Marine Corps boot camp 40 years ago

Listen to this article

Of all the sad realities of life today, this is the one that stings the most: I’m not 21 years old anymore. The reminders are all too frequent: running across the street while jaywalking on Pomerado Rd, riding my Trusty Trek up a steep hill … well actually I’m walking it up that hill these days. Then of course there is the need every morning to empty the bladder three to four times an hour for the first three hours I’m awake. And let’s not forget the 4 a.m. wake-up call — time to go pee-pee!

On top of that: I love spicy Mexican and Chinese food. Now, spicy food is getting to be a burden on my digestive tract — if you catch my drift and if you’re downwind after I’ve had a spicy bite at the local taquería, you just might get my drift.

Yep, I ain’t 21 anymore which means for damn sure I ain’t 18 anymore, but when I was 18 …

The house where we grew up in Milwaukee, WI. We didn’t have the wishing we'll in front and the trees were smaller, but that’s the place. (Photo by Tim Forkes)
The house where we grew up in Milwaukee, WI. We didn’t have the wishing we’ll in front and the trees were smaller, but that’s the place.
(Photo by Tim Forkes)

On July 31, 1974, I got up early, but not early enough to beat Dad to the kitchen table where he was having some breakfast, i.e. coffee and a Pall Mall Straight. I had some breakfast, eggs and bacon as I recall, prepared by Mom. She didn’t speak to me at all that morning.

We finished breakfast and I grabbed what few things I would need, which wasn’t much, and Dad and I walked out the back door. I turned around and said goodbye to Mom, but she couldn’t even turn from the kitchen sink to wave or give her son a hug goodbye. She was crying.

  • Years later Dad told me she cried for three days.

To be honest, I felt bad because Mom and Dad had been opposed to this momentous decision I had made and by carrying through with this it had really hurt my mother deeply. She had already lived through a world war with a husband serving in the volatile Pacific Theater and a first born son serving in Vietnam; now her third son wasn’t just going off to boot camp — while the Vietnam War was still, technically, a hot war — Mom’s third son was heading off to Marine Corps Boot Camp — Recruit Training if you want to be technically accurate.

So she couldn’t hug her son goodbye, couldn’t even turn around to wave goodbye.

At the time, the Military Entrance Processing Station  (MEPS) was in Downtown Milwaukee; located on the lower floors of a tall building. At the time it was called the Military Induction Center.

Dad just pulled up to the curb, put the car in park and gave me one big hug and said goodbye. I walked into the building, turned around once to wave goodbye and entered. I was off to Marine Corp Recruit Depot, San Diego, CA.

Here’s the thing: the ubiquitous “they” don’t want the recruits to arrive at MCRD until 11 p.m. San Diego time, which meant the flight leaving from Milwaukee didn’t leave the gate until roughly 7 p.m. The plane picked up more recruits in Chicago and headed off to San Diego’s Lindbergh Field, which at the time … Getting a little ahead of the story here. The thing is, when we arrived at MCRD San Diego many of us were hoping to get some sleep. But that was not going to happen for another five hours. The Marine Corps wanted us good and tired, making us easier to start the process of tearing down the diddy-boppin’ civilians to rebuild us as Marines.

We had to report to the induction center early, like 8 a.m. or some ungodly hour, to begin a battery of tests to see just how smart we were (not very, we were enlisting in the Marine Corps), how emotionally stable we were (because they were about to crush our spirits) and to see if we were physically fit. Well, I went to boot camp 50 pounds over weight, but thankfully the drill instructors had a great weight loss plan. Other than that I was fit as a fiddle, as the saying goes.

About a year earlier when I first approached my parents about the idea of me joining the Marine Corps, mom had the family doctor declare me unfit for military service due to the thought that I suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. That turned out to be an incorrect diagnosis, according to the doctors in the induction center and off I went to boot camp. Just like that.

Most people have the vision of actor R. Lee Ermey n their minds when they think of Marine Corps Drill Instructors, thanks to the movie, “Full Metal Jacket.” He actually had been a “D.I.” during the Vietnam War so he just played himself. (YouTube)
Most people have the vision of actor R. Lee Ermey n their minds when they think of Marine Corps Drill Instructors, thanks to the movie, “Full Metal Jacket.” He actually had been a “D.I.” during the Vietnam War so he just played himself.

So, the plane arrives at Lindbergh Field, around 10:30 p.m. local time. At the time, Lindbergh Field was only one terminal, what is now the Commuter Terminal. We exited the plane escorted by government employees and instructed to head to the green school bus parked outside. We got on the bus, a marine driving the bus gave us some words of advice, which we mostly ignored, and then we were on our way to MCRD, San Diego.

You can see the place from Pacific Coast Highway or from a plane taking off or landing at Lindbergh Field. It doesn’t look scary and in fact as the bus entered the main gate it didn’t feel scary. That didn’t happen until 11:01 p.m. when a drill instructor began yelling at us just how to exit the bus and when and to stand with our feet perfectly placed on the yellow footprints … yellow footprints?

Someone asked the Drill Instructor a question — really, if you’re headed to Marine Corps Recruit Training in either Parris Island, South Carolina or here in Sunny Sandy Eggo, don’t ask the drill instructor anything when he gets on the bus to tell you how to get off the bus and when.

You’ve probably seen a photo or two of Marine Corps drill instructors yelling at a recruit, their screaming pie-holes less than an inch away from the recruit’s face or ears. That’s what happened when the one guy asked the drill instructor a question. And he flinched. You shouldn’t do that either. As soon as the recruit jerked away from the yelling he gave the drill instructor yet another reason to yell in his ear.

Here are the instructions for getting off the bus and when:

“You will double time off this bus, exiting this hatch (the front door) and once you are out of the bus you are to stand at attention with your feet perfectly on the yellow footprints.”

Sounds easy enough, except that the drill instructor is standing in front of “the hatch” which means you have to get past him — without touching him — and exit the bus at a run to the nearest set of yellow footprints you didn’t know existed until the drill instructor started yelling on the bus.

Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, from the air. (Flickr)
Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, from the air.

Here’s the thing: about a month before taking that oath at the Milwaukee Induction Center, I had extremely long hair (below my shoulder blades) and a bit of facial hair that (I hoped) could one day be a beard and moustache. My next door neighbor Bob, who had been in the Marines and Vietnam from 1968-69, told me the facial hair would piss off the drill instructors so I shaved it all off about a week before going in. He never said anything about the hair.

So, as I’m exiting the green school bus as fast as my overweight body can go, the drill instructor grabs my arm and says, “Who the fuck do you think you are? Jesus fucking Christ?”

Apparently entering his Marine Corps with long hair was a sin so vile it would take at least a week of constant haranguing and punitive PT (physical training) to fully pay my penance for such an offence.

Punitive PT — just “PT” for shorthand — consisted of pushups or the dreaded “bends and motherfuckers.” Here’s how those go: from the position of attention (standing) you squat down, put your hands on the floor, kick your feet out behind you, then execute a perfect pushup then plant your feet beneath you and rise to the position of attention.

Almost sounds easy, but try doing ten of those. And then imagine doing them for ten minutes as fast as you can with an angry drill instructor yelling at you to go faster. And he really wants to make his point so he starts doing them right next to you so he can scream in your ear the entire time.

Even officer candidates have to endure Drill Instructors at Officer Candidate School. (Wikipedia)
Even officer candidates have to endure Drill Instructors at Officer Candidate School.

It isn’t all about yelling. The task of the drill instructors is to train these young people to be Marines and once a platoon gets into it’s training cycle the drill instructors talk loud and firm so every recruit can hear their instructions, so the yelling subsides after a week or two and happens only when a recruit screws up badly.

Here’s what happened to me: because I was 50 pounds overweight and couldn’t run a block, let alone three miles, nor could I muster more than two sit-ups and horror of horrors, couldn’t do even one pull-up, I was immediately sent to the “Fat Farm,” or officially, the Physical Conditioning Platoon, which kept me in boot camp an extra six weeks.

But I lost all of that extra weight and then some and could run three miles in 18 minutes do 100 sit-ups in two minutes and do 14 pull-ups. We only needed to do 80 sit-ups in two minutes to get a perfect score but I was so proud of being able to do that many sit-ups I just had to show off.

My Marine Corps boot camp graduation photo.(Tim Forkes)
My Marine Corps boot camp graduation photo.(Tim Forkes)

After graduating boot camp on December 18, 1974, I was so lean and mean my mother didn’t recognize me when I walked down the concourse of Mitchell Field in Milwaukee once I got home on leave. I saw her, Dad and my younger sister and brothers so I called out to them. Mom’s reaction: “THAT’S NOT MY TIM!”

She was right too. I was no longer that 18-year old dipshit that walked into the Induction Center with hair down to the middle of his back.

But it was nice to be home, even if it sort of felt like a different planet. Of course going from San Diego, where we were in short sleeves all day to Milwaukee, WI in the middle of December, where you needed a winter coat — that was a bit of a shock too.

Too many things happened in boot camp to write about here; add in everything I did after boot camp, from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, to Yuma, Arizona — and Camp Pendelton, MCAS El Toro, Twenty-Nine Palms — and then Okinawa, it was a helluva ride for three years, ten months, 22 days, eight hours and 15 minutes, give or take a few.

It was the most significant period of my life, one that has influenced me ever since. While we were in boot camp President Richard Nixon resigned his office and Vice President Gerald Ford was sworn in to replace him. Our drill instructors had us sit on the floor in the front of the squad bay and the one told us there was a change in our chain of command. And that’s all it meant to us — there was a new Commander-in-Chief.

1976, Yuma, Arizona. Semper Fi (Tim Forkes)
1976, Yuma, Arizona.
Semper Fi
(Tim Forkes)

About eight years after I got out and two years after I stopped drinking, my mother and I were having dinner with Uncle George (one of Dad’s brothers), and Mom said, “I hate the Marine Corps. It taught you how to drink and curse.”

I replied, “No Mom, that’s not entirely true. I was drinking every day before I got to the Marine Corps. But I did learn a few new ways to use the fucking ‘F’ word.”
Ba-dum-bump. And so ended that conversation.

Forty years ago today.
Semper Fi Chesty, wherever you are.