Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Halls of Montezuma - Part 1

I read a fantastic book recently by Dorothea Brande entitled "Wake Up and Live". This little book, which  you can read online by following the link, was first published back in 1936 and is barely over 100 pages. Dorothea Brande makes a profound statement in this book that completely changed her life when she reached this realization - Act as if it were impossible to fail. She goes on to state: "Always your first question to yourself should be, What would I be doing now if it were really impossible for me to fail..."

My wife Lisa had a hard time with this idea when I first explained it to her. "How do you do that???" How does one pretend failure is impossible? However, this is the wrong question, for it is not a matter of pretending or psyching oneself out. It is a matter of belief, which all of us have experienced at some point in our lives if we would only go digging in our memory banks. Think of the time when you believed you had to do something because the stakes were so high. To help jog your memory, below is a personal example of an experience that changed my life forever.

From the Halls of Montezuma....

This experience began in 1988 when I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps under what is called "open contract". Open contract means a person enters the Corps without choosing a job specialty at the time of signing up. The job is chosen instead upon completion of bootcamp. It didn't take long before I realized a few important details were missed. Intent as I was on being a Marine, open contract meant almost certainly being assigned to the infantry - the grunts. As excited as I was about becoming a Marine, the thought of spending the next four years in 'the bush' was depressing. Remember, at the time there were no "once in a generation" type wars taking place like we have today. America was at peace as the once powerful Soviet empire and communism were in rapid decline. As much respect as I had and still have for the grunts, it just did not seem that interesting considering there were no wars to fight. So, I needed to find a solution for the corner I had painted myself into.

There was only one way out of the grunts - to graduate Marine Corps boot camp as the honor man. This would mean automatic promotion to Lance Corporal (E3), skipping two whole pay grades right out of boot camp.  Most importantly, it meant selecting the occupation of my choice. This would be my ticket to a Marine Corps experience of my own choosing. The next step was finding out how one goes about becoming the honor man. Here is where the story gets interesting.

Marching Orders

In short, I would have to be 1 of 2 top grads out of an entire Marine Corps boot camp Company - about 400+ young men vying for the same honor. A Company is made up of 2 Series. Each Series is a collection of 3 separate Platoons. Each Platoon has about 70 recruits. To pull this off, I needed to first become the Guide of my own Platoon - the chosen leader of the recruits in my own group. Then, I would have to hold on to that position and beat out the Guides from the other two Platoons in my Series to win the title of Series Honor Man. This would be enough to meet my requirements for promotion and my ticket out of the grunts. I could then go for the grand prize of Company Honor Man - top grad out of all 6 platoons. The top dog.

Easy right? Well, not quite but here's the thing - at no point did I ever entertain the thought of not succeeding. How I spent the next four years of my life depended solely on how I spent the first 90 days in boot camp. I had my marching orders so to speak and I had to succeed. As Dorothea advised in her book almost 80 years ago, act as if failure were impossible. In other words, what if you were so focused on accomplishing a goal that the possibility of failure never entered your mind?

Fresh Off the Bus

There we stood frozen in fear - a crowd of terrified and confused teenaged boys with badly shaved heads, oversized cammies and large combat boots. The Drill Instructor (DI) had rushed onto the bus and screamed, "Get the f**k off of my bus!" So, we gladly obliged and got the f**k off of his bus as fast as we could. As we stumbled out onto the pavement, a swarm of angry DI's descended on us from all directions shouting some of the most colorful language I had ever heard in my short 18 years of life. They were like a pack of hungry pit bulls and Uncle Sam had just tossed them a fresh litter of scared kittens. These DI's were the epitome of "spit and polished", "squared away", "high and tight". Not a wrinkle in their uniforms, nor an ounce of fat on their bodies. They were like the guys in the posters only 100 times scarier. There is no doubt in my mind that many of my fellow recruits were questioning their decision to sign those enlistment papers. I was just as paralyzed by fear, but one particular thought dominated my mind - I have to be the honor man.

The Guide

The first step was to become the platoon guide, the recruit chosen by the DI's to be the leader. If you have ever seen Marines marching, the guide is the guy in front carrying the flag.  But something told me not to move too swiftly or to look too eager - that I needed to time this perfectly. Little did I realize the time would choose me and not the other way around.

The DI's started by asking for volunteers to be the guide and the squad leaders. Well, they sort of asked. It went something like, "Which of you pieces of sh*t thinks he's man enough to lead my platoon!" Several hands shot up as everyone understood the honor of being the guide or a squad leader. I was one of the few who did not volunteer. It was not time yet.

The next thing I remember is as clear as if it happened yesterday. A young Mexican kid rushed to the front to be the guide, and the DI's promptly planted him at the head of the platoon. It was all downhill from there. For the rest of the day this kid was berated, humiliated and made a complete fool of himself. We were all undisciplined, disorganized and looked like total misfits. After all, this was our first day of boot camp. The newly appointed guide was all of this and then some. The pressure and constant screaming of the DI's was just too much for him as he made mistake after mistake. There were moments when 3 or 4 DI's surrounded him all at once and screamed at the top of their lungs. This kid's small 5'5 frame visibly quivered as these massive mountains of muscle spit out insult after insult.

Within a couple of hours this poor guy was "fired" and told to get to the back of the platoon. Getting fired from a position of honor in boot camp is a regular occurrence, and quite demoralizing. Now the position of guide was vacant but I still was not ready to make my move as I could not risk getting fired from this position so early in the process. Then, a string of words barked through the air that I will never forget - "Jones, front and center! Get your ass up here! You're my new guide!"

I still had not volunteered but to hesitate for even a fraction of a second would have meant a lost opportunity. To this day, I have no idea what caused the DI to pick me out of the crowd and at the time it really did not matter. Success requires speed and I needed to move quickly. So, I double timed to the front of the platoon and took my position as the guide. There I stood feeling totally alone as a fresh pack of DI's surrounded me. Now it was my turn to face humiliation in front of the entire platoon, but all I could think about was one thing - I have to be the honor man...

Click here for Part 2 of this post. Sorry, but it is just too long of a story to put in a single article.

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