My Drill Instructor
Officer Candidate School, Pensacola. I sit in my rack, my bed, listening to the early Florida morning. Soon, the drill instructors will arrive. I know -- I heard the gouge from years past. My eyes close, but refuse to let me sleep.
I slip from the lower bunk to the floor. Grabbing my new Bible, I pad out of Squad Bay to the bathroom. It is 0345 (3:45 in the morning) and I expect bedlam in two hours or so. The lights in the head are blindingly loud. I squint through their pinch and nod at a guy shaving over the sink. He is a Naval Flight Officer wanna-be; we had emailed confidently before OCS. Now we have nothing to say. Because we said it all. Nothing left but the hollering and execution. We are both prior enlisted, but he looks already tired. Really, he is just resigned to our fate. Unlike me, who stupidly can't resign.
I lean on the windowsill and rifle through the pages of the stiff Bible. It seems to know me, this new book. It senses I need a crutch and won't play easy. The coy sheets flip closed after I press them open. It stares up at me mutely, to ask if there is some mistake. I plow through whole sections. Looking for that piece, peace to hold on to.
I stop at my favorite, Psalm 23, Michael Jordan's, mine. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. The words comfort me. I want to say them aloud, but I don't.
The first time I had spoken the Psalm had been when our pheasant had died. Though I am a city boy, we had once owned wild birds. Our farmy suburb allowed outdoor cages. Some neighborhood punk had rolled up point-blank on our Silver-tail. And shot her. The other fowl were okay, including the rooster we were promised was a hen. Did I mention we were city?
So our bird had died a painful death and with a spade, my brother and I went down the slope. To dig and then to lay a cardboard box, the casket, into the ground. And then to walk through the valley, and not to fear evil, for our cup runneth over. And years later to Pensacola and that bright bathroom and me looking for it: my cup runnething over.
I creep my way back to my rack. God bless every one of the Psalms. I repeat 23 to myself, mouthing the words. While staring at the slats of the bunk above. Would I remember it when They came?
No. I would not remember. The door bursts open at the strike of 0530. Or was it 0515? And I spring out of my rack. Chaos. They wield garbage can lids and exploding neck veins. And I crank out pushups in my flip-flops. A short Master Gunnery Sergeant brushes by me to yell at my yawning rack-mate.
We push and they yell and we push some more. Then we dress in our poopie suits, a green flight-coverall. Mine's too short. It looks ridiculous. It pulls at my crotch and the pants ride two inches high on my ankle. Like I had slipped into a swimming pool and my clothes had shrunk. Someone had screwed me big-time during uniform issue. I had screwed me. I had not tried them on properly. Lesson learned. Take responsibility for myself.
The week went by. We live. Losing weight, gaining weight. Somehow, the drill instructors had rattled my gastrointestinals mute. Or maybe it was the food? Much more I won't say.
My DI is the senior DI at OCS. Gunnery Sergeant W, United States Marine Corps. One day perhaps I'll blog his real name, but he is a RadBn (pronounced Rad Bin) guy and maybe I should not. He works signals when not working recruits. I owe the man a lot, least of all his name. To thank him in print. But not yet.
Look, he says. I'm no yeller. I ain't going to get all hot. We exchange looks -- what kind of DI was this? I will make you work. I will wear you out if you do not follow my instruction. Do you understand?
Yes, sir! we meekly yell.
Not loud enough, get on yo' faces, he says, pointing to the ground. And we push. And push. And I pull myself up after my arms have quit. And then we push some more. We spend days running, drilling, learning.
The fourth week and our big inspection. I draw one of the sniper DIs for the inspect. He seems almost cordial with me as he paws through my wall locker. You know so-and-so? he asks, while I stand at attention before him. (So-and-so and I share the same last name.)
No, sir, I reply.
Mountain climbers, now.
I am on the floor, climbing, when he talks to me again. Eyes, candidate.
Snap, sir! I yell, looking to where he points. But I am too late. He throws my uniforms out, tornadoes of khaki. I go from perfect wall-locker to fail in less than 30 seconds.
I pass the re-test and OCS grinds along. We are called friggin' crazy and freakin' aliens and the pain is less and the hidden smiles more.
One day, we are marching back from the parade deck and our DI stops us. Pull in close. We break ranks. And pull in. Who you think has my back: my Marines or my race?
I look away. Gunnery Sergeant W is black and his candor surprises me. No one replies. If you think the answer is anything other than Marines, you are wrong. Now push. And we push push-ups in the Pensacola grass, that rough crabgrass I never want to feel again. I would follow the Gunnery Sergeant into any battle, but I can't tell him that. And even when or if I get my commission, I am not a Marine, but a Navy cryptologist. My battle is to gather intelligence, information that whispers to Marine triggers. Not to pull 'em.
We graduate and he gives me my first salute. I call him Gunny and he bug-eyes me. Are we on the ship together?
No sir, I reply. Gunnery Sergeant.
That's right, sir. If we are on the ship, you can go around calling me Gunny.
I grin and Gunny, Gunnery Sergeant, my Drill Instructor, finally smiles too. He called me sir, but I would give him first salutes for the rest of his career, my career. If I could.
And later at the dinner that night, my grandmother actually points at and then touches his ribbon rack. She queries each of his medals.
And this one?
I earned that one in the sands of Saudi Arabia, ma'am, Gunnery Sergeant W, USMC says.
Then my grandmother asks Gunny how I did and he shruggingly replies: He was a good one.
And when I later hear he made E-8, I am elated. I owe the man my career. Any small success I claim is his too. And when I retire, put my career to bed, I can look back and know he helped mold me. But not yet, for I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep...
Navy One is a prior-enlisted linguist, current naval officer. He blogs at www.themellowjihadi.com when not doing the Navy's bidding.