This past weekend I had occasion to go back to where it all started, well, at any rate where my life as a Marine began. As a resident of the greater San Diego area I am bounded by Marine and Navy bases and stations pretty much on every side, and during my years in uniform I have been fortunate to serve aboard many of them. This includes the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, where I shed my civilianhood as a petrified teenager only to return nearly two decades later as a senior officer who helped run the joint. Oddly, during the course of my career I had gone from being an inmate within the mustard colored walls of that hallowed institution to one of the metaphorical fat men behind the curtain who made the whole thing run. Upon my graduation from bootcamp I had sworn a solemn oath never to return to the wretched shores of San Diego, but like most youthful bents I disregarded it, came to my senses, and ultimately returned.
The Depot sits next to the Lindbergh Field, which is San Diego’s major airport. Any Hollywood Marine (as graduates of MCRD San Diego are known) can tell you, it is endlessly torturous to be suffering the indignancies of being a worthless recruit while watching airliner after airliner take off from a runway only a few hundred yards away- the very personification of the elusive freedom that they have sworn to defend but relinquished when they arrived at bootcamp. It was one of those planes that brought me back to the depot.
My father in law had been down for a visit, and as it was time for him to head home I took him down to the airport. With the kids in the back seat, we headed down to drop him off, and as we drove past the unmistakable architecture of the training grounds I noticed that I was running low on gas. After a few hugs and handshakes, he headed for the gate and we hit the road. Never one to pass up the chance to save a buck or two on gas, I drove over to MCRD to take advantage of the PX.
We approached the gate, and I saw no small number of teenagers no different than myself some quarter of a century ago waiting for a taxicab ride by the entrance. Each seemed accompanied by a small mountain of luggage that comes only from an all-expenses paid vacation to such an establishment; seabags (duffel bags for non-nautical types), garment and gym bags in the mottled green that matched the camoflage of their field uniform, and the ubiquitous black satchel that contained their orders and other important papers. Like a thunderclap, I was instantly transported back to when I was one of them- a young man eager to step out on an exciting journey. Just as quickly as a thunderclap passes, though, my reverie was broken by the Marine guard at the gate brought me back to reality. Suspiciously eyeing my longish hair, he offered a salute and a thoroughly professional “good morning, Sir!” as he saluted and waved me through. It was not as though my life passed before my eyes, but my psyche was twisted with the realization that I was no longer looking forward to my life as a Marine, but instead was passing the baton to those who were.
I cruised over to the gas station and filled up. My kids had been here many times before, so when I asked if they wanted to see my old workplace they eagerly agreed. Besides, I needed to get my last haircut (!), and it is seemingly apropos that the last hair that I part with in the service of my country should go into the same trashcan as my first- with the only real difference being that it is a bit more silver now, and maybe just a little less in the dustpan than when I started.
After getting my hair cut (a snappy ‘do called a “low-regulation” – indeed the “lowest low-regulation” that I could talk the barber into) we headed out to see the sights. Our first stop was that small fitness area behind the “RESTRICTED AREA” sign that marked the hallowed grounds of the Drill Instructor School. I had served as the director of the Marine Corps premier leadership school some years ago, so I invoked executive privilege and we snuck over to cavort a on the pullup and dip bars. Even though I am still a senior officer on active duty, and even though I was the director of the school, I still got chills up and down my spine as I violated the rule to stay out of the restricted area. Such is the power of the training that recruits endure on the path to become Marines; I still dreaded the thought of a drill instructor finding us where we weren’t supposed to be and taking his revenge upon such dangerous rule breakers as myself and my two rambunctious kids.
I breathed a sigh of relief as we left Drill Instructor School behind and walked up and down the arcade, which is a half-mile long open portico that is the distinctive hallmark of the base. The smells and sights crossed the chasm of time; the place looks almost unchanged despite the years that have passed since I first stepped foot onto the yellow footprints. Across the parking lot, on the parade field (or “grinder” as it is universally known), we saw a platoon of camoflage wearing recruits frozen in mid stride, surrounded by a blur of Drill Instructors in their service uniforms who seemed to be everywhere all at once. They were being evaluated on their ability to conduct Close Order Drill, or COD.
Again, the time machine between my ears kicked into overdrive and I was back on the grinder, younger, leaner, and terrified that I would make a mistake and incur the painful wrath of my Drill Instructors. With a shudder, sat on a bench and pulled my kids over.
“What are they doing?”
“What kind of guns do they have?”
“Are they your friends?”
I answered their questions (“Drilling”, “M-16 Service Rifles”‘, “we are all friends”) and watched the magic happen. It was cathartic to see the next generation of Marines being made before my eyes, and oddly enough it looked exactly as it did when I was here back in the mid ’80s. It is what makes and keeps the Marine Corps great; the tireless dedication to duty, the selfless passion to the institution, and the certainty that being a Marine is something momentous are all sparks that ignite the burning flame that lights the soul of each and every wearer of the Eagle, Globe and Anchor.
As I watched them march by, it was clear to me that the next generation was as good as mine, and that the passing of the torch ensured that it would burn bright and clear for the next year, the next decade, and indeed forever. The soul of the Marine Corps is the soul of each Marine, and it rests deep within each and every man and woman who has earned the title “Marine”. I observed a part of that soul being born, and was proud be be a witness.
To them I say good luck, but make sure to enjoy the ride. Too soon they will be sitting on a bench watching the generation that follows them march into their destiny just as I did this past weekend. Despite the hardships, the terror of combat and the boredom that accompanies standing watch in the middle of the night, I would trade places with any one of them and do it again.