combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 05 Number 01 Winter ©Jan 2007

Vietnam Strains

          Roy Cafferty had received his draft notice and he decided to join the Marine Corps as an officer candidate, instead of going into the infantry as an enlisted man. Early Wednesday morning Roy took the subway to the Whitehall Street induction center. He presented his papers at the Marine desk and was immediately plunged into the system. He was directed to a large locker room where he was given a small, green canvas bag and told to strip to his underwear, put his clothes in the locker, and put his wallet and personals in the bag. Then he underwent a physical examination. By this time the center was bedlam. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine recruits were being processed in separate groups, but in full view of each other. One army recruit wasn't wearing underwear and his feeble efforts to conceal his anatomy drew ribald comments. At six feet and 190 pounds, Roy was bigger than most of the kids and it felt like a high school locker room, but run with a lot more authority. This thought allowed him to begin a mindset that he hoped would see him through whatever was to come.

          They were hurried to get undressed, hurried to report to the correct examination room, hurried to get on line and then they waited. And waited. Roy remembered one of the Cafferty cousins once saying that the unwritten motto of the military was hurry up and wait. The air conditioning was pouring out icicle blasts on their near naked bodies, but the recruitment staff were fully dressed, so they were comfortable. After standing there and freezing for 45 minutes, Roy went and turned the AC down. A few minutes later a staffer turned it up again. Roy turned it down again and took off the plastic knob, so it couldn't be adjusted. The staffer tried to turn it up again, but walked off cursing when it wouldn't turn. The waiting men were getting restless when diversion arrived. A very young Army 2nd lieutenant led a group of draftees to a nearby table and read from a standard form. "It is against military rules to possess illegal weapons, drugs, alcohol, contraband or other forbidden objects." A not overly intelligent voice asked: "What's contraband?" "Anything you got, dummy," the ubiquitous wise-guy cracked. The dummy turned out to be a very large man who took offense. He looked around. "Who said that?" But the wise-guy discreetly caught lockjaw, so nothing happened.

          The entertainment seemed to be over, until the lieutenant ordered: "Put all forbidden objects on the table." With crash, thump, thud and plop, a shower of weapons and drugs landed on the table. Pistols, sawed-off shotguns, knives, bags of marijuana, glassine envelopes of white powder, bottles of cheap booze, and the ever popular juicer's choice, Thunderbird, grew in piles that stupefied the lieutenant. He wasn't a city boy and obviously had never imagined anything like this donation from tough, urban kids who took weapons for granted. "Is there anything else?" he managed to stutter. No one moved for a moment, then a thin, wiry black man said: "Sheeit," stepped forward and dropped a submachine gun on the table with a loud clank. "I thought we was gonna fight gooks? I don't see why I can't bring me some protection?" He stepped back into line and the lieutenant said reassuringly: "Don't worry. The Army will give you a weapon." The man was not consoled. "Sheeit. It won't be as good as mine." A black man in the Marine group yelled: "Don't worry, brother. The Army will give you a spear." Everyone roared with laughter. As the draftees moved out, they heard the disgruntled voice of the man who gave up his weapon: "A spear? Sheeit."

          The doctor arrived an hour and fifteen minutes late without apology. He was short and skinny, with large glasses perched on his face. He looked like a tropical fish, with bulgy eyes and mouth popping open and shut. Roy nicknamed him Doctor Gorami. His dirty white coat and unwashed hands hardly inspired confidence in the youngsters who were being detached from the world. His assistant was an obese, aquatic counterpart who looked like a grouper. He lisped: "Thtep forward for height and weight." The line started moving. After they were weighed and measured, each man stopped at Dr. Gorami for a rapid exam; eyes, ears, throat and ice cold stethoscope on chest. Then his voice of goblins past croaked, "Turn. Drop your drawers. Bend over." Dr. Gorami did a quick hernia check, then stamped accepted or rejected on a form. A large, coarse, fleshy recruit two places ahead of Roy obeyed the doctor and bent over. Just as the doctor bent down, the recruit let off a tremendous fart in the doctor's face that almost blew him over. The stink was close to lethal. Everyone but the doctor cracked up with laughter. Dr. Gorami glared at the vulgar, cackling brutes, but said nothing. Instead, he handled the meat more harshly and approached dangerous posteriors with caution.

          A gunnery sergeant gave Roy a lunch chit and directions to the Army and Air Force cafeteria several blocks away, along with a dozen other Marine recruits. He selected one of the recruits to take charge of the group. Roy was noticing that the Marines seemed to have a lot of gunnery sergeants. He told them to have lunch and report back in an hour. The place was packed when they got there. When they finally got their trays of what was supposed to be creamed chicken and some sort of unidentifiable green vegetable, Roy wasn't hungry, so he ducked out and went for a walk. He was in lower Manhattan, so he wandered around Wall Street, where the business suited drones flooded the canyoned streets at lunch time, briefly escaping the hives of profit. Roy felt like he just dropped in from another planet and although well prepared by his travel agent, still found earth alien. He strolled through narrow streets, staring like a tourist and finally took Beaver Street back to the Whitehall military meat processing plant, without seeing a single beaver.

          He got back a few minutes late and the gunnery sergeant was impatiently waiting. "You're late." Roy apologized. "Sorry, gunny, the streets were jammed and I got lost." "Where are your men?" he demanded. Roy looked at him in surprise. "I wasn't in charge, gunny." "You are the officer candidate. You're supposed to be responsible." "Sorry, gunny. I didn't know it started yet," Roy said sincerely. "Learn to be ready. Now come with me." He led them to a large room with tiny cubicles and assigned them to seats. They were given batteries of tests: comprehension, language skills, mechanical skills, science and electronics, personality evaluations and general knowledge. When they finished, they were sent to another room where a psychiatrist asked a series of questions designed to identify loonies, mad dogs, morons, degenerates and illegal immigrants from Alistair IV. The detector of deviance salivated slightly when he asked the sex questions and showed moderate disappointment when they revealed no perversions. Then they were sent to another room where they were given the oath of allegiance by a well decorated, picture book Marine captain. Roy had never sworn such a mighty oath before and he was suitably impressed with the solemnity of the occasion.

          The captain took Roy aside and informed him that he would be taking a flight to Quantico, Virginia, where he would wait until his class was formed for training. "How long will I have to wait for the class, sir?" Roy asked. "Are you impatient, son?" "No, sir. Just curious." "The next class will probably start September 15th. "That's ten days from now, sir. Can I go to Washington D.C. until then?" Roy asked hopefully. The captain grinned wolfishly. "From now on you go where we tell you, until death or discharge do us part." Roy said: "Yes, sir." "Gunnery sergeant Torville will escort you to La Guardia Airport, where you'll be put on the next available flight to Quantico." "When will that be, sir?" Roy asked. "Tonight or tomorrow morning. You ask a lot of questions. Do you have a problem with authority?" "No, sir. I just like to know what's going on." The captain smiled and suddenly looked much younger. "So do I. But you better learn when to keep your mouth shut." "Yes, sir. I've heard that advice before." "I bet you have." "I don't want to put gunny Torville to any trouble," Roy said. "I can take a taxi to the airport." "It's no trouble. Gunny Torville goes home that way and he'll make sure that you get there."

          Gunnery sergeant Torville didn't say much to Roy during the drive to the airport. It was just before rush hour and traffic was still light, so they made good time leaving Manhattan. Since arriving at Whitehall Street that morning, Roy had become less animated. Now he was feeling the loss of an inner joy that he had always taken for granted. He watched the sterile, urban scenery as they sped towards La Guardia and resolved to get through the coming trials and regain his good spirits. When they pulled up at the airport, Roy turned to Torville and said: "You don't say much, do you, gunny?" Torville looked at him, measuringly. "When you've been deep in the shit, you don't feel much like talking." "Was it bad in Vietnam?" Roy asked sympathetically. Torville's eyes were like dusty stones. "Yeah. I did two tours. The second was a real shit burner. It'll be worse by the time you get there."

          Roy had been listening to him carefully and asked: "Why, gunny?" Torville answered somberly: "Everyone knows the war is winding down and the missions reflect that. We're taking more and more defensive postures. The snuffies have too much time on their hands and they're goofing off, smoking dope and complaining more and more." "What's a snuffie?" Roy asked. "The lowest enlisted ranks; private or P.F.C. But don't get me wrong. It's not as bad as the Army, where they started fragging officers." "What's fragging?" Roy asked. "Jesus H. Christ. Don't you know anything?" "I guess not, gunny," Roy said apologetically. "Fragging is when they toss a grenade in an officer's tent." Roy couldn't believe it. "Holy shit. You've got to be kidding?" "I kid you not. But that's the Army. They'll draft anything. At least the Corps only takes volunteers." "Do you think Marines would frag their officers?" Roy asked. Torville looked annoyed. "I didn't say that. Enough talk. It's time to see you on your way." "Do you have any advice if I'm sent to Vietnam?" Roy asked. "Keep your mouth shut, your ass down and pray you get a good gunnery sergeant."

          Torville gave him tickets, transportation vouchers and meal chits, then turned him over to a ground attendant who agreed to look after him. Torville wished him luck and departed before he could even say good-bye. The pretty, vacuous blond automatically posed for Roy but quickly lost interest when he didn't respond enthusiastically. She took out a standard form and read in a monotone: "You will be taking flight 52, a special military flight to Quantico, Virginia. It is not a scheduled flight, so it does not have a specific departure time. We estimate it will depart sometime between 9:00 PM and 6:00 AM. You are to remain in the terminal at all times. You have been issued meal chits that will be accepted by all restaurants in the terminal. Your name will be added to the passenger manifest. Announcements will be made over the public address system informing you of pertinent information. Please do not hesitate to request assistance if you experience any difficulties." She turned and walked away without another word to him.

          Roy sat down on a bench to wait. The airport was bustling and for a while he watched fellow travelers rushing to make flights. Almost everyone was in a hurry and few of them looked relaxed. Roy vaguely remembered a 1968 survey that claimed that 65% of Americans had never flown. Looking at the tense voyagers, Roy could believe that. He realized that he could be there for twelve hours and decided to buy a book, then get something to eat. Roy bought a copy of Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, then picked a restaurant. The meal in the International Restaurant was bland, but a lot better than the lunch slop at the Army cafeteria that he had declined to eat.

          He alternated reading and dozing for hours. When the announcement came that his flight was boarding, he was stiff and creaky and it took a few minutes to restore circulation to numb limbs. As he waited to get on the plane, Roy said to himself: "From this moment on I'm going to concentrate on doing whatever has to be done to get along in the Corps." Once the plane took off the flight didn't take long and they landed less than an hour later. It was the middle of the night and he had no idea what to do next. There was no greeting committee, no information officer, no desk personnel, no one.

          Several officers were getting into a van and Roy went to them and asked a major: "Excuse me, sir. I'm an officer candidate assigned to Quantico, but I have no way to get there. Can I hitch a ride with you?" The major looked him over doubtfully. "Do you have your orders?" "Yes, sir. Here, sir." Roy pulled all the papers out of his pocket and thrust them at the major. He pushed them back at Roy and said: "Maybe you're not a gook spy. Hop in. But no conversation. We've got to catch up on our sleep." "Thank you, sir." Roy piled into the van. The major instructed the driver, a baby-faced lance corporal who looked so young that he should have been operating a bicycle, rather than a motor vehicle: "Drop him at the candidate's school. Drop us at bachelor officers quarters and don't wake us until we get there." "Yes, sir."

          They drove off and within moments the officers were snoring away like loggers at harvest time. Roy didn't risk waking his benefactor by talking, so he sat quietly as they rode through the Virginia night. After forty minutes of high speed, reckless driving that made Roy yearn for the Peace Corps, they slowed momentarily and passed through a gate with a United States Marine Corps sign. At least Roy concluded they were still in the known universe. The van stopped in front of an administration building and the driver gestured him out. Before Roy could ask any questions the van shot off and he was on his own.

          He walked into the mostly darkened building and found a fat, old staff sergeant hunched over a desk. He was intently studying girlie magazines. "Hi, sarge," Roy said, and he almost fell out of his chair. "Jeez. You scared the shit out of me. Whatcha doin' prowlin' aroun' here?" "I'm reporting for officers candidate school," Roy answered. "Who do I see?" The sergeant yawned and scratched. "Beats me, kid. You'll have to come back in the mornin." "What do I do until then? Where do I sleep?" "I don't know. I guess in the candidates' barracks. Barracks A is empty. Three blocks to the right. Two in." He went back to his reading. "Thanks, sarge." He turned to go and the sergeant called: "Hey, kid." He held up two glossy magazines with abundant naked women. "Do you see any difference between Playboy and Penthouse?" Roy suppressed a smart ass remark and said: "No, sarge," and walked out the door. The bewildered scholar's voice called after him: "That's what I thought, too. Welcome to Quantico."

          Roy found barracks A without much trouble. He went in and saw two rows of empty bunks, without bedding. He tested the bed springs, decided the floor was preferable, curled up like a tired dog and went to sleep. Reveille yanked him awake at 0600 and after a bathroom call he made his way to the mess hall. He watched for a minute to see how it was done, picked up a tray and joined the line. He was served bacon, scrambled eggs, toast and some sort of viscous, gray stuff. "What's that?" Roy asked. The mess sergeant looked surprised. "Them's grits, Goldilocks." Roy didn't appreciate the laughter from his fellow Marines. "What's grits, Sarge?" This drew an astonished look. "You never had grits, boy?" "No, Sarge." "Well, you try 'em," and he slopped another portion on the tray. The line was getting impatient behind them, so Roy moved on, took a large mug of coffee and went to a table. Roy was pleasantly surprised that the food wasn't toxic and even the grits weren't bad. They reminded him of Irish porridge with some kind of things in them. He didn't ask what those things might be.

          After breakfast he went to the administration building and reported to the duty officer. When he finally reached the appropriate office, Captain Spatola, as his desk plaque read, was not happy to see him. "I was sent here, sir," Roy said. "I can see that. Well, just hang around until your class arrives on September 15th." "I need clothes and bedding, sir." "I can't issue a uniform yet, but tell the supply sergeant that I authorized sweats and bedding. Now get out of here and don't let me see you until Monday morning, September 16th, at 0700." "Thank you, Captain Spatula." He corrected Roy's pronunciation. "It's Spatola." "Yes, sir." He yelled to Roy's departing back: "And don't leave the base." "Yes, sir."

          For the next few days Roy roamed the base inspecting everything. No one questioned what he was doing or where he was supposed to be, though Roy got peculiar looks at his long blond hair. He got up at reveille, went to breakfast, observed the training classes in the field and got to know the supply sergeant, who reluctantly issued him gear on the authority of Captain Spatola. In the late morning he ran the confidence course, which became easier each time he did it. He jogged five miles, then practiced karate in an unused area on the drill field. By the third day other Marines joined him while he was doing his karate forms. By the end of the week as many as twenty-five men were going through the karate forms at a medium pace, in unison, without talking. When they finished, both enlisted men and officers bowed and left. After lunch he would read for a while, run laps on the track, run the confidence course at full speed and practice sparring. After dinner, he went swimming at the officer's club, or to the movies, or he just hung out at the PX, observing the various characters stationed on the base. It was a very relaxing time and he used it to get into top shape.

          By the fourth day Roy felt like he had been at Quantico for weeks and that he belonged there. He was of the system without being in it yet. It was like going away to sado-masochist camp without participating. They were practicing their karate forms when a particularly well turned out gunnery sergeant stopped to watch. A few minutes later he sauntered over, removed his shoes and fluidly moved into synch with Roy. They finished the long, graceful routine and the gunny shifted into a more advanced form that Roy had seen, but not yet done. The gunny moved slowly so Roy could follow him and led him through all the Brown belt forms. When they completed the last movement Roy bowed to him in appreciation. Then the gunny went through several black belt forms with incredible grace and precision. They all stopped what they were doing and watched. A captain who had been exercising in the back of the group stepped forward and did the forms with the gunny, but without his skill and ‚lan. They finished and the captain bowed to the gunny. So did the rest of the group, then they wandered off.

          The gunny stood there looking at Roy. He hadn't broken a sweat. Despite the heat, the humidity and the exercise, he looked cool and crisp in his well-pressed fatigues. "Cafferty, Roy? "Yes, gunny," he answered. "I am gunnery sergeant Wilkerson. I will be your drill instructor when your class commences on September 16th." "Yes, gunny." He looked at the man who could make life an anguish for ten weeks. He was tall, muscular and supremely confident of his place in the firmament of the Marine Corps. He had jet black hair and eyebrows, flashing blue eyes, prominent cheekbones, a dagger for a nose, thin lips with a hint of smile in the corners and a square, determined jaw. Roy thought he would make a terrible enemy. "Usually, the ladies who show up early just hang out, drink beer and catch up on their beauty sleep. You have been working out. Keep it up." "Yes, gunny." "If you have any problems, let me know, otherwise I'll see you officially on Sunday, the 15th, at 1300, on the parade ground." "Yes, gunny." He turned to leave and Roy called after him: "We'll be practicing every day at 11:00 o'clock." He corrected Roy. "Eleven hundred." "Yes, gunny. Eleven hundred. We'd be honored if you joined us." Roy thought he saw a flicker of approval in those chilly eyes. "We'll see." "Is there anything I can do to get ready for the class?" "Keep exercising. Keep your eyes open, your mouth shut and stay out of trouble." "Yes, gunny."

          For the next two days Roy observed the officer's class that was scheduled to graduate on Friday. He couldn't go into the class rooms, but he watched all the physical activities. He concluded that he was in better shape than almost all the candidates, so his challenge in basic wouldn't be physical. Roy, tired of being called Goldilocks, got a hair cut on Friday. He gave the barber precise instructions to leave as much hair and sideburns as he saw officers on the base wearing. The barber said jovially: "Yes, sir," and proceeded to shave him bald with four long strokes and two clean-up strokes, ignoring his feeble objections. The real indignity was that he had to pay for the baldy. "I'm an officer candidate," Roy protested. The barber said cheerfully: "You're not on any list of mine, kid." "I suppose you expect a tip?" Roy asked bitterly. "No thanks, kid," the barber replied. "I'll give you one. Next time, join the Navy." He walked out to the laughter of the barbers. Once he was in the hot summer sun he quickly realized his bald head would get sunburned, so he went to the supply sergeant and got a fatigue cap. He walked past the graduation ceremony, but didn't stop to watch because they knew it would be his turn soon enough.

          He went to the base movie that night and saw Where Eagles Dare, a World War II action film that didn't have much to do with reality. When it ended and the lights came up, he saw gunnery sergeant Wilkerson smiling disdainfully at the screen. "How did you like the film, gunny?" Roy asked. "They must have had fun playing war. I hope you don't think combat's anything like that?" "No, gunny," Roy answered. "I watched the war on TV for years. It was nothing like the movies." "The shit they show on TV is nothing like the real thing." "My father was in the Corps in Korea," Roy said. "My grandfather was killed on Guadalcanal. I've heard their stories. What's it really like in Vietnam?" Wilkerson looked very bleak. "Those Marines knew who they were fighting. Now it's a crock of shit. But you'll find out for yourself. Enough bullshit for one night. See you tomorrow." "Good-night, gunny."

          Roy lay awake in his bunk that night and thought about what gunny Wilkerson had said. He was thankful that he didn't have any romantic illusions about going to war, but he was disturbed by the gunny's bitter attitude. If that type of capable Marine was negative about the war, he wondered what he was getting into. Before he fell asleep he came to a few conclusions. One of them was that for better or worse he was now a Marine officer candidate and it was up to him to make the best of his situation, no matter what. He made a mental note to find out what happened if he failed officers candidate school. Did he get a chance to do it over? Did he automatically become an enlisted man? Would he be dishonorably discharged? Other worrisome questions started popping into mind, but with a good effort he dismissed them. He thought about how in the past he had always resisted authority and resolved not to do it in the Marines.

          Sunday morning he leisurely ate his last casual breakfast, jogged lazily and went through his karate workout at half speed. Then he reported to the parade ground to join his class. Roy had changed in his ten days at Quantico. He may not have been in training, but he had interacted with military personnel daily. He had begun to think of himself as a Marine. Roy saw the long-haired, frightened rabble slovenly hulking on the parade ground and they looked like the impotent invasion of the counter-culture. It never occurred to him that he looked just like them less than two weeks ago. Gunnery sergeant Wilkerson appeared out of nowhere and regarded the nervously milling herd contemptuously. Without raising his voice he penetrated each bewildered crania. "You are the sorriest looking lot of human droppings that I have ever had the misfortune to see. Are you sure that you didn't miss the bus that was supposed to take you to the Peace Corps?"

          There was a long silence, then a foolish but sincere voice quavered. "Oh, no, sarge. We're Marines." Without raising his voice, Wilkerson thundered. "Who said that? Step forward." A woeful looking specimen, who would have been happier at the moment in his college newspaper office, shuffled out of the protective comfort of the herd. Wilkerson looked him up and down as if he were an exhibit in a hippie museum. "What is your name?" "Fulton, sarge, like the inventor of the steamboat." "Stand at attention." Fulton drew himself semi-erect, but obviously hungered for the safety of the trees. "I am gunnery sergeant Wilkerson, your senior drill instructor. You will call me sir at all times. Do you understand?" This time the response was energetic. "Yes, sir." "It is my responsibility to make sure that you do not inflict any further damage on the Corps, besides what your shameful presence has already caused. You pampered babies should be home playing with action figures, not trying to be Marine officers. It is against my better judgement, but I will do my best to make officers out of the shoddiest material I have ever seen. Form two lines in size places, short men in front." Two staff sergeants appeared and observed the confusion. One of them was the widest human that Roy had ever seen.

          Wilkerson scornfully watched them struggle to form lines in the most haphazard way imaginable. When they were finally sorted out, a big, muscular sulker muttered: "He can't talk to us like that." Roy ignored him and stared straight ahead, stone faced, but others agreed with him. "Last man on the right. Step forward," Wilkerson called. Sulker looked at Roy, who didn't turn. He pointed to himself questioningly and moved forward at Wilkerson's nod. "What is your name?" "Phil Darmus." "Do you have a complaint?" "Yes, sarge." Wilkerson corrected him. "Sir." "Yes, sir. You shouldn't talk to officers like that." Many of the candidates echoed their agreement. "You are not officers. But in the Corps you can request to speak to higher authority, or you can settle it with me," Wilkerson said softly. "Feel free to express yourself physically, if you like."

          Darmus didn't speak and started to turn away, then launched a tremendous swing at Wilkerson, who seemed to flash through a space warp. He grabbed Darmus' arm and spun him to the ground using a leg movement that was too quick to follow. His fingers squeezed Darmus' upper arm and made him yowl like a baby. "Any more complaints?" "No, sir," he howled. Wilkerson released Darmus' arm and sent him back to the line. Fulton still hadn't moved. "Steamboat." "Yes, sir." "Join the other ladies." "Yes, sir." He jumped into line like a bowling ball hitting the pins. Wilkerson shook his head in disgust. "If the commandant wasn't relying on me, I'd ship all of you back where you came from. You wouldn't last one day against the Viet Cong."

          Wilkerson made them run full speed to the barber shop. When they arrived breathless, gasping for air, they were shorn bald. Rubbing their naked pates after the quickest shaves they'd ever get, they began to realize that this was serious business. From that moment on they truly knew that they were in the Marine Corps. They ran to the supply depot where they were issued uniforms; olive drab field jackets, shirts and trousers, web belts, brass buckles, soft hats called soft covers, black boots, socks and underwear called skivvies. Then they were piled high with bedding and field gear; canteens, mess gear, packs, webbed gear, helmets, entrenching tools, M-14 rifles and buckets. Then they ran to the barracks, carrying tons of stuff, where they stowed everything in their lockers under the watchful eyes of gunnery sergeant Wilkerson and the two staff sergeants.

          After their equipment was stowed they went to the drill field and started learning close order drill. Then they ran to lunch. There was more drill in the afternoon and more running. After dinner they ran back to the barracks, where the weary candidates collapsed on their bunks. Thirty minutes later they were ordered to fall in outside and they went on a six mile hike. It was pitch black by the time they got back and the men were exhausted. They stood at attention in their skivvies next to their bunks, until Wilkerson said: "Mount," and they leaped into bed, lay down and were asleep in seconds. Roy was in good shape, but it had been a grueling day and he fell into a dreamless sleep until rude reveille.

          After breakfast they went to the infirmary for physical examinations. They stripped naked and hospital corpsmen examined their penises in the traditional military ritual, short-arm inspection. Then they were treated to a rectal exam that definitely expanded their horizons. They provided their torturers with urine specimens and received in return ten injections from a pistol-like pneumatic hypodermic. They got dressed and left the Chicago stockyards, grateful that they weren't converted to raw hamburger. Gunny Wilkerson was waiting outside. He looked at them disdainfully. "Well, ladies. That takes care of your bodies for the moment. Now if we can find them, it's time for your minds." He led them at a run to an administration building where they were given aptitude tests, followed by interviews that explored their mental and emotional stability, as well as their attitudes towards authority. It was a relief to get out and run to lunch. After chow they learned the pleasures of polishing brass buckles and spit-shining boots.

          Gunnery sergeant Wilkerson never yelled or got angry, but everyone jumped to obey his razor sharp commands. He demanded that every candidate be in top physical condition, so they would be able to lead the enlisted men. The stress was on leadership, which was the most important part of their training. They were taught that teamwork was the foundation of the Corps, responsibility was the glue that bound it together and the integrity of the officer was critical to the good functioning of the Corps. Roy learned that the ability to move troops in an organized fashion was vital, but control of the situation was mandatory. There were classes in military subjects like navigation, map reading, customs and practices, chain of command, general orders and introduction to military life. What Roy found fascinating was that they were being prepared for moral leadership, not just leaping out of a landing craft and opening fire. Roy was at least a year younger than the others, who had mostly graduated from college in the spring. But with the exception of one black candidate, Ben Johnson, an older man, he was more mature than any of them.

          Roy gave himself completely to the task at hand and lived in the present, confined in a tiny society that he was determined to master. They were constantly tested and challenged, which toughened them mentally as well as physically. By the end of the first week they were functioning as a unit and Wilkerson stopped driving them and began to guide them. Their training was divided into 25% physical, 25% moral and 50% leadership. They were told over and over again that they were responsible for everyone else and the idea began to sink in. They were being converted from I to we. As they became more competent, the weeks went by faster and faster. There was only one constant irritation, Phil Darmus, the candidate who had confronted Wilkerson the first day. He kept up a steady stream of whining and griping. He had appointed himself the leader of a small insecure group from the south, the largest regional contingent in the barracks. He was sly and never bitched in front of authority, but he emitted a daily dose of negatives that tainted some of his henchmen. He also picked on Steamboat Fulton, until Roy politely requested that he leave him alone.

          In the few free hours Roy had on the weekends, he went to the base library to catch up on the news. He read about the controversial Chicago 8 trial, which had become so unruly that Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin had to be restrained, and Bobby Seale was gagged and shackled. The radical group known as the Weathermen carried out violent demonstrations trying to disrupt the trial. But the Chicago police were brutally efficient and arrested almost 300 of them and harshly maintained order. The defendants were sentenced to five years, but they were released on bail a week later by a higher court. The intense training schedule made Roy forget injustice for the time being. Somehow, the disassembly and assembly of the M-14 rifle seemed more pertinent at the moment than the anti-war movement. A second visit to the dispensary that resulted in four injections and aching bodies helped keep things in perspective.

          Roy had his first disagreement with members of his class about Moratorium Day. In a massive anti-war protest, hundreds of thousands of Americans across the country attended rallies, folk concerts, seminars and teach-ins. During the day, opponents of the moratorium displayed the American flag and drove their cars with their headlights on. That evening, Coretta King led 45,000 demonstrators in a candlelight parade past the White House. According to the media, President Nixon watched from behind closed curtains. The next day, gunnery sergeant Wilkerson asked the class if they would obey orders from a superior officer to fire on the demonstrators. Most of the class shouted: "Yes, sir." Roy was the only one who shouted: "No, sir." "Are you saying you would disobey an order, R?" Wilkerson asked. Wilkerson called Roy R. "Yes, sir." There were some boos that Wilkerson silenced with a gesture. "Why?" "It's an illegal order, sir." "Are you a lawyer, R?" "No, sir." "Then how do you know it's illegal?" "They are citizens who are peacefully demonstrating and exercising their constitutional rights, sir." "But aren't they opposing the war?" "Yes, sir. They are expressing the will of the people."

          Wilkerson looked at the group and asked: "How may of you disagree with Cafferty?" All the hands went up, except Steamboat's, who was a loyal Cafferty supporter and Ben Johnson, the stocky black man who was slightly older than the rest of them and one of the only two blacks in the class. Wilkerson asked: "What about you, Johnson?" "Citizens have the right to demonstrate peacefully, sir." "You were a cop, weren't you?" "Yes, sir." "Don't you want to break their heads for disrupting things?" "No, sir. If we don't allow protest, next thing you know we'll have Nazi Germany all over again." "Does that bother you because you're black?" "Yes, sir. It also bothers me because I'm an American." "Would you refuse to fire on the enemy?" "No, sir. Once I knew who the enemy was." "Are you saying you need a scorecard or something?" "Yes, sir. You can't fire on someone just because you feel like it." "Did you ever shoot someone, Johnson?" "Yes, sir." "In the line of duty?" "Yes, sir." "Did you like that?" "No, sir." "Well said, Johnson. As for the rest of you ladies, a Marine officer is not a gangster or an executioner. He is a morally responsible individual, accountable for the actions of his men and himself. Never forget that."

          Roy hung around with Johnson when time allowed. He had a similar attitude, serious without being scared. He listened with interest when Roy talked about current events, especially the anti-war movement. He told Roy that he had been active in the civil rights movement, which brought him into frequent conflict with his superiors in the police department. "Detroit wanted its cops to obey mindlessly, so I decided to take a vacation in the Corps." Roy thought that was funny.

          The weeks were speeding by and the class was beginning to resemble a military product. Then a terrible event was reported in the media that horrified America. It brought painfully home to the officer candidates why the Corps was so vitally concerned with moral leadership. A story in the newspapers claimed that on March 16, 1968, while the villagers of My Lai were eating breakfast, army lieutenant William Calley, Jr. and troops of C company, 20th infantry, massacred over 100 men, women and children. This was sickening news to a nation that expected better of its soldiers.

          The next day, there was a massive anti-war demonstration in Washington, DC. Tens of thousands of protesters marched down Pennsylvania Avenue and rallied at the Washington Monument. Speakers included Senator McGovern, Coretta King and Dr. Spock. The March Against Death began at 6:00 PM and went on for forty hours. 46,000 people each carried a placard with the name of a soldier killed in Vietnam, or a village destroyed by U.S. troops. They marched past the White House and called out the names, then they marched to the Capitol Building where they deposited the placards in wooden coffins. They were responsible, middle class citizens objecting to the war. Roy thought it was the most meaningful demonstration ever mounted by the anti-war movement.

          A week later Roy saw photos of the My Lai massacre that were published in Life Magazine. They were nightmarish. Only a few soldiers had refused to participate in the massacre. The rest killed an estimated 400 people. Some were slaughtered in a ditch. Others had their throats cut, tongues cut out and were scalped. America was not used to this kind of butchery by her sons. The army charged lieutenant Calley and staff sergeant Mitchell with war crimes, but no higher-ups were charged. There were claims of a cover up, but polls showed that most Americans simply didn't believe the massacre really happened, while many others thought there must have been extenuating circumstances. Gunnery sergeant Wilkerson spent a lot of time discussing the moral issues of the masssacre, related to the need for officers to behave responsibly and control their men. With the sickening example of My Lai, everyone got the message.

          They were more than halfway through their course and Wilkerson no longer drove them as much as he tried to build them. They no longer raced frantically, but marched or jogged purposefully. Those who couldn't hack it physically were long departed. The morally unfit had been weeded out, or were on the verge of leaving. Fully a third of the class was gone and the rest were growing more confident daily. Roy had mastered the confidence course, learned how to shoot and had become proficient in hand-to-hand combat. Roy took particular pleasure in thoroughly pounding Darmus with Pugil sticks. Darmus was further humiliated when Roy easily defeated him in bayonet drill. They had become competent in guard duty movements and procedures and were beginning to think like officers.

          Johnson had moved into a bunk next to Roy and another officer candidate, Vernon Parton, had attached himself to them. Parton was tall, wiry thin, and as rugged as the hills of Tennessee where he had been born. He had worked his way out of sharecropper roots, overcome illiteracy and put himself through college with the help of the Marine version of R.O.T.C. He was becoming an officer in order to join another social class. When he sat with Roy, Steamboat and Johnson in the mess hall, Phil Darmus and some of his southern boys objected to his choice of a black dining partner. That night in barracks they confronted Parton and Darmus demanded: "You stay with your own kind." "I pick my own buddies," he coolly answered in his terse mountain twang. Darmus kept goading them on and Roy was really getting furious because of his hatred of bullies, which was a fervent passion. He put down Crime and Punishment, which he had been reading with rapt fascination, but only managing to finish one or two pages a night.

          Roy walked up to Darmus and his henchmen. Steamboat and Johnson followed him. "I'm trying to read, Doormouse, and you're distracting me." "The name is Darmus and this is none of your business, Cafferty." "Sure it is. You're a bigot and so are some of your buddies. That doesn't belong here." "What are you going to do about it?" Roy smiled pleasantly. "Ask you politely to walk away, so I can go back to my book." "And if I don't?" "I left a place mark so I won't lose my page, while I send you back to your bunk." "I can handle this myself," Parton told Roy. "I know you can," Roy answered. "They're just hot air, unless they can scare someone. But I don't like bigots or bullying and I don't want them in my barracks." Steamboat stepped forward. "Neither do I." Johnson echoed him. "Most of the guys here object to bigotry," Roy said to Parton, "but they don't want to face a mob. If Doormouse wants to face you or me alone, I don't mind, but I hate cowardly mobs and they don't belong in the Corps." Darmus and his cronies slunk back to their bunks and Darmus muttered: "I won't forget this, Cafferty." "You know where to find me," Roy said indifferently.

          The next day Parton moved into the bunk next to Roy and from then on the foursome went everywhere together. Darmus kept mumbling some vague racial threats and gunnery sergeant Wilkerson called him into his office for a serious talk. Instead of taking the opportunity to learn a valuable lesson in tolerance, Darmus bitterly complained about being publicly humiliated over a nigger. When Wilkerson politely requested him not to use the N word, Darmus accused him of betraying his race. Darmus was gone that afternoon. It was obvious that race might be a major issue in America, but the Corps wasn't going to let it disrupt the green machine. Another visit to the infirmary added to the lesson in tolerance. They were all told to volunteer to give blood for Vietnam. One of the corpsmen who heard about the racial incident said: "It won't matter what color you are if you need blood in Vietnam. It's all red."

          That night, just before lights out, Wilkerson came into the barracks and after they snapped to attention, put them at ease. "I understand there was an incident here last night." He looked up and down the lines of men standing in front of their bunks, staring over his head. He stopped, facing Roy. "Do you have anything to say?" "No, sir." He fixed Roy with a steely glare. "Do you think I can't maintain order?" "No, sir." "Did someone appoint you sheriff of this barracks?" "No, sir." He turned and walked to the door. "Lights out, boys." He flicked the switch and disappeared into the night. A falsetto voice pierced the darkness: "It's about time. I'm tired of being a girl." The bonding laughter helped heal some of the tension that lingered from the racial incident. Before they went to sleep they argued about the moon landing of Apollo 12. When the camera failed and the picture was lost, rumors spread that NASA was staging the Apollo flight in a movie studio. The barracks was evenly divided, with the Cafferty mob asserting they were really on the moon and the southern boys claiming that Conrad and Bean were somewhere in Hollywood. Neither side could get the others to change their minds. They slept soundly that night. In the morning Wilkerson appointed Roy platoon leader.

          It was two weeks until graduation and the boys were beginning to think like Marines. They were indoors on a cold November day, watching training films of combat footage of Marines in Vietnam. Roy thought one of them was particularly instructional. A Marine platoon came under fire from a tree line on their flank. The Marines turned, got on line and charged through the ambush, firing their weapons and throwing grenades. The audience cheered as if they were at the movies, but booed when Roy asked to see it again. Wilkerson brought up the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks that had just started between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in Helsinki. They realized that he was encouraging their intellectual development and listened attentively. "SALT is the first formal meeting between the superpowers to discuss ending the nuclear arms race. What will it mean to the Marine Corps if they ban the bomb?" In his first humorous moment in months, Roy answered: "They won't vaporize us when we hit the beach." Everyone laughed. "True. But more specifically, our ground role will be more important than ever. That means that Marines will face new challenges and confront new enemies. It will be up to us to deliver controlled violence."

          A voice form the back of the room, taking advantage of the discussion atmosphere, asked: "What about Vietnam, sir?" "What about it?" "What's going to happen there?" He looked into the distance stonily. "We are disengaging from the war, which will be a painful job for the Corps, especially for the snuffies who will not see a reason or purpose for being there. None of them want to be the last ones to die in a lost war." They digested his harsh words. Another voice asked: "Is it really lost?" "We're packing up and pulling out," he said. "The politicians will try to salvage a Korea from the mess, but Marvin the ARVN is not up to the task. A lot of good Marines will die while they diddle around in Paris, stuffing themselves on frogs legs and arguing about who gets what. Young Marine officers will face difficult situations as we untangle this mess. We'll continue this topic another time. Now you will demonstrate how to deploy a platoon under fire. Lead the boys out, R." "Yes, sir."

          Roy had switched his karate workouts to the free hour after dinner. After a few days his former workout companions joined him, including Captain Randolph, their company commander. Wilkerson joined them regularly and instructed the advanced practitioners by example. Captain Randolph treated him very respectfully. One day, after Wilkerson led Roy through a particularly complicated form, he said: "Well done, R. You just finished the brown belt qualification." Roy was pleased at the accomplishment, but it didn't excite him the way it used to. "Thanks, gunny. Do you think I'm ready to start black belt level?" "Yes. But don't let it go to your head." "No, sir." "It's none of my business, but can I ask you a personal question?" "Sure, gunny. "You're an excellent officer candidate. You show real leadership ability, but you don't seem to enjoy yourself." Roy was surprised. "I didn't know that I was supposed to have fun." "That's not quite what I meant. You take everything very seriously, almost to excess." "Killing people is serious business to me, gunny. Ordering people to do it is even more serious." "You're right, but I sense that something is burdening you. Would it help to talk about it?" "No thank you, gunny," Roy said coldly. "All right, but the offer stands. Just remember, this isn't the foreign legion." Roy genuinely laughed for the first time in months at the irony. "Don't worry, gunny. I'm not Beau Geste."

          With graduation one week away, Wilkerson concentrated on the theme of moral leadership and responsibility. He informed the platoon that President Nixon had issued a directive renouncing the use of chemical and biological weapons by the U.S. Then he asked them what that signified for the Marine Corps. Unlike the earlier vagueness about nuclear weapons, the platoon was very clear that although it would be ideal not to face chemical or biological weapons, they should be prepared for all eventualities. Wilkerson nodded approval. "How would you do that?" "Training in recognition and protection is the only practical way," Johnson answered. "What kind of training?" "I don't know, sir." "Well, neither do I." This shocked the platoon, who had come to rely on him as an oracle. He continued: "In the future, Marines assaulting a hostile shore will have to be prepared to face weapons that we're currently unfamiliar with." "Then why worry about them now?" Stan asked in his grating way. "Because some of you may lead troops into the mideast some day, where the locals aren't able to defeat you frontally, so they might use germ warfare to equalize the battlefield." "How do we find out about this?" Roy asked. "Ask your instructors in basic school."

          The morning of December 6th, graduation day, was cold and clear. Gunnery sergeant Wilkerson inspected the barracks for the last time and found them acceptable. He even answered Stan's question when he asked his opinion about the draft announcement that morning, establishing a lottery for men ages 19-26, who would be inducted in the order of their birthdate. "I think a lottery is an excellent idea. It means the rich kids hiding in college have to do the same service as the poor white and black kids. Of course it doesn't affect the Marines since we're a volunteer force, but I'm all for it. Now enough chit-chat, men. We have some business to attend to." They roared enthusiastically: "Yes, sir." "Fall in outside." They assembled in front of the barracks feeling tough and competent. Salty. This was what the training was all about; becoming officers.

          They marched snappily across the parade ground. Due to a spell of freezing weather, the ceremony had been moved indoors to the base auditorium. They marched into the hall in rigid order, adjusting their tempo for indoors. The high ranking officers were seated on the stage and the graduates marched up, one at a time, to receive their commission from the base commander. Then they marched down to the opposite aisle to await the end of the ceremony. When it was his turn, Roy squared his shoulders and went up the steps. The base commander handed Roy his commission. A jolt of pride surged through him. "Thank you, sir." He snapped his first salute as an officer, turned an about-face and left the stage feeling ten feet tall.

          When all the new officers were in the aisle, Steamboat yelled: "Hip, hip, hooray," and they threw their covers in the air. They exchanged their cadet pins for the gold bars of a 2nd Lieutenant of the United States Marine Corps and gunnery sergeant Wilkerson dismissed them for the last time. Most of the officers waved good-bye to Wilkerson and rushed off to their families. Roy went up to him and said: "Thank you, gunny. You're a great teacher. I'll see you when I come back for basic." "I won't be here, R. I'm going to the Nam for another tour." Roy digested this. "Maybe we'll serve together there." "I hope it's over by then, youngster. Good luck, sir." He saluted with the same dash and precision that he did everything else and Roy returned it with pride. "Thank you, gunny. The same to you."

          Roy was confused about his next Marine requirement, but didn't say anything until he had dinner with some of the officers. Roy turned to Captain Randolph: "Can I ask you a question, sir?" "Of course." "What do I do next, sir?" "Why, you eat your dinner." Everyone laughed uproariously. "After that, sir. What do I do for the Marine Corps?" "Didn't anyone tell you?" "No, sir." "Well, you get two weeks leave, then you report back to Quantico for Basic school." "Thank you, sir." Captain Randolph asked curiously: "What would you have done if I didn't know?" "Joined the Navy, sir," Roy said with a straight face. Captain Randolph tossed a bread stick at him, accompanied by a chorus of boo's from the rest of the table.

          Quantico was blanketed with snow when Roy returned on December 15th. He quipped that it was good preparation for winter warfare in Vietnam. They were assigned new quarters, two officers to a large room, with their own bathroom. It was a vast improvement from the barracks. Roy had made friends with the housing assignment officer and arranged for Johnson and Parton to get the room next door, but they spent most of their time in casa Cafferty. They were listening to the radio, talking casually and getting reacquainted, when President Nixon announced another pullout of 50,000 U.S. troops by April, 1970. "Maybe it'll be over before we get there," Roy said hopefully. "I hope not," Johnson quickly responded. This surprised the other three, who had never heard him utter pro-war sentiments. "How come?" Parton asked. Johnson looked tortured for a minute. "There are a lot of people out there who hate blacks and want to keep us down. The police in Chicago and Los Angeles declared war on the Black Panthers, and in the last two weeks they've killed and arrested a lot of them. I don't want to be there in Detroit when my department goes after them. I don't believe in Black Power, but I won't fire on my own people." They understood and respected that and the bond between them deepened, since they all had reasons not to go home.

          Basic school started with a dynamic combination of classroom instruction and field exercises. Leadership was the most highly stressed quality, followed by responsibility, integrity and moral values. If OCS introduced them to soldiering, it was immediately apparent that the purpose of Basic was to teach inexperienced officers how to function as rifle platoon commanders. This required that they learn how all units worked, so they could understand the structure of the Corps. Unlike OCS, this time their instructors were primarily officers. Unlike the image of World War II movies, where gung ho brawlers yelled 'There they are, let's go get 'em,' many of the officers Roy met were thinkers, as well as warriors. This did not surprise him, since over the years he had met many Marines with brains. But it shocked most of their platoon, who expected wild bayonet charges, not rational proceedings.

          They plunged into the management and handling of a small unit, the basic rifle platoon. This was their introduction week, so nothing was explored in great detail, but Roy was astonished to discover the tremendous destructive potential of forty-five men. The rifles themselves were capable of a devastating rate of fire. Then there were machine guns, grenades, rockets, all carried by the platoon. Just a phone call away were mortars, artillery, helicopter gunships and attack aircraft. This firepower put the west side hoods in his old neighborhood of Hell's Kitchen into perspective. They were just falling into the rhythm of a very efficient system that didn't want its officers to fight World War II in Vietnam, when they were told they would get holiday leave from December 23rd, to January 2nd.

          Roy decided to stay at the base for the holidays and he read and caught up on his sleep. Quantico felt like home, or at least a home away from home, now that they were starting their second year there. They immediately applied themselves to meeting the high standards that the Marine Corps demanded of newly commissioned officers. They were required to develop professional knowledge, espirit-de-corps and leadership. The goal was to prepare them for the duties, responsibilities and war fighting skills of a rifle platoon commander. The new lieutenants began with basic skills and they progressed through a variety of military subjects that included: fire team, squad and platoon tactics; fire and maneuver skills; weapons familiarity; artillery; jungle warfare; short patrols; how to set listening posts; how to make ambushes. They spent hundreds of hours learning how to handle a platoon in war conditions.

          Roy lost himself in the long days and nights of training. It was painfully obvious that the Marine Corps was vitally concerned with the ability of the officers who they entrusted with the lives of Marines. Many officers, including Stan, didn't measure up and left the course. Roy never inquired what happened to them. He was so immersed in the ongoing demand to strive for outstanding leadership, that he didn't have time to brood about the occurrences that sent him to the Marine Corps. He became gung ho, gave his best daily and was even beginning to feel salty. The little free time he had after evening chow, he spent on karate workouts. The group that joined him varied from day to day, but they all exercised strenuously, frequently led by Captain Randolph, the black belt who had worked out with them in OCS. Roy was approaching the skills for the black belt.

          Roy concentrated all his energies on his immediate goal without reservation, which was to become a highly competent officer. He didn't follow current events carefully and as the weeks went by, he didn't notice when North Vietnam declared that the captured American pilots were not prisoners of war, but war criminals. In early March he wasn't particularly interested when a huge explosion demolished a building in Greenwich Village, killing three people. It turned out to be a Weathermen bomb factory, but at the moment radical politics seemed very remote to Roy. He still admired the dedication of Cesar Chavez, whose struggle against the abuses of the grape growers led to the grape pickers signing a labor contract on April 1st. Chavez was an individual struggling against oppression and he could appreciate that. But this didn't touch Roy personally, since he was completely occupied with learning how to maneuver a platoon when it came under enemy fire in an ambush.

          The one news event that Roy did react to, out of homage to Father Brennan, his family priest who had died the year before, was on April 7th, when a Massachusetts grand jury failed to indict Ted Kennedy in the death of Mary Jo Kopechine. Kennedy's lawyer submitted affidavits and medical reports that indicated that Teddy had suffered a concussion when his car hit the water. He was not closely cross-examined about the incident, because the judge stated it would be inappropriate in an inquest. The judge concluded that there was probable cause to believe the senator was driving negligently, which might have contributed to Mary Jo's death. But the case was legally closed and Teddy was not held accountable. Roy stormed up and down the room until Johnson asked: "Why does it bother you so much? He's just another rich guy buying his way out of trouble." "My family priest detested the Kennedys. Before he died he predicted that Teddy would do something stupid and destroy himself. Well, he seems to have oozed out of this one, and I'm sure he'll buy re-election." "You know what they say," Johnson said. "You can't fight city hall." Roy's old spirit blazed. "You've got to fight city hall, or they'll sell out the poor and the needy."

          What did become a hot topic to everyone was President Nixon's announcement on April 30th, of a major offensive into Cambodia. He explained that the six to eight week incursion would drive the communists out of Cambodia and assure the continued success of Vietnamization. Anti-war groups accused the president of widening the war in Southeast Asia and called for demonstrations. A wave of protests swept campuses across the country and students demanded a diplomatic solution to the war, not another military escalation. On May 4th, when students gathered at Kent State University in Ohio, National Guardsmen ordered them to disperse. The students taunted the Guardsmen and threw rocks at them. The Guardsmen tossed tear gas canisters. When the students threw them back they opened fire, killing four students and wounding nine. The next day, a dramatic photo of an anguished girl kneeling over the bloody body of one of the wounded students, outraged students across the country. Hundreds of colleges and universities were closed, or went on strike.

          Major Bromley asked his tactics class if there was any justification for the Guardsmen opening fire on the students. Most of the class tried to find reasons to support the incident. "Absolutely not, sir," Roy asserted. His adamant posture provoked some howls of disagreement and name calling. Major Bromley established order, then said: "Explain, R." "They were unarmed students, sir. The Guardsmen obviously panicked. They never should have fired on unarmed demonstrators." "You seem very sure of this, R," Bromley commented. "Yes, sir. I've been a demonstrator. I know first hand how unthreatening they are." "Do you think the Guardsmen should face criminal charges?" Bromley asked. "Possibly their officer, sir." "Why the officer?" "He was supposed to be in command, sir." There were loud protests from some of the class and one voice yelled: "Why blame the officer? The troops were threatened and they responded." Roy lost his temper. "Bullshit. They were facing college kids who were mostly talk. If the officer kept his men under control no one would have been shot. I think it's a fucking disgrace for American soldiers to fire on American students on an American college campus." "Take it easy, R," Bromley cautioned. "Sorry, sir, but this really pisses me off."

          Roy began the concluding sequence of Basic Officers Course, an amphibious war exercise. It may not have been the real thing, but it exposed them to many of the problems they would confront when landing on a hostile shore, facing enemy fire. They both did well and their training officers gave them high efficiency ratings. They returned to Quantico feeling salty, on the same day that U.S. forces withdrew from Cambodia. There was a formal graduation ceremony similiar to OCS, but this time they wore full dress uniforms and they looked like picture-book Marines. They were given a certificate, congratulations for completing the course successfully and assignments to Vietnam following a two week leave.

          After visiting his family for what seemed like a very brief time, Roy said goodbye and took a taxi to Kennedy Airport, where he met Johnson in time to catch their flight to California. When they landed they took ground transportation to Camp Pendleton for three weeks of training in jungle warfare. They went on short patrols, practiced setting ambushes and listening posts and added to their warfighting skills. Then they started their trip that would take them halfway around the world to Vietnam.

          The flight made stops at Hawaii, Guam and Okinawa, then landed at Danang, South Vietnam. As soon as the plane door opened they smelled a horrible stench. A disembarking Marine yelled: "What's that stink?" One of the flight crew said: "It's shit that they're burning from the latrines. Welcome to Vietnam." They gathered on the tarmac and the hot, tropical sun beat down on them, making sweat pour off them as they waited in the humid air. A line of troops returning home slowly filed onto the plane. They didn't even glance at the newcomers in clean uniforms and clean bodies. The veterans looked like tattered scarecrows who managed to survive the tornado, but lost most of their straw. Roy followed his group to an administration building for assignment to his next destination.

          A refugee from the China Sea pirates in an unrecognizable uniform without any visible sign of rank, yelled: "Cafferty, Roy." "Here." "Come with me." He took Roy's paperwork from the staff sergeant, turned and walked away. Roy grabbed his seabag and hurried after the only link to his assignment. He was nowhere in sight. Roy wandered helplessly for a few minutes, until he heard a voice yell: "Cafferty." His man was leaning out of a battered helicopter, gesturing angrily, but it had U.S.M.C. stenciled on the side, so at least Roy could assume he was still in the Marine Corps.

          The pilot mumbled something incomprehensible into his mike, then took off without checking to see if Roy was strapped in. The sound of the rotor was so loud that the pilot couldn't hear him. When Roy tried mouthing, "Where are we going?" in exaggerated movement, the pilot shook his head and ignored him. The only thing that Roy could tell was that they were going north. He hoped he wasn't being abducted to North Vietnam. After an hour they slowed, then circled a rocky, grassless hill, with green smoke rising from the top. As they got closer, Roy saw a landing site on a hill top fire base. They landed and the pilot motioned Roy to get out. Roy asked where they were, but the pilot shrugged, pointed to his ear and gestured to the door. Roy grabbed his gear and got out. The helicopter took off and left Roy without the faintest idea of where he was, or what he was supposed to do.

          Roy looked around and saw the hilltop was ringed by layers of concertina wire. On one side there was an artillery position manned by South Vietnamese soldiers. The other side was a run-down area, with half empty sandbags lining dugouts and bunkers. A tall man in faded greens walked towards him. When he got closer, Roy could see the faded stripes of a gunnery sergeant. A wave of relief surged through Roy, as another of the endless supply of Marine gunnys drew closer. But a gunny never looked so good before. "I'm gunnery sergeant Ellis. We heard that a new LT was coming. Follow me. I'll show you your bunker." He turned and walked away without helping Roy with his gear, so Roy picked up his seabag and followed. The bunker was filthy and it stank. The gunny stared at him, waiting for whines or complaints. Roy stuck out his hand. "I'm Roy Cafferty." The gunny slowly took his hand and looked at him curiously. "Cliff Ellis. Are you related to Dan Cafferty?" "He's my uncle." "We served together in Korea. I knew your dad." Roy felt a lump in his throat. "I didn't. He never came back." "I know. That must have been rough on you and your mom." "We survived." Ellis smiled and said in a friendly tone, "Let's get you squared away. When there's time, I'll tell you about your dad." "I'd like that, gunny."

          Ellis walked to the entrance and started calling out some incomprehensible names. "Step out here LT, while some of the men clean out your bunker." "Sure, gunny. How long have you been without a lieutenant?" "About four months." "Why so long?" "It's been pretty quiet around here and we're in the middle of nowhere, so nobody gave a shit." Two slow moving Marines, one black, one white, in tattered, ratty remnants of uniforms sauntered up. "Yo, gunny. What's up?" the black Marine asked. "This is Lieutenant Cafferty. Our new platoon commander." "How ya doin, man?" the black Marine said. "How's it hangin'?" the white Marine said. Roy didn't want to exercise discipline until he knew what was going on, so he just nodded pleasantly and looked them over. They were awfully young and they looked more like hobos than any Marines he had seen so far. They were also studying him, trying to figure out if he was going to disrupt the status quo. "Martin, sweep out the LT's bunker. Clarke, mop it with disinfectant," Ellis said. They slouched off without acknowledging. A large Marine walked up, wearing a slightly better uniform than Martin and Clarke. "You called me, gunny?" "LT, this is your radio man, Buff. Short for water buffalo." "Hey, LT. Welcome to heaven." He stuck out an enormous hand that almost engulfed Roy's large hand, but he didn't try any dumb macho stuff. "Thanks, Buff. We'll get acquainted later."

          While Roy was talking to Buff, Martin and Clarke came back with broom and mop and started cleaning the bunker. "Let's go outside and talk 'til they're finished," Ellis said. He led the way to an unmanned machine gun position. "What's the immediate situation here, gunny?" Roy asked. Ellis offered him a cigarette, which he declined. "Do you smoke dope, LT?" "No, gunny." Ellis nodded approvingly. "We share the hill with an ARVN artillery company. Captain Tran is their c.o. You'll meet him later. He's a real slippery dude and he keeps his men ready for parade. He looks down on us because of our unmilitary ways." Ellis paused and looked at Roy for comment. "Go on, gunny." "If we're ever attacked his men will skedaddle, but they know how to make the big guns go bang, so we get along." "Anything more about them?" "Not much. You'll get to know them. Oh, yeah. Tran speaks English." "That'll make things easier. Do any of our men speak Vietnamese?" "No." Roy made a note to get a phrase book and kicked himself mentally for not thinking of it sooner.

          It was late afternoon and the hot sun was beating down fiercely. The men hulked in their burrows like prairie dogs, just popping up to be sure they weren't under attack. "Tell me about the squad leaders, gunny." "They're pretty good. I made a few changes when Lieutenant Trasker was medevac'd out. You can move them back, if you like." "Let things ride as they are for now. Are any of them a problem?" "Kelso's real short and he's getting edgy, so I put him on heavy weapons. All the others lead patrols." "Do they resent Kelso?" "Nah. They envy him." "What about the men?" "They're a good bunch. Some of them are getting a little weird, but they're okay." "Any drug use?" "No hard stuff. Some of them try to smoke pot when they're off duty, but I keep the squad leaders on them. Things are a little loose here, LT. We're a long way from spit and polish, but they're good kids."

          Roy digested the information and reminded himself to keep eyes and ears open, and mouth shut. "Any advice, gunny?" "Meet your squad leaders before you meet the men. I'll set up the squad meetings one at a time. You don't want to assemble all the men in the open." "Snipers?" "Not often. But I don't want to tempt fate." "I'll buy that. What about the enemy?" "Which ones?" Roy wasn't sure if Ellis was kidding, or sending a message, so he said: "The VC." "This is a quiet area. There's a ville nearby that's probably responsible for the ambushes and booby traps that we get caught in once or twice a week, but they don't use heavy stuff like machine guns or mortars." "What about casualties?" "We've been averaging one killed and three or four wounded a month. That's down from when Lieutenant Trasker was here. That's about it. Any orders, LT?" "No, gunny. I want to get my bearings before I start telling you what to do. For the time being, we'll operate as things are. Let's go see if my bunker's ready so I can stow my gear." They walked towards the bunker and Ellis said approvingly: "You know, you look like your old man, only bigger." Roy felt that he had found a friend. "You should see Dan's son, Tommy. He's as big as Buff." "No kidding? I'd like to meet him someday."

          Roy met everybody and listened a lot, but said little and made no waves. For the first week he inspected the position and went on daily patrols. The only order he issued was for the sergeants to have their men take better care of their weapons and maintain a weekly inspection schedule. He set a series of goals for himself that included a daily karate workout and he invited the platoon to join him at a spot selected by Ellis, where they were sheltered from sniper fire. Only Buff and one squad leader joined him the first day, but after gunny Ellis participated, one or two more men gave it a try each day. Roy was astonished at their low level of skill. Some of the ARVNs drifted over to watch and this led to Roy's second meeting with Captain Tran. The first meeting had been very formal. Captain Tran demanded full military courtesy for his rank and Roy willingly gave it to him. Roy ignored his sneers and snide remarks about the slovenliness of Roy's men. "I hope now that you are here, Lieutenant Cafferty, you will do something about the appearance of your men. They set a bad example to my troops." Roy managed to keep his big mouth shut and just said: "We'll see what we can do, sir, once I've had a chance to acclimate."

          Captain Tran appeared at the karate session with some of his men and a sturdy, well-built sergeant. "If you have no objections, Lieutenant Cafferty, some of my men would like to join you." "Glad to have them, Captain Tran." "I myself do not know karate, but sergeant Minh is a devotee. Perhaps you and he would give us an exhibition?" Roy sensed that it wasn't a simple attempt to be sporting. "These are training sessions, but if he's skilled, he can teach when I'm not available." Tran was not satisfied and tried to maneuver Roy into a match. "Surely a demonstration of skills would inspire the men." Roy ignored the invitation. "I have other priorities, Captain." "Are you afraid that sergeant Minh will beat you?" Roy stared at Tran coolly, letting him know that he understood the game and wasn't playing. "When one of my sergeants is ready, Captain Tran, we'll arrange a match with protective gear. Until then, this is just a training class." Captain Tran left disappointed and sergeant Minh joined the class. Minh didn't show all his skills, but neither did Roy. Minh was probably a black belt and Roy thought he could handle him if he had to. He made a mental note not to ever get into a physical confrontation with Minh. To help insure this, he appointed Minh an instructor and left him with the class, while he went about his duties.

          Roy and Ellis quickly became friends. Roy only made small changes at first, after reviewing them with Ellis. He learned his radio procedures, said nothing about uniforms, but had the sand bags filled and the concertina wire repaired and extended. There were some grumbles from the snuffies, but the sergeants kept an eye on them. The first big change Roy made was in the patrol schedule. It had been going out the same time, on the same route daily. Roy and Ellis worked out an irregular timetable, with different routes and the patrols always taking a different direction once they left the wire. This meant harder work for the patrol and there was some real bitching from some of the short-timers. Roy called the entire platoon together one morning and explained: "I know you're used to a certain way of doing things. The changes I'm making are to insure that we take fewer casualties, especially among the short-timers." Roy thought this was particularly clever of him, because they were the group most likely to be a problem.

          The men mulled over the idea and Roy waited patiently. "Are you tellin' us you're lookin' out for us?" a skeptical voice asked. "Name?" "Hooch." He was a dark skinned black man with an afro. "That's part of my job and it's important to me, because I want you to look out for my ass." They all laughed and the ice was broken. Another man said without any challenge: "It's been real quiet here, LT. Do you really think we have to change the patrols?" "Name?" "Chigger." He was a tall, skinny white boy with an afro. "In the last four months we've taken three killed and eleven wounded, two serious. That's one third of the platoon. That means the odds are that one out of three of you will be wounded, and three out of forty-five will be killed in the next four months. I'd like to save some of those lives." "You're not shittin' us, are ya?" Hooch asked. "I've been out on patrol with you. You're noisy and you stink. It's bad enough that the VC hear you and smell you a mile away. They don't have to know in advance where you're going."

          Roy turned to gunny Ellis while he waited for his statement to sink in. Chigger asked in a hurt voice: "What do you mean we stink?" Roy had hoped someone would ask that, otherwise Ellis was ready. "You eat just before you go out on patrol, so the food smell is on you. You're already sweaty and that gets stronger. Most of you smoke and you can smell tobacco a mile away in the jungle." There were anguished yells. "You want us to stop smokin'?" "Right now all I'm going to do is vary the time and direction of our patrols. Once we see that it helps cut down casualties, those of you who want to improve your survival chances, arrange with gunny Ellis to see me." Ellis gave him an approving paternal look and Roy thought about how young his platoon was. Gunny Ellis was in his forties, one staff sergeant was twenty-five. The rest were eighteen or nineteen. Roy was beginning to feel like an old man at the age of twenty-one.

          The unpredictability of the patrol pattern must have helped, because they only took one casualty the rest of the month and it was superficial. The rumor began to spread through the platoon that Roy was lucky and some of the men came to see him to discuss survival. They stopped eating before going out on patrols and they washed off sweat and body odors with a damp cloth. Roy stressed silence and careful movement in the jungle, so they wouldn't broadcast their presence. More and more of the men adopted the new habits, especially the short-timers who wanted to get home in one piece. Captain Tran declined Roy's invitation to make joint patrols and kept requesting: "You must smarten up your men, so they look like soldiers." Roy's standard answer was: "I'll get to it as soon as I can, sir." His men may have looked like derelicts, but they were performing their duties better. He wasn't going to rock the boat over a shave and a haircut.

          Roy and gunny Ellis had become good friends. They didn't have much free time, but the little there was they spent together. Ellis told him about his father one night, when they were sitting on top of his bunker after a heavy rain. The sky had cleared and the moon was bright and huge, radiating an Asiatic serenity that seeped into both of them. Thousands of stars winked mysteriously from so far away that the light he saw started towards this bright moment of rendezvous, ages before an Athenian grunt on the plain of Marathon, awaiting the Persians, looked up at the stars and felt insignificant. Roy wondered if there were worlds in distant galaxies where the laws of fang and claw were unknown. Could there be civilizations not subject to the harsh rigors of mother nature? He turned to Ellis. "Cliff?" "Yeah?" "Do you see that big star?" He pointed to a large star that might have been Aldabaran. Cliff followed his direction. "Yeah." "Right now, on a planet circling that star, alien grunts are sitting on a hill just like us, hoping they won't get attacked and wondering if there's a war going on in another star system."

          Ellis looked at him fondly. "You're not like your father, that's for sure." "Tell me about him, Cliff." "When I first met him we were both fresh out of boot camp. They rushed a lot of us to Korea to stop the advance of the North Koreans, who had rolled over the army boys. We were cocky kids who grew up believing that gooks couldn't fight, except Japs and they weren't gooks. We drove the gooks back to the original border, then MacArthur ordered us to keep going. We swept through all resistance and got to the Yalu. We took casualties, but we were winning and that was a good feeling. Your dad was always cheerful and ready to help a buddy. Your uncle Dan was quieter, less outgoing, but a real good guy also. Then winter hit us and we didn't have cold weather gear. We were freezing our asses off, but MacArthur kept telling us we'd be home for Christmas, so we did our best to deal with the cold."

          Ellis paused, with a remote expression on his face, as if recalling the painful past was still disturbing. "We only found out later that the Chinese had warned MacArthur not to approach the Yalu. We were feeling like winners, ready to go home as heros to a victory parade and show our medals to the World War II vets. Then the Chinese attacked. They swarmed down at us, bugles blowing like out of another age, and they could fight. They suffered tremendous losses, but they kept coming. They took everything we threw at them and just kept coming. They reached our lines and we fought hand to hand and we drove them back, but we lost more and more guys. Finally the brass ordered us to pull back and we fought our way through the mountains. It was twenty below zero and guys was dying of frostbite, as well as wounds, but we took all our wounded and our dead with us. They attacked us three, four times a night and in one of those attacks they over ran part of the column. When we drove them off some of the guys was missing. One of them was your father."

          Roy had heard this story from his uncle Dan, but it still hurt deep inside, hearing about the suffering of those men sent to fight thousands of miles from home, without really understanding why. "Cliff?" "Yeah?" "Could Dad have surrendered?" "No way, kid." "I always wanted to ask Dan, but I didn't want to find out. How can you be sure?" "We didn't take prisoners. We didn't have the manpower to take them out. And we assumed we'd be tortured and shot if we surrendered. When they over ran us, they shot or clubbed us. When they retreated they must have dragged off the guys who were unconscious, but not seriously wounded. Believe me, there wasn't time to surrender. Anyone who put up his hands got cut down." "Then you think he might have survived?" "Yeah. Maybe." "Could he still be alive?" "I don't know, kid. A lot of guys didn't come back who weren't accounted for. Maybe they died. Maybe they're slaves working in the rice fields. Who knows." "My mom volunteers for the MIA organization. She refuses to give up on him." "She sounds tough. I'd like to meet her someday."

          September went by without casualties and the entire platoon adopted Roy's preparations. It seemed stranger and stranger to Roy that he was fighting a war in Asia, almost twenty years after his father fought a war in Asia. He prayed that if he ever had children they wouldn't have to fight a war in Asia. He also made a personal vow not to be taken prisoner, no matter what. Two of the short timers rotated out and their replacements, an overweight white kid named Teffel and a skinny black kid named Jones, were poor substitutes. They were whining when they jumped out of the helicopter that brought them in, and they didn't stop whining until gunny Ellis ordered them to "Shut the fuck up." Teffel pouted silently, but Jones complained to some of the brothers. "The white racist gunny mutha fucka is discriminatin' on me." He got the shock of his young life, when Hooch, speaking for the brothers, told him: "You keep your fuckin mouth shut and obey orders, or we'll waste your useless black ass in the bush." Jones and Teffel sulked when they were together, but kept quiet when they were around everyone else. Roy made a mental note to separate them, when he got the time to deal with it.

          No one in the platoon wanted to take Jones and Teffel on their first patrol. Hooch summed it up: "Them cherries is gonna get someone's ass wasted." So Roy took them out with Chigger's squad. They kept talking to each other and had to be told to shut up over and over. Finally Chigger told them: "The next time either of you talk, I'm gonna waste both you turds." He clicked the safety of his M-16 on and off threateningly and they got the message. The squad passed a canteen on the side of the trail with a red star on it. Each man pointed it out to the man behind him and they made a wide circle around it, automatically assuming it was booby trapped. When Jones saw it, he pointed it out to Teffel. They both rushed to it and grabbed it. Roy noticed them out of the corner of his eye and started to yell: "No." But before he could get the word out a tremendous explosion lifted him up and threw him backwards. He felt fiery slivers rip through his legs. Then he slammed into a tree so hard that he was instantly knocked unconscious.

          Roy woke up three days later in the hospital in Danang, with no idea how he got there. For the next few weeks he drifted in and out of consciousness and his voice wouldn't work, so he couldn't ask the corpsmen anything. He had just awakened one night, when he looked up and Hooch was standing next to the bed. "Hooch. Is that you?" Roy croaked. "Yeah, LT. I'm on my way back to the world and gunny Ellis asked me to bring your gear. It's in your seabag next to the bed." "What happened to me?" "Do you remember the patrol?" Roy thought he did. "Yeah." "Well, them assholes Jones and Teffel picked up a booby trap and the blast knocked you into a tree. You got a branch stuck in your ass, but your helmet saved your life when your head hit the tree. Because of that, a lot of the guys started wearing their helmets again." Roy managed to say: "I'm glad. What about Jones and Teffel?" "Both them dumb mothafuckas bought it. I gotta split, man. If you're ever in Chicago, look me up." Later Roy thought it was a dream, until he reached down and felt his seabag next to the bed.

          When Roy was finally able to ask questions, the doctor assured him that he hadn't lost any vital parts and he probably wouldn't suffer any permanent injuries. He was sent to a naval hospital in Japan, where they patched his ass and removed the shrapnel from his legs. Then he left the strains of Vietnam behind and went back to the world on a long flight to California. He spent two weeks in a naval hospital in San Diego for assessment and they decided to send him for rehabilitation to the Veteran's Hospital in New York City. His brief participation in what he knew was a grotesque war was definitely over. On the long flight back to New York, where his torturous journey started, what seemed ages ago, he couldn't help wondering how he would fit in to a world that now felt as alien as the jungles of Vietnam.

by Gary Beck
... who is a professional writer, translator, playwright, and poet. His recent fiction has appeared in 3AM Magazine, EWG Presents, Nuvein Magazine, Vincent Brothers Review, The Journal, Short Stories Bimonthly, Bibliophilos, and the Dogwood Journal. Excerpts from his recent novel of the '60s, Dark Strains, have appeared in Nuvein Magazine, Fullosia Press, L'Intrigue Magazine, and Babel Magazine. His poetry has appeared in dozens of literary magazines. His plays and translations of Molière, Aristophanes, and Sophocles have been produced Off-Broadway. He is a writer/director of award-winning social issue video documentaries.

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones