A bus brought a load of us recruits from the airport. Somebody whispered to his seat mate, wondering if they'd give us a snack before bedtime. The bus rumbled through the gates of MCRD and pulled up to a placard that said "Receiving." The bus doors swung open and bedlam commenced. We grab-asstic civilians piled out the door and were herded onto columns and rows of yellow footprints painted on the asphalt.
Drill instructors swarmed and circled, barking and bellowing and snarling. It was like running a gauntlet of rabid shepherds and pit bulls and Dobermans, their ears laid back and their mouths foaming and their fangs bared, their chains just long enough to keep them from getting to our throats. It had begun.
An hour later, our heads were freshly shorn. We’d been issued our first set of camouflage utilities. Our civilian clothes and personal effects and all vestiges of civilian life had been packed away, not to be seen again for a quarter year. We sat on the floor at the end of a long squad bay among the equally scared and scalped recruits who made up our training platoon.
Three drill instructors stood at the opposite end of the squad bay. They'd paused the yelling and screaming, their manic eyes and neck veins bulging, spit flying in the faces of disoriented recruits. They were all trim waists and hard jaws and hair high-and-tight and eyes surveying us like hawks on the edge of rabbit pen. They watched. We waited for what was coming next. It was momentarily silent.
A staff sergeant with a nameplate that said “Taitano” pointed to the floor next to his boot. “I want squad leaders RIGHT HERE.” Marck and I didn’t hesitate. We bounded to our feet and ran across the room and threw ourselves onto the spot he was pointing, a couple of Pete Roses sliding into first.
We became our platoon’s first two squad leaders. We stood shoulder to shoulder and that’s where we stayed through autumn until we graduated and earned the right to call ourselves US Marines.
That was more than 30 years ago. We still meet every couple months, Marck and I. He runs a healthcare information outfit. I work a job and I write. We have our early morning rendezvous at Starbucks and have our obligatory argument over who’s going to pay for the coffee.
Staying connected with Marck means somehow staying connected to those 19-year-old guys we once were. The 19-year-old I was. We’re older now. We look over the tops of our eyeglasses. We lean in and strain to hear each other over the hiss of steamers and grinding of coffee beans. Our knees pop when we stand.
He catches me up on his 20- and 30-year-old kids and I fill him in on my teenagers. We share stories of parents and uncles who are aging. We talk guns and politics and books. We see ourselves in each other, and each time a bit grayer in the beard.
These lives are like trains are like stories. Engines pull the train forward. Boxcars and tank wagons and coaches carry people and characters and freight, a red caboose marking the tail. Each car passes the stations in their turn.
Families, too, mark the arc of time as if cars in a train. Ancestors gone ahead of us, past a horizon beyond which we cannot see. Ourselves passing the stations our elders have passed decades before us. Children growing into adulthood, passing those same stations, and bringing up the rear.
Beginnings and middles and ends. Trains and families have them. Every well-told story has at least one of each. In a story, though, the beginning can be anywhere. It can start at the end and move backward, like the story in the film “Memento.”
It can begin in the middle, leap to the start, and then pass itself going forward on its own tracks. Think "Forrest Gump."
We can’t stop the train. But we can stay connected with its momentum. We can keep our cars coupled. We can help clear the tracks for the cars that follow us. And through Story, we can move forward and backward in time like a conductor moving between cars, an ever-present narrator.
Marck and I are cars in each other’s train. We’re all part of each other’s story.