Adversity introduces a man to himself
What he said about the experience has stuck with me for sixty years now. In the fall of 1956, I was eight weeks into Marine Corps boot camp. It was my week for mess duty. At 0430 hours the first morning, I mustered at the chow hall and was put on the egg cracking detail. Heading into the prep area, I encounter Jason Occippinti, a high school classmate. Och had enlisted two years earlier, and while I was drinking beer and skipping classes in college, Och had made corporal, and was now supervising boots like me in the kitchen. “Och, that you?” “By God, it’s Roth!,” he says, “Who’d of thunk?”
We talk. “How’re you making out?” “OK, long as I don’t get set back.” “Hang in, you’re getting short.”
For most of the twelve weeks in boot camp, a boot’s greatest nightmare is to get sick or hurt, have to spend more than three days in sick bay and get set back to the platoon coming behind to finish a week later. A week is an eternity at boot camp.
Still surprised to run into each other, we talk some more. “Boot camp is tough,” Och says. “I wouldn’t want to do it again, but I wouldn’t take a sack of gold for the experience!” I eventually agreed with him, but not right then.
Turning a platoon of raw, teen-age civilians into fighting machines, acculturated to instant obedience to command in combat, with the presence of mind to step up and lead when everyone senior has been taken out of action, is serious business. Marine Corps drill instructors understand that lives are at stake, and they brook no nonsense.
For twelve long weeks the pressure is unrelenting. Most of us get though it. Some do not.
We just never know how we will act. At about three weeks, a guy who I thought had it together, flipped suddenly. Next thing, he was being marched off to the brig by the Shore Patrol, to be discharged on less than honorable terms.
Then there was short, fat, ugly private Prevost, with a mouth full of rotting teeth and a bad attitude, which we didn’t help. We made him a target. Bullied him, actually, verbally. It took our minds off our own fears to knock him down.
One dreary morning, we were standing at ease in formation on the company street while the drill instructor was in the duty hut getting ready for our next training exercise. We got to badgering Prevost again, and on that day, Prevost had had enough.
“Fuck you guys,” he choked out tearfully, “Fuck it all, I’ll just go over the hill!” Breaking ranks, he stomped off down the street, committing the cardinal offense of being anywhere on God’s earth his drill instructor had not specifically ordered him to be.
Instantly, we realized that we had just driven him out of the Corps. In a panic, several of us broke ranks, chased him down, and begged him to turn around. He gave in, and we got back in formation before the drill instructor came out of the hut.
I don’t think we understood, then, what happened that day. Now, I know it was a special time for platoon 274. We quit hassling Prevost. We began to look out for each other and work together. A camaraderie emerged, and I think we all grew up some.
Prevost was changing, too. He was sent to the base dentist office every week, and his whole mouth was redone. He was losing weight, which we didn’t notice until we were being fitted for our dress uniforms in the eleventh week. Prevost was now ripped.
By the time we graduated boot camp and were sent to advanced combat training, Prevost was just one of the guys. He went with us to Tijuana on our first weekend liberty. I recall he lost his virginity there and contracted a small dose of the clap. Penicillin cleared it up. A reasonable price to pay for a passage into manhood.
Years later, I hooked up with Butch Fortson, a platoon 274 buddy. Reminiscing, we laughed about stuff that didn’t seem so funny back then. Time seemed to have changed our perspective.
I don’t ever want to go through Marine Corps boot camp again, but I Goddamn sure wouldn’t take anything for those twelve miserable fucking weeks at The United States Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, California.