In mid-1981, when most of you were searing in your tan lines, I was summering in glamorous Quantico, VA, in the Marine Corps' Officer Candidates School.
It's much like any other school training program in the U.S. -- you're assigned a footlocker, a bunk mate, and a semi-automatic rifle. Like a bunch of new students we were assembled in a large gym, seated in uncomfortable bleachers and addressed by the head master. He was also the Commanding Officer of the base and he let us know what was expected of us for the next six grueling weeks.
He made us an offer. If we made high scores in the academic challenges, shot our M-16 rifles over and over and over and over at a tiny target 500 yards away, ran countless miles while we shot the rifle fully-clothed (us not it) over and under obstacles through the woods and muddy rivers, endured mind-numbing forced marches in the middle of the night -- and above all -- showed strong leadership skills when presented with impossible-to-solve challenges after being awake 72-hours straight, we would graduate this program, earn both an officer's commission in the United States Marine Corps and a barbecue steak dinner the night before graduation.
I love steak.
He also warned us to cock block the local girls in the nearby town -- apparently the entire lot had been stricken with a rough case of some disfiguring venereal disease. He droned on and on about painful urination and gangrene and went into dramatic, intricate details of resulting medical conditions -- but my mind drifted off to thoughts of that succulent steak dinner.
I was part of a platoon -- thirty-plus raggedy, individual young men who walked onto that base where our Drill Instructors grabbed us by the balls and shook us until we were melded into one perfectly coordinated swinging dick. I bonded quickly with the other boys. It isn't hard when you are locked in a Quonset hut and only move as a unit. We soon found out everything about each other as we marched together, polished our boots together, shot together and showered together twice a day. Almost everything.
Training commenced. I endured bizarre physical challenges paid for by your taxes. I crawled on my belly like an armed reptile carrying my rifle through the muddy rivers of Virginia. But I kept that steak dinner dangling in front of me like a grass-fed, beefy, marbled, tender and succulent-aged carrot.
The tasks got progressively harder. I mastered the Obstacle Course only to have the endurance-busting Confidence Course pop it's crazy head up. I repelled off the side of a building with an old rope as if learning to fly like one of those wine sommeliers in Vegas soaring up to fetch a vintage Pinot. There was one forced march where to this day, I have no idea how I made my skinny legs take another step under the 70-pound weight of my backpack. But I did. Perhaps it was the thought of Beef: it's what's for dinner. In 6 weeks.
My family was very supportive and wrote me letters during OCS. My brother Clay asked if there were any cute places to have lunch. There was one place to have lunch and it was the place that cute forgot -- the chow hall.
No matter how rough our training was, no matter how heinous the task, I quickly figured out that we'd stop for three meals every day. I think it was from a law born out of Congress, or sadistic necessity.
The chow hall was a huge, cavernous dungeon manned by monsters serving horrible food. Demons with buzz cuts emerged from the slime-colored walls, stirring pots of swill and witch-laughing while wearing nothing but camouflage aprons. The government gathered all of the people who looked too oafish to work at the DMV into this one place. They served me slop as I walked down the line, shivering, holding out my dented tray. Using their paw, they gathered a huge glob of what-the-fuck into their gnarled spoons from the banged up pots and slammed it down with a grunt.
I kept a mental calendar, flipping the pages in my mind as each day passed. As I lay my head down at night, I knew that I was one day closer to the celebratory cookout. Each sunset was a tiny victory with a bigger, meaty goal in closer sight.
Day after day we were tested. Each second a new limit was reached, they bent us further to get what they wanted. I didn't prove them wrong; I proved them right.
Finally, after six long weeks, the swirling physical madness slowed. I could feel the end thumping hard in my chest. I greeted graduation day as you all welcome any day: the sun rose, I pulled my government-issued camouflage pants on one leg at a time and I got yelled at for taking too long to pee. I then had someone's sick idea of breakfast and choked down lunch.
I scrubbed my M-16 for the last time, turned it in, kissed my hunky bunkie goodbye forever and got in the chow line for dinner. I grinned excitedly and danced a joyous jig, hopefully only in my head. I'm sure the other candidates could pick up on my pre-Don't Ask Don't Tell aura, though I'd tried to keep that under control.
My head had been shaved to clear the way for discipline to be drilled in with giant, government-issued green stakes; I now had a rock-solid Officer's foundation. But I couldn't resist the temptation to lean out of the line and glance ahead at my precious, promised steak.
Someone was passing out trays. Hmmm, I shrugged, guessing it would be okay to eat fine meat served on aluminum since they did it all the time at Steak and Ale.
My military training suddenly paid off. I smelled no fumes. I silently congratulated the Marine Corps on their skill -- their grill was undetectable. We'd learned the importance of camouflage and to hide obvious clues such as smoke and noise that might reveal our position to enemies.
I inched closer, looked around and panicked. Something wasn't right. I couldn't even smell BBQ sauce. I knew discretion was the better part of valor, but I needed that goddamned steak.
Remember when your uncle came back from the war with nine toes and that Asian bride? He cornered you in the kitchen and grimly told you that he saw things no man should ever see.
I saw one of those things that day.
As I reached the end of the chow line a huge cooking pot sat on a table. An ogre stood behind it reaching into the pot with long, crooked tongs. The world switched to slow-mo and I let out an internal scream that the Religious Right most fears -- as the beast yanked a stiff, grey, dripping piece of something out of that pot of water.
There was no grill. I'd spent six weeks training at a nightmarish pace, anticipating this moment -- probably written a little speech -- and the Marine Corps boiled the steaks in water.
We got, as my sage Drill Instructor used to say, fucked up the ass without the courtesy of a reacharound.
I kept my head down and ate that steak -- and instead of chomp chomp chomping that bitter lesson of a steak into my psyche, I chose to celebrate our memorably venerable accomplishments.