Love in the Time of Corona, Part 20. “The Shit You Have To Go Through To Become a Marine”

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You know (I know you do, especially now), sometime you feel like you’ve got a lot of… I’m sorry, shit on your hands (to mix a couple metaphors).

For Marines, If you’re male and recruit east of the Mississippi, you go to Paris Island to boot camp; if you’re west of the Mississippi, you got to MRCD San Diego. If you’re female, no matter where you recruited out of, you go to “P.I.” as it’s known. People who go to P.I. call those of us who trained in Southern Cal “Hollywood Marines.” It’s meant as a pejorative but I’ll take it.
If you train on the West Coast, there’s a part of that thirteen weeks of hell where you leave Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego and go “Up North” as it’s called; that part of the training is carried out at Camp Pendleton, about fifty miles north. Camp Pendleton is the largest Marine Corps base on the planet.
About three days into our time “Up North,” I noticed a little hornet’s nest of Drill Instructors all fired up about something a few yards away. I was “The Guide” of my platoon, Platoon 2088, which meant I was considered the lead recruit and responsible for the actions of the sixty-nine “nasties” in my platoon. I loved this bunch of shitbags. I was nervous at first when I showed up for boot camp at thirty-four years of age. I’d be in training with guys young enough to be my sons, after all. Would I be able to hang with a bunch of eighteen year old Marines? But that was the thing: they weren’t eighteen year-old Marines when they got there. Theirs was a generation raised on PlayStation; we were raised on bicycles and tires swings—plus, by the time I recruited, I was a gay man living in Los Angeles; I knew where the gym was. Toward the end, the Drill Instructors opened up to me about the formation of our platoon. “You know we called you the Magnificent Bastards. You’re made up of the fat recruits, the “Rocks” (low ASVAB scores), and you of course you old fuck. But in the end I know he appreciated my helping him have and easy cycle because I did love those hopeless recruits and I watched them become Marines. When we were given our Eagle, Globe, and Anchor, the symbolic gesture in the moment you become a Marine, the Senior Drill Instructor gave me the one off of his “Smokey” [that famous and iconic hat (“cover”) and gave to me as an acknowledgment of what he saw. He knew I loved the Marine Corps already and he appreciated the hard work I put into my own training and that of my platoon.
Back to the hornets: So as the Guide, I’d learned to engage this sort of weird intuition when the Dis from our platoon and others started buzzing around like, well, there’s no other way to say it, hornets. It usually meant their was pain on the horizon for me and my boys. Then I found out what this particular trouble was.
We were less than a week “Up North” and not too long from graduating. The entire company was made up of eight platoons, each, of course, also had a Guide. The previous company who were now back in San Diego preparing to graduate, had apparently thrown a bunch of MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) trash in the porta-shitters, skittle rappers, chemical heaters, discarded food envelopes. The trucks that come to empty them had apparently gotten clogged and now a price had to be paid. We were “in the field,” sleeping in tents, nestled in the rolling hills of Southern California. From fifty yards away, from the small cluster of hornets we heard. “GUIDES! GET OVER HERE!” Each of us, responding to that word that both filled us with pride and terror, ran over to the DI’s gathered by the porta-shitters as fast as we could. (It takes about one time of running when called at least than max speed to learn to come as fast as you can.)
The Series Gunnery Sergeant: “Hey look you nasty pieces of shit. Your sisters who were up here last week and who are now down there thinking they’re Marines but it seems they left you bastards a little something to remember them by. The shit-sucker truck is choking on all that shit, well not shit, you understand me, but paper shit and shit from the MREs so you ladies are going to go in there and pick it out. (he waited a couple of seconds) Well, what the fuck are you waiting for?!”
One of the other Drill Instructors had produced a bunch of those little plastic garbage bags like for office wastepaper baskets and held them out, and gave them a single shake that said, “Come take these.” We did, of course, and I could tell the other Guides from the other platoons where wondering as I was if we’d just been told we were about to dig through human shit with our bare hands. We had. So we did.
I tried to perform the operation as strategically as I could. Somehow it made it worse that the shit was cold. Odd, that; if it was warm it wouldn’t have made better and perhaps somehow worse. The smell of the shit and the super-concentrated blue water had me swallowing hard throughout this degrading act. I just focused on the day when I could put on those Dress Blues and march across that parade deck a United States Marine. It was like looking for Easter eggs only not like that at all. I’d see a little triangle corner of paper sticking out of the blue and brown and when I’d pull it, a whole, previously buried M&Ms bag would slide out, painted in pudding. Sorry, I’ll stop.
By the time I was done I had a fair amount of human excrement on my hands. When I emerged from the last one I’d been assigned to, I noticed a Drill Instructor was standing near a big garbage can into which the other guides were depositing their finds. As I was putting in my bag of poop-covered candy wrappers, the DI said, “Jesus, they didn’t give you fucks any gloves?” “No Sir!” one of the other Guides responded. “Get the fuck back to your platoons.”
I spotted Platoon 2088 about a hundred yards away and started making my way back over. When I was near enough to hear, I heard what our “Heavy” (the most ruthless DI for your cycle) was up to. He had his back to me and didn’t hear my approach. Interesting, I returned when the DI was trying to sow some seeds of insurrection against me with the other recruits in my platoon. Now as I said before, I loved these little fucks. We were told from the beginning that we’d “probably never go to war” but I felt with almost certainty that we would. This was 2000, a year and a month before September 11th. I knew that just one little mistake I made in trying to be a leader to this platoon could cost his life in battle. I didn’t even want to think about that so I did my best. I “prac’ed” (tutored) the “rocks” (again, the non-Rhodes scholars) on their “knowledge” (all that we were expected to know from our training but as specifically contained in a little green plastic camo binder also called your “knowledge.”) I helped my boys who couldn’t spin-shine to save their mothers; I demonstrated faggot superpowers in ironing and imposed them onto straight boys who were hopeless in that arena. I helped the ones about to have meltdowns about the stupidest shit and I listened in whispered conversations about unfaithful girlfriends back home. I put my nuts on the chopping block for them over and over and sometimes found myself collapsing in a pool of my own sweat on the Quarterdeck being punished for something some recruit had down that I’d never know.
So when I returned to hear my Heavy incited them to mutiny it filled be with a strange anger.
“The guide doesn’t give a shit about you pieces of shit!” I heard him say. And then, Recruit King, one of the smallest and quietest among said, “The Guide would die for us, Sir!”

About that time, both Recruit King and Drill Instructor Sgt. Medina saw me approaching. “Get in Guide!” (meaning “get in the formation”). So I did.

On the march back, I kept hearing Recruit King’s words, in his high voice (I think he was still going through puberty), echoing through my exhausted brain. “The Guide would die for us, Sir.” And it felt good. I’m sure if someone had looked at me then they would have thought I was near death. But it was one of the happiest moments of my life; my heart was about to explode with pride. I was willing to die for them, am still, (and may yet if I don’t learn to keep my mouth shut and stop pissing off powerful people as an activist). As we marched, the sound of the DI calling cadence faded away and I just heard the refrain of King’s voice over and over. I thought about putting my hands in that shit. “Was it worth it?” I thought. You bet your ass it was.

Facing a global pandemic is difficult. It’s difficult for all of us. You’ve been through difficult times before and you’ll make it through this. Sometimes, in this life, you end up with shit on your hands. Even so, in that, there is beauty and strength in the experience.


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