Leaving For Korea

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Mack Allen’s square name was Maurice J. Allen and he was a Lynchburg, Virginia, man, about five feet nine, tough, strong, compact, with jug ears and a wide smile. Whether it was V.M.I, or having been an enlisted man in the wartime Marine Corps, Mack was, though quietly, about as ferocious as a man could be about wanting to get into combat, and soon, as a rifleplatoon leader. I mouthed such sentiments too but deep down didn’t mean them and hoped to be assigned to something cushy. And safe. Mack meant what he said. Leading men into combat was sort of a religious cause for Mack. Back in 1095 when Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade to liberate Jerusalem, the men who joined up must have been a lot like Mack Allen, though without the Southern accent.

Lou Faust, the rangy, rawboned, married guy in the radio business, had sandy hair and slightly bowed legs. He’d been a Marine before too. Lou was amiable as hell, never boasted or said very much at all, and always wore a wide, easy grin. Then one morning there was this big inspection of barracks laid on, and when we were all through sweeping and swabbing our platoon area and had fallen in outside in the company street waiting for the colonel to come through and look things over, and each platoon had left one man to stay behind a bit, to be sure no one came through and tracked up the newly scrubbed deck, Faust was one of the men assigned. A Marine from another platoon, late for the formation, started to cut through Faust’s platoon area on his way out, trying to save a few seconds. He was as tall as Lou and heftier, but Lou told him, “Go around, pal, this area’s secured.”

“Bullshit!” the guy said, and started to push his way past.

Faust hit him just the once, breaking his jaw.

After that no one messed with Lou, and the guy with the broken jaw came back a few days later and told Lou that he was right to do what he did, that he shouldn’t have tried to cut through. At Quantico you took things like newly swabbed barracks floors pretty seriously in that year.

Jim Callan had straw-colored hair and a Western twang and squinting eyes slit against the New Mexico sun. His family had a ranch and raised horses, and naturally his nickname was Wild Horse. Wild Horse said the big problem they had in New Mexico was drought and he hoped to save sufficient money over the next year or so in Korea that he could help his dad get some irrigation in there. If he could put together a few dollars, taking care not to spend anything in Korea (what would there be to spend it on, he reasoned), the ranch could make it. If they got water. How long had the drought been on, I inquired, very much the city boy. How many months?

Jim looked at me. “Nineteen years,” he said.

So saving money in the Marine Corps was a priority for Callan. But then Wild Horse fell upon evil days, and in a way it was my fault.

I’d finished reading the B. Traven novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre .

“Wild Horse, you’ve got to read this. It’s a great story. It’s set in Mexico, down near where you live.”

Callan took the book, promising to get back to me with an informed critique. Then he was caught reading it during a terminally boring lecture on military courtesy or something and called up to the platform, where the book was seized and thrown away and he was given a bad chit.

Callan apologized, but I said it couldn’t be helped.

A month later, when our class graduated and we got our assignments, Callan was one of the first men hustled out of there and sent to the division. I always wondered if it was that bad chit he got for reading B. Traven in class.

That winter in Virginia had been very cold. “Getting us ready for the Yalu,” men said, a humorless joke. Now, in April, it would come to an end. And with the spring came our assignments. The twelve to thirteen weeks of the Basic School were ending. Some men would go to the division; others to Camp Lejeune and perhaps to the Mediterranean, some more to artillery school or communications or supply. Still others would stay here at Quantico to teach or to ramrod a new class through Basic School. I was one of those.

I Wondered if those long-dead men whose wraiths still marched here felt about war as I did, drawn to it and fearing it at the same time.

There were brief good-byes. The men ticketed for Korea wanted to get away swiftly, to enjoy their three weeks of leave before reporting to Camp Pendleton in California. The rest of us got a weekend off. When we got back on Monday, there would be a private room in the bachelor officers’ quarters (BOQ). That would be a treat.

On Monday the BOQ wasn’t quite ready. Nor had I been assigned to a new platoon. I wandered around, no schedule, no one to order me about, no formation into which I fitted, no friends. The squad bay where I’d spent the past three months was empty, the day hot. I sat on the side of my cot, then I lay down and fell asleep. An irate major woke me.

“Are you ill?”

“No, sir.” I was standing at attention.

“Then what the hell are you doing sleeping in an empty barracks on a workday?”

I made my explanations.

“All right, then get the hell out of here and walk around and at least look useful. Nothing worse than a damned young officer looking slack.”

I wandered about the main base until my BOQ room was emptied out and policed up so I could move in. I missed Bradlee and Callan and the others already.