You are here. Darkness surrounds you now, both literal and figurative. You sit hunched over against the wall of the crowded bus, pantomiming meditation in a defecatory posture, eyes wide-open stealing glimpses of your crusted New Balance sneakers with the occasional passing of city lights. Maybe somehow there’ll be a reflection, a final glimpse of your thick brown hair. Instead, green edge of a road sign that passes too quickly. You know that you are somewhere in South Carolina. That’s where the plane landed. On occasion, you feel the cool breeze of an April night through a hairline crack in the aluminum walls. But for a long time there’s nothing at all. For a long time it’s so dark that if you lifted your head you still wouldn’t see the shapes of the other men crammed into the seats. You can feel them though, their presence. They’re just as anxious and fearful as you are, most of them.
For all official intents and purposes, you are Recruit Eastman, twenty-one years of age, en route to Parris Island, South Carolina, from your Podunk hometown of Watertown, New York. Parris Island is home to sand fleas, brown recluse spiders, and the Marine Corps Recruit Training Depot. Every enlisted recruit east of the Mississippi River must endure the infamous three-month crucible that is Parris Island. Structures there are literal brick and mortar, seemingly constructed of all right angles. Each of its 8,095 square acres is dedicated to one objective only: the deconstruction of 17,000 human beings per year and the making of them into Marines, instilling the three core values: honor, courage, and commitment.
In the coming months you’ll discover synonyms for your name include but are not limited to: shit bird, turd, pussy, bitch, girl, thing, recruit (lower case), EASTMAN!!!!, and faggotassbitch (one word). Ectomorphic men with methamphetamine glares, speaking, if not screaming, in their trademark laryngectomized growls, will punish you for existing. This is not your concern right now. You are here, on this bus, through a string of your own faults. A falling out with your former Marine stepfather as a result of you crashing your Ford Escort into the family’s white picket fence led to said Ford becoming a temporary home in the bitter winter of February 2008. The same chemical conditions that provoked the crash also prompted law enforcement to pull you over, search your vehicle, and discover open containers of bourbon and a Smith & Wesson Ka-Bar dagger, which was totally not yours, you swore.
But you are on the bus now. In the darkness, absorbing the vibration from the roadway. Even the exterior is painted a sleek black, embossed with the gold letters “Property of U.S.M.C.” on the side panel adjacent the image of a Marine; the front flat-grilled, faceless. An errant cough cuts through the silence. You don’t have to look or squint through it to know every other young man has his head down, too.
Your heart pumps so spasmodically it aches. You feel it pulsing in the temples of your skull. Anxiety attacks shouldn’t last this long and maybe, you wonder, just maybe you’re detoxing. Maybe you’re just so sleep-deprived that breathing feels like someone stuck your chest in a vice. Bloated isn’t the word for how you feel. Waterlogged, is more like it. You can process the fact that your hands are shaking but cannot process the why: are you nervous or withdrawing? None of this matters right now because you’re on the bus.
You’re on the bus because your recruiter, Sergeant Arva, first name Chad, naturally, whom you met through a mutual friend, said he could make your legal troubles go away. Why, he knows the judge, of course. All you had to do was sign on the dotted line. It was also a solid way to get back at a stepfather who’d discouraged you from the Corps. You needed help in a bad way and with your pride shredded, you easily subscribed to Chad’s nationalistic dogma. Look, I’m not here to tell you that a glorified salesman took advantage of you at a time of weakness, but you’ll learn. I’m here to tell you, this is not the worst it’ll get.
You’ll learn a lot over the next several months and even more over the years to come. There’s going to be a square-jawed, barrel-chested man named Staff Sergeant Bowers, senior drill instructor for your platoon. Like Chad the Recruiter, Bowers is a true believer in military clichés who seldom screams but forces a speaking voice through a grimace. His chaos is controlled, reserved, preferring rather to preach fighting for right and freedom. He inspires you so much you’ll mentally commit to not letting him down. You’ll never succeed in this endeavor.
“I don’t believe in hitting recruits,” he says proudly. “That won’t make them respect you. Everything you experience here is part of the game. We will break you down but we will build you back up.”
Instead, he’ll wring your sweaty canvas cap out over your face, the salt and grit stinging the eyes he screams—on these selective occasions that he screams—for you to keep open. You will violate your own natural instincts for this man. For the sacrilege of cracking a smile, you will be locked in a windowless closet and forced to jump on a mattress holding gallons of Tide overhead while he and his subordinate drill instructors spray Lysol into the enclosed room.
“This is to make you better!” he’ll scream from behind a cloud of aerosol. And you’ll wonder, how?
Over time you’ll look back on this with a strange sense of both shame and pride.
None of that matters now because you’re still on the bus. Hitting a dip in the road disrupts the rhythmic thrum of wheels over highway. You swallow hard in your chapped throat. What have you done? Someone farts on the bus. Not an audible fart but the silent, sulfuric kind borne of nerves.
You’re going to become an emotional fortress. There’ll be walls that’ll never come down. But your craftsmanship will be shoddy and sometimes, something will seep through the cracks. Tears will roll quietly as you lie flat on your back in your rack—that’s your bunk bed—looking up the steel grid supporting a piss-colored mattress above you. Men crying. It’s one of those unspoken, repressed secrets shared by all who step on those famed yellow footprints. No one ever cops to it but everyone hears it: the sound of seventy suppressed sniffles in the South Carolina night.
You will learn what fraternity and brotherhood truly mean when a member of your community exhibits weakness. Failing to meet a weight requirement, the recruit called Fat Hall will be placed in the center of the squad bay, the long concrete hall with thirty-five racks on each side, in front of seventy other young men. Facing him down, you will join your brethren as the drill instructors—led by Staff Sergeant Bowers—gleefully order you all to chant in unison, “Sir! Fat Hall is! Disgusting, sir!” Over and over, this is his sendoff. Somewhere on that bus with you now is a pre-sobriquet Hall, idling nervously in the quiet dark, with lofty visions for the future. Seeking to dedicate himself to his great country’s causes, its uniformed representation will reject him in. “Sir! Fat Hall is! Disgusting, sir!” Words of incensed drill instructors will be echoed back in the maximum decibels of seventy men at the boyish, teary face of former Recruit Hall.
This is the part that will hurt the most, this never knowing the internal pain you’ve caused someone after you’ve ridiculed them down to nothing. You will realize that you never see the drill instructors eat or drink. This is to elevate them to something superhuman. Hall’s infraction is not that he failed to meet standards. It is that he reinforced an idea of humanity, a resistance to deconstruction forbidden at Parris Island.
Some of your fellow recruits will enjoy these dehumanizing displays. Some of them will proudly declare their desire to kill an enemy with their standard issue M-16. Some people are just a better fit for this. The Corps is their calling.
Some people just want somewhere to belong.
You’ll feel the brunt of a grown man’s purlicue against your throat, forcing you into a concrete wall. You’ll be awakened in the night by drunken drill instructors looking to have a sadistic laugh at your expense. You’ll feel the muzzle of your own rifle against your forehead and pull the trigger. By then they will have trained you to treat every weapon as if it is loaded. The chamber is as empty as you are. As you will be, I mean.
You’ll learn that retreating is another method of fighting. You’ll retreat so far into your own head that you’ll forget who you are. Yes, there is an irony at play in what I’m telling you. You are joining the United States Marine Corps to salvage an identity. They want to remove it altogether.
You won’t care about the sand in your crack or the bites from the southern fleas when they tell you to untuck your sweaty shirt and do sit-ups on the ground. Bring it on, you’ll say.
You’ll sweat more than you ever have and ever will again. You’ll sweat through your underwear and your cammies and your jungle boots. You’re going to leave a trail of wet stenciled boot prints on every square mile of concrete you traverse. You’re going to stink. Not just smell. Capital-S Stink. Like a stale gym sock. It’ll be a stench no number of razor-cold thirty-second showers can cleanse.
Communication will become a volley of screams between drill instructor and recruit.
“Eastman!” they’ll rasp with hate. “Put the pain inside your body!”
“Aye, sir!” You will bark in response, almost enjoying it. You are going to emerge from Parris Island in the best physical shape in your life. Your voice, not so much.
After graduation, previously hateful drill instructors will shake your hand and congratulate you. You will have made it and their act will be over. But it won’t feel like the end of anything. Finally looking into a mirror after three months, you will appear extra-terrestrial with your shaven scalp.
You’ll be granted leave to visit your home in Watertown, N.Y., for ten days before you head off to Camp Lejeune. You’ll learn that the world has kept on spinning without you in it, which will create some internal confusion about where you’re supposed to fit into it. Your parents will have divorced without it ever being mentioned in a letter. Your friends will have graduated college. Chad the Recruiter won’t return your calls. You will feel used. The castle walls will begin to crumble so you’ll reinforce them with Wild Turkey. You will pass out on a barstool. Ten days.
Reporting for duty at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, will be difficult. You will bring souvenirs. After all this time, I can’t tell you if this was a poor decision or a godsend but in a matter of single-digit hours you will ingest something like fifteen Yuengling, four Tylenol, and six Vivarin—that is 1,200 mg caffeine, for the uninitiated. You won’t be trying to die. You’ll just want to feel again. Maybe you’ll just miss the pain. Your youthful platoon leader, Sergeant Wentworth, strutting through formation, will recognize something in your static pupils and your crooked posture. He’ll remove you posthaste. You’ll expect something grotesque, degrading.
“I want you to get help,” he will tell you in the quiet of his office. Very calmly, larynx accounted-for might I add, he will explain, “Eastman, I want to help you. I go to meetings every week myself. I’m not Sergeant Wentworth. I’m just Josh. Please look at me, Marine.”
“Yes, Sergeant,” you’ll mutter through your quivering lip. Jesus, Dan, you’re going to be a weeping mess.
“There’s no shame in this,” Josh will tell you. “You’ll always be a marine.”
With an empathy betraying your image of The Ideal Marine, he’s going to drive you to the hospital himself where you’ll spend a beltless, lace-less week within some very welcoming robin’s egg blue walls, cream halls, and secured windows. Within the halls of 4-Alpha, the mental ward, surrounded by marines and seamen in various levels of mental strife, a young, unkempt man your age, Zach, is going to turn to you for quick confession. In a Seroquel haze, among couches and the magazines and board games, he will shake his shaggy, overgrown mop at you, telling you to, “Get out now. I can’t sleep anymore, man. I killed a kid. Get out while you can.”
This will be the end for you. If it ever comes up, you’ll tell people you got kicked out because you got mixed up with the wrong crowd. Not entirely false.
You will not be ashamed of what happened. Quite the opposite. You’ll always be afraid to tell this story because of your assumption that people will expect shame of unfulfilled commitment. You’re not going to know where you belong but you’ll know where you don’t. As interchangeable as you are with any other recruit on the bus—and any of the 17,000 recruits processed each year—maybe someone else feels this too. Maybe this needs to come out.
Ten years later, you will happen upon the story of a young Muslim boy whose religion is tested by a ruthless drill instructor. He will not succeed. Tumbling down a social media rabbit hole and succumbing to curiosity, you will discover the profile of a retired Staff Sergeant Bowers. The pictures will satisfy you. Showing the weight he’s amassed, in a karmic twist becoming the disdain of his younger self. Digging deeper, you will discover his new occupation: advocating for survivors of sexual assault. You’ll wonder, if I could lose myself within my own head, how lost must a man be whose whole career—whole purpose—is the breaking of human beings? Empathizing with this man, with these people, will be difficult. You will realize that catharsis is not necessarily black and white and human beings are not dichotomous.
But none of that matters right now because you’re on the bus. You’re wondering if you’ll even feel it decelerate over the war drum of your heart. Will you hear the brakes shriek? The exhaust gasp? I wish I could tell you this panic you’re feeling is the worst it’s going to get. I wish I could tell you any future you’re conjuring in your mind is a fiction, that you’ll find no honor, courage, or commitment when the darkness ends. I wish I could tell you nothing matters because you’re just a memory of your future self, but that’s a lie. It does matter. It matters for me. It matters because everything about to happen is going to make you a different person but it won’t make you a marine. It matters because, because you’re on the bus and now the white halogens and Maglites flood your retinas. Your eyelids try to close but it’s too bright. You and your fellow recruits of varying sizes and backgrounds crowd the aisle like cattle as a frog-voiced, veiny-throated man with bulging eyeballs leaps onto the bus screaming at the crowd with a meth addict’s fury. Squeaks of hurried soles.
“Get off my bus!” he orders. “Now!”
Commands come too quick to process in your addled mind. “Move!” His flat-brimmed campaign hat shadowing his forehead and gaunt jaws, paling his eyes, makes him even more menacing. “Go!” You can’t say anything. You just need to get off his bus. Inching by the camo-clad hornet looming at the doorway, his spittle flecks your face. “Move!” Screams of broken voices are borderline feminine, desperate. Your chest opens up.
You see, goddammit you can see, your target: canary yellow footprints on the motor gray pavement, rows upon parallel rows of them filling with the shoes of new recruits sprinting into place. Drill instructors hover like wasps, shoving recruits who get too close. You find your own footprints, identical to all others, and hold your breath. You are here.