June 30, 2009

On the Road Again

There will be no new Parris Island entries until next week. We leave early tomorrow morning to drive to Virginia and we will drive back on Sunday. My sister's 50th birthday is on Thursday so my oldest brother (Robert) is flying in from California to surprise her. We decided to show up at the same time unannounced and really shock her as she has not seen my wife and daughters in several years. We have not seen Robert in a decade or so so this promises to be a big reunion. On the way home on Sunday we will meet up with my father-in-law in Richmond and bring him to stay with us. While here he will have open heart surgery and recover at our home. Whether or not he will be able to go back to his nomadic ways after his recovery remains to be seen, but I doubt it. I suspect he will be a a permanent resident which will be good for everyone involved and teach our daughters the proper way to treat your parents as the begin to age.

As always we covet your prayers both for our travels and for the future and for all the issues looming large.

Here, for no reason whatsoever is, a video of Townes Van Zandt, one of the best songwriters ever. If you like good country/folk music you can't do much better.

June 25, 2009

Parris Island: Part 3

The Marines I have seen around the world have the cleanest bodies, the filthiest minds, the highest morale, and the lowest morals of any group of animals I have ever seen. 
Thank God for the United States Marine Corps!
First Lady of the United States Eleanor Roosevelt, 1945 

Two of the first hurdles all recruits immediately face is the position of Attention and close order drill (COD). But it is probably fair to say that every Marine begins at the position of Attention. It becomes instinctive, as central to every Marine as the Marine Corps Hymn, his rifle or Iwo Jima. Before all things there is Attention and one of the very first commands every recruit hears is to assume the position. First attempts are always sloppy, sad affairs but eventually every Marine can snap to Attention perfectly at a moment’s notice.

The position of Attention is to stand with heels together and touching and on the same line with feet spread at the all-important 45° angle. Chin up, eyes straight forward, knees not locked, chest out, no slouching, shoulders square, arms hanging straight without stiffness, hands at you sides thumb forward, fingers naturally curled and lightly pinching the seam in your trousers. And you do not move. Do not look to the side, do not move your eyes to the side, do not shift your focus from the point on which you have locked your eyes, do not scratch an itch, do not cough, burp, laugh, cry or pass out, all of which are considered breaking the position of attention. The hard part is when you have drill instructors screaming into both ears giving you conflicting orders and a third glaring straight in your face, punching his finger very deliberately into your chest and wondering at the top of his voice why you are queer for his gear? Try that without flinching or even looking to the side.

Proper Attention is important whether alone or as a platoon. And you are always with your platoon because recruits go everywhere as a platoon. Recruits are rarely alone (except maybe in the dentist’s chair) because recruits do every thing together. Privacy and modesty are impossibilities. Always together, always suffering /learning. It is the beginning of the process of many becoming one. While you may become an individual Marine it is only because of the Corps that you exist. The goal is to learn to count on your fellow Marines and ultimately if necessary to die for them. This shared Hell, this experience few people will even attempt much less complete has a powerful bonding strength. And one of the first place it starts is close order drill.

Close order drill is an ancient military tradition designed to instill discipline and order into the ranks. In the Marine Corps it is honed to a fine art as anyone who has ever seen the Silent Drill Team can attest. Initially drill practice is done on a huge asphalt drill field. Watching the new platoons you always see the practice interrupted periodically by one or all the still learning recruits stopping to do push up or mountain climbers (running in place while in the push up position) to the DIs satisfaction. It becomes a matter of great pride to be able to execute the maneuvers perfectly, partly to make your DIs happy (and eventually even proud) and because it feels very good to work so closely together as a team, to move as one organism, to have each heel hit the pavement together, to turn at the exact same instant, to stop exactly together. After learning basic drill, the rifle is introduced into the mix which is another set of routines done while marching and standing.

A good DI can take a large platoon anywhere and place them exactly where he wants. It gets to the point where your DI can have a seventy man platoon march from a distance away then, without stopping, take the platoon half-stepping through the double doors into a crowded, busy chow hall and have the platoon stop precisely together at precisely the same place right where the chow trays stand stacked. It is minute precision executed expertly. Trust me, it is impressive, especially to the new recruits.

While marching you listen to and follow the DIs cadence. It can be very cool to hear and every DI sings differently. Many times they don’t even really pronounce the words but you know what they mean. It is through his cadence and correct issuing of orders that the platoon moves where he wants it to go. While marching the platoon is walking at 120 steps per minute and every step has to be in sync. This drill training follows every recruit into Marine Corps where it is utilized every day.

But enough about close order drill. One of my frustrations in writing about this experience is having to leave so much out. Pardon me if I drag on. But I would ask you to remember how young these men are when they undergo this trial. I was barely 17 yet I was ready to go fight and die. No matter what you may think of our military remember all these young men today are volunteering to put themselves in harms way for us. Semper Fi.

Watch how the guy with the camera flinches when the platoon comes marching straight at him. Even after all these years I can still understand the DI say, “By the left flank, march” which is the command that sends the platoon to their left and at the cameraman. Later you can also hear him say “By the left oblique, march” which straightens the platoon up before going through the archway. 


I apologize for the delay in the next Parris Island installment. It's in progress and will appear in a day or two. We bought a new computer (see above) and went back to Apple. Nice computer but it has taken a little while to adjust. I also got Photoshop CS4 and it takes a while to adjust. I have been writing on another project, I am setting up a separate photo website and I am preparing to home school our daughter in the fall. My wife's father had a heart attack and may well be coming to stay with us prior to major heart surgery and for part of the healing process. Its summer with all it's distractions. 

June 13, 2009

Parris Island: Part 2

Boot camp doesn’t really start until you meet your Drill Instructors. The sleep deprivation, the shaved head, the new uniforms, the unfamiliarity are just warm ups for the main event. The meeting is a life-changing event where you realize that there is no backing out. This is real. These guys mean business.

The Drill Instructors are the gatekeepers and to pass through you will have to do it their way, the Corps’ way. Only those who meet the standard may pass. Without such strict guardians, such high standards the Marine Corps might as well be the Army. It is these high standards, strict discipline and unwavering obedience that sets the Marine Corps apart and it all starts with the Drill Instructors. The journey is fraught with danger but the reward is membership in the Corps, one of the few, the proud. There is no way to prepare yourself for the onslaught.

The initial introduction to your four Drill Instructors (never, never, ever Drill Sergeant) is when they begin to set out the rules, the behavior they will henceforth expect from you. There will be no leniency. You will be living under a microscope and even the smallest mistakes will matter. Attention to detail is paramount.

The four menacing men in immaculate uniforms and wearing razor sharp campaign hats introduced themselves. The three Drill Instructors wear green web belts but the Senior Drill Instructor wears a black leather belt. It is a small but very important difference. Titles are very important as each thing has a proper name and every Marine has a proper title. To call the Senior Drill Instructor a Drill Instructor is to take from him something he has worked very hard to achieve.  Proper titles and rank promote order and discipline as every Marine knows his place in the chain of command.

Following the introductions the you-know-what hit the proverbial fan. When they say they will be your mother and your father they mean it. They will be the source of almost unbearable physical and psychological pain but on rare (but very important) moments they will be a source of encouragement. It is the start of a complex love/hate relationship. Initially you hate them for being so mean, so insensitive, so exacting. Why are they mad all the time? Who peed in their cornflakes? You try very hard to please them, to prove that you deserve to be part of their Marine Corps. Hate slowly changes to admiration as you see that they can easily do everything they ask you to do. Through their efforts lowly recruits become thoroughly indoctrinated into the way.

The thirteen weeks aboard Parris Island are a deliberate and total break from the life you led before. The DIs begin teaching recruits a new vocabulary, a new way to speak, a new way to dress and to get dressed, a new way to do practically everything. The first and last word out of your mouth has to be “Sir” and you have to refer to yourself in the third person. “Sir Recruit Terrell requests to make a head call Sir.” And woe to the lowly recruit who ever refers to himself as “I.” A hat is now a cover, walls are now bulkheads, the floor is now the deck, left is now port and right is now starboard. The bathroom is now the head.

These traditions and vocabulary are part of the Marine Corps’ naval heritage. In the British Navy the Marine’s served as the ship Captain’s personal force on board ship to prevent mutiny. The Marines would also go up into the yardarms during a conflict and serve as sharpshooters as well as serving as landing parties. This tradition of having Marines aboard Navy vessels continues to this day. In general Marines hate being a Department of the Navy. Right or wrong they are unofficially taught to have a healthy lack of respect/use for any of the other Armed Forces, especially the Navy. We just need them to get us where we were going. But Navy Corpsmen are different. The corpsmen assigned to Marine units are given the same respect given to other Marines because they have earned it in combat time and again.

At 5:00 a.m. sharp one of the DIs threw one of the heavy metal trash cans down the middle of the squad bay and all four came yelling and screaming loud enough to wake the dead. I unwisely decided I would stay in bed, that I needed a few more winks. I quickly realized that what I wanted mattered not at all. The DI pushed me mattress and all off the top bunk onto the hard concrete deck. I never made that mistake again. We stood on line in the position of attention wearing nothing but our new boxers and t-shirts. Day one would not be fun.

June 1, 2009

Parris Island: Part 1

Coming aboard Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island (there is another Recruit Depot in San Diego but they don’t really count) is a descent into a physical and mental maelstrom from which I was sure I would never escape. For every new recruit it is a perilous journey down a dark dangerous road with no streetlights, no road signs. He/she (they also train Women Marines at Parris Island) is left with only their will to endure. As soon as the bus stopped a very angry red-faced staff sergeant rushed aboard insisting we were only fecal matter, making deprecating remarks about our mothers and the uncertainty as to who fathered us. He loudly insisted with great vigor that we get the hell off his bus and step into the yellow footprints (painted with the heels together and the feet splayed at the all important 45 degree angle) on the asphalt. Then it was through the infamous door with the sign above it which reads “Through This Portal Pass Prospects For The World’s Finest Fighting Force UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS.” Personally it was more akin to a descent into Dante’s Inferno.
Upon arrival everything familiar is deliberately either taken away or modified as part of the process of breaking us down so they could mold us their own image. One of the processors wrote what looked like “bEll” on my hand. It was my platoon number. I was to join First Battalion, A Company, Platoon 1139. Following the initial haircut (during which the mad barbers rendered us bald in about the time it takes to sneeze) the real dislocation began to set in. All our clothing and belongings were put into storage until our graduation or pre-graduation discharge. It was a time of transition for the Corps so we were issued four uniforms, two of the old solid green sateens and two of the new standard camouflage.
By this time I had been up for two days with no sleep and was in just the right condition for the indoctrination to begin. The old/young me was ready to be replaced by a physically fit, aggressive, confident young man who bore little resemblance to the drifting, undisciplined, long haired slacker. I eventually discovered much later that while I did change in many ways the demons that were to haunt me for years to come were very much alive and well beneath the spit and polish exterior. In the Corps I found many kindred spirits willing to tag along on the road to addiction and disintegration. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to Parris Island.
After being issued all the other gear we would need for the next three months it was time to meet our drill instructors. 

Here is a photo of me some time after graduation. I am flanked by my brother Terry (shirtless) on the left  and an old family friend, Charlie Wolf, on the right.