by Michael Ryerson
Today, all over the world, Marines will eat birthday cake. It is being baked this morning on every Navy ship and in every mess hall in the Marine Corps. It will be placed on every table where a Marine comes for dinner. It will be placed in green tins and sealed against the flying dust or the rain and carried in trucks or helicopters or simply by hand, to every Marine who can be reached, and they will eat cake today.
It’s hard to explain these things. I can’t really remember a time I didn’t want to be a Marine. I was raised in a family surrounded by veterans. My father and all of my uncles, most of the men who lived on our block had been in WWII. Every man who worked in my father’s grocery store had been in the war except Charlie the baker who was too old and John Toyama and Art Yuba who had lost everything they owned and been sent to Manzanar. John and May’s daughter Casey had been born at the county fairgrounds where they were held before the buses took them up north. But mostly the men in my childhood had served. Lots of tattoos and a scar or two but very few stories except when my uncle Dick was around and then we’d all force him to tell some of his funny stories. And once in a while, my uncle Bob would say something about North Africa. But that was all. I guess that’s how it starts. Little boys are wired that way.
So today they’ll have their cake. Some of them will look up and be surprised that they weren’t forgotten, that somebody took the time to bag up those little green tins and ride a helicopter or a truck out to their foxhole or bunker so they could have a piece of overly sweet white cake.
It’s hard to explain these things. My bus pulled through the main gate at MCRD, San Diego at about 10 o’clock on a Friday evening, passed under the Spanish arches, swung left and skirted the parade ground and came to a stop in front of the receiving barracks. We were like sightseers, tourists, everybody craning their necks, looking around, talking excitedly, until a drill instructor stepped onto the bus and shouted, “Shut your fucking mouths! Now clear this bus!” Total silence. Guy next to me looked like he’d been punched in the gut.
In the next three hours, we boxed up our civilian clothes, took our first Marine Corps shower, pulled on our first baggy green uniforms and stood in line to get our haircuts, eight chairs, no waiting, fifteen seconds under the cutters, three seconds under the air hose and out the hatch to your right and get on the yellow footprints. Except when we cleared the hatch, a drill instructor stopped us from getting on the yellow footprints.
He stood in the dark street with his hands on his hips and watched us form into a crowd at the edge of the light from inside the barbershop. “Do not stand on my yellow footprints. Stay off of them,” he said. There was some whispering and he shouted, “Shut the fuck up! Just stand there like the mob you are.”
When we’d all come out, he said, “Now listen up! You’re a sad fucking bunch. I see fear in your faces and confusion and I can see some of you are feeling sorry for yourselves already. Here three whole fucking hours and already feeling sorry for yourselves! Well, let’s get something straight. I want you to look at these foot prints and I want you to know they’ve been here all along, from the fucking beginning. Year after year, generations of boots have stepped onto these footprints. When we get you stinking civilians in here, we have to have a way to start the process and it starts right here with these footprints. When you step onto them you’re going to form up into an actual formation, a platoon. The footprints are here because you can’t do it by yourself and we don’t have the time to go through all the words it would take to get you into an actual, fucking formation, so we have these foot prints painted on the ground. From now on, every single time you form up, this is how you’ll form up, in this shape, with this spacing. When I, or one of your other Drill Instructors, call you out, this is how we want to find you. But there’s something else these footprints should tell you.’ [here he paused…] ’When you’re feeling sorry for yourself, that it’s oh so hard, that maybe you made a mistake, that you won’t make it, remember this, thousands of men have passed through here, thousands of men who wanted that uniform just as bad as you want it and they made it and they started by stepping onto these painted footprints. Men headed for China, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and then the men headed for the Solomon Islands, Guadalcanal and Tarawa and yes, Iwo Jima. Some of the feet that stepped onto these footprints were later wrapped in rags and walked out over the ice of the Chosin Reservoir carrying their dead and wounded. Those men were here once looking at these same footprints.’ [again he waited…] ’Now you will stop being civilians and start trying to be Marines. Form up!” And he stepped back, out of the way and we moved onto the footprints. I found myself in the first rank, second man from the left. I looked down at the painted footprints one last time and he grumbled, “Turn to the right, forward march…!”
Two days later, we got our dog tags. No big deal. We were told to slip them around our necks and feed them into our shirts and get back to work. That night, after lights out, I could hear guys pulling them out and looking at them. In the dark, I could just barely see mine, four lines embossed on thin metal; name, service number and blood type, religious affiliation and the fourth line, four letters, USMC. In the dark, I ran my thumb over those four letters – then I did it again.
Two years later, I sat in a bunker on the south face of Charlie 2 with fifteen other Marines and listened to the artillery shells impacting Con Thien to our north. The deep “whump, whump, whump” went on and on. They had been taking nearly a thousand rounds a day, every day. Someone finally muttered, “Jesus!”, and the explosions just continued. By this time, we were getting shelled everyday and when they paused with Con Thien, we knew it would take the gunners in North Vietnam about four minutes and then we’d start to take incoming. Guys gathered in the doorways of the bunker and waited. “Whump, whump, whump, whump” I looked over at Spike and he just shook his head. “Whump, whump” and then silence. Involuntarily I swallowed. It was our turn. A couple of guys skidded through the door, looking for a place to sit it out. Then another guy comes running in dragging a duffle bag. Outside someone yells “incoming” and then a moment of absolute silence, then three enormous explosions and the bunker shudders and dirt cascades from the roof and we all sit quietly taking it… the air coursing with more impacts, everybody mainlining adrenaline. Eight minutes, ten, maybe more. Someone outside yells for a Corpsman, Doc John moves to the door and waits for just a second, “Whump, whump…” and he disappears out into the battery, wiremen crouching in the doorway hesitate and then leave to find and repair broken communications wire. The shelling goes on. Whump, whump… Then finally a shell explodes outside the bunker door and then the quiet and we all wait listening… ten seconds, fifteen, thirty… is it over? I find Spike and he shrugs. They’ve done this before. We wait a little longer, my ears ringing like fuckers. Finally someone looks at the guy with the duffel bag and says, “Where ya goin’?” and everybody laughs. But he smiles and loosens the top of the bag and reaches in and pulls out a bent green tin of birthday cake. In the bag, he’s got twenty five pieces of birthday cake.
It’s hard to explain these things.