The barracks is our home. Sterile, white tiled floors and rows and rows of identical bunks with
precisely made beds covered in green wool blankets. A large metal footlocker with two doors at the
head of every bed. High windows let in the hot, tepid air and stale sunshine that falls on the path
separating the single row of bunks on each side of the room. We are lined along the foot of each bunk, two rows of women facing each other. Our alignment is exact. As exact as the alignment of our shirt buttons, belt buckles, and flies. As exact as the arrangement of our boot laces and hair. As exact as the forty-five-degree angle of our heels meeting, standing at attention, thumbs on our trouser seams. How many mornings have started like this?
Reveille at sunrise, inspection, chow, physical training, drill, chow, range practice, drill, physical training, chow, lights out. It’s been so long.
The sergeant enters the room and saunters down the line, hands folded behind his back. His
boots hit the tiles at an even pace. Thud, thud, thud. He stops in front of a woman three bodies down. It
is Sanders. Her face is expressionless. Sanders is part of my fire team, not that we will ever be under
fire together seeing as we are women, but being in my fire team she is my responsibility. The sergeant continues down the line. Thud, thud, thud. He stops at the end of the row, turns on the balls of his feet, arms stiff, in a perfectly executed about-face. We are safe.
“Good morning, ladies.”
“Good morning, sir.” Our sentences are short, loud.
“Today you will be taken to Basic Warrior Training. OORAH.”
“OORAH!” we reply.
“Yes, sir,” one of us says.
“Get these recruits to chow, double time.”
“Yes, sir. Fall in!”
A split second after the command is given we are running to the parade deck. Down the stairs, out of the barracks and onto a flat expanse of asphalt that looks like twelve basketball courts that someone forgot to paint and smashed beside one another. We immediately fall into a formation, four bodies deep, fifteen bodies across. We stand at attention, stomachs growling. Over time the schedule of our bodily functions has been synchronized and regimented by the will of our staff sergeant. Together the growling of our stomachs is like a chorus of angry bull dogs. Devil dogs.
“Double time, march.”
It is a beautiful morning, blue sky shining, and the base is quiet. The air is cool on our skin as we run together, sixty feet hitting the ground at the same moment of every step. Someone starts a cadence.
“Left, Left, Lo, Right, Left,
Ba Ba Ba Re Ba
Lo Righty Lo
I used to sit at home all day,
Letting my life a waste away.
Then one day a man in blue,
Said honey I got a job for you,
There’s travel and adventure and loads of fun,
And we’ll even teach you how to shoot a gun.
Ba Ba Ba Re Ba.”
Today is pancake day. We get to the chow hall and line up single file, staring straight ahead and holding our trays at ninety-degree angles as we wait for the immigrant workers behind the counter to slop down the half-fried pancakes, hard boiled eggs, and floppy bacon. The hardboiled eggs are white and fresh today. They only make them on pancake day. In six days, when it is omelette day, they will be a particular shade of olive green. The sergeant prowls our ranks. Someone’s tray is less than perfect.
“Get that tray at ninety-degrees, Recruit! I know your brain is not as evolved as mine, but someday you will understand there is a method to the madness!”
We sit four to a table. We have twenty minutes to eat and we eat as much as we can. During boot camp, all the women think of is food. Men, we are told, think of women, but we have to take this on the word of the sergeant, because we are not men.
After breakfast, bellies sloshing full of chow, we run back to the parade deck.
“Left, Left, Lo, Righty, Lo
Born on a mountain top, raised by a bear,
Got two sets of teeth and a full coat of hair.
See us coming better run better hide,
Cause we’ll hunt you down and eat you alive.
Slit your throat and wipe it clean,
We’re mean mother fuckers we’re US Marines.
We’ll spit on your graves and laugh out loud,
Wear medals on our chest and feel damn proud.
Fighting and killing that’s our job,
So we earned the name Devil Dogs.”
A bus is waiting. It looks kind of like a school bus, except it is olive green and an angry-looking
man wearing the beloved hue of digital camo, singular to the Corps, is driving. If I had children, I would not send them on his bus. He looks as if he has eaten a child for breakfast except that it is pancake day.
The sergeant orders us to board. The seats are black and they feel waxy against the backs of our arms where our shirts sleeves end in cuffs. We sit at attention. The sergeant does not board the bus but gives the driver orders that I cannot hear. He shuts the door and we drive out of the base, onto the highway.
Sanders is sitting next to me. She almost didn’t make it this far. Last week she tried to give up. She failed to finish the obstacle course in under twenty-five minutes. It was the wall that got her; her legs just weren’t long enough to reach the footholds. The sergeant was angry. She stood at attention, shaking with fatigue and fear while his eyes and veins bulged and he shouted.
“You are not worthy of the eagle, globe, and anchor! How long have you had to prepare for this you fat body? And you still cannot finish a little obstacle course. You must want special treatment. Well Paris Hilton, you will get your special treatment!”
A female drill instructor brought out a box of powdered doughnuts. None of us had seen a doughnut in months. They were the things of dreams. They made her eat a dozen powdered doughnuts without water while we watched. To achieve the full effect of relaxation the sergeant made us bend our
knees and squat like we were sitting in invisible chairs. Our legs shook with exhaustion. Eventually they ordered her to stop eating when she could no longer swallow bits of half chewed doughnut between bouts of vomiting and sobbing.
It was a small thing to the majority of us but she could not stop crying all night. I expect she had never been treated like this before she came here and the injustice of her loss of bodily integrity seemed to leave her in despair. The next morning before inspection she was about to snap.
“I can’t get this fucking belt buckle straight. I can’t.”
“Calm. Down,” I said.
“I don’t understand why they treat us like this. I can’t handle it anymore. Somebody help me get
this belt buckle straight!”
I walked over to her and grabbed her shoulders.
“The more angry he sees you get, the more shit he is going to throw at you.”
“How can they treat us like this?”
“This is just how our life is now,” I said, straightening her belt buckle and aligning her shirt.
She stood passive like a child but her question hung in the air.
Now that we were here, what illusions we had left about our futures were deficient and half crystallized. We waited unconsciously for them shatter at our feet. They never did shatter; instead they eroded slowly over weeks and months. Word by word barked from the sergeant’s mouth we learned of our true natures and destinies. A few of us knew already, grew up like this, without illusions or false dreams. We didn’t warn the other women, at night whispering in our bunks, like we could have. It wasn’t our job, as fire team leader, it wasn’t my responsibility.
After we all joined the Corps, made the decision individually to escape or to build a future or whatever the reason, our positions were only marginally better than before. If you had run away from something to the Corps, you had only run into something that was exactly the same or worse. But that was okay, because it was different and you can still escape into physical exhaustion. No more nasty uncles to tell you how fat you look that day, no more fathers to smack you for talking back, no more football players to slip rohypnol in your drink. Just fellow Marines to label you a slut when you slept with someone and petty officers to label you a bitch and demote you for not sleeping with them.
Because that’s what we were now; bitches or sluts. Pick one, because you can’t be both.
The bus hurtles down the highway while we sit silently at attention. We pass supermarkets, suburbs, strip malls, hotels, motels, and churches. People drive by in cars, walk down the street, sit on benches, blissfully unaware of our bus zooming by. We devour the normality of their everyday life in our peripheral vision and the bus drives on, making every green light. From the highway we merge
onto the freeway. None of us are from here, so we have no idea where we are, not that any of us could say anything even if we did, sitting at attention. The angry driver veers onto a bridge and our peripheral view is filled with an expanse of water left and right, sparkling in the mid-day sun. There is no one driving on the bridge except us. The yellow line in the centre of the road draws the bus onward and I watch its persistent unfolding. My eyes move to Sanders sitting next to me; she is staring at the yellow line as well. Her pupils dilate a millimetre and my attention shifts back to the line. A hundred feet ahead it ends. The road ends. The bus driver does not seem to notice or care. He is staring straight ahead. I can see the end of the road now and beyond it there is nothing. The sparkling water dissipates into an empty midnight-blue abyss and we are hurtling toward it. No one makes a move or says a word. I can see where the end of the road disappears now. It seems to dissolve into the void. There is simply nothing there.
“It’s the end of the world,” Sanders says, and I know she is right. Without stopping to consider the possibility, the absurdity, the physical enigma she says, “This is exactly what I was waiting for. Thank God for the Corps.”
“Semper fi,” I say.
And the bus drives on.