Sunday, October 30, 2005

Sheer Exhileration

Sheer exhilaration—ever experience it? I’m talking about being completely swept away with delight, and NOT the common garden variety of delight when you are merely unable to control a grin, or when a smile takes over your face in spite of yourself. Nope, more even than that.

I’m talking about fist pumping; I’m talking about when you scream till your voice is gone, and when you jump around like a damn bunny, and fall and roll around on the ground, and you just don’t care how stupid it looks. Ever watch a team win The World Series, or a Super Bowl? THAT’S what I’m talking about. Think about it—those episodes are more unusual than you think. Ever had even ONE moment like it?

More than 30 years ago, just three weeks after finishing high school, I left the comfort of home and subjected myself to a three-month tortuous ordeal known as United States Marine Corps basic training, also known as “boot camp.” A primary item on the marine basic training regimen is drill. Drill includes not only marching and maneuvering in step, but also the manual of arms—the painstaking handling of a rifle.

Keep in mind that every marine is required to learn how to march in precise step with all the other members of their platoon while simultaneously handling a rifle with the same precision. Remember also that a basic training platoon can include anywhere from 50 to 70 members most of whom are only 18 or 19 years old.

U.S. marines are proud of their image of looking fighting fit and sharp in their uniforms, and they are especially renowned for their ability to drill in perfect unison. Learning these marching skills is super important in the marine scheme of things, and being able to do it at least as well as your fellow platoons was an important point of honor for us.

Our honor was in serious question however, because of the four platoons in our series, Platoon 1076, of which I was a member, was most certainly the worst at drill. It seemed as if we never did anything right and our drill instructors, known as DIs, never stopped informing us scornfully that we were the most hopeless bunch of losers that had ever tried to march in step.

Our problem stemmed from just a handful of young fellows who seemed incapable of staying in step. They got flustered and turned right when the rest of us turned left, or they’d continue straight ahead as we turned together and marched to the rear. So concerned were we that these clumsy few were hurting the rest of us that we would get together during our few breaks and practice. Our primary goal was NOT to be the best platoon, but to simply not suck! Just NOT embarrassing ourselves was plenty.

After a month we didn’t see much improvement and yet our marching skills were about to be put to the test against our three other seemingly superior sister platoons. This competitive evaluation is called “initial drill,” and it’s a very big deal. The platoon that wins gets bragging rights until final drill competition just before graduation.

The dreaded day arrived, and with heavy hearts and sinking stomachs we meticulously readied our uniforms and rifles for our turn out on the huge expanse of tarmac that we called the “grinder.” Just our luck, we were the last platoon called out to perform. Our senior drill instructor, called the platoon commander, told us in a hushed voice that the other platoons had not marched perfectly, so if we really concentrated we’d have a chance to place higher than last.

With nerves like stretched piano wires, we fell in and marched to the edge of the reviewing area. Our performance began strangely enough as the DI commanded us to, “Fall out!” This means we were to break ranks and mill about in the immediate area. It sounds ridiculous, and looks it. Then he bellowed, “FALL IN!!”

In a flash we darted back to our places in the formation of 73 men, heads craned to the right, left arms straight out from the shoulder so the recruit on that side can find his interval. Keep in mind also that we had rifles; we held them at “trail arms” just below the front sights, carefully keeping the rifle butt just an inch or so above the ground just to the outside of the right heel.

Then as the men at the far right of the formation found their positions, each dropped his left arm, snapping their heads forward and causing a ripple of arms and heads to follow suit from right to left. Subtly, we shuffled our feet in tiny increments to perform the function of “cover” that places each man directly behind the fellow to his front. This process of “falling in” takes no more than ten seconds, even less for an experienced platoon. We did it in seven as we lowered our rifle butts to the ground.

That was just the start of our drill performance as command followed command: “Count off!” “Open Ranks—March!” “Right Shoulder Arms!” “Left—Face!” “Right—Face!” “Port Arms!” “Left Shoulder Arms!” “Inspection Arms!” “By the Right Flank—March!” and on and on.

It sounds more complicated in the telling than it actually is, but to perform the manual of arms with the desired precision and in near perfect unison takes hundreds of hours of practice. To get an idea of the extent of the scores of commands and what is required to learn and perform them all properly, take a look at this site: You might have to copy and paste it to make it work.

As we followed our drill instructor’s staccato orders, we strained to do our best marching ever, carefully listening to every command while complying with each required motion, and even more importantly, to do all this as ONE. I can honestly say that I have never concentrated on doing anything like I did that day, except for when we had to do it again two months later at the final drill comp. We were finished in no more than 20 minutes, but a lot of commands, marching, and rifle handling can take place in a very short time when a DI barks out orders one after another.

When we finally finished, our relief was palpable. We realized that we hadn’t screwed up and for the moment that was enough. We marched back to our squad bay and quietly waited to find out the results. After a half-hour, our platoon commander called us to the open area near the entrance called “the classroom.” In a subdued mood we assembled, sitting cross-legged on the floor, expectantly waiting for him to tell us exactly how poorly we had done as compared to the other three platoons.

“Well, you maggots didn’t come in last,” he said in an emotionless monotone. As a group we unwound and allowed ourselves a half smile. “Nope, you girls didn’t come in last—YOU WON! Congratulations!”

Immediately we erupted into a chorus of screams and cheers like I have never been a part of before or since. Our happiness was boundless. We jumped on top of one another, slapped each other on the back, and yelled ourselves hoarse, exactly like I described at the beginning of this story. We hadn’t won the Super Bowl, but we knew what it would feel like if we did.

We thrilled to the knowledge that all our hard work had come to fruition. We never dreamed that we could win and that made our unexpected victory even sweeter. I’ve never felt that level of joy again, not at the birth of my children (sorry kids!), not when I got married (twice), not ever. I suppose it’s like losing your virginity—once it’s gone it’s gone—it cannot be recaptured!


PhilippinesPhil said...

My memory, like anyone's, tends to be selective. I have to prompt it a bit to make the less poignant details emerge. And of course the point of the story is that moments of "Sheer Delight" are few and far between, so naturally when they DO occur, they form memories not easily erased.

I'm going to check your site to see if you've written anything lately. I hope so!

Anonymous said...


July 76 right? I'm reading this - thinking wow, thats just was just like us...and when you wrote platoon 1076. Wow. Originally we started with GySgt Pressler, and Sgt Campagna and then Sgt Detzel showed up. Then GySgt Pressler left, Sgt Detzel became SSgt Detzel and we picked up Sgt Hobbs.

Wow and Thanks!

Thomas Leno Platoon 1076, The Spirit of 76.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Hi Tom. Always great hearing from a fellow marine. No, I was in 1076 exactly one year before you, in 1975; but the interesting thing about marine boot camp is that the experience of it is timeless. All marines go through it, and the fact that ours is the toughest makes us the proudest, and of course, the best! AUUUUraHHH! Take care Tom and Semper Fi!

Anonymous said...

I was there. Staff Sergeant Trevino was our Sr. DI. It was a solid moment to operate as one. I tell the story often.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Awesome! Glad you found the story. Hope life has treated you well since those long ago days. Semper Fi.