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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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