I had been working downtown at the sandwich shoppe, when the owner asked if I would take a ride down to the store out in the boonies to lend a hand to Jeff. I had never been out to the ‘park store’ or ‘exile’ before, so I would have to transfer my sandwichsmithing skills to a new locale.
Jeff was a former Marine, and as I found out later, very cynical of his entire experience. He was cold, tight-lipped, and hard-lined. Shortly after arriving, he inexplicably made to leave, telling me to watch the food already sizzling on the grill, to finish the orders he started, it wouldn’t be long before Tyrell would arrive to help me. All in all, it was a pretty slow store.
If you’ve ever been walking across the street and then realized there is a city bus or truck coming at you, that is what it is like to meet Tyrell. A current Marine, part-time sandwichsmith and though his eyebrows made him look like a thug or supervillain, he practically bubbled with an enthusiasm and patriotism for serving his country that was, as we’ll see, quite infectious.
Now, I don’t remember exactly what it was he said to sell me. Perhaps it’s just my impetuous nature. The same that has led to so many problems with women, and to choosing the first college I visited. But before you know it, I was assigned a recruiter, a thin-moustached man with the build and demeanor more fitting a postal clerk than a Marine. Nonetheless, I was set to meet him the following day, and the story is abrupt because that’s just how quickly things developed. When Jeff finally returned, he shook his head and tried to talk me down from this exciting proposition. At this point, I figured I would check it out and see what sort of options were available, and make decisions later on.
I met the good Sergeant downtown at the federal building the following day, as instructed, shook his hand in the dingy public parking lot and made our way up the dozen or so floors to take the MEPs. Finding most of the questions exceptionally easy (except maybe some of the math and engineering, but those have never been my strong suit, and even still they were fairly a breeze), I sat and waited at the computer for the time when we were allowed to leave. There were a handful of other applicants, and when I was done the Sergeant drove me home. He would be one of two local recruiters who showcased alternately diligence and apathy towards my military options and career. I was eager to see what my score might have been, and the Sergeant took it upon himself to schedule a day of a full range of tests in said federal building, and he himself would pick me up.
On that big day, I was taken out to a recruiting office far from the urban centers, where I was made to fill out paperwork, and where I would meet my other recruiting specialist, Eli. Eli was a blue-piercing-eyed white boy with the standard muscles and awful haircut more in line with the USMC. He had me hurry up and wait to speak with him in a wood-paneled room featuring a mural of a ‘devil dog’ on one wall.
Reviewing the papers, he then asked (either as standard patter or due to my long hair) when the last time I smoked weed was. Lying to this government employee, I replied that I never did such a thing. He smirked uncharacteristically and said, “when they ask you downtown, that’s what you tell them.” Essentially urging me to lie on government forms.
I knew the ethics of recruiters were sketchy at best already. I had a friend in high school who was constantly getting called and harassed with phone calls after one brief discussion at a school job fair. Finally, he told the caller(s) that he was gay, and put an end to it. As he related the story to me later, I asked why he didn’t just admit to having asthma, because, you know, he actually did have asthma. He looked stunned. Someone on a federal form his sexual orientation has been listed as “don’t ask.”
Anyway, Eli had myself and some much beefier Marines-to-be jog down the road from the mall and convention center to the suburbs, work out, run some more, play some basketball, and basically anything else to make me feel out-of-shape, ostracized, alienated and awkward. Before I knew it, we were being herded onto a bus with no explanation.
We were taken to an air force base some miles from the city, where for all I knew, we were to be fodder for some insidious lab experiment. Instead we were broken into groups, fed, and assigned for the night to various bunks. As overflow, I and two others were to have an entire barracks to ourselves. It was more of a hotel experience than anything else, and though I did my best not to socialize too much, the other two ‘flatmates’ decided to get a movie from the base rental window. We drank beers (we were never carded) and watched a Denzel Washington film about the horrors of war. Shifting uncomfortably, we began to inquire into one another. One of the boys was going to get a full college ride, and was most likely joining the air force. The other wanted to join the Marines, but had been denied twice already when cocaine turned up in his system. This was his third try. I still wasn’t quite sure what I was doing there.
Leaving the violent movie early, I turned in and set my alarm for thirty minutes before the time they said they would wake us. I know they were quite prompt, because as I was finishing my shower in the shared bathroom across the hall, I heard the doors to our rooms clamor with pounding and shouting, telling the other two to get up. When the herald arrived at my door, he continued to get more and more impatient that I wasn’t answering. Opening the bathroom door behind him, I asked what the commotion was. Perturbed, but also startled and embarrassed, he quietly told me to get ready, which I already was.
They had an amazing breakfast spread of pancakes, toast, jams, waffles, scrambled eggs, hard-boiled eggs, sausage, bacon, ham, coffee, juices, cereal, milk… I wouldn’t be surprised if they save the best mess you ever get in order to impress the recruits.
In those wee dark hours, we were herded back on the bus, more of us now it seemed, and shuttled back downtown to the federal building. I was still not very clear on what was happening, as they must have been afraid I would run.
The long line of us passed through security, clogged momentarily for the amount of metallic objects I carried, unprepared as I was. Back to the higher floors where we were given papers to fill out and stamp, a recreation area with sofa, big screen television and pool tables to look at before we were filed and processed.
We were told by an authoritative officer not to even think about gambling on the pool table, as this had happened before and he assured us that the IRS was one floor below.
We were also told to drink some water.
It wasn’t clear if there was any method to this, but we were bounced from area to area in a seemingly random way, with various doctors looking at charts and papers, which had to be filled out and copied.
I was sent first to a hearing test, in a booth in a dark audio room, just as it was really starting to get light outside. The heavy cans on my ears, I listened dutifully for the meeps that tested my sense, the clicker tightly clutched in my hand. Doubting myself, I began to wonder if perhaps I had missed a meep, and should click away a few times just to be sure. Maybe if I had switched hands with the clicker, I could have heard better in the other ear.
Just to make sure I was okay, the hearing test official told me to go drink some water.
At a certain strike of the clock, we were brought into a classroom and sat at small desks, where paperwork already awaited us. We had to listen to a spiel directly contradicting what my recruiter, Eli, had told me. They said that although they knew how recruiters told them not to lie, we should swear that we will not OR ELSE face fines, penalties, and jail. No matter what the recruiter said! It interested me how they all seemed to think this was a surefire system, or that they were allowing it to happen at all. I answered (mostly) truthfully, as it would happen I hadn’t smoked weed in some months, and had never broken any bones in my life.
They collected our paperwork and then sent us back into the halls for our tests, though it was still unclear how this was all coordinated. Either way, we were told to drink some water from the fountains.
Pushed into a less-than-sanitary looking medical room, I was seated across a bro who was already tied off to have his blood drained from one arm. A needle approached me as well, and I tried not to think about it, never having given blood before. When I realized that the large needle had penetrated with less pain than I’d anticipated, I looked down to see it, not so much drawn up into the syringe, as it was just allowed to blurble up on its own and fill the receptacle. Amazed at how this worked, I looked across to the beaming blond recruit, smiling at his awesome needle-taking toughness. We were patched up superficially and given some water to drink.
I was administered a vision test, and despite my glasses, was not quizzed in particular, in fact, their set-up was less than the Sears optometrist. I learned about the colored bubble letters on similarly toned backgrounds designed to root out the color blind. I had always vaguely wondered how the color blind would know if they were.
Discovering the purpose of so much hydration, I was sent to give a piss test into a long urinal, designed so that an over-tanned and gold-chain-wearing government employee can get paid to stand there and watch the stream leave the tip of your penis. If, like the person lined up at a urinal next to me, you could not release on command with an audience, he would help by taunting you, “what’s the matter, stopped up?” Once finished, we were to carefully carry our cup, labeled and accompanied with paperwork, to the table outside and set it down ourselves, certainly not try to hand it to the person there.
It was then that I noticed the kid from before, the blonde bro who had been so proud to give blood, walking down the hall towards me. Tall and well-built, he motioned to me in recognition, and then promptly collapsed to the filthy floor. Nurses and doctors rushed to his aid, as I myself felt a little drained all the sudden. I asked a nurse what had happened, as I had seen him give blood and he seemed just fine. She told me that some people are so mentally averse to needles and giving blood, that it can make them pass out. How they would know if this lingered in their subconscious, none of us knew. Discomfited, I sat and awaited my own possible reaction.
After responding to more questions and papers, I pressed my fingers to a cool futuristic laser scanning device, and was snaked through a maze of office cubicles, finally arriving back out in the main lobby/rec area, where a secretary handed me food tickets and instructions to the cafeteria some floors down.
I met up with my mates from the night before, only to discover that the coke enthusiast had once again been rejected, however, still given free food. Which was definitely less impressive than that morning.
Returning to our circus, we were told to hurry up and join room of weird, half-naked calisthenics. Most of us wore boxers, but one jock in particular wore briefs, and I have to tell you, he had nothing to be ashamed of. Scientists and doctors probed and examined us, as we were each in turn called back into a smaller closet room within that room. A kindly old Dr. Hibbert looking fellow with large grey sideburns and unsettling chuckle assured us it would be a “peek, not a poke.” He lied. And he had very cold hands when he told me to cough.
Later in his office he would sit me down and review the paperwork, tell me what was wrong with me and my body, and then stamp it all approved before hurrying me out of his door.
Across the building, we were made to wait for what seemed an hour to be assigned a good job. I was told that based on my MEPs score, I was good enough to be given ranked position (with my continuing degree) in military intelligence. However, I was not going to be offered that job, and as such my options were MP or KP. They pretended to explain a great deal of paperwork, and continue to promise me a load of college tuition and other theoretical benefits.
After having been hurried around and made to wait the day away, it was dark again outside. And though it seemed like it had taken forever at times, in retrospect it was all one big blur before the final moment, sitting on the couch, watching a screen that filled one wall give reports of explosions and rising death tolls in the Middle East. I had barely let my parents know what I had been up to, and here I had signed a bunch of papers without reading them. I began to worry, because stupid kids tend not to think about these things until it is too late.
Hurried once again into a wood-paneled office room, made up to look nice with plaques, medals, and flags for America and each branch of service, we stood in rows and the first speaker cursorily taught us ‘at attention’ and ‘at ease.’ As I looked around, I noticed how few people had remained from that morning, and wondered momentarily why I was one of them. This thought was brought to the fore again when the second speaker asked which recruits were representing each branch, only to discover I was the only possible Marine in the room, and barely the part. As these speakers yelled and speechified at us in ascending rank, they finally all snapped to attention for a man with enough bars on his chest that I knew he only arrived in the offices for this one moment, now well into the evening.
He looked at us proudly, his chin firmly jutting as he described a time, mere weeks ago, when war protestors had surrounded the federal building. They screamed and spat at the officers, recruits, privates, and anyone interested who entered the building that day. He spoke not as though he hated them, almost as though he somewhat admired their patriotic courage to employ their freedom of speech, even in vulgar, hateful ways. The men and women who signed up for duty that day, however, held a special place of inspiration. They walked through the vitriol, taking every drop, and ascended to their trials so that they could sign their lives away in the service of protecting the constitutional rights of those protestors down there. He told us that it was a God-given duty for some to fight for their ability to spit on us. Strangely, the most heartening and noble thing I had ever heard.
He swore us by oath and then hurried off. We had to wait just a bit longer before we left, gone home to feebly explain to our friends and family what had just occurred. I’m still not quite sure to this day.