02 December 2010

"FORTY-THREE"

"FORTY-THREE"
By Andy Weddington
Friday, 03 December 2010


                                                                          "The Few. The Proud. The Marines."


A text message on the morning of 10 November, our Corps' 235th, triggered a memory. I've been replaying the moment since and came to the conclusion that's a sign to tell the story. So, for today, the swamp of politics and other such nonsense gives way to reminiscing and lighter fare, likely stirring a memory for some, and maybe a laugh for all...


"FORTY-THREE."

It was about this time 31 years ago the reality I'd soon be reporting to Officer Candidates School (OCS) set in. In little more than two months a commitment--by raising my right hand, repeating an oath, and signing a piece of paper--made a little less than two months earlier would forever change life.

February 18th 30 years ago was a Monday. That morning I boarded a commercial airplane for the second time in my life (the first was six months earlier on a Piedmont Airlines turboprop from Charlotte to Raleigh, NC--the return of a trip taken on a Trailways bus to go see a girl; it didn't work out). I don't remember the airlines that Monday morning--it might have been American--but we were headed to National Airport, Washington, D.C.

I was seated beside a businessman dressed in a dark suit. As he was absorbed reading the paper, we didn't speak until about half-way through the flight. After folding his paper and stuffing it in the seatback he turned to me and asked, "So, where are you off to this morning?" I told him I was reporting to Officer Candidates School, U. S. Marine Corps. He smiled and replied, "You're in for a big surprise." Something I already knew. That was it for conversation. With a sick sort of smile he wished me well when we deplaned and that was that.

The airport terminal in D.C. was busy and chaotic. In the baggage claim area a couple of uniformed Marines herded candidates. They were impersonal and no nonsense directing groups outside to board idling plain white school busses for the 45 minute ride down I-95 South to Quantico, Virginia.

For the most part the bus ride was quiet--everyone within themselves contemplating what was about to happen. Less one chatterbox candidate who recited the eleven General Orders (and other tidbits) and asked if everyone knew them (some Marine had obviously helped prepare him). As I remember, he talked non-stop--maybe it was just nervous energy.

I remember thinking my Officer Selection Officer (recruiter known as an "OSO" pronounced: "Oh So") never mentioned the eleven General Orders so they were of little concern to me at the time (that would change). In fact, about all my OSO did was talk about the Marine Corps and monitored a physical fitness test to ensure I was in top shape. I was. He told me I'd do fine. That was it.

Meandering the base for what seemed like 10 or 15 miles, our bus stopped in front of a pair of white two-story World War II-era wood "H" style barracks situated way too close to railroad tracks; as I remember 30 yards or so (it may have been a few more but not much). Later we learned this area was called "Brown Field." A Marine boarded the bus, loudly with a staccato delivery gave instructions, and as we debarked a number--1 through 6--was grease-penciled on the back of our left hand. The number corresponded to a platoon and squadbay. My number was "2" and assigned to the squadbay on the ground-level closest to the railroad tracks in the starboard side barracks.

After entering the barracks, a short passageway and a set of swinging doors opened into the squadbay. There were emergency exits at either end. Windows along the exterior wall closest to the railroad tracks let in some light, and more than some cold. The squadbay--a long, poorly lit, cement-floored room (more like a wide corridor) was organized with two rows of bunked steel-frame racks. A worn narrow wall locker and equally worn drab green wood footlocker accompanied each rack. A couple of large galvanized trash cans, with lids, completed what HGTV designers would likely have described as "shabby chic" decor.

A couple dozen candidates had already arrived. All were quiet and sitting erect on the edge of their  footlockers--positioned in front of their rack--with their faces buried in a pocket-sized book; a book of candidate knowledge. Arriving candidates were ordered to take any open rack. I found one and aped the other candidates. Candidates trickled in for several more hours.

I don't recall much else until two Marines entered the squadbay and destroyed the tense calm. With impressive presence, confidence, and volume they introduced themselves as our platoon sergeant and sergeant instructor. Our platoon sergeant, Gunnery Sergeant C., wore a four-inch wide black patent leather belt. The black belt indicated platoon sergeant authority and that he'd served a tour as a Drill Instructor at one of the two Marine Corps Recruit Depots. That is, he knew the business of entry-level training. Our sergeant instructor, Sergeant H., wore a wide green webbed belt secured with an equally wide highly polished brass buckle adorned with an eagle, globe, and anchor. He'd not had recruit training experience.

The pair, our trainers for the next 10 weeks, ordered, "Get 'on line'". "On line" (a term in use long before  Gore invented the Internet) meant along a three inch wide yellow line painted on the deck running the length of the squadbay in front of our racks while standing at the position of attention--which they shouted and corrected while moving from candidate to candidate..."Heels together with feet at a 45 degree angle, legs straight but not stiff, stomach in shoulders back chest up and forward, arms hang naturally with fingers in a natural curl with thumbs aligned along the trouser seam,  head and eyes to the front, mouth closed."

We were "welcomed" to 2nd Platoon, Charlie Company. The next command from the platoon sergeant was "Count off"--a simple head count whereby each candidate's head is turned toward the center of the squadbay and sounds off--loudly--with the next number in the sequence while returning his head to the front.

Late afternoon on Monday, 18 February 1980, 2nd Platoon, Charlie Company, 113th Officer Candidates Class, Officer Candidates School, was formed. Count on deck: Forty-four.

Particulars I do not recall for the rest of the day. About all I remember is bedlam and there was never enough time to do the next tasks so ordered. A life of doing whatever one wanted whenever one wanted suddenly ended. "I" was stricken from the vocabulary. Even the most basic of human necessities--e.g., answering Mother Nature's call--required permission by asking, "Platoon Sergeant (Sergeant Instructor), this candidate requests permission to make a head call." Imagine--grown men asking other grown men permission to relieve themselves. Welcome to the Corps.

The chaos, as we'd later come to appreciate, was by design and carefully orchestrated--one of the more elemental of tools used to weed out those who did not belong. And it soon did exactly that.

Some candidates were immediately assigned to billets--candidate squad leaders, guide, platoon sergeant and platoon commander. Assessing leadership ability--the core and whole purpose of OCS--was underway on day one. They were charged with leading the platoon and getting the squadbay squared away. One of the first housekeeping chores was arranging candidates by alphabetical order.

The billet holders set the evening's firewatch duty schedule--pairs of candidates assigned for one or two hour (I don't recall which) periods of duty from taps to reveille. Their duty to be alert and maintain order and safety in the squadbay while others slept. And that duty guided by those eleven General Orders first heard on the bus ride from the airport, and memorized within the first hour of footlocker time.

As the military is known for doing damn near everything in alphabetical order I was not assigned firewatch that evening.

It'd been a long day. Taps was at 2100. Candidates were in the rack, lights out, and our platoon sergeant slowly made his way from one end of the squadbay to the other droning on about the challenges that awaited--then he left.

There was not much sleep that night. Anxiousness part of the reason. The far bigger reason was trains roaring by--rattling the squadbay--and blowing whistles throughout the night; it seemed like every hour or so. A reasonable man would have concluded the Marine Corps and rail system conspired to add one more element of stress to OCS. Most probably (as after nearly three decades in uniform nothing in the Marine Corps was incidental or coincidental).  

Reveille sounded at 0500. It was not much different than the scene in the movie "The DI" starring Jack Webb made in the 50s. For the unfamiliar, here's a link for a taste and what squadbays looked like in the 50s, and in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and to this day though a bit more modern:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=riYfFQMPIP0&feature=related

Lights were flipped on and our platoon sergeant and sergeant instructor, following tradition, abruptly ended slumber. With remarkable agility and purpose they ranged from one end of the squadbay to the other yelling and occasionally stopping in the face of a candidate moving too slow. In less than thirty seconds the platoon--clad in skivvies, T-shirts, and shower shoes--was on line, at attention, and scolded for being too slow. Back in the rack. Again we rose, back on line, and still too slow to please our trainers, but a long day was ahead and it was time to move on.

Gunnery Sergeant C. ordered, "Count off."

"ONE"--yelled by the candidate whose surname ended in "A". And the count proceeded alphabetically, around the squadbay, through "Z".

There was a "hiccup" or two as anxious candidates still shaking off the fog of sleep sounded off the same number.

The last candidate yelled, "FORTY-THREE."

Gunnery Sergeant C., knowing we had forty-four on deck at taps made some sarcastic remark to Sergeant H., also intended for our ears, and said we'd do it again, and again, until we did it right.

He ordered, "Count off."

It's almost embarrassing to admit there was another "hiccup" or two with candidates sounding off the same number. And, as expected, the result was hosed up.

The count ended on "FORTY-THREE."

Gunnery Sergeant C., was not amused. He was quiet while collecting this thoughts. Some candidates started to snicker. It was sort of funny but far from appropriate to laugh. Any humor was lost on our platoon sergeant. To say there was a little tension in the squadbay an understatement--big time. He was losing his patience and said he could not believe his platoon, college graduates all, could not count to forty-four. The word "stupid" and "idiots" mentioned a time or two. His rant not funny but another chuckle or two could be heard amongst the candidates. More choice words and admonishment for our lack of discipline (for which we'd later pay).

Again, he barked, "Count off."

Without hiccup this time the count ended on "FORTY-THREE."

That was a problem--a candidate was missing.

Gunnery Sergeant C., now angered, demanded to know who was missing. But since we barely had twelve hours together and didn't know one another it was not so easy to determine.

Finally, after a few quick pointed questions by Gunnery Sergeant C., a candidate--the chatterbox on the bus--spoke up. He could not recall his name but said he didn't see the candidate he was paired with on firewatch, and he said the candidate told him, "Man, I'm outta here" or something like that but he didn't take him seriously.

Note we're still on line at attention.

Sergeant H. went to their "house" to retrieve the platoon alpha roster and called roll. Candidates sounded off, "Here, Sergeant Instructor," to their last name.

His last name called several times, Candidate "Mayers" did not sound off. Silence.

"Mayers" was "UA"--Unauthorized Absence (the Army uses the more familiar acronym "AWOL"--Absent WithOut Leave).

Candidate "Mayers" realized he did not belong there and left in the middle of the night. Who knows where he went or how he managed to get off base--if he did so. So close to the railroad tracks we had thoughts of him hopping a train. Who knows. For all we know he was apprehended while afoot and processed for separation. Most likely that's exactly what happened.

We never again heard of Candidate "Mayers" who the platoon affectionately tagged with the moniker "UA Mayers"--a nick he carries to this day. It'd be interesting to hear his story.

Anyway, count on deck at that first reveille...

"FORTY-THREE."

We never had another hiccup during "count off."

During the course of the next sixty-six reveilles candidates were dropped due to injury, some dropped on request, and others, to their disappointment, dropped by the leadership as just not having that necessary mix required to lead Marines.

Few have what it takes to be a Marine. Fewer still to lead Marines.

On Friday morning, 25 April--Graduation and Commissioning Day--ten weeks after that first reveille, 18 candidates from 2nd platoon were commissioned second lieutenants of Marines. Do the math--about 60% attrition and that held consistent across the other five platoons in the company.

Gunnery Sergeant C. and Staff Sergeant H. completed their mission.

Our mission was just beginning.

Post Script

At least a third of the 18 had been enlisted Marines--one a gunnery sergeant who was senior to our platoon sergeant. If that was awkward it never showed--a candidate was a candidate. Today I know the whereabouts of a handful. Most of the nicknames come to mind: Stinky, Ship, Taz, Smitty, Duke, Blinker, Tall One, Short One, Scooter, Weezer, Stag, Leeberman, Cro (short for Cro-magnon), Bear, Bee Bop, Kinky, Flintstone, et.al. Many stayed for a career. My buddy, "Scooter," he'd been a corporal, made it to colonel, too.

Author's endnotes

1. My (and my brother's) OSO, then a captain, retired as a colonel.

2. The Charlie Company Executive Officer, then a captain, retired as a brigadier general. Twenty-two years later I, now a colonel, worked for him. Four years later he retired me. And, he wrote the Introduction for my book, "Making Marines". Small Corps.

3. Gunnery Sergeant C. retired as a Chief Warrant Officer 4. We did not cross paths after OCS.

4. Sergeant H. reminded the candidates he, too, was educated and held a "Masters degree"--a "Masters" in the Marine Corps. He was a great Marine and deservingly promoted, in front of the candidates during a field ceremony, to staff sergeant half-way through OCS. I do not know what became of him.

5. The chatterbox on the bus ride from the airport to Quantico had a four-syllable not-so-difficult-to-pronounce as it was unusal last name. Our sergeant instructor tabbed him with a four-syllable easier-to-pronounce (at least for him) parody that was shortened to "Blinker." He went on to fly jets and left active duty as a major. These days he's a commercial airline captain at Delta. I saw him this past July--it'd been 27 years since we'd last had a beer. He's still a talker and one of the most engaging and funniest people I know. My most vivid memory of him at OCS--week 9 of training, while negotiating the "Quiggly" (a flooded trenchline littered with log obstacles and culverts) as part of the grueling Endurance Run, he was bitten by a spider. Within minutes his head swelled like a balloon forcing his eyes shut and nearly enveloping all his features. It was serious. Corpsmen administered immediate first aid, he was med evac'ed from the field, and placed on bed rest. He recovered. It wasn't funny at the time but it was back in July looking at the photos and reminiscing. Oh, and he speaks an unusal dialect of Arabic; or least demonstrated such on one occasion while on liberty in Crystal City.

6. My OCS rack mate (bottom bunk)--an unflappable Southern California surfer dude aka: Bee Bop--was "FORTY-THREE". He went on to fly helicopters and commercial jets for U.S. Air. We remained good friends. Sadly, he died eight years ago--succumbing to stomach cancer. Still miss him.

7. The WWII barracks at Brown Field are long gone. But the squadbay--a critical experience for instilling  cohesion and teamwork endures; at OCS and the two Recruit Depots. However, repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) threatens this time-tested key piece of U. S. Marine Corps entry-level training. God forbid.

And on that note...
During yesterday's Senate Armed Service Committee hearing concerning repeal of DADT, Senator Lindsey Graham (R, SC)--an Air Force Reserve JAG officer--asked Admiral Mullen--Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff--the dopiest, most inane question of the session. He asked the Admiral if he could explain why the Marines think the way they do and have taken the position they have against repeal of DADT? This is parallel to asking a proctologist to opine about a corneal transplant using the premise the proctologist and ophthalmologist both work with "eyes." Please. With due respect to both public servants, Admiral Mullen, despite his decades of service and qualifications, has not earned the privilege to wear the eagle, globe, and anchor and therefore is unqualified to answer the question, and Senator Graham was out of line for asking him. The Admiral would have been more impressive by remaining silent (or deferring to the expert who sits as a Joint Chief). No need to guess or ask mere amateurs. Good grief, first year law students learn, and folks with common sense know, to employ expert testimony. Our Corps has a Commandant, thank you very much, who is one well-qualified Marine (among hundreds of thousands) to directly answer Senator Graham's question and will do just that if afforded the opportunity. As General William Thornson, U. S. Army is attributed with saying, "There are only two kinds of people that understand Marines: Marines and the enemy. Everyone else has a second-hand opinion." Ask a Marine!

8. "Blinker" sent the text triggering today's Commentary. Thanks, Marine.

2 comments:

T.Carty said...

Wow. That brings back some memories, Andy! Was the chatterbox, Mark I.? I remember him saying, because we were the 2nd bus to unload at OCS, and were listening to the screaming at the candidates on bus #1, "Toto, I have a feeling that we're not in Kansas anymore"! I thought that we had close to 60 in my platoon (3). Am I in error? I know we finished with about 28 (I think).

Dave said...

Andy,

Man...you sure can capture the essence of an experience!

We had a "44th Candidate" at Camp Upshur in my PLC Jr. class.

We were riding back on the bus from our first liberty in DC, and our "#44" turned to me and said: "I'm not going back." When I asked him what he meant, he said that he'd made up his mind to quit OCS. I think I told him: "You can't do that!"...or words to that effect. I passed him off as a guy who was melancholy after a good liberty. Surely he’d come around.

To the contrary, at Count Off the next morning, he was a goner.

The Plt Sgt kept us all at attention when he discovered that Candidate F. was missing, got the Plt Cdr, and within a few minutes, we were stripping "#44's" rack, emptying his footlocker, and packing all his trash in sea bags. The Plt Sgt told us to forget about him, and consider him as "dead".

I wonder what ever happened to that guy. He sure did miss out on a lot of great camaraderie, adventure, and opportunity.

I’m glad I stuck it out!

Semper Fi,

Dave