USMC boot camp taught me many things… little life hacks, entertaining stories, and lessons that have persisted long after my contract ended, that will stick with me to the grave. Many have had a great role in who I am and how I handle life's daily bump and grind. Inspired [email protected]’s “Confessions of an Airborne Dedicated Individual Combat Killer (ADICK)” series, I decided to create my own series of shorts about things I learned in the USMC that may be of value to everyone. Enjoy!
“Mostly it is loss which teaches us about the worth of things.” - Arthur Schopenhauer
It's true you don’t value anything you didn’t have to work for, and equally true that you don’t know the value of something until it is denied. In USMC boot camp you are denied many things (nearly all things) and you find out what is most important to you, and what you can get by without.
Someone once said “It's amazing what a man can get used to” and for the most part this is true. You can adjust to any amount of physical exercise, you can adjust to verbal or physical abuse, you can adjust to being rich or being poor, you can adjust to being in a relationship or being alone. However, there are two things I’ve learned in my experience that you cannot get used to. You can’t get used to a lack of sleep, and you can’t get used to a lack of food.
We were at the rifle range, phase 2 of boot camp for those familiar, and unfortunately for Platoon 1018, Co. C, 1st Bn. the rifle range’s chow hall (cafeteria) was undergoing some renovations. What this meant for us was brown bagging it. You got a bag lunch with a Jimmy Dean sandwich in cellophane, a piece of fruit, a carton of milk, and an item for dessert. The desserts were usually confiscated because, you know, boot camp is supposed to be miserable.
We often had ridiculously short amounts of time to eat. Often that consisted of a drill instructor counting down from 30. Thats right, 30 seconds to eat your meal. Eating that fast becomes an artform and I still am always the first to finish my food at any meal despite how hard I try to eat slow. And yes, there are lots of choking incidents.
Once at the rifle range during our brown-bag marathon a recruit sitting online across from started choking. The DI walked up and leaned over, analyzed the recruits condition, stood back up and shouted “well someone better do something! I don’t give a frick if he dies”. A few nearby recruits jumped up and gave him the “heimlich maneuver”, and upon saving the recruit they were all punished for disrupting lunch… ahhh boot camp… Anyway...
You eat in boot camp not for joy but purely for sustenance. Speed and prioritization based on nutritive value are key. The general procedure for eating a sandwich in a hurry is to soak it with your canteen water, then squeeze it into as compact a form as possible. With some practice one can then, using the fingers extended and bunched together, push the log-shaped sandwich down the throat. The secret is getting it soaked with water. Dry bread sticks in the throat and makes you choke. Really so long as you have two slices of bread virtually anything can be made into a sandwich.
Fruit, while nutritious, is hard to eat fast. Especially apples and oranges. You typically ran out of time before getting to those. And oranges make a sticky mess that's annoying to deal with the rest of the day.
On this particular February day the dessert was two freshly baked chocolate chip cookies wrapped in saran wrap. The DI’s decided we couldn’t have any dessert or anything sugary as it may affect our ability to accurately shoot for qualification… and to only give us a countdown from 30 to eat. Damnit… we’d not been in a cafeteria for a proper meal in over a week. This is bull shit…
Now I’m not even much for sweets. I always scraped the icing off my piece of cake and ate the breaded part as a kid at birthday parties. I never liked candy bars or the like. But damn did those cookies look delicious. “Not today” I thought to myself “I’m eating those cookies”. I had to think fast. I tucked the cookies behind my belt buckle for later consumption.
We all got up and shuffled in line to the trashcan to throw away whatever remaining food we had, and shuffled back to our seats. I dreamed about how those cookies I rescued from their fate in the waste bin would taste. “On your feet!” the DI’s yelled angrily. “Some recruits didn’t throw away their dessert like they were friggin told to… get on your feet and get in line. Everyone’s getting patted down and anyone hiding food on their nasty bodies will be charged with theft and insubordination”.
Oh fuck. They saw me somehow. Or they counted what was in the trash. I’m in big trouble. And sitting in the middle of a room I can’t just get out of line and lose these cookies somewhere or drop them on the spotless deck. What do I do. Think fast. I can’t even really move my arms or I’ll be spotted. Shit…
They are lifting up camo blouses and checking waistlines. Damn it they always know every trick. I’ve gotta do something and fast. All I can do is an impromptu maneuver and belly-dance those cookies below my belt line. The cookies slide down into my skivvies. Skivvies by the way, are recruit underwear. Also function as your bathing suit. They are OD green and have a mesh liner in them. They look like this (bonus! can you find the recruit who is about to get smoked by the drill instructor?):
So as we shuffle forward towards the pat down at the trash can, I’m taking the most exaggerated steps I can trying to work these cookies lower. Getting close to the end of the line, I think I’m good. The cookies are nestled comfortably behind my balls. Surely they aren’t gonna frisk me to that degree.
Now its my turn. I put my calmest, most innocent face forward, and get aggressively patted down by a DI. They are frisking me roughly enough its hard to stay standing still with my legs shoulder width apart and my arms extended out... Nothing. My heart resumes beating and goes back down out of my throat. I made it. No contraband found.
Now what? We shuffle out of the room and head on to combat training. Marching in formation, doing everything by the numbers “barney style” I don’t have an chance to do anything about these cookies behind my sack. Hours go by. I’m low crawling under barbed wire through mud. I’m rushing to the firing line and falling prone into 8 inch deep cold muddy water.
I’ve gotta do something about these cookies. I can’t risk pulling them out or having them fall out during a squad bay head-call (bathroom break) as there is no privacy at all in there. We are headed back to the squad bay at the end of the day. We are in formation preparing to march out and I spot a porta-potty! Perfect!
Finally I get a chance to request permission to use the head (bathroom). The rules of which go like this… you stand up and request permission to speak. The DI grants your request or doesn’t. You have to request permission to make a head call. If before you get the request to out you are told to shut up, you gotta sit back down. If you get out the request they are legally obliged to grant it.
I stand up and request permission to speak. “Sit down we are about to leave”. “Aye sir” and I sit down… for ~5 seconds. I stand up and request permission again. “WHAT DO YOU WANT RECRUIT!”. “Sir, this recruit requests permission to make… ”. “SIT DOWN WE ARE MOVING OUT NOW”. I sit down again… for ~3 seconds. I stand up and request permission to speak a third time. My DI is fuming. This time I speak with the speed of a seasoned auctioneer before he can interrupt and my DI angrily escorts me to the porta-john reminding me how this is going to cost me later.
I get in the porta-potty and thank God my DI doesn’t hold the door open or something. I pull out the cookies. My God… how are they still unbroken and bone dry in the saran wrap?? It was cold that day so there wasn’t much sweat and the chips hadn’t melted. Somehow they weren’t spoiled by all the ditch water I’d been wallowing in all day long.
I quietly tear open the wrap while pee’ing as slowly and as loudly as I can in the toilet. Pitching the wrap in the toilet and giving myself a thorough scrubbing on my teeth with some toilet paper, I’d pulled off the perfect crime. No one was ever wiser.
To this day I still don’t care much for sweets. I can have cookies whenever I want now, but still I don’t ever eat chocolate chip cookies. Not because I don’t like them or that experience gave me a bad taste in my mouth (pun intended), but because I just don’t see any cookie ever comparing to those cookies I had that day.
I risked my freedom for those cookies that day. No cookie could ever come close. Those were the sweetest, most delicious, to die for cookies I have ever eaten.