Going Back to Cali

Image from Stock Up

When I first joined the Marine Corps, I had all the typical expectations of an 18 year old boy.  I thought that I was going to become some kind of ninja-super hero member of a Hall of Justice like group of amazing war fighting bad-asses.  And to be honest, it sort of started out that way.  Basic Training (aka Boot Camp) was no disappointment.  Much of that had to do with the fact that, first, the Marine Corps has not strayed too far from the traditions of mental and physical abuse that are required to break down an uninitiated human being and create a warrior from the ground up.  Second, the Marine Corps blessed me and my platoon with outstanding drill instructors who truly understood the process and their role therein.  SSgt. D. Braddy, Sgt. R. Paton, and Sgt. G. Morris of Parris Island’s 1991 Platoon 1002 were all outstanding Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO) of Marines.

For infantrymen such as myself, this experience is followed by time spent at the School of Infantry (SOI) where the tactics, techniques, procedures, and most importantly, the basic instincts needed to succeed in combat are ingrained into the Marines.  Here, among my most memorable instructors was SSgt. Barton, a sniper extraordinaire, who made us bow down and ‘worship’ the Sun every morning.  It was part of his way of teaching us to find everything we need to survive in the environment around us by first recognizing the sheer abundance that Nature provides.

Infantry Marines are constantly reminded that their training will never be complete until they spend time in The Fleet.  This term refers collectively to the infantry battalions and support elements that actually get deployed on a regular basis in times of peace and particularly during times of war.  Once a Marine is part of a Fleet Marine Force unit, he gets exposed to how things are done ‘in the real world’ as opposed to the training environment.  Well, if these Fleet Marines were supposed to be the culmination of all the efforts undertaken by the Marine Corps itself, then it stands to reason that one would find that Marines in The Fleet are far superior to those found in the training environment.  Unfortunately, that is not exactly the case.

One of my first Squad Leaders was a guy from Georgia named Corporal Y (name withheld due to current occupation).  He was awesome.  He had already completed a tour with the Marine Corps Security Forces before getting assigned to Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines.  He was physically fit, a great swimmer, good with weapons, and extremely proficient tactically.  He spent a significant amount of time training both myself and another newbie named Hyde in the more advanced techniques of warfighting that they don’t get into at SOI.  This included everything from quick drawing side arms for engaging multiple targets in different directions to calling in air and artillery strikes.

Cpl. Y really liked Hyde because they were both from Georgia and Hyde was generally liked by everyone.  Cpl. Y liked me because not only was I a good Marine but one day I had the misfortune of walking past his room just as his pathetic excuse for a roommate quit playing the hand slapping game, which Cpl. Y was uncannily good at, because his hands were starting to hurt.  Admittedly, Cpl. Y was merciless when he played that game, slapping his opponent’s hands with an impact that would make the burliest of men wince.

Seeing me walk past his room on the catwalk, Cpl. Y ordered me into his room and proceeded to chastise his roommate for quitting so soon.  He said even a Shower Shoe (another term for new guys) could take more pain than that.  At that point he asked me if I knew how to play the game and I acknowledged that I did.  He then had me put my hands on his and the game began. 

I tried my hardest to compete, but I was no match for Cpl. Y.  He was incredible at that game and he proceeded to beat my hands so severely that they were bleeding quite badly.  In fact, he eventually stopped the game because my blood had splattered on one of their walls and it was Field Day (cleaning day for Marines).  He had proven his point, though, to his roommate and in the process I impressed him enough to get on his good side by the fact that I never quit, in spite of the fact that I clearly didn’t have a chance for success against someone as skilled as him.

Eventually, after I had proven myself in other ways as well, he showed me many of the techniques he used in that game and told me stories about how he himself had learned the hard way and how that was crucial to success.  And though I certainly became more competitive in that game against him, I was never able to defeat him before he finished his enlistment and left the military.

That simple story captures so many of the variables that represent what the Marine Corps is supposed to be about.  There is an NCO who is superior in skill and knowledge to almost everyone around him.  He sets an incredibly high standard that he himself is able to meet at all times and demands that his subordinates meet that standard as well.  When they flounder, he trains them until they are able to meet the standard.  Well, Cpl. Y was one of the only NCOs in my chain of command who actually lived up to the Marine Corps’ expectations… or maybe it was always just my expectations.

My Platoon Sergeant at the time was weak, had negligible tactical proficiency, and limited people skills to put it nicely.  In all fairness, I have to say that he was a very good person.  He just wasn’t a very good NCO.  In garrison he had us doing the most ridiculous things simply to make it look like we were busy and he was doing his job.  Out in the field he absolutely butchered any mission he led.  In fact, he preferred to just assume a support role and let the officers take charge of everything.

The next NCO in my chain of command appeared to be even worse.  My Company First Sergeant came from some southern rural environment where their accent was so thick that it sounded like mumbling to anyone not from that same subculture.  Additionally, the man was borderline illiterate.  This was a big problem because the First Sergeant’s job is an administrative one dependent upon reading and writing.  Very typical of folks in his position, however, he had ways to compensate for his lack of education.

A very common task for a Company First Sergeant is to read aloud the promotion orders and award citations during Company formations convened for such purposes before the Commanding Officer actually pins on the new rank or the award onto the deserving Marine.  In the Marine Corps, the standard promotion order begins with the words, “To all ye present, greetings.”  In order to not stumble through the reading of orders, the First Sergeant had the standard verbiage memorized – or so he thought.  He began reciting every promotion order with the phrase, “To all ye Presidents, greetin’s,” and for whatever reason, not once in the approximately two years he was my Company First Sergeant, was I ever able to keep myself from busting out laughing every time he said that. 

This was a huge problem because the orders are always read while the Marines in the formation are called to attention and a Marine at attention is not allowed to move in any way and certainly not permitted to speak, make any noise, laugh, or splatter saliva on the Marine in front of him in a failed attempt to contain his laughter.  The First Sergeant grew to hate me for that and I did actually sympathize with him on that a little.

Though it was my lack of discipline that was highlighting his deficiency, in my opinion, no one with such a deficiency should ever have been given that rank.  As time went by, I grew extremely disillusioned by the quality of the leadership around me and I began to loose faith in the Marine Corps’ ability to accomplish anything!  It certainly wasn’t an outfit I wanted to be a part of.

And so, after spending some time with my family, I decided I was simply going to head out West, to California, where so many people go to begin a new life.  What was I expecting to find out there?  What was I expecting to do?  I had no idea.  At that time I just knew that all I had wanted to be was a Marine but the Marine Corps was turning out to be not much of an organization.  I decided to take a bus from North Carolina and head out west to figure things out.

DINNER WITH LEON & CO.

As anyone who has taken a Greyhound bus across the United States can attest, it is always an adventure. Not long after the trip started, I found myself seated across the aisle from this gorgeous blonde sixteen year old run away who had met up with a guy on the bus not a day over eighteen who was on his way to spend time with some other branch of his family. Well, they couldn’t keep their hands off of each other and it was quite the comical fiasco for the rest of us on the bus around them to act as though we weren’t noticing the porn session unfolding right before our eyes.

Later on during the trip some homeless crack head stole a ticket from a would-be passenger in Memphis. No one noticed him at first but he eventually started talking to himself quite loudly and when another passenger said something to him about it, that’s when he got aggressive. I and another male passenger wound up having to corner the crack head into the back of the bus while the rest of the passengers moved as far forward on the bus as possible. While all this was happening, the bus driver had notified the authorities via his Greyhound chain of command and the cops were waiting for us when we got to St. Louis.

The bus pulled into the large walled in courtyard of the station but stopped in the middle of it instead of pulling into one of the normal gate parking spaces. There were several police cars with flashing lights around the inner perimeter of the courtyard. Almost immediately four officers approached the bus. The crack head, still spewing profanity and threats at us, seemed oblivious to what was going on.

I had expected the police to clear out the passengers first but instead they ordered everyone to remain in place as three of them stood ready at the bus door while the fourth boarded the bus and proceeded towards the back where the bus driver had pointed at our little party. It wasn’t until this point that the crack head realized that the free ride was over.

I have never seen a person jump so high, so fast, and so far from a seated position in my entire life. The crack head literally jumped over the seats in front of him, to include me and the other guy keeping him contained, and beyond by about another six feet. He landed right next to the cop, throwing the officer off-balance, right before bolting for the door. The cop on the bus said something into his shoulder radio handset just as I and most of the other passengers leapt to the right side of the bus to see the chase unfold out of the windows.

Obviously the cop had given his team mates a heads up that trouble was heading their way because they didn’t miss a beat as the crack head jumped from the bus in an apparent attempt to leap his way out of that obstacle as well. Unfortunately for him, the doorway out of the bus was lower than the interior platform of the bus drastically limiting his ability to pull another gazelle-on-crack maneuver. Even though he was airborne as he came flying out of the bus, he wasn’t very high off of the ground and he was met by a full force baton strike to the abdomen which literally folded him in half such that he was completely bent over and completely horizontal.

The blow was so powerful I was certain the drama was over, but I was wrong. The three cops proceeded to beat this man with all their might; and the crack head kept fighting with them! In fact, about five seconds into that group orgy of violence, an eternity in a fight, the crack head managed to execute yet another amazing cracked-out-antelope technique where he leapt slightly over and in between two of the officers and took off running faster than anyone could have imagined. He ran out of the bus gate in the wall without being intercepted by another cop and disappeared into the city.

Eventually Greyhound officials appeared and apologized for our experience on that trip and explained all the facts concerning the theft that had occurred in Memphis and what actions the driver and the rest of the Greyhound team had taken which, though understandable, was a little awkward because no one thought that the company had done anything less than what could be expected given the circumstances.

It was still a few days until I reached San Diego and when I arrived it was close to midnight and the downtown area where the bus terminal is located was dead. When I stepped out onto the street, I breathed in the fresh air, made an assessment of my situation, and decided to go left. I didn’t realize it at the time but that was traveling in a southerly direction. It was only about a block before I met two men standing on a street corner. They were both skinny Black men dressed in old worn-out clothes. Their clothing, however, was a little flamboyant and it took less than a second for me to realize that these guys were male prostitutes. They immediately asked me for change.

I told them that I would not be willing to give them money but that I would be willing to buy them a meal. One agreed, I’ll call him Leon, and the other, Jamal, declined. They argued with each other for a little bit but eventually both accepted my offer. They took me to a nearby Denny’s or some sort of 24-hour sit down diner. Everyone working there was latino and the manager came out to our table to inform our unusual party consisting of a seemingly clean cut eighteen year old Caucasian with two Black male prostitutes that we would not be served unless we paid for our meals up front. I agreed to these terms and paid for our food with cash right then and there at which point the manager reluctantly abided by his own terms.

During the course of our meal, the two men confirmed that they were gay homeless prostitutes that spent their lives between shelters, jails, and state sponsored rehabilitation programs. I told them that I was in the area to visit a friend who lived in the town of Julian. This was sort of true as a good friend and fellow Marine from my platoon was also on leave and back at his home town of Julian, CA outside of San Diego and I was intent on visiting him during this trip.

The two men gave me what they believed were the directions to Julian, we finished our meal, I gave them about $2 each. We hugged and then parted ways. I followed their directions strictly which turned out to be quite a mistake. I wound up in a place that I would later find out was Balboa Park. I was somewhere along the northern border of the Park when I decided to stop and get my bearings by looking at a map I had picked up at the bus terminal. It was around 2:30 in the morning. I had just leaned up against the base of some monument like structure when suddenly out of some nearby woods came a group of young well dressed Latino men walking toward me. About a second after I became conscious of the group of Latinos, a beautiful brand new black BMW with completely tinted windows pulls up right in front of me and a handful of well dressed Black guys with dreadlocks come pouring out of the vehicle.

Almost immediately they started yelling at each other and I knew the situation was about to get ugly. Unfortunately, I was caught right in the middle of the two groups, so I pulled this boot knife that I had clipped on my belt in my lower back and charged at the nearest black guy that I thought I would be able to reach before he would be able to pull out a weapon of his own. He put his hands up and said, “Hey man, I don’t want any trouble.” Kind of using him as a shield, I moved myself to the outside of the group, released him, and started running. Interestingly enough, none of the other people, Black or Latino, appeared to even acknowledge my existence or the possible plight of the man I was holding at knife point and using as a shield. They were completely focused on fighting each other and that was o.k. with me.

Once I was out of sight and sound of Balboa park, I stopped running and started walking west. I had decided that at this hour, it might be best to find a beach and a place to sleep. I had been to many beaches and I have never seen gangs hanging out at the beach in the middle of the night. It didn’t take long, however, before I found myself in yet another part of the city filled with homeless people and the craziness that is their life.

As I was walking along the sidewalk I came across a thin and obviously strung out Black guy sitting on the very edge of the sidewalk with his legs stretched straight out in front of him in the street. He was focused very intently on his left palm while he used his right fore finger to rub the palm he was staring at. Standing over him was another Black man. This guy was probably one of the largest human beings I have ever seen with my own eyes and he was pure muscle.

I tried to ignore them as I walked by but the skinny man suddenly shoots out his left palm at me and says, with a seriousness and sense of concern very much like someone asking his doctor about different courses of treatment for a serious medical condition, “Does this look like a dollar fifty worth of crack to you?” In his palm he had about 1/6 of a teaspoon of a substance that looked like a slightly yellow bit of grits. It was grainy and mushy and looked absolutely nothing like the rocks one sees on T.V. and so my honest assessment was that it probably wasn’t even crack at all. However, considering the size, strength, and proximity of the beast who was selling it to him, I merely said, “Yeah, man, that looks like a buck fifty,” and kept on walking.

I turned a corner or two and that’s when one of the most surreal experiences of the whole trip occurred. At the end of the block in the direction I was traveling and on the same side of the street I was on, I saw a group of not so well-kept Black men talking to three well dressed, one would almost say ‘pimped-out,’ young Latino men. One of the Latino men in particular was clearly in charge and the center of attention. It seemed pretty certain the Black men were buying and the Latino men were selling. What will never be certain is why the hell I kept on walking towards them.

After only a few more steps in their direction a figure floated towards me out of the shadows of the building to my left. He wasn’t part of the group on the corner and I didn’t even see him until that moment when it was like he materialized out of nowhere. He appeared to be an extremely old Black man with completely white long hair and very light brown almost yellow eyes. He was only my height, about 5’6”, but he stood tall and straight and somehow he had this air of nobility about him. He reached out his right hand towards me slowly uncurling his fingers palm up like Charon asking for his fee and he said, with the most dignified voice of anyone I would meet in California, “Do you have any change?” I was so taken by the force of this man’s presence that I paused for a moment to take it all in – to understand what it meant in terms of this man’s place in the universe. That was mistake number two.

I told him, “I’m sorry, sir, I do not have any change,” and I began to walk past him. He followed me, however, floating behind and slightly to the left. I only took a few more steps when I heard him say, “He has money.” I looked back wondering who he was talking to when in an instant I found myself surrounded by the ghost and four other Black men who also appeared out of nowhere.

Two of them grabbed one of my arms each. Very quickly I kicked the left knee of the man to my left which made him lean towards my right. At the same time I trapped first the right arm and then as he swung to punch me, the left arm of the man to my right jerking him in a downward angle towards my left causing him to bump heads with the other man. At that they both released my arms and pulled away from each other as I stepped between them trying to get out of the center fully expecting to be hit or grabbed from behind by one of the other three men. As I was glancing backward seeing that, in fact, one of the other men was lunging forward to grab me, a voice from a source outside of my field of vision screamed out, sounding not quite masculine but not quite feminine, “Leave him alone!”

The next thing I know, Leon comes flying through the air about four feet off the ground and completely horizontal. Arms stiff and outstretched above his head, he completely bowls over the three men behind me. Having stepped past the other two who were still a little dazed, I seized the opportunity and hauled ass. I ran past the Black men and the three well dressed Latinos who did nothing but watch, quite entertained, the drama that unfolded before them. Once again, I kept on running until I was long out of sight and sound of everyone and everything I had just been exposed to.

TAKING COUNSEL

By now it was almost morning and I decided that the quickest way to find safety was simply to hide. I found a dark corner of a nice corporate office area and slept briefly until the work-a-day crowd began to make its presence felt in force. I crawled out of my hide-out and spent the rest of the day wandering around the city amazed at how true it seemed that everyone is beautiful, everything is nicer, and the weather is always great in southern California.

Sometime after dinner I found myself at the edge of Naval Base San Diego. The area, although still part of the greater metropolitan area, had the feel of a typical military town. Buildings were not maintained that well. There were a noticeable number of tattoo parlors and bars. It all just had the atmosphere of being white trash central. Even though I never particularly liked military towns, at least I knew how to survive in them, so I felt far more comfortable in this area than I did in the other parts of the city that I had explored the previous night. So comfortable, that I decided to sit at a bus stop bench for a while and read more of the book that I had brought with me for the trip. It was Tolkien I believe.

Eventually it got late, maybe 10:00 or 10:30 at night, when this mini-van pulls up to the bus stop where I was reading. The passenger side window scrolls down, and it becomes obvious that the driver wanted to ask me a question, so I got up and approached the mini-van. The driver was a U.S. Sailor. He was a white guy of average height and build with brown hair, fairly nondescript in every way.

He asks me, “Where are you going?” I explained to him that I was on my way to visit a friend in Julian. He kindly offered to take me there, stating that he knew exactly where the town was and how to get there, so I got in the van. He made typical small talk asking me first if I was a sailor. I told him no, that I was a Marine visiting a fellow Marine. He then proceeded to tell me how he was a nuclear engineer on the submarine shown on the Navy ‘ball cap’ hat that he wore as part of his work uniform.

For some reason I wasn’t in much of a mood to talk and so I merely acknowledged his comments without contributing much to the conversation. At one point he said, “I’m o.k., I’m alright,” and the phrase seemed a little out of place, but I didn’t pay it much attention when he first said it. He went on to explain that he had to go to the post office first to send some packages and that after this errand he would take me to Julian.

The small talk continued as did the appearance of this phrase, “I’m o.k., I’m alright;” so much so that the little light bulb finally went off in my head. Apparently, this phrase was some kind of homosexual code for ‘I don’t have AIDS’ or something along those lines. It was at that moment that I also realized that we had basically been driving in a big circle the entire time and that the post office had been closed since long before I had even met this guy. Keep in mind this event took place in 1991 long before the post office had automated tellers that could be used to ship things after regular business hours. At that point, I now admit looking back, I probably over-reacted. I pulled out my knife and pushed it into his side without actually stabbing him and said, “Stop.” The mini-van came to a screeching halt in the middle of the road. I undid my seatbelt, opened the door, and got out. Just before closing the door, the Sailor looks at me one more time and said, “I’m O.K., I’m alright.” I slammed the passenger door shut.

Looking around I realized that I was only about a block away from where I had been picked up which allowed me to get my bearings. The Sailor drove away as I began to walk down the street. I decided that since I had explored much of the Eastern, Southern, and Western parts of the downtown area, I would travel North and experience what lied in that direction. It wasn’t too long after passing the road towards the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, that I found myself by these train tracks. It was pretty late by this point and considering my previous experiences in San Diego, I was not eager to head back into the heart of the city. The tracks looked like they were leading away from civilization and into that void space that train tracks create where humans and animals cross but do not occupy.

As I moved along the tracks there were a couple of overpasses and wedged into the corners underneath where the overpass met with its foundation on either side were homeless men. They all seemed to be lying in sleeping bags or some sort of collection of blankets. It was late at night and hard for me to see for sure as they were comfortably tucked away deep inside the darkness and shadows of the steel and concrete recesses of their hideouts.

Eventually the train tracks brought me to a bridge they used to pass over what appeared to be a dried river bed. It still had enough moisture to support this field of green bushes that filled the bed as far as I could see. At this point I could either turn back, proceed along the tracks over the bridge, or slide down an embankment to the river bed and try to trudge my way across through the bushes. I saw no reason to turn back. The bridge was narrow and was clearly intended only to support trains such that if trains were to come along while I was on the bridge, I would have been in a very bad predicament. So, it seemed, the safest option was to try my luck with the river bed.

As I positioned myself to slide down the sizeable embankment, I noticed that there was a path of sorts where other people had clearly done the same thing that I was intending to do. So I followed their lead. As I slid down the embankment, I was shocked to see that what I thought were small bushes turned out to be plants that were more like short bushy trees easily seven to ten feet tall. Even more surprising to me was the entrance into this veritable forest that I found at the base of the embankment. It was this arch of greenery not clearly visible at all until one was right in front of it.

It opened into a maze of paths that tunneled all through the vegetation of the overgrown riverbed. Almost immediately I saw signs of human occupation – mostly plastic tarps used as makeshift ceilings for protection from the rain or little nesting areas where someone appeared to be sleeping on a regular basis and leaving behind their trash. Considering the time, however, maybe one in the morning, I was very curious about the absence of people. I explored the network of tunnels for probably 45 minutes to an hour before meeting anyone. It had gotten to the point where I thought that perhaps, if I were to find a particularly remote and hidden part of the maze, I could safely get a few hours of sleep. Just as I was bedding down in a spot that seemed to me to be comparatively unused, that’s when this older white guy appears.

He was just as surprised to see me as I was to see him. He had a beard that was well kept and decent clothes and he had overall good hygiene and so was clearly not a bum. He said, “Hey,” looking around a little anxiously. I said, “Hey,” as if we both lived there, knew each other completely, and none of this was as weird as it actually was. After a pause he said, “You’re new here.”

At that I told him that I was a Marine on leave trying to get to Julian to visit a friend and fellow Marine, and that I was quite obviously not doing a very good job of actually making it to the town. Upon hearing that I was a Marine, his eyes lit up and, again, as if we had known each other for ages, he proceeded to tell me his life story.

It turns out that this guy, I’ll call him Greg, had enlisted in the Army after high school as part of the 101st Airborne Division. He served in Vietnam for a year or two during which time he not only experienced quite a bit of action, he also experienced quite a bit of drugs. According to him, he became addicted to whatever was most available.

After Vietnam he left the Army and spent the first few years trying to establish a blue-collar career while also taking some college classes at a local community college. His addictions, however, kept him from being successful with either venture. Over time, he had gotten married, had a son, gotten divorced, became homeless, and ultimately turned to petty theft to maintain his drug habit.

That eventually landed him in jail, but he described some program whereby he was sent to rehab and then released on parole. Since that time, he had been struggling to hold down a job and reestablish a relationship with his son. He was proud he had an apartment but was still fighting his addictions. That was why he was in the riverbed. He was looking for his friends with whom he would do crystal meth, his current drug of choice.

He asked me if I had any money and that if I did, he could get us both drugs and women. I told him that I had a little bit of money but wasn’t interested in partying. He asked then why wasn’t I staying in a motel as opposed to sleeping on the streets. That’s when I told him of my experiences in the Marine Corps and my substandard chain of command and the fact that I was considering just leaving the Corps and basically just trying to figure out what to do with my life.

It was very interesting to me how at that point he didn’t just react to my story. There was a long silence as he seriously considered my words, my experiences, my feelings. He was very understanding of my position but after mulling it over he said quite definitively, “Don’t do it. You’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”

It was at this point that his two friends materialized out of nowhere. They were trodding along one behind the other; both looking down as they stepped into our space; both with their hands in their pockets. At first, they were pleasantly surprised to see Greg though neither of them initially realized that I was present. They all gave each other a very warm welcome, shaking hands and providing rhetorical greetings before the two new comers realized that I was there. At that they froze in place staring at me.

Greg, without missing a beat, proclaimed me to be his guest, a Marine, and an all-around good guy before proceeding to tell all that he knew of my life story and the predicament that I found myself in pertaining to the disappointment I felt with the Marine Corps. Greg’s friends then related their own experiences in the U.S. Military sympathizing very much with my situation, having experienced similar leaders during their respective tours.

We then collectively debated the pros and cons of leaving the military early or finishing out one’s enlistment. The counsel concluded unanimously that a person should complete one’s enlistment. What was noteworthy from the discussion was that none of these men cared much about having served their country. Their recommendations all stemmed from the personal pride they had in meeting a commitment they had made. As men who ultimately led less than noble lives, their honorable service was one of the few personally dignifying accomplishments these men had achieved. I agreed to go back.

Very happy with my decision and very happy with themselves that they were able to influence someone’s life for the better, I was offered one last chance to “party” before returning to “The Suck,” as it’s sometimes called. I politely declined the offer and got up to leave the group having thanked them profusely for sharing their lives and their thoughts with me so generously. They asked me where I was going and I admitted that I merely intended to find a hidden and safe place to sleep before planning my return trip the next day.

They insisted that I remain in the brush of the riverbed as their guest. They assured me that I would be safe and that they would personally see to it that I would not be bothered by anyone. At that they stood up and left. I remained there standing, wondering if it would be wise to remain. I knew that reasonably it would not, but for whatever reason I felt intuitively that they were sincere in their words and that they would somehow keep their promise and I would be safe. So, I laid down and quickly fell into a deep sleep.

THE TRUTH REVEALED

No one had bothered me while I had slept. I awoke well into the morning of the next day. Being close to noon, the day was already quite warm and I was becoming painfully conscious of my own body odor. As I moved about, I found the riverbed to be as deserted as I had found it the night before when I first entered the complex of tunnels. I began back tracking my way along the train tracks and back into the city. The bums who had been sleeping under the overpasses were no longer there.

I wandered around somewhat aimlessly that day eventually finding my way back to the Greyhound Station where I bought a ticket to Columbus, OH, my hometown where I planned on discussing things with my family. My bus, however, wasn’t leaving until the next day, so I eventually meandered back to the area around the Naval Station. There I got a room at a crappy motel where I was able to tend to my hygiene and do some equally needed laundry.

On my last day in San Diego I continued to explore a little bit more but eventually I got tired of wandering around and so I sat at some random bus stop to try my hand yet again at reading more of the book I brought with me; and that’s when it finally happened. At some point in my reading I took a natural pause and looked up, casually watching the traffic that passed and thinking curiously about the fact that a bus had yet to come along. As I watched I saw this SUV pass that, for whatever reason, caught my attention. Sure enough, the vehicle continued on for only about a hundred yards before abruptly pulling over.

I saw some man get out of the back of the vehicle and start walking straight for me. His eyes were completely locked on me and not wanting to find myself seated when dealing with someone who appeared to have a bad attitude, I got up and began to march towards this person. I took only a few steps before I realized it was McDaniel!

Of all the crazy things that occurred on this trip, this was the most apropos. It turned out that McDaniel had been asleep in the back of his parents’ vehicle who were driving him to the airport for his flight back to Lejeune when he suddenly awoke and sat up just in time to see me sitting there reading a book at some random bus stop. He ordered his parents to pull over and though they obliged they didn’t know what was going on at first and thought that perhaps McDaniel had forgotten something back at their house or that there was something else wrong. We greeted each other as fellow infantrymen do and I briefly explained the nature of my trip. He laughed and wished me luck on my adventure. He was in a hurry so at that he returned to his parents and I returned to my bus stop.

Eventually I got on another Greyhound bus, this time headed for home. There were no weird or wild incidents, no good storied to tell from that trip. I found my way to my parents’ house, talked it over with them, and my Father then drove me back to Camp Lejeune.

The trip would cost me because I did not return in time before my leave expired and thus I was AWOL. This resulted in me getting what is variously called office hours, captain’s mast, nonjudicial punishment, et al. It basically meant I was demoted in rank, restricted to the barracks, had my pay reduced, and I also had to perform extra duties in the evenings. It actually wound up not being that bad of a punishment anyway because we were only a few days away from deploying in support of Operation Desert Storm.

At first, the extra duty was looking like it was going to be pretty grim. I had to do laundry for the entire platoon which could only be done at night and it took forever. Then, once all that was done, I had to help the ship’s baker bake all the cakes, cookies, and other desserts for the following day’s meals. Little did I know how great that job would be!

The laundry room was extremely hot but the machines did all the work and as good American made industrial masterpieces, they had very loud buzzers that notified the worker that the cleaning or drying was complete. This allowed me to get a good amount of sleep while performing this duty.

And as far as the baking was concerned, I had actually worked at a cinnamon roll bakery for about a year when I was 13, so I wasn’t too worried about it because I actually enjoyed that job. As it turned out, the baker I was assigned to work with was also serving time for bad conduct. In fact, he wasn’t even a baker. He was actually one of the ship’s enlisted mail handlers. At some point, the Commanding Officer of the ship had made this guy mad so he chucked the CO’s mail overboard which is actually a serious Federal offense for which the sailor could have been court-martialed. Instead, the CO decided to make the sailor bake for the ship and to specifically make and hand deliver to the CO a nice dessert every night for his evening meal. What was so great about this particular duty from my perspective, however, was the fact that I was able to make extra desserts and bring them back to my birthing area to share with the rest of my platoon. This added significantly to my popularity.

Still, I just couldn’t let my chain of command’s incompetence not bother me and soon I wasn’t showing up for my extra duty in the evenings. There were poor unfortunate sailors who had to deal with me and my attitude. The Master-at-Arms eventually complained to my Platoon Commander, Lt. Newman, who was an extremely good person and capable officer. He liked me and attempted to counsel me for the better but to not much avail.

That’s when I got called into the Battalion Sergeant Major’s office. He had heard all about me – the good, the bad, and the ugly, and he wanted to see for himself who I was and what was going on. He actually spent quite a bit of time listening to me and much to my surprise acknowledged the truth of my claims concerning the chain of command. But then he said that what I had observed was not the whole story.

He then took me to our unit’s admin office and told the warrant officer in charge to bring him my First Sergeant’s record book (his official personnel file). The warrant officer stared at the Sergeant Major flashing for a moment, a skeptical look, only to then comply. We then returned to the Sergeant Major’s office. It was there that he showed me not only the years of service the First Sergeant had, but the years of service in places like Vietnam. Far more importantly, he read to me the citation for the Bronze Star Medal with Valor that the First Sergeant had earned in Vietnam. His Bronze Star wasn’t simply for doing his job in a combat zone like so many of the Bronze Stars given to the folks today (my own included). He had actually earned his along with his Purple Heart by taking charge in a major battle and playing a crucial role in successfully repelling the enemy and saving the lives of many of his fellow Marines. The Sergeant Major asked me if, though I couldn’t respect the man because of his lack of education, could I respect the man for his service?

That’s the moment that I realized what a complete douche bag I had been the whole time. Words cannot describe how shameful I felt. From that point on I really began to check myself and my thoughts about the people and places around me. I really started trying to always remain positive and to always retain an openness to the possibilities of the unknown. Needless to say, this resulted in a significant improvement in my behavior.

It wasn’t long before I not only got my old rank back, but I soon competed in and won a Corporals board that resulted in my meritorious promotion into the NCO ranks. Eventually, that very same First Sergeant to whom I had been so very disrespectful, brought me in to the Company’s office to work for him. Needless to say, I did everything I could to serve both him and the unit as best I could. It would be factually incorrect, however, to claim that I could ever truly make it up to him. The best I think I can hope for is to never treat people badly no matter what my impression of them may be. Because you can bet cold hard cash on the fact that my impression, good or bad, is most assuredly incomplete.