Thursday, June 30, 2011

Part I "try to look like a Marine and you might just survive"

November 09, 1918

“Old man wants to see you” the runner said as he kicked me awake with his hobnailed shoe “Easy mack, what were ya in civilian life a field goal kicker or something?!” I snapped back trying to shake the images of the dream from my head. I looked around, in the firing bay of the trench, Turner stood watch, his eye glued to the trench periscope peering across the blasted waste of no-mans land as the rest of the squad lay sleeping on the firestep, except Hoyt who was lovingly cleaning the new Browning Automatic Rifle he had been issued, happy to be rid of the French abomination known as the Chauchat that had been trying to kill him since July.

The afternoon Sun tried to fight its way through the gray clouds, I became aware of the distant artillery (the percussive accompaniment of this war) pounding away at some sucker some where, someone not me and god forgive me, I was thankful.

My folks back home in their brownstone would never understand us laying around in the middle of the day, Dad would say we were lazy but the truth is, most of the war, Patrols, Raids, Work parties and the like, all happen at night. During the day you just tried to survive and somehow remember you were human.

“best square your self away Sergeant... Scuttlebutt has it you and he may be taking a hike to Battalion” quipped the runner, a short Irishman named O-something or other. I have to admit, I still thought of myself as the atypical Yankee College kid who had joined the Marines on a lark (alcohol may have been involved), being called “Sergeant” just didnt seem to sit right... but the last 4 months had made allot of opportunities for advancement in the corps.

I pulled on my gear, grabbed my gas mask, helmet and rifle and started out down the trench with the runner in tow. It was a short way to Communication trench that led to the platoon command post, They call the section of trench Kensington Street, apparently the limeys named it, them and the french had been fighting here for 4 years before the Germans knocked them out during their summer pushes and here it was November and we allies were back in them, net zero. We hadnt got around to changing the names and I hoped to god we wouldn't be here long enough to do it.

As we pounded down the duckboards I thought of the Platoon. The platoon, that was a laugh, we had been patched up so many times since june I hardly knew anyone outside my squad. Most of the old Marines had bought a piece or a hospital bed and even the replacements for the replacements had been buried in the big graves around France. The new guys, I have to smile, They stick out like sore thumbs in their Marine uniforms. You see General Pershing hates us, he refuses to ship any new Marine uniforms to france so we have to make do with these brown army suits, they look like crud and are as comfortable as a stone sweater...I’m putt’n a match to these duds the minute they sign my discharge.

There was one thing that made me hate the new guys... and that was there faces, they reminded me of us when we first got here, faces that hadnt seen it...that indescribable horror that was modern war and I hated them for it. Even their fear was born of a naive innocents that had yet to be ripped apart by the Maxium gun or tangled in the barbed wire.

As the runner and I turned down Kensington we passed Doc Marvel doing a boat inspection... inspecting peoples feet for trench foot. Doc was a Navy hospital corpsman that had been with us since forever and because of the nature of his job, we loved him and over looked the fact he was navy. “Hey Doc” I nodded as we shouldered by “better take a look at Myer” I joked, seeing Corporal Meyer sitting shoeless for the examine “I here he is just back from Paris”. The men laughed as Myer fired a back something about my lice raiding a near by farmhouse, “You leave my lice out of it you gob! I’ll not have you tarnish their reputation in mixed company” I returned, pointing at Doc, the soul representative of the Navy, the parent service of the Corps, as we cut the corner to the CP. It was good to here the boys laugh as Doc’s retorted with the age old insult “Tell it to the Marines” as their laughter faded in the distance.

The Platoon CP was a bunker and was unique in that, at one time or another, it had been occupied by the forces of half a dozen nations. The Rats were even said to all be polyglots. Each occupant had left their mark, but it was the Heine’s that had made the most recent improvements with the addition of a deeper sleeping bunker complete with stove, not that we got to see it. The entrance was labeled in French, English, German, and Portuguese, but it was the last entry that had brought a smile to me, it read simply “Paris Island (Annex)” with a well drawn Globe and anchor over it.

As we stopped at the door, the runner shoulder past me, I could hear some chatter inside and then “Get in here College”. Through the blackout curtains I went and down a short staircase into the darkness. As my Eyes adjusted I saw our Platoon officer standing in front of a mirror shaving. It was almost hypnotic, the way he made slow passes with his straight razor scrapping off the days growth but then, in the reflection of the mirror, I saw him turn his face and he began to carefully navigate the hideous scar that ran from the corner of his mouth to the back of his jaw with the razor carefully moving over the raised areas that the sutures had left and through the sunken valleys left by a German trench knife. The scar almost gave the impression of hideous gritted teeth. I thought of my dream.

“They call them razors” he growled through the undamaged side of his mouth “Thought you college kids knew all about them... best introduce your self to one when we get back” he said turning as he wiped his face clean of the soap “If your going to be my platoon Sergeant”.

I must have looked as stunned as I felt, “Platoon Sergeant? Me?” my head screamed. I had only had a squad for two months. I should never have mentioned I had taken ROTC courses in college. My stomach was gripped by fear, fear of the responsibility. I was soon brought around by the old man talking.

“Sergeant Blevens is down with the Flu” he said as he pulled on his Forest Green tunic “and that left the choice between you and a monkey...” he turned and fixed his Dark emotionless eyes on me. Ice ran down my spine as I thought of my dream and the reflection of the skulls. “...and I seriously considered the monkey”.

The old man had been our Platoon Sergeant, but he was made a officer when he had returned from the hospital. For a week he had soldiered on with his wounds, Doc had stitched his face together under a poncho with a flash light and a needle and the old man hadn't even flinched. But it was his hand that had done him in, doc had tried to clean it and bandage it, he cut the rest of the pinky off but infection had set in and finally the skipper himself had to drag him to the First aide post to be evacuated, 20 days latter he was back and a fresh new 2nd luey with a horrific sneer scared into his face and pinky side of his left hand missing (they had to cut it off on account of the infection). It was a common practice in the Corps, they even had a term for it, “Mustangs”, officers promoted from the NCO ranks.

Since then we had 4 Platoon Sergeants, Gunnery Sergeant Hawks being the longest stint, but he went batty during a barrage and got sent down the line to see if they could put him back together. Now it was me...A two year Marine, before June some fellas had been Privates for 20 years... now I was a Platoon Sargent.

“Best batten the hatch there College” he said indicating my gapping mouth “I didnt make you Emperor of China...” he finished doing his collar dogs, and turned to me and with a slight movement of his dark eyes, down to my neck then back to my face, indicated that I had better do mine “...Kid, you’ll do fine, your smart...” he looked like he needed to qualify that “ arent a idiot at least, you’ve seen the beast...” (the beast being his term for war) “...and you can fight, Just remember, let the Sergeants run the squads, you run the Sergeants, they get out of line, you take them somewhere private and set them straight, with your hooks if you have to, but dont do it in front of the men”. He took a deep breath and for a moment, a brief click of the clock, he looked weary, “Look, I know your turning in your sea legs the minute this dance is over” (he knew I had enlisted for the duration) “but until that time remember you belong to the Corps, your back is stamped “Department of the Navy, Property of” so just Sail straight and keep your lines from fouling and you’ll look great strutting down Broadway with your medals on your chest on decoration day”

He turned and began to, as Shakespeare would have said, gird himself for war. There were no half measures for the old man, no allowance made for the mud of France. His Sam Brown Belt went on first, sort of a joke really, the Brown leather belts with its single shoulder strap were required wear for all officers of all nations in france, the thought being that a ape in the french army may not know what a captains bar looks like but he sure knew only officers wore Sam browns. Then he pulled on his Rig, made of woven canvas (except the holster for his 45) with eyelets, everything he required in war was fastened to it and like the illustration in the manual...he wore it perfectly parallel to the ground riding above the flaps of his lower pockets of his jacket, not slanted downwards like some bizarre gunslinger. Then came, not one, but two respirators in case of gas attack, The british Boxed respirator was secure on his chest while a french mask hung from his side. When he finished with his gear, he smoothed out any creases in is jacket, as i watched him something inside of me said simply “squared away”.

As he reached towards a hook to take his helmet he turned back at me “We’ve been called to Battalion, some sort of stunt for tonight...” He pulled his helmet on a let it tilt slightly down over his eyes like a man looking for a fight “... just stand there and don't say anything and try to look like a Marine and you might just survive”.

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