18. Smile


The bricks have fallen, but we will build with dressed stones; The sycamores have been cut down, but we will put cedars in their place.

Isaiah 9:10

I was devastated. Thinking God wanted me to guard the Whitehouse, I wondered what could be next. My new default options of nuclear security or FAST platoon were both very good and I should have remembered this. Unfortunately my sunken eyes could barely see beyond my next meal, let alone the next year. The Crucible was on my mind. After a few days we’d return to the rear, rest up a bit and run the Marine-forging gauntlet. 

We finished field week and returned to our barracks. While licking our wounds from blistered feet and chafed thighs, with our gear staged in columns outside, an random Marine passing by stepped over and spoke up. “Y’all know that this is just the beginning right? Once you finish boot camp, that’s when it starts. The training only gets harder. Boot camp is the easiest thing you’ll ever do.” 

The most de-motivating pep talk ever.  Somehow I thought that once I finished boot camp my troubles would end. Marines are good at dashing my ignorant assumptions to pieces.

The Crucible finally arrived. There isn’t much to say about it. Two MRE’s, three days, two nights, four hours of sleep per night and performing team building exercises with a military-esqe agony inducing flair. We split off into groups wearing our gear and our small day packs. Each drill instructor took a section of our platoon and marched us from painstation to painstation. During one event we charged up a steep sandy hill, another we rotated carrying our buddy on a litter after binding his fake wound and another exercise we shimmied through holes and under barbed wire as mechanically simulated artillery and machine-gun fire rattled us. 

A ten mile ruck filled the entirety of the third day. From the buttcrack of dawn until noon we agonized through a symphony of suffering conducted by our senior drill instructor with the crescendo ascent called the Reaper. I remember the darkness in the early hours, followed by day breaking into California mist. The mist seemed to turn to clouds as the march up the dreaded Reaper progressed. 

Staff Sergeant Esquivel laughed and mocked each of us as he gleefully revisited his scythe-wielding friend. He ad-libbed orchestral tunes and swept his hands like a conductor while each of us, barely able to lift our heads, slogged through our steps, wondering if it would be our last. Sergeant Colston emotionlessly paced as if unaffected by the weight on his back or the steep slope. I detected discomfort in Sergeant Taylor, whose head bowed down like ours, but he still toughed it out much better than we did.

At the summit, they allowed us to let down our packs for a few minutes. In years past this hike occurred at the end of the third phase and at the top of the Reaper, recruits became Marines as they were handed their Eagle Globe and Anchor. However, because they shifted this march to phase two, we instead received a pep talk from Staff Sergeant Esquivel. Now, only about four miles remained between us and the chow hall. Once there, we would enjoy the most extravagant meal provided in boot camp: the Warrior Breakfast.

After about two hours we crossed the finish line. Though this most anticipated meal awaited, much needed hygiene took first priority. Once we washed up, we feasted. We gorged on burgers, fries, pizza, steak and even dessert. Some guys ate until they puked, or did so once they were hazed immediately after stuffing themselves with ice cream.

As second phase wound down, I turned nineteen. While in the chow hall I mentioned this to the recruit across the table. We felt proud having recently completed the crucible and although I couldn’t have a celebration for my birthday, I was happy to have it. As our joy got the better of us, we laughed. While still smiling, I noticed Sergeant Colston alone at a table standing up from his seat. When his eyes met mine, my smile dissipated. As he passed by, his cold look non-verbally stated, “Stop fucking smiling.”

Lunch finished as usual, and we returned to the squad bay. A short time later, when Sergeant Colston entered, he sent out a nonchalant order, “Crank on the quarterdeck right now.” I stalled before heading up, puzzled as to why he wanted me there. The chow hall incident left my mind, because I figured he simply rebuked me without words. Additionally, I almost completely avoided the quarterdeck up until this point because I sidestepped obvious screw ups and sought to please my drill instructors. Even my most blatant error with Captain Ludwig warranted my platoon’s punishment as I stood by. 

After my short pause, I shouted, “Aye Aye Sir!” and ran up, not seeking to kindle his anger more than I somehow already had. 

“Front lean rest right now,” he said.

“Aye Aye Sir!” I quickly propped myself into the push up position. He said nothing for minutes as he toured the squad bay. When he came back around he walked right past me and entered the drill instructor hut. My plank-like form began deteriorating at this point and then crumbled with my morale shortly thereafter. With my hips shifting between elevated and depressed positions, forming a pitched roof or a sagging tent, my shoulders started to give way. I spread my legs apart and leaned from side to side to shake out my kinked wrists and knotted shoulders. When he exited the hut, I expected to be set free.

“Smurf jacks right now,” he said.

“Aye Aye Sir!”

Though relieved to switch positions, my morale took another hit, not only because my punishment continued but because Smurf jacks are the worst. Rather than standing upright and recovering with jumping jacks, one of the easiest exercises, Smurf jacks are performed by mimicking the same movement but while squatting like a baseball catcher. My quads began burning almost immediately as they attempted to propel my pathetic hops with fully bent knees. My shoulders also strained tremendously due to the anterior tilt of my thorax compensating for the offset center of gravity from my dipping hips that nearly touched the ground. From this angled position, elevating the hands for the sweeping motion above the head causes all three heads of the deltoids and the upper trapezius muscles to scramble, working to perform an otherwise easy motion from a disadvantageous position.

After only a handful of repetitions, short pauses between hops were elongated in order to stay upright. Minutes gradually ticked away as my anatomy and confidence continued degrading. Sergeant Colston now calmly attended to other recruits, instructing them on proper packing and labeling technique for the items in their footlockers. Without looking, he elevated his expressionless order, “Decoupcrank, high knees right now.”

This would be my break. I could run in place forever. The only downside is that the knees must be elevated to ninety degrees with each jog as the arms outstretched, further fatiguing my shoulders. Quickly realizing my relief with this exercise, Sergeant Colston changed the punishment to mountain climbers, then switched back to front lean rest.

To maintain the push up position, I now needed to scurry to dry patches on the deck in order to prevent my hands from slipping. The feeble support beams of my structure required constant adjustment to prevent collapsing. Recruits looked over with flat expressions though concern and repulsion shown in their eyes for this most humiliating spectacle Sergeant Colston performed in their midst. No doubt they wondered what heinous crime I had committed to deserve this.

By this point, I’d been on the quarterdeck for at least fifteen minutes. Thoughts swirled through my head, seeking answers for my pain. What did I do wrong? Is it because it’s my birthday? Other recruits haven’t had this done on their birthday. This has to be wrapping up soon.

It wasn’t over soon. Over the course of the next hour, Sergeant Colston muttered command after command, sticking most closely to front lean rest, mountain climbers and Smurf jacks. As the minute hand rounded the clock, my back arched so feebly while in the push up position that my pelvis touched the floor. 

I broke. Tears turned to gasps, gasps became moans, and moans elevated to weeping through grit teeth as the sinus pressure from the burst dam forced snot, sweat and tears down into Sergeant Colston’s bubbling cauldron. A rope of mucus nearly three inches long wiggled as it connected drainage from both nostrils into a large goopy object. 

He remained unsympathetic. Unthawed by the heat of my emotion, still cold as ever, he continued to pummel my pebbles of morale into dust. Just as Moses demolished the golden calf, ground it into powder and forced the Israelites to drink it, so too Sergeant Colston gagged me with my own crumbled pride. This was the third time he broke me. Sure, the physical challenges in boot camp were tough, Staff Sergeant Esquivel scared the shit out of me, and I dared not cross Sergeant Taylor, but Sergeant Colston managed to undo me, all without a single scream. Honestly, his callousness made it more unbearable.

Back in phase one he cracked me the first time. In this phase we are taught how to make our racks perfectly, wrinkle free with angled folds at each corner as if the sheets were painted on. Occasionally though, rather than rip the covers off our racks with their own hands, we were commanded to do it ourselves. “Two sheets and a blanket on line,” means we are to bring these components in front of our rack, in hand, forming a line between rows of bunks. 

One afternoon, Sergeant Colston commanded, “Two sheets and a blanket on line right now.” He must have detected a shoddy rack.

We skinned our bunks and brought them on line. “Make you rack right now,” he said. We obeyed instantly.

When we finished, his voice picked up. “Two sheets and a blanket on line right now.” Someone must have screwed up, so he made us do it again. 

“Two sheets and a blanket on line right now,” he said. I realized my bunk wasn’t the best, so I was okay with doing this a third time. All the recruits must not be meeting his mattress-making standards.

By the seventh time, I managed to craft a masterpiece. The edges were perfect 45-degree angles, the sheets and linen shone no wrinkles and the four-inch flattened, tucked roll where the blanket and top sheet are retracted to reveal the pillow and white bottom sheet, contrasted flawlessly with the olive green blanket. This must be when we finished. 

When Sergeant Colston forced me to set ablaze my work of art, things went downhill. Each successive session chipped away at me. The nicks began creating a spiderweb of cracks. Eventually I caught on, realizing that this may go on for half an hour or more. This didn’t diminish the pain of being required to repeatedly perform the same task to your best ability, demolish it on command, and then reproduce the same stunning piece while a drill instructor is counting down from sixty erroneously fast seconds.

Tears of frustration leaked out of me. Yet his unaffected, undeterred, unending havoc continued. Moments before I collapsed into a hyper-ventilatory nervous breakdown, Staff Sergeant Esquivel arrived to ready us for our next activity. Apparently, this soul-crushing exercise was Sergeant Colston’s way of simultaneously killing both time and us. We must have destroyed and remade our rack at least fifteen times.

The second occasion he broke me happened during the Crucible. Though the physical tasks were tough, Sergeant Colston weaseled his way into my head by adding a psychological dimension to the suffering. He marched us to the assault course with the lifelike artillery and machine gun sound effects. We couldn’t begin though because we arrived before dawn. 

After a minute or two of idly standing, wearing our flak jacket, Kevlar, day pack, and rifles slung on our shoulders, the twisted cogs in his imagination began to turn. I’ve heard it said in Christian circles, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” Little did I know, but Sergeant Colston was the manager of this evil factory. 

He told us to line up shoulder-to-shoulder facing him as he stood about twenty yards away. 

“Get on your face right now,” he stated in his usual unemotional manner. We all hit the deck. “Low crawl right now,” his command needn’t be projected due to the pre-dawn air ushering his words into our ears.

We began to drag ourselves to his feet through coarse gravel. Some elevated their hips to gain traction with their legs while others raised their heads to look toward him. “Dicks in the dirt, face down,” he said.

Correcting our form, we slowly slid ourselves forward on flat ground. We proceeded with one arm reaching beyond and the other dragging our rifle. Our head needed to be turned flat to one side while we used the leg opposite our extended arm as the primary tool of propulsion with the other remaining limp to keep our hips down. We inched our way towards his feet, groveling before him in the gravel. 

Twenty yards feels like miles when grating your body low and slow on the ground. My left hand and elbow were tenderized by the rocks as my right knee roughed up from helping prop my weight to aid my sliding foot. The pressure of my pack and flak jacket compressed my thorax while my poorly fit helmet needed frequent adjustment as it shifted down the side of my head below my cheek from the friction. 

Upon arrival, we were told to stand up, turn around and return in the same manner. Following our return to where we started, Sergeant Colston repeated the same orders, summoning us to kiss his feet again, and again and again. The slow drag, scrapes on my limbs and hands, and unavoidable awkward clunking of maneuvering while flattened on the ground with rocks, gear and my rifle grated both body and soul. Though I didn’t cry this time, the physical and mental shredding during this day-breaking death grind stuck with me.

By the time my third and most devastating torture session ended, Sergeant Colston ordered me to my feet and to disinfect the quarterdeck. Upon completion, before turning to join my fellow comrades in their quiet duties, I barely caught a whiff of his nearly whispering comment: “Don’t ever let me catch you smiling again.”

What? That was it? I thought as I limped to my rack. Recruits received far less punishment for much worse crimes.  

Smiling was one of the first things we learned to avoid in Marine bootcamp. We were being trained to become warfighters, a serious job that ought not be tainted with dorky, jovial grins. Sure, joking and laughing are paramount to building camaraderie and are an essential component to bonding as a team, but this comes later and only occurs between peers when disengaged from a mission. Game face is a necessity to take our job seriously.

Hence, smiling is a crime, especially in boot camp. Ironically, I didn’t smile much to begin with. So to be demolished for the rare occasion that I manifested delight squelched future happy faces, causing me to develop a resting bitch face. I’m ashamed to admit, on several future occasions, my peers would ask me if I were on the verge of tears. I would embarrassingly tell them that I’m fine. Somehow my average expression became imprinted with permanent bitchy gloom.

The funny thing is, I caught Sergeant Colston smiling one time. Early in first phase when teaching us how to march, they would pull out recruits to display a maneuver. This time they picked the wrong demonstrator. 

Recruit Shmuckatelly1 stood out in front of our platoon. His task would be to demonstrate column-right and oblique2 maneuvers. This numbskull couldn’t even perform the command “Forward, march.” 

We don’t think about how to walk, we just do it. Marching is no different, except it is the more rigid, coordinated form of walking. When ordered to march, this kid’s brain malfunctioned. Rather than advancing his left foot and right hand following with opposite upper and lower limbs, he advanced his right arm and right leg, followed by his left arm and left leg. The idiot looked like a marionette strung by a drunken puppet master.

I saw Sergeant Colston crack a smile before he pulled down his campaign cover to shield himself. The comedic display managed to penetrate the bearing of a stone cold stoic. Too bad punishment for smiling is a one way street. All I could do was restrain my laugh with clenched lips and take note of his smile.

  1. This is the most common name ascribed to any foolish John Doe in the Marine Corps.
  2. Column right is a 90 degree pivot either left or right when marching in formation and an oblique is a 45 degree pivot in either direction.

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