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Wednesday Writing Prompt
Gladiators

by

David Larsen
appearance; so there would be no reason for volunteers like myself to back out at the last minute. Taking the oath was as easy as saying
the Pledge of Allegiance.  But the excitement of my future adventure was replaced by a somber mood when the Sgt ordered us out of the
room, down the stairs and out of the building.

After we emptied onto the sidewalk, another recruit pointed out the Superman building, home of the Daily Planet newspaper in the old TV
show. It was a welcome distraction because it lightened the mood as we got on the bus.
Passing through the gates of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot was an easy transition onto the base because the Spanish style of the
buildings had the look of just another San Diego neighborhood. With such beautiful grounds and so few people, the place looked almost
serene. Then the bus stopped, the door opened, and a drill instructor ran up the steps yelling “I want every swinging dick standing outside
on those yellow footprints in 30 seconds!”

“Move! Move! Move!” shouted the DI. He had gained control like the police do in a raid when they storm into a room without warning. We
swarmed out of the bus and arranged ourselves on the eighty sets of yellow footprints painted on the asphalt – four columns of 20 recruits
each, all pointed in the same direction and standing more or less at attention.

The DIs then herded us into a nearby building for the sheep shearing – electric clippers mowed our hair down to the skin in waves of four
recruits at a time.  The loss of hair made us now look more alike than different. It was a silent ceremony, highlighted only by a pronounced
smell of oil from the electric clippers and the growing pile of hair on the floor. After exchanging our civilian clothes for green Marine Corps
utilities, I looked around the room of eighty recruits but could no longer identify anyone I knew from the bus ride. Everyone was now
wearing the same dark green utilities, blank but obedient expression, and bald head.

We finished packing a few essentials into our duffle bags and started marching off to our living quarters. It was almost dark near the end
of our first day and we were the only people on an ocean of asphalt.  We marched into a desolate expanse so vast that it blended into the
darkness at the horizon. Staying in step but drifting off-line, I felt a couple slaps against the side of my head. “Keep your alignment!” the DI
shouted. I was really surprised by getting slapped but shook it off.

When we arrived at our Quonset huts, I glanced around at the other recruits who were standing at attention and thought they were overly
intimidated. I considered myself mentally stronger though and was determined not to let the DIs get to me. To demonstrate my courage, I
dropped the duffle bag off my shoulder to the ground. But my resolve was ambushed when I got walloped twice to the back of my head.
The DI had come up from my blind side and hit me much harder this time as he yelled in my ear, “Who told you to drop your duffle bag,
maggot?” I remembered that the first word out of my mouth was always “Sir”. So I bellowed, “Sir, nobody, sir”. This second encounter with
the DI really jolted me.

In our isolated quarters, the DI’s had turned up the heat. I was so stunned by the force of the blows that before I could think about it, I was
overcome by the same fear I saw in the other faces and had joined the fold. As one DI showed us how to make up our racks, the other
strolled around correcting various offenses, always with a slap or two to the head.

The next morning we got up when the reveille bugle sounded, dressed, made up our racks and fell into formation on the asphalt;
suspiciously without anybody getting roughed up. Two DIs brought us into a Quonset hut and introduced themselves. Our platoon
commander was Gunnery Sgt. Bush. He was the older of the two, lean with a dark tan and a fatherly air. He looked experienced in this
role; years of the Marine Corps were visible in the extra lines on his face. He talked to us in a conversational manner for the first time, as
though he was trying to connect and establish a rapport. Maybe the rough stuff was behind us now? I liked Gunnery Sgt. Bush ok.

Sgt. Minnifield was more robust and looked very serious about his mission of transforming us into Marines. His face was uncomplicated,
from a simple black and white world and had the solemn, threatening gaze of an executioner. They both wore Smokey the Bear style
covers and in contrast to our rumpled appearance, their utilities were without a single wrinkle, perfectly creased and their black boots had
the deep shine of obsidian.

Gunnery Sgt. Bush explained the program to us. The primary purpose of boot camp was to teach us discipline, defined as instant
obedience to orders. The Marine Corps had rules against the DIs striking recruits and limits on the amount of PT we could do. But they
could not give us the training we needed to fight in Viet Nam by following the rules. He looked like he had been to Viet Nam and I got the
feeling he had our best interests at heart.

“If you screw up, there are no excuses; we will kick your ass,” said Gunnery Sgt. Bush. “Is there anybody who disagrees with what I just
said?”

Of course, nobody raised their hand. He asked us not to talk about the tough parts of boot camp in our letters home because it would just
make our families worry, as though he was saying, “I hope you’re man enough to get through this without crying to your mother.” Stretching
the rules to increase our chances for survival in Viet Nam seemed like a fair trade. So I bought-in to Gunnery Sgt Bush’s program.

A couple days later, we met our third drill instructor, Sgt. Parrish. He was only about 5’ 6” with a wiry build. His face narrowed to a pointed
chin that thrust forward baring his lower teeth like a bulldog. The way his ears stood out added to his comic appearance and he wore his
cover tilted forward, apparently an attempt to make himself look more menacing.

We were in the process of learning a new marching maneuver when he became disgusted with our performance and shouted, “Platoon
halt! Face half-right!” This confused us for a moment because we had never heard of that maneuver. But we all shuffled 45 degrees to the
right. This would give us more room for doing PT. “Give me 30 squat thrusts! Ready begin!” he commanded.

In unison, we called out: “One” as we did a full squat and put our hands on the ground between our feet;
“Two,” we kicked our feet out behind us into the push up position;
“Three,” we brought our feet back next to our hands,
“One sir,” for the number of completed squat thrusts as we stood up again.

Sgt. Parrish stopped us before we reached 30 because someone had fallen behind, and then told us to thank the straggler before starting
over again. Squat thrusts are not as hard as doing pushups, but that is the diabolical thing about them – no matter how tired you are, you
can always do one more.

After one hundred, I felt totally exhausted and thought we must be near the end. Two hundred is more than anybody would ever do without
a DI standing over them. At three hundred, I felt like I weighed five hundred pounds and was beyond agony. The unrelenting pain radiating
throughout my body would subside with the hope of stopping after 30 repetitions and then kick-in at a higher level every time we had to
start over. I had never been in a situation like this before, so the uncertainty of how long it would continue was ratcheting up the mental
pain: from knowing there was no excuse for stopping and from not knowing when we would stop; all while listening to Sgt. Parrish’s tirade.
After we finally finished, my legs were so heavy each step was like pulling my feet out of deep mud. We called these sessions “squat
thrusts forever” and they were always preceded with the dreaded words “Face half-right.”  

Pvt. Bray was a big, goofy, good-natured guy, slow to learn and he struggled physically also. Consequently, he was always catching hell
from the DIs. Despite his extra hardships, he generally had a cheerful attitude and was amazingly resilient. One day Sgt Parrish took Pvt.
Bray with his bucket and shovel off for some “one on one time.” They returned about an hour later with Bray looking dirty, tired and very
scared. Parrish positioned Bray in the middle of the asphalt path with a row of us on each side.

Parrish blared “Tell the platoon what Pvt. Bray did to Sgt. Parrish.” “Sir, Pvt. Bray tried to hit Sgt. Parrish with a shovel, sir.” That really
surprised me because Bray was such a gentle soul. And whatever his shortcomings, they were not for a lack of effort. So I questioned the
need for whatever Parrish did that caused Bray to snap and wondered again about sadistic tendencies in Parrish. He then began his
assault on Bray. Issuing reprimands as he punched and kicked him. Parrish seemed to be practicing his hand to hand combat and Bray
was the punching bag. Wham! Parrish struck Bray in the groin and then Wham! struck him in the face as he was doubling over from the
first blow. Then Parrish faked a blow to the groin and when Bray covered up, hit him in the face and then in the groin. Parrish then began
circling his target so that Bray couldn’t see half the blows coming. We had all received some of the same and usually never even winced
when another recruit was catching hell. We were more concerned with our own welfare and had turned callous. “Better him than me.” was
the attitude. But this violent attack on Bray was hard to watch. By the end, he was completely broken; physically, mentally and emotionally.
Whether it was intended or not, this spectacle was an example of what could be endured because Bray bounced back and graduated on
time with our platoon. He had an innocence about him that may have worked in his favor. Maybe, in his mind, he had done wrong and
deserved the punishment.

Two weeks into our training, we marched over to the medical building for shots and a physical exam. As we passed by the women’s
Marine Corps boot camp, I heard a woman DI shout, “I want to hear those cunts suck wind!” The medical building was run by Navy
corpsmen and when the DIs were not watching, they would slap us around and verbally taunt us. They were taking advantage of our
inability to fight back for their own amusement. By this time in our training, we had been so stripped of our self-esteem that anyone else
was viewed as a superior, so we didn’t even consider retaliating. The corpsmen knew this, of course, which was reflected in their smug
attitude.

I was incensed that the corpsmen, who never had to endure what we were going through, could get away with treating us that way. We
accepted the rough treatment by our DIs because they had earned that right by having been through boot camp, spending time in Viet
Nam and going through D.I. school, which was like boot camp all over again. They were entitled. But the corpsmen had no right. I hoped to
meet one of these guys off base after boot camp and remind him of this incident before getting my revenge.

I started out as the second person behind the squad leader when we were in marching formation. After the first squad leader got fired, I
moved up right behind the new squad leader and when he got fired, I was left standing at the front of our squad as the new leader. I was
confident of my marching ability but not in the role of being responsible for 19 other guys. One of my first duties was to march my squad to
the area where we would be standing guard duty that night. That went ok but I sensed my voice wasn’t loud enough for the role. And I think
Sgt. Minnifield thought I needed some leadership training because the next day one of the recruits in my squad ran up to me with big,
wide eyes and panted, “Sgt. Minnifield wants to see you!”

“Why, what happened?” I asked.

“I don’t know, when I knocked on Sgt. Minnifield’s door and asked to make a head call, he said ‘Tell your squad leader I want to see him.’ ”

So I ran to Sgt. Minnifield’s Quonset hut, knocked three times and barked, “Sir, Pvt. Larsen reporting as ordered, sir!”

Sgt. Minnifield ordered me to come in then calmly walked up and grabbed me by the throat with one of his huge hands, cutting off both my
air and blood supply. He held me firmly in place as he slapped me across the face several times and ordered me to teach my squad how
to properly address a DI. His hand felt like it had the weight of a car door. When he was finished, I gasped, “Sir, yes sir!” and ran back to
my squad.

I felt more like a leader after the choking and instructed my squad in my strongest voice on the right way to address a DI. Two weeks later,
I was replaced as squad leader by Pvt. Schulz. I wasn’t aware of anything I had done wrong, but I suspect I just wasn’t enough of a
badass. I wasn’t hard enough on the guys in my platoon. The shit I took from Sgt Minnified wasn’t rolling downhill to them. I thought Pvt
Schulz was better suited to the job anyway and I didn’t see much of a future in it. He seemed to relish the role and even slapped me
across the face the next day for cleaning my rifle improperly. In a sense I had failed. But I was ok with that. The recruiter had told me that I
would probably get an office job because of my education and typing skills. So I didn’t want to shine too brightly in boot camp and
increase my chances of being assigned to the infantry, of becoming a grunt. They were the guys getting killed. I knew I was rolling the dice
when I enlisted, but I didn’t want them to come up snake eyes.

During the rare quiet times, like after hitting the rack but before falling asleep or on Sunday afternoon when we polished our boots and
cleaned our rifles, I learned more about the others in our platoon. We were a very diverse group and many had belonged to street gangs,
been kicked out of school or were petty criminals in their prior life.
One former gang member casually mentioned how they did away with one of their rivals by pushing him off a roof. So it was amazing how
quickly everybody gave up their old ways when we were all ordered to stand on the yellow footprints our first day. Violence was the great
persuader; the universal language understood by everything that breathes.

A couple of Privates near the back of the platoon were caught scuffling one day while we were marching back from chow. Sgt Parrish saw
them and when we got back to our area, he had them fight inside a circle we formed around them. The rules were no punching to the face
and continue fighting until Sgt Parrish said to stop. After several minutes of thrashing around in the dirt, one Private began to lose and
was taking quite a pummeling before it was stopped. I thought the first fight was a fair way to resolve the scuffle. But Sgt Parrish then
asked for a volunteer to fight the winner. Several Privates were eager to be the next gladiator but the original winner prevailed again;
barely this time. Smelling blood, several more Privates volunteered for the third round. I didn’t like the vicious look of eager anticipation in
their eyes. The next round would not be a fair fight. This time the previous winner was so tired that he could barely defend himself and got
thrashed unmercifully before Sgt. Parrish called it off. I wasn’t sure if the spectacle was for Sgt. Parish’s entertainment or to teach us a
lesson, but there was never any more scuffling.

After we graduated from boot camp we went to four weeks of infantry training at nearby Camp Pendleton. It was mostly learning how to
shoot all the other weapons. One of our troop leaders was Sgt. Kenoyer, a real free spirit. He looked like he had been an All American
boy in his prior life – blond, athletic, brash, possibly the quarterback of his high school football team. He would seek out the fastest Marine
from every platoon and challenge them to a foot race that he always won. Our company of 320 new Marines would occasionally be
assembled as one unit, seemingly at the whim of the troop leaders. At one of those formations, Sgt Kenoyer asked for the Four Tops to
come up and sing him happy birthday. Nobody moved. So he shouted “I better see the Four Fucking Tops up here next to me in 30
seconds or they’ll be hell to pay!” So four black guys, who obviously didn’t know each other because they came from different platoons,
wandered up one at a time and gathered next to Sgt Kenoyer. They took just a moment to discuss their performance and then sang a
soulful rendition that sounded like they had been singing together for years.

It seemed our camp was Sgt Kenoyer’ s playground, his own reward for the time he had spent in Viet Nam. He told us that when he was
on leave after returning from Viet Nam, he and a friend corralled two civilians in an alley of his home town. They made them do pushups
and squat thrusts in their business suits. I laughed at the image of that and understood completely. He was entitled to that much harmless
fun.



EPILOGUE

Writing my first story was a difficult but rewarding process. When I began, all I knew was that I felt compelled to write it. I had talked about
boot camp a great deal over the years but it was only through the writing that I could relive the entire experience in sufficient detail to flush
out and deal with the lingering issue of the violence.

Although it was a very long time ago, boot camp was such an intense experience that the memories came back to me in vivid detail. My
first goal for the story was simply to tell what happened, to satisfy my desire to “get it out”, and to make it as real as possible for the
reader. About half way through the writing though I heard a radio program about a youth counselor who believed gang violence was
perpetuated because people who are treated violently then feel entitled to treat others the same way. I thought “Yes, that’s exactly what I
experienced in boot camp.” and decided to make his theory a theme of my story. There was a definite feeling that the rough treatment we
endured in boot camp then gave us the right to act the same way. It was like having a license to carry on the violence. That license
coupled with knowing how effective force can be made it an easy option for resolving conflict throughout my two year enlistment. A certain
amount of that aggressive behavior was commonplace in the Marine Corps, but it carried over into my civilian life where it is less socially
acceptable or even illegal.

Fortunately, the times I have used aggressive tactics in civilian life have all ended well.  That tended to reinforce that behavior but I’ve
always worried about a situation arising that would spin out of control and lead to a bad outcome. This created a tension between trying to
live by the civilian rules and continuing to handle conflict the Marine Corps way.  Writing this story has helped me to confront this dilemma
of which rules to live by.

I decided there are no absolute rules of right and wrong for moral behavior. The rules are whatever work best in a particular culture. The
Marine Corps rules are what work best for it to function well, but they don’t apply in the civilian world and vice versa. It was time to let go of
that sense of entitlement and live exclusively by civilian rules. But, if violence is learned it is hard to unlearn.  Trying to be a small part of
living in a more civilized world has helped me to change.  And with that has come a sense of relief and peace.


©  David Larsen

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