Leaving For Korea

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I said that was quite a coincidence, that I’d gone to St. Mark’s grammar school. I didn’t realize his St. Mark’s was something quite different, and that while there Bradlee had been the captain of the hockey team and a star on the football team and that now he played varsity tackle for Harvard. I learned that after a while.

Quantico, with its single main street easing its way down to the Potomac, which along here was a big, slow Southern river, was boring, a two-bit garrison town, the dusty street to the river flanked by tailoring shops and the like, where Marines went to have their uniforms cleaned and pressed and customtailored, the shirts cut skintight. Regulars, the enlisted men, seemed to spend much of their lives at such things and shining their shoes. The real fun of the garrison took place off base, at Dumfries and Triangle, wide spots in the road along the Shirley Highway, where there were bars and fierce women and fistfights. Such places belonged to the “shifty-eyed” enlisted men and were tacitly off-limits to us, officer candidates. As our trucks rolled through on the way to field problems, we saw the small, blonde redneck girls in their tight jeans sashaying through Dumfries and Triangle, and I wished I wasn’t going to be an officer.

Under Captain Finlayson, who gave off the distinct impression he would rather be up in that cool blue sky flying fighter planes than running a bunch of college kids around in the Virginia heat, we were chivvied about by two drill instructors, both corporals. One of the DIs was weasel-smooth, roundfaced, smiling, and currying favor. Oh, he ordered us around and snapped at us sometimes, but he was intelligent enough to realize that in a couple of years, when we had been beatified as lieutenants, he would still be an enlisted man. The other DI was a moron, plump and tightly sewn into his khakis, given to an assiduous scratching of his behind while not actually in formation and standing at attention. When we made sport of him, he reacted angrily. “You peepul [we were always being addressed as “you peepul”], if you be half so f_ _ _ _ _ _ shop as me, you be pretty f_ _ _ _ _ _ shop.”

“Shop” was “sharp,” and his ultimate adjective of praise. And when he was not chewing us out or scratching, the corporal spent many hours polishing his shoes.

“When you see a Marine what got shop shoes,” he would say, “you know he’s one shop Marine, every which way. It’s the shoes what does it.”

If you drew him out, he softened and would go on for twenty or thirty minutes on the best techniques for rendering your shoes truly “shop.” I never got very good at it, but shoe shining was quite a fetish with many enlisted Marines and even some of us. Bradlee, for one, the Harvard man, became splendid at shining shoes and on occasion was praised for being “shop.”

Each week they issued chits on us: military bearing, discipline, targetry, neatness, physical condition, and so on. Assisted by our two DIs, Captain Finlayson marked up the chits.

After the first few weeks of sheer terror, awe, and self-doubt, we began to become capable once more of critical judgments. After all, we weren’t seventeen-year-old recruits off the farm; we were nineteen- and twenty-year-old college men, reasonably mature and in some instances even sophisticated. Although we continued to obey the shouted orders of our DIs (you really had no choice), we permitted contempt to show through. The moron never really got it; the slick one, the politician, did, and curried favor even more. As for Captain Finlayson, what was he, after all, but a flier, an “airdale,” while we were training to be rifle platoon leaders, infantry officers. Even in those first weeks as Marines we were already staking out claims to higher rungs in one of the most rigidly structured and ferocious caste systems in the world.

But the Marine Corps was touching and changing me in other ways. I was the product of Irish Catholic schools and of the working-class community of Sheepshead Bay and in part a reflection of friends like Joe Torpey, who became a baseball player and was married at home plate in a minor-league stadium just before the double-header, and like “Beaner” Toomey, whose dream it was to run a bar and grill. I suppose there were more provincial men in the Platoon Leaders program, but I was about as narrowly focused as you could get without being stupid. Now, in the barracks of a military base in a Virginia summer, as I was talking, talking, talking, and, more to the point, occasionally listening, a dormant imagination woke, curious, to look about and take notes. A boy from a small Catholic school was now, suddenly and unexpectedly, living with men from Princeton and the University of Texas and Stanford and Amherst and Yale and Michigan and USC.