On Being Out of Step
After eighteen years of butchering the ambulatory process, the Marine Corps taught me the proper way to walk. Apparently, my natural gait was an erroneous mess. No more complicated, thought-provoking predicaments. Instead, I learned to listen to the cadence, then lean back and strut.
In the rank and file of eighty other boot camp recruits, each of us clean-shaven and dressed in the uniform of the day, I was invisible and outside of myself. I chose a path of ambiguity, and merged into the middle of pack where my mistakes went largely unnoticed which, in turn, allowed me to totally tune out. My body marched around in circles on the black macadam parade deck for eight hours under the hot September sun, but my mind ran wild.
The drill instructors told us that we would be eaten by alligators should any of us dare an escape. In my head, I was out there, far out into the swamps that surrounded Parris Island, into the cat-tails and reeds, where the sand fleas breed and the cottonmouth is king. The alligators would let me pass. Drenched in sweat and driving with the cadence, I stomped across the water’s surface to freedom.
Into the fourth week, I had thoroughly convinced myself that I was indeed wholly transparent, and even came to believe that the suppers were tasty. One evening, after a meal of meatloaf and mashed potatoes, I languidly walked out of the chow hall. Tall and nourished, I stood with my hands at my hips and reveled in the splendor of the sunset—a rich crimson with high azure clouds tinged at the tips with purple. “Red sky at night,” I mused until a drill instructor interrupted me.
What are you doing, son?!? Cover your head. Now, now, now! Stand at attention!”
I obediently locked my body and tried to remove the cap from the hip pocket of my trousers, but the drill instructor lacked patience and empathy.
“Stop. Stop! Right now. Where on earth do you think you are? You must have lost your dad-gummed mind, son! Where is your platoon? Who do you belong to!?!”
When I meekly informed him that his platoon was my platoon, that I, in fact, belonged to him, I believe he lost his mind. He came within an inch of my face and informed me that I must be mistaken, because I was the largest pile of human excrement he had ever seen, and he was certain to have remembered meeting the likes of me. When I corrected him, that we had indeed crossed paths, he theorized that I must have caused my mother great dystocia; me being the greatest turd ever recorded, and my mother knowing she had the option to have aborted me. He then promised not to separate my skull from my body and bathe in my blood, if I hurried up and rejoined the platoon. However, this was all contingent upon my promise to march behind the ranks, alone and out of step with my hand atop my head for all to see.
For the next couple of weeks, Sergeant Smith made it a point to get to know me better, and I, in turn, stayed focused and well within my cranial faculties. He became quite fond of me, and my name rolled easily off his tongue when the opportunity arose. At his suggestion, I assumed the role of garbage man, the G.I. recruit, the one to call upon when the trash filled to the brim. He was determined to teach me the Marine Corps way.
A select few of our platoon, the fuck-ups, myself included, were to begin working on the kitchen detail at the mess hall, but arrived hours early with nothing to be done and no one to accept responsibility for our lot. So we sat around awaiting orders, the drill instructor and his recruits sitting at a cluster of tables in silence, saying nothing, sitting stock still and staring off into the distance. He sat at an adjacent table a little way off. At first he was rigid, straight, a pillar of grit. However, as each minute passed, he began to slouch, and before long he was bobbing his head while weaving in and out of consciousness. He fought valiantly but lost in the end. After nearly face-planting into the table top, he started up with a look of terror upon his face. I was smiling when our eyes met, and he flashed me his teeth like a dog through a chain link fence.
Did I have him right where I wanted him? In a sense, I suppose I did. If I was truly the stool sample he thought me to be, then I would have high-tailed to the senior drill instructor and stated that I felt Sergeant Smith was a poor leader because falling asleep while on watch was, in certain circumstances, a sure way to get an entire platoon killed. But we weren’t at war, and the greatest danger imposed by the situation was Smith flattening his own nose. Snoozing was, indeed, a dereliction of duty, a reprehensible offense. But I said nothing, because I knew the repercussions would be heavier than cannon fire. He took a short nap and awoke refreshed; could I fault him for that?
Our eye contact meant an agreement; we each reached an accord to keep quiet. He chose another of my fellows to persecute, but I remained on as the G.I. recruit. I wouldn’t have given up that job for any other, because once out of sight, I was on my own. No one watched me strolling with a slight whistle, clanging along with a metal garbage can over my shoulder, depositing refuse into the dumpster. For a few minutes a day, I was invisible again and thoroughly out of step.