29 Palms
by C/SSG Steven Hildreth, Jr.

Day One

Spring break. A time for sleeping in for a week, watching scantily clad buxom women on MTV, going long distances to meet said buxom women, getting drunk, getting laid...

Wait a second. What the hell are you talking about? My spring break wasn't anything like that. No, gentle reader, I did things that your average student would balk at. Something that would make the average student rock crawl under a rock and cry. Something that would leave the average student broken, bruised, and fucked up beyond all repair.

It's called Spring Camp. But we'll get to that later.

Now, I'm a squad leader at my high school. Which one, I won't tell you. That's for me to know and you to find out. I carry the rank of Cadet Staff Sergeant, a far cry from my Cadet Private and Private First Class Days. Yes, people, I carry power. Granted, not much, because I have a good fifty cadets who can turn around and smoke me, but I'm no longer lower than whale shit.

Now, I wanted to prove that I was some hot stuff. Spring camp is just the place to do that. People yell at you, and you are pushed to your limits both mentally and physically. Last year I couldn't go because my mom and I had a debate. End result-she cancels my trip to the local base. Oh, well.

This time around, I'm running clean, and we're not staying five miles from Hell. Oh, no, this time we're headed to California. At this point of the journey, this is sounding like the best shit there is. So, I keep my nose clean, and, come Sunday, 14 MAR 04, 0600 hours, I'm up and I'm at the high school. I sit in formation for about five minutes, then I'm allowed to get my stuff, throw it on, and find a seat. I've brought a good book: Reflections of a Warrior, by Command Sergeant Major (retired) Franklin D. Miller and Elwood J.C. Kureth. It talks about his times in Vietnam, but I won't go into that. You want to read about spring camp, not a book I happen to enjoy.

So, I find my seat. Keep in mind this is a long journey, and if I get saddled with some loser, I'm stuck with him for the next...let's call it four hundred miles. Lucky for me, I got to sit next to a pretty cool guy. His name is...well, I'll call him Snake, because he reminds me of a certain cigarette-smoking Metal-Gear-fighting gravelly-voiced badass, except he doesn't smoke, doesn't kill nuclear equipped walking battle tanks, and isn't gravelly voiced, but who gives a damn?

So, we leave the small military base town and are on our way to one of the biggest cities in the US, one hundred miles away. Snake and I exchange a little chit-chat, and he falls asleep. I can't fall asleep, however. A week away from my parents, from chores, from reports, from church...I can't sleep! The whole prospect was way too exciting. After a small stop at a rest area, we continued on.

Along the way there, we stop in a big city, smaller than our target city, and grab a bite to eat. There, we get dropped for pushups. Why? One of our Army Instructors, Sergeant First Class Wright, tells us to stop swearing. Well, the busses are split up by gender; males on one bus, and females on the other. So, you have forty teenage males on one single bus...and you expect us to keep our language clean? There's a technical term for that. It's called "bullshit." But let us continue.

After getting dropped, me and a friend I'll call Polish play a bit of Silent Scope, testing out our sniper skills. After all, we have something to prove to the big, bad Marine Corps, right? I get out of the gas station late, and I get yelled at. What the hell, I think. It'll be worse when we arrive at 29 Palms.

So, we rendezvous with the other schools in the big city. There are two other schools, whose names I will change for instructional purposes only. The first was Navajo High School out of Phoenix, whom I will refer to as Slim Fast. Why? Ninety percent of their high school was overweight. Sad for a Junior ROTC program. Second, I'll call Discount High School. Why? Because the real name sounds like Discount. That's all you need to know.

After the rendezvous, we take a straight trip. We cross the California border while I'm listening to Eminem's Lose Yourself. Someone tells me 29 Palms is about twenty minutes away. I can't wait now. I hand back the CD player to the guy I borrowed it from, and read some more of Reflections. In no time, we arrive at 29 Palms, California, a small town next to the Marine Air and Ground Proving Center, or some long title like that. All I remember was, in the words of a friend of mine, "There aren't twenty-nine palm trees here!"

So, we pull up at the gate, half expecting a Marine to charge through and throw as many obscenities at us as he can. We all brace ourselves, then, oddly enough, the bus started moving again. All right, what the fuck? Were we going back home, after the trip here? What a waste of time. Then I see we're going toward the base, not away from it. Good. Now I'm gonna get my money's worth.

The bus stopped in front of a building complex, and I saw a group of Marines standing around. It's hard to mistake them for anything else. Their digital camouflage is distinct. Now I'm telling everyone to brace themselves for some yelling, because these dudes look ready to rip our eyeballs out of our sockets and shove them down our throats.

Boy, did I sure make an ass of myself for the first ten seconds.

Instead of some buff, muscle dude screaming his head off, it's this small woman, not even buff. You would've thought she was a pushover if you'd have seen her. I don't recall her name, but the first words out of her mouth changed my mind quickly.

"I don't care whose shit you grab. Just grab the shit, and get the hell off of my bus!"

I don't know about you, but a woman smaller than you giving the look of "I'm about to kick your ass" sure does scare the shit out of me. So, I went. I got off, grabbed two bags, and fell into formation, tripping over everyone's shit. People were screaming at us, yelling at us to get our asses in gear. When I didn't line up behind somebody, a Hispanic-looking female instructor named Lance Corporal Brower got in my face.

"What the hell is your problem, cadet? You don't know how to cover?" She wasn't going to let me get a word in edgewise. "Get your ass behind somebody now, cadet! Aye, ma'am? Aye, ma'am?!"

"AYE, MA'AM!"

Let me tell you something about Marine Corps Female Instructors. They may not look at much at first glance, but they are ten times worse than the male instructors. They will yell and scream and kick and shove and push until they get an "aye, ma'am" out of you. It is relentless. If you ever go to Marine Basic Training and encounter a female instructor, pay them some respect. End of lecture.

It didn't get any better from there. A friend of mine that, for instructional purposes only, I'll call Pinky, was called front and center. Why? He wore a shirt that said: "Tough Guys Wear Pink." I feel sorry for him, because he got reamed within the first twenty seconds of camp, and his girlfriend had to watch.

Rule one-DON'T DRAW ATTENTION.

Finally, after about fifteen minutes of "Aye, sir!" and "Aye, ma'am!" and other things not so pleasant, we finally have a formation. The main instructor posts front and center, and begins to talk to the cadets.

"My name is Instructor Corporal Rodriguez, and for the duration of your transformation, I will be in charge of you! Aye, sir?"

"AYE, SIR!"

"My other instructors are as follows: to my left are my female instructors, Lance Corporal Brower, Lance Corporal Reyes, Lance Corporal Williams, and Lance Corporal-" I don't remember her name, but she was the instructor that got me off the bus in a hurry. For instructional purposes only, I will call her Lance Corporal No Name. "Tomorrow, Lance Corporal No Name won't be here, and will be replaced by Lance Corporal Shelley. You will address them as ma'am. Aye, sir?"

"AYE, SIR!"

"To the right are my male instructors: Lance Corporal Rector, Lance Corporal Gore, Lance Corporal Hosterman, and Lance Corporal Hancock. You will address us as sir. Aye, sir?"

"AYE, SIR!"

"Louder!"

"AYE, SIR!"

"You're freaking nasty!" Rodriguez spat in disgust. Over the next couple of days, I would hear that phrase again, and again, and again, and again, until I got fucking sick of it. But enough about that. You'll see that eventually.

As a matter of fact, I realized that Rodriguez's favorite word was "freaking." As he was describing an instructor's job, he said: "The instructor freaking works the freaking unmanned freaking flying thing." I had a hard time not cracking up to this.

"Now, I want you to empty your pockets of the candy in your little nasty pockets and deposit it here! Anybody who doesn't come forward now will have my boot up their ass! Aye, sir?"

"AYE, SIR!"

"Go!"

Now, I had some Reese's in my pocket. I debated with myself whether or not I should come clean, then remembered how the Marines have their own martial art program, which I will go into greater detail about on Day Four. I came up front, ditched the Reese's, and went back to formation. Then, the instructors talked about how we were going to do a bunch of stuff that I'll end up describing later on.

Then, they found it.

I never knew who brought it, but I'd like to meet them in a dark alley. They sure did cause me a lot of trouble that week.

"Holy freaking crap! What the hell is this?! What the freaking hell is this?! A freaking dirty magazine! Holy freaking crap! Who brought the freaking dirty magazine?!"

I don't know, but whoever it was sure had a lot of fun with their right hand in the bathroom of the tour bus.

"No freaking integrity!" Lance Corporal Gore, a pimply-faced redhead Marine who couldn't have been older than twenty, barked, pacing back and forth in what would become his signature move. "No freaking integrity whatsoever! You're freaking nasty!"

They went on like this for another ten minutes, talking about dirty magazines in general, when they realized nobody was going to come forward. Finally, Rodriguez finished with a sickened, "You're freaking nasty," then changed topics. "You are going to get your nasty bodies over to the Gunnery Sergeant next to the buses, form a school circle around him, and listen to him. Aye, sir?"

"AYE, SIR!"

"Louder!"

"AYE, SIR!"

"You're freaking nasty!" Rodriguez spat again. "Get over there! NOW!"

I tripped over four or five bags, but I got over there unscratched. A girl I'll call Hippo, not because of her physical appearance but because her last name reminded me of a cartoon character, wasn't so lucky, biting the dust hard...except it was asphalt, not dust. She was crying up until we were dismissed to go to chow. But that's later on, yoohoos. Let's continue.

The Gunnery Sergeant, a thirty-something year old man named Lyle, was actually a pretty cool guy. He was one of the few Marines still in service to serve three combat tours. Many other Marines who have gone that far are dead, so that should say something about him. He was no Rambo, however. GYSGT Lyle was skinnier than a twig, and looked like a guy who'd like to hang around. But, as Al Pacino said in The Recruit, "Nothing is what it seems."

I don't actually recall everything the Gunny said, but it had something to do with what we were going to do this week. In addition, he told us about how to stay safe, i.e. don't run in the barracks, watch out for rocks, and the sort. After that, he said that we'd talk to him every day at the end of the day. After that, he turned us back over to the instructors.

More running, screaming, and tripping, and two minutes later, we were in formation. Finally, we gained permission to grab our gear and find a barracks room. We had roughly five minutes to do this. So, finding my stuff, I got up, picked it up, and walked over to the barracks. Very quickly, I found the first available room, and so did two Cadet Privates First Class whom I, for instructional purposes only, will refer to as Birdman and Green Giant.

Birdman is one of those short dudes that you'd most likely see on a bike, pulling off crazy-ass stunts. Actually, the Bird, who was a quarter Japanese, was a paintball fanatic. He's had a lot of practice with paintballing, a hell of a lot more than me. He looked like the extreme-sports type of guy that the ladies seemed to crowd around, but for some reason, there's always the absence of the ladies, except at parties. Oh, well. Their loss, I suppose.

Green Giant isn't the best looking guy in the world, but what he lacked in looks he sure as hell made up in intelligence and sheer strength. Now, I'm 6'0" and 200 pounds, and this guy would be able to rip me apart, teach my disembodied person a pre-calculus lesson, then pull out stitches and reassemble me. GG is that strong and that smart.

After the Bird and GG set their stuff down, we double-timed it back to formation, not wanting to get yelled at. This time, we got in our school formation, the setup originally designed for the high school. Navajo and Discount both got to go ahead of us for the chow hall. Frankly, I didn't care. I'd had a heater meal and, while I was eager to get to chow, I could wait my turn. I wouldn't be getting much face time with my food, anyway.

Finally, my platoon marched off, and we got in line for chow. Five minutes of screaming later, we had been filed off outside of the chow hall. After another five minutes, we were permitted to enter the chow hall. I had an itch on my face and reached to scratch it when LCPL Brower got in my face and screamed, "Why are you scratching your freaking nasty face with your dirty little paw?! Freaking nasty, cadet! Aye, ma'am?"

"Aye, ma'am!" I wasn't screaming in the middle of a goddamn mess hall.

I got my food, which was some stuff like macaroni lasagna, a light salad, and a glass of water. The instructors had been adamant about that. I only drink water or juice. I accidentally grabbed pink lemonade and got my ass chewed for that. So, I decided to stick with water. I sat down with the Bird and a few other guys and gals, and I wolfed my chow down. I had heard stories of Army Basic Training, where if you didn't dig it, literally, you went hungry. I was here with Uncle Sam's Misguided Children, ten times worse.

"Damn, Steve," a girl whom, for instructional purposes only, I'll call Emerald, said to me. You'll see more of her later on, but that's beside the point. "Slow down, man. You've got time."

"No, I don't," I said, swallowing my last bite of lasagna and attacking the salad at full speed. Two minutes later, my dish was empty, and I sat quietly, listening to the idle conversations. My efforts paid off when LCPL Rector came over to the table and looked us over. Only two people were done.

"Why are you nasties so slow?" Rector asked. "Look at these two cadets. They're already done. Get there."

"Aye, sir."

Needless to say, I was pretty satisfied with myself, but decided not to get cocky.

Finally, we were told to dump our trays off at the corner of the mess hall, where they had a little spinning rack that would take my food, and run back to formation. We sat there for a moment, with the occasional screaming, then we were marched back across the street, and put in formation again.

This was the hardest part of Day One. We sat there for about two hours, getting yelled at, nothing getting accomplished. Why, gentle reader? Because the people who run our state's school system are a bunch of no-load dip-dunks who don't know shit about edumacation. We couldn't count to ten, much less one hundred sixty-something.

"Holy freaking crap!" cried out Rodriguez for what seemed to be the seventieth time. "You don't know how to freaking count?! You're all freaking nasty!" So, after two hours, we finally got it down, and were told to file off and get issued a canteen, a Load Carrying Equipment belt, and a canteen cover. For the next five minutes, they taught us how to use these. Ha! Pretty funny. My dad's a sergeant in the US Army. I get to play with shit like this all the time. Within two seconds, my LCE belt is good to go. The cake-eating civilian's kids from Navajo struggled with it. Discount's kids, however, got it down pat. I'll explain in Day Two why they were so damn efficient.

Finally, the Gunny talked to us again about more safety issues, and unity, then dismissed us to the camp commanders. The head commander was my Senior Army Instructor, LTC Trombley. He's a pretty big guy who used to serve with the Engineer's Corps. I thought he was a hardass before Spring Camp. Boy, was I wrong!

The deputy commander was Discount High School's SAI, who, for instructional purposes only, I'll call Sergeant Major Prime. Why? He looked like he was past his prime. SGM Prime was probably fit at one time, but now sported a beer belly. I laughed at him because he pronounced our school to make it sound like a drug.

"Hey, guys, pass the BOONA!"

Needless to say, SGM Prime couldn't speak Spanish.

We got talked to for about another twenty minutes, then we were finally dismissed to our barracks. The Bird, GG, and I all went up and started talking the shit. That's when we realized we got the worse room of the bunch. Only one functional lamp out of three. No shower curtain. No working bathroom lights. Do you know how much it sucks to take a shower in the dark? Due to these factors, I only took two showers that week, and they both lasted roughly thirty seconds. Nobody noticed that I stunk, however.

We were too busy getting yelled at to notice the smell.

Finally, The Bird, GG, and I all started talking the regular male teenage shit again, like which girls we like, and stuff like that. After that, the stress of the day got to me, and the Sandman got a hold of my eyes, forcing me to sleep.

Thus endeth my first day at Spring Camp.