Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Letters from Bootcamp, Installment II

My 31 year-old letters have told me a few things about me:
1) I write now much as I wrote then, and THAT I find very surprising. I thought for sure I had progressed and evolved over the years.
2) I was obsessed with the family garden. I remember how fond I was of working in the dirt, but come on!
3) I did a very good job of NOT writing how difficult the experience actually was for me, because it was. When you read the letters the fact that it was an ORDEAL does not shine through at all.
July 4, 1975 – Dear Mom, Dad, Mary Kay, Kevin and Gail:
It looks like I’ll have time to write a letter just about everyday as long as I’ve got stamps. The platoon gets about ½ hour a night for letter writing.

Our drilling is coming along but about 15 people in our platoon of 85 have got everything messed up. So far I haven’t crossed any of our drill instructors or the platoon commander who more or less tells the DI’s what to do, otherwise there’s no difference.

This morning we had our initial physical fitness (PFT) which was to determine what physical shape we are in. We did pull-ups, sit-ups, and the mile run. I did 12 pull-ups (bad), 79 sit-ups in two minutes and ran the mile in 5:10 with my combat boots on. That placed 4 out of 170 privates out of 2 platoons.

How’s everything at home? Any new developments on the home front? Make sure you show those pictures of Kevin Raquepaw on the bike to him. If they turned out all right and aren’t lost, I want to see them too. Did you all go to see the fireworks tonight? What did you do for the holiday? Write soon. So far I haven’t got any of your letters. Did you ever get my clothes back in that poorly sealed box? I told you about that earlier.
Love, Phil
(In this letter, I mention my concern about how poorly the platoon is doing with it's drill. The DIs constantly hounded us that if we didn't get it together that we would end up having to "recycle," the dreaded recycle! It will be interesting to see how this progresses; if you haven't read it, last year I posted my memories of the day we competed in drill against our sister platoons--it was a pretty stirring event.
Notice I'm STILL obsessing over those stupid clothes? Sheesh! What a worry wart I was. Am I still like that?)
5 July 1975 – Dear Mom and Dad and Mary Kay and Kevin and Gail:
I’ve been here for one week and one day and we still haven’t started our 11 weeks training yet. As I said before, it’ll start sometime next week, probably Tuesday or little after. Meanwhile, we’ve been getting our gear squared away and drilling. If we don’t pass our initial drill it could hold the platoon back a couple weeks.

Kevin, are you running every day for cross-country? If you’re not, let’s get going. How’s Gail’s softball team doing so far? Is Mary Kay still running around with Terry, has she learned how to drive the Pacer yet?

Don’t ask me yet how I like being here, I DON’T too much. We’re not supposed to. If we’re caught smiling, we have to do push-ups or bends & thrusts. One weird thing about boot camp is you can’t say “I” or “mine” or “his” or “yours” or “you.” If you say “I” the DI asks you: “which “eye?”” If you say “you,” he really gets mad for calling him a female sheep!

Anybody back there, if you get a chance, would you please pull the Queen Anne’s Lace, dandelions and horsetails and other weeds out of my woods garden?

When you send a letter to me (and soon!), please put a couple of eyeglass rubber bands in the envelope. My glasses keep falling down my nose and it won’t be for a couple weeks yet before we get issued new ones. Don’t send any packages, just plenty of letters.

Dad, did you have to negate “I” “mine” or “his” or “you” from your vocabulary when you were stationed at Lackland? That is the one tumble stone that most everyone falls over here, as I said before. So far I haven’t done it too much, being as I don’t say too much here.
I’ve only got 10 envelopes left, so I hope they let us go the PX pretty soon.
Write soon. Love, Phil
(A few weeks before I left home, my dad bought an AMC Pacer. For you old-timers, remember that? It was the bubble car, or gold fish bowl on wheels. It was a standard transmission, 3 on the column. My mom took me out on a warm spring day to give me some practise driving a "stick" and danged if I didn't stall it right on top of railroad crossing. Just like in the movies we could hear and see a train coming! It took me an extra second or two to get it to fire up and then I stalled it again in my nervousness. No problem, we got out, pushed it off the tracks and it started right up. I ended up buying that car three years later when I came back married from Africa and then took it all the way to Japan after I joined the Air Force, and that's where I junked it in 1984.
Marine DIs then and still do, insist that recruits in training NOT say I or we or you. The tradition is to retool a private's brain to say, "The private requests permission to speak sir!" We ALWAYS had to speak in the third person, and THAT was very difficult to remember during the stress of that time. Imagine trying to think to say, "Sir, the private requests permission to enter the drill instructor's duty hut, sir!" Instead of saying it naturally, "Sir, may I enter your quarters?" Oh, and we never said the word "YOU" to a DI...! Oh my Lord, no! He would poke you in the chest while you stood quivering at attention and ask with a perfectly straight face, "Private, who are you calling a EWE?!" After which, the private would be treated to a spate of sweat inducing calisthenics. One of my personal favorites was when we got caught using the pronoun "we," which would draw the inevitable, "Private, do you have a MOUSE in your pocket?!")
July 6, 1975– Dear Dad, Mom, Mary Kay, Kevin & Gail:
I’m writing more than you thought I would, right? Today was P-6 or processing day 6. I don’t know why they call it processing though, we’re through with that. We’ve gotten all our initial shots, eye tests, physical exams and knowledge assessments. So far we’ve been preparing our inspection boots, brass and utilities and we’ve been drilling. Our drilling is terrible. Can you remember how long it took your platoon, or what ever you called it (in the Air Force), to get their drilling together Dad? So far, we look hopeless.

In my last letter I wrote that I could use some eyeglass tighteners (the small rubber bands). If you could, send a pair in your next letter. Try to put them in the envelope so they can’t be felt, otherwise the platoon commander might confiscate them. Oh yes, I have another request, some sandpaper, a piece about 6”x7” or whatever size you can find. I need it for sanding my brass. The type of sandpaper should be 600 particles per sq. in. It’s a dark color.

The last letter I wrote, as I was dropping it in the mailbox I noticed it wasn’t sealed. Before I could stop myself, I dropped it in the slot. I’m not sure if it will reach you. Write & tell me if it did. It was dated July 5.

Did you people go and see a fireworks display on the 4th? What did you do? I could see a display about 6 or 7 miles away from my bunk (I have the top). Are you sending letters or not? So far, I haven’t received a single one, if you have.

How is our corn doing? Does it have any tassel on it yet? How are the cucumbers and the melons? In your next letter, (who ever decides to write one) give me a detailed description of it so far. I really miss lush Michigan foliage. All you see around here is palm trees and other alien dry looking growth.

Believe it or not, the weather’s not real hot here. The sun beats down, but there’s always a pretty stiff breeze from the ocean. I’ve only seen the ocean once and that was from the airplane. (Speaking of which,) on my trip here, we passed over the Grand Canyon. I couldn’t believe the size of it. I wasn’t too impressed by Los Angeles. It’s big, sprawling and not too cool for my tastes. It’s nothing but house after house with highways in between. Really ugly, from the air anyway.
In my first letter, I said write only once a week. Belay that—write as much as you wish.
Love to everyone. Phil
(My eyeglasses were a constant source of worry and torment for me. We spent a huge percentage of our day throwing ourselves to the ground either in doing push-ups or just because we were told to. We sweated continuously and that sweat would drip onto my lenses and become smeared and dirty. My glasses began to slip down the bridge of my nose and I could only push them back up with permission or I'd have to wait until we were out of the position of attention or parade rest, which is where we spent MOST of our time in. Those glasses made my life almost as miserable as those damned DI's did.)
July 7, 1975– Dear Mom, Dad, and family:
Well, I tried to call you today, but…(cont. July 7 tomorrow)…Belay that—we just got an extra half hour of free time; the drill instructor made us prepare to hit the rack a half-hour early just now. He just realized his mistake. I’m trying to explain the parentheses above. Oh well. Anyway, I tried to call you, but I just couldn’t get through. I won’t get another chance now for more than 2 months. I think the phone booth I was in was out of order. I’ll just keep writing plenty of letters.
This is about the 6th or 7th letter I’ve written and I still haven’t got a single one from you guys. We’ve only had one mail call so far, so I guess that explains the lack of them. I know you’re writing them, I just haven’t received them yet. Right!
When or if you receive my clothes, you’ll find that my underwear, socks & shoes are missing. They made us keep those items in our footlocker.

When you write those letters, make sure you answer all my questions I’ve asked in all my letters I’ve written, okay? Dad, are you still disappointed in the Pacer? By now it seems like the gas mileage should have improved. What is it now?

Tomorrow, Tuesday, is the day we hit the dust in the pit. That’s where we get our first real workout. I can’t wait, till afterwards that is.
How are the berries doing? Are the raspberries coming in yet? Freeze me a few quarts if you get any extra. I want to know how every plant and tree in the garden and yard is doing. Did the peaches stay on the tree?
Time to hit the rack. The call for retreat just played a few minutes ago. Remember to write. Love, Phil
P.S. Say hi to Grandma Haley and Grandma Spear for me.
P.S.S. I’ve included my copy of my insurance policy for safekeeping in your hands.
(Notice that I'm already slowly but surely picking up "Marine Speak?" For instance, in this letter I now call my bunk a rack; and twice now I've told my family to "belay that," which means "never mind, there are now new orders to contend with."
I remember the desperation I felt when I tried to call home from that phone booth. Truth is, I had NEVER used a phone booth before and didn't know how to do it. Plus, I was totally flustered because we were being screamed at that we only had time to talk for 5 minutes. The letter doesn't betray how totally upset I was over having lost my chance to speak to my family.

"The Pit!" What a horrible place. It was a place of deep powdery sand where we would sometimes take our rifles to. They tortured us in that hellish place. It went like this, "Get on your bellies! Get on your back! Get on your face! Get on your side! Get on your back! belly! back! face! side! belly! back! side! face! belly! back! side! face!.... and it would go on interminably. We sweated until we were soaked, and being wet through and through, that soft brown sand covered us from head to foot until we no longer recognized each other. And worse, if it could get much worse, was when we took our rifles into the pit, because they would be totally saturated with that powdery nasty stuff; and that meant hours of cleaning. The guys who came up with idea of "The Pit," what a bunch of ogres!)

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