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It was a mild, sunny afternoon and there was a light wind blowing from my right front. I aligned the sights of my M-14 on the human-sized target standing over a quarter of a mile away, got my breathing under control, and gradually increased pressure on the trigger until the rifle fired. Almost immediately, my target dropped from sight.

I called the shot as a dead-center bull's-eye, but a few moments later, the target reappeared and a red disk was raised to its top right-hand corner. My shot had scored a "3" and a small black spotting circle sat a little above and to the left of the "head" of the torso-shaped target. I took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and uttered a one-syllable expletive.

"Don't dwell on it, private," said my coach, a Marine PFC who had himself only "graduated" from recruit training a few weeks before. "Clear your head. You've got plenty of time. You can still qualify as 'expert'."

It was the Friday of our platoon's second week at the rifle range at Parris Island, the day all of us had been training for during the previous two weeks: Qualification Day.

Ever since the start of boot camp, we had been taught that every Marine, no matter what his day-to-day job, was a marksman first. This had been true back in 1775, when shipboard Marines fired at enemy sailors and officers from their own rigging and tops, and it was true that Friday, almost two centuries later. On "Qual Day," each of us was expected to shoot our rifle and qualify as a marksman (or better, as a sharpshooter or expert).

Pretty much all our waking time during the first week at the rifle range had been spent alternating between the classroom and "snapping in" on the grass. The classroom instructors had introduced us to the terminology of marksmanship—concepts such as "firing line," "sight picture," and "aiming point"—as well as to the actual how of accurately firing an M-14—sight adjustment to account for target distance and wind effects, trigger control, posture, breathing, and so forth.

"Snapping in" involved learning how to hold the rifle while contorting one's body to become an Immovable Object—or as close to such an object as possible—that could fire at a target a football field or more away and consistently hit the bull's-eye. Learning the positions was easy, practicing them until they became second nature was tedious and, at times, painful.

We also worked in the protected "butts" at the target end of the range, pulling targets up and down, marking and scoring shots, and covering the resulting holes with small squares of adhesive tape in preparation for the next shot. While there, we learned the arcana of scoring. A shot that hit the line between two target "rings," for example, was scored at the higher ring value. If two shots appeared in a target before it could be pulled down—from time to time, recruits did mistakenly aim at the wrong target—the shooter was given the benefit of the doubt and awarded the higher scoring shot. A clean miss was called a "Maggie's drawers" and was signaled by waving a red flag across the target from left to right.

I had done well in the days leading up to qual day. Although I had "jerked" a few shots here and there and "chased the bull's-eye" once from 300 yards, overall, I had scored as a sharpshooter twice and once as an expert. I had also noticed an improvement in the tenor of recruit life, because there had been a perceptible change in the way our drill instructors treated us. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but the DIs were so supportive, we recruits almost felt human.

After scoring the "3" from 500 yards, I had eight shots to go and needed to shoot 36 of a possible 40 points if I wanted to qualify as an expert. Halfway to that goal, my coach was called aside by Sgt. Beadle, who took my coach's place next to me on the firing line.

"How're you doing today, private?" asked Beadle, as he checked my posture and the tightness of my sling.

"Sir, the private needs to score 17 of 20 to qualify as 'expert', sir!" By now, the end of the seventh week of boot camp, enclosing everything I said inside a matching pair of the word "sir" and referring to myself (and to the people I spoke with) in the third person had become second nature.

"Outstanding, private!" said Beadle. "I have every confidence in you. In fact, there's something I would like you to do for me. Purely voluntary."

"Sir, yes, sir!" I said, and wondered what service I could possibly perform for Beadle from the firing line.

"I will return in a few minutes and comment on your shooting position," explained the sergeant. "When that happens, I would appreciate it if you shot your next round at the target immediately to the left of your own. Preferably a bull's-eye, private. Any questions?"

"Sir, by doing so, the private will be giving up all chance of shooting 'expert', sir!" I said.

"That may be true," said Beadle, "but you'll be helping a platoon-mate qualify. The choice is up to you." The sergeant took his leave and my coach resumed his position.

Several minutes later, with two rounds left to fire (and needing to score 8 or better for the expert badge), Sgt. Beadle paused at my firing point to nudge my left leg with his boot. "Watch your posture, private," he said, and nodded to my coach as he continued on his way. I made my decision and deliberately fired at the target to the left of mine, almost in unison with the Marine to my left. When the target reappeared a few moments later, a white disk stood at its center, indicating a bull's-eye. I was happy to see the score, but disappointed at the same time. Still—qualifying as a sharpshooter was not all that bad.

Before I could settle down to fire my last round, Beadle materialized at my side. Without making a big show of it, Beadle produced one round and put it on the ground next to my marksmanship notebook. "You would appear to have two shots left, recruit," he said. "Make them count."

My spirits lifted, those last two shots I fired were both bull's-eyes. I had scored 'expert' with two points to spare. The recruit to my left had qualified, just barely, as a marksman, and quite dramatically, as it turned out. You see, two holes had appeared in his target on his last shot: a dead-center bull's-eye and a shot in the 4 ring, above the silhouette's right shoulder and perilously close to the 3 ring.

For a long time, I felt a modicum of pride in having justified my drill instructor's confidence in my shooting skill and in having helped a fellow Marine avoid the disgrace of failing to qualify as a marksman by a single point.

And then one day some time later, in a blinding afterthought, it occurred to me—maybe the shot that missed my neighbor's bull's-eye had been... mine?

alexpgp: (Corfu!)
It was the first of June, and if I had correctly understood the message being delivered by the captain visiting our unit's morning formation, as of zero hundred that day (what civilians call "midnight"), every poisonous snake within the boundaries of Camp Pendleton was authorized to "lock and load" its fangs with "live" venom and to consider the vast territory of the Marine base a "free bite" zone.

The captain went on, instructing us on how best to avoid getting bitten—give reptiles a wide berth—and then explained what to do if a snake did bite you—put your lips on the wound and suck out any injected poison.

When the time came to ask any questions that may have occurred to us during the briefing, I was about to ask how the Marine Corps had arranged for rattlesnakes and copperheads to refrain from biting base personnel before the first of June when I was beaten to the punch by an unfamiliar voice from the back of the formation.

"Cap'n, sir, you said to suck out the poison if you get bit, but—what if you get bit—uh, you know—like, in the ass?"

Whatever human-caused rustling there might have been within the formation ceased at once, to better hear what the officer might have to say in response to such a frank and indelicate question.

The captain cocked his head slightly to one side, smiled a little, and replied: "Well, private, I guess that's when you find out who your true friends are."

Rim shot, I thought to myself as I and the rest of the men in the formation chuckled politely. The joke had doubtless been old when the Marines began to recruit "a few good men" at Tun Tavern in 1775.

After the formation was dismissed, I reported to my truck for the trip out to our work area. "Work," for our little group, was a series of assignments to remove and collect lengths of copper wire from sites that were no longer in use. Our latest job was at the extreme north end of the base, thirty klicks east of the middle of nowhere, where our objective was to recover a strand of copper telegraph wire from a string of widely spaced hilltop utility poles.

The temporary assignment, as a lineman at Pendleton, was actually pretty challenging, though not without its risks. A few weeks before, our truck had been sent to an abandoned prison compound that was being "deconstructed" piecemeal to maximize recovery of materials for later reuse. There, I was assigned the task of climbing the guard towers to disconnect some wiring inside each guard hut. Everything went smoothly until I got to the third tower.

There, I climbed the vertical ladder the same way I had done twice before, and as my head came up above the level of the hut floor, a huge white owl that had built a nest under the hut's duty desk spread its wings and lunged directly at my face. My hands instinctively flew up to protect my eyes as a defensive reaction.

With both hands in front of my face, however, I started to fall backward, off the ladder, which is not something you want to do while positioned thirty-some-odd feet up in the air, so without really thinking about it, I quickly jerked one hand back away from my face and grabbed for the ladder.

It wasn't a graceful move, but it worked, even if my feet slipped off their rungs, leaving me in an awkward, painful position with one leg actually sticking through the ladder as the owl flew off. By some miracle, aside from some abused muscles, I escaped injury. Shaken, I went back to the truck to get my safety belt before climbing any more towers.

On that first day of June, my job involved waiting by a wooden utility pole on hill A while our truck dropped other crew members at poles on adjacent hills B and C before proceeding to a pole on hill D. As the truck drove away, I sat down on a large rock for the 40-minute wait until the truck was in position. While I waited, I put on my climbers—steel contraptions that doubtless took their inspiration from artifacts in medieval torture chambers and were outfitted with small, sharp steel spikes called gaffs to support the wearer's weight while climbing, working on, or descending wooden utility poles. Then I directed my attention at the hill that was the truck's destination.

After some time, a stream of green smoke billowed from the hill, which was the signal for me and the two other linemen to climb the poles on our respective hilltops and stand by to cut the strand of wire that had probably been strung when Woodrow Wilson had been President. I put on my tool belt, safety belt, and heavy leather gloves and then waded through some dense brush to the bottom of the pole, where I secured my safety belt around the pole and began climbing. Once at the top, I prepared to use my wire-cutters.

A few minutes later, I saw red smoke erupt from that same hill, which was the signal for everyone to cut wire. The wire was cut at each pole at pretty much the same time, thereby averting any unfortunate consequences that might occur if the wire's weight and tension were to be suddenly relieved on only one side of any given pole.

My job done for the day, I began to climb down the pole.


I stopped. So did the rattling sound. I waited a few seconds and then, incredulous at the thought of there being a rattlesnake below me, I unstuck a gaff and took another step down the pole.


I froze once more, but this time the rattling sound continued for several seconds. It was coming from somewhere near the base of the pole, but the waist-high brush prevented me from seeing anything on the ground. From my position, some yards up in the air, the only real way to give the reptile a wide berth was to stay where I was. That, or—


I threw my wire-cutters down at the base of the pole. The rattling sound stopped. I counted to ten and took another step down.


I threw the rest of my tools, one by one, down at the hidden snake. Then I threw down my gloves, but the rattling resumed any time I would fidget, and as the time passed and my legs became weary, I fidgeted quite a bit. The rattling continued.

Eventually, with the muscles in my legs screaming bloody murder, I decided that—snake or no snake—I could not allow myself to be caught in this position when the truck arrived to pick me up. I would never hear the end of having been "treed" by a snake! As I noisily descended the rest of the way to the ground, I thought I heard something slither into the thicker brush on the side of the pole away from the road. But even more important, I heard no rattling.

By the time the truck returned, I had removed my climbers, retrieved my tools, and was sitting on the rock near where I had been dropped off, massaging my legs but otherwise acting as if nothing at all had happened.

"Just another glorious day in the Corps," yelled our civilian supervisor, a retired Marine, out the driver's window as the truck pulled to a stop. "Good work, private! Get in, and let's go home!"

I was only too happy to comply.

alexpgp: (Default)
The first time I came ashore in an amtrac, it occurred to me that "hitting the beach" was not so much an informal way of describing a Marine amphibious landing as it was a literal description of events.

Our amtrac – the term is a portmanteau of "amphibious tractor" (designated more formally as a "Landing Vehicle, Tracked, Personnel, Mark 7" in the convoluted lingo of the military) – collided with the Atlantic coast of Virginia at its top waterborne speed of 8 miles per hour, emerging from the ocean like some fantastic armored brute, an organism of ugly metal angles clustered around parts that growled and clanked, belching a spoor of dark gray diesel exhaust.

The stomachs of the two dozen gyrenes in the troop compartment had barely recovered from the impact of landfall when the engines stopped whining and the vehicle rolled to a stop. We gripped our weapons tightly as we faced the door at the rear of the vehicle, waiting for it to drop. A few seconds later, our sergeant stuck his head down into our compartment and announced that an umpire had declared our craft to have suffered a direct hit, and all of us – the amtrac's crew of three, the sergeant, and all of us were now, for the purposes of the exercise, "crispy critters," to use the sergeant's words.

"Incoming fire has the right of way," say Murphy's Laws of Combat, and as I slowly exhaled a deep breath and let the tension drain from my body, the voice in my mind ad-libbed: Thank you for participating in this mock military invasion. Had this been an actual combat situation, your underwear would be scattered over a half mile of beach and you would now be standing in line at the Pearly Gates. I don't know what anyone else was thinking, but for several minutes, there was a pretty quiet bunch of leathernecks in that troop compartment.

Several weeks later, during a similar training exercise held over the weekend, our amtrac hit the beach, advanced some short distance, braked to a sudden stop, and the rear door came down with a crash. We squinted in the bright sunlight as we disembarked and ran around the sides of our 24-ton armored conveyance. The four-man fire team I was part of began to advance toward the dune line, and stopped in its tracks.

For reasons best known to the Corps Public Affairs Office, the beach was brimming with civilians pointing cameras in our direction, and one particular group of buxom young women wearing bikinis was successfully attracting the attention of the landing force by seductively wiggling various body parts and invitingly shouting "Yoo-hoo!"

"Move! Move! Move!" yelled our sergeant, looking back in our direction. "This ain't the time or the place! There's some poor bastards up ahead who are depending on you to be on their flank! Get your butts in gear!"

So we moved, paying more attention to how we looked as we passed by the girls than to where we were going, and a few moments later, a whistle blew. I looked over to see an umpire signaling to us.

"You Marines just walked into the kill zone of a machine gun located over there," said the umpire, pointing at the dunes to our front. "I'm sorry to inform you that all you fellows are KIA." We who had just been "killed in action" sat down heavily on the sand and as we did, I decided I didn't much like exercise umpires, who seemed intent on killing me off at every opportunity, for any convenient reason, good or bad.

* * *
Two months later, our company was deployed for a night exercise in the middle of the North Carolina woods. I was a radioman by then, and my assignment that night was to set up a listening post several hundred yards away from the company's position and to report on any "enemy" movement in my vicinity. I set my post up in the middle of a small thicket of shrubbery, digging a deep fighting hole for myself and my radio, and settled down for what I hoped would be a quiet night, where my greatest challenge would be to stay awake.

Things were quiet until about 11 pm, when I heard what I thought were the sounds of people moving through the woods. I made a short radio report and paused to listen some more. By the time I had heard enough to confirm the presence of an opposing force, a small group of the "enemy" had paused to confer right at my thicket, kneeling in the darkness to shine a small red flashlight at a map. They were so close to me, I could have reached out from the shrubbery and touched any member of the group, though in truth I didn't dare move, or even breath heavily.

"Okay," said a calm, authoritative voice, presumably that of the officer commanding the force. "This is how I want to set up our assault."

Touch them? I wondered. How about I just do this? Through the leaves I extended my hand, which was wrapped around my radio's microphone. Then I pressed the 'Transmit' button.

The officer's briefing was short and direct. First platoon, here, along this stream bed. Second platoon, there, on the right flank. On my whistle. One-two-three, just like in the book. "Any questions?" asked the officer. Nobody said anything.

The red flashlight was snapped off and I heard the sound of the map being folded. "Right, let's do this." My hand withdrew, back behind the screen of branches and leaves, where I quietly released the 'Transmit' button.

As the "enemy" moved past me to advance on my company's position, I risked a radio call to confirm that the company was aware of the advancing enemy force. The operator at the company's command post could barely contain his laughter.

"We heard every word," said the operator, "and we're ready for 'em. And the skipper is impressed… says there's a 48-hour pass in your future, after a refresher session on standard radio procedure."

A few minutes later, I heard the sound of firing from the direction of the company's position. Despite the hour and the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, there were no umpires around, I hunkered down in my fighting hole. "Don't look conspicuous, it draws fire," say Murphy's Laws of Combat, and at this point, I didn't want anything to jeopardize an otherwise perfect exercise.

alexpgp: (Default)
My assignment closed out on time this morning, and I went to sleep soon after I got home. As luck would have it, since I don't have to work the night shift tonight, I slept like a log for four hours and felt like I could've slept for another four if I hadn't forced myself to get up around 2 pm.

Afterward, Galina and I drove around a bit and did some shopping, with out last stop being at the Hong Kong Market. After coming home and putting away the groceries, I expressed a desire to go talk to the folks from TimeWarner Cable, as one of Galina's real-estate friends apparently was able to land a pretty attractive price for in-home broadband service.

For while it is very convenient to be able to carry my connectivity in my cell phone, I miss the ability to connect to the 'net from Linux, and Galina has noted that since we can only access the Internet through my phone, that means there is no access from wherever the phone isn't, so if I'm not home, she's connection-less.

By the time we got back out the door, it was after the TimeWarner Cable storefront at the intersection of NASA 1 and I-45 had closed, so we decided to hit the "dollar movie" not far from there. The only film there I really wanted to see was Flags of Our Fathers, which was, at the same time, Galina's least preferred movie. She expressed a desire to attend the screening of Deja Vu or even the Borat film instead. In the end, as the times more or less coincided, we each went to our own movie (me, to Flags; she, to Deja Vu) and we met outside the theater after they ended.

The film version of Flags of Our Fathers was not, as is usually the case, in the same league with the book, and if Clint Eastwood was trying to create something approximating a mild form of "the fog of war" in the viewer's mind with all of the flashbacks and flashforwards, he succeeded. I wonder just how much (or how little) I would've gotten if I hadn't read the book first.

Still, the film evoked a strong physical reaction from me, and I thought that Adam Beach's performance as the emotionally tortured Ira Hayes was excellent. It's too bad the performance wasn't acknowledged by the AMPAS, but I think with every passing year, what the Academy thinks has increasingly less to do with reality and more with what the Academy thinks of its own introverted world, or what it thinks its world should be. But that's just my opinion; don't get me started... (:^o)



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