“Mrs. Winters, your son is standing on the corner singing…and he’s naked!”
That’s what the neighbor at our South Ozone Park door told my mom when I was a tot. My mom looked down 147th street to where the neighbor was pointing and there I was with nothing on but two smiles, one on face, one on bottom. I was waving my tiny flag and singing, “God Bless America” to all the passing cars and pedestrians. I was always a patriot it appears, and proud to show it, and to show other things as well, it seems.
I was also a bit of an adventurer. I actually recall the my first day at St. Clement’s Parochial School in Ozone Park, Queens. The first thing Sister Mary Virginette did was to take our class down the steps to the school basement to visit the boys and girls rooms. On the landing before the basement we passed the very doors we had used to enter that fine school. As we did so I stepped out of line, and pulled off my great escape. I went out those doors and strode the six blocks back to my home. Apparently the curriculum didn’t suit me. My mom was astonished to see her son whom she had just deposited at the school back home so very early. But not as astonished as Sr. Mary Virginette who had gone down to the basement with a class of thirty only to return with a class of 29.
So it followed that my yearbook, class of ’59 at John Adams High School would say beneath it:
High School Yearbook:
U.S. Marine Corps.
I didn’t really make the move right away toward that Corps plunge. (I’ve noticed, “not really making the move right away” is a pattern I repeated my entire life.) But one day, that July, one of my friends called me up to say he and another friend were thinking of joining the Corps and would I like to go with them. The Corps had this buddy program at that time, where you could join and train with friends. I said, “Sure.” Wow! The Marine Corps was all about buddies, that’s great, I thought.
So, down we went to the Courthouse in Jamaica, Queens to hear the sharp, spit-shined, Marine Recruiter tell us about the finest fighting force in the entire world. We were raring to go. But as it turned out both friends couldn’t make the cut, one for medical reasons, the other for failing a background check. I was the only one who could join.
Now, I could have bailed out as the buddy plan was not working out as described for me and my buddies, or I could still join, solo. I joined. I went down to 346 Broadway in Manhattan and was sworn in for a four year enlistment as a United States Marine.
But, you’re not really a Marine and would not be called a Marine, until you graduate boot camp, and until you do…you are a “maggot”. Boot camp on the East coast of the U.S.A. means Parris Island (PI) SC.
The Corps had been more careful in their training practices in the late 50s due to a highly publicized event in 1956 in which six recruits drowned in a night march through the swamps surrounding P I. The Drill Instructor, (DI) involved was found guilty of several charges at his courts martial but the deaths caused changes in tactics and intense scrutiny of same.
Parris Island was still tough though, necessarily so. Its thirteen week course of training was needed to provide the basic tools for functioning as a Marine throughout your service. But it also prepared you for life’s later trials: marriage, the IRS, the DMV and Condo Boards of Managers.
The training was close-order drilling on the parade field, physical conditioning, firearms training, field training, bayonet and hand to hand combat, but above all, discipline.
The DI’s in their cool Campaign covers, (hats) were quite proficient in drilling-in said discipline.
Pvt. Winters being instructed on rifle sling use by DI Sgt. Hildebrand.
(Credit, Albert Love ent.)
Of course there were many routine violations of your personal spaces or comfort zones, as seen in movies, like barking into your ears, nose or eyeballs.
(Credit, Albert Love ent.)
And making you perform physical exertions well beyond your capacity; having you stand at attention in your socks till your feet screamed for amputation.
But they liked to be creative too, even competitively so among other DIs, each in their pursuit of a well disciplined platoon of recruits. For instance we weren’t allowed to have any candy, ice cream, gum or soda, of course and one day a recruit received a stick of gum concealed in a letter from his girlfriend. It was discovered by the DIs. Now, the recruit was allowed to chew and enjoy that minty delight but only after it was first rolled in the palms of all 75 recruits in the Platoon. Talk about doubling your flavor!
One day a recruit was having difficulty of even having the courage to TRY to learn to swim. He was summarily tossed into the pool by a DI. Then, in drowning-panic, the recruit promptly pooped in the pool, climbed out, ran out of the pool area across the field and into the woods. He was pursued and captured by a DI and returned to the scene of the crime. He wasn’t disciplined for the event because something like that really never could have happened to the him. He was later dropped from the platoon for other reasons, “eyeballing”, moving his eyes from straight-ahead to the side, while standing at attention. Never saw him again.
No matter what befell you at Parris Island the most feared punishment was being set back. Being set back meant you had to leave the original platoon you started with and go to a platoon behind you. Sometimes, before that transfer, you’d get sent to a Conditioning or Motivational Platoon whose purpose was to get you trimmed down in weight or built up in muscle or to just get you more motivated. Then you’d be assigned to a different platoon that was scheduled to graduate a week or weeks later than your original platoon. You’d be spending a lot more time on beautiful Parris Island.
Out of the 75 original recruits that I started with only 24 of us were there to the end and graduated on time; the rest were left back for later graduations. That wasn’t about to happen to me…I was damned sure of that.
But one memorable day while marching on the parade field a sand flea was causing unbearable discomfort inside my ear. Of course it’s well known, even outside the Corps, that a sand flea is allowed to eat as much of you as he’d like…without threat of harassment by his host. But this day I took the chance. I thought the DI wasn’t able to see me as we marched so I took a really fast swat at the beast in my ear canal.
Then the brass-jacketed verbal rifle round, with my name on it, pierced that very ear: “Private Winters, FALL OUT!” The sound caused far greater agony than the original source of discomfort. I’d been busted. I fell out of the platoon and stood at attention in the sun while the rest of the platoon marched in formation. What would become of me? Would I go to the brig? Would my parents ever see their fair-haired boy again?
One recruit, who bunked on the upper bunk of mine, WAS sent to the brig for calling another recruit a racial epithet. In a marching mishap, one recruit stepped on the heel of another recruit, more than once. Words were exchanged including, “Wise up you black bastard.” The utterer of these words was subsequently marched onto the parade field while we all stood in formation. We were there to hear the offensive words read aloud from an official document and to witness the punishment.
He stood there with BRIG stenciled in white across the back of his jail garb, then he was marched off to confinement. If you think Parris Island was tough, you don’t ever want to go to a Marine Corps brig. The South still had Jim Crow “white only” mentality in large parts of it in those years, I’d seen it myself in subsequent experiences. But not in that Island of Order and Rules in the heart of the south: the U.S. Marine Corps’ Recruit Training Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina. The Corps didn’t stand for it. Your color didn’t matter, we were all one.
When I finally got back to the Squad Bay on my day of infamy, all the recruits were at the foot of their bunks. The DI called out, “Private Winters, front and center!” I marched from my bunk area to the center of the Squad Bay. The DI called out another order, “Private Henderson, front and center!” Private Henderson joined me.
The DI then went on to explain to the platoon the evils of violating of the code of discipline and how bad that was for, “these two maggots.” and all of them as well if they violated it. He ended his tirade with, “Now we all know we work together as a team in this Marine Corps, don’t we?” The entire platoon answered, “Yes sir!” So, since Private Winters and Private Henderson like to hit themselves, they will now work as a team in that endeavor.”
Then he said, “Private Winters, slap Private Henderson.” I slapped Henderson but not with zeal. “Is that as hard as you can slap, maggot?” he bellowed into the side of my head. “No sir,” I answered. Then hit him again. I hit Henderson again only harder. “Now Private Henderson you hit Private Winters.” And of course he smacks me. “Now, by the numbers until I say halt, commence slapping, NOW!”
So, there we were, first he swings then I swing, slapping the crap out of each other. Once, as the DI was strolling the Squad Bay speaking of the evils of poor discipline I slapped Henderson’s clothed chest instead of his face trying to cut the guy a break, maybe me too. Yeah, I was going to game the system, we could work something out here. It appears that I still hadn’t learned order and discipline. But the sound is way different than the sound of a smack to the cheek. The DI came roaring down the Squad Bay eyes bulging, face red with rage as he said, “By God if I hear that again I’m going to start doing the smacking and you maggots will know what a good smack is like!”
So we went about our smacking, one two, one two, smack, smack, smacking each other’s cheeks till they were a deep, deep, U.S Marine Corps scarlet. I did learn some discipline in my first months in the Corps, discipline which would serve me well in the Marines and in lie.
I did eventually graduate from Parris Island, and was finally a U.S. Marine.
Above, I returned in 2008.
I certainly don’t regret those years and I’m very grateful to have returned home safe and alive after my four year tour.
Memorable Parris Island parade grounds on my 2008 return.
But I’m even more grateful to those Marines and all military men and women who didn’t come home safely. Grateful for the service they performed for all Americans. Grateful that we may pursue our freedom, our happiness. Grateful that we may speak and worship freely. Grateful that we may tell stories such as this. Grateful that we can even stand on a corner and sing God Bless America.
I’ve been cutting back on those performances, myself.
But if you do choose to do so, it might be best to do it with some discretion in attire…you could end up with a scarlet cheek.
Since this shot was taken, I wonder, “Were any of those recruits lost to their families? Lost to us, in their service to America ?” You know, “died for country” is used so often we don’t always fully appreciate it. We need to…always.
Have a safe Memorial Day. Keep those in mind who perished for your right to have that beer and burger in glorious freedom.
God bless America.
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