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My Journey to Jesus – The Marine Corps
My first time on an airplane was November 10, 1990, when I flew to San Diego, California, to go through Boot Camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot.
There are two Marine Corps Recruit Depots – one at Paris Island, South Carolina, and one in San Diego, immediately adjacent to the airport. Marines who go through Boot Camp in San Diego (such as myself) call those who went through Boot Camp at Paris Island, ‘Paradise Island Marines,’ and those who go through Paris Island call us San Diego Marines ‘Hollywood Marines.’
Which Boot Camp location is harder is an open question and a bone of contention amongst Marines. Paris Island has swamps and sand fleas. San Diego is a very nice place, but ⅓ of San Diego’s Boot Camp is conducted at Edson Range in Camp Pendleton, and Edson Range has mountains with descriptive names, such as ‘The Grim Reaper,’ and ‘Mount Mother Fucker.’
Being right next to the airport makes San Diego emotionally difficult as well. Every time a recruit sees a plane take off, the recruit wishes he was on that plane.
I’m going to say ‘he’ a lot when I talk about the Marine Corps. I was in a combat field, and at the time, there were no women in combat fields. There were also no women at MCRD, San Diego – all female Marines went through Boot Camp at Paris Island.
November 10 is the Marine Corps Birthday, and though I flew into San Diego on November 10, I did not begin Boot Camp on November 10. Rather, I flew in with a bunch of other new recruits and then waited until November 11.
We recruits were generally in a group on the plane and had a good flight together, until the plane started to come down. I must have had a cold or something – I could not get my ears to pop. The descent was pretty painful as a result, and by the time we landed I could barely hear anything.
Prior to the buildup for the first Persian Gulf War, there was very little security at airports, and when someone was flying you could walk them right to the boarding gate on the way out, and greet them at the boarding gate on the way in. Marine Recruits were picked up at the gate, so the difficulties of Boot Camp started literally as you left the plane.
By the time I went to Boot Camp, security screening was in place and those who were not flying could not go past the security screening metal detectors, just like today. As such, it was obvious who the Marine Recruits were (we had special folders we’d been given to carry), but getting off the plane was not traumatic.
Going past the metal detectors in the security screening area, on the other hand, was very traumatic. Troop handlers start yelling at you as soon as you are within eyesight.
I don’t remember when my plane landed. I think it was around 9 PM, and with the bus ride from Kalamazoo to Detroit, the wait for the plane, and the plane ride itself I’d had a very long day. This, it turns out, is by design. The Marine Corps uses the first 48 hours of Boot Camp to weed-out anyone who is not able to handle stress. We arrived after a full day of travel, and then went 48 hours before we were allowed to sleep. The first two days are excruciatingly long as a result.
Troop handlers herded us outside, and over to the side of the airport terminal building where yellow footprints were painted on the pavement, with the feet spread at a 45 degree angle. We were each placed on a pair of footprints, and told to stand at the position of attention (a position we had to be taught).
A bus arrived sometime around 1 AM, by which time we had around four hours of practice standing in the position of attention. For those who have never stood at the position of attention, I can tell you that four hours is a long time.
There was no talking at the position of attention, other than the occasional recruit getting yelled at for moving. We were not allowed to do so much as twitch. If a fly landed on your face, you let it crawl – discipline required no movement at all.
The bus ride from the airport to Boot Camp was short and quiet and we were all petrified. As soon as the bus stopped and the doors opened, a Drill Instructor came on the bus to greet us with, “I am Senior Drill Instructor so and so, and you are now at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, California. From now on the last word out of your mouth will be sir. Do you understand?”
We said, “Sir, yes sir!”
The Drill Instructor said, “I said the LAST word out of your mouth will be Sir. DO NOT give me a Sir Sandwich! Do you understand?”
We said, “Yes sir!”
We then got our first Boot Camp command: “Get off the bus!”
There were four or five Drill Instructors when we got off the bus, but the first week of Boot Camp was spent on in-processing. We went to different Drill Instructors after the first week (for our 12 weeks of training), and though I will never forget the names of my permanent Drill Instructors, I do not remember the names of any of the in-processing Drill Instructors.
People often ask me what Boot Camp was like – “Is it like Full Metal Jacket?” comes up a lot. And yes – it was. People even died at Boot Camp, though not in my platoon.
The first death was shortly before I arrived. We recruits heard about it.
I don’t remember how we heard about such things. It must have come from rumblings in the chow hall, or from moments passing other platoons who were in different weeks than we were. My friend Tim’s brother was at Boot Camp with me, a few weeks ahead, and I remember seeing him a couple of times where we had a chance to say hello.
Whatever the case, word got around.
A Senior Drill Instructor had an exercise he did with every platoon in which he’d have his recruits line up outside the duty hut (the room where the on-duty Drill Instructor slept), and then the recruits would come in one at a time to find a .45 caliber handgun on the desk. The Drill Instructor would have each recruit pickup the handgun, work the slide to potentially chamber a round, point the handgun at their temple, and pull the trigger.
The handgun was, of course, not loaded. The purpose of the exercise was to teach the recruits that though the Drill Instructor might order them to do things that sounded very dangerous, they had to trust the Drill Instructor, and through that trust they would be OK.
I have no idea how many platoons this Drill Instructor put through this exercise. I only know that at some point he’d taken this gun to a gun range, and somehow after cleaning it he’d put a loaded magazine in it such that when the next platoon started up, the first recruit in line picked up the handgun, chambered a live round, and blew his brains out against the wall.
That happened shortly before I got to bootcamp, and people were still talking about it when I was there.
The other incident occurred at the Rifle Range.
There are very strict rules at the Rifle Range to prevent recruits from taking loaded rifles into the bathroom (called the ‘head’). Not only was ammunition tightly controlled to ensure we only had what we needed (and that anything not used was returned), but we were not allowed to take our rifles into the bathroom at the range. If a recruit went to the bathroom, another recruit held their rifle.
Somehow a recruit managed to get his rifle along with a bullet into the bathroom, where he committed suicide.
The first death from before I got to Boot Camp could have been Boot Camp legend. I’ll probably never know. The second one I know happened.
Injuries were more common, and particularly on the Confidence Course.
The Confidence Course had somewhere around 10 or 12 different obstacles, each getting progressively scarier up until about ⅔ of the way through the course, and then getting a little easier again. The object here was to bring out the fear in recruits such that the recruits would have to face those fears, and then to have them do a couple of relatively easy obstacles at the end to build confidence up. Once you did the hard ones, you looked at the remaining ones and thought, “That one’s a piece of cake”.
One of the obstacles is called the ‘Slide for Life.’ Recruits start on a platform 60 feet in the air, with a robe that goes down at an angle. The recruit climbs on top of the rope and inches forward maybe 15 feet, and then the recruit drops under the rope and reverses his hands before putting his feet back over the rope and climbing the rest of the way down, while hanging under the rope.
The trick is that when the recruit reverses his hands, he also points back toward the starting platform, and since the rope is angled down, away from that platform, the rope where the recruit needs to flip his leg over it is higher than the part of the rope the recruit is hanging from.
We did the Confidence Course several times, and though I never had a problem with any of the obstacles, most of the platoon fell off the Slide for Life the first time they tried, and almost always at the spot where they had to get their leg back up on the rope. If you fell at that point, you’d land in water, but there was a net to help catch anyone who fell short of the water, and several people got their foot caught in the net and hurt their ankles.
There were other places people got hurt. One of our squad leaders, a former Army Ranger, fell off the pullup bar and ended up with a compound fracture on his leg. One of the drill instructors ran over to help him and must have asked something along the lines of “Are you OK.” Recruits could not talk to Drill Instructors unless they were at the Position of Attention, and this recruit tried to stand up to answer the Drill Instructor – who had to briefly hold the Recruit down to prevent him from trying to get into the position of attention and further damaging his leg.
You might notice that I’m saying “this recruit” a lot. We had to refer to ourselves in the third person, and since we had not yet earned the title of ‘Marine,’ we were just ‘recruits’. When referring to yourself to anyone other than another recruit, we had to call ourselves “this recruit.”
We also had to refer to each Drill Instructor by their full Drill Instructor names. My Drill Instructors (from Platoon 1111) were Senior Drill Instructor Staff Sergeant Trainer, Drill Instructor Staff Sergeant Blankenship, Drill Instructor Staff Sergeant Diaz, and Drill Instructor Sergeant Harris. We later added Drill Instructor Sergeant Renk, giving our platoon one extra Drill Instructor.
When the squad leader broke his leg, we were told to turn around so that we would not see the broken leg, but by then we’d already seen it and afterwards the Drill Instructors impressed upon us how much discipline the recruit had shown in trying to stand up to answer a question from the Position of attention – just as we had been trained to do.
When recruits got hurt, they were sent to a rehabilitation platoon to heal. Once they healed, they would get picked up by another platoon that was in the same week of training they’d gotten hurt in.
We started Boot Camp with 132 recruits, and we finished with roughly the same number, although a good third of our platoon dropped into later platoons (with us picking up a similar number that dropped into our platoon).
I mentioned that we got an extra Drill Instructor. That was after Sergeant Harris snuck a woman into the duty hut one night and got caught. Sergeant Harris was removed and replaced with Sergeant Renk, and then some time later Sergeant Harris came back and Sergeant Renk stayed too.
One of the very first things we did in Boot Camp was to call home to tell everyone we were OK. When it was my turn, I dialed my parents and got the answering machine. Unflustered, I tried my girlfriend’s number, but again got an answering machine. Not wanting me to call a third time, a Drill Instructor came over, made me dial my parents number again, and when the answering machine picked up he said, “This is Drill Instructor Staff Sergeant So and So, at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, California. Your son has arrived, and he is not dead!”
With that, he hung up the phone.
The first few days were brutal for me in particular as I could not hear very well and got yelled at more often as a result. Then my ears finally popped.
During the first week with my permanent platoon, the Drill Instructors lined us up in front of the Navy Chow Hall (our Chow Hall was being redone, so for breakfast and dinner each day we took Cattle Cars to the Navy Chow Hall in the base next door to MCRD). “Who are my Catholics?” one of the Drill Instructors asked. A bunch of hands went up. Names were jotted down and those recruits were put into a separate line. “Who are my Methodists?” came next. Again, names were jotted down and those recruits went to the other line. Subset after subset was rattled off, and the Marines in that brand of the Christian faith had their names recorded, and then went into the other line.
There were no atheists or agnostics – or rather, the Drill Instructors had said early on in the process that either the atheists and agnostics picked a denomination to attend, or each Sunday while everyone else was in church, the Drill Instructors would find things for the atheists and agnostics to do – things the atheists and agnostics would not like doing.
Eventually there were only a handful of us left. “What religion are you?” we were each asked, and then the answer was written down and we were moved to the other line.
When it was my turn, I said, “Non-denominational Chrisitan, SIR!”
“Non-denominational?”, was the reply. “Non-denominational? What the hell kind of religion is THAT?!?”
“SIR!” I answered, “This recruit did not grow up going to church, and is a Christian, but not a member of any denomination!”
“Well you had better PICK a gosh-darned denomination!” I was told. “Recruits go to CHURCH on Sunday, and if you do not want to go to a gosh-darned church we can find something around the squadbay for you to do instead.”
Gosh-darned was a common refrain. Drill Instructors were not allowed to say certain swear words, and so other words were used as replacements. ‘Damned’ was OK, but ‘God Damned’ was not. The F bomb was not allowed, but they had a pretty nice friggin replacement for that one too. And so on, and so on, and so on…
There was not a lot of hitting at Boot Camp. I won’t say there was none. Reporters were on base (thanks to the upcoming Persian Gulf War), so there was no hitting anywhere where it might show, but everything from the shoulders to the ankles was fair game.
And church on Sundays was essentially mandatory.
I did not want to do ‘something around the squadbay’ instead of going to church – that meant punishment – so I asked if it would be OK for me to go to church with different denominations each week, such that I could learn about each of them. I was told that was OK, and I entered the other line with everyone else for chow.
I wish I could say I learned a great deal about each denomination, but I did not. Instead, when Sunday came along and the Catholics were called out, I watched. When the Methodists were called out, I watched. The Drill Instructors made sure the correct number of recruits were in each group, and even spot-checked names, but I was not on any list, so I watched, and waited to see if I would get away with not going at all.
Services were not at the exact same time, though they were all sometime Sunday morning (except Jewish service, which was on Friday evening – and we had one Jewish recruit named Franklin that I became pretty good friends with). Recruits were coming and going in groups all morning. I watched each group leave, and I watched each group return.
I did not go to church with any of them.
We spent a week in the field during Phase Two of boot camp, and that Sunday we all had one giant service together. I did go to that one, but it was the only church service I attended the entire time I was at Boot Camp. It was also the first church service I’d ever attended that was not also a funeral, or a wedding, or something else where heathens went to church.
Part of me felt bad that I was not going to church, as it really did seem like a good idea to try each faith to see which ones agreed the best with my own beliefs, but we only got one hour of ‘quite constructive square-away time’ each evening, leaving only Sunday mornings to write letters home. I cherished my Sunday morning free time. By skipping church, I could write to my mother and my girlfriend each week – and that meant getting letters in return.
One day Sergeant Harris was on duty, and he called me out. “Garnew – is that damned right? Garnew?” I always corrected Drill Instructor Sergeant Harris: “Gar-no, SIR” I would say.
Sergeant Harris knew how to pronounce my name correctly, but he did this every single time he talked to me.
“Is that damned right. Gar-NO. Well THIS Drill Instructor has his eyes on you, and THIS Drill Instructor is watching to see who goes to church with the Catholics, and who goes to church with the Methodists, and who goes to church with who, and I don’t see you going to church with the Catholics, or the Methodists, or the Mormons, or with any group, but one day, Garneau, is that damned right? I will be on duty Sunday morning, and I’m going to see you stay when the Catholics go to church, and when the Methodists go to church, and when all the little groups, with all their gosh-darned members come and go, and then when I see them all go, and I see them all return, and you are still there, you’ll be mine and you’ll get yours. You think you’re gosh-darned smart, but what will you do then, Recruit Garneau?”
“Sir!” I said, “On that Sunday this recruit will have tried the Jewish church!”
Sergeant Harris and I both knew that the Drill Instructor who was on duty Sunday Morning was never the same as the Drill Instructor on duty Friday Evening – the Drill Instructors rotated nights and weekends.
“Is that damned right, Gar-new?!? Is that damned right?!? You think you are smart, but we shall see. We shall see…”
The subject never came up again, and I continued skipping church each Sunday.
I was not a very good Christian, I’m afraid, at Boot Camp…
One recruit sat down in the middle of drill and said, “Sir – This recruit refuses to train!” Two drill instructors carried him off – one by each arm pit – and we never saw him again. We were told he continued to refuse to train after getting back to the squad bay, and that he then fell up and down the stairs several times. I don’t think he was physically hurt, but he was discharged.
We did not know you could quit training, and I doubt the Marine Corps would be very big if recruits knew that quitting just meant going home with a ‘failure to adapt’ discharge. None of us wanted to be there. Every single one of us cried themselves to sleep at least once.
I prayed at night too. Praying was something I’d learned from reading the Bible, and I’d read the Bible by the time I went to Boot Camp. My faith in fact gave me a lot of strength at Boot Camp in spite of the fact that I was practicing it alone.
Fellowship is important, but as with so many other things in life you don’t know you are missing it until you have experienced it…
A funny thing happened as we approached the final week. Our Senior Drill Instructor told us, “You are still lower than whale shit, but at least now you float,” and as a reward we were allowed to sit on our foot lockers when polishing our boots. Suddenly the fear was gone and Boot Camp developed some semblance of fun.
The Drill Instructors were still hard on us – none of the rules changed – but the attitude relaxed. We began playing pranks on one another.
We got dressed every morning “by the numbers,” which meant that the Drill Instructor on duty would tell you to do something and then count down the seconds. “Put on your trousERS!” might be the command, followed by, ‘Ten, nine, eight, seven,’ and so one down to ‘zeROW’ at which point we all froze and yelled “Freeze, Recruit, FREEZE.” Anyone who did not have their trousers on became a target for the wrath of the Drill Instructor.
One night in the last week, I crossed the squad bay and tied knots in the trousers of another recruit. The next morning, while the Drill Instructor counted down for us to put our trousers on, this poor recruit flopped around on the deck like a fish.
The next morning it was my turn – the same recruit had filled my boots with shaving cream.
One night there was a dinner for our families to meet the Drill Instructors, though we recruits did not attend. Just after bed time, one of our Drill Instructors – Sergeant Renk – came into the squad bay in his Dress Blues, and announced that in his Dress Blues he could have had any of our mothers, wives, or girlfriends he had wanted.
“Sir – This recruit disagrees!” I said.
Sergeant Renk turned around as if hit by a hammer. “WHO SAID THAT!” he demanded.
“Recruit Garneau, SIR!” I replied.
“Oh – is that damned right there, Garneau! You don’t think your girlfriend would let me into her pretty pink panties?!? Is that damned right!” Sergeant Renk was trying to sound angry, but he found the exchange amusing. “What makes you think I could not get into your girlfriend’s panties, Garneau?” he asked.
“Sir – This recruit’s girlfriend is well disciplined!” I replied.
Sergeant Renk yelled at me for a bit, but I could tell he thought it was funny. So did everyone else.
There had been a rule at Boot Camp that if a recruit could get a dirty picture of their girlfriend they got a reward. That reward varied from a phone call home, to a number of other things, depending on how revealing the picture was. I never asked my girlfriend for a picture but a lot of the recruits did, and all of the pictures were displayed in the squad bay for all eyes to see.
I’ve always thought this particular practice was odd given that most of us were 18 such that anyone who had a younger girlfriend was also putting up photos that were illegal. Some of it had to have been sixteen or seventeen year old girls, and that’s technically child pornography. That aspect of Boot Camp never sat right with me.
We did a lot of forced marches in Phase Two, and I developed shin splints. Over time the shin splints got worse. One leg in particular got worse, but I knew that if I went to sick call and got diagnosed with a stress fracture, I’d be stuck in a rehabilitation platoon for months and would not graduate with my original platoon. Rather than go to sick call, other recruits began to give me whatever extra Ibuprofen they had in 800 MG tablets.
I popped Ibuprofen like candy through Phase Three.
At the start of every day I’d be OK – the Ibuprofen would keep the pain at bay. By the end of the day, on the way to evening chow I’d fall behind the platoon, but everyone knew I had a bad leg and nobody said a word.
Finally, we got to our final fitness test. I got maximum scores on the first two events – pullups and situps – but then we did the three mile run. I finished in right around 21 minutes, which was on the slower side of things (28 minutes is the hard requirement – 18 minutes is max score). My Senior Drill Instructor jogged out to me and began running alongside me, upset I had not finished yet. When I crossed the line he shouted, “Nice time – for a girl.”
Later that evening the Senior Drill Instructor called me into the duty hut and told me the other Drill Instructors had told him about my leg. He gave me about as close to an apology as a Drill Instructor is ever going to give.
Trainer was a jerk. He’d been passed up for promotion before our group picked up, and as such he was a Senior Drill Instructor rather than a Series Chief Drill Instructor (which is one step up), and he took the anger out on us. The Senior Drill Instructor was supposed to act as a kind of father-figure, but in our platoon Staff Sergeant Blankenship with the guy who acted like a father-figure.
Marines have very fond memories of Boot Camp while it’s going on, but none of us liked it while we were in it.
And somehow once we graduated, everyone talked about how easy Boot Camp had been when in reality it had not been easy at all.
Full Metal Jacket does not show how long Boot Camp is, but it’s so long that by the Third (and final) Phase, there are rumors circulating that Boot Camp never ends – that when you graduate you go somewhere else where you are treated like recruits for the rest of your life. These rumors are of course absurd, and yet a number of recruits believed them. No movie can capture just how long thirteen weeks (including the in-processing) can be.
When I came home on leave, after Boot Camp, I saw a civilian doctor and was told I had developed a hairline fracture. I got a removable blue cast and limped around on crutches while on leave, before heading back to California for Advanced Combat Training, where we did far longer forced marches. Somehow my leg got better in spite of the fact that I only took ten days off of it.
I remember that at 18 I still looked at life as something that happens in 10 year increments (10 years of age, 20 years of age, 30, 40, etc.). I learned later that life happens in 7 year increments, with puberty starting at 14, the ability to drink coming at 21, our metabolism slowing down for the first time at 28, etc.. Every cell in our bodies are replaced once every seven years, and many of life’s changes follow a seven-year cycle as a result.
My life is not best separated by measuring in years at all, but by measuring in terms of women.
Loretta was the love of my life before joining the Marine Corps, but Loretta and I rarely dated. We would try to be a romantic couple from time to time, but Loretta was never comfortable with it. We might have kissed a few times over the three years I’d known her before joining the Marines, but they were awkward kisses. Loretta just was not into it.
It had taken me months to get Loretta to go out with me at all. I asked her out shortly after meeting her, but she didn’t give me a real answer – she said, “Maybe.” Maybe’ is not an actionable response as it neither leads to a date, nor rejects one. It took me six months to get to a yes.
Loretta was the second girl I ever dated. The first girl was named Mary, and I was fifteen so my father had to drive. Mary was also 15, but she’d dated before, and her prior dates had been older, with cars. My date with Mary was an abysmal failure, and she could not run into her house quickly enough when my dad stopped the car to drop her off.
I dressed up for my first date with Loretta, but like a total nerd. Loretta laughed when I arrived at McDonalds to pick her up. We went to dinner and saw a movie, and I think I drove, but it was about the only time I ever drove with Loretta – usually she drove.
One of the peculiar things about time with Loretta is that we often just drove around. I found it remarkable how boring it was, with time moving so slowly that our time together seemed to last forever, and yet I always had the time of my life. It was like magic: time seemed to last forever when I was with her, and I did not want it to end, so I was perfectly happy for time to last forever.
I mentioned in my last blog post that Loretta smoked, and that I took up smoking largely to fit in with her. I also mentioned that my dad caught me and over-reacted. Loretta was my girlfriend when I went through that period, and since I was forbidden from working, money was hard to come by. By Christmas, my punishment was starting to become a little less strict and I was able to date Loretta again. Somehow I had saved enough money to buy her a silver necklace as a gift.
I found out shortly thereafter that another boy had bought her a gold necklace, and that though Loretta was dating me, she was also dating other boys – older boys who she took more seriously.
I was not just hurt by Loretta having other boyfriends. I was heartbroken. And I was bitter. When I started working at McDonalds again I refused to acknowledge that Loretta even existed unless I was insulting her, and I insulted her often – I told her she was the biggest bitch I’d ever met.
Not liking Loretta seemed to affect her in a way I had not anticipated, and sometime before Halloween the next year she asked me out. Having been insulting her at every opportunity for almost a year, I was shocked to hear myself say yes.
This was the golden era of our relationship. We went Trick or Treating on Halloween, and I realized somewhere between houses that I was in love with her. We became inseparable, and come Christmas, after we sat together on Santa’s lap in Maple Hill Mall, she gave me a very nice gold necklace. I was also fond of the red-bellied piranhas, and Loretta bought me a very big red-bellied piranha for Christmas.
When Loretta and I went to pick my piranha up, I brought a styrofoam cooler to transport it in. The fish-store employee thought he would put it in a plastic bag, but I told him piranhas have sharp teeth, and plastic bags are not a very good idea. He was adamant. He said he’d use TWO plastic bags and everything would be fine.
The employee put water in the double-bag, and then scooped up the fish. The piranha immediately swam to the bottom of the bag to take a bite out of it. Water poured out of the hole, and the employee instinctively covered the hole with his hand. The fish went right back down to the bottom of the bag and took a bite out of the employee’s hand. This put blood into the fish’s water and sent the piranha into a feeding frenzy.
The fish store employee put the fish back in its tank, and after tending to his finger he decided that my styrofoam cooler was a good idea after all. The incident also provided a name: I named the piranha ‘Loretta’.
Loretta liked to ask me if she was still the biggest bitch I’d ever met. I always had to say yes – if I said no she took it as an insult.
I don’t remember when we broke up again, but at some point after Christmas we did. Loretta just could not handle knowing that my parents hated her. I did not like it either, but I was in love with Loretta, and that was far more important.
Loretta and I remained best friends even after we broke up, and though I mentioned having tried to date her sister Carol (and being told by Loretta that she’d run off to the Army if I did not stop), there was one moment at Loretta’s parent’s house, in Loretta’s bedroom, when she was showing me her Army uniforms (as I mentioned – she’d begun going to Army National Guard some weekends but had not joined). Loretta and I ended up kind of cuddling on her bed and she told me she loved me. In retrospect I probably should have taken advantage of the situation, but all I did was tell her I loved her too and kissed her. Nothing further happened – we dated for a couple of days, awkwardly, and she broke up with me again.
I dated other women. Some I dated often – there was one girl named Tammy that I tended to date whenever I was not dating Loretta, and who I would dump whenever Loretta wanted to try again. There was also a Robin I was pretty serious about for a few months, and then, a few months before leaving for the Marine Corps – after Loretta had become engaged to someone else, came Julie.
I started dating Julie shortly after moving back into my parent’s house. While I was in Kevin’s apartment I dated a girl named Amy – the one I kept seeing for some time primarily because her mother made me food.
I was a couple of years older than Julie, and Julie had had a big crush on me in High School. Since Julie was younger (and was not Loretta) I had no real interest in her, but then after I graduated and Loretta moved on from McDonalds, suddenly Julie was working at McDonalds, and as I got to know her I realized that underneath her very big glasses was a charming and warm, beautiful girl. We started dating, and I have to say – of all the girls I ever dated, Julie was the easiest to get along with.
Julie was shy, but underneath her glasses she was absolutely breathtaking.
Julie was my Boot Camp girlfriend. We dated before I left for Boot Camp, and we dated while I was home on leave for ten days between Boot Camp and Advanced Combat Training. We also dated for an extended weekend when I came home to see her, while attending Marine Corps Engineer School.
At some point I also met Julie’s best friend Jennifer. Julie must have given Jennifer my address at Camp LeJeune, as Jennifer began to write me just as regularly as Julie did. At first Jennifer was a great friend to Julie and myself – my coming home for an extended weekend to make love to Julie was actually Jennifer’s idea. But then afterwards, Jennifer began to tell me that Julie wasn’t handling the distance very well and was seeing other men. Soon Jennifer was telling me that Julie was sleeping with other men.
Like a fool, I believed Jennifer and broke up with Julie.
And as soon as I broke up with Julie – really even before that but after I broke up with Julie it intensified – Jennifer’s tone changed. She flipped from being a nice girl like Julie, to being more like one of the girls who wanted their picture on the wall at Boot Camp. It was like sexting – but by mail.
When I came home from Marine Corps Engineer School (I was a reservist, so after my training ended I went home), I dated Jennifer briefly. Jennifer was very eager to get physical, but then got angry when I used a condom, and I found out that what Jennifer really wanted was to make an ex-boyfriend jealous.
In fairness to Jennifer, I think there was more to it than that. I think had I not used a condom she’d have been very happy with me – I think she wanted me to get her pregnant.
Jennifer told her ex-boyfriend that I’d raped her, but her ex-boyfriend called me to let me know he did not believe Jennifer and did not want any bad blood.
Jennifer was a year younger than me and was still in High School – she began telling people in High School that I’d raped her until my mother confronted her (my mother was a teacher in the High School) at which point she changed her story and said I was a good lay.
Julie and I tried dating again after the whole Jennifer thing, but the trust had been broken and it did not work out. The magic was gone.
Loretta, in the meantime, was engaged and living with her fiancee in a mobile home somewhere around Galesburg, MI. I’d visited her in the mobile home a number of times before getting thrown out by my parents and losing contact with her, and I was somewhat surprised when she reached out to me to see her after I graduated Boot Camp.
I want to be very clear here before I step on toes that all relationships have ups and downs, and that I was not very fond of Loretta’s fiancee, Scott. Scott had been a manager at the McDonalds we all worked at, and I had no reason to dislike him until he started dating my best friend Loretta, but as Loretta and Scott became closer and closer it became more and more evident that Loretta and I were not going to end up together, and unfair as it may be, I resented Scott for that.
I don’t know what was going on between Loretta and Scott (or if Loretta was just getting cold feet before the marriage), but Loretta told me she was thinking about breaking up with Scott, and wanted to know what I would do if she did.
I lied to Loretta and told her that as an 18 year-old who still had a good nine months of active duty ahead of me (and who had a girlfriend), I could make no promises beyond her knowing I was in love with her and would of course be happy to try dating again – this time more seriously.
The truth is that it was important to me that Loretta’s relationship with Scott either live or die on its own merits. Had Loretta broken up with Scott, I’d have done whatever she wanted me to. I did not care that I was young – I’d have married her in a heartbeat. But I could not tell her that, and in retrospect that’s a good thing, as she did marry Scott and they have been very happy together ever since.
I also had a growing bond with Julie at the time, and getting back together with Loretta would have meant breaking up with her.
I told Loretta that if she married Scott, I’d want nothing more to do with her – that I’d cut off all contact with her forever.
I mentioned coming home for a four-day weekend with Julie. That was very true, but I had an ulterior motive. That weekend just happened to also be the weekend Loretta got married, and my best friend at the time, Clint, was going to the wedding. Clint had a card and a gift, and though I was not going to go to the wedding to offer my objection (the thought did cross my mind), I wanted to keep my word about cutting off contact. I had Clint put the gold necklace Loretta had bought me in with his card. It was the first time I’d taken the necklace off since receiving it.
I was not mad at Loretta, but I was hurt, and I stayed hurt for a very long time. I also kept my promise for a very long time and did not speak to Loretta, but then a good fifteen or twenty years later I began to run into people from the McDonalds days on Facebook, and one of them was Loretta’s younger sister, Carol.
Carol thought Loretta would love to hear from me, and not only did I reach out, but my wife and I had dinner with her and Scott at a restaurant near her home in Nashville while driving through to visit my parents in Florida. I was very happy to see that Loretta and Scott were still together and still very much in love.
Marine Corps Engineer School was at Courthouse Bay, Camp LeJeune, which is quite literally as far from the front gate of Camp LeJeune as you can get without leaving base. There was nothing out the back gate, so we’d pile as many people into a taxi as we could and head out the front gate after training ended for the day (eventually one of my roommates – Bates – got permission to bring his pickup truck and we’d all pile into that). Our favorite bar was a place called The Skyroom Lounge. It was a pastie bar (with dancers who wore pasties to cover their nipples), and it was one of the few places that served under-age Marines.
At Camp Pendleton, where I’d done Advanced Combat Training (every Marine being a basic rifleman first and foremost), we could drink beer and wine on base, but Camp LeJeune followed state law, so we could only drink (illegally) off base at places like The Skyroom Lounge.
There were other bars that would serve us, like the Foxy Lady, but all of the other places had young women who would ask us to ‘buy me ladies drink,’ which was a dixie-cup of Kool Aid at ten dollars a glass. Young Marines would buy a girl ‘ladies drinks’ until they ran out of money, at which time the beautiful young ladies would not so much as show them out to the parking lot.
I had a girlfriend. I had no interest in buying girls ladies drinks, so the group I hung out with – we tended to stay at the Skyroom Lounge, where we got to know the staff. We’d drink our beer and hope someone would have a pastie fall off.
Every once in a while the bar would get a phone call and we’d all wander away from our drinks. The police would show up, not finding anyone under age near a drink, and would leave. Back to our drinks we would go…
We all tried to see how much we could drink before it was time to head back to our barracks, and I was the Frank the Tank of the group. Beers were two dollars a pop, and we would figure out how much we drank the next day by seeing how much money we went through. It was easy to remember how much we paid playing Moon Patrol (the video game at the bar), so we’d look at how much money we’d spent each day, and that told us how many beers we’d drank.
When I graduated Marine Corps Engineer School, my parents picked me up and drove me home. I went back to my job at McDonalds, and life resumed, albeit without Loretta.
I went through a bit of a dry spell after Julie. I dated, but I did not end up in anything serious for some time. I always had a girlfriend, and I dated in circles (dating the friends of those I broke up with), so I always knew who my next girlfriend would be.
I found that being a Marine made me more popular with the girls of McDonalds than I’d been when I was in High School, and I eventually found out that the girls of McDonalds talked about me (and other men) behind my back. It was known that if I really liked a girl I would tend to take a particular restaurant, and if I did not did not like a girl I took her somewhere else. It was known that I did not like breaking up with women and would instead try to get them to break up with me.
And then all of a sudden, out of the blue, nobody dated me at all.
I had plenty of girls I was interested in – there was Kathy, who I’d had a crush on for some time (who later became a nurse and a good friend of my oldest sister). Kathy and I would drive around out in the country, looking for portapotties to tip over. She was wild, and absolutely gorgeous. We became good friends, but she never wanted to date.
I also went back to Western for another year, where I joined the Young Republicans Club and took to a very nice (and very pretty) Christian girl. She was an active member of her church, and though she never took me to church (and never introduced me to her parents) we were very close for some time. I think she saw me as a bit of a bad boy and not the kind of guy you take to church, or take home to see your parents.
We stopped seeing each other after about a year, but then she started working at McDonalds and we started seeing each other again.
And I had no problem finding dates, until all of a sudden nobody wanted to go out with me. I later found out that a girl named Beth had told everyone else to stay away.
Beth was a little heavy set, but she was also very pretty, and she was very, very aggressive. She was also my wife for fourteen years and will be a big part of our next episode.
At some point someone is going to ask what this blog entry has to do with a journey to Jesus, and the answer is that I had a lot of heartache and a lot of time to contemplate my life over these years. Having acquired my first Bible at 14 (I don’t remember where I got it), I also began to read it. As my life turned to struggle, I read it more.
I also read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings at 14, and unlike the Bible, I finished Tolkein at that age.
Someone at some point – it might have been one of Kevin’s Narcotics Anonymous friends – suggested I start not at the beginning of the Bible, but with the four gospel accounts at the start of the New Testament, and it was in the midst of all of this that I began to understand exactly what it is being a Christian is all about.
I’ve always likened being with Loretta as playing second fiddle in an orchestra. The second chair is for the person who is second best, and with Loretta I always felt I was in the second chair. Even on the occasions when we would try to date, it felt like I was in the first seat only because there was currently nobody better, and that I’d be relegated back to second fiddle as soon as someone else – someone better – came along, whereas with Jesus, we’re all in the first seat, and though Jesus’ story is one of redemption for us, it’s also one of His sacrifices in providing that redemption.
I also learned that Jesus was there at the beginning. As John 1:1 says: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus, of course, is sometimes referred to as the Word of God.
It occurred to me that our relationship with Jesus is deeply personal, and that Jesus was punished and gave his life for our sin. God, of course, knew exactly how much sin each of us would commit before Jesus paid for it (God, being omnipotent, knows everything – the fact that Jesus paid for our sins before we committed them is not a problem for God). This means, by extension, that every time we commit sin, we are causing Jesus to take another lashing on our behalf.
We of course sin anyway, but I learned that when I think about my personal relationship with Jesus, and when I remind myself when tempted that if I give in to temptation I’m essentially telling the Roman guards to swing again – I hope it gives me a moment of pause. I hope that knowing I am harming my Lord and Savior, and doing it in a deeply personal way, that I then sin less.
And I know that I am called to freely give up of myself the part of my free will that allows me to sin. I have given Jesus free reign to live within me, and to make whatever changes of me Jesus wishes to make. There can be no sin in Heaven, which to me means that we need, not only Jesus’ forgiveness, but Jesus to work within us to remove our desire to sin.
During the lowest times in my life – times that started to get better once I joined the Marine Corps – I suddenly had very little other than Jesus to lean on. So what does all of this have to do with my journey to Jesus? It has everything to do with that journey.
I also found comfort in James Taylor. When I was really down, I’d throw on James Taylor’s Greatest Hits and would note that even in what are otherwise happy songs, like “Something in the Way She Moves,” James Taylor always sounded sad. I’d think, things may suck for me right now, but at least I’m not James Taylor sad!
James Taylor probably wasn’t James Taylor sad either, but he sure sounded like it.
And I noted through all of the accounts of Jesus’ suffering that Jesus suffered with dignity and purpose. So too should we. The greatest blessing we can have is to live in such a way that our suffering is worthwhile.
I noted particularly in this time period how everything that had happened, and that continued to happen, seemed to point me to the Bible. I was actively reading it. You might even say I was absorbing it. I did not want to get absorbed in specific verses, as I thought doing so risks taking those verses out of context. I wanted to understand the Bible in whole.
The Bible added purpose to the difficult times in my life.
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