The first command in the mornings came shortly after 0500 (5 a.m.). “373,” the duty DI bellowed.
“Sir, Platoon 373. Aye aye sir,” we chanted.
Usually he responded, “I can’t hear you.” We tried it louder.
And sometimes, “What have I got, a bunch of girls?”
That really put the lungs into it.
“On the road.”
“On the road, aye aye sir,” as 72 men ran into formation on the company street. Then he brought us to attention, gave us right face, then forward, and we marched to the head.
We had limited time – maybe five minutes — to take care of business and return to formation. There was no brushing your teeth in the morning, only at night. That was
another part of the program. You can get used to everything, which was undoubtedly why they did it.
Formation meant four squads, arranged by height (tallest first, of course). They marked my yellow sweat-shirt “4-14″ to signify 4th Squad, 14th man (I still have it).
The platoon guide, a hard-charging recruit elevated by the senior drill instructor, marched at the head of the platoon at the right front and carried the platoon guidon with our number. The DIs fired guides often when they fouled up. One of our trainers back in Houston had advised us never to be in the front of the platoon or the back of the platoon, so I was happy never to be the guide.
During that first week, we learned to make a bunk. The DI pulled top and bottom sheets tight with hospital-corner folds. Then he stretched the green covering blanket as taut as possible before placing the pillow in position at the top. Until you see one, you have not beheld a squared-away bunk.
The DI stretched the blanket so tight he could bounce a quarter off it. If your bunk failed the quarter test at inspection time, the DI jerked mattress and bedding into a heap on the deck. (He also overturned your wooden foot locker unless you had squared it away.)
We began to learn close-order drill. Drill was the heart of boot camp and the soul of the Marine Corps. The platoon marched everywhere, and we practised drill every day. Drill became a kind of ballet.
The first position in close-order drill was the position of attention:
“In this position, the only thing that may move is your eyes may open and close. Other than that, you freeze right where you are. You don’t move or look around you, and you don’t chew gum.”
To enter the Battalion Mess Hall – a small wooden building painted yellow – the DI halted the formation before the entrance, and each squad formed into lines.
“You are to move in so you just barely touch,” said the DI. “Make the man in front of you smile.”
Then he ordered, “Column of files, from the right.” Each squad leader led his men into the mess hall by shouting “forward,” as his squad’s turn arrived.
As you passed through the hatch, you removed your cover and, to keep it neat, inserted the bill in your utility trousers at the back. I have never shaken this habit.
There was no talking in the mess. The order was, “Eat and get out.”
Each recruit side-stepped through the chow line in the position of attention. You held the rectangular metal tray parallel to your chest until you reached the serving line. The mess attendants – other recruits on a week of mess duty – scooped food onto the trays. The order in the mess was, “Take everything in the chow line, and eat everything on your plate.”
Wooden tables held about eight recruits to a side, with long wooden benches for seats. When you reached a table, everyone stood at attention with his tray until the table filled up. Then a DI stood at the end and gave the command, “Ready, SEATS” (the sound was “RED-dy HUNH”). Every butt had to hit the bench at the same instant or the DI stood the table up and repeated the procedure over and over until we got it right.
Then we turned to on the food, which was always good. (On Sundays, the mess hall even served steak and eggs: recruits ate well.)
We marched and exercised many hours during the day, and meals offered a short, welcome diversion. But on one day during the first week, the mess hall served liver.
I hate liver: tough, hard to chew, and gamey. I looked at this excrescence on my plate and hoped I might sneak it into the garbage.
Then I espied another recruit from my platoon facing me at the next table. I think he was Private Peterson, Alan E. A DI crouched on the bench behind him holding his mouth open. Another DI stood to his left and forced a large cut of liver into his mouth. This picture has never left me.
I ate the liver. That was the last time I have ever eaten liver.
We finished and moved out the side doors – at our own pace, for once –, dipping our trays into a garbage can of boiling water before turning them in.
Then we stood in formation and pulled our small red notebooks out of our right rear pockets to read and study. We memorized such facts as who was who in the chain of command (beginning with President Kennedy) and the eleven general orders for sentry duty.
And we imbibed the correct terms of the Naval Service. In Marine Corps parlance, the floor was the deck, the wall the bulkhead, the ceiling the overhead, the hall the passageway, and the door the hatch.
You did not go into town, you went ashore. You did not have a pass, you went on liberty. (There was no liberty in boot camp.) If your dress uniform showed a string or thread anywhere, the DI told you to remove your Irish pennant.
If you had a taste for sweets, you went to the gedunk and ordered pogey bait. If you wanted a beer, you went to the slop chute. Recruiits tasted none of these pleasures,
The first word out of a recruit’s mouth was the word “Sir.” You addressed everyone not a recruit as “Sir.” You responded to any order with “aye aye, sir” – never “yes, sir.”
Most important, we learned that rifles and pistols are not guns. They are weapons. A gun uses an unrifled bore. Think of a Naval gun or a Civil-War cannon. (Shotguns are guns but violate the Geneva Convention, so the Marine Corps does not issue them.)
Anyone who mistakenly called his rifle a gun cost the platoon a couple of dozen pushups. The DIs assisted us to remember the distinction by this mnemonic device as we marched with our rifles at right-shoulder arms:
This is my rifle,
this is my gun.
This is for fighting,
This is for fun.
YouTube offers a short film clip for anyone who wishes to hear the tune (www.youtube.com/watch?v=4kU0XCVey_U ).