In all, my six years in the United States Marine Corps were served during a comparatively quiet time in history. We certainly packed up and went where we were told and when, but for a couple exceptions, Marines stayed out of trouble in the mid 1980’s.
Well, not all of us stayed out of trouble.
One of my favorite former Marines was only in the Corps during my first two years of service, yet he left a lifetime of impressions during that span. And as the modern world of blogs go, I’ll alter his name a bit in case he wants to write his own stories. Or in case the statute of limitations has not been reached on some of these adventures.
We will go with the name Mac. And with that kind of nickname, it narrows the choices to either Scottish or Irish American heritage. The title today gives it away. Besides I’ve always considered myself bit of an Irish rogue as well. I recognize the stereotype. He was quite literally a fighter with the full on Irish temperament.
I had been in the Marine Corps about nine months when I first met Mac. Three months of boot camp plus six months of training for my military occupational specialty or MoS. And my job of course, was everyone’s favorite oxymoron – military intelligence.
I loved the job. It included a top secret security clearance and some of the most important work I’ve ever done. Although, right after graduating from intel school, the first assignment appeared fairly mundane, until I met Mac.
He wasn’t the tallest or strongest person I met in among Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children (my favorite of the many uses for the standard USMC initials), but Mac was the toughest. Apparently he played hockey in his spare time, and I believed it.
A couple days out of intel school, I got my new orders and jumped on a plane to Cherry Point, North Carolina. It was August, 1984, with emphasis on the month. Summers in the southeast can be a bit hot and humid. I stepped off the last plane of the journey at midnight, and the humidity was downright oppressive and hostile when accompanied with a 9o-degree temperature.
It was a two week war games effort involving several thousand Marines. We took to the field and the conditions for sleeping outside in the south should not have been a surprise, but it was unpleasant at best. Sweating every hour, the nights were just as hot as the days, the mosquitos were doing their level best to eat us alive. The field showers should have been a relief, the freezing cold water was kind of nice, but the drains didn’t work. It became an exercise of will to see how long one could deal with standing in a foot or so of mucky, muddy water to rinse off. We worked twelve hours on, twelve hours off, and I’m not sure I slept at all the first week there.
Our unit sent four enlisted men and two officers to support this operation. We would look at images pulled off of cameras from old F-4 fighters, refitted to observe the developing situation on the ground during the op. We worked intel for one side of the war games, and another intel unit worked with the other side. Again, pretty mundane as it was very easy to spot and identify equipment and troop movements and write up reports for our side of the war game.
So, for our particular shifts, I worked with Jeff, a friendly enough guy, but he had been in a while and he was even less excited to be there. The other team that was stuck working together for 12 hours a day were Nelson and Mac. Our officers, of course, were not living in the field with us, they had rooms at the nearby base. We didn’t see them that much, except for the occasional briefing to show them what we found.
Ten days into the operation, those same officers saw that us enlisted guys were less useful to them without any sleep. They found us a barracks room at the Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry point. The first night in the tiny room with four ancient bunk beds felt like a four star resort.
Based on our previous shift work, it was also the very first time all four of us were in the same room at the same time. Nelson had been promoted to sergeant just before our journey to North Carolina, which made him the senior enlisted person among us.
Apparently, he had been reminding Mac all week long about his status as the top dog. There was quite a bit of tension in the room, as the other three had been in the unit nearly four years together, and one person bragging about rank did not sit well with Jeff and Mac.
They all decided to blow off some steam and head over to the Non-Commisioned Officer Club or NCO club. I was the FNG (f’n new guy) and was not yet an NCO. I was exhausted anyway and sleep was my favorite option. And fall asleep I did about 15 minutes after they left around 2000 hours, or 8 pm. A series of loud voices and noises woke me at 2400 hours. I am sure of the time, because I needed that information for the official inquiry the next day.
Jeff and Mac were drunk. At that point they were happy, exhausted drunks. Jeff was in the lower bunk, Mac’s spot was on the wall near the door. A light shined into the window from the parking lot. I had been too tired to care, yet it bothered Mac and Jeff. Mac asked Jeff to close the window blinds so no light could enter the room.
Jeff obliged, but as I noted, he was drunk. There was one obstacle in his path to the window blinds. It was Nelson’s bed. Jeff jumped on top to reach the cord, but he shifted his weight to the far side of the bunk and the whole thing tipped over with a crash. The pillow and bedding went in opposite directions. I suddenly recalled the great pride Nelson had taken in making up his bunk as well as he did in boot camp. A weird bit of bragging, but that is what the guy loved to do.
Drunk Jeff did his damnedest to repair the mess. But it was an epic fail, as nothing was tucked in, and it basically looked like a pile of laundry gone wrong.
The three of us went to sleep, for about one half hour, and then our senior NCO returned home. And he was unhappy. He began yelling at all of us, certain that we had purposefully destroyed his perfectly made bunk. Part of his assumption was correct, none of us liked him. But as Mac pointed out, no one did it on purpose, it was an accident. He was calm and collected, and he suggested Nelson remake his bunk and get some sleep.
Nelson was drunk too. He would not let it go. The accusations got worse, and then they got personal. He once again bragged about being the highest ranked person in the room. He also advanced the claim that he was a better Marine than Jeff and Mac and his promotion was evidence.
Mac flipped back the covers, stepped out of his bunk, stepped within an inch of Nelson’s face and with a quiet force and a low voice he said, “I don’t care what your rank is, if you don’t shut-up and let me sleep in five seconds, I’m going to knock your ass out.”
Nelson waited three seconds before starting to speak, it just meant he was going to miss his new deadline. By the fifth second, Mac kept his promise and he knocked Nelson in the jaw and he fell to the floor. Mac went to sleep. We all woke up hours later to find that Nelson had filed charges against Mac for the brief scuffle.
Each of us was called into an office by our two officers to provide our observations of what happened the night before. I was the key witness in the eyes of the officers, as Jeff was good pals with Mac, and Nelson’s version of events was vastly different than theirs. I was going to be the tie-breaking vote in a very close decision. I knew two things at that early stage of my Marine Corps career, I really enjoyed Mac’s instant justice the previous night, and good Marines don’t whine or throw their new rank around. I did what any good intel guy would do in that situation.
I explained I was awaken from my slumber twice at that point, which was true. I recalled drunk Jeff accidentally thrashing Nelson’s bunk. And then I heard arguing, but did not see the punch. By the time I looked up, it was all over. They were not buying my perspective. Captain Young in particular saw something in my body language, probably the same tell that kills me in Texas Hold’em, but he knew I knew more. I held my ground, and signed my statement.
I must look like one of those folks who tells the truth all the time, because Mac looked at me like I was the next one to get punched. He asked me what I told the officers. I sat down next to him and said, I told the truth. He grimaced and started to throw a few choice swear words in my direction, and I said, “The truth is, Nelson is an asshole. He deserved what he got.”
From that moment on, Mac and I were pals. And strangely enough, I earned a great deal of respect from Captain Young that day as well. I think everyone knew the truth about Nelson, but they did have to ‘officially’ investigate the incident.
And this was only the first adventure with that Irish Rogue, who kept things pretty darned interesting for peacetime in the Marine Corps.
Peacetime, another one of those oxymorons.