It’s not often that I can’t come up with something to blog about, but after an exhausting roundtrip to Charlotte, yesterday, to visit my sons, their wives, and my granddaughter, there was nothing left in the tank.
However, I thought you might enjoy this excerpt from my coming-of-age novel, Escaping Innocence (A Story of Awakening). If you are a Baby Boomer, like me, this should bring back some memories of your own. If you’re not, it’ll probably leave you asking a lot of questions of your friends or parents who are.
Here’s the excerpt:
US Marine Recruiter, Staff Sergeant James Averill, stared at us across the cigarette-scarred table with pale, watery-blue eyes, a five-cent Phillies cigar clenched firmly between his irregular, nicotine-stained teeth. It was July 1964, and I had now been out of high school for over two years. I was back working at the liquor store after forfeiting a full semester’s tuition for five days of art school, but the time had come to make a dent in the status quo. Of course I couldn’t do it alone, so I dragged Craig along, convincing him that he would look terrific in a U.S. Marines dress-blue uniform. We entered the shabby recruiting office on a lark, following a Saturday double-feature at the Oritani Theater in downtown Hackensack.
Sergeant Averill coughed nervously as the acrid smoke from his cheap cigar brought tears to his eyes. He had obviously bought into the fallacy that real men smoked cigars, and his discomfort only served to affirm his conviction. I estimated his age at around thirty, mainly owing to the premature thinning of his washed-out, dirty blond hair. In reality, he could have been as young as twenty. There was no way to know. His skin was ghostly white, contrasting starkly against the navy blue color of his uniform, and this appearance along with his skeletal frame rebutted the robust image he sought to convey.
With a cloud of thick blue smoke encircling his head, Sergeant Averill proudly told of how the marines had enabled him to leave his home in Little Rock, Arkansas (a feat that most of his friends had been unable to accomplish). He alternately pontificated about, and pleaded on behalf of his chosen branch of the service, in an effort to get us to enlist. Sergeant Jim (as he preferred to be called) painted exotic word pictures of faraway places replete with bawdy descriptions of sexual adventures that he assured us would be ours. He pulled his shoulders back, simultaneously thrusting his concave chest forward, affecting his best posture. He was a model of military propriety.
“Join the team, men!” he said, in a deep southern accent that seemed to grow deeper with each syllable. “Y’all will never regret yer decision. Hell, I’ll even see to it that y’all can bunk together and evy’thang.” The sergeant sensed our indecision, and pressed on. “Ya see, we calls it the ‘Buddy System,’ and it means that y’all will never be separated.” His eyes narrowed, and he pressed on, his voice dropping down to a conspiratorial whisper. “Look, men,” he said, his head swiveling from side to side to sure no one else could hear him, “We even got wall-to-wall carpeting, and TV in every room.”
Yeah, yeah, I thought, and you’ll even throw in a new Corvette! Craig coughed, and old Sergeant Jim took that as a sign of encouragement. “Whaddaya say, men? Let’s do it.”
The silence was deafening. Craig finally broke. Swallowing hard, he uttered the exact words the sergeant was dying to hear. “So, how do we go about this? You know, joinin’ up, doin’ the buddy system, and all that?”
Sergeant Jim’s eyes sparkled with manufactured enthusiasm as he replied, “Hell, you men jus’ show up hea-uh next Monday mawnin’ at oh-eight hun’red—tha’s service talk for eight a.m.—and we’ll run y’all through some easy-ass tests!”
Then, he winked—and I almost threw up.
He continued, “Soon’s we git those test scores—and I’m sure you men’ll do real fine—we’ll jus’ see ‘bout gittin’ y’all signed up right quick, ‘kay?”
Craig and I snickered, and replied in unison, “Yessir, Sergeant!”
Little did we know what we were in for; U.S. Marine Sergeant James Averill might have been a hillbilly, but he was one slick hillbilly.
That Monday morning we dutifully reported to the recruiting office to take the tests. Sergeant Jim greeted us like long-lost friends, and showed us to the testing room.
“Men,” he began, “I’m sure y’all will both do real fine on these little ol’ tests, and as soon as we git them results, why I’d like to have a little ol’ talk with your folks, so’s they can see jus’ what’s in stow-uh for you men.” His sincerity was truly touching. Apparently, after a while these guys got to believe in their own bullshit. How else could you explain it?
The exam was the typical battery of aptitude questions: some math; some science; a bit of English; a little current events, etc. An hour and forty-five minutes later, Craig and I strode up the sergeant, and confidently turned in our papers. Sergeant Jim beamed. “Men,” he said, “Y’all must have done real fine. Hell, it usually takes them other fellars at least two and half, maybe three hours to finish these hea-uh tests.” Glancing up at the clock, he feigned further amazement. “Shee-it, you men finished in less than two! We’ll git these here papers marked up right quick, and git back to y’all in jus’ a day or two!”
Craig and I exchanged glances, and grinned sheepishly. We were actually beginning to enjoy the theatrical repartee between the sergeant and us; and his magic spell was definitely beginning to take hold. Good old Sergeant Jim.
Riding home in Craig’s Triumph, I could already picture us in Marine Corp blue, the two of us sharing a suite with the promised wall-to-wall carpeting and color TV. God, we’d have to fight off the girls!
By Wednesday morning, the wait had become unbearable. I dialed the recruiting office, tapping my fingers to the melody of the Marine song as I waited for an answer. Finally, a loud voice boomed at the other end of the line, “United State Marines recruiting office,” it said. “This is Staff Sergeant James Averill speaking.”
“Uh, yeah, uh, this is David Justin,” I stammered. “My friend, Craig Reilly, and I—”
“Hey, good buddy!” interrupted the sergeant. “I was jus’ fixin’ to give y’all a call. You men scow-ud real fine on them tests, and—”
“Really?” I shouted. “We did? Wow! What do we do now?”
I may not have known what to do next, but the sergeant sure knew what to do – and he did it.
“Easy there, man,” he said. “Not so fast.” He pulled a little line from the reel, and let the bait drift a bit. “We still got to talk to your folks – seein’ as how you men need permission and evy’thang.” He released the clicker on the drag. I opened my mouth wide.
“Oh, yeah,” I said, opening wider. “No problem. Can you come over to my house one night this week?” And I swallowed.
“Hell, yeah!” barked the sergeant, as he set the hook – hard and deep. “Why I jus’ happen to have some free time tonight. How ‘bout twenty-hundred hours—you know, eight o’clock civilian time?”
“Okay,” I shot back. “I mean, affirmative. Right, Sergeant?”
“Right as rain!” he replied. I could see him smiling through the phone.
Looking back, I guess you could say I was gut-hooked. Funny thing was I never even felt it.
That evening, the doorbell rang right on the dot of eight. “I’ve got it!” I yelled. I rushed down the hall to admit the sergeant. My breath caught in my throat as I beheld my savior, who stood there in his parade uniform, his posture ramrod straight, eyes focused straight ahead at a spot somewhere behind me on the wall.
“Sergeant Averill!” I exclaimed, too overcome with admiration to say anything else.
He broke his pose, and smiled, “Hell, man, don’t jus’ stand they-uh. Ain’t y’all gonna invite us in?” I looked around for another person, then grinned sheepishly as I realized what he meant. “Yeah, yeah,” I replied. “Come on in.”
By now, my father and mother had joined us in the doorway. After the compulsory introductions, Mom took the sergeant’s blue wool topcoat, and the four of us filed into the living room. “My son tells us you’ve got great plans for him,” said Dad.
“Well, sir,” said Sergeant Averill, “he did score real fine on those tests. He got a ninety four in electronics—one of the highest scores I’ve ever seen.” Dad smiled politely. He wasn’t sold yet. I just wanted to know where the good sergeant’s accent had gone.
Ever since I had first heard my scores, I had been a little suspicious—especially in light of my pathetic record in high school. Added to the fact that anything remotely having to do with electricity scared the living daylights out of me, and it was no wonder that I viewed my miraculous enlistment test scores with skepticism. However, hope springs eternal, and the more I listened to the sergeant, the more I became convinced that the tests had indeed revealed an inner source of wisdom that had somehow gone untapped throughout my high school tenure.
Sergeant Jim’s ever-present Phillies cigar filled the room with smoke as his spoken words filled the air—with bullshit! Mesmerized, my parents sat enraptured, as the good sergeant detailed the full scope of my proposed career as—get this—a Marine officer. By nine o’clock, Sergeant Averill had me graduating with honors from Officers Candidate School, and serving proudly in Hawaii as an electronics surveillance expert. By ten o’clock, I was enjoying the benefits of a full pension, with my new wife and two children, basking in the North Carolina sunshine, enjoying retirement courtesy of Uncle Sam.
My parents signed the consent form as if it were a publicity waiver for lottery winners, and showed a very-pleased Sergeant Averill to the door. Before leaving, the sergeant paused and remarked, “Mr. and Mrs. Justin, y’all are gonna be real proud of your son here.” As if to punctuate his observation, he wrapped an unctuous arm around my shoulder, and blew a puff of blue smoke in my face. I made a brave attempt to smile, while simultaneously fighting the gag reflex.
“We’ll see y’all Friday morning, Dave. Swearin’ in will be at oh-nine hundred. And, remember, ain’t nothin’ counts ‘til y’all is sworn in.” It was funny how that little old southern dialect had suddenly re-appeared. And, that wasn’t all that was funny. The following evening, Sergeant Jim paid a similar visit to the Reilly household. And, wasn’t it amazing, he had told Craig’s parents, how good old Craig had a ninety-four on the electronics portion of the exam?
Neither Craig nor I made it to the swearing-in ceremony that Friday. In my case, fate intervened to alter the course of my young life. No, there wasn’t any nefarious plot on the part of my parents to keep me from the Marines. They actually thought it would have been good for me to spend time in the military. “It’d make him a man,” Dad had explained to Mom. No, to the contrary, it was as if the gods themselves had actually chosen to smile on me, instead of pissing on my parade. That Thursday’s mail delivery contained a special letter—from Kentucky State Teachers College. Hell, I didn’t even remember applying there! It said that I had been accepted as a member of the 1964 freshman class.
As for Craig, in spite of his pleading to his parents and Sergeant Avery’s canned speech, his mother had stood fast and refused to sign the consent form. Craig’s father had wanted to “let the kid go see the world,” but in the end, he deferred to Mrs. Reilly, who threatened that she would get a divorce if he let Craig enlist. “I’ll leave you, Dick. I swear on a stack of Bibles!” So, old Sergeant Jim would just have to find two other suckers to help him fill his quota. But, that probably wouldn’t be too hard to accomplish. After all, if those amazing scores in electronics, along with the wall-to-wall carpeting and the color TV failed to convince some other gullible boys, he could always try the Corvette. Hell, he wasn’t just good old Staff Sergeant James Averill. No sir, he was a professional U.S. Marines recruiter —and the best bullshit artist ever to puff on a five-cent Phillies cigar. Sir? Ma’am?
As for me? I was going to college!