A Pupil of Life Reaping

February, 2003

“Today we’re gonna give you some more ammunition for your body. You are training to be the most effective weapon in the world, but you can always improve on what you’ve already learned. Rifle’s and machine guns have bullets, but marines have MCMAP. I’m Sergeant Collins, and I’m going to teach you future warriors how to kill the son of a bitch, who’s trying to kill you. Are you ready?”

Over a hundred marine recruits shouted in response, “Sir, yes sir!”

Sergeant Collins was a black belt in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP), assigned to the Marine Recruit Depot in Paris Island, South Carolina. Although he was only five feet, eight inches tall, and a hundred-seventy pounds, he was an intimidating man, who had perfected the art of hand to hand combat. Like a wolverine, he may have been small in stature, but he was well versed in the tools that constructed monuments of pain and death.

MCMAP was the Frankenstein’s monster of Martial Arts. Experts in the various arts had collaborated, taking the most effective and lethal techniques from the different forms to create MCMAP. Its sole purpose was to end the fight quickly by seriously wounding or by killing the enemy. There was no scoring of points, no graceful maneuvers, and no stopping until the fight was finished. There are no elegant swords, no throwing stars, and no meditating. This hand to hand combat program incorporated the use and defense of assault rifles with bayonets, knives, and handguns. It was realistic and brutal.

“After I explain and demonstrate each maneuver, several other instructors, and myself will walk around and help you practice. Are you ready to kill?” the Sergeant barked.

The recruits responded again with excitement. “Kill!”

The recruits all looked the same: shaved heads, olive drab sweatshirts, woodland camouflage pants, and black boots. The pavilion they were training in was called Leatherneck Square. It’s about half the size of a football field. The floor was covered with a thick layer of sawdust and wood shavings. The roof of the pavilion provided shelter from the elements. It stood approximately twenty feet tall. At the front of the pavilion was a five-foot tall platform. The platform allowed the instructors to stand at an elevated position, so they could be seen by all of the recruits as they taught.

It was almost February and the weather was bitter cold. The instructor’s breath emitted a small cloud of vapor as he spoke.

“The first thing we’re gonna cover today is similar to a hip toss. I’ll walk you through it and explain it step by step. Sergeant Fitzpatrick, will you be my meat puppet?”

Sergeant Fitzpatrick ran up the stairs to the instructional platform. “Roger that, Sergeant Collins.”

“Sergeant Fitzpatrick, assume the fighting position.”

Stepping forward with his left foot, bending both knees, and raising both hands into fists on either side of his face, he announced with confidence, “Ready!”

Sergeant Collins assumed the same position directly in front of Sergeant Fitzpatrick and demanded the attention of the recruits.

“Alright, listen up. From the fighting stance, the first thing we need to do is deliver a softening blow.” He demonstrated a punch to Sergeant Fitzpatrick’s face, stopping inches from his nose. “Doing this will limit the ability of your opponent to react to the hell you’re about to rain down on him.”

“After distracting the enemy, we need to step to the outside of his left foot, with our left foot. Like this. With every step, we want to cause some damage. So on the way into this step, you need to punish him. I don’t care how you do it. Use some imagination. Grab his balls as hard as you can with your left hand and crush his adam’s apple using a hammer fist with your right hand. I don’t give a shit what you do. But do something that makes him regret crossing your path.” He stopped for a second to allow the recruits time to mentally digest the information.

“Now that we’re up close and personal, it’s time to put this son of a bitch on the deck, right? You’re gonna sweep your right foot clockwise, making a semicircle with your right foot.”

Sergeant Fitzpatrick was now off balance, with his back arched backwards, and some of his lower body leaning on Sgt Collins’ left thigh.

“With some speed and intensity, I’m gonna introduce this poor bastard’s back to the deck. I’m gonna do this by using his own body weight and the momentum of my spin to throw him as hard as I can onto the deck.”

Sergeant Collins completed the final throw, causing Sergeant Fitzpatrick’s back to slam on the ground.

“You guys have been doing this for several weeks now, so what needs to happen next?”

The recruits voices roared inside the pavilion. “Kill!”

With a smile that was filled with pride and a twisted sense of pleasure, Sergeant Collins scanned the crowd of recruits with his eyes.

“That’s fuckin’ right. A finishing touch to end this shit-bags life. And I think that crushing his grape is the perfect ending.”

He raised his right knee almost to his chest, then drove the heel of his right boot down with all he could muster into the ground, inches from Sergeant Fitzpatrick’s head, simulating the stomping of his opponent’s head. “Kill!”

Chris absorbed these classes like a dry sponge thrown into a swimming pool. The techniques came naturally to him. He was learning fast and liked feeling successful.

Sergeant Collins turned toward the recruits. “Remember, we’re not here to hurt or kill each other. I want to see you move with speed and intensity, but save the ball grabbing and throat smashing for the real thing. Understand that?”

The crowd shouted in response, “Sir, yes sir!”

All of the recruits partnered up with each other and began practicing the newly learned maneuver on each other. Today, Chris’ partner was Recruit Smalls, who, ironically wasn’t small at all. He was six feet, four inches tall, and weighed two-hundred-ten pounds. In high school Smalls had been a state champion wrestler. Like many big fish who were raised in small ponds, Smalls’ cup overflowed with self-confidence and arrogance.

Recruit Smalls smirked at Chris. “Psshh, You can go first.”

They both assumed the fighting position and Chris began to prepare himself mentally. His thoughts began to race and he fought to control them. He slowed his breathing. He reminded himself to concentrate on balancing. He could visualize every movement, feel the resistance of his opponent’s body mass, and anticipate the reaction of his body trying to stay upright.

Chris stepped forward with his left foot, placing it just outside of Smalls’ left foot, and placing his hands flat on Smalls’ chest simultaneously. He swept his right foot around in a clockwise semicircle and applied force to Smalls’ chest with his hands. Smalls’ back slammed on the sawdust and pushed the air out of his lungs. Chris followed up with the foot stomp next to Smalls’ head. “Kill!”

The hip toss was performed flawlessly. Chris’ movements flowed together seamlessly and without loss of momentum.

Smalls eyes were wide open in shock and he was moaning on the ground as he gasped for air.

Chris held his hand out, gesturing to Smalls that he was helping him to stand up.

“God damn! Collins, did you see that?” Sergeant Fitzpatrick looked at Sergeant Collins in surprise.

Sergeant Collins was intrigued. He watched Chris help Smalls back up to his feet. “I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever seen a recruit handle himself like that before.”

“I’m tellin you right now, I haven’t”

Sergeant Collins looked at Sergeant Fitzpatrick and nodded his head towards Chris. “Let’s go talk to him.”

Smalls glanced over and saw the instructors walking towards them. “This recruit wasn’t ready for that! Try it again.” He raised his voice, hoping that the instructors would hear believing he could re-establish his dominance the second time around.

Sergeant Collins approached Smalls. “You in a rush to get man handled again, recruit Smalls?”

“Sir, no sir. This recruit wasn’t ready, sir.”

“Oh, so your partner sucks donkey dick, possesses no talent whatsoever, and you tripped over a piece of sawdust. Is that it? You let a tiny piece of wood kick your pansy ass like a little bitch? Is that what you’re telling me?”

“Sir, uhhh…yea…well no…sir, no sir!”

“Shut your mouth Smalls! Let me know when you’re ready, because he’s gonna try it again and I don’t want any excuses coming out of your pathetic little mouth! Are we clear?”

“Sir, yes sir!”

Smalls faced Chris and stood in the fighting position. He is determined not to be humiliated again and is doing his best to plant himself to the ground, as if he had roots coming out of his feet, burrowing into the ground to stabilize his body.

Sgt Collins looked at Chris. “How about you recruit? Are you ready?”

Chris looked back at him with confidence. “Sir, yes sir!”

“Go ahead recruit. Take him to the deck.”

WHAM! With the speed of a hummingbird’s wing, Chris performed a perfect hip toss again. “Kill!” he screamed as his boot slammed into the floor inches from Small’s head.

Sergeant Collins turned around and looked at Sergeant Fitzpatrick in amazement. Sergeant Fitzpatrick mouthed the words “Holy shit”.

Keeping his composure and straight face, Sergeant Collins looked down at Smalls, where he laid on the ground, gasping for air.

“Let me guess. You tripped over your ego again? Maybe you should learn to compliment your fellow recruits, instead of making excuses, trying to make yourself sound better.”

Sergeant Collin’s maintained his focus on Smalls, but held his left arm out and pointed at Chris.

“How many times have you practiced this move?”

Chris responded with uncertainty, “Sir, including the one Sergeant Collins just observed. Two, sir.”

Sergeant Collins turned and looked at Chris, while still pointing at him. “And you’ve never done this before?”

“Sir, no sir.”

“Then explain to me how the hell you just put this pussy on his ass, twice. Because you moved so fast and smooth, I would put money down that you’ve had prior training.”

Chris tried to think of an explanation, but he didn’t really even know the answer himself.

“Sir, uh…balance sir.”

“No shit. Smalls, the clutz down there doesn’t have any. I’m talking about you.”

“Sir, no sir. I meant it’s this recruit’s balance. …like Tai Chi, sir.”

“What the hell are you talking about? Like that shit crazy old ladies do to stretch and relax?”

Chris knew that as a recruit he couldn’t talk freely to the instructor and would never be able to fully explain the true art of Tai Chi, so he decided to cut his losses.

“Sir, yes, it’s something like that sir.”

“You hear this shit Sergeant Fitzpatrick? This recruit fights like an old lady and still kicked Smalls’ ass.”

Sergeant Collins waved his hand at Chris. “You know what. I don’t give a rat’s ass. Whatever you’re doin’, keep it up.

“Sir, yes sir.”

Later that night, Chris’ entire platoon was sitting on their wooden foot lockers Their foot lockers were all aligned with the foot of their beds, with the main aisle dividing them into two sides. The recruits were allowed to talk quietly, as long as they didn’t get carried away. Most of the recruits were writing letters to their families.

Smalls glared at Chris with vindictive eyes from across the aisle. “What the fuck do you think you were doing today?”

Chris didn’t want conflict so he chose to ignore the question.

“I’m talking to you, jackass,” Smalls demanded.

Chris looked up at Smalls with curiosity. “This recruit is wondering why recruit Smalls is referring to himself in the first person. Recruit Smalls should know that he could get this whole platoon in the sand pit for shit like that.”

“Oh, okay.” Smalls said angrily as he sat up straight and pressed his fists firmly into the footlocker he was sitting on. “Being a smart ass isn’t gonna get you out of this.” Smalls took up a mocking tone. “This recruit is pretty sure that we’re training with pugil sticks tomorrow and this recruit is gonna see to it that that sorry ass recruit is put on his ass.”

Shaking his head, Chris responded. “This recruit doesn’t understand recruit Smalls’ anger. All of these recruits are on the same team and should be helping each other. This recruit was only trying to do his best today. It wasn’t meant to be personal.”

“Stop trying to get out of it, shit for brains. These recruits will see who’s better tomorrow.”

The next day came earlier than the day before, as was the case in the Corps.

“Good morning recruits!” Sergeant Collins shouted.

The recruits sat in a semicircle around their instructor. “Sir, good morning sir!” They shouted back.

“Today we’re gonna give you a chance to kill each other with a bayonet. However, this bayonet is a pugil stick. The red pad at the end of the stick simulates the bayonet on the end of your rifle. The black pad at the other end will be the buttstock of your rifle. A strike to the torso or head with the bayonet is a kill. The only way to get a kill with the buttstock, is a strike to the head. If a recruit falls off the bridge, they are dead. Are there any questions?”

One of the recruits raised his hand. The others around him moaned and grumbled. The recruit with his hand up was wearing thick framed military issued glasses and the lenses looked like they were half an inch thick. Every day this same recruit had questions. Every question served only to piss the instructors off. Pissed off instructors made life harder for the other recruits.

Sergeant Collins looked at the recruit who had his hand raised, wondering what he could possibly have to ask. “Yes, recruit. What’s your question?”

The recruit stood up to address the instructor. “Sir, this recruit was wondering if these recruits have to like hop on one leg if they get hit on the leg with a bayonet, or something? Like it was cut off or something, sir?”

“You’re fucking kidding me, right?” Sergeant Collins’ facial expression was a mix between intense fury and bewilder.  Sergeant Collins stood in absolute silence, as if waiting for the recruit to know better. Beads of sweat ran down the recruit’s face as he realized how stupid his question actually was.

After what felt like an eternity, Sergeant Collins pointed at the recruit and yelled, “Sit the fuck down, before I kill you.”

The recruit sat down with the speed of a viper, letting out a breath of air that he didn’t even know that he had been holding in his lungs.

“Let me clarify.” Sergeant Collins said as he looked back and forth across the crowd of sitting recruits. “You will not jump around on one leg. You will not put your hand behind your back if it gets hit by the bayonet. All you will do is try to kill the scumbag in front of you, until one of you is dead. You will know if someone dies, because I will blow this dag-gone whistle! Do you understand?”

The roar of the future warriors sounded off. “Sir, yes sir.”

“That’s more like it! Form a column of two’s.”

The recruits moved like a school of fish, until they had formed two columns, leading to the fighting bridge. The fighting bridge was four feet wide, twenty feet long, and stood two feet off of the ground. It was sturdy, built similar to a residential deck. Below the bridge were several inches of mulch, which would break the fall of an unfortunate recruit who’d lost his battle.

Smalls locked his eyes on Chris. He skillfully moved through the crowd, cutting in line while counting heads. He was determined to ensure he was in line to oppose his new nemesis.

Each group of two recruits would enter onto the bridge and simulate a fight to the death. Some fights were long, but most were very short. As Chris watched a sad reality struck him. He saw that a real fight to the death wasn’t a long drawn out duel like Hollywood portrays. There was no glorious struggle. There was no heroic death lock. There was no witty banter. The whole encounter only lasted a few seconds. That was all he would have – a few seconds to ensure he lived and some other poor sap died. Another battle on the bridge began, and Chris’ thoughts turned to Smalls. He didn’t want to make things worse by defeating him again, but he also didn’t want to throw the fight and let Smalls win. Chris began playing out different versions of the fight in his head. A realization pricked his heart. Walking through each scene he realized he could do his absolute best, but still loose.

There were only a few recruits in front of Chris now. Smalls began to hum the song Another One Bites the Dust. Chris decided. The right thing to do was give the battle all he had and let the cards fall as they may.

The recruits in front of them were next and began to put on helmets and groin protectors.

The battle on the bridge ended quickly. Chris began putting on his protective gear. He looked up and watched as Smalls did the same.

The whistle blew.

“Next two.” Sergeant Collins yelled as he waved them onto the bridge.

Smalls leaped in with arrogance. He jogged to the far end of the bridge, then turned and returned to the center, shaking his head left, then right to crack his neck. Chris briskly walked in, calming himself, and preparing for the imminent brawl. Face to face, with their pugil sticks held up, they waited for the whistle.

“Ready for this? ‘Cause I’m about to kick your ass,” Smalls said, with a smirk on his face.

The whistle blew.

Smalls charged Chris, pushing his pugil stick forward with both hands. Chris anticipated an aggressive kill strike, not a forceful push. It took him off guard. He absorbed the full force of the push, and fell backwards, stumbling, then falling onto his back. Chris was impressed by the strength of his opponent.

Smalls advanced towards Chris’ right side, thrusting his bayonet towards Chris’ chest. Chris’ veins surged with adrenaline. His thoughts sped to a mile per minute. He used the buttstock end of his pugil stick to deflect Smalls’ bayonet, while kicking his right leg into Small’s back calves. Smalls fell on his butt and Chris completed a full circle with the buttstock, bringing it in alignment for a strike to Smalls’ head.

“Balance. Continue the momentum until it’s no longer needed,” Chris thought to himself as he thrust the buttstock towards Smalls’ head. Smalls leaned forward, dodging the attack. Chris’ buttstock missed, just to the left of his head. “Momentum,” Chris thought as he continued pushing the pugil stick forward, pulling his body with it, up to his knees, behind Smalls.

Chris’ movements were fast and fluid. Smalls almost lost track of Chris’ location and began to turn towards him, rolling to his right, onto his knees, placing the pugil stick with his fists on the ground to steady himself. Chris locked his sight onto Smalls’ head out of the corner of his left eye, and as he turned his body to the left, the bayonet turned with it, like the turret of a tank. He lunged forward, thrusting his bayonet towards Smalls’ head. Smalls looked up to reacquire his sight of Chris. He found his opponent just in time to see the tip of Chris’ bayonet accelerating towards his face, inches away. The end of the pugil stick smashed into Smalls’ helmet, snapping his head backwards, and sending him back to the ground.

Sergeant Collins opened his mouth just enough to let the whistle fall out and drop to his chest, where the lanyard caught it. “Good fight, recruits. Well done. Now get off my bridge. Next two!”

Chris stepped over to Smalls and extended his hand, offering to help him up. Smalls reluctantly accepted and pulled himself up. They both made eye contact for a moment before Smalls walked away. Chris didn’t know what to say. He wondered if this rivalry would continue until their graduation.

Most of the recruits looked forward to Sunday. The anticipation had nothing to do with religion or wanting to go to church, even though most of them attended the services. Church was the only place where drill instructors weren’t haunting their every move. In fact, drill instructors didn’t step foot in the building. It was like being free for two hours, without stress, and the worry of doing something wrong.

Chris’ platoon had just finished marching to the church from their barracks, and dismissed from formation. Each recruit filed through the main entrance, taking off their covers as they crossed the threshold of the building.

The church auditorium was large and elaborate for a modern building. It had stained glass windows around the outside that depicted famous Marine battles through history. One of the main windows pictured two Marines in their dress blues guarding the gates of heaven, with a crowd of soldiers, sailors, and airmen lined up to enter. The tall ceilings had wooden beams sprawling out from the center of the room towards the outside, similar to a spider web without the smaller cross members.

Church was also a way to see the progression of the different battalions. The recruits could tell how far along each other were in their training. They were small, subtle things that most people wouldn’t pick up on. During the first couple weeks, the recruits wore tennis shoes, instead of boots. After that, they wore boots, but didn’t blouse their trousers around them. Then they bloused their trousers around their boots. In the last couple weeks, recruits stop getting their entire head shaved, and their hair started to get cut with the almost trademark “jarhead” style. The recruits with the jarhead haircuts were respected. They were almost finished with boot camp. They were close to earning the title of “Marine”.

Filing into the church pew, Chris heard some loud whispering.

“By your leave recruit. Excuse this recruit. Thanks.”

He turned around to see what was happening and saw that Smalls was working his way past the other recruits, towards him. Chris arrived at his seat on the pew and sat down, wondering what Smalls was up to.

Smalls squeezed past a couple more recruits. “Excuse this recruit. Do you mind if this recruit sits here?” He said to another recruit, as he was pointing to a space just big enough for him to sit , between the recruit and Chris.

Chris inched over as much as he could to give Smalls a little more room to sit.

The navy chaplain walked up to the pulpit, wearing his dress blue uniform. The Marines don’t have chaplains. They don’t have their own medics either. But, being a department of the navy allowed them to work together, utilizing the navy’s chaplains and corpsmen (the navy’s version of a medic). “Let’s stand and sing praise to our Lord.”

The soft sounds of wooden pews creaked across the auditorium as hundreds of recruits stood up.

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved…” The recruits voices filled the room as they sang together in unison.

Smalls leaned slightly towards Chris and began to speak just loud enough for Chris to hear. “I was the undefeated state wrestling champion in my senior year of high school. Un-de-feat-ed. I’ve never been beat the way you beat me with the pugil stick.” Smalls paused for a second and shook his head. “I just can’t figure it out. I’m bigger than you. I’m stronger than you. But, you still beat me. I don’t know man. I just can’t figure out how you did it.” Smalls leaned back over, standing upright with his hands firmly planted on the pew in front of him.

Chris leaned towards Smalls. “Strength and size isn’t everything in a fight.” Chris stopped to think about what he should say. “Your strength is impressive man. When you pushed me after that whistle blew, I thought you had me. You caught me and had me on my back. It was close.”

“I thought I had you too.” Smalls looked at Chris and couldn’t help but smile. “Look, I’ve been thinking about how shit has been between us, and I was thinking about what you said. The bottom line is that I would rather have you fighting next to me when the shit hits the fan, than most of these other nutbags.”

“Same here, man. I’d fight next to you any day of the week. You’re a tough dude.”

The song ended and cut off their conversation. The chaplain spoke for a few minutes about the struggles of life, relating it to the struggles of boot camp, then started another song.

“Our God is an awesome God he reigns…”

Smalls leaned over again. “So we’re cool then?”

“Yeah man. Don’t worry about it. We’re good,” Chris said with relief. He was happy the conflict was over and looked forward to training with Smalls in the future. Smalls was motivated and strong. He was determined, aggressive, and had grit. Chris liked that and thought it was a good contrast to his own temperament and skills.

It was graduation day. Four platoons stood in formation on the parade deck. They were each perfectly aligned and standing like statues, donning their dress Alpha uniforms. The dress Alpha uniform consists of glossy black shoes, a circular dark green dress cover, dark green trousers, and a dark green coat, with a long sleeved collared khaki shirt and tie underneath. All of the new Marines were proud of their accomplishments. They could hardly wait to meet with their families again after twelve weeks of intense training.

The new Marines’ families were sitting in the sun covered, aluminum bleachers, admiring the discipline and structure of their young warriors. The sand fleas were out in full force, subjecting the families to their itchy bites. Bug spray was hardly deterring the tiny pests. As the Marines awaited their last command from their senior drill instructor to dismiss them, they scanned the bleachers for their loved ones. They were also being eaten alive by the little flying menaces, but their training and discipline was paying off, and they ignored the nagging itch that begged to be scratched. It was how much they had actually changed, as they watched the crowd in the bleachers uncontrollably itching and smacking themselves to eliminate the irritating bugs.

The First Sergeant yelled out a command to the senior drill instructors. “Senior drill instructors, dismiss your platoons!”

Simultaneously, each senior drill instructor responded. “Aye First Sergeant” Then they did an about face in unison, turning 180 degrees, and were now facing their respective platoons. “Marines, dismissed!”

“Aye, senior drill instructor! Oohrah!” The platoons took one step backwards, then about faced. They were finished with bootcamp.

The new Marines shook each others hands and congratulated each other on their accomplishments. The families stormed the parade deck, homing in on their beloved ones, fighting through the crowds they had inadvertently created themselves. Families were crying and hugging their newly disciplined Marines in amazement at how different they were.

“Recruit… I mean Chris. Come here, I want you to meet my family.” Smalls was waving towards himself, hoping to get Chris’ attention amongst the crowd.

It had been a while since Chris was in a family environment. He walked over to Smalls with a smile on his face, feeling a little nervous.

“Chris, this is my mom, Sarah and my dad, Henry. …and this beautiful thing here is my girlfriend, Alessandra. Everybody, this is Chris”

Chris extended his arm and shook Henry’s hand, immediately taking notice of his firm, calloused hand. “It’s good to meet you, sir.” Swinging his arm towards Sarah’s hand and gently shaking her soft, caring hand. “Ma’am.” He said, nodding his head slightly. Turning slightly to the right and holding his hand out to shake Alessandra’s hand. She shook it delicately, saying “I’ve heard quite a bit about you”.

“Like how I beat him with the pugil sticks?” Chris said, with a big smile.

Smalls chuckled. “How about we not talk about that, ever” He pushed Chris’ shoulder, as he laughed a little more.

Henry patted Smalls’ back and held his hand there. “Well, I hate to be the party pooper, but we need to get scootin’ son. Our flight leaves in a few hours.”

After the completion of boot camp, the new Marines were given ten days of leave, before having to report to combat training, or the school of infantry.

Chris and Smalls shook hands, then pulled each other in for a manly hug.

“I’ll see ya man. Maybe at SOI?” Smalls said as they separated from the hug.

“Yeah, that’s definitely possible. See ya bud.” Chris shook everybody’s hand once more. “It was nice to meet all of you.”

“It was nice to meet you too. Take care.” Henry said, before turning around and walking away, holding Sarah’s hand.

Smalls put his arm around Alessandra and waved with his hand on the other side of her head as they turned and walked away.

“Hey, don’t forget about balancing!” Chris said loudly to Smalls as he was walking further away.Smalls didn’t turn around, but held his left hand up and waved backwards to Chris. “Ha ha. Yeah, yeah.”

Chris watched Smalls’ family as they walked away, until they all piled in their Buick and drove off.  He stood there for a few minutes relishing the time he had just spent with them, until he came to the realization that it was time to go.  He walked over to the roadway and sat on a bench, patiently awaiting the next bus off of the island.

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