Silas. Chapter 1.
“Silas. S-i-l-a-s. I’m seventeen years old. Yes sir, seventeen.”
That’s what I say to the recruiter as he single-finger types alphabet parts into a form on his computer screen.
Want action? Join the United States Marine Corps!
That’s what the poster says beside the door, the door with the pull-up bar wedged into the top of the frame. Everywhere you turn there’s something new to remind you what you’re here for, the chance to become one of a few good men. I can hear the rich history of this place pouring out of the cheap paper posters like cadence. Everything’s in step pushing me closer towards the dotted line where I sign away my life. Goodbye mediocrity, hello suffering.
I’m in a strip mall, and of course, there’s no real history in these walls; this recruiter’s station sandwiched between a Lens Crafters and a Discount Tire. That’s why the posters are here; to give me a window into a here-to-unseen world filled with all the blood, guts, and glory I can handle. These little peep holes into my future are here to pump in as much warrior ethos as it takes to make me say, “Thank you sir, may I have another.”
“So, what can the Marine Corps do for you?” the recruiter across the desk asks me after filling out the rest of the form. He’s holding a stack of engraved plastic cards, things like ADVENTURE and PATRIOTISM are etched into the faces of the things like little commandments.
“Put these in order from most important to least important,” the recruiter says, spreading the little plaques out in front of me.
I do as he says but know it doesn’t really matter. I know what I want but I might as well let him tell me about all the wonderful things the Marine Corporation can do for me. He pulls out a paper folder filled with pamphlets and starts pointing here and there. I’m pretending to be paying attention while he talks about military housing and job schools.
While I’m organizing these small plaques on the desk I’m thinking about how there has to be a strategy to the places’ lay out. You know there was a whole psychological warfare team tasked with turning every recruiting hub into the perfect trap for people like me. I read about it on the internet, about how these psychological warfare teams work. Apparently, some Army unit staged the tearing down of Saddam’s statue. They made it look like a crowd had amassed to symbolically destroy the years of oppression bottled up in that forty foot Saddam action figure; in reality, it was more of a movie set than anything else. Of course, the Iraqis wanted the statue down, but the Army had to make it look believable for the folks back home. They made sure to strategically frame the footage to just show the crowd, a crowd made up of roughly thirty percent American actors wearing convincing garb. If we’ve taught the Middle East any lesson, it’s the value of a good photo op.
Maybe that’s why the recruiter’s station walls are covered in portraits of Marines fresh out of boot camp; they know how important playing pretend can be. All these little uniform cutouts are faces you can replace with your own if you’ve got a serviceable imagination. Seeing all these wallet-sized Marines wearing dress blues reminds me of those carnival standees you look through; one moment you’re just some boring kid from the heartland, then all of a sudden you’re a pilot, or a lion tamer, or maybe an outlaw.
I’m sure a good eighty percent of guys sign the contract just to wear the uniform. I guess it makes sense why the recruiters have their’s on display by their desks. The heavy fabric of the dress blue jacket is made paralyzing by the knowledge that there is no easy way to earn it. I’m not going to lie, I’ve been staring it down since I walked through the door.
The Marine Corps is not a hard sell in a place like this. Kentucky as a whole doesn’t have a reputation as a destination, especially Pikeville, the little town I’ve been born and raised in. This recruiter’s station has its steady flow of high school students coming off the football field and straight into the loving arms of Uncle Sam. The half that can pass a drug test sign up, half of them get spooked before they actually ship off, and half of the ones that get shipped off to the island end up coming back empty-handed.
I’m not one of those people though, the person who doesn’t know what they’re getting themselves into. I’ve done my research and put in the hours. It’s how I am about everything. If I’m interested in something, I want to know everything there is to know about it, especially the little details people miss. Sure, I’m not that great when it comes to broad strokes, I can admit that, but you better believe I’ve looked up every little trick in the book when it comes to Marine Corps bootcamp.
For example; contrary to popular belief, they are not going to just kick you out if you lose your hard-on for push-ups. The drill instructors do everything in their power to get you to graduation. So if you want them to send you home without the hassle of months of processing, just piss the bed. It’s that simple, be a bed-wetter. They catch you pissing the bed three times, they’ll send you to another platoon. You might get assigned to two more platoons before they separate you entirely, but don’t worry, you’ll get separated. Just be patient.
Apparently, it’s a sanitation issue. You try to hang yourself or drink bleach they’ll do everything in their power to fix you. You piss the bed though, and they’ll kick you to the curb.
For me, it’s not a question of whether or not I’m going to make it to the end, it’s whether or not they’ll pin some kind of medal on my chest by the time I walk the parade deck leading my company to graduation. I have a plan, and the biggest part is getting out of my house.
I don’t hate Mom and Dad, it’s just that I’ve outgrown them. They’re great people and all, but I’ve spent the past seventeen years in that house homeschooling myself. Mom would give me the curriculum, and I’d do the rest. She felt like her job was done once I registered with the state, the only thing she had to do in her mind was keep me locked up from eight to three. This is why I’ve been able to give myself an excellent education, reading from sunup to sundown, teaching myself about wars and disease, and anatomy. I got straight A’s thanks to my hard work, dedication, and ability to grade myself. That’s the thing about education, it’s easy to learn when no one’s watching.
The year 2001 was big for my parents; both of them losing their jobs, moving into my grandmother’s, and then having me. It was the backward way of doing things, a living representation of Pikeville, the asshole of the world. At least that’s what dad calls our hometown. Even when he smiles I think I can see a little resentment floating around behind his eyes, like he feels as if he was cheated out of some kind of meaningful life by my untimely arrival. We’ve had a hard road, Dad and I. At the end of the day he says he loves me with all four hundred and ten pounds of him.
That’s the thing, I feel like they gave up, my parents that is. Both of them waste away while I cash their hard-collected disability checks. It’s a tough cycle to get out of, circling the drain with no reason to be anything but permanently couch-bound. Either way, they’ve done a good job of raising me. They’ve left me alone and set the most valuable example a parent can; showing me the terrifying reality of what can happen if you don’t move.
Me joining the Marines is me moving, my patriotic rebellion towards the mammoths that spawned me. It’s my middle finger to every platitude Dad’s been spouting out from behind his triple-decker and fries. Pikeville is the asshole of the world, the same way everywhere is the asshole of the world if you’re stuck there. I’m determined to get unstuck.
The Marines is just my first step. The real goal is war. As far as I can tell, there’s no truer test for a man than war. No matter what time in history, men are called to prove their mettle against other men who are called to do the same. Sure it does something to the psyche, but I haven’t seen any information to suggest that life’s supposed to be a cake walk. In fact, as I sit across from this recruiter I can see another poster with a drill instructor mean-mugging a recruit. We don’t promise you a rose garden, is scrolled across the top in large white lettering. Perfect.
Suffering breeds character, you don’t know who you are until you’re tested and all that happy horse shit. All corporate retreat-style motivation aside, signing on the dotted line is my chance to jump off a ledge into a world I don’t even deserve to be in. That’s why I’m scared, because I know how small I am.
Sure, we’re all overcoming traumas in our life. I’m sure that’s why a lot of people join the infantry. Little Jimmy’s a high school grad with straight B’s and a straight line to a community college and a communications degree. His Mom and Dad can see their baby boy becoming middle management at a fulfillment center for textiles or something. Seventy thousand dollars a year by the time he’s twenty-eight is what Mom and Dad are hoping for. Unfortunately, little Jimmy never came to grips with Mommy and Daddy’s divorce, and now he has a thirst for blood. The Marine Corps can quench your thirst son, sign here and drink.
I’ve been daydreaming for awhile now, looking around the room as the recruiter drones on about affordable insurance premiums and tuition reimbursement packages. I don’t care about any of that.
I can see more of the perfectly aligned posters demanding things like, Let ‘em have it! with a picture of a retro vet in drab utilities charging at your face with a bayonet. I’m guessing Korea, I can’t imagine there’d be any Vietnam era posters here. I’m young, but I know about Vietnam, bloodshot eyes and all. I can see it, napalm and gooks galore, a real bloodbath with headbands and camouflaged paint. I’m not stupid, I know it’s not all glory; there’s a dirty side to everything.
Above the recruiter’s desk, there’s a wipe off board with names scribbled on it, names of recruits on their way to turn their soft, weak bodies into hard-stud-stock. Off to South Carolina to get that action from the poster they saw at the recruiter’s station back home.
“Which of the plaques are you most looking for out of your enlistment?” the recruiter with eleven ribbons on his chest and two hash marks on his sleeve asks, turning his head to read the order I’ve put them in.
There are words like, SECURITY and PATRIOTISM
Cards that say, INSURANCE and EDUCATION.
Next to me, about six feet away, there’s another kid. He’s wearing a bright red USMC shirt that doesn’t quite fit right. His hair is cut into a screaming-eagle high and tight with a landing strip right over the top. This is the calling-card hair-do of any military member who wants to make sure you know they stand between you and the fiery satan waiting to devour you.
This kid in the oversized t-shirt is talking to the other recruiter, playing tarot cards on the desk like I am. He’s putting his most important plaques at the top on the tabletop. He’s got ACTION, then PATRIOTISM, then TRAVEL. The kid’s already sold, so all this recruiter has to do is figure out how patriotic his mark really is. Maybe the recruiter will tell him about how administration is where R. Lee Ermey started. Maybe he’ll pitch the benefits of the infantry, how becoming a grunt is the only way to not look back at your career and think about how you had the chance to be a man and blew it.
“You’re never going to watch someone literally explode if you don’t sign this contract today so we can ship you out by March. Time is of the essence, killer! Either shit or get off the pot!” This is what the recruiter wants to say, but that’s not how you call in your prey. Let them think they’re in control, then pounce.
Really, there’s an easier way of figuring out where this kid wants to go, all you gotta do is look at the wipe-off board behind the recruiter’s desk. All the Military Occupational Specialties are listed beside each name. All the jobs you could ever want from repairing jets to repairing copiers are spelled out in little four digit codes.
For example; 0211 signifies the next four years of your life will be spent as a Counterintelligence/Human Intelligence Specialist. If the name on the wipe-off board has a 0147 next to it, the job is Equal Opportunity Advisor. A 0161 is a Postal Clerk.
There’s a poster by the shitter that says, It’s up to you to protect the nation’s honor! with a man holding a woman in one arm, pointing at you with the other. It’s a little patronizing for the current social climate but that’s the whole point. There’s an unapologetic machismo here, the kind of vibe you might get from a boxing gym’s locker room or a slaughter house full of convicts. No one’s asking why there happens to be a one-sided gender bias depicted in every piece of propaganda; everyone’s on the same page when it comes to the overly testosteroned feel the place has. No one needs an explanation for why a Ka-bar combat knife is sticking out of a skull on the desk in front of me. That’s why I’m here and not across the street asking about the opportunities the Air Force has to offer. I’m no bitch.
If you’ve got an 1171 next to your name you’re a Water Support Technician; there’s a contract for Cyberspace Defensive Operator, and Metal Worker, and Bulk Fuel Specialist. A 5523 is an Instrument Repair Technician, and a 5524 is a Musician. This is why you do your research, to learn your captors language. I’m not going to be taken advantage of, not as long as I have an internet connection.
The kid next to me, still wearing the red shirt, he’s bug-eyed and almost drooling looking at stock images the recruiter has pulled up on the desk top. Pictures of guys breaking down doors in digital desert utilities, choppers lighting up insurgents like little infrared ants. The recruiter’s showing him the conveniently placed uniform hanging on the rack next to the wipe off board. The kid’s hand is practically signing his name in mid-air now, hypnotized by thoughts of government-sanctioned murder, entranced by visions of pussy, scores of eager women wrapping their thankful legs around his dress blue’d waist while he moans out the Marine Corps hymn.
“So when can I go?” the kid asks the guy across the desk.
“As soon as I get a signature we can send you down to processing to swear in.”
“What job would you do if you were me?” asks the kid.
“Let me see,” The recruiter says, turning his head up to the wipe off board to find what job the Corps needs right now. He looks down again at those three plaques on the desk in front of him.
ACTION. PATRIOTISM. TRAVEL.
He looks back up and says, “1161”.
Then the kid signs the paper, not bothering to ask what an 1161 is.
The recruiter stands up, shakes the kid’s hand and tells him he’ll see him soon.
“So, do you have any idea about the direction you want to go?” the guy in front of me asks.
According to the little black tag on his shirt, his name is Staff Sergeant Naff. He’s leaning back into his office chair spinning a Marine Corps pen in his hand. Everything about him says I’m the fifteenth kid to walk in here today, and from the look on his face, I can tell he’s just reciting a script.
“I want to be an 0311, infantry,” I say leaning into the back of my seat, adopting a similar posture to his.
I’ve read that mirroring during conversation is helpful when making a connection. Assuming a more laid back demeanor can also evoke confidence, no doubt setting me apart from other potential recruits. I’m determined to stand out, but not because I’m a homeschooler with the social IQ of someone on the spectrum.
The recruiter raises his eyebrows a little after I say infantry, surprised I’m not like the guy in the red shirt who just left. He stops spinning his pen and tilts his head to one side highlighting a particularly intimidating vein on his neck. I’m not scared though.
I know I want to be an 0311, a rifleman, a grunt. I want to break down tin-metal doors and blow holes in the brown bodies of jihadis. I want to toss hand grenades through windows, shoot tracer rounds into cars packed with bomb makers. I want to Let ‘em have it! I want to get some Action I want to Protect the nation’s honor!
“What makes you want to be in the infantry?” the recruiter asks, leaning into the desk with his elbows.
“Because I want to go to war,” I say, thinking he’ll be impressed.
He doesn’t say anything, it’s like I’ve done his job for him. Who would have thought that all you have to do to convince a homeschooler from Pikeville Kentucky to go die in the desert is make sure the door isn’t locked when they stop by.
I’m watching his forearm muscle wrap over the edge of the table as he half smiles, pulling his shoulders in tight exposing more veins in his neck.
“What makes you think you want to go to war? He’s staring me down, looking through my eyes into the back of my head.
“I want to go to war because I want to prove I’m a man.” Now he smiles, almost confused.
“You want to prove that you’re a man?”
“Yes, sir,” I say, sitting up straighter, still maintaining eye contact. This must be a test.
“You know that no amount of war is going to make you a man, right?”
Now I’m sure it’s a test. It’s probably part of the script they’re trained to recite. There’s no way the Marine Corps wants their personal representatives to just let anyone in the infantry; they have to make sure I’m not just some kid trying to get out of my house. They have to be sure that I have what it takes to become the best.
From the ribbons on the Staff Sergeant’s chest, I assume he’s seen action. I can’t imagine he’s asking this question lightly, for all I know there isn’t even a right answer. He might just be wanting me to stay stone cold and show I’m not leaving until he puts that little Marine Corps pen in my hand and shows me where to put my John Hancock.
After a few seconds of silence, he says, “Looks like you’ve made your mind up, huh?”
“Well, I’m not going to get in the way if you’re sure you’re willing to do this.”
Looks like I passed the test.
“Where are your parents?” he asks me, squinting his eyes in my direction.
“At home,” I say.
“I’d like to have a conversation with them, just to make sure this is what’s best for everyone involved before we move any further. You’re going to need their signatures if you are going to join since your seventeen.”
As far as I can tell, I’m the only one involved here. I get it, he needs their signatures because of the whole age thing, but I don’t think he understands how set I am on this. Come hell or high whatever the saying is, I’m going to war.
“That’s fine, they’ll sign. You’ll have to bring the papers to them though,” I say.
The recruiter squints harder and asks, “Is there some reason they can’t come here?” as if I’m trying to pull something over on him.
“Well, they could I guess, if you’re willing to cut out a hole in the side of the house big enough to pull them out.”
I can see his wheels turning now as he no-doubt imagines two behemoths melted into an off-white sectional watching MASH. If that’s what he’s thinking, he’s right.
He doesn’t look sympathetic though. Sympathy’s what I’m used to seeing when I tell people my parents would be the size of a small sedan if they had the energy to make love. Usually, there’s a look of horror underneath the sad gaze I receive from anyone asking what my parents do for a living. I can’t help it, they end up being the brunt of my jokes because of the simple fact that they can’t defend themselves. It’s not hate, it’s coping, and it takes all shapes and sizes. Pun intended.
“Well, I’ll see what I can do. I have your number, I’ll give you a call,” the recruiter says as he gathers all of the plaques and papers on the desk.
He’s looking at me for what I am, an easy sell. I’m not getting that fatherly treatment I was half expecting from this soon-to-be brother-in-arms. Instead, I’m just imagining what I must be to him, just one more body.
Maybe he’s reliving firefights in Ramadi or mortar attacks in Baghdad. Maybe he’s just hungry, it is almost 1700 after all.
Staff Sergeant Naff gives me a half-assed smile and reaches his hand across the table as he stands up.
“Glad you came in Silas. Looking forward to getting this ball on the roll.”
I stand up as well. His hand wraps around mine like a mitt almost crushing my bones it feels like. I can only think that’s what your hand must become after years of war. No cellulite in sight, not a trace of weakness, not a scent of complacency.
I can imagine myself sliding into that dress blue uniform already; I can feel my fingers wrapping around the black steel of an M4 as my heart beats the rifleman’s creed.
Walking out the door I tap the pull up bar thinking about war medals and carnage, thinking about bayonets and compound fractures, thinking about what that kid in the red shirt is going to do when he finds out the job 1161 is Refrigeration Mechanic.