My day at the rifle range was finished when First Lieutenant Tarry (my executive officer) handed me my orders. I was stunned and remember feeling sick. “This can’t be right, I have a year retention of duty.” Immediately I went to headquarters and confronted the Squadron First Sergeant. He explained that I had re-enlisted as a Corporal and my subsequent promotion to Sergeant meant all future orders would come from Headquarters Marine Corps . . . I basically hadn’t read the fine print in my contract.
How was I going to explain this to Jenny? We had only been married five months and were not prepared for this turn of events. I knew she wasn’t going to be happy with this news. When showing her the orders it was all code to her so I explained, “These are orders to Vietnam.” She looked at me as if it’s a Halloween prank but reality sunk in quickly.
Kids started coming to the door with their Trick-or-Treat bags and I passed out treats while Jenny stayed out of view. She was grim faced and puffy eyed with a growing pile of Kleenex. It was the most miserable Halloween we have experienced.
We didn’t sleep much that night . . . Jenny made a decision to return to Fresno State and finish her degree while I was in Vietnam. In retrospect it was a relief for me, as I had guilt feelings about her not finishing college after completing her junior year. We now had 50 days to make a plan and get things in order.
Next edition: How did we get here?
Jenny and I were born in April 1945 (19 days apart). Growing up in the suburbs of Southern California, we both experienced similar activities and events. After graduating from high school (1963) Jenny went to Fresno State College and I joined the Marine Corps.
The summer of 1966 was our first encounter. It was in Laguna Beach in front of the iconic Hotel Laguna. I was with two Marine buddies and we had just finished drinks in the “Captains Cabin,” a quiet bar in the hotel. We decided to take turns out front approaching girls on the sidewalk with our pick-up lines. We were failing big time but having fun.
Three young ladies came toward us and it was my turn . . . I stepped out and informed them they had won a “free guided tour” of Laguna Beach. They accepted the gift and we were on our way. Little did I know, Jenny’s parents owned a beach cottage there and she was very familiar with the town. We made our way through the village and ended up at the Gazebo overlook. It was a beautiful night and we stayed for a time talking and getting to know each other. Finally she said they had to get home and agreed to see me the next day. She gave me her address and we kissed!
The next day we got together again at the beach before I met Jenny’s family. I felt welcome and after some conversation we headed back to the beach. The weeks and months to follow were filled with anticipation and it was clear we had fallen in love. We exchanged letters, made phone calls and managed to survive being apart until the weekends.
Finally in October we planned a weekend trip to Northern California so Jenny could meet my family. Before we arrived I drove to a spot overlooking San Francisco Bay. It was early evening and the view was spectacular . . . I proposed and she accepted. With the engagement ring on her finger I introduced Jenny to my family. On the return trip, we discussed wedding plans. A military wedding was our preference and over the next six months we planned all the details.
On May 6, 1967, we were married at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Glendale, California. After a big church reception we headed out for our honeymoon destination, Laguna Beach.
After a short honeymoon we settled into a small apartment in Tustin, California. I returned to my assignment at the M.C.A.S. El Toro rifle range as a marksmanship instructor for ongoing re-qualification. We did manage to take a quick (five days) camping trip to Lake Tahoe during the summer. Happy times and memories.
Next Edition: My Military Background/Credentials
Upon completion of boot camp and infantry training I was assigned to attend Steward School in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. During the process of checking in, I was sent to Master Gunnery Sergeant Washington for orientation. He gave me the basic run-down of the course and explained that the top ten percent of the class would get their choice of available duty stations on the final roster (big incentive). He then pushed a document at me to sign which said that I had volunteered for this school. I had not, and I told him so. He said, “It’s up to you, sign it or be transferred to the 2nd Marine Infantry Division.”
It was late in the day and a clerk burst into the office and said there was a fire outside. Washington raced out the door and I could see through the blinds . . . a big pile of leaves was smoldering. After some time the commotion was over and I waited for Washington to return. He never did, so I put the unsigned document back in the folder and placed it in the Out file.
Classes started October 13th and I was focused on getting my choice of duty station. I studied in the library while everyone was at Happy Hour in the club. On weekends I would go to a coffee shop in New River and study everything about food service. Finally on February 10, 1965, we took our final exams and I was first in the class of 27. The roster of duty stations was posted and my choice was MCAS El Toro, Santa Ana, California,
When receiving my orders the glitch that I had not signed the the volunteer document was noticed and again they tried to force me to sign. When I refused, I was ordered to the Major’s office and he asked me why I wouldn’t sign the document. I explained that I didn’t want the document to be used against me in the future. He asked, “How could it be used against you?” I answered, “Sir, I did not volunteer for this.” He dismissed me and I was on my way back to California.
When checking into El Toro it was mandatory for all enlisted Marines to meet the Station Sergeant Major. It was just a way to let everyone know that he had your back. His words came across loud and clear . . . If you ever get frustrated and feel like doing something stupid or need help with an issue, come see me first. Those words eventually would be very important to my future in the Marines.
Next edition: My military background/credentials II
El Toro was a great duty station. I had a lot of good friends and we made many excursions to places like Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, Dodger Stadium, Hollywood, Laguna Beach and the list goes on.
Settling into my new job at the officers mess was easy and I enjoyed my work. Finally I was able to work my way into the dining room and was working as a busboy, clearing plates and refilling beverages. Sometimes mistakes were made . . . but mine was BIG! A Major motioned to me for an iced tea refill and pushed the glass toward me. The proper procedure was to take the glass “from his left, with the left.” I took the shortcut and tried to accommodate him from across the table. The tea pitcher bumped his glass and the tea spilled in his lap. He was pissed (for good reason) and made a scene.
The next day I was relieved of my dining room duties and sent to the transient officers quarters to refresh rooms (motel maid). I spent my morning changing sheets, cleaning toilets, sanitizing sinks and polishing hallway floors. It was supposed to be easy duty, but I was mortified by it. I knew I couldn’t do this for long . . . it just wasn’t me.
At the lunch break I went to the Sergeant Major’s office and stood by the door waiting for him to return from chow. He took one look at me and said, “Come in and close the door.” I related my morning experience to him and ended with, “I’d rather go to the Brig than make beds for officers.” Of course his answer was that I had volunteered to be a steward. When I said, “No, I didn’t!” He didn’t believe me. I insisted that I did not volunteer, and he picked up the phone and requested my record book.
The signature line on the volunteer page was blank. He was surprised and said, “What the #### do I do with you now?” I blurted out, “Sir, I can do more for the Marine Corps as a coach on the rifle range than in the officers mess. He turned to the page on marksmanship, and my expert qualification was 241/250. He seemed to be overtaken by nervous excitement and after a few calls, I was officially transferred out of steward duty to the training department and rifle range detachment.
Next edition: My military background III
Duty at the rifle range was all outdoors. There was a split Quonset hut, half of which served as the range office and the other half was a living area for the Duty NCO. The range was open from 6 am – 5 pm Monday thru Friday but closed on weekends and holidays.
Many of the Marines serving on the range were married and having “the duty” was not a popular thing (we had less than 20 in the detail). The duty roster was posted monthly and we were allowed to trade days with each other. As one of the single Marines, I probably spent more time as the Duty NCO than anyone else. A perk of having the duty was when relieved at 0600, I got the rest of the day off.
My circle of close friends remained the same. The stewards I had served with in the officers mess continued our friendship, working in separate units. The extra time off allowed me to spend more time with them.
As a marksmanship coach, I excelled and the next step up was to be an instructor. In April try-outs were initiated for the El Toro rifle team. I made the cut with four others. We practiced every day, and in May the NRA held the State Championship match at Camp Pendleton. I entered the 600 yard open and won the event. My score was a perfect 100 with 13 V’s (V ring is a 12″ circle within the 20″ bull’s eye). I received a nice medal and a designation as Lifetime Master with the High Powered Rifle. It was a big deal for a young Marine stationed at an air facility.
Returning from the matches, my name came up for requalification and I fired expert with a score of 249/250, breaking the El Toro range record. A story was printed in “The Flight Jacket” regarding my high scores, and I had a bit of celebrity status. My steward friends teased me about the spilled ice tea and how I had finally found a niche.
In October 1965 I was promoted to Lance Corporal and designated as a Primary Marksmanship Instructor (PMI). It was unusual for an E-3 to have this position (sort of like a freshman making varsity). Also I received a notice of a change in MOS (military occupational status). My primary MOS was now 3371 cook and I was given a secondary MOS of 8531 marksmanship instructor. These were now my official military credentials after 18 months in the Corps.
Next edition: Why did I join the Marines?
Growing up in southern California in the 1950’s was a good experience for me through the 6th grade. For financial reasons our family had to sell our house in Manhattan Beach and we moved to Torrance. During the 7th and 8th grade I attended four junior high schools, and in my freshman year of high school I changed schools three times. I tried my best to make new friends but then we would move again.
Stability became an important factor in my decision to join the Armed Forces. After graduation my friends went off to college. For a brief time I attended Foothill Junior College in Palo Alto. The classes were good, but I was having trouble making new friends. I wasn’t happy living at home.
Vietnam was not on anyone’s radar and there didn’t seem to be any threats of war. Serving our country wasn’t glamorous unless you were Elvis Presley and got drafted. For me, patriotism had a slight tarnish to it after the JFK assassination. Flower Power and the summer of love were not yet on the horizon, but something was in the air.
‘The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.”
Were the answers to my questions intangible as the wind? Then came, The Times They Are a-Changin’ These were the times, the music, the feeling, the sexiness of it all. Somehow I had to make my own way.
I had no idea of the consequences of my decision to join the Marines. I just needed to make a clean break from the the past. I enlisted on April 3, 1964.
Next edition: Knuckles Down
Marine Corps boot camp has a tough reputation. Physically demanding and emotionally crushing. Being weak is not an option. There were times when all of us were frightened and ready to jump ship. Several recruits were ejected in the first week of training. It was scary stuff.
“Knuckles Down” meant doing push-ups on your fists. Everyone had bruised and bloody knuckles. I had learned in high school cross country to divert pain by distraction . . . thinking of something more pleasant. When I heard “Knuckles Down,” I thought of playing marbles. I loved playing marbles as a kid, and we played knuckle down and “for keeps.” Playing “for fair” meant all the marbles would be returned to the original owner. This was not a game though.
Playing marbles in boot camp was for keeps. We all arrived with a bag of marbles. Each marble represented a character trait. The good marbles like Aggies, Bumblebees, and Jumbos, stood for good character traits (integrity, humility, compassion). The lesser marbles represented poor character traits (dishonesty, laziness, perversion).
Over time our good marbles were taken away and we were left with a bag of poor quality chipped or flawed marbles. Eventually we started to believe we were all of these bad things. Sometimes (twice in our platoon of 75) recruits lost their marbles and attempted suicide. One was sent back to us, only to try again.
In the end each of us received a “Steelie” representing the Corps. It was the best marble in our bag and could not be taken away. The Steelie represented honor, sacrifice and bravery. We believed it.
Warning: If you play marbles with a Marine, don’t try to take away the Steelie . . . He/She will die for it.
Next edition: Veterans Day/Marine Corps Birthday
My first experience with the Marine Corps Birthday Ball was in 1965 at El Toro Marine base. My steward friends were always getting job offers to serve at various functions. Sometimes they would need extra help and asked me to fill in. Most of our jobs were with Crist Catering Service in Laguna Beach. We all had steward uniforms (white formal jackets, gold buttons and black dress pants). I had kept my military issued formal wear and put it to good use.
On November 10, 1965, we were contracted by the Staff NCO Club as servers for the banquet style dinner. It was like a very fancy Prom, except the alcohol was free flowing. The men wore formal Dress Blues with rows of medals; girlfriends and wives were dressed in glittery evening gowns. There was dancing, speeches, photography and a lot of drinking. When the big cake was cut with a sword, we served the dessert to each table (from the right, with the right), and there were no blunders on my part this time. After the plates were cleared, there were many toasts to those lost in war, and grown men were crying. I couldn’t swallow the lump in my throat. Honestly, it was a wrenching experience.
The loss of brothers in battle is life changing. There are no words to lessen the grief. Most of these Marines were WWII and Korean War veterans. There was no “Thank you for your service” in those days, the phrase hadn’t even been coined . . . it was just assumed.
Veterans Day is usually celebrated the day after the Marine Corps birthday, and hangover or not, Marines honored the memories of the fallen. Superficial “thank you for your service” statements are politely accepted, but I can say that some of us (Vietnam veterans) try to avoid the spectacle of it. It isn’t that we don’t appreciate the sentiment, it’s just a feeling of too little too late. I believe it is just another form of political correctness.
Next edition: Augustus