27. We Call Him Dad

We Call Him Dad

For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.

Titus‬ ‭1:7-8

They sent me to second platoon towards the end of June. Once again, I was rudely awakened as now, after nearly a year of training, I finally arrived at my first actual job as a Marine. My platoon mates must have received word I graduated with a perfect GPA because they immediately put me to the test, forcing me to recite several definitions in not-so-calm circumstances. I caved under the stress and stumbled through sentences I otherwise knew by heart. They weren’t impressed.

My first few weeks in my first real platoon felt mediocre at best. The senior lance corporals, and corporals didn’t make things easier, reiterating the fact that we were boots and treated us as such. They were rough as always, never passing opportunities to make our lives more difficult like a big brother playing pranks on his siblings.

My highly prized weekends were severed as well. Half of our time we spent on the primary base while the other half we provided security in the restricted area. This reduced liberty aggravated by my senior comrades giving me grief reintroduced the Sunday blues similar to what I experienced in SOI.

From the get go, I stood out. A week or two into my time at second platoon I decided to volunteer for the wrong duty. Several vehicles checked out for training needed to be returned to the motor pool.

“Hey, we need two volunteers to return the vic to the lot,” a Marine shouted. “Are you a good driver?” He asked, pointing to the boot beside me.

“Yes lance corporal,” he said.

“Okay, good, I need one more.”

I quickly volunteered saying, “I can help.” 

“Roger that. You know how to ground guide?”

“Yeah, I can,” I replied, having never performed this task before.

As we ran down to the motor pool the uneasiness set in. My hope to earn confidence through faking it began to slip as I approached. We identified the van parked by the curb near the motor pool with our platoon mates unloading gear. Once they finished, my fellow boot hopped in the driver’s seat while I walked beside to make the quick turn to the motor pool on the other side of the fence.

We found a spot for him to back in that landed at the edge of uncovered slots with a cement, yellow-striped post guarding the small area for other vehicles parked under a sheet metal shelter. I started motioning with my arms, attempting to mimic the signals I’d seen from others ground guiding. He began backing up looking through the driver’s side mirror to see if he was aligned with the edge of the space. I gestured for him to continue, still glancing at the driver’s side. 

Screeeech. 

My teammate looked up at me with shock as I looked at the passenger’s side. The sliding door scraped along the concrete post. He pulled out, unable to do so without grating the door with another skin crawling screech. My skin flushed along with the rise in my internal temperature. Lance corporal Miller heard the commotion and walked towards us.

“Damn, y’all really fucked that up,” he said. I had no words. All I wanted to do was dig a hole and die in it. “I’ll park it then come with me. We got paperwork to fill out.”

He later chewed my ass. Looking back he wasn’t all that mean, just berated me a bit and assigned me a writing assignment about proper ground guiding procedures. You’d think watching a vehicle park would go without saying, but apparently not for me. 

The second time I singled myself out occurred on July 10th when our platoon ran the annual PFT. I heard this course was a breeze, with about a half mile downhill section. Guys could shave at least a minute off their time running on this scam of a route, so scoring a 300 didn’t feel as special at Bangor.

While setting up for the run, all of us bunched up at the starting line, I could hear the guys chatting amongst themselves. 

“Yeah, we all know who’s gonna win this one.”

“…smoked us last time,” another Marine commented. 

I couldn’t hear who they were talking about, probably because I focused on the race at hand. Regardless of the competitor, I figured I could win because Gomez went to fourth platoon. In orientation this gazelle ran a sixteen fifty on a flat course that I barely completed in under eighteen minutes. With him out of the picture I had a good chance of winning.

Once we were told to begin, I bolted off. As always, some guys sprinted the first fifty yards. After I passed them, I was on my own. I flew through the downhill portion as it curved slightly to the left. The route mostly coursed one direction but at the end there was a short turnaround. I passed where the finish line would be, continued up a small hill and after maybe a quarter mile wrapped myself around the cone and returned to finish the race. I clocked in at sixteen forty two.

Catching my breath I walked a few small circles. After about twenty seconds I was surprised to finally realize who the Marines were talking about. Our platoon commander, Captain Smith charged past the finish line with his burly body. The man standing tall with his shaved head and pleasantly surprised smile found me to shake my hand.

“Great job Marine.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Remind me your name?”

“Decoupcrank, sir.”

“Decoupcrank? Is that French?”

“No sir, Crank is English and de Coup was added on for some reason, I’m not sure why.”1

“Hmm, interesting.” He nodded with a subtle smile, “Well, congratulations. Welcome to second platoon.”

Our platoon had another Smith, though he was a lance corporal. He was tall, around 6’ 1’’ a bit hefty though still a PT stud and he had a gut-wrenching sense of humor accompanied by a never-ending grin. With his Jolly Green Giant smile he once told me out of the blue, “I like you Poopcrank!” 

Hanging out with Smith often felt like an ab workout due to his unending jokes. While standing in a loose gathering, awaiting our morning formation, I huddled around Smith and a few others, catching some familiar but slightly tweaked jokes. The beloved Chuck Norris, who for some unknown  reason transformed in the public eye from Karate Master to God in flesh some time in the early 2000’s, has a plethora of deific comments written about him. 

“When God said, ‘Let there be light!’ Chuck Norris said, ‘Say please.’”

“Chuck Norris counted to infinity…Twice.”

“Chuck Norris’ tears cure cancer. Too bad he never cries.”

“Santa Clause was real…that is, until he forgot to get a gift for Chuck Norris.”

“Chuck Norris is the reason Waldo is in hiding.”

I’d been exposed to several of these jokes and knew the general structure. However, when listening in on Smith’s comments, he interposed Chuck Norris with another. 

“Hey guys, did you know Captain Smith doesn’t sleep? He waits.” We broke out laughing. “Captain Smith won a game of Connect Four in three moves,” Smith continued with his huge grin. Wiggins then chimed in.

“Captain Smith can divide by zero.” 

Smith then bounced back. “When Captain Smith divides, there are never remainders.” By this point I was dying, as were the rest of us in our small group. “You know Captain Smith doesn’t need to shave, right? His hair is afraid to grow.” 

“Dude stop it,” Wiggins pleaded, as he keeled over in laughter, one hand on his stomach the other on one knee. “I’m gonna die.”

“But seriously though,” Smith continued, “What are the odds Captain Smith is actually some superhuman alien in disguise and when he came down to earth to blend in with we mere mortals he tried to think up a name on the spot? ‘Hm, Smith, yes, that will be my name.’” I lost it at this point, we all were curled over with laughter.

The jokes weren’t spawned out of disrespect, far from it. In our eyes Captain Smith very well could have been a celestial being with an unassuming alias who descended from on high to grace us with his presence. Everything about him caused every fiber in our being to freely lavish him with our utmost respect. He was a fit, smart, authoritative, platoon commander who served in Iraq. He never ruled with an iron fist or crammed infantry dogma down our throat but he held us to the high standard he modeled. He always humbly sought, considered and implemented input from the NCO’s and during training exercises, led us to the answers by asking questions. 

We performed a security breach drill while on guard duty and held our positions while Captain Smith toured our set up. I laid in the prone, tunnel visioned in towards one side of a pier with a post from the dock obscuring the whole right side of my periphery. 

“Are you able to see okay?” He asked.

I thought for a moment. “No sir,” I said, embarrassed.

“Try taking a knee. You would have better a visual and can still maintain a low profile.”

Light bulb moment. I shimmied up to one knee, having gained much better situational awareness. “Yes sir. Thank you sir.”

When time came to debrief us after the drill, he mapped out the locations where each team set up blockades and security while standing with his usual, pristine posture. His shoulders were properly seated, legs straight, hips level, feet exactly eight inches apart, elbows bent ninety degrees and his left hand gently folded over his curled right hand. He then proceeded with the debrief.

“Lance corporal Nash, can you walk us through your thought process?”

“Yes sir, we posted up along the bridge providing a blockade with the turret oriented down the pier and set up outboard security with two Marines on either side of the pier to prevent threats from coming around our barrier in the water.”

“Good thinking. Does anyone know another word for ‘go around,’ or ‘bypass?’”

We all paused for a few seconds. Perry then spoke up, “Circumvent, sir.” Captain Smith cracked a close lipped smile in his direction, “Ah yes, that’s the one.”

Pfffftt, leave it to the college nerd to figure that one out,” Lance Corporal Smith said as he smacked Perry on the back.

“Ah, you’ve attended some college?” Captain Smith asked.

“Yes sir, only an associates degree.”

“Very good,” he nodded, now returning his look to Nash. “Lance Corporal Nash, where are your friendly forces in relation to your turret gunner?” 

“Posts one and two are towards the end of the pier but not within line of sight behind the buildings.”

“Okay, good. Gentlemen, as a reminder, good security is not always a panacea to all our problems.” Before he moved on with his thought, he noticed we all served him blank stares. “Does anyone know the definition of panacea?” There was another pause as before, though this one lasted longer. Some ten or more long seconds passed when a dim light flickered in my mind.

“…Cure?” I asked with utmost uncertainty. He turned to grant me another pleasantly surprised smile and nod. Captain Smith must have thought I was an avid reader having mustered up this response from the dusty file cabinets of my mind, when in fact I barely eked out this half-correct answer. Little did he know I encountered this word from an item in Final Fantasy VII that could cure any status ailment: blindness, poison, petrification, silence and more were instantly healed when the panacea was used. Somehow I managed to connect the dots in a short time after not encountering the word in years and having never actually heard it spoken.

“Yes, very good. Panacea means cure all. As I was saying, good security is not always a cure all to problems on the battlefield, situational awareness is of utmost importance, especially when there are friendlies down range not part of the main element.”

We soaked in every word coming out of his mouth. As his debrief continued, our minds filled with knowledge. Not only did we learn tactical wisdom, but learning new vocabulary words during our talks with Captain Smith was not uncommon.

When touring my post for the first time my buddy and I welcomed him in. Upon recognizing me as the odd-named runner who outpaced him, he struck up a conversation after my greeting.

“Oorah sir.”

“Greetings.” Once he noticed who I was he asked, “did you run cross country?”

“No sir, I mostly just run on my own. I ran track in eighth grade which got me started and hadn’t stopped running since then. I recently cut my time down with a lot of work on the stationary bike.” 

“I see. Good work.” Somehow within the five or so minutes he conversed with us on post, he seamlessly transitioned the conversation to teach us the etymology of the word “decimate.”

“Decimate is derived from the Latin word decimatus which means ‘the removal or destruction of one tenth.’ For example, when conquering their foes, the Roman Legions would line them up, count off and execute every tenth prisoner thus, decimating their enemy.”

Needless to say I was intrigued by his hip-pocket lesson. I could have heard him teach me about words for the remainder of post, but he left shortly thereafter. It’s doubtful I would have remembered a subject so boring at face value as the origin of a word from any other source. Hundreds of hours of more interesting lessons have been long forgotten from all my school teachers. I however always remembered this five minute crash course on “decimate” because Captain Smith’s words branded themselves into our psyche. Everything he said was gold, not because he was some conniving, manipulative alchemist, but because the few, precise, weighty words that exited his mouth were so carefully chosen we hoarded them like lost treasure. 

It’s no wonder then why we referred to Captain Smith amongst ourselves as Dad. I’m not sure who came up with this or when I first heard it, but in my mind he deserved no better title. Come to think of it, it’s odd why we would so willingly and joyfully call him Dad. My dad drank himself to death. Others could have been in a  similar boat and some may have grown up with far worse fathers than I. Yet, for some reason, we ascribed a title laden with such contextual iniquity to the most respectable man we’d ever met. 

As if the true nature of the Good Father could never be soiled by men who ransacked the designation, we proudly called him Dad, instinctually recognizing what true men can, could and should be towards their sons. My dad couldn’t taint the pure representation of the Father. Many of those who served with me were like me, lost boys seeking to escape a life of fatherlessness, unconsciously seeking fathers above, brothers beside and sons below them. Irresponsible men were unable to deter us from innate knowledge of and hunger for a man in authority whom we both admired and respected. Captain Smith was the first man I truly respected.

Dad loved us, but never went easy on us. He’d already witnessed the trauma of war and knew we weren’t ready for it, so he pushed us to our limit whenever he had the chance. While training in Yakima, we performed countless iterations of combat patrols, assaults and room clearing. He let us know when we didn’t meet his standard. When we finally did, we floated on clouds. 

After long days of training, no matter what time we returned, weapons cleaning always took priority. Many platoons were allowed to turn in their weapons and clean them the following day. Dad ensured we always took care of our gear. “Take care of your gear and your gear will take care of you,” the saying goes. 

Some leaders rule with an iron fist, scrambling to deal with unending issues of misconduct with blasts of insults. Second Platoon rarely had incidents, but when someone got in trouble, we feared consequences less than we feared the convicting knife of Dad’s compassionate displeasure. Nash one time went out drinking in Canada and got stuck across the border overnight and wasn’t able to make it to formation the following morning. All he needed was a disappointed look from Dad to never mess up again.

We were proud to be his sons, and he was proud to be our platoon commander. I wonder if he knew we called him Dad behind his back. He must have known, after all, he was Captain freakin’ Smith. Just in case he didn’t, however, during the 2008 Marine Corps Ball, Lance Corporal Smith made it known to Captain Smith in no uncertain terms what we thought of him as we echoed the hand-written chant he shouted in his honor. The only line I remember was the final one.

“‘Cause Captain Smith’s a BAMF and we call him Dad!”

  1. I did not know the origin of my name at this time, though I do now. If you missed it and are interested, you can find a post about my name here

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