by Greg White
Our platoon had thinned out. I dashed off the news of each departure in letters to my family as if they were playing along with cross-referenced lists, graphs, and charts. I informed them who got dropped and why, mostly to let them know that being dropped was a possibility. If I were expelled, they wouldn’t think I was the only one.
We lost four recruits after the Initial Strength Test. They failed to do the minimum required pull-ups. Then the Corps found out Baker was illiterate and sent him home. And most recently the gas chamber conscientious objector. We were down to sixty-six from the seventy-two that walked in together. Since we were nearing the end of three-week Phase III, our last phase, I figured anyone still with us would graduate. But some of our activities could have killed us, so there was still that option for a way out. Or there was the insanity clause.
Private Cantrell was heavy, but not one of the weak. He was strong and tough, an entertaining character who strutted cockily around after a shower with his fat belly hanging over his towel. From the Deep South, he drawled out over and over, “I am a country boy.”
He sang a lot, which was strange, but many of the boys were odd. At first, he sang to himself—songs he made up. One was a marching cadence. When the DIs heard him, they let him step out of the platoon and march in the sacred DI spot next to us. He bounced along, his fat cheeks forcing his eyes closed when he opened his mouth.
“Fly flew in the grocery store.”
We repeated the line, energized from having one of our own lead us: “Fly flew in the grocery store.”
Cantrell: “He shit on the ceiling and he shit on the floor.”
We didn’t respond in unison because some of us had to giggle. Drill Instructor Sgt. Hutchins still supervised our marching and barked out, “Lock it up, Privates.”
Cantrell: “He shit on the coffee, and he shit on the tea.”
We sang, following orders: “He shit on the coffee, and he shit on the tea.”
Cantrell: “Then he shit on the table and he shit on me.”
Hutchins ordered Cantrell back in formation. That was his whole song. No finish, no chorus. He sang it often. His song caught on. I found myself singing it in my head, and heard others humming it out loud.
Like his song, Cantrell was a mix of whimsy and darkness. There were some types of shit duty he hated—we all had those. Who in their right mind wanted to scrub toilets, wake up in the middle of the night to stumble through an hour of firewatch, or dump Aqua Velva in a bucket and swirl the deck with a stringy mop? Cantrell hated some so much that he started disobeying orders, preferring to take his punishment. For one whole week, he was sent back to the squad bay midday from his antics. He seemed happy to be kicked out. He had to polish brass or clean the head, which was still punishment. Perhaps he preferred solitude.
We were far enough along that the DIs recognized his fuck-ups as deliberate, blatant. His behavior seemed belligerent to me. One day I saw a glimpse of crazy in Cantrell’s eyes as he stood on line, at attention. My bunkie, Robinette, had skittish eyes that alarmed me, but his look wasn’t insane. Cantrell’s was. I learned in Week One to make my eyes look non-reactive at all times, because a DI senses a change in a recruit’s eyes like a dog senses fear. When Sgt. DiBello joined our platoon in Week One as a replacement for Sgt. Andrews (who was fired for hitting a recruit) he jumped in front of me, screaming.
“I don’t like the color of your eyes, Private! Change ’em! Change ’em!” DiBello hollered.
It was an order, and I tried to obey it. I called up the same silent inner grunt I used when trying to get a shit started.
Our eyes stayed locked. His were bright and alert, rimmed with dark, thick lashes that made them beautifully threatening.
I wanted so badly for him to go away from me.
“What the fuck is your problem, Private? I gave you a direct order! Are you refusing to follow my order, Private?”
Why was he picking me out of all seventy-two of us? When he said to change the color of my eyes, did he mean change the sexual orientation of my eyes? Had the con I’d pulled on the other guys and drill instructors just come to a crashing halt?
“Private, you better fucking try! I better see some goddamn brown shit floating up in all that blue. You want to be a Marine?! Show me!”
Cantrell shook me back to the moment. He started singing. Staring straight out, and interrupting our drill instructor. “Fly flew in the grocery store. . . .”
Which was what he was going for.
As scribe, I handled paperwork and coordinated appointments for the platoon, so I knew he’d been sent to the medic’s office. I wasn’t surprised later that day when I was in the office writing the firewatch schedule and our Senior DI Staff Sgt. McKinnon walked in with two Marines I’d never seen before. I figured he was going to order me out, but he asked for Cantrell’s file. I grabbed it from the small drawer, and he snatched it away. He charged out to the squad bay.
“Private Cantrell! Pack your trash, recruit.”
I left the office and stood near my bunk. McKinnon ordered us to carry on.
“Don’t rubberneck into a situation that doesn’t concern you,” he said.
But it did concern us.
The three Marines hovered over Cantrell. I was losing someone. Cantrell was being taken away. I made a mental note to not act crazy. He kept on muttering in his sing-song voice; the air in the room was charged and intense. He shoved everything in his sea bag in two minutes. The Marines each took an arm and led him down the center of the squad bay.
My bunk was near the front, and as Cantrell passed, almost being dragged, he looked over at me. His face was batshit crazy. His entire head was hot red; his eyes squinted into scary slits. Were he not held, he could bite. In a way, I was glad he was leaving. So much about boot camp scared me, but crazy was threatening to everyone. Still mumbling out his fly-in-the-grocery-store song, he broke character and winked at me. I realized he must have arrived at Parris Island with an insanity round in the chamber, decided the military wasn’t for him, and pulled the trigger.
I never saw him again. For the rest of the week—and the rest of boot camp—whenever we were being pushed and I was miserable, I thought of Cantrell and the option he exercised. Scuttlebutt bounced around, most of it agreeing that he was discharged. But his wink haunted me, reducing his craziness to a deliberate ruse, meant to get himself booted from the Marines. I had signed a six-year contract; by the time I left, I would have committed a quarter of my life to the Corps.
After one particularly grueling morning, morale was really low. We’d been whipped like potatoes and felt as dead and heavy. McKinnon marched into the squad bay and told us to fall outside in platoon formation. I often saw the calendar in advance, but had no clue where we were headed. When the DIs didn’t tell us to grab our rifle, helmet, or books, it was anyone’s guess. I dreaded something as bad as chow hall duty, or worse. This was what a war must be like—you finish one battle and there isn’t time to grieve; there’s just more.
After two turns down the road, I knew we were headed for the barber. I hoped this was the day they left the patch on top of our heads unshaved so we looked like a platoon with some time under our belts.
As a unit we all hung on this small desire. It meant we had achieved something. It reminded me of my own frustration waiting for puberty to give some sign it hadn’t passed me over.
I stood in the single-file line, about ten back from the barber’s door. I did my best sneaky lean-out to peek ahead, trying to see if the first guy emerged with that little patch on top. If he’d been shaved, he’d quickly slap his cover on his head, ashamed of its nakedness.
Dale was first in line, since he was squad leader. When he came out, the second guy leaned out, which made me lean out, and I imagine the guy behind me had to lean out even farther. Dale didn’t put his cap on. What I saw took away all the bad thoughts from the prior week.
He had the patch.
Passing by me, his smile nearly reached his ears. His deep dimples conveyed his excitement. We’d come a long way. Our eyes met, but he kept on walking.
I sat in the chair, not daring to look up at the barber’s face in case that pissed him off and he shaved my whole head.
I didn’t bother to sit all the way back in the chair; this would only take a few seconds. My head was on auto-tilt and dipped down toward my chest before the barber even laid the palm of his left hand on my neck. The metal blades were hot from action, and they stung on my neck as he clipped up. Since my eyes were already closed to keep the hairs out, I squeezed in a wish for a high-and-tight haircut.
The clippers tickled over my ears. They ran along the upper part of my head. I smelled the oil used to keep the razor humming. It was stale. Then I got the tap from the barber. As I got out of the chair, I reached up. My hand traveled up the shaved side of my head and hit the patch.
That top patch of uncut hair helped earn us the name Jarheads from the Navy. They think it makes our heads look as if they have a lid that can be screwed open. If anyone, squid or not, picks that name up and hurls it at us thinking it’s insulting—it isn’t. We earned that patch with months of sweat and hardship. I thought of Cantrell. Back home, without a uniform to back it up, his shaved head would look as if he’d been released from prison, or a mental institution. Crazy is never in fashion.
DiBello taught us to respond to any teasing out in the civilian world with, “Grab hold and try to twist it off our proud heads, motherfuckers. It doesn’t budge.”
We got another lesson at about the same time: hard work pays off. McKinnon came in the front door of the squad bay one day carrying a stack of file folders. He looked back and jerked his chin up over his shoulder, signaling for someone to enter.
Three recruits walked in, struggling under the weight of their fully packed sea bags, their rifles swinging about. It was weird to have new recruits join our Phase III platoon. I wondered how they’d ever fit in. McKinnon snapped his fingers at them and pointed to the invisible line at the front of the quarterdeck. He barked down the squad bay, “Get on line!”
“Aye-aye, sir!” Our response showed progress from the “sir yes sir” of Phase I.
We all stopped what we were doing and stood at attention with eyes ahead.
“Drop your trash there, Privates, and lock it up.” I heard the thump and rattle of their bags as they dropped. I shifted my eyes to peek to the quarterdeck. McKinnon walked past the new platoon members, knocking the hat off the head of a recruit who had rudely left it on after entering. The recruit stayed locked and frozen.
“Don’t give me some shit about forgetting to remove your covers inside my house!”
I returned my eyes to the front to avoid McKinnon’s detection.
“Eyes on me, Privates!” Our heads snapped to lock on him, our bodies still facing front. This move was usually done in public when our DIs showed us off while delivering information, like we were mechanized puppets.
“We don’t always get a second chance in life, Privates. You fuck your shit up and get your ass blown up in a battle, pull some shit and get your goddamn squad killed—that’s it. Some chaplain knocks on your sweet mother’s door and hands her a fucking folded-up flag.”
Back in Phase I he’d used the same emotional voice to deliver the sad news that John Wayne had died. Wayne is the Marine mascot movie star; the Corps took the news hard and delivered it even harder. I wasn’t sure John Wayne had really died, because we didn’t have access to television. Although I wrote home asking for confirmation of John Wayne’s death, no one answered—I’m sure my question was such a non sequitur that my family assumed I wrote it while delirious.
When McKinnon spoke to us calmly like this, it was startling. Perhaps not his intention, or perhaps his intention exactly.
He walked back up to the quarterdeck, shark-circling the three recruits.
“What you see today—get your goddamn eyes off me and on the recruits on my quarterdeck—is a second chance.”
It took a minute, but I recognized Bowman’s huge smile—this group was three of our fatbodies, the guys who’d been dropped because they couldn’t do pull-ups at the Initial Strength Test. I hadn’t expected to see these guys again, but here they were in the flesh. Less flesh, actually—after two months they looked fit and thinner. I didn’t think they would be back. Our platoon was different than when they left. We were closing in on graduation. These guys had missed so much. I didn’t feel they could jump right back in.
“While you dumb shits have been lollygagging and beating off to your girlfriend’s letters—Pritchett—these recruits have been busting their hump to get back here. Fall out and gather ’round, platoon!”
We were up there in a flash. I looked them over like they were freaks. They were pale; I was tan. Had they even been training? For all I knew they just sat in a dark, cool room, starving. I was used to being the new kid at school so I should have compassion, right? Yet I couldn’t believe they were back.
McKinnon ordered the three recruits to take off their camo blouses. They’d worn them to move from their other barracks, I guess, as if getting dressed up to travel. They looked like bumpkins, country cousins, misfits.
“You soft bodies got to earn your way back in. Your other Drill Instructor tells me that you deserve to be here, but you still got to prove it. If you can’t do three pull-ups, then back you go.” He pointed at the pull-up bar hanging from the ceiling and pointed back at Bowman.
As Bowman approached the bar, I thought of what he had told me before he got dropped. His whole family was heavy and no one believed he would be successful in boot camp. I told him that he could do it, because here I was and no one thought I would even make it to day one, much less through day one. He wanted to prove his family wrong. He wanted someone to believe in him, and if he needed to be forced to shape up, then signing the enlistment papers was his first step toward that goal. The “someone” he needed to believe in him was himself.
When he had failed and walked out of our platoon, all I could see was him beating himself up and realizing that he was trapped in that state, that everyone was right. Because that’s what I was feeling. His failure was my success. He passed by me with his sad panda face, forcing the corners of his mouth up into a smile, but when we locked eyes, all I saw was sadness and fear.
He had no way of knowing that I was him.
I’m not sure if a silent audience is a dream or a nightmare, but we were totally still. Bowman looked up at the bar with a hope we all felt. His eyes never left the bar as he jumped up and caught it. He hung for second—then started to rise. He pulled up to the top and dropped back down, pausing at the bottom, in the same spot where he’d gotten stuck before—where he had struggled and wiggled, but couldn’t finish.
But he pulled up again, and popped his chin over the bar as a fuck you to his fat past. I looked up at him like I was peeking up the shorts of some workman on a ladder, and noticed that the flabby white belly that had hung over his pants on his previous attempt was mostly gone.
We yelled him an “Oorah!” of recognition to encourage him.
He lowered back down, the silent anticipation broken by his own grunt as he pulled himself back up to the top. He went back down. Three.
He hung there poised to dismount; the entire platoon erupted. We were slapping each other on the back, looking up at him, yelling his name.
McKinnon didn’t tell us to shut up. Bowman had done it.
But he still didn’t drop to the deck. He stared straight ahead, letting his entire body hang straight down. Instead of releasing the pull-up bar and dropping to the floor, he grabbed it tighter and pulled back up. He got to the top, pushed his chin over, and yelled “Oorah!” before dropping back to a hang. He pulled back up.
We gave him a burst of Oorahs back, then everyone automatically got quiet again. He was hitting the stride, that up-and-down pull-up rhythm that only a few could do, including Marks and Dale.
Bowman pumped the pull-ups out. By the tenth, we were screaming and hopping around. Our voices chanted, spraying “Bowman!” through the air like congratulatory champagne. He must have done thirty pull-ups before McKinnon finally grabbed his swinging feet and ordered him down.
When Bowman dropped to the ground, his face was purple and he wasn’t smiling.
McKinnon, caught in the moment, wrapped him in a hug. I’d never seen that before. I’d also never seen a man fight so hard for his life. I had weeks to go until graduation, and I would carry this moment with me. Physical challenges like the forced marches hit me hard. Just holding my pee until I was allowed to use the head was an accomplishment. Every morning delivered more shocks. Mess hall duty, inspections, timed runs. Tiny victories comforted me for a second but never left me assured that I could do… any of it. But the collective grunt of the platoon would push me forward when normally, before the Marines, I would stop trying.
Bowman was me. I was Bowman. I was surviving.