I was off to Parris Island. A factory in the swamps of South Carolina where the Marines forge boys into men, men into soldiers and soldiers into weapons devoid of self-interest. Or so they ascribed. I found dank, grey, humid halls with metallic beds and showers. Cold floors and loud voices echoing endlessly off piss- stained linoleum. Toilet stalls with no doors in a world with no privacy. Shouts raised to the rafters battering me in my sleep, awakening me to the nightmare. Challenged every day to confront my fears and lead other men in the fray.
They liked me. My captain and his sergeants promoted me numerous times. They discerned some quality in my speech and ability in my hands to take on every given task. The duty to lead others was hard. I often time found myself at a loss for direction and refused to raise my voice as uncertainty plagued my thoughts. To my surprise and in answer to my earnest prayers they voted me the Company Honor Man of my graduating class. A prestigious honor bestowed on the one recruit who displayed esprit de corps and excelled at all the rigorous and onerous task and challenges presented him.
If in any area I agree with their assessment it was in the duty I felt to my fellow recruits. I could not suffer them falling behind when I possessed the strength and dexterity to speed them along. But the stress unnerved me. I would shut my eyes for a moments solace to hear the bruising curses of ten thousand drill instructors rattling my nerves and driving boot heels in my temple. MAKE IT STOP! Eventually I recognized that their insanity possessed a method and their method had its bounds. We came to fear them less and even to provoke them to anger for our own sport. In time I grew to enjoy the rigors of boot camp and bonded with my fellow recruits and a few Marines, though I never felt as one of them.
I called it my experiment in misery, taken from a Stephen Crane story from the Civil War. I catalogued my adventures in misery as well as triumphs on that island in the recesses of my soul as I trodded along through mud and marsh and chaos into the making of a man. Their philosophy was to disassemble each man that got off the bus in the middle of the night on that smoky and humid island and to remake that lump of clay into their image. A secret I never told them was that I hid myself from view so whenever they reached for some part of my soul to imprison, they would find that house vacated long ago with only the webs of furious insects filling the windows and the scurrying of mice in the floorboards the only sound. I made myself an abandoned house. They never knew me. They could not touch me. As I was running early one morning on the humid island the sun began to break upon the water, illuminating the horizon into a brilliant panoramic of colors as explosive as sounds reverberating off the water in a chorus of angelic voices reminding me of all the things in the world that cannot be stolen. I took that sunrise into myself and said aloud, “They cannot take that away from me.”
I emptied myself to the point of a machine. Make me a bullet to fit in your M-16. Shoot me off over there or over here, I don’t care, it means nothing to me. Parade me in front of your officers; have me carry your banners. It means nothing. It is not I. It is your machine. The empty I, then one devoid of reason, self-interest, and self-preservation. Hurl me headlong into the enemy’s encampment, it matters not. Whatever you choose is not I but the work of the machine.
The islands taught me discipline, perseverance, and tradition. Apart from those things I knew nothing of myself. The song I sang to the river in the glory of the sunrise was imprisoned in my despondence. The machine declared war on the poet and both sides loaded their weapons, marked off their territory, erected their fences and dug their trenches.
It wasn’t long before the wanderlust set in and I found myself on yet another island.