An Adventurous Summer

by Gary Beck

My best friend Steve and I were still under careful surveillance from last summer's episode, when we enlisted in the Marine Corps at the age of thirteen. It had happened while Dad was still in Korea, before the armistice was signed. We had prepared the plan very carefully. We wrote parental consent letters for each other that informed the Marine Corps that we were seventeen years old and had permission to join the Corps. We thought we were very clever when we went to Hartford to enlist. It was far enough away so we didn't expect to meet anyone we knew. The recruiting sergeant in his dress blues and ribbons looked exactly the way we hoped to look, rugged, brave and confident. He probably didn't disillusion us about the demands of military life in order to make his quota. He looked us over very carefully.

"You boys look awfully young."

I was quick to reassure him.

"We're seventeen years old, sir, and we want to enlist."

We were both 5' 10", about 160 pounds and muscular from tennis and working out. We convinced him we were mature enough to fill out the appropriate forms and sign on the dotted line. He looked at them for so long that we thought he would throw them in the waste basket, but he finally relented.

"Raise your right hands."

He wasn't amused when Steve made a joke.

"Is this an intelligence test?"

The sergeant glared at Steve. "This is serious business, kid. Do you want me to swear you into the United States Marine Corps, or are you wasting my time?"

"Sorry, sir. We're ready."

He promptly swore us in. It was a scary moment. Steve was as tense as I was.

"Report back here in three days at 8:00 AM. Then you'll go by bus to Parris Island for basic training. Do you boys know where Parris Island is?"

"Sure. It's in France," I said.

"Wrong, kid. It's in Buford, South Carolina. I sure hope you boys don't turn out to be clowns, or you'll learn about the Marines the hard way."

"We're not clowns, sir," I said sincerely. "We're just nervous."

"Well, I hope I'm not making a mistake. If you mess up my Corps, I'll find you, tear your heads off and feed them to my dog. Now get out of here."

We were very disappointed that he didn't issue uniforms to us on the spot. It was probably for the best. We never could have resisted the temptation to wear them to the club. That would have resulted in immediate discovery of our enlistment and its rapid cancellation by Mother. We didn't tell anybody our secret, not even Vern, our chauffer, who we confided in. Steve begged me to let him tell Jenny Carlton, a fourteen year old girl from the club who played the 14 and under circuit. She was the target of Steve's newly unleashed sex drive. He thought his enlistment would impress her enough to make her more receptive to his growing urges.

Steve made eloquent speeches to me about the need for sex before going off to war. "If I could just tell her, I know she'd cooperate." But I wouldn't give in. His desperate plea the night before we left was brilliant. He added a heart rending touch of pathos when he asked me:

"How would you feel if my pecker got shot off and I never had a chance to use it?"

"I'd feel that we'd need a special ceremony to put your pecker to rest."

He begged pitifully. "Have a heart, please."

I was implacable and he went to bed swearing never to talk to me again. His resolution lasted until we got up extra early in the morning to go to Hartford.

Dahlia, our live-in maid, had been watching us suspiciously for the last few days. She was alerted by our unusual secrecy, which generally preceded our getting into some sort of trouble. She couldn't determine what we were up to, because we carefully followed our normal daily routine. When we said good-bye in the morning I got careless when I got to the door. "We'll write to you."

She pounced immediately. "What do you mean, write to me? Where are you going?"

"He meant we'd write if we were invited to play the regionals at Longwood."

"That's right. We're going to register for the tournament."

Dahlia was her usual courteous self. "When did you boys learn how to write? Remember, your Mother expects you to be hosts at dinner while Mr. Pierce is in Korea, so don't disappear."

I may have felt a twinge of guilt at our deceit, but if I did it was gone by the time the door closed behind us and we were on our way.

We took the bus to Hartford, whispering together about what it would be like to be a Marine. Dad had joined the Corps the day after Pearl Harbor. He had risen to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel by the time the war ended. His descriptions of beachhead assaults on Pacific islands thrilled us. We didn't pay attention when he talked about the waste, brutality and death. His medals and souvenirs were a source of great pride and he gave them to both of us. He warmly included Steve for the sake of his father, who had been killed in action in North Africa and awarded posthumous decorations. Steve was very proud of the father he never knew. Dad respected that. He believed in loyalty. Dad felt different about Korea than he did about World War II. He questioned whether it was a vital interest and if we should have military obligations there.

"But at the end result, if our troops are attacked, we have to respond."

When he was called back to service he went willingly, once again ready to do his duty for Corps and country. He was quickly shipped to Japan and assigned to command a battalion of mostly green recruits. He tried to convince his superiors that the men needed training, but the battalion was immediately deployed to Korea and sent right into combat. We didn't see him for two years. When he finally came home on leave he wouldn't talk about the war at all. He had lost a lot of weight and behaved like a stranger in his own house. He was always polite, but he seemed very far away. Mother cried a lot. Dahlia was also concerned.

"Do you know what your problem is, Mr. Pierce? You're too tense. You need to see a baseball game. How about you and I go next week?"

"Thanks, Dahlia. Maybe some other time."

We didn't understand how his experiences in combat had changed him. But we knew we could help him if we joined the Corps and were allowed to serve in his command.

The bus got to Hartford and we got off and waited in front of the recruiting station with a group of townies and local farmers' sons, who were there to enlist. They were passing around beer and cigarettes and insisted we join them. It didn't take much beer to get us high. By the time the Sergeant arrived we had been accepted by our brothers in arms. He checked our names off on a list, shepherded us onto the bus and fondly bid us farewell. We were a happy part of this friendly fraternity of warriors, setting off on a great adventure. We didn't hear a friend of Dad's from the club call us as we got on the bus. He had noticed us from his car as he drove by, but before he could park and reach us, the bus pulled out. The bus stopped every few hours to pick up new recruits from stations along the way. They joined the dice game, the drinking and the shouting out the window at women young and old, with enthusiasm that lasted until the bus pulled into Parris Island.

An angry Sergeant in an olive green uniform got on the bus and informed us that only trash hollered at decent people. One recruit told the Sergeant that he didn't consider himself trash. The Sergeant grabbed him by the hair and knocked his head against the window.

"I'll tell you if I want your opinion, dickless. Now grab your things, girls, get off the bus and line up."

** There were no further objections to his orders. We jumped up, rushed out and got into line.

The Sergeant looked us over scornfully. "You are worthless yellow bellied sapsuckers who I should shoot right now, before the Marine Corps wastes any more money on your training."

He suddenly darted forward, pulled someone out of the line by his shirt and bent closer until he was eyeball to eyeball with the frightened boy.

"What are you looking at, sheepshanks?"

"I wasn't looking at nothin."

The Sergeant screamed furiously at him, making us jump. "Do you think I'm nothing?"

"That's not what I meant."

The Sergeant slapped him on the side of the head. "Don't lie to me, shit-for-brains, or I'll tear your liver out with my bare hands and eat it raw."

Other Sergeants walked up and yelled at us to straighten the line. They started shoving us into place, while describing our general worthlessness. I got my first hint that we might have made a terrible mistake. The Sergeant introduced himself.

"I am Gunnery Sergeant Dempsey. I will be your drill Sergeant for the next three months. It is my misfortune that my beloved Corps assigned such useless material to me. But I will make Marines of you. If you survive basic training, you will never forget me. You arrived so late that the supply depot is closed. You'll be issued your gear in the morning."

We marched to our barracks without eating, because the mess hall was closed. We went to sleep on our bunks without a mattress or bedding. The ping of bedsprings, the moans and complaints of our fellow warriors, then their farts and snores kept us awake for the rest of the night. Sergeant Dempsey turned the lights on at 4:00 AM with an energetic greeting.

"Get up, girls. It's time to be Marines."

We jumped off our bunks and hoped he wouldn't notice us. We already hated his clean, alert presence. After thirty minutes of calisthenics we marched to the mess hall, still in civilian clothes. We were served strips of slithery fat disguised as bacon, watery green eggs, stale toast and coffee that was strong enough to dissolve our teeth. Most of the recruits ate ravenously. Some of us didn't eat anything once we tasted it. Sergeant Dempsey instructed us in proper mess hall procedure.

"Next time, you will eat everything you are served, because the Corps doesn't waste food. If you don't like the cuisine, tough."

Then we marched to the barber shop where they shaved us bald in less than a minute. We double-timed to the supply depot, where we were issued olive green uniforms, shoes, hats, socks, belts, packs, canteens, shelter halfs, entrenching tools, mattresses, pillows, blankets, sheets and rifles. Our gear grew into a huge pile that we carried back to the barracks at double time. Anyone who dropped something received immediate attention from the Sergeants. We made our bunks, put on our uniforms and stood at attention while the Sergeants discussed our shortcomings. We had a lot of them. We marched out to the drill field and were encouraged to step in unison by the drill instructors, who smacked us with the little sticks they carried. They hurt. We tried our best to march together. The romance of the Marine Corps was rapidly fading. When we reached the mess hall at lunch time I was ravenously hungry. But I wasn't eager to eat something with gravy on it that may or may not have been meat. Sergeant Dempsey's glare encouraged me to clean my plate.

A Captain strode into the mess hall and called Sergeant Dempsey. Their conference went on for a while. We watched them nervously, wondering what new suffering they had in store for us, though we were glad to relax for a few extra minutes. We got very interested when Sergeant Dempsey yelled: "No shit" and started laughing. Then he walked towards us. The Captain wasn't amused and followed him to our table. Sergeant Dempsey ordered Steve and me to stand at attention. We jumped up and stood as straight as we could. "This is Captain Kramer. He wants to talk to you." The Captain looked us up and down, then shook his head in disgust. "Come with me." We followed him to his office where he told us to wait outside. We sat down on a wooden bench, trying to figure out what he wanted with us. We eavesdropped on one side of a telephone conversation that seemed to be mostly apologies, until we heard the Captain mention our names. "I assure you, Mrs. Pierce, both Randall and Steve are safe and will be returned home immediately." We had been discovered. He made arrangements for us to be driven home. Then he turned us over to Sergeant Dempsey, who took us back to the barracks. He tried not to smile.

"Are you kids really only thirteen years old?"

They knew who we were, so there was no reason to deny it.

"That's right, gunny, but we're closer to fourteen," I said.

He thought that was very funny. Sergeant Dempsey told us that he enlisted when he was fifteen, but he never heard of thirteen year olds fooling the recruiter. He seemed proud of us and patiently supervised the return of our military gear. Then he escorted us to a car that would take us home. The last thing he did was give us back the garrison caps that we had been issued.

"Keep these as souvenirs. They're called pisscutters." Then he saluted us. We proudly saluted back.

"Maybe we'll meet when you're a little older. I'll be happy to give you another chance to be Marines."

We got into the car and drove off and that was the end of our brief military career. The trip home took sixteen hours, but it was mostly a blur, as we anticipated the punishment to come. Our adult pose and adventurous attitude was gone. The driver, a Lance Corporal who didn't know what our situation was, tried to make conversation, but gave it up after our sullen yes or no's. We stopped twice to eat and each time we ordered steak dinners and ice cream sundaes. Lance Corporal Jensen canceled our orders and changed them to the hamburger special.

"The Marine corps can't afford to feed you boys steaks. And I'm sure not paying for your meals out of my pocket."

"Come on, corp, we're starving," I urged.

Steve agreed. "Yeah. How can you eat that gray crap they served at the mess hall?"

"A Marine can eat anything. I remember in my first tour of duty in Korea, we were trapped on a hill for six days. When we ran out of rations we ate the dead Chinese."

We cracked up with laughter. Steve let him know we didn't believe him.

"Corp, you haven't been in the Corps long enough to have been in Korea."

I got a brilliant idea and started questioning him.

"You wouldn't be trying to kid us, would you? Tell us the truth. How long have you been in?"

He looked embarrassed. "Six months."

"You're a real vet, Corp. How old are you?"


Then I asked the key question. "Did they tell you anything about us?"

"Not really. I've got a transfer order with your names on it. I'm supposed to deliver you and get a signature from Mrs. Pierce."

"Then you don't know who we are?"


I said authoritatively. "We're officer candidates and we went to Parris Island for orientation. Now we're being reassigned to Officers Candidate School. We're authorized to revise your orders and assign you to us, until we report for duty."

Steve looked at me in amazement, obviously impressed with my attempt to recruit a car and driver for our personal use.

Lance Corporal Jensen was bewildered. "What are you talking about?"

"I said we'll revise your orders."

He said nervously. "You can't do that."

"Sure I can. As an officer candidate I outrank you."

"I don't know anything about officer candidates. My orders are to deliver you to Connecticut and get a signed receipt from Mrs. Pierce."

"That's only if Colonel Pierce, our commanding officer, is out."

"Nobody told me anything about Colonel Pierce."

"Corporal, even the Marine Corps fouls up sometimes."

"That may be, but I've got my orders."

"You wouldn't want to get on the bad side of Colonel Pierce."

"Is he tough?"

"He's so tough that the dead ChiComs stand up and salute when he goes by. He eats Lance Corporals for breakfast."

"He sounds like a real character. I tell you what I'll do. Next time we stop, I'll call Sergeant Dempsey and ask him what I should do."

I said reassuringly. "That won't be necessary. I'll take full responsibility for the change in orders." "If you want me to do anything different I gotta get permission from Sergeant Dempsey. He's a lot tougher than some Colonel I never heard of."

For a moment I actually considered letting him try to call Sergeant Dempsey. Then I remembered how he treated the recruits he thought were dumb and I decided that the Corporal wasn't that bad a guy and didn't deserve to be chewed out.

"Never mind. We'll take care of things once we get there."

He was relieved. "That's fine with me."

Corporal Jensen refused to take us to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. and he wouldn't let us try to pick up girls while in an official military vehicle. When we got to New York City he declined our invitation to go to a Broadway show, even though we offered to pay for his ticket. His usefulness and entertainment value were rapidly diminishing and we had run out of conversation. After what had become an endless drive we finally reached our door. We were as eager to see the last of him as he was pleased to get rid of us. Mother signed some release papers for him and he was gone. We followed her into the house, prepared for the storm.

"Sit down."

"Yes, Mother."

"Yes, Mrs. Pierce."

"What made you boys do such a hair-brained stunt?"

"We wanted to help Dad."

"That's right, Mrs. Pierce."

"Are you telling me that you ran away to join the Marines so you could help your father?"

"Yes, Mother."

"Yes, Mrs. Pierce."

"That's the craziest thing I ever heard. You're only thirteen years old."

"We were worried about him, Mother."

"We talked about him all the time, Mrs. Pierce."

"Why didn't you discuss it with me?"

I answered truthfully. "We knew you'd say no."

Mother glared at us. "So you snuck off, without considering how anyone else might feel? We were sick with worry, terrified that you might have been kidnapped, or lost in the woods. I was just about to call Steve's mother, then the police, when Mr. Kensworth called. He told me that he saw you boys in Hartford, at a Marine recruiting station. He was curious about what you were doing there and went in and asked the Sergeant about you. As soon as he found out that you had enlisted he called me. I got on the phone to Marine district headquarters and it took a while, but I tracked you down and demanded that they send you home immediately. They were very upset when they found out how old you were and promised immediate action. Do you have any idea how you embarrassed us, especially your father?"

"We didn't think about that," I said.

"Obviously, or you wouldn't have done anything that stupid."

"We wanted to help him fight the Chinese, Mrs. Pierce."

"We didn't want him to get killed."

"I don't know whether to kiss you, or smack you silly. You are both confined to the house until further notice. I will write to your father and let him know what you did and let him decide your punishment."

"It could take weeks to hear from him," I protested.

"Perhaps you'll consider that next time, before you do something foolish."

I made one last try. "Can we play tennis?"

"No. Now go to your rooms."

Dahlia escorted us upstairs, shaking her head in disgust. "I should have known you two were up to something crazy. It's time to get your heads examined."

"We were just trying to help Dad."

"Next time what will you do, join the space cadets?"

"Very funny," I said bitterly.

"If Mr. Pierce was here he'd tan your hides. I'm tempted to do it for him. Good night."

We spent a tense week until we heard from Dad. Dahlia talked to us as if we were retarded. Lorna teased us about our bald heads. She brought her friend Reenie to the house to see why Marines were called 'jar heads.' Mother ignored us completely. One of Dad's officers stopped by when he was on leave to pay his respects to Mother. He told us that word of our enlistment had spread through the Corps and everyone admired us for enlisting. Dad was also impressed, but he knew that 13 year old kids didn't belong in the Marines. He sent us instructions to place ourselves under house arrest for two weeks and write an explanation of our behavior.

The two weeks crawled by slowly and we spent a lot of time in my room, reading and discussing the war. We wrote an explanation and Mother sent it to Dad. He accepted our story and told Mother that we shouldn't get any further punishment. When our confinement was over we went to the club, where we were greeted like heroes, except by Andy and his friends. Our garrison caps, which we wore while playing, were considered stylish and the girls thought our bald heads were sexy. Our reputation as daredevils was firmly established. Jenny Carlton rewarded Steve with her favors, so his military exploits were not in vain. I envied his boldness with girls. By the time that summer ended people had pretty much forgotten about our attempt to join the Marines. We never did.

Dad finally came back from the war in Korea. He had been promoted to full colonel and had commanded a regiment. If he wasn't in the reserves he probably would have been a general. He wasn't as easy going as he used to be. When he talked to us he was bitter about how many Americans fought and died in a far away Asian land without defeating the enemy.

"We sacrificed our soldiers for a stalemate that didn't resolve anything. We should have allowed General MacArthur to win the war. I understand the bigger political picture, but I'm afraid that we're weakening ourselves for the future and we'll just have to fight again, under less favorable circumstances. When Japan attacked America in World War II and won many victories, this was a sign to Asians that western superiority was crumbling. After the war, Asian countries got rid of their English, French and Dutch colonial masters and ruled themselves. Then fight another Asian war, but without winning. This can only encourage other Asian countries to confront us, as soon as they feel strong enough."

He wouldn't tell us anything about his combat experiences and got angry when we persisted with questions about amphibious assaults and human wave charges by the Chinese. "I don't want to talk about Korea."

We reluctantly stopped pestering him.

After Dad had been home for a few months he began to seem more like the man we remembered. He spent a bit of time with us playing tennis and sailing. He had instructed his office that he wouldn't be back for a while. He was a senior partner in a stock brokerage firm founded by his grandfather. Dad owned a controlling interest in the firm and could pretty much do what he wanted. He mostly puttered around the house, worked on training his beloved labrador retrievers, and rode his horse. He watched the television hearings of Senator McCarthy versus the army every day. He explained the issues and made them seem very clear to us.

"Senator McCarthy scares people by accusing them of being communists. Then he has them investigated and exposed by the F.B.I. and they get fired from their jobs. Everyone has been worried since the Russians got the Hydrogen bomb. When Secretary of State Dulles announced the doctrine of massive retaliation there was a lot of preparation for civil defense. That really scared people. We've learned that communism is our enemy. Senator McCarthy uses it as a threat to gain power, but he may have gone too far this time and the public knows that. The military is vital to the defense of our nation. When Senator McCarthy attacks the army, public sentiment will turn against him. We'll see that the people who approve of him now will condemn him. It's lucky for him that he didn't pick on the Marines. We'd finish him off a lot faster than the army."

Brainwashing, devised by the communists to disaffect our soldiers, had been in the news and fascinated us. Stories of American prisoners betraying their country shocked everyone. A few of them even refused to come home after the armistice. We couldn't understand how anyone would want to remain in Korea with the rice eaters. When Dad wouldn't discuss how it worked, we attempted to invent our own methods to control people's minds. We tried different things on any willing volunteers. Our favorite technique was repeating a word over and over, in a soothing voice. It was difficult to evaluate our progress, but we were hopeful. Operation mind-control ended one afternoon when Dahlia overheard us in the cabana, trying to hypnotize two girls from the club into letting us touch their breasts whenever they heard us say the word "pike." She chased us out and threatened to turn us in.

"I'll let all the concerned parents know about your unauthorized experiments, if they should ever be repeated. Can you guess what they'll do to you?"

We were compelled to dismantle our laboratory just as it was becoming promising. This may have dramatically influenced the course of our lives, because from then on we tended to try persuasion, rather than coercion in pursuit of our goals. One consolation was that Dad gave us a test in small boat handling, which we passed with flying colors. He granted formal permission for us to use the sailboat without adult supervision and informed Mother.

"Elaine, the boys are mature enough to be trusted with the boat. I have confidence in them."

Mother was not happy about the decision, but accepted his judgment. Lorna suddenly became very friendly to us. We didn't mind that it started when she learned we had permission to use the boat. She asked if she and her best friend Reenie could sail with us. Steve thought they were looking good. He reminded me that it would be educational to make out with 16 year old girls. We took them with us a few times and it was fun, now that they didn't treat us like kids anymore. Steve tried his best, but he didn't get anywhere with Lorna, who just wanted to be friends. I was too shy to try anything with Reenie.

We had a wonderful time for the rest of the summer, which would have been perfect, except for the Polio scare. The son of one of the groundskeepers at the club caught the dreaded disease that was terrifying America. Parents stampeded with their children to their doctors for check-ups. Some of the members desperately tried to get the recently developed Salk vaccine for their children. There were some ugly scenes at the local doctors' offices, when panicky parents demanded inoculations for their children and were told there was a limited supply. There was even a riot at the hospital when someone found out that friends and relatives of the staff were getting preferential treatment, while patients were being turned away. Andy Klassen's father punched his doctor when he told him that he had run out of the vaccine and Andy would have to wait a day or two for the new stock to arrive. The club was a ghost town. Most other community activities ground to a halt. A lot of people confined their relationships to the telephone. Fortunately, no one else in the area got sick and people gradually resumed their social lives. By the time school started again the epidemic was only a bad memory.

© 2006 by Gary Beck



About the Author

Gary Beck has spent most of his adult life as a theater director and worked as an art dealer when he couldn't earn a living in the theater. He has also been a tennis pro, a ditch digger and a salvage diver. His original plays and translations of Moliere, Aristophanes and Sophocles have been produced Off Broadway and toured colleges and outdoor performance venues. He currently lives in New York City, where he's busy writing fiction and his short stories have recently appeared in numerous literary magazines.


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