Back (way back) in my younger days I heard the call to serve my country. Actually, what I probably heard was merely the voice of my mom, in a somewhat less than subtle tone, “suggest” that I needed get on with my life – somewhere else.
I was 17, just graduated from Kingsbury High School in Memphis, had put in my requisite time on newspaper routes and flippin’ burgers at McDonald’s, so perhaps she was right, it was time to broaden my skill set.
The Viet Nam quagmire was tearing our country apart in 1969. In a moment of semi-lucid, 17-year-old brilliance, I decided I would set my sites high and become a member of The Few, The Proud. I arrived at that conclusion after I had seen a tragic news story from Viet Nam that showed several German Shepherd sentry dogs that had been killed in combat. I vividly remember that to this day.
At that time, I had a wonderful German Shepherd Dog, “Chip”. He was a neighborhood legend, 85 pounds of solid muscle and bone with so much attitude the dog catcher called him “sir”. With ”payback” in mind and a knapsack of ignorance on my back, I presented myself to the Marine recruiter and volunteered both myself and my dog to the service of our country.
After quietly and straight-faced listening to my best ”I am here to volunteer” speech, the strapping Marine behind the desk, after a moment of stunned silence, smiled and yelled to the other Marines in the next room and said “Yall ain’t gonna believe this one.”
The Marines, now an entire group of them, maintained their composure, kept straight faces and politely informed me that because I was only 17 years old, I would need my Mother’s permission to enlist as a Marine dog handler. Once she signed the paper that they slid across the desk to my waiting hand, I could be on my way.
I got back on the bus heartbroken. My plan for the future had crumbled. I already knew that no matter how bad she wanted to get rid of me, or how ingeniously I spun the story, there was no way Mom was gonna let that dog go to war.
I had no other options, I continued to work sacking groceries and on my eighteenth birthday went back and enlisted in the Marines, but Chip stayed behind. My life got better, but not right away. Looking back, boot camp at Parris Island would not have been such a challenge if Chip were there with me. He did not approve of any yelling, any time. He would even growl (under his breath) when Mom would yell at me. Therefore he did a lot of growling. I missed him for sure but I also missed nearly everything in the life I left behind. Culture shock takes on a bold new meaning in Marine boot camp.
In the Marines, the rank of E-7 is called a Gunnery Sergeant. That’s a bunch of syllables for us simple-minded Marines so we just called ‘em “Gunny”. My senior drill instructor was a Gunny. That man was, at once, the baddest, filthiest talking, scariest, muscle boundest, squared away human creature I had ever imagined. I soon came to realize that, had he been there, Chip would have joined forces with the Gunny (out of professional courtesy), in order to help him make something of worth out of us pathetic recruits.
After graduation from Parris Island, instead of making me a dog handler, the Marines, in their infinite wisdom, made me a photographer. I was a bit offended at first. My rifle shooting skills had won numerous awards in high school and in boot camp. But you did what you were told and that was that. A photo I sent home of myself in uniform, armed with only a camera, must have been a real hit around the old neighborhood. Chip looked at the photo and just sighed and walked off. It was final. I was on my own. There would be no dogs in my future for a long while. Continue reading