August, 1999 – Camp Lejeune, NC
The maturing BMW twisted and turned through the jersey barriers. The concrete, triangular barriers created a serpentine path on the roadway that guided the BMW to a forced stop at the guard shack. The lance corporal military police officer waved the vehicle on after observing the red, enlisted sticker on the windshield. Chris pressed the accelerator, continuing down the straight and lengthy two lane roadway, through a corridor of luscious trees.
Approaching the busier portion of the base, red brick buildings dominated the landscape. Large steam pipes ran along the ground and jumped up at the edge of the roads to span across, allowing vehicles to pass beneath. Steam spewed out of sporadic joints, giving an industrial feel to the base, nestled in the middle of vast forests and nature. It was a hot, humid, sunny day.
Chris crept passed a platoon of Marines wearing olive drab shorts and shirts. They ran in formation while shouting cadence. Turning right, into a parking lot near a small brick building, he heard the brakes squeal lightly as his car eased into a parking space. Exiting his vehicle, Chris put his cover on and walked towards the bright red painted door.
He entered the building, took his cover off, and walked through the hallway that led straight into the heart of the mostly vacant section of the structure. The only sound in the hall was the clicking of Chris’ shoe on the tile floor. At the end of the hallway he arrived at an old, grey metal desk. Behind the desk was a Marine sipping coffee and reading the Marine Corps Times. Chris stopped and stood silently in front of the desk. Without moving his head or changing his body position, the Marine acknowledged Chris’ presence.
Once he reached the end of his article the Marine began to fold up his paper. “Good morning,” he said, focusing on folding the paper exactly. “What can I do for you?” His voice was monotone, as if he’d been saying the same thing to Marines every day for the last decade. Like a skipping record player that needed to be bumped, he wasn’t thrilled to be there and had long before grown tired of the repetition.
“Good morning staff sergeant,” Chris said crisply as he fiddled with his cover behind his back “I’m here to check into 2nd Recon Battalion.”
“Very well then. I can help you get settled in. I’m Staff Sergeant Richards. Welcome to Camp Lejeune.” The Staff Sergeant stood up, held his hand out and lifted his head to see who he was speaking to. “You look familiar.” His curiosity was on the rise.
Chris shook his hand firmly. “I get that sometimes.”
“No, I think I remember your face from something. Or from somewhere.”
Chris didn’t want it to be brought up, so he forced his eyes to wander around the room and changed the subject. “So, uh…will I be billeted with other guys from two-two?
“Oh, right. Yeah.” SSgt Richards began to doubt his own memory and resumed his regular chit chat. “You just get finished with the Basic Recon Course?”
“Yeah, kinda. I finished BRC a few months ago, then graduated from scout sniper school last week.”
“How was it?”
“Brutal. It was awesome training, but freakin’ brutal.” Chris cracked a smile, showing signs of his proud accomplishments.
“That’s what I’ve heard.” SSgt Richards turned around and opened a small metal lock box that was mounted on the wall behind the desk. He scanned through the keys with his fingers, then picked one up. “Alright sergeant, here’s your key. You’ll be in building 3029, room 212, with a few other Marines.” He handed Chris the key. “I’ll get the paperwork submitted for your meal card. But in the mean time you can sign in at the front of the chow hall on the ‘temporary assignment’ sheet.”
“Thanks staff sergeant. I appreciate your help.”
“It’s no problem sergeant. Let me know if you need anything else.”
“I will.” Chris slid the key into his pocket and walked down the hallway of the decrepit brick building, exiting through the bright red door.
A short drive later, Chris arrived at a large, three story, red brick building bearing the numbers “3029”. He stepped out of his car, walked around to the back, and put his key in the trunk’s keyhole. He shook the key gently, applying a slight twisting pressure. “It should be right about…there.” He softly spoke to himself, willing the stubborn lock to comply. With more gentle jiggling the trunk popped open. He pulled his olive drab sea bag out and slung it over his left shoulder, then he spun around and walked up the concrete stairs to the second floor. Chris continued down the concrete balcony, until he arrived at room 212. Hesitating for a minute, he prepared himself to meet his new roommates. With the key in his hand, he raised it up to the doorknob.
“Put that shit away man! That’s fucking gross!” voices muffled through the door.
A different voice with a broken French accent replied, “Dude that smells like your mom’s…” The door to the room swung open and a short Marine came storming out, bumping into Chris.
“Oh shit, sorry sergeant,” the short Marine said with surprise. The Marine’s name was Corporal Barnum. Born and raised in Trinidad, he was five feet six inches tall, and weighed 165 pounds. He had dark black skin, spoke with a thick accent, and wore his woodland digital camouflage uniform like almost everybody else in Camp Lejeune.
Chris looked down at the Marine. “Don’t worry about it corporal.” He nodded his head towards the door. “You live here?”
“I guess that makes us roommates then.”
“Ah, man.” Corporal Barnum felt like he had ruined his only shot at a first good impression. He reached for the door. “Here, let me get that for… Wait… You’re the guy from Camp Pendleton, right? You were awarded the Navy and Marine Corps medal for saving the lives of like fifteen Marines?”
“It was only eleven. And it wasn’t that big of a deal.”
“It wasn’t a big deal? Sergeant, you were awarded the second highest non-combat medal possible and given a meritorious promotion for saving the lives of eleven Marines. I’d say that’s a big deal. The Marine Corps Times said you moved so fast that you looked like a blur. The title of the article was ‘Marine Saves Men in a Blur’.”
“Adrenaline helps men accomplish amazing things.” Chris pointed to the door with his right thumb. “Hey, you mind if I head in. This bag is getting heavy.”
“Oh, of course. I’m sorry.”
“Thanks.” Chris said as he walked through the door and took his cover off. He paused for a second to let his eyes adjust to the poorly lit room, after being outside in the bright sun.
“Son of a bitch! What the hell are you doing here?”
Chris could barely make out the shape walking towards him. He could tell it was a man with a large stature. “I’ve been assigned to this room,” Chris said, wondering who he was addressing, hoping it wasn’t going to be the third person this morning that was going to recognize him from the incident.
The large man wrapped his arms around Chris briefly hugging him, then let go and backed up a few steps. “It’s me man.”
Chris’ eyes lit up as his vision adjusted and he realized who he was talking to. “What are you doing here?”
“This is my room, man,” Smalls replied with a smile. “I live here.”
“No way. That’s crazy. What are the odds of that?”
“Welcome to our humble abode.” Smalls pointed behind Chris with his right index finger. “That dumbass there is Corporal Barnum.” He used the thumb of his left hand to point behind himself. “The guy dropping a deuce in the head is Corporal Faulk, and of course you know who I am.” He finished his sentence, smacking himself on the chest with both hands. Smalls hit Corporal Bagley’s left bicep with the back of his hand. “Dude, this is my best friend, Chris. I went to boot camp with this guy.”
“So you’re joining 2-2?” Corporal Barnum asked hopefully.
“You’re just in time for all the fun then. We’re deploying in a few months.”
Chris looked at Smalls curiously. “Is he serious?”
“Yeah man, we’re slated to go to Iraq and kill some shit.”
“Awesome. I can finally put this training to good use,” Chris said reflectively.
“We’ve still got some time left here though, so make yourself comfortable.” Smalls walked over to a bunk bed and smacked the mattress on the top. “This one is all yours. Unless you want to pull rank and take the bottom bunk from Corporal Faulk.”
The room was a little bit smaller than Chris’ old “studio” apartment back in Baltimore. It had two bunk beds and one bathroom. The walls were made of cinder blocks and painted a light beige color. The carpet was hard and didn’t have any padding to soften the concrete floor underneath. It was a standard Marine Corps barracks room.
“I won’t be a dick. I’ll take the top bunk.”
“Always the nice guy,” Smalls laughed as he walked over and sat on his bottom bunk. “I saw your name on the roster, said that you were checking in tomorrow.”
“That was the original plan, but I didn’t have anything better to do, so I figured I’d get it over with today.”
“Ah, I gotcha.”
Chris sat on Corporal Faulk’s bed. “How’s Alessandra and the family? Feels like it’s been a while since I’ve seen them.”
“Everybody is doing good. It’s been, what? About seven, eight months? We all hung out around New Years?”
“Yeah, that sounds about right.”
“Hey, how have you been holding up since the Pendleton thing?” He was concerned for Chris and didn’t want him being unnecessarily hard on himself. “We don’t have to talk about it. I just want you to know I’m here for ya, man.”
“I’m doin’ okay.” He said nodding his head. “Maybe we can talk more about it later.”
A muffled voice came from the bathroom, interrupting their conversation. “Aaarrgghh!” The toilet flushed. Corporal Faulk opened the bathroom door and stood still for a few seconds in the doorway. He was wearing only a pair of boxer briefs. Everybody in the room looked at him curiously.
“Everything come out okay?” Corporal Bagley asked with a look of concern on his face.
“Fuck yeah, bro!”
Corporal Faulk was a crude individual. It was rare that anything came out of his mouth without a curse word shortly behind it. He was born and raised in a small farm town in Delaware. His arms, chest, and parts of his legs were covered with tattoos. Most of the tattoos were black and white and depicted an intricate biomechanical skeleton that appeared to be beneath his skin. He was an average height of five feet, nine inches tall, weighing in at two hundred pounds of solid muscle and brawn. He was constantly taking nutritional supplements to supply his body with added fuel for his workout routine. Full of energy and enthusiasm, time spent with Corporal Faulk was always entertaining.
“That was possibly the best shit I’ve ever took without eating an MRE. I think I just gave birth to a god-damn telephone pole.” Corporal Faulk strolled over to the sink and began mixing his protein shake. “Maybe next time I won’t flush and let you check it out, Barnum.”
Only in the Marine Corps. You gotta love it. Chris thought to himself, looking at Smalls as he chuckled.
Smalls knew exactly what he was thinking and began laughing. “Don’t ask man. He’s in a world of his own.”
Corporal Faulk chugged his protein shake, dropped down to the floor, and began doing pushups.
Corporal Barnum was still standing near the door. “Yeah, maybe next time Faulk.” He grasped the doorknob. “Hey, I’m starving guys. I’m gonna get some chow. Anybody coming?”
“Sixty Eight more push…uugh…ups and I’ll meet you down…argh…there, fuck face.” The response came from Corporal Faulk without a glance, as he continued to push the floor.
“Corporal Smalls? Sergeant? Either one of you coming?”
Chris waved his hand dismissively. “I’m gonna unpack the rest of my stuff, then I’ll head over.”
“We’ll catch up to ya, man.” Smalls said reluctantly.
“Okay, I’ll see you guys down there.” Corporal Barnum walked out of the door and shut it as he left.
Smalls turned back to Chris. “Hey, speaking of holidays, are we still good for Thanksgiving?”
“Yeah, of course. I wouldn’t miss it.”
Smalls’ cell phone rang. “I’ll be right back. It’s the wife.” He stood up off of his bed and walked out to the balcony, “Hey babe…” The door shut behind him.
“Hi baby. How’s your morning?” Alessandra’s soft Latin voice replied.
“It just got a little better. Guess who showed up early?”
“Chris? He’s always full of surprises. You didn’t tell him, did you?”
Smalls rubbed the temples of his head with the middle finger and thumb of his left hand. “No, I didn’t. This is hard for me.”
“I know, baby.”
“…hey, I’ll try to call you a little later, okay? We’re gonna go get some chow.”
“Alright, I love you baby. Bye. Oh, tell Chris I said ‘hi’.”
“Alright, I will. Love you too. Bye babe.”
Smalls slid his cell phone back into his pocket and walked back into their room. “You guys ready for chow, or what?”
Chris stood up. “Yeah, I can finish unpacking later.”
Smalls turned to Corporal Faulk, who was now doing sit-ups. “What about you, crazy? Ready?”
“Hell yeah corporal. I was just waiting for your intimate little conversation with your new boyfriend to be over.”
“Ha ha, shut up Faulker. Let’s go.”