got it down. That was the last pastry I ate in boot camp.
We got back to the barracks and cleaned the place up then went to get our uniforms. Once again, we became someone different (except for that red-headed guy). We looked nothing like military guys in those green uniforms though. It was pretty clear that we were just civilians dressed up – poorly, I should say – in military uniforms. The uniforms smelled like mothballs and were dark green because they’d not yet been laundered. We looked terrible, but at least, in our eyes, we were starting to look like we belonged there.
A little while later, we went to a place where we boxed up all of our personal belongings and shipped them home. The Marine Corps would issue to us anything we would need from that time on. Then, we went over to the phone center where we were allowed to make a quick phone call home. There was a script taped next to the telephone that went something like this: “This is Recruit Doss. I have arrived safely at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. Please do not send me any food or bulky items in the mail. I will contact you in 3 to 5 days by postcard with my new address. Thank you for your support. Goodbye for now.”
That’s when it really settled on me that I now belonged to the United States Marine Corps. What happened from that time forward was entirely in my hands and in the hands of a few drill instructors.