Leaving For Korea

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I was always something of a nut about snow. When I was little, I’d vet the weather reports and watch the sky when it was low and gray and the air was cold enough and heavy. I thought I could sense snow coming, almost wish it here. I grew up to be a skier; I loved the cold and the mountains and the deep drifts. Then one day at Pendleton we were issued thermal boots and heavy gloves and piled into school buses with box lunches and driven eleven hours through the rain up Route 395 though Riverside and San Bernardino and past Barstow and through Bishop, where the rain began to change to snow, but most of us were asleep by then and didn’t know. And then past Mono Lake and into Alpine County, where the mountains ran ten, eleven thousand feet up, and then we were at Pickle Meadows, flush up against the Nevada line near Tahoe, the new cold-weather warfare training camp the Marines had set up. It was morning, bright with sun, and it was still October, but there were eighteen inches of fresh snow on the ground of the parking area when we piled off the bus.

The replacement draft ahead of us, who’d come up here the week before, was coming down now from the hillsides, moving slowly and looking shocked, some of them, others cursing steadily.

One of them said, “There’s three feet of this up there.”

Men in our draft turned to look at one another. Were we really going to spend five days up here running field problems? In three feet of snow?

It was cold in the sun at noon. I tried to imagine what it would be like at two in the morning, especially if it snowed again.

It didn’t snow again, as it turned out, and it never got really cold, nothing lower than fifteen or so, but we were there for five days running field problems day and night, humping our packs and our weapons up and down hillsides and ridgelines. The new thermal boots, vacuum-lined and designed to keep your feet warm well below zero, boots they hadn’t had that first winter in Korea, when so many men lost their feet, worked fine. The big problem was the altitude. Nothing I’d skied in New England was higher than four thousand feet. Here we ranged from nine to twelve thousand or so, and we covered miles every day, up and down, digging in and setting up the mortars and the machine guns, simulating a firefight, and then moving on to another position on another hill a thousand feet higher or lower, to do it all over again.

I thought I was going to die.

On the fourth night with the battalion dug into defensive positions, “aggressor troops,” Marines stationed up here to help work us out, men accustomed by now to the thin air and the altitude, launched a series of raids on our lines.

“They’ll be armed with squirt guns filled with red dye,” the war-games umpire warned us, “so tomorrow morning if you wake up with red dye on your puss, you’re dead.”

I was fast asleep in the down sleeping bag, exhausted from the climbing and the cramps that came with altitude sickness, when the “aggressors” came. One of them peeled back the hood of the sleeping bag.

“Peekaboo,” he said, ugly face split in a grin.

“F_ _ _ you,” I said, but not very energetically.

“Bang!” he said, “you’re dead,” and squirted me in the face. I wiped it off as best I could with a filthy handkerchief and fell back to sleep. I don’t think he knew I was an officer. I hoped not. Even through the fatigue and the pain I retained vestiges of pride.

A few hours later the scoring officers chewed us out for lack of nighttime security. “If those were Chinese up there, a lot of you would be dead this morning.” Just before noon the buses rolled up, and we climbed on board. I never thought I’d be happy leaving the mountains and the snow, but I was. I felt like Taffy Sceva; the Marine Corps kept taking me places I’d never seen.

Old salts around Pendleton, regulars, got their laughs out of us. Regular officers were that way too, talking endlessly about “the old Corps.” Whatever we were, however well we did, we weren’t “old Corps.” The talk was all of the Raider battalions that had been in the thick of the worst of the fighting in the Pacific. At the end of every story we’d all have another drink on that, and the major, or another of the salts, would shake his head and say: “They don’t make Marines anymore like the Raiders, not by a damn sight.”

We all were duly impressed. Or we were until four of us were driving up to Laguna Beach one Saturday noon.

Someone, I forget who, had a car, and we were barreling along the back roads of Pendleton, maybe going seventy down a deserted rural road heading for the Coast Highway and a weekend’s liberty at Laguna Beach, when a motorcycle with a Marine aboard it blasted past us on the left as if we were pausing to take the air.

“Wow!” someone said, hushed tribute.

I was in the front next to the driver, watching the motorcycle swiftly dwindling as it pulled away ahead of us, and then noticed the Marine seemed to be doing some sort of trick riding, wobbling his rear wheel.

“Look at that,” I said admiringly, “I sure wouldn’t be playing games the speed he’s going.”

“Listen, that’s not showing off. He’s thrown a bolt or something!”

Within a second or two the motorcycle had started to skid and then go over sideways, and almost instantly the cycle was on its side, the driver still astride the seat but half under his bike now as it skidded along, throwing up a shower of sparks as it went.

“Oh, Jesus.”