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(CAUTION: LIGHTLY EDITED)
The Fleet: Part 5
I'd been at my new battalion for less than a day and already someone knew who my dad was. What were the odds? Probably pretty good considering the time my dad had spent in the Corps. Lot of years and lots of Marines. Dad was one of those guys you never forgot. Just like Gunny said, a true leader.
I still missed him. Not an hour went by that I didn't think of him and mom. The message they'd left from their doomed 9/11 flight still sat on my answering machine. Their last words. The knife in my heart.
Hustling across the battalion quad, I made it to the barracks after asking a passing Marine for directions. Luckily I wasn't a PFC or Private or we probably would've told me to fuck off. Every damn building looked the same. I walked through the breezeway of my barracks passing the duty shack, a corporal polishing his shiny black leather combat boots. He didn't even look up.
There was a Staff Sergeant on the other side of the barracks pointing and shouting at Marines on the second and third decks. "No, not that room, you fucking moron, the one next to it. Can't you fucking read?! Hey, fuckhead. Move stop laughing or I'll send you down to Supply to count piss cups."
I waited until he'd finished yelling at PFC Iman, another guy from my SOI class. He sensed me at his back and turned. "What the fuck do you want?"
"Staff Sergeant, Gunny Salvador just sent me over to get my room assignment."
He judged me up and down, deeming whether I was a shitbag or not, finally glancing at my name tape. "Stokes," he said, looking down at the roster on his clipboard. "Room 209."
"Thank you, Staff Sergeant."
He didn't respond, instead turning back to his task of yelling at Marines.
I found my room easily, wondering whether my gear would be strewn all over the floor thanks to my new roommate. Opening the door I peered in. No Gallagher. Maybe he was out being an asshole to someone else for a while.
I stepped in and went to close the door behind me, luckily catching the shadow screaming for my head. On instinct, I fell the left, taking a glancing blow instead of the jackhammer sucker punch Gallagher had intended. I slammed into the cinder block wall, barely dazed, but still on the ground. Gallagher didn't waste his chance.
Kicks came at my ribs as I braced for the blows. One. Two. The third kick I caught. The fourth never came as I wrapped myself around his leg like an anaconda and muscled him down. I could see by the look in his eyes that he hadn't expected that, thinking I'd be down for the count. No fucking way.
I followed his momentum, bending his leg over, making him roll onto his back, my body now on top. Not one to wait, I started pounding, methodically aiming blows into Gallagher's ribs with my elbows. Most people went with the fists, but the slam of a hard elbow could do more damage.
I'd knocked the wind out of him, could see him gasping for breath as he kept trying to block the hits, unsuccessful at least half of the time. It was time to end it. Grabbing his neck with my left hand, I cocked my right, a loaded weapon ready to strike. The fight was out of him, along with maybe a couple broken ribs and growing welt on his chin where he'd deflected one of my elbows.
"Stop! Stop!" he yelled.
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The Fleet: Part 4
(CAUTION: LIGHT EDITING)
We left the captain's office only to face the disapproving glare of Gunny Salvador. He pointed two fingers at us, pointed at the Exit door next to the 1stSgt's office, and said, "Get out."
I didn't hesitate, leading the way because I knew I was the one responsible for the coming wrath. It wouldn't be the first time, and probably wouldn't be the last. I had a problem keeping my mouth shut sometimes. Still do.
We trotted back out into the summer heat, a thin patch of grass separating us from the road beyond, a steady flow of cars flowing back and forth. I looked back for direction. Gunny Salvador pointed across the street.
Finding an opening in the flow of vehicles we jogged across the two-lane road, quickly getting to the other side where there was more sand than grass, a low creek bed not twenty feet from where we landed.
"Stop," came the order. We stopped at the position of attention, waiting for further orders. "Get the fuck down on the ground and start pushing."
On reflex Gallagher and I dropped to the ground, hours of boot camp practice still in our bodies, we sounded off counting our mounting repetitions. We got to fifty before Gunny Salvador said another word. "Stop." We both stopped at the top, sweat dripping off my nose and onto the sand mixed brownish weeds. Two ants scuttled by, avoiding my hands that were slowly sinking into the soft earth.
"If you ever disobey a direct order again, I will have you on the shittiest working parties in Lejeune."
Out of the corner of my eye I saw him bend down, grab Gallagher by the back of his cammie blouse, and yank him up. "Get back to the barracks. You two are roommates now."
I knew what Gallagher was thinking. He didn't have to say a word. It was both of our worst nightmares come to pass. Fuck him, I thought, as my arms remained locked in a upright position.
Gallagher's speedy footfalls faded behind me and yet I remained staring at the ground. Finally, Gunny Salvador said, "Get up, Stokes."
His voice had mellowed. Idly I wondered why, more curious than disturbed by the thrashing.
I hopped up quickly and turned to face him, making eye contact but not. It was like staring through a person's skull, hard to explain unless you've done it countless times.
I spread my legs and clasped my hands behind my back, more at parade rest than at ease, my gaze still a mile downrange.
"I mean it, Stokes, at ease."
It felt like a trick, but what did I have to lose? I relaxed my body and looked at him like a normal human being. There was something in his eyes, like he recognized me somehow.
"You don't remember me."
"You're Colonel Stokes's son."
I felt the lump in my throat appear involuntarily, the familiar knot in my stomach returning. My gaze returned to it's thousand-yard stare. "Yes, Gunny."
He nodded, pausing to gather his thoughts. "I worked for him during the Gulf War, about ten years ago now. Out of nowhere my company gunny tells me that I get the shitty job of driving a full bird colonel around." I wondered where he was going with the story. It didn't sound good. "I was young, only a corporal at the time. Met your dad as we were boarding the ship for Kuwait. First colonel I ever really met face-to-face. He treated me like a man, like part of the family. I stayed with him the whole time we were over there. We took care of each other. He was a good man, a strong officer." He bowed his head as if searching for the next words to say. "He's the reason I stayed in the Corps. I was kind of a fuckup until then. He took me under his wing and taught me what a Marine should be, the right way. Leading from the front, leading by example. That was your dad. Always a firm handshake and sincere hello. You probably don't remember, bu I met you when we got back, he even had me over for dinner even though he probably shouldn't have. But that was your dad, right? If he thought it was the right thing to do, he did it, fuck the rules."
The lump in my throat was threatening to become tears in my eyes. I didn't know what to say or even if I should say anything. Gunny Salvador continued. "Anyway, I heard what happened to him and I just...I wanted to say I was sorry. I didn't see you at his funeral, and I was surprised to see you on our inbound roster."
There was an awkward pause as he once again struggled with the right thing to do. "Well, you better get to the barracks. Watch your back with Gallagher. Your instructors at SOI called to give me the scoop on him. A real piece of work is what they said. You're stuck with him now, but let me know if he crosses the line too far. I can put up with a little bullshit, but I won't tolerate Marines getting hurt. You understand?"
I gulped, somehow swallowing the lump. "Yes, Gunny."
He nodded, this time avoiding my eyes. "Good, now get going, and welcome to three-six."
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The Fleet: Part 3
We almost had to run to keep up with Gunny Salvador, his strides somehow longer than ours despite not being much taller than either of us. We moved across the quad separating the circle of barracks from what I could only assume was the battalion building, a concrete rectangle standing three stories tall, nothing special except for the battalion guidon staked in the ground, the red flag lapped languidly in the still air. Summer turf, more weed than grass, crunched under our feet as we hustled to our destination.
The gunny reached the door at the end of the building and opened it like a whip sending a refreshing blast of cool air our way. Again we followed, keep our eyes forward, ignoring the stares of the Marines doing a variety of tasks involving mostly paper and old computers.
Moving down the middle of the building, those felt-like cubicle dividers lining the way, the occasional motivational Marine Corps poster pinned to them with flat silver tacks.
We marched through another doorway close on our company gunny's heels. Man could he move without even seeming to try. Never once did he acknowledge the nods of the Marines we passed.
Reaching another doorway, this one marked with a red diamond sticker with India Company in white letters in the middle. Gunny Salvador stopped abruptly and turned around. I almost ran into him, Gallagher right behind. Somehow I manage not to plant my face in his chest.
"This is our company area. You do not enter the company area unless you are ordered to or you're with me. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Gunny," we replied in unison.
He swiveled back to the door and opened it, giving me my first glimpse into the real Marine Corps. The room was probably five times as long as it was wide, each platoon commander and platoon sergeant given a barely ten-by-ten cubicle space, no door, for two desks and two wall lockers. Weapons Platoon, 3rd Platoon, 2nd Platoon on down to 1st marked along our path. At the end of the space were the company clerks and the company commander's office, the only one, other than the first sergeant's, with a real door.
Gunny Salvador stepped up to the company commander's open door and poked his head in. "Sir, I have the two Marines you requested."
"Send them in, Gunny," came the voice from within.
Gunny Salvador looked at us with that same penetrating glare, and in a low voice only we could hear said, "Report to Captain Monroe just like you've been taught. I'll be right outside. If either one of you fucks this up, I will choke your ass."
We both nodded, not really knowing what to say. He pointed to the company commander's office and I led the way in, stopping a foot from the metal desk and doing a perfect right face. Gallagher did the same a second later. Since I was the first one in the room I said, "Sir, Lance Corporal Stokes and Private Gallagher reporting as ordered."
I kept my focus straight ahead, on a speck of black on the off-white cinder block wall, not making eye contact with the captain.
"Have a seat, Marines," he said in a slightly gravelly voice, almost horse. I noticed his reddish hair, cut in a typical high and tight on the sides, the top longer and parted and combed over. His face sported freckles that were even more pronounced with the slight sunburn he had under his eyes. He looked lean and completely at ease, like a man who'd found his place in the world. Not a hint of animosity. It was the same officer who'd been outside minutes before. He must've taken a different route back.
We were still in boot camp mode, so we hesitated for a moment. I looked to Captain Monroe for guidance. He pointed to the chairs behind us, a look of amusement on his face.
We took sat down in the rigid metal chairs, the fake leather cushion more likely for decoration than for any real comfort. I wondered idly if the Marine Corps mass-produced the chairs, as we'd seen them everywhere since placing our feet on the yellow prints in Parris Island.
"First, welcome to India Company, three-six. You've already met Gunny Salvador, and you'll be meeting the rest of our staff later today. Second, I'm sorry to tell you both that you will not be assigned to one of our platoons." My stomach tightened. The last thing I wanted was to be a company clerk. "I just lost one of my radio operators to back surgery. I'll need a replacement, so Gunny Salvador suggested we take two and see who can cut it. I know it's not what you expected coming here, but you'll be going through the same training as the others, just not as part of a platoon."
I didn't want to be a radio operator either. Maybe there was a way I could get out of it.
"Sir, we, uh, didn't really volunteer," I said cautiously, with probably a hint of desperation in my voice.
Captain Monroe's eyebrows rose. "I'll pretend I didn't hear that. If a Marine gunnery sergeant says you volunteered, you volunteered. Got that?"
"Yes, sir," we both replied, the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach getting worse.
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