I remember this kind of skinny kid leaning in the doorway as we ran, past the white sheet hanging down from the ceiling to hide H class off from the rest of the 3rd deck. Everybody was dressed comfortably, warm and clean looking in PT gear: blue sweatpants and long-sleeved white t-shirts. I ran with my seabag in front of me, carrying it upside down with a deathlike bear-hug grip. Knife hands. The kid was pale, and called after me as I threw my stuff down in Preston’s room, where I’d been assigned, “Be loud.”
We followed the Master Gunnery Sergeant downstairs to the first level of the building to where his office was located. Everything was fast. Everything was going to hell, I could barely keep up with him and he appeared to be only walking. I hated this.
We followed the small man outside, the New England twilight choking the sky with a heavy gray stranglehold. It was spitting again, neither ice nor rain, just a cold, miserable wet. We went to a sand pit, the “rose garden.” And oh, the irony of this misnomer.
I will take a moment here to say that this, technically my first “beating” in the accepted nomenclature of the environment, I learned one of the most important principles of survival in military training: the meatshield. The meatshield (or heatshield, if you prefer something less verbally bloody) is essential for survival. I cannot stress this enough. The purpose of the meatshield is to provide a buffer zone between yourself and the Marines, who are looking for any weakness. They like to eradicate this weakness at the source. It is best to never be this source. As callous as it is, you get a fatter, dumber, slower person, and you keep them between you and the salivating devil dogs at all times. At all times. And you just melt into the background- another worthless candidate with BCGs and stupid tall socks and hideous running shorts. But you do not become the source.
Amy and Preston quickly proved to be invaluable meatshields in the Rose Garden. I lay on my back, doing 6/90s next to Amy, feeling like my legs were on fire. The Smokey Bear hat that the Drill Instructors all wore jutted out like a knife from the Master Gunnery Sergeant’s forehead, pointing directly at Amy’s face. We were supposed to be keeping our heads off the deck, chins on chests while we lifted our legs into the air over and over again—“Six, aye sir! Ninety, aye sir!”—and I suppose it was because she was tired, but whatever the reason her head kept nestling itself down in the damp sand. He was yelling at her to keep it up, and she would pull it forward weakly on her short neck, and then it would flop back… I was resolved not to be screamed at like that. I kept my head up.
Preston was worse, she kept collapsing into a whimpering heap when we had to bear crawl. Steele looked like the four horsemen of the apocalypse were clambering at the edges of his mind. Tim caught my eye once, briefly, a mix of chagrin and sadness clouding his face. I wanted to quit so badly. The next time we were on our backs, I stared out across the muscular, flinty water, churning in the bay. I thought of how Dan had hugged me so hard the night before I left to start this cursed journey. How he just held me, for moments that turned into whole minutes, and spoke so softly and comfortingly into my ear. Dan knew I was tough- that episode hadn’t been a lack of confidence in me, but simply a knowledge of what was coming. Dan is my brother, and he’s never defended me to anybody, because, as he once told me, he’s never had to. He knows I can take care of myself. And at that moment, that ten-minute-long hug in the narrow hallway of my parents’ house was the only thing keeping me from a plane ticket and the kind of regret that turns into a nursed heartache.
We got on our knees, after what seemed like hours but had probably only been about fifteen mintues. We were instructed to fill up our pockets with sand, so we did. All of them. We were told to get back into the building. It was coming up on full dark, and people were so tired they were forgetting things. I was the last one out of the pit, carrying three canteens and two chrome domes. The people I gave them back to were too exhausted to care.
We got back in the building and dumped all the sand from our pockets out onto the carpeted hallway. Tim had been in front of me, and as I stepped over his pile I saw his driver’s license poking out of the top of his little mound. We all carried our ID in our left breast pockets. I quickly bent down and retrieved the card, sticking it in my poopy suit. We stood in a semi-circle, sweating, clotted rivulets of snot hanging down out of our nostrils and encrusted with darkened sand. Our poopy suits were wet and stank. We were asked to give a sort of basic account of ourselves, answering questions the Master Gunnery Sergeant might ask us. He asked several candidates what their college majors were, and I dreaded the moment he might discover I had spent four years with Shelley, Coleridge, Gilgamesh and Woolf. The moment never came; when it was my turn, he asked me the fewest inquiries of anyone. And, oddly enough, he asked if I had siblings, and what they did for a living.