David Larsen - I was born in New York State and our family moved to Washington State when I was 14 years old. After a couple years of college, I served two years in the Marine Corps, and then earned BA degrees in English Literature and Business Administration both from the University of Washington. I worked in the Finance Department of The Boeing Company for 28 years before leaving that job in 2004. Since then I continued to operate the winery we founded in 1989 named Soos Creek Wine Cellars. My wife, Cecile, and I have 3 sons. I also enjoy running, golf and outdoor activities. “Yellow Footprints" is a memoir and is the first story I have written.
YELLOW FOOTPRINTS by David Larsen
The building in Los Angeles where we were sworn in was so nondescript that it appeared to be deliberately chosen for its non-threatening appearance; so there would be no reason for volunteers like myself to back out at the last minute. Taking the oath was as easy as saying the Pledge of Allegiance. But the excitement of my future adventure was replaced by a somber mood when the Sgt ordered us out of the room, down the stairs and out of the building. After we emptied onto the sidewalk, another recruit pointed out the Superman building, home of the Daily Planet newspaper in the old TV show. It was a welcome distraction because it lightened the mood as we got on the bus.
Passing through the gates of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot was an easy transition onto the base because the Spanish style of the buildings had the look of just another San Diego neighborhood. With such beautiful grounds and so few people, the place looked almost serene. Then the bus stopped, the door opened, and a drill instructor ran up the steps yelling
“I want every swinging dick standing outside on those yellow footprints in 30 seconds!”
“Move! Move! Move!” shouted the DI. He had gained control like the police do in a raid when they storm into a room without warning. We swarmed out of the bus and arranged ourselves on the eighty sets of yellow footprints painted on the asphalt – four columns of 20 recruits each, all pointed in the same direction and standing more or less at attention.
My girlfriend’s brother had been in the Marine Corps, so I had quizzed him about it before making my decision to enlist. Nothing he said about the experience had me worried. And I felt lucky to sit next to a Marine on the plane ride to San Diego just days earlier. His only comment was “I’d be lying if I said it was easy.” I thought not being easy was part of the appeal because I would become part of an elite group. Knowing what to expect had calmed my fears. And being a year or two older than most of the others, I felt above the intimidation tactics of the DI’s while standing on the yellow footprints.
The DIs then herded us into a nearby building for the sheep shearing – electric clippers mowed our hair down to the skin in waves of four recruits at a time. The loss of hair made us now look more alike than different. It was a silent ceremony, highlighted only by a pronounced smell of oil from the electric clippers and the growing pile of hair on the floor. After exchanging our civilian clothes for green Marine Corps utilities, I looked around the room of eighty recruits but could no longer identify anyone I knew from the bus ride. Everyone was now wearing the same dark green utilities, blank but obedient expression, and bald head.
We finished packing a few essentials into our duffle bags and started marching off to our living quarters. It was almost dark near the end of our first day and we were the only people on an ocean of asphalt. We marched into a desolate expanse so vast that it blended into the darkness at the horizon. Staying in step but drifting off-line, I felt a couple slaps against the side of my head. “Keep your alignment!” the DI shouted. I was really surprised by getting slapped but shook it off.
When we arrived at our Quonset huts, I glanced around at the other recruits who were standing at attention and thought they were overly intimidated. I considered myself mentally stronger though and was determined not to let the DIs get to me. To demonstrate my courage, I dropped the duffle bag off my shoulder to the ground. But my resolve was ambushed when I got walloped twice to the back of my head. The DI had come up from my blind side and hit me much harder this time as he yelled in my ear, “Who told you to drop your duffle bag, maggot?” I remembered that the first word out of my mouth was always “Sir”. So I bellowed, “Sir, nobody, sir”. This second encounter with the DI really jolted me.
In our isolated quarters, the DI’s had turned up the heat. I was so stunned by the force of the blows that before I could think about it, I was overcome by the same fear I saw in the other faces and had joined the fold. As one DI showed us how to make up our racks, the other strolled around correcting various offenses, always with a slap or two to the head.
The Spartans probably had better living quarters. Our Quonset huts were like elongated igloos skinned in sheet metal with only a concrete floor, footlockers and metal racks for beds. The ground outside was bare dirt with a strip of asphalt path running between the rows of Quonset huts. We were isolated in the northwest corner of the base and insulated from the world by the many other rows of Quonset huts surrounding us. I spent most of that first night trying to remember how to make up my rack in the morning so I wouldn’t get slapped again.
The next morning we got up when the reveille bugle sounded, dressed, made up our racks and fell into formation on the asphalt; suspiciously without anybody getting roughed up. Two DIs brought us into a Quonset hut and introduced themselves. Our platoon commander was Gunnery Sgt. Bush. He was the older of the two, lean with a dark tan and a fatherly air. He looked experienced in this role; years of the Marine Corps were visible in the extra lines on his face. He talked to us in a conversational manner for the first time, as though he was trying to connect and establish a rapport. Maybe the rough stuff was behind us now? I liked Gunnery Sgt. Bush ok.
Sgt. Minnifield was more robust and looked very serious about his mission of transforming us into Marines. His face was uncomplicated, from a simple black and white world and had the solemn, threatening gaze of an executioner. They both wore Smokey the Bear style covers and in contrast to our rumpled appearance, their utilities were without a single wrinkle, perfectly creased and their black boots had the deep shine of obsidian.
Gunnery Sgt. Bush explained the program to us. The primary purpose of boot camp was to teach us discipline, defined as instant obedience to orders. The Marine Corps had rules against the DIs striking recruits and limits on the amount of PT we could do. But they could not give us the training we needed to fight in Viet Nam by following the rules. He looked like he had been to Viet Nam and I got the feeling he had our best interests at heart.
“If you screw up, there are no excuses; we will kick your ass,” said Gunnery Sgt. Bush. “Is there anybody who disagrees with what I just said?”
Of course, nobody raised their hand. He asked us not to talk about the tough parts of boot camp in our letters home because it would just make our families worry, as though he was saying, “I hope you’re man enough to get through this without crying to your mother.” Stretching the rules to increase our chances for survival in Viet Nam seemed like a fair trade. So I bought-in to Gunnery Sgt Bush’s program.
By noon chow of our second day we were very hungry from doing so many pushups, sit-ups and squat thrusts. But before we were half way finished eating Sgt. Minnifield started yelling, “Get up! Get out!” He sent a message from across the mess hall in the form of a milk carton missile that hit the guy next to me in the forehead – Splat! “Get up! Get Out!” We shoveled in more food as we rushed to put our trays away but not nearly enough to finish eating and satisfy our hunger. At our next meal we were extra-hungry but stuffing ourselves as fast as we could was still not fast enough, so we learned to eat faster and faster before we ever completely finished a meal.
We marched everywhere, which was easy for me and most of the recruits. Our marching formation was the same as when we stood on the yellow footprints - four squads each in a column of 20 recruits. The first recruit in each squad was the squad leader. They had to be good marchers because any mistake by them would ripple through the others in their squad. The slow learners were called “shitbirds” and positioned at the end of the squads. The problem with learning to march was the promised ass-kicking whenever a mistake was made.
A couple days later, we met our third drill instructor, Sgt. Parrish. He was only about 5’ 6” with a wiry build. His face narrowed to a pointed chin that thrust forward baring his lower teeth like a bulldog. The way his ears stood out added to his comic appearance and he wore his cover tilted forward, apparently an attempt to make himself look more menacing.
We were in the process of learning a new marching maneuver when he became disgusted with our performance and shouted, “Platoon halt! Face half-right!” This confused us for a moment because we had never heard of that maneuver. But we all shuffled 45 degrees to the right. This would give us more room for doing PT. “Give me 30 squat thrusts! Ready begin!” he commanded.
In unison, we called out: “One” as we did a full squat and put our hands on the ground between our feet;
“Two,” we kicked our feet out behind us into the push up position;
“Three,” we brought our feet back next to our hands,
“One sir,” for the number of completed squat thrusts as we stood up again.
Sgt. Parrish stopped us before we reached 30 because someone had fallen behind, and then told us to thank the straggler before starting over again. Squat thrusts are not as hard as doing pushups, but that is the diabolical thing about them – no matter how tired you are, you can always do one more.
After one hundred, I felt totally exhausted and thought we must be near the end. Two hundred is more than anybody would ever do without a DI standing over them. At three hundred, I felt like I weighed five hundred pounds and was beyond agony. The unrelenting pain radiating throughout my body would subside with the hope of stopping after 30 repetitions and then kick-in at a higher level every time we had to start over. I had never been in a situation like this before, so the uncertainty of how long it would continue was ratcheting up the mental pain: from knowing there was no excuse for stopping and from not knowing when we would stop; all while listening to Sgt. Parrish’s tirade. After we finally finished, my legs were so heavy each step was like pulling my feet out of deep mud. We called these sessions “squat thrusts forever” and they were always preceded with the dreaded words “Face half-right.”
Mail call was after evening chow but before we hit the rack. The DIs would inspect every letter before calling out our names. Sgt. Minnifield examined one letter closely before telling Pvt. Borders to open it in front of him. Inside the envelope was a stick of gum, so Sgt. Minnifield went into his Quonset hut and returned with a bottle of hot sauce. He told Pvt. Borders to pour hot sauce on the stick of gum and chew it up without taking off the wrapper. After the effects of the hot sauce began to wear off, he then ordered him to swallow it, paper and all. Other Privates would occasionally receive a stick of gum and the consequences were always the same.
I wondered who would send the gum and why? It must be someone who knew about the consequences. Otherwise, why wouldn’t they send something better to eat? But if they knew the consequences, why would a friend send it or even an enemy, who would surely receive some payback? It must be from someone who had also received gum in boot camp and felt entitled to carry on the tradition, like a rite of passage.
At the end of another long day, Sgt Parrish showed up while we were all in the shower and climbed on top of the sinks to look down on us. While stalking back and forth, he ordered us to turn on only the cold water.
“On your gut!” he shouted and eighty naked recruits fell to the floor, slipping and sliding against each other like worms slithering in the bottom of a bucket.
“On your feet!” and up we jumped.
“On your gut!” before everyone was standing again.
“On your feet!” as we heaved and sloshed around in the cold water.
There wasn’t any way to arrange ourselves that wasn’t disgusting and degrading. But it was just a tune up for the next drill. After we returned to our area, he ordered all of us into a Quonset hut just big enough for sleeping 20 recruits and began shouting, “Move back! Move back! Move back!” to pack eighty of us tighter and tighter against the back wall. It was like mass hysteria when someone yells “Fire!” and the only exit is blocked. I didn’t have time to plan ahead and was in a bad spot – too close to the back wall. The force of the recruits pushing against me was like being compressed inside a garbage truck. I couldn’t expand my lungs, so breathing or even moving was almost impossible inside the huge mass of meat.
I sometimes tried to step outside the action as a way to feel like I still had some control. I suspected the last two incidents were part of the process to tear us down as civilians so they could later build us up as Marines.
We were beginning to lose recruits to the Physical Conditioning Platoon or Fat Farm and to Correctional Custody Platoon. The Fat Farm was where you went if you were too weak or overweight to do enough push-ups or pull-ups. Whenever we saw that platoon around the base, they were always doing PT. At the mess hall, I never saw them eating anything but lettuce and drinking only water. I didn’t immediately recognize one of our recruits only two weeks after being sent to the Fat Farm. His face was much thinner and his utilities had become several sizes too big from the weight loss.
Correctional Custody Platoon was for the recruits who needed an attitude adjustment, the defiant ones who didn’t want to “get with the program.” We would sometimes see them marching off in the morning with buckets and shovels over their shoulders. Pvt. Wirth joined our platoon from CCP and told us it was basically punishment all day long. One of the drills was to divide up the platoon into two teams. Each team would use buckets and shovels in a race to move their huge pile of dirt from point A to point B. When they were finished and collapsing from exhaustion, the winners got to make the losers do PT. I couldn’t think of anything worse. Then you won the booby prize – an extension of your total time in boot camp because time spent in CCP or in the Fat Farm was “bad time”.
Sgt. Minnifield told us that Pvt. Davis had complained to our Commanding Officer about the beatings he received from Gunnery Sgt. Bush. The bumps, cuts and bruises on Pvt. Davis’s head and face were apparently all the proof needed for Gunnery Sgt. Bush to be relieved of his duty as our Platoon Commander. Even though he was tough on us, Gunnery Sgt. Bush was fair and not someone we feared like the other two DIs. So we felt bad about losing him. Pvt. Davis was considered a traitor by Sgt. Minnifield and I thought what he did was cowardly and selfish. The DI’s rough treatment was not something anybody else complained about because it was necessary to teach us discipline. Pvt. Davis was transferred to a different platoon but I wondered how he would be treated down the road.
Pvt. Bray was a big, goofy, good-natured guy, slow to learn and he struggled physically also. Consequently, he was always catching hell from the DIs. Despite his extra hardships, he generally had a cheerful attitude and was amazingly resilient. One day Sgt Parrish took Pvt. Bray with his bucket and shovel off for some “one on one time.” They returned about an hour later with Bray looking dirty, tired and very scared. Parrish positioned Bray in the middle of the asphalt path with a row of us on each side.
Parrish blared “Tell the platoon what Pvt. Bray did to Sgt. Parrish.” “Sir, Pvt. Bray tried to hit Sgt. Parrish with a shovel, sir.” That really surprised me because Bray was such a gentle soul. And whatever his shortcomings, they were not for a lack of effort. So I questioned the need for whatever Parrish did that caused Bray to snap and wondered again about sadistic tendencies in Parrish. He then began his assault on Bray. Issuing reprimands as he punched and kicked him. Parrish seemed to be practicing his hand to hand combat and Bray was the punching bag. Wham! Parrish struck Bray in the groin and then Wham! struck him in the face as he was doubling over from the first blow. Then Parrish faked a blow to the groin and when Bray covered up, hit him in the face and then in the groin. Parrish then began circling his target so that Bray couldn’t see half the blows coming. We had all received some of the same and usually never even winced when another recruit was catching hell. We were more concerned with our own welfare and had turned callous. “Better him than me.” was the attitude. But this violent attack on Bray was hard to watch. By the end, he was completely broken; physically, mentally and emotionally. Whether it was intended or not, this spectacle was an example of what could be endured because Bray bounced back and graduated on time with our platoon. He had an innocence about him that may have worked in his favor. Maybe, in his mind, he had done wrong and deserved the punishment.
TO BE CONTINUED