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 the first story I have written.
Yellow Footprints by David Larsen
Three weeks into our training, we marched over to the medical building for shots and a physical exam. As we passed by the women’s Marine Corps boot camp, I heard a woman DI shout, “I want to hear those cunts suck wind!” The medical building was run by Navy corpsmen and when the DIs were not watching, they would slap us around and verbally taunt us. They were taking advantage of our inability to fight back for their own amusement. By this time in our training, we had been so stripped of our self-esteem that anyone else was viewed as a superior, so we didn’t even consider retaliating. The corpsmen knew this, of course, which was reflected in their smug attitude.
I was incensed that the corpsmen, who never had to endure what we were going through, could get away with treating us that way. We accepted the rough treatment by our DIs because they had earned that right by having been through boot camp, spending time in Viet Nam and going through D.I. school, which was like boot camp all over again. They were entitled. But the corpsmen had no right. I hoped to meet one of these guys off base after boot camp and remind him of this incident before getting my revenge.
I started out as the second person behind the squad leader when we were in marching formation. After the first squad leader got fired, I moved up right behind the new squad leader and when he got fired, I was left standing at the front of our squad as the new leader. I was confident of my marching ability but not in the role of being responsible for 19 other guys. One of my first duties was to march my squad to the area where we would be standing guard duty that night. That went ok but I sensed my voice wasn’t loud enough for the role. And I think Sgt. Minnifield thought I needed some leadership training because the next day one of the recruits in my squad ran up to me with big, wide eyes and panted, “Sgt. Minnifield wants to see you!”
“Why, what happened?” I asked.
“I don’t know, when I knocked on Sgt. Minnifield’s door and asked to make a head call, he said ‘Tell your squad leader I want to see him.’ ”
So I ran to Sgt. Minnifield’s Quonset hut, knocked three times and barked, “Sir, Pvt. Larsen reporting as ordered, sir!”
Sgt. Minnifield ordered me to come in then calmly walked up and grabbed me by the throat with one of his huge hands, cutting off both my air and blood supply. He held me firmly in place as he slapped me across the face several times and ordered me to teach my squad how to properly address a DI. His hand felt like it had the weight of a car door. When he was finished, I gasped, “Sir, yes sir!” and ran back to my squad.
I felt more like a leader after the choking and instructed my squad in my strongest voice on the right way to address a DI. Two weeks later, I was replaced as squad leader by Pvt. Schulz. I wasn’t aware of anything I had done wrong, but I suspect I just wasn’t enough of a badass. I wasn’t hard enough on the guys in my platoon. The shit I took from Sgt Minnified wasn’t rolling downhill to them. I thought Pvt Schulz was better suited to the job anyway and I didn’t see much of a future in it. He seemed to relish the role and even slapped me across the face the next day for cleaning my rifle improperly. In a sense I had failed. But I was ok with that. The recruiter had told me that I would probably get an office job because of my education and typing skills. So I didn’t want to shine too brightly in boot camp and increase my chances of being assigned to the infantry, of becoming a grunt. They were the guys getting killed. I knew I was rolling the dice when I enlisted, but I didn’t want them to come up snake eyes.
Half way through our training, it was beginning to feel like we were always in a survival mode, like we were constantly treading water in the middle of an ocean. And yet with so many ordeals to be endured, it seemed like we were always waiting for whatever it was we were doing to be over. Being so aware of time caused it to pass excruciatingly slowly. One day was a long time, a week became a month and a month seemed like forever. Halfway through our training it seemed like we had always been there and always would be.
I briefly escaped to the outside world whenever we ran the obstacle course. We had a perfect view of the 737s taking off from the airport. While waiting my turn, I could see them lift-off from the runway and then sharply increase their angle of ascent as they flew off to another land. I don’t know if I’ve ever been homesick but I’ve had few experiences as powerful as the yearning I felt to be on one of those jets.
I felt terrible when I saw that Sgt Parrish was on duty again. I knew the pattern by now, that no matter how hard we tried, he would find fault and we would pay the price. So, I was not surprised when, after making too many mistakes during our manual arms drill, Sgt. Parrish ordered us to stop and shouted “Face half-right!” He told us to wrap our hands around the barrel of our M-14 rifles and assume the push up position. We were in the up position, with our knuckles contacting the asphalt and the heel of our hands pressing the rifle against our fingers. Our fingers were sandwiched between the asphalt and the rifle. It felt like we would break all the bones in our fingers as the asphalt dug deeper into our knuckles. We stayed in this position doing pushups and receiving motivational kicks in the ribs long past when we were quivering from exhaustion.
During the rare quiet times, like after hitting the rack but before falling asleep or on Sunday afternoon when we polished our boots and cleaned our rifles, I learned more about the others in our platoon. We were a very diverse group and many had belonged to street gangs, been kicked out of school or were petty criminals in their prior life. One former gang member casually mentioned how they did away with one of their rivals by pushing him off a roof. So it was amazing how quickly everybody gave up their old ways when we were all ordered to stand on the yellow footprints our first day. Violence was the great persuader; the universal language understood by everything that breathes.
A couple guys could barely read or write and we had two college graduates. One was Pvt Johnson. He was our Guide, one notch above the squad leaders. He was smart enough to always avoid the costly mental mistakes. Physically, he was only average. But that made him more impressive as a leader because, even though the PT was no easier for him, he accepted everything in stride and refused to show any discomfort from the physical strain. With his positive attitude, he was perfect for the job and I really admired the guy.
Another guy who inspired me, but in a different way, was Pvt Trickey. He was totally average in every way except nothing ever seemed to faze him. So I would get strength from him during the bad times by simply glancing his way. No matter what was happening, his body language was always saying “You can’t break me. I can handle this”.
There was only one recruit I had never seen get roughed up by the DIs – Pvt. Terrell. He was not an original cast member of the yellow footprints but joined our platoon after the first two weeks. He sure didn’t come from the Fat Farm because he looked like a NFL linebacker; all muscles, about 6’2” and 240 lbs. His scowl never seemed to leave his face, so it was hard to tell if it was an expression or just the natural shape of his features. His behavior appeared to always be more of a reaction to what was going on around him than something he thought out. When one of the DIs once asked if anybody ever beat off at night, Pvt. Terrell raised his hand without a trace of embarrassment.
I accidentally tripped him from behind one day while we were running in the flip flops we wore to take our evening shower. He pitched forward to the ground but bounced back up like a hard rubber ball and was facing me by the time he was erect. I could see the bad intentions in his eyes and knew his reaction would be to either pull my head off or punch holes in me, so I instinctively started talking as fast as I could to distract him long enough for the platoon to sweep us forward. As I kept apologizing and asking if he was ok, he realized it was more important to get showered and back to our Quonset huts in time for the hygiene inspection than to spend more time dealing with me. Because of Pvt. Terrell’s shortcomings, I knew he wasn’t capable of escaping the wrath of the DIs unless they were cutting him some slack. So he must have been an exception – someone the DIs thought would make a hell of a Marine as long as they kept their distance.
It was also during the quiet times that I would hear the stories of why the others had joined the Marine Corps. For a few, it was an alternative sentence offered by the judge: go to jail or go into the Marine Corps. For others, it was a reaction to something gone wrong in their lives, like breaking up with their girlfriends. But for almost everybody, boot camp was not what they expected and most said they would not have joined if they had known what they were getting into. Then I realized why we couldn’t anticipate what we had signed up for. Feeling imprisoned like we were was totally alien to anything we had experienced in civilian life and the only way to understand this life was to live it.
By week six, it felt like we never got enough sleep. Whenever there was a quiet moment, I would crave it. The thought of being able to sleep late into the morning was my idea of heaven. I tried closing my eyes once when Sgt. Minnifield turned around to write on the blackboard and then open them when he faced us again. It didn’t work. A few of us got caught dozing in that class and were told to report to him when we got back to our area. We took our punishment and then all gathered inside a Quonset hut for another lecture after noon chow. I was sitting at the opposite end of the building from Sgt Minnifield and immediately began to get drowsy again. To stay awake, I reminded myself that I‘d be killed if caught sleeping twice in the same day. But I still could not keep my eyes open. Then I heard Sgt. Minnifield shout, “Stand up maggot!” I opened my eyes and saw him looking toward me. I was so stunned, I couldn’t move. I knew that standing up would be the beginning of the end. When he repeated the order, Pvt. Sutton sitting next to me stood up before I could react. My mind was racing; had Pvt. Sutton been sleeping too and got caught or was Sgt. Minnifield pointing at me? I stayed put and Sgt. Minnifield barked, “Report to me after class!” Private Sutton said, “Sir, yes sir.” and sat back down. When Sgt. Minnifield returned to his lecture, my heart and breathing finally started up again.
I felt like we were getting down to some serious work when we began hand-to-hand combat training. We paired off with a partner to practice blows and moves taught by special instructors. Fighting with bare hands or a rifle and bayonet reminded me of medieval warfare. I dreaded having to use these skills in Viet Nam, but if not there maybe they would come in handy someday in a dark alley. I tried to execute the blows and moves without seriously injuring my partner, who would get his chance at me when the roles were reversed. So defeating our partner probably deluded us into feeling more capable than we really were.
The biggest difference between what we were learning and street fighting was the emphasis on dirty fighting. We learned several ways to attack the groin. Why not? I doubted there would be a referee in the battlefield to take points away for low blows. My favorite move was the choke hold because there is no escaping it; the victim goes to sleep temporarily within seconds and permanently within a minute.
After learning the kicking, punching and choking moves, we used pugil sticks with heavy pads on each end to simulate fighting with a rifle and bayonet. We finished this training with a tournament to determine our company pugil stick champion. The winner was about my height and build. I decided to use that fact as inspiration, even though I was eliminated in the first round.
A couple of Privates near the back of the platoon were caught scuffling one day while we were marching back from chow. Sgt Parrish saw them and when we got back to our area, he had them fight inside a circle we formed around them. The rules were no punching to the face and continue fighting until Sgt Parrish said to stop. After several minutes of thrashing around in the dirt, one Private began to lose and was taking quite a pummeling before it was stopped. I thought the first fight was a fair way to resolve the scuffle. But Sgt Parrish then asked for a volunteer to fight the winner. Several Privates were eager to be the next gladiator but the original winner prevailed again; barely this time. Smelling blood, several more Privates volunteered for the third round. I didn’t like the vicious look of eager anticipation in their eyes. The next round would not be a fair fight. This time the previous winner was so tired that he could barely defend himself and got thrashed unmercifully before Sgt. Parrish called it off. I wasn’t sure if the spectacle was for Sgt. Parish’s entertainment or to teach us a lesson, but there was never any more scuffling.
I now realized that none of what we were going through was causing us any permanent harm. We always recovered quickly and I was actually in the best shape of my life. So the fear of getting knocked around and pain of the PT was losing some of its power over us as we toughened up.
We finally all became good at marching. In a competition with the other platoons, we placed second and our DIs seemed genuinely pleased for once. One time, while we were marching the length of the parade deck, we managed to synchronize our tempo so well that it sounded like only two giant feet hitting the ground.
After a successful running of the obstacle course, we were standing in formation ready to march off to our next activity when Sgt. Minnifield asked us if we would like to call home. We all replied with a hearty, “Sir, yes Sir!”
Sgt. Minnifield said he couldn’t hear us so we revved up our enthusiasm and volume and again shouted “Sir, yes sir!”
“I still can’t hear you!”
“Sir, yes sir!” we blared at a full volume.
After whipping us into a frenzy, Sgt. Minnifield said “Ok, you can call home……now face home.” We all turned to face in different directions and began calling “Home… Hoome… Hooomme.” Instead of performing as one, we were like a bunch of seals all barking at different times. Soon the calls were mixed with laughter, the first humor we had experienced since beginning boot camp. The tension released by this comic relief catapulted our spirits but then we had to quickly march off to our next activity.
The next day, we really did get to call home. Coincidently, the night before I had dreamed that one of my brothers had joined the Marine Corps and would be going through boot camp. I felt terrible for him and thought that one Marine in our family was enough. So when my brother answered the phone, I told him about my dream and tried to discourage him from joining without going into too many details. My brother said that he had just talked to our aunt, who told him she was going to send me cookies. I almost panicked knowing I’d have to eat them all at once, right after chow and covered with hot sauce. I asked him if he knew whether she had already sent them. He said he didn’t know, so I told him to call her immediately and tell her not to. Mail call for the next couple of weeks was an anxious time but they never arrived.
For the last couple weeks, we were bussed north to the rifle range at Camp Pendleton for our rifle training. Before firing our M-14’s, we went through a process called “snapping in”. This required learning the four different positions for shooting: standing, kneeling, sitting, and prone without actually firing the rifle. Prone was the tough one because of the position required for our left arm. We had to stretch the muscles in the left arm to attain the proper form. There was no time for slow stretching though - the DIs would speed up the process by pushing our elbow underneath the rifle then pushing down from above to bend the left arm into position. It was so painful I was sure some arms would break, but that never happened.
During practice, I became very accurate shooting from each position and because of my competitive nature, tried to score as high as possible during the qualifying round. I lost focus briefly though while shooting from the kneeling position and missed qualifying for the highest level of Expert by two points. At first I was disappointed but later was glad to only be a Sharpshooter because Experts had a greater chance of becoming snipers or going into the infantry.
During our last week Sgt. Minnifield had some final words of advice about life after boot camp. “Half of you will be dead a year from now, so learn everything you can during your four weeks of infantry training.”
My first reaction was to do some quick math to test his claim. I knew that about 200 Americans were dying every week in Viet Nam and most were Marines. So based on the number of recruits who were entering boot camp every week, he could be right. The possibility that he may have been exaggerating didn’t change the impact of what he said though. His statement suddenly made me realize that the odds of getting killed were probably much higher than I thought. It was a big-time wake up call. Until then, I had been so confident of getting an office job that I had volunteered for the Marine Corps rather than be drafted into the Army. But maybe the recruiter was blowing smoke up my ass and maybe I had flunked the typing test we took our first week in boot camp? I imagined myself in Viet Nam and in ending up in one of the “Time” magazine pictures of that week’s body count. There was no turning back though; so I refused to think about it anymore and simply pushed those thoughts out of my mind.
A couple days later, we learned our Military Occupational Specialty and where we would be stationed after boot camp and four weeks of infantry training. Names were called one by one to announce our fate. Most were going into the infantry and then to Viet Nam. I later realized that my entire future would largely be decided that day. But the innocence that allowed me to voluntarily enlist in the Marine Corps now helped in keeping me from fully appreciating the magnitude of that moment. My MOS was 0141, Personnel Administration Clerk. The recruiter was right about my education and typing skills keeping me out of the infantry. But I also got lucky; after infantry training and two weeks in the classroom, I would join an artillery battalion and be stationed at Camp Pendleton, Ca. for the remainder of my enlistment. Hearing that gave me a serene feeling of relief that would kick-in again whenever I recalled that moment.
Infantry training was at Camp Pendleton, not far from the rifle range. It was mostly learning how to shoot all the other weapons. One of our troop leaders was Sgt. Kenoyer, a real free spirit. He looked like he had been an All American boy in his prior life – blond, athletic, brash, possibly the quarterback of his high school football team. He would seek out the fastest Marine from every platoon and challenge them to a foot race that he always won. Our company of 320 new Marines would occasionally be assembled as one unit, seemingly at the whim of the troop leaders. At one of those formations, Sgt Kenoyer asked for the Four Tops to come up and sing him happy birthday. Nobody moved. So he shouted “I better see the Four Fucking Tops up here next to me in 30 seconds or they’ll be hell to pay!” So four black guys, who obviously didn’t know each other because they came from different platoons, wandered up one at a time and gathered next to Sgt Kenoyer. They took just a moment to discuss their performance and then sang a soulful rendition that sounded like they had been singing together for years.
It seemed our camp was Sgt Kenoyer’s playground, his own reward for the time he had spent in Viet Nam. He told us that when he was on leave after returning from Viet Nam, he and a friend corralled two civilians in an alley of his home town. They made them do pushups and squat thrusts in their business suits. I laughed at the image of that and understood completely. He was entitled to that much harmless fun.
Writing my first story was a difficult but rewarding process. When I began, all I knew was that I felt compelled to write it. I had talked about boot camp a great deal over the years but it was only through the writing that I could relive the entire experience in sufficient detail to flush out and deal with the lingering issue of the violence.
Although it was a very long time ago, boot camp was such an intense experience that the memories came back to me in vivid detail. My first goal for the story was simply to tell what happened, to satisfy my desire to “get it out”, and to make it as real as possible for the reader. About half way through the writing though I heard a radio program about a youth counselor who believed gang violence was perpetuated because people who are treated violently then feel entitled to treat others the same way. I thought “Yes, that’s exactly what I experienced in boot camp.” and decided to make his theory a theme of my story. There was a definite feeling that the rough treatment we endured in boot camp then gave us the right to act the same way. It was like having a license to carry on the violence. That license coupled with knowing how effective force can be made it an easy option for resolving conflict throughout my two year enlistment. A certain amount of that aggressive behavior was commonplace in the Marine Corps, but it carried over into my civilian life where it is less socially acceptable or even illegal.
Fortunately, the times I have used aggressive tactics in civilian life have all ended well. That tended to reinforce that behavior but I’ve always worried about a situation arising that would spin out of control and lead to a bad outcome. This created a tension between trying to live by the civilian rules and continuing to handle conflict the Marine Corps way. Writing this story has helped me to confront this dilemma of which rules to live by.
I decided there are no absolute rules of right and wrong for moral behavior. The rules are whatever work best in a particular culture. The Marine Corps rules are what work best for it to function well, but they don’t apply in the civilian world and vice versa. It was time to let go of that sense of entitlement and live exclusively by civilian rules. But, if violence is learned it is hard to unlearn. Trying to do a small part toward living in a more civilized world has helped me to change. And with that has come a sense of relief and peace.