If You Can’t Beat’Em, Leave’Em

It was my freshman year at UCLA and a typical Friday afternoon on fraternity row. Beer busts had broken out at all the fraternity houses, and no one cared if you were a member. As we tended to do almost every Friday, my roommate and I spent the afternoon exploring one house after another, moving from one fresh keg to the next.

Finally, tiring of it all, my roommate decided that we should rip off the rest of a keg he had become fond of. That made a lot of sense to me, so we grabbed the thing and ran out the front door of the fraternity house. In retrospect, it seems impossible, but we carried that keg across the street and up the hill to our dormitory, Dykstra Hall. Up the elevator and down the hall to our room. Safe from whoever was certainly chasing us, aching from laughter, we managed to finish off the remaining beer.

It was quite warm, though it was late in the day. By then I couldn’t see well, and my feet didn’t want to go where I wanted them to. My roommate wanted to walk down to Santa Monica, but that seemed beyond me by then. So I decided to sit in the dormitory lounge and watch girls.

There was this special girl I always used to look for. Long, straight blonde hair, short shorts. An icon for California beach girls. But what fascinated me was her feet. She was always barefoot in the dorm, and it was hard to keep from staring. She had these little feet with extraordinary arches. I have never since seen arches like those beauties. They were so high you could see the light shining through under them. Amazing.

I couldn’t find her.

But I did find my good buddy Autrey. (We never used first names. Why was that?) “Why aren’t you at church, asshole?” he greeted me.

“What are you talking about, Autrey, it’s Friday, not Sunday.”

“It’s Good Friday, you dumb fuck.” Autrey was an atheist, but he knew well the sins of Catholics.

I looked at my watch and saw that mass was scheduled to start soon. It had to be three or four miles to the church, which was on the other side of campus, through Westwood Village, and several blocks beyond Wilshire Boulevard.

I took off as fast as I could manage without falling over myself. By the time I got there, the church was nearly full of normal people and mass was, of course, already in progress. As I maneuvered my way into a rear pew, it occurred to me that I was the only one in sight in stained and disheveled shirt and chinos. I was still fairly incoherent from spending the afternoon sucking beer, and I smelled a lot like a rhino after walking and running from the dorm. But I figured I sat through enough of the mass for it to count, and I wouldn’t have to confess that one.

Guilt. They still had me.

* * *

It seemed that I had always felt out of place. But in Los Angeles, at UCLA, almost everyone appeared a little or very strange, in some way or another. And I felt as if I were a legitimate part of it all. So much so that I didn’t spend as much time as I should have on the academic side of college life. The NROTC became very important to me. I felt comfortable in the unit and I tried hard to do well in the program: the classroom military training, the drills, the summer training exercises.

“Summer cruises,” as they were called, lasted from six to eight weeks. They were an excellent orientation program, bringing home some of what we had learned in the classroom, giving us a feel for what the real Navy was like, humbling us and, at the same time, giving us a special pride in our capabilities and in the military service.

My first cruise was on a destroyer, DD 682, the USS Porterfield. It was an exciting experience, filled with moments that I will never forget. (I now have a cabin cruiser and whenever I’m out on Lake Ontario, I still recall being on watch at the helm of the Porterfield in rough seas at about 25 knots. Then, of course, I had several real sailors nearby to bail me out of trouble if I did something stupid at the wheel.)

The first cruise was intended to introduce the midshipmen to a variety of everyday tasks accomplished by the typical seaman. Important things like suppressing the dry heaves, for example. You see, the line to the enlisted men’s mess formed on the port side of the ship on the main deck. The mess was the next deck down, and to reach it, you passed through a hatch on the main deck, then went down a steep ladder to arrive at the spot where the food was being loaded into the compartments of the men’s metal trays.

I don’t know where it came from, but the odor of diesel fuel was often present about certain areas of the ship. One of those fragrant places was near the hatch to the mess deck. Moving slowly in the chow line, the ship rolling beneath you, what a thrill it was to encounter the odor of diesel fuel mixed with the aroma, drifting up from the mess deck, of a “shit-on-a-shingle” breakfast. I still remember well the many times that I broke from the line at the last, just before stepping through the hatch, to recover with the help of a little ocean spray in the face.

Subsequent cruises were a little more focused. The second cruise, between my sophomore and junior years, included about three weeks in Corpus Christi, Texas, and another three weeks in San Diego, California. Corpus Christi was intended to provide an orientation into naval aviation, and San Diego was aimed at familiarizing us with the Marine Corps and amphibious warfare. Both segments of this cruise demanded a degree of military discipline that equaled anything I experienced or witnessed later in the Marine Corps. And both were full of tests to help you and the Navy determine if you were qualified to continue, if you were suitable material.

* * *

I had no trouble with the somewhat blatant psychological tests: harassment, nit-picking inspections, extraordinary attention to seemingly meaningless detail. My burden was the physical testing. For many midshipmen, these were simply physical exercises, albeit difficult ones. But for some of us, the overweight, the skinny or weak, these were major trials. And they taught me quite a lot about myself and others and about the power of teamwork and group support.

There were two principal physical tests at Corpus Christi; I was led to believe that failure at either of these could jeopardize my scholarship. One of the tests was the classic obstacle course, the first of many I would encounter in the following years. Though it appeared formidable the first time I saw it, it turned out that you didn’t need great physical strength to run the obstacle course in an acceptable elapsed time. But I didn’t know that.

I had never been a physical person, and I had no reason to think I could prevail against the obstacle course. There were, though unknown to me at the time, two important factors in my favor. First, I really had all the necessary physical characteristics to enable me to complete the obstacle course in a satisfactory way. Second, and more important, the midshipmen from UCLA had a special team spirit that provided enormous encouragement to each member. The real question would be whether I had the mental hardness to succeed.

With help from my friends, I made it through the course the first time. My performance wasn’t very good, and I didn’t make all the obstacles on my first attempt at them. But my friends helped me correct my technique, they urged me on, and I made it. Once I realized that I could accomplish what to me was an extraordinary physical feat, self-confidence in my physical prowess reached tremendous, and totally uncalled-for, heights. I stopped doubting myself quite so much and started to acquire the attitude that whatever was asked of me, if others could do it, then I could do it.

As I improved, as I managed to perform other physical tests, my attitude gradually evolved to the point where I no longer thought of new physical challenges from the point of view that I could accomplish them if others could. My attitude became “I will!” So if I were told to do 20 pull-ups, it would not occur to me to consider whether or not I could really execute them or if others could. I would will myself to do what it was not always clear my body could manage.

All this seemed to happen to me in the course of a couple of weeks. And it was a good thing that it did. The second of the physical tests was for swimming ability. I no longer remember the details, but some minimal swimming ability was required of all midshipmen. You had to perform several individual tests, proving you could swim some insignificant distance and showing reasonable proficiency in the use of different strokes. Slight problem: I had never learned to swim.

Again, my friends came to the rescue. They spent the time to teach me the strokes I needed, they helped me train, they encouraged me. When it came time during the last week in Corpus Christi to take the swimming test, I was barely ready. The first tests were fairly easy, though, and I made it through to the grand finale.

The final test was for distance. It was free-style, no time limit. But it was, at least to me, some God-awful distance, like 1500 meters. That’s a long way, so maybe it just seemed like that—I can’t say. For this test, my friends taught me the backstroke and told me to use it. So for lap after lap, I backstroked the pool. I had managed to get a lane at the edge of the swimming pool and for the entire distance two of the best friends I ever had walked beside me. Correcting my technique, extolling me on, encouraging me, not letting me fail. And I didn’t.

The second half of that cruise was conducted in San Diego. Where exactly, I cannot recall now. The program there was intended to give us an appreciation for the sorts of things we would encounter in the Marine Corps. Like close order drill, care, disassembly and reassembly of weapons, amphibious landings. Simple stuff.

Funny the things you remember. Most of the tour in San Diego remains vague. Most of my memories of it consist of perhaps a dozen still images, mental photographs instead of film sequences. Like being on a parade ground. Or being suspended on a rope ladder that hung over the side of a ship, down and into a landing craft. There are two full-motion memories, though, and both were shot on the forward deck of some now nondescript landing ship.

In the first of these, I recall sitting on the deck with most of the other midshipmen and off-duty crew. We were anchored in the San Diego bay. The night was calm; you could see the lights of San Diego off the starboard side of the ship. We were watching Bell, Book and Candle. I don’t recall a screen; I think the movie was projected onto part of the superstructure of the ship. No matter. Kim Novak is surely the reason this memory persists; she had many fans among young men on navy ships.

The second clip was a training exercise. A Marine Gunnery Sergeant was instructing us on the .45 caliber pistol. The midshipmen were clustered in a half circle in front of him. Each of us had a .45 and a copy of the Army manual on the weapon. Under the gunny’s tutelage, we learned to take the pistol apart, clean it, and reassemble it. Then we practiced assembly and disassembly, repeating the process again and again until it became a mindless act. And when we all thought we were hot shit at that, the gunny gave us his test.

He had us form into a circle. He placed a sheet in the center of the circle and ordered us to put our manuals away. The Gunny had us break down our pistols, placing their parts on the sheet. He then stepped into the circle and picked up the four corners of the sheet. After a good and proper shaking of the makeshift bag, he lowered the metal melange back to the deck. Our task, then, was to reassemble our own weapon. Two tests in one: the first thing you needed was the pistol frame with the correct serial number, the one you were issued. After that, it was simply a question of whether or not you had memorized the recipe for a .45 caliber pistol.

* * *

Acceptance into the Marine Corps option required successful completion of the final cruise between the junior and senior years. For Marine officer candidates, the cruise was a special version of boot camp that was held at Marine Corps Schools in Quantico, Virginia. All the midshipmen in the Marine option had heard the horror stories. Returning seniors made a point of bragging about how tough their session at Quantico had been. Telling their tales about maniacal drill instructors, the obstacle course, and the legendary “Hill Trail.” One claimed that two midshipmen had died a few years back, causing a congressional investigation. It was a tradition to try to scare off those who were not completely sure that they wanted to be Marines.

The stories did not dissuade me, but they certainly caused a fair amount of anxiety. Before reporting to MCS Quantico, I stopped for a few weeks at my home in Kentucky. It was a typical hot and humid summer there, the weather much like what I would find in Quantico. To prepare, and perhaps take my mind off what was to come, I tried to get into better physical shape, running through the field in front of my parents’ house and up and down the hills of the farm. I couldn’t suppress the butterflies in my stomach, however, and the anticipation mounted as the day approached when I would leave.

But when I arrived at Quantico, the fear of the unknown seemed to dissolve. I was there; I would do it.

The first few days were uneventful. The emphasis was on spit and polish, military bearing, close-order drill. As it turned out, I had a great advantage in these areas. I had already spent two years on the UCLA NROTC drill team, and all this was by now second nature to me. So I was able to coast into the program, while many of the others were kicked a little off balance.

Still, the program seemed too easy, and I couldn’t relate the stories about past Quantico cruises to what I was experiencing. It seemed as if they were gradually introducing us to the essentials of Marine Corps life and were avoiding overtaxing us. Maybe that story about midshipmen dying from exertion was true! Perhaps there had been a Congressional investigation and they had to soften up the program. Maybe we were going to slip through here like shit through a goose.

They had to eventually take us out into the field, so it was no big deal when after a few days into the program, a little overnighter was announced. Full gear, C-rations, make camp, sleep in tents. The weather was fine; they brought in UH-34 helicopters to take us to the field. After a short flight, we landed in a clearing somewhere in the woods of the Quantico reservation. We set up camp a short distance from the landing zone and figured out how to create two-man tents from the shelter-halves that each of us brought. Then we experimented with our C-rations, heating the main courses with the Sterno we were issued, making coffee or hot chocolate. Altogether, I would say that we were having a rather pleasant time of it. This was more like a field trip with the Boy Scouts than anything that previous attendees had described to us.

There is little to amuse one in the woods after dark, so most turned in fairly early that night. That was the right thing to do.

Reveille was a shock. It was early and dark, very dark. And for some reason, our instructors were afire with unexpected urgency. We were brusquely ordered to eat, pack up, and get into marching formation. I don’t recall how well the others did, but I know I had a hard time finding what I brought. And repacking it in the dark was a mystifying process. We had no idea what was planned as we struggled to put ourselves together and assemble into a formation of muttering, restless, and disoriented shadows. I don’t think the sun had yet started to rise as we set out, single file, at a very brisk pace through the woods. Holy shit! This must be the Hill Trail!

I’ve forgotten now how long the Hill Trail was, how many hills you would traverse. I recall being in a three-column formation for short stretches. But most of the time we were moving in single column, up and down steep hills, on a narrow and sometimes treacherous trail through trees and brush. The pace was brisk, almost at a run.

Most of the midshipmen surely found the Hill Trail march to be physically tough. But that’s not what made that experience special. What fascinated me about the Hill Trail were the psychological aspects of running it. You started in the dark with no warning, no way to prepare. Suddenly, you were running the infamous Hill Trail. Then, after you started to become exhausted, you realized the worst part. You had no clue at all about when you would finish the thing. It simply continued, one hill after another, seemingly infinite, each hill hardly distinguishable from the preceding. The Marine Möbius strip.

I had never encountered anything like this before. It was the hardest physical activity in which I had ever engaged. Like almost everyone, I was exhausted quickly. But I knew others had whipped the trail before, and I refused to admit they might have been better than me, that they might have been stronger or more determined. I knew it would end, so I put that from my mind. I concentrated on one hill at a time, one step at a time. I watched the back of the man ahead of me and resolved not to let him get away. If I saw him falter, I would switch my allegiance to the man in front of him.

Many of the midshipmen ran the Hill Trail course and beat it the first time out. There were those who made the route, but faltered and lagged behind, straggling in unceremoniously at the end of the main body of midshipmen. And there were those who couldn’t finish. I never saw anyone who failed that first test come back to complete it on some later try. It seemed that if the Hill Trail would break you, it would happen the first time you tested it. And if it whipped you the first time, it owned your ass and your soul forever. I felt that I had mastered the Hill Trail, and everything else was downhill.

* * *

After I had bested the Hill Trail, the remainder of the cruise became simply down and dirty hard work and aggravation. As the days moved agonizingly by, as the program slowly ate away at the weaker midshipmen, I felt myself getting stronger, physically and mentally. I knew I could make it, that I could pass this entrance test and become a Marine. And I felt taller and straighter and prouder as that steamy summer wore on in Quantico.

At the end of the cruise, I would return to my senior year at UCLA. And when classes resumed, once a week the members of the battalion of midshipmen would be expected to wear their Navy midshipman uniforms to classes and to the parade field, where we would practice the fine art of close-order drill. Each midshipman would be assigned a rifle from the armory. And each battalion officer would be assigned a Navy sword to be worn at drill.

I would return to the NROTC unit to be the drill team commander, and as a battalion officer I could check out one of those unit swords to use at the weekly drill. But I didn’t go through all this to be like everyone else at the unit. I was destined to be commissioned a Marine officer, and everyone in the unit would know that I had made it through Quantico, that I was to be one of the elite.

So in my final week of the summer cruise at Marine Corps Schools, I went into the town of Quantico to do a little shopping in the uniform stores. Having saved some from the small allowance the Marine Corps paid us to be tormented, I purchased my first Marine Corps uniform accessory—my Marine officer’s sword.

The sword worn by a Marine officer is quite unlike that worn by officers from the other branches of the service. Its design comes from that used for centuries by Moslems from North Africa and Arabia, and its use by Marine officers traces to the Mameluke1 sword won by Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon in 1805. It is said that when his contingent of Marines captured the fortress city of Derna, Tripoli, Lieutenant O’Bannon was presented the sword of the governor of Derna.2 Marine officers began wearing swords of the Mameluke pattern in about 1819, and its use was formalized in uniform regulations dating to 1825. The sword itself is distinctive by its cross-hilt and grip of inlaid ivory, its scabbard of gleaming chrome. It puts the Navy’s cutlass-style sword with a drab, black scabbard to shame!

My sword was fitted to my height; when unsheathed and carried as in marching, the tip of the blade had to reach a specified distance from the tip of my ear. Since I was 6′ 3″ with long arms, I needed a very long blade for my sword. And since I only weighed about 155 pounds then, when I marched with my sword in my right hand and the polished scabbard hanging on my left side, you saw a lot of sword.

In my final days at MCS, the DI assigned to our platoon helped me learn the proper handling of the Marine officer’s sword. After I passed the course, I brought the sword with me to my home in Kentucky, where I vacationed for a short time before returning to UCLA. I spent hours in the front yard of our house, watching my image in the mirror of the large picture window in the living room as I practiced and perfected my handling of the sword. It was my most cherished possession at that time. It was a symbol that I was good enough to become a member of the best. And in the fall when I would march with it onto the NROTC parade field, I would stand out from the rest, and I would have their respect and their envy.