Why is everybody screaming?
Why is everybody running?
What did I just get myself in to?
These were the questions that were bouncing around my mind as I ran and screamed and tried to get my head re-wired to my feet. The last six hours of sitting, trying to wrap my thoughts around my future had just exploded into a very real “right here” and “right now.” I didn’t know where I was running to, but apparently, I should have been there five minutes ago, and now I had five seconds to get there… and they being counted down by someone who was none too happy with my performance.
Last month, my brother and I were floating around a pond as still as glass, under a sky that was muddy as the water. Frog gigging… which, for those of you who aint in the know, is when you keep quiet, listen for bull frogs, float to them, shine a flashlight in there eyes to stun them, and stab them with a gig (a small pitch fork on a long pole). We’d bagged 17.
Now, standing on these yellow footprints, on what looked like the biggest asphalt parking lot ever, looking into blackness broken by the beams of flood lights, I had a new respect for what those frogs felt like. Giant, angry, men swarmed around us, all built like action figures, their uniform shirt sleeves wrapped around arms bigger than my thighs. I’m not sure what I’d done to piss them all off at once, but I wished I could fix it so they’d calm down. Seems they were upset just by my being on their “parade deck,” which I understood because, troubled as they were, none of them wanted me gone as much as I did.
Last year, I’d told my father that I wanted to be a Marine. I wasn’t sure what I’d expected, but I’d watched his face go through a stack of emotions. He didn’t speak, but I saw pride, worry, happiness, fear, guilt, and some sort of understanding pass, one by one, through his eyes.
“So… that’s what you want to do?” He’d asked.
With out blinking, I’d answered, “Yes sir.”
He’d said “Son, you do understand that those stories I tell… they are about my good times. There were as many bad as good, more maybe, but I don’t speak on them.” More quiet… and then, “There could be another war while you’re in there. That means folks killing… dying… friends of yours… maybe you.” He’d turned away before he said that last.
“Pop, folks die everyday.” I’d kept my voice from cracking, barely. “When my time’s up, won’t matter much where I’m standing. ‘Til then, I can’t be scared to do what’s right.”
He couldn’t argue it; he’d told it to me. Often.
I thought about that morning he’d picked me up from the principal’s office. Tommy Cromwell had pushed a girl off a swing. She’d hit her head and started crying. The playground was covered in wood chips, but feet had dragged them from under the swings. The few chips left now hung in the little girl’s ponytail, her head bobbing as her sobs caught in her chest. There were teachers outside, but none saw it, or appeared to have. Tommy knew it. He’d glanced around to see, then smiled when no one noticed. The smile did it. Before I’d thought, I’d spun Tommy around and punched him in the mouth. He’d hit the ground and started crying too, blood from his lip mixing with the drool and tears, making things look worse than they were. Of course, everyone saw that part. Kids crowded in, hoping to get a look at Tommy bleeding and crying. Then Adult hands reached through, snatching me up by my collar. Tommy and the little girl went to the nurse; I was escorted to Mr. Ray’s office.
I figured my dad would whip me, and his face confirmed it when he walked in. He and the principal, Mr. Ray, had gone behind the door and spoke for a minute. When Dad came out, his look was serious, but softer. Mr. Ray had talked to me, Tommy, and the little girl. I assumed he’d gotten the same story from her and me, though I was sure Tommy’s was a bit different. Mr. Ray had told Dad what I’d done… and why.
In his van, going home, Dad chewed over the situation, still making his mind up. Finally, without looking over, he said, “What you did wasn’t right, but your reasoning was. Big folks pick on small folks, and that’s wrong. Sometimes, somebody needs to stand up for them. That’s what you were doing.” Quiet. Then, “Think on it. Figure a way you could have done something without getting yourself in trouble. Always try to think before you do.” A little more chewing, then, “I won’t whip you. I don’t ever want you scared to try to do what’s right.” For the rest of the ride, I’d turned that phrase over, trying to catch it, wondering if I could have made Tommy catch it… without hitting him. I didn’t think so. Still don’t. If I could go back, I’d hit him harder.
Now, I wondered if Dad was thinking about that day too. There was plenty he wanted to say, but he’d pick through it to find what he meant, or he’d say nothing at all.
“Son, that’s a hard road. I’ve walked it. Don’t think I don’t believe in you, just… know what you’re getting into. A whole bunch’ll go in with you, but won’t be many there at the end.” I wasn’t sure if he was talking about Marine Corps boot camp or military service… or war. He’d been through all three.
“Don’t worry ‘bout me, Pop.” I said, smiling. “They can’t make me do any more than I can do.”
“But Son,” he’d said, “You don’t know yet what you’re capable of doing.” He hadn’t smile back.
And he hadn’t smiled much for most of this year. He’d struggled. If he told me not to go, I might regret it. If he let me go, he might. And he was dealing with my mother, who’d lost her mind when he told her. I’d meant to tell her, but he was scared she’d kill me, and he couldn’t afford bail money. He’d taken the blast, and she’d fired both barrels. She even tried to “talk” to me, which ending in her screaming and slamming a door. Mom aint one for quiet discussion.
Yesterday around noon, Dad had driven me to what passed for an airport in Springfield, Illinois, and put me on what passed for a plane. My luggage was a two-piece meal of Popeye’s chicken, a traveler’s toothbrush/toothpaste combo pack in an otherwise empty travel pouch, and forty five dollars; a fifty, minus my two-piece. That was my first plane ride.
By the time I’d hit San Diego, I’d been on three more. The day had been a tornado of airports, stewardesses, tiny packs of peanuts, little cups of soda, and a feeling that, if things moved any faster, folks were gonna get look at that two-piece that I’d regretted eating since I’d learned what “turbulence” meant.
An hour ago, the planes stopped, and I’d gotten on a bus. I didn’t have a watch, but it was dark, and had been for a good while. I sat in the back, hoping I could be quiet if I did lose the battle I was still fighting with that chicken. Maybe that empty travel bag would come in handy after all.
The bus was full of boys when we left. All colors, shapes, and sizes. All with the same look on their faces. All wondering if anyone else was half as scared as they were. Most of them had no idea what frog gigging was, but they could all tell you how it felt to be that frog.
The bus had rolled off, silent. The air smelled hot and wet; completely unfamiliar. I’d later learn that smell was the ocean. Palm trees shown in the headlights; the first I’d ever seen. The bus rolled on, around corners, down and up hills, in circles for all I knew. I closed my eyes and thought. About my dad, who’d shaken my hand hard but had barely been able to say goodbye. About Mom, who hadn’t said goodbye, as if not saying it meant I couldn’t go. About my girlfriend, who’d said goodbye twice last night and once this morning, which was about the best goodbye an eighteen-year-old boy could’ve asked for. That last thought brought a smile; my first all day… and my last for three months.
Ten minutes ago, the bus had passed by an armed guard, slow rolled for a few more minutes, and stopped, quiet enough to pass for a hearse.
Five minutes ago, a grizzly bear in a uniform had stepped into the bus’s doorway and roared, in the most ungodly foul language, that we had five seconds to get off of his bus, or he would do things to us… horrible, horrible things. Then, more roaring, and some things said about our mothers; dirty things that mothers shouldn’t do. This Bigfoot of a man filled the doorway with barely two inches on either side of him, but that bus emptied in five seconds, and not one of us even brushed him on the way out.
Now, here I stand, on one pair of the hundreds of yellow footprints, painted on the asphalt by God knows who, God knows how long ago. Boys line up to my left and right, and all of the foot prints are filled. Drill instructors bark and howl, running like dogs wondering who to bite first. They scream at us all, sometimes zeroing in on one poor bastard that has done something, or nothing, to draw their interest. Whatever we’re doing , we’re doing it wrong. And if we’re doing it right, we aint doing it fast enough.
One finds me. He’s massive, and he’s screaming. Apparently, I wasn’t standing still fast enough. He’s a head taller, and he’s standing three inches from me, his face pumping like a sewing machine, his brown Smokey Bear hat drumming against my forehead. One of his hands is in my face, the other behind his back, no doubt holding a flash light and a gig. After a shower of spit, him screaming, and me praying, he disappears as quickly as he’d come; off to another part of the pond, to find a new frog. Boys all around me get the same… some worse. And it’s just starting.
Some of these boys came from tiny towns like me; some from cities. They’re black, white, Latino, Asian, and mutts like me. Some are running away; others running towards something. Many have something to prove; others, no better place to go.
We are all afraid, but none of us was too afraid. We’ve all learned that we can’t be scared to do what’s right. I think about Dad and want to smile, but I probably shouldn’t right now. I take a quick look around; a move that could easily earn me some one-on-one time with my huge, spitty, friend, or any of these other angry action figures. I’m a million miles from home. I don’t know anyone here, but I kinda know all of them… kinda. I don’t know where they’re from, but I know where they are… and where they’re going. We’re on this ride together. They all feel like me. We’re the same. They all want to be called Marine like I do. They say they can and will defend themselves and everyone else if they have to. Every boy here would have punched Tommy Cromwell in the mouth, and sat with me, waiting for our dads to come. Most will be here at the end of this. I will be here at the end of it.
About Will Jones:
Will is a husband, dad, and a writer who lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
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