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My Life in the Marines: School of Infantry

School of Infantry was a real eye opener for me. Like I said, boot camp wasn’t really that challenging, mentally or physically, but SOI was different.

After MCRD I had ten days off, most of which I spent asleep. My mom thought it would be hilarious to play reveille at six in the morning while I was asleep on the couch. She was incorrect in this belief.

I checked into SOI at Camp Pendleton California after a long bus ride back from Northern California. When you check in to SOI you don’t usually start right away because Marines are checking in all the time, but the actual class cycle is set, so you generally have to wait around for a bit. Could be days, could be weeks. No one in the Marine Corps just waits around (unless you’re an NCO) so we were put to work. I ended up pulling guard, which wasn’t too bad considering the alternative was working in the kitchen or some other non-sense.

What I was not prepared for was staying awake for extended periods of time in the middle of the night, so for the most part we were living on coffee and shockingly large amounts of No-Doz, which is really just more caffeine. I mean shocking. If you took this much caffeine you would die instantly.

Being in the guard rotation actually helped prepare me for SOI itself, because I was a bit of a mess. After three NCO’s tried to stuff me into a wall locker (I successfully fought them off) I decided I needed to get better at my uniform maintenance etc. This led to me having utilities so starched and perfect you could actually take someone’s eye out with my collar point, and boots so perfectly shined they could be considered a range safety hazard if the sun reflected off of them and into your eyes.

While I was at the guard a Corporal went down on an NJP (non-judicial punishment) for putting a switch blade beneath a Marine he was forcing to hold a wall sit. So that’s a little snapshot of life in the guard.

Finally, my class picked up for SOI, and I was off to Bravo Company. I remember a sign up that had a recreation of the image of a Marine bayonetting a German soldier at Belleua Wood with the words “Get Hard or Die.” beneath it. That was the exact moment I thought: “Oh. This is for real.”

My evolution of SOI was the first class to get shortened down from 60 days to 30 days, and as we all know, the first version of something is always perfect. We basically just ran for thirty days straight because we were late for everything. This new timeline had been some sort of theoretical construct that seemingly had not translated to reality. To make matters worse, in the Marine Corps we have a tradition of giving the heavy weapons to the smallest Marines. Not really sure what the idea is there, but I was dragging around a 249 SAW with all the ammunition and inexplicably a .50 cal barrel at least some of the time. I’m not even sure why I had the latter or where it came from.

Camp Pendleton has a lot of big hills and mountains, which only seem to go up. Pretty cool trick and I’m not sure how they pulled it off, but I swear I only ever went uphill, unless it was steep enough for me to potentially fall down, in which case some downhill hiking was allowed.

I forget how long we were in the field, but it was a decent amount of time. Most of SOI was field work, but I’m talking about going out and not coming back for a couple weeks. We did a lot of land navigation, range work and of course MOUT town. Love me some MOUT town. Military operations in urban terrain. This basically means us running around with blanks and MILES gear that never worked, shooting each other in the face. Yes, we were shooting each other in the face with blanks, sometimes on full auto via your friendly neighborhood SAW gunner. Not me, that was foolishness. Now I know that you can be killed by being shot in the face with blanks. Chalk one more up to luck.

I’ll admit, SOI was a bit of a kick in the balls for me because while I had some endurance I was not very physically strong and hauling that 249 around sucked big time. Something important that I learned there was that I was capable of a lot more than I thought I was, and I carried that through the rest of my time in the Marines and throughout my life.

Looking back on it I can’t honestly say that going 0311 (Infantry) was the best decision, because it really doesn’t have a direct and clean translation into civilian jobs. I was rejected from two police departments in the Bay Area BECAUSE I had been an 0311. I was told directly by someone within the Oakland Police that we were seen as being too aggressive. Well, I can’t say you’re wrong about that.

So yeah, maybe I should have gone into Intelligence like the recruiter wanted me to, or something else, but I don’t regret my decision. I’m glad I went through everything I did, and even though I didn’t gain any marketable skills in modern society, I could argue I gained the most marketable skill in the history of the world.

The ability to kill while keeping others from being killed.

And also cleaning. I’m amazing at cleaning.

My Life in the Marines: Let’s all go to bootcamp

Growing up I was the exact reverse of what you would expect a future Marine to look and act like. I was a loner, I focused mostly on my graphic art, writing and music, and most of the time I tipped the scales at a whopping 100 pounds. My father had been a Green Beret in Vietnam, but we never saw eye to eye, so if anything that only pushed me further away from any future in the military.

Fast forward to the post-high school era and I had secured myself a nice job at the city planning department in Sonora, California. No one seemed to notice that I had no idea what I was doing, so this made me perfect for public service. Pun intended. I was playing in a band with my friend Nick, living in the haunted hotel and working for the Man. All was good, relatively speaking.

Except for the part where I was bored out of my mind and had no idea what I was supposed to do next. I would walk down the street to grab lunch a couple of times a week, and this route always took me past the armed forces recruiting station. People always want to hear the grand story of how I joined the Marines. The years of waiting until I was old enough to march into the recruiting office, or the swelling of patriotic pride that led me to serve my country.

I literally dropped in on my lunch break and a week later I was at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. To be fair I did have some feelings about doing my part and needing to toughen up a bit, but there wasn’t much more to it than that. I requested infantry because I figured if I was going to do it I might as well go all the way. Back than in 1997 03 (infantry) slots were pretty dried up, at least in my area. There really wasn’t much going on in terms of wars etc. so the 03 field wasn’t where it is now. I know this was legit and not some BS I was being fed because I talked with a few guys out front who were pretty pissed that they couldn’t get an 03 slot. One guy had been waiting for one to open up for six months. I don’t really know why I got one, but I do know things change minute to minute. I probable just walked in to the door at the right minute. They tried pretty hard to push me to Intelligence because of my ASVAB score, but I wasn’t having it.

I popped up to MEPS (military entrance processing station) in Sacramento and went through the ringer, where I found out I was physically and medically completely unremarkable. It was a bit of a wake up call, giving me a taste of what I was in for. Just a cog in the machine, keep moving along. Hurry up and wait.

I hadn’t been on a plane in about ten years, but there I was a few days later on a plane to Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, rapidly heading to the point of no return. The reality is there are actually a bunch of ways to get out of the military in the first twelve months with no consequences, you just aren’t supposed to know about them, and for good reason. There were only a few of us on the plane coming down from the foothills of Northern California, and we were met by a Marine who unceremoniously ushered us onto a bus that was already packed with a bunch of other weirdos just like us. From there it’s a pretty short ride to MCRD, because it’s literally attached to the airport. Yes, you read that right. Hop the fence at MCRD and you’ll quickly be on the runway at San Diego Airport. We could have walked there.

By the time we reached MCRD it was nearly midnight, and these guys were waiting for us.

During this in-processing one of the most hilarious moments of my life occurred when they put me on the scale. The drill instructor looked at me and then looked at the scale again.

“Get off the scale.” So I got off the scale and he got on it, then stepped off and looked at me. “How in the hell do you weigh a hundred and fourteen pounds?!”

This recruit does not know.

That’s right sports fans. I checked in to MCRD standing five foot eight and weighing a one hundred and fourteen pounds. How is that possible you ask? It’s called being chronically malnourished. I was immediately put on double rations and was probably about two pounds away from being shipped to what’s called the Medical Rehabilitation Platoon, which would most likely have extended my boot camp stay by at least a month or two. This is where recruits go who have some kind of correctable medical issue like breaking a leg or something like that. I knew one guy who was in MRP at boot camp for a year. A. Year.

The second funniest experience was when the Drill Instructors yelled at us to take a knee. I had never played a sport in my life aside from some little league when I was like nine, so I did what anyone would do. I lifted up my leg and grabbed my knee. I was immediately smacked in the back of the head. Good times. BTW I now know what “take a knee” means.

My overall experience at Marine Corps boot camp was positive. I learned some stuff, got yelled at every waking minute of every day, and quickly got used to it. Everything in boot camp happens for a reason, and the stress level is intentional, because if you can’t handle getting yelled at without losing your cool, how are you going to handle people shooting at you?

My weight problem improved a bit and I exited around 125 pounds, which wasn’t bad.

That’s me in the front, and that is what spending your life hunched over a drafting table does to your posture. It’s better now.

The culmination of boot camp was a little anti-climactic for me. I was twenty when I entered, so I think I had a better understanding of the full journey we were on than most of the guys who were kind of living day to day. To be honest, I really wasn’t that much different when I exited from when I entered. I’d get ten days of leave and then would be checking in to the School of Infantry at Camp Pendleton CA, and that would be the experience that would change me forever.

 

I Lived in a Haunted Hotel

I know, this sounds like the title of a low-rent horror novel, but it turns out it’s just my life.

In 1997 I was still kicking around Sonora, California, working for the public works department re-zoning maps, playing in my band with my friend Nick and generally not really going much of anywhere. It would be another six months before I would walk into the recruiter’s office and join the Marines, but that’s another story.

At the time I was actually doing okay financially, at least for Sonora in ’97, but saving a few more bucks never hurt. I heard through a friend that the Fallon House hotel in neighboring Columbia California was looking for a night manager during the off season. Yeah I know, this sounds like the plot to the Shining, but it actually happened.

The Fallon House was technically two hotels in an old preserved mining town, with the main hotel (City Hotel) down the street. The one pictured above was the original, with a theater below it. That’s where I lived.

The original structure was built in 1852, with several additions after that. The hotel has a history of fire and death. Stories include a lady in white walking the balconies of the theater pictured, a woman leaping from the balcony during one fire holding her baby and several other tragedies. The lady in white was reported on several occasions to have “followed” people home. One woman said that during her drive home she looked into her rear view mirror to see a woman in an old time dress sitting in her back seat, which resulted in her driving her car off the road. I won’t go too in-depth into all the lore, as that would be a book in itself.

Long story short, I took the gig. In exchange for responding to any guest problems in the original Fallon Hotel I got free room and board. When I originally applied, the manager made a point of making sure I understood that the hotel was haunted. One of the cleaning staff who showed me around explained that they routinely responded to complaints of strange noises, one room that was always cold even with the thermostat cranked to the max, and furniture being stacked. In at least one case every piece of furniture was stacked into a huge pile in the center of the room. I of course didn’t believe any of this.

My first night I pointed my TV antennae to the only station I could get (KTVU 2) and settled in for the night. I heard occasional footsteps in the hallway outside my door, but assumed it was the one or two off-season guests I was told may be around. This was before everyone had a cell-phone or internet, so there was really no way I would know who was in the hotel.

I went to sleep that night, but awoke around 3 in the morning because I heard foot steps walking around my bed. I swear I am not making this up. At first I thought I was dreaming so I ignored it, but then I realized I was wide awake, and the foot steps were moving in a circle around my bed. My bed was against a wall. Of course I freaked out, sat up and turned on the lights.

Nothing. No one. I did however hear quiet voices outside my door. Again, off-season guests. There was no way I was getting back to sleep, so I woke up and walked into the ice cream parlor across the hall. This is where the refrigerator was and I kept my food and drinks in there.

In the photo above you can see the ice cream parlor, and importantly the large mirrors on the wall. I was standing behind the counter getting a soda out of the refrigerator when I looked up and saw the coat rack next to the front door with an old style top hat perched atop.

The problem was that there was no coat rack next to the door. That’s when I realized there was a man standing behind me, and then his head turned to look at me. Keep in mind I was seeing all of this in the mirror. I turned around and there was nothing there, but I bolted out the front door and into the street. I stood out there in the cold for a good twenty minutes walking around trying to decide what I was going to do. Then I remembered something that the cleaning staff had said to me.

“They make a lot of noise and knock things around, but they aren’t trying to hurt anyone. You’ll get used to it.”

So I walked back inside and slowly walked back through the hotel, finding nothing. The only thing amiss was off-season guests walking around upstairs. So I went back to bed. It took a good hour but I eventually even got back to sleep.

By now you’ve probably figured out that there were no off-season guests in the hotel that night, only me. I found this out the next day.

 

 

The Fine Art of Getting Your Ass Kicked

I’m good at a few things. These are listed below, not necessarily in order of priority or importance.

  1. Getting my ass kicked.
  2. Being funny. I know because my Mom told me I’m funny, so…
  3. Writing stories.
  4. Turning a simple story or concept into an impossibly long monologue.

Remember that horrible song from Chumba Wumba? I get knocked down? The whole song went “I get knocked down but I get up again.” There was also a bunch of stuff about being an alcoholic.

The absolute worst thing that has ever happened to me in my life was spending a few years with all of these different people telling me that this was their theme song. This would have been true if the song actually went “I get knocked down… and then I walk around complaining to everyone about how I got knocked down to garner sympathy.” Bear in mind I’ve kind of had a rough life (aside from being born with movie star good looks) so that’s really saying something.

I’ve been involved in combatives for most of my life, and a big part of that is getting used to getting hit and yes, knocked down. When people think about this concept of getting knocked down and then getting back up I think it’s played out in the mind as this triumphant return and now I will be victorious! No man, it’s so that you can get knocked down again. The whole purpose of getting back up in the midst of the learning cycle is so that you can get knocked down again. Why? This is how we learn, and how one day we get knocked down slightly less. Hopefully, when it actually matters.

Being funny is the same way. Sure there are some outliers who just have “it” and never have to practice. For the rest of us it was a matter of spending years (possibly decades) being really NOT funny. You have to get in a lot of reps of being embarrassed in a very public way so that you know what works and what doesn’t on real people, versus just yourself in the mirror or your dog. Dogs are easy to make laugh because they are all Benny Hill fans. #themoreyouknow I mean you really have to take some sharp knives to the face before you figure our how to make people laugh. Even then, not everyone will get your humor, and you have to be okay with that too. Part of that process of getting repeatedly stabbed in the face by blank stares and the absence of laughter is about developing a thick skin and being okay with the reality that not everyone will like you. I’m told. Everyone likes me, so I never had to deal with that. Once again, I know because my Mom told me.

Stripped down to it’s bare bones, this concept applies to pretty much everything you do. I spent a lot of time in the Marines getting my ass kicked before I was ever allowed to give an order. Even then it probably wasn’t the best idea.

Life and learning aren’t about the glory of “getting back up”, it’s more about being okay with forever being in that learning process, and understanding the value in it. If you must insist on trying to get to a place where you stop getting your ass kicked all the time, you better make sure they bury you face up.