Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Halls of Montezuma - Part 2

This is Part 2 of a two part post. In Part 1 I talked of how moved I was with Dorothea Brande's book "Wake Up and Live" published in 1936. She asks the question, "What would you do if it were impossible to fail?" Think of the times in your life when failure was not an option. When the stakes were so high that you never entertained the thought of failing. It is during these moments of intense focus that we achieve our greatest triumphs. That was my experience as an 18 year old in Marine Corps bootcamp. Here's part 2 of that story. Enjoy.

The boot camp experience has this unwritten rule—anyone who becomes the Guide gets fired, often multiple times. I learned this from friends who had entered the Corps ahead of me and came home to tell the rest of us wannabe Leathernecks of their experiences. The issue of getting fired early on was the one that concerned me the most. I would have to chart my course carefully and not stand out too soon.

“Joliet?” One of the DIs said to me as his face contorted in disgust. The wide brim of his smokey sat at an angle almost covering his eyes. The smokey of the Marine Corps Drill Instructor is the most intimidating piece of clothing these guys wear. It is a menacing symbol of power, signifying entrance into a special kind of hell, and the DI with his towering smokey is its gatekeeper.

“The only thing in Joliet is the prison!” He screamed in my face. “Are you from the prison boy?” 

“No sir—“

“What the f**k did you say!” another voice came from my left. Something I said infuriated this second DI but I had no idea what. He then moved in closer to me with his smokey almost touching my face. Though I could not look directly at him, I could feel his outrage.

“The first and the last words out that hole in your face is ‘Sir.’ Do you understand that recruit?”

“Sir, yes sir.” I kept my eyes straight ahead conscious not to look directly in the eyes of the DI standing in front of me.

“Joliet, huh?” Apparently, this new DI also had a problem with my hometown. “I bet you was in a gang. That’s why you think you’re tough—Why you think you can open your hole without saying sir.” “Sir, no sir.”

“Don’t lie to me recruit. What gang did you belong to?”

“Sir—I, uh—.”

“I!” Came yet another voice. All three stood inches from my face cursing and shouting for what most would consider minor infractions. But to these guys, I had broken some serious rules of boot camp etiquette. I just was not sure which rules.

This third DI came from my right. I could only see him from the corner of my eye, but what I saw was enough. “There aint no ‘I’ here recruit. We don’t have individuals in the Corps. But you think you’re special ‘cause you from Joliet, don’t you?”

“Sir—“ I wanted so badly to say “I” but caught myself and could not remember which word to use instead.

As if daring me to answer incorrectly, the DI in front lowered his voice to barely a whisper and said, “Sir, what?”

“Sir.” Then, I remembered! “Sir, the recruit—.” What was the question! My mind went blank.

They erupted into a wild symphony of insults and expletives as they closed in even closer. When I think back on it now, I no longer hear words. I see only screaming and furious faces with sprays of spit carry their insults. For what seemed like an eternity, I tripped and stumbled over my words trying to explain I had never been in a gang or in prison—and that I certainly did not think I was special. I did the only thing I could—stood perfectly still with my eyes pointing straight ahead.

“Let’s see if you’re as dumb as the last one,” is the last thing I remember hearing. Somehow, I made it through this onslaught, but this was only the beginning.

Over the next several weeks, there were a number of close calls that almost cost me my position. My biggest challenge was swimming qualification. I never took swimming lessons a day in my life. In fact, I was terrified of the thought drowning, which I am sure was obvious the moment I entered the pool. All that was required was a simple backstroke. For the first few minutes, I thought I would make it until another recruit bumped into me. This broke my concentration and it was as if I had awoke from a dream and found myself in a pool. It did not take long before my arms flailed about as I sucked gulps of water. As my body began to sink, a swim instructor grabbed me and pulled me to the edge of the pool. I hurried out soaked and embarrassed.

“What the f**k Guide, you can’t swim?” The instructor shouted these embarrassing words for everyone to hear. “What the hell kind of a Marine can’t swim? Get to the other end of the pool with the rest of those clowns.”

The dreaded “other end” where all of the non-swimmers are put on display. Here I was the Guide and heading toward the other end of the pool because I could not swim. I would have to go through this entire experience again in third phase, towards the end of boot camp. How I escaped getting fired that day I do not know.

Then, there was the time I had to face my two biggest fears—water and heights. The DIs ordered us to climb a large platform and rope crawl to the other side over a body of water. I remember getting to the top, looking at the rope, then at the water and thinking, damn. The distance between platforms looked a mile long and everyone stood below watching and waiting. Turning back and exiting the platform was not an option. Therefore, I took a deep breath, grabbed the rope and headed across, keeping my eyes focused on the sky the entire time. I managed to make it across without making a fool of myself. Exuberance filled every inch of my body as I did my best to mask my excitement.

The day of my imminent dismissal from the position of Guide never came. I made it the entire way through without getting fired. When I tell other Marines this story, they cannot believe it. The day came when I was informed I would go up for Series Honor Man. Once boot camp nears its end, the three Guides from the series compete for this honor by going through an oral interview. A panel of DIs and officers drill the Guides on regulations, Marine Corps history and other items I cannot remember. Then, they eventually get around to asking why you believe you should be the honor man.

As boot camp neared its conclusion, the DIs changed a bit. They did not become friendly necessarily but they began to show some respect and pride for their recruits. It was clearly visible on their faces. They were proud of creating a batch of Marines. By now we were Marines although we still had a few remaining days in boot camp, but this was a mere formality.

When the DI entered the barracks and headed my way, his wide smile was better than words. “Congratulations guide,” he said as he held out his hand. “You’re the Series Honor Man.” Wow. I did it. 

Now it came down to me and the winning Guide from the competing Series in my Company for the top dog position of Company Honor Man. I would love to report that the fairy tale continued but the other Guide won. According to DIs who explained the outcome to me after boot camp graduation, we scored equally high on the oral interview. This meant the judges had to go to the “paper” to determine the winner—our scores from the rifle range, PFT or physical fitness test and swim qualification. We both scored in the upper ranges for the rifle range and the PFT but his scores were a few points higher in each. Swim qualification—forget it. He qualified as an advanced swimmer, while I qualified two levels lower as a basic swimmer. Despite this, I was still the happiest Marine in San Diego. I met the requirements for promotion and marched across the parade deck in the Marine Corps Dress Blue uniform, an honor reserved for honor graduates. The best part? The occupation of my own choosing. Mission accomplished.

The possibility of failure never crossed my mind—ever. Now this is not to imply that you will be successful one hundred percent of the time by adopting this thinking, but I suspect many of life’s challenges would end differently if more people devoted their energy on creative solutions to problems instead all of the reasons why success is implausible.

I included this complete account in the Epilogue of my recently released book "Presidents, Pilots & ENTREPRENEURS" as an example of what happens when our greatest desires and wants drown out our fears and worries. This is true in both life in general and entrepreneurship. Take Dorothea's advice and "act as if it were impossible to fail." In reality, failure is impossible until you decide otherwise.

See Also:

The Halls of Montezuma Part 1

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