Aug. 11, 1959, was the most important day of my life. That day I reported to the U.S. Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego for basic training. I was 18 years old.
I sat in a room for hours. Then a sergeant entered, looked me over, and in a deep southern drawl bellowed, “College boy, stand up you little four-eyed s**t!”
Obviously, he hated college men wearing glasses. Good thing he didn’t know my mother dropped me off at the gate.
When I stood, he screamed I was to shout “Sir, yes sir!” He then punched me in the stomach so hard I went to my knees thinking that I had made a terrible career choice. The Marine Corps of 1959 didn’t mind drill instructors hitting recruits, or cursing at them. It was their job to demean boys in every way they could to psychologically disembowel them. Mostly in private, of course.
Then the 12-week process of converting boys to men began. The Marines had been doing this in San Diego since the 1920s. Seven days a week they marched left-footed “boots” on the massive parade ground nicknamed “The Grinder.”
My great-grandfather Francisco Contreras was the foreman of the crew that constructed the half-mile square “Grinder.” Thanks, abuelito, I ruefully thought every exhausting hour I spent on the Grinder.
Marching to and fro, of course, is invaluable in inculcating instant reaction to orders that in combat saves lives and wins battles.
Then there is the classroom the first week of boot camp. The General Classification Test upon which Marine Corps job assignments depend is the most important. Unknown to me at the time, a score of 120 qualified one on paper to be a commissioned officer. I scored 130. The Army’s number during the Vietnam War was 110.
I didn’t know that until one day a call came out, “Private Lowery to the duty hut.” I ran and reported with a snappy “Sir! Private Lowery reporting as ordered, sir!” The company commander, a captain, said “Enter” then ordered me “At ease.”
“I just wanted to meet an 18-year-old kid with one year of college that has a better GCT score than I do. Dismissed.”
It took me two seconds to figure out that if the captain admitted that, the drill instructors thought the same. I grinned. My self-esteem spiked upwards. I now understood the system. I moved on. On graduation day, Nov. 4, 1959, I was promoted meritoriously to private first class and I never looked back.
I earned $75 a month and all I could eat.
After infantry training I was sent back to my reserve unit, the 1st Tank Battalion. I wandered about without purpose as we didn’t have enough tanks.
Then came a turning point. A group I belonged to at San Diego State University was invited to send speakers to a meeting of the Marine Corps Reserve Officers Association. It was Students for Freedom, a predecessor to Young Americans for Freedom.
There in a meeting room of the MCRD Officers Club sat almost fifty men ranging in rank from 2nd lieutenant to a one-star general, including every officer of my tank battalion. There was some recognition when I walked in. When my colleague and I were introduced by my battalion commander, Lt. Col. Gerald D. Schmidt, he proudly stated I was a member of his battalion. He talked like he and I were close. I had never met him.
I gave a fifteen-minute presentation about the communist takeover of Cuba at that very moment and answered questions. The colonel asked me to stay. He adjourned the meeting to the bar where battalion officers bought me drinks that cost 35 cents. I wasn’t 21 yet; I was 20.
By the next reserve meeting I was transferred from a line tank company where I read manuals on the new tanks being delivered to the training and operations section (S-3) of Headquarters Company, where I helped plan and execute training, edited the battalion newsletter, “Tank Treads,” and worked on battalion summer war exercises. In a few words, I learned by doing most of what I needed to know in future years of business, management and leadership as a well placed enlisted Marine.
I tell young people I meet that there are two things they should do before anything else: get a college education and join the United States Marines. Doesn’t hurt to speak Spanish too.
The Marine Corps took me in as a boy and made me a man—a real 110% American man. Now, 60 years after I walked into MCRD, with deep pride and emotion I celebrate Aug. 11, 1959, as the most important day of my life.
Doubt me? The ringtone on my cell phone is the Marine Corps Hymn.
Raoul Lowery Contreras is a political consultant and author of the new book White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPS) & Mexicans. His work has appeared in the New American News Service of the New York Times Syndicate.