With week one of NaNoWriMo in the rear view mirror, I am definitely seeing new horizons. For me, this month isn’t a competition, it is boot camp –in the truest sense in the word. I am training myself to be a full-time, 8 hour a day writer. I know what kind of growth I can accomplish by pushing and shoving myself!
I went through Boot camp, Parris Island, SC and it was hell. Nothing in my life could have prepared me for that experience. Just six short months earlier, I was in a coma and nearly died. My appendix had burst and I had peritonitis, which is a very unpleasant experience that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone. The only upside was the 2-3 week coma that followed surgery, the first good rest I had in my short life up to that point. Two months later on my eighteenth birthday, I raised my right hand and swore allegiance to the President of the United States (now, Marines swear allegiance to the Constitution).
I grew up in New Hampshire in the Sixties, I went to Catholic School back when nuns were like Jedi Knights (I liked them). I watched our Nun collapse onto the floor in a dead faint when Mother Superior came into the room and whispered that their Blessed Irish Catholic President had been assassinated. We all wrote letters of condolence to Mrs Kennedy. I still have her reply. Then, over the next few years, I saw Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy taken. But, it was Kent State that really shook me up, my parents and older relatives had some strange ideas about Communist Students and Racial Uprisings. All I remember was the shock that we as humans could kill our children with guns just for asking questions and for not wanting to go die in a jungle far away.
So, it really surprised people when I joined the Marines. I often joke that I thought I was joining the Merchant Marines and would work on cruise ships. I actually did assume this was where I was headed. It’s one aspect of my character that has remained unchanged -I base my reactions on assumptions that I never really formed correctly. I wasn’t too devastated to find out the USMC was not the Merchant Marines. By that time I was more concerned that someone was sending me to electronics school and I had no say in the matter.
For the next three years, I learned everything the hard way. I learned things that were not taught in school for girls. I learned leadership. I learned to be a team player and I learned to be the boss. If you see Marines and watch their disciplined behavior, you might think it has to do with fear instilled by screaming, scary Sergeants. There are a few of those but not as many as you think. It’s the quiet ones who really lead. The Marine Corps taught me to find the strength inside to do what I needed to do and get it done. The Corps taught me to accept the fact that I was rather unimportant but the job was very important. The Marine Corps has been a super power I keep in the closet for when I need it. During NaNoWriMo, I am working on the next book, it’s important, I am not.
On my 19th birthday, someone stole my wallet with my birthday money, my paycheck and my IDs. It sucked and I was very disappointed that it was stolen by a fellow Marine. So, I planned to spend the weekend on base drinking with friends at the Enlisted Club and not in Palm Springs partying with the same friends. It was April 30th, 1975, it was The Fall of Saigon.
I was heading for the E-Club in a bad mood. Hell, I even had my birth certificate stolen! I could not leave base, until I got a new ID. It would take weeks to get my documentation replaced. And, I was tired of listening to people ask me if I was an idiot for keeping all my valuable documents in my pocketbook! D’oh! Yes, of course, I was an idiot! The E-club was a dingy quonset hut, where pissed-off older Marines sat sullenly drinking beer. My friends gave up their weekend in Palm Springs to be with me, so I was grateful for that, even if I acted as pissed-off and sullen as the old guys. As it turned out, the base was on lock down, no one could leave, it had something to do with Viet Nam.
My friends, both male and female, were shocked. We had spent the previous seven months oblivious to the outside world. We had been studying electronics, soldering and ground radio repair 10 hours a day, five days a week –with weekends spent drinking in LA, Tijuana, Palms Springs and Las Vegas. Someone asked the question we were all thinking, “Are we still over there? I thought Viet Nam was over a long time ago…” So, it was a sobering thought we mulled over as we walked quietly in a group to the E-club. But, I wasn’t thinking about Southeast Asia, I was thinking about what I would do to whomever stole my wallet.
The enlisted club was quiet, no music, no talking. For the most part, everyone was watching television. They must have brought several TVs in from the barracks. Men and women stood in little groups watching the flickering screens. I have to admit, I wasn’t in the mood. I left my friends and grabbed the only empty place at the bar. I ordered a beer and handed over my only dollar. I had found it in my jeans pocket. I took a sip and looked up and down the bar to see if there was anyone I knew. I had never seen a more morose looking group of Marines or so I thought. Hey, my entire life had been stolen and it was my birthday… I recognized the man sitting next to me, he was my old class NCO. He was a hard-ass. He had been in Viet Nam. It was basically how we referred to them. We all wore a Viet Nam era ribbon, but some had a green one, they had been there. He was looking into his beer as though it were a crystal ball.
“Hi Sergeant.” I said.
“Hey, did you hear? I had my wallet stolen?” (because, it was all about me, I was 19!)
“No, that sucks.”
“And it’s my birthday!” (because, it was all about me, I was 19!)
“Well, that really sucks, your wallet I mean.”
“And all the money I have in the world was the dollar bill I found in my jeans!” (because, it was all about me, I was 19!)
He sighed and motioned for the bartender to bring him a refill. When the bartender arrived, he told him to put me on his tab. I thanked him and wondered if that meant I had to sit with him or could I go back to my friends and still drink on his tab. (because, it was all about me, I was 19!)
Then, the silence got really silent. No one was breathing. All eyes were on the televisions. A large helicopter was trying to take off from a roof and people were trying to cling to the sides.
But, all we saw, we Marines, were the Marines lying dead or injured on the tarmac.
No one breathed. Even I, in my 19 year old narcissist spoiled birthday frame of mind knew a mortal sin had been committed. You never leave a Marine behind. Never. Ever. Never.
I looked in stunned silence at the Staff Sergeant sitting next to me and I saw a stream of tears running down his hard, tanned, grizzled face. I looked around and everyone was crying. A silent sobbing, a silence that sucked the life out of your soul. I looked back at the my beer benefactor and saw under his grizzled hard face, that he was only about 24 years old. Yes, that was pretty old to me (because, I was 19.). But, even so, I could see he was really still a kid. I looked around the room and all I saw were boys and girls. We were just kids. And I looked back at the television and through the tears, I saw boys lying dead and wounded, while the announcer talked about the civilians, the refugees trying to leave Saigon… no one mentioned the boys, the boyfriends, the sons and brothers who lay there. Left behind.
I turned 19 that day but my soul aged a million years, life reached in and tossed my DNA out like a fishing line back through the tens of thousands of years, the countless wars and grieving widows. And thirteen years later, I sat under a white canopy in Quantico National Cemetery and watched as sweat dripped off the Marine’s faces onto the flag they were folding for me. My flag, the one that had been sheltering my husband in his pretty rosewood box. I kept looking at the graves, it was a new cemetery, mostly veterans but there was a section for the boys of Grenada and now my Marine, he was in Viet Nam but he never spoke of it. And now he never would.
I kept reminding myself to breath. I felt so weak, like I might slip off the chair and sink into the ground into the earth to sleep with my brothers and sisters. I closed my eyes and imagined I was donning my dress blues, as I screwed the cap onto my head, I opened my eyes. I was sitting tall, my back straight and I was breathing. I accepted the triangle of heavy cloth from the tall Master Sergeant. He spoke softly –words meant only for my ears, which I immediately lost.