Trip Anderson, USMC: The Road Less Travelled
There wasn’t much left of the hootch. There was never much left of them. "It’s always like this… every side of town is the bad side of town in this god-forsaken country." Major Trip Anderson cautiously pushed past the rag that served as a door. He was immune to the stench of urine, mold, rot, all magnified by the stifling summer heat. He strained to listen, sure he had heard something. On the floor lay a woman, bloodied and still. Anderson’s throat tightened, his eyes narrowed. He wanted to turn away, to shut out reality, but he knew better.
The source of the noise was already evident, but until he checked the hootch thoroughly, it had to wait. There was little inside: a mattress, a low table, a mat on the floor. He checked under all of them, released a breath then moved to the woman’s side.
"Hey, there." He smiled at the child, too weak to cry, as he waved away swarms of flies. "It’s okay. I won’t hurt you."
Kneeling in the dust, he first held out a grimy finger that was instantly grabbed. He then picked up the little girl, cradled her, kissed the top of her dirty head. Looking over her, he examined the mother, knowing there was no need to check for signs of life; there would be none. "She probably took her last breath two, maybe three, days ago." He reached out, brushed the hair back from the woman’s forehead. "Your mother was beautiful, little one." He had seen this many times, but it would never be routine. It was clear hers had not been an easy death.
He opened his canteen, dribbled a tiny stream of water near the baby’s mouth, hoping she would drink. When she didn’t, he used the corner of his shirt to wipe her little face, smearing the layers of the baby’s existence. Large brown eyes gazed up at him; vacant orbs devoid of sparkle or shine.
"Major?" Lance Corporal Jamie Duncan stuck his head in the hootch then fell silent.
"Is there a goat or something out there? Something we can get milk from for her?"
Duncan shook his head. "No, Sir. The place is deserted."
Anderson nodded. Duncan disappeared without a word. The baby whimpered, reaching an emaciated arm toward Anderson. He leaned closer, felt the fingers run over his weathered face. "You look like a BethAnn, Sweetheart." He whispered to the child. "I knew a girl… I fell in love with her – she had beautiful dark eyes, too. She was a BethAnn… sweet as the scent of flowers in spring, a smile that could light up the world." He started to rock back and forth, at first uncomfortable then giving in to the movement.
Her breathing slowed then stopped.
"You had such a short little life, Sweetheart; didn’t count on any of this, did you?" A tear fell from Anderson’s cheek, landing on the tiny face. "I’m sorry I couldn’t have helped you, couldn’t have done more." He kissed her again then set her gently in the crook of her mother’s arm, straightening the tattered clothes on each. After getting to his feet, he adjusted his pack then walked to the door without looking back. "Jesus Christ, when will this fucking shit end?"
San Diego 1945
"You’re a good man, Trip." Eleanor Anderson’s eyes brimmed with love for her son. "You’ve always made me very proud."
Trip stood beside the bed.
"Open the curtains, Sweetie. It’s a beautiful day out there; we should let some of that into the room."
He went to the window, pulled back the drapes, stood looking out for a moment. The flowers were starting to bloom: daffodils – her favorite.
"You need to know I am not afraid. You shouldn’t be either."
Her frail voice pulled him back into the room. He turned, smiling at her as he returned to her side. "There’s no reason for you to be afraid, Mom. Grandpa will make sure you toe the line over there."
She looked out the window, watched the sway of the branches in the breeze. Trip wondered if she was considering what it would be like to be a whisper on the wind. "Your Grandpa was a great man, Trip. More important, though, is that he was a good man. He was guided by his morals, his clear sense of right and wrong, and he never wavered from that." She frowned. Trip knew she was thinking not just about her father but the man she married. The look was always the same. "Please remember your Grandpa, how he stood on principal, how he believed that everyone was to be treated with respect unless they gave you sound reason not to."
Trip chuckled. "I can still hear his voice, Mom. ‘Trip, always remember; fear is the enemy. It’s a reaction, and it has its place in keeping us alive when the need arises, but more often than not it makes people do stupid, hurtful stuff, and it is easily used as a weapon. Control the fear as best you can, analyze it, and whenever possible, help others control it; it will make a difference. It’s okay to be afraid, just never let the fear win.’"
"I can, too, even more, now. When he came back from the war, he said the hardest thing for him to watch was the fear. ‘No one should die while consumed with that kind of fear’ he would say. You could tell he was thinking about the many people he saw. He just wanted to make it a bit easier for them. There were too many, though." Her words were dotted with gasps and rest stops.
"He never talked about what he saw in combat; he talked lessons, philosophy, but never said anything about what combat was like. I imagine there was more than enough to keep a chaplain busy."
"He had his challenges, I’m sure." Her brow furrowed. "You know he never expected you to… he never wanted to make you think you had to…"
Trip chuckled and shook his head. "I have no vocation to be a minister, Mom."
A tear slipped down her cheek. "You’re going to be okay. You have to know that."
She wanted it to be a statement. Trip heard the question in it. "Yes, Mom. Don’t worry. I have Dad… and Mavis." He hoped he hid his distain at the name. "I’ll stay with them in Phoenix until I finish high school." He hoped he sounded convincing. "You don’t have to worry. You just rest and remember that I love you."
Trip Anderson stood looking down at his mother. She was calm, angelic; it was a drastic change from the pain that had pinched her face for the last four months. He picked up her hand, held it in both of his as he felt a crater split open in his heart. "Sleep well, Mom. Godspeed. I love you."
"What the hell do you mean you joined the Marines?" Archibald Stanislaus Anderson stood four inches shorter than his son. He stretched up to his full height, pointing an accusatory finger, his face bright red.
Trip leaned his hip against the work bench, crossed his arms, and examined his father. "I’m not sure exactly how you want me to explain the statement, Dad. It seems pretty self-explanatory to me."
"Your mother is planning your…"
"My step-mother," Trip quietly corrected.
Archie scowled. "Your mother is planning a birthday party..."
"I planned my own birthday party for me this morning."
"What about school?"
Trip ran his tongue over the inside of his cheek, waited until his growing anger was in check before answering. "The Corps will take care of that."
Archie shook his head, curled his lip. "Such a mommy’s boy, always trying to do what you think would make Mommy proud, aren’t ya? She’s dead, kid. It’s about time you grew the hell up and realized that. She’s dead, gone, and she doesn’t give a shit about what you do with your life. You’ll grab a damned brain and not waste your life on the fucking Marine Corps."
Trip laughed, hoping to see his father’s infuriated response and was rewarded with the sight of a socket wrench flying through the air, smashing into the wall over his shoulder.
The elder Anderson picked up another wrench, raised it and moved closer to his son. "Don’t you ever laugh at me like that again." Trip straightened. His father took two more steps, an attempt at nose-to-nose with his son. "You laugh at me one more time, and I’ll see to it that you’ll never laugh again, you snotty-nosed little bastard."
Trip looked into his father’s eyes, saw the hatred, the contempt. His arm shot out, fingers lacing around his father’s throat as he herded him backward against the wall, Archie’s toes barely touching the ground. "This might come as a shock to you in your constant drunken haze, but your threats only make you sound like a fool. They didn’t work on Mom and they don’t work on me. From the day she died, I have worked my ass off to get ready for today, but of course you never noticed. I have put up with a lifetime of pointless bullshit from you and that schnauzer you married; when I leave here, you can live in this hell hole you created with your bride. The two of you deserve each other. Believe me; you won’t hear me laugh at you again. You aren’t funny at all. You’re nothing more than pathetic." He released his grip, watched his father drop to the ground, then left.
"How did you manage it?"
Trip shrugged, handed Moose another beer and leaned against the concrete steps of the school. "I worked my ass off."
"But the cutbacks? Truman hates the damned Marines. He has that idiot Johnson doing everything possible to nitpick them to pieces, cutting budgets, cutting manpower… whatever he can to get rid of them completely."
"He makes no secret of the fact he wants to decommission the Marines. General Vandergrift has one hell of a fight on his hands, but never forget, Moose, they’re Marines. They can overcome damned near everything, and I’ll be right there with them."
Moose shook his head. "I don’t know, Trip. I think you’re setting yourself up for disaster. None of the other branches are going to want you if you’re a new Marine." He frowned. "I don’t get how you managed to get in there. They’re taking almost no recruits; it’s why I am looking at the Air Force. I do their training, keep my nose clean and get some education, and I won’t ever look back. We’re done with wars… no one is going to be stupid enough to start one after the way the last one ended, so it’s gonna be smooth sailing." His hand, palm down, cut a clean slice through the air.
Trip laughed. "There will always be wars."
Moose finished his beer. "Seriously, did you have some-one pull some strings for you? Someone who knew your grandpa or something?"
"Nope. I suppose I could have. I talk to a lot of the guys who served with the Old Man, but they don’t know I was looking at enlisting. They still don’t know I have. I needed to do this on my own, because otherwise I won’t make the cut. It was simply a matter of deciding I wanted it then making it happen… long nights of working out, studying, reading about what’s happening with the Corps… I wanted to make sure there was no way they could turn me down."
"Your Gramps was one hell of a Marine. I remember listening to the Old Man telling us stories when we were growing up and he gave us some damned good advice. I hope all your work to join up was worth it. You know that old saying: be careful what you wish for. Then again, if Truman has his way, if there is another war, you guys will be cleaning the toilets in the pentagon because that’s about all he thinks Marines are good for. When do you head out to…?"
"The San Diego Recruit Depot. I’ll be heading out in the morning, and it can’t happen soon enough."
San Diego, 1947
"What do you think happens when we get there?"
Trip opened one eye to look at the kid sharing the bus seat with him. "From what I hear, we will get yelled at a lot." He closed his eye again, yawned and crossed his arms, his knees propped up on the seat in front of him.
"You’re not…" His words trailed off.
Trip could feel him fidget in the seat. "They make you do extra push-ups when you can’t sit still. You might want to practice that." He tried again to sleep but thought he heard soft whimpering amid the boasts and bravado in the bus. He stole a peek, saw his seat mate wide-eyed, staring, shaking where he sat. Trip straightened in his seat. "Jesus. What are you doing here?"
"Going to the Marine Corps training depot."
Trip watched, puzzled. "I know that. I’m asking why." In the dim glow from the moon, the tiny frame was evident.
"Because… because I have to."
"You got sent here by a judge, too?" The voice came from the seat in front. Even in the dim light, Trip could see the freckles and red hair looking back at him.
"No. No, my dad said I had to join up."
Trip frowned. "It’s not that easy; not with the cutbacks."
The eyes over the seat rolled. "The judge back home loves to do this shit… send the kid away and let the Marines straighten him up." He snorted. "They can try, I guess. It’s better than juvie, though, and I get paid for being here doing nothing." He reached his hand over the seat. "Seamus Ryan."
Trip accepted the shake. "Trip Anderson."
"Walter… Walter Cooper." The small hand matched the small voice from beside Trip.
"Your dad sent you into this shit?" Seamus chuckled. "You must have really fucked up."
Cooper’s voice dropped. "He said it was a matter of family honor. He served, his dad served… you know how it goes."
Walter nodded to Trip. "I know. The cutbacks are another reason I had to get in here. Dad sort of… well, he…"
"Pulled strings?" Ryan’s round face was beaming at Cooper’s pain.
"Yeah, he did. He’s a member of the Republican Party, and he said there was no way the likes of Harry S Truman was going to stop his kid from carrying on in the family tradition." He shrugged. "I was sort of relieved with the cutbacks, thought it would mean I didn’t have to do this shit. I wanted to go to university, wanted to be a banker, and I sort of agree with the President; we have the bomb, so what do we need the Marines for? Dad went nuts when I told him that. He also thought that my being in the Marines would help him when it comes time to get re-elected back home." He frowned as he looked at Anderson and Ryan. "So, what really happens when we get off the bus?"
Trip looked out the window as the bus slowed, rounded a corner. "I think you are about to find out."
The bus stopped, the doors opened. "I’m Sergeant Dodds." The words were screamed, spitfired into the dark. "Everything I say you will acknowledge with ‘Aye, Sir’. Is that understood?"
"I can’t hear you! Is that understood?’
"You will stand and collect your gear."
"You will get your asses off this bus."
"Once off, you will proceed to stand in the yellow footsteps painted on the ground."
"You will march there, working left to right. The first of you will take the corner, the second behind him, until all the footprints are covered."
"You will set your gear behind you then you will stand at attention."
"Now, get the fuck off my bus!"
Everyone grabbed for their bags. Trip reached for his, froze as his eyes passed Walter’s face. Tears streamed down his cheeks, eyes wide, mouth open, hands shaking. Trip grabbed both bags, tossing Walt’s to him. "Take it easy. Just follow the rest. I’ll be right behind you." He spoke quietly, quickly.
"I didn’t understand even one word…"
"Hurry up! Get your sorry asses off this fucking bus!"
Trip pushed Walter forward. "You’re going to be fine. Just follow the others and stand on the yellow footprints painted on the ground." Once off the bus, Trip stayed on Cooper’s heels. "Just keep following. When he stops, you stop and put your gear behind you on the ground, then don’t do anything."
From his vantage point at the back of the row, Trip saw his fellow recruits for the first time, all of them with heads down, staring at their feet. His firmly planted on their yellow markers, he straightened, looked up at the night sky, and nodded.
"Eyes front! Mouths closed! Arms at your sides! Feet on the prints! Backs straight!" Dodds fired commands, recruits adjusted, trying to sneak looks at what the others were doing.
Trip stared ahead. From the corner of his eye, he saw Ryan yawn in the next row over. Trip’s eyes immediately went to Dodds. He thought the Sergeant was looking the other way. Instantly Dodds was in front of Ryan, face pressed close. "Tired, recruit?"
Ryan smiled, nodded. "You know it. That’s one hell of a…"
"You?" The word was screamed in Seamus’ face. "Do I look like a fucking sheep? Do you like fucking sheep, recruit?"
Ryan stared back, face blanching. "Um, no… no, you…"
Trip flinched, sure of what was coming.
"Recruit, there is no ‘you’ here! You will address me as Drill Instructor Sergeant Dodds Sir at all times. Is that clear?"
"Yes what?" The veins in his neck strained with rage.
Dodds’ eyebrow lifted.
"Yes, Drill Instructor Sergeant Dodds, Sir."
"I can’t hear you!"
Trip watched the spittle land on Ryan’s face, almost reaching up to wipe his own face out of reflex. He was sure he could hear Walter whimpering in front of him.
Dodds spun around. He stared at Walter. "You eye-fucking me? I don’t like it when you pukes eye-fuck me."
"N… No, Sir, Sergeant Dodds, Sir." Walter’s voice cracked twice, the words whispered, forced out through chattering teeth. Trip was afraid to look down, sure he would see a pool of piss around Cooper’s feet.
"Oh, I think you need some special attention, recruit. What’s your name?"
"Cooper. Wa… Walter Cooper..." He paused. "…Sir, Sergeant Dodds, Sir."
"No, it’s House Mouse now."
Trip chewed on the inside of his cheek; he would not laugh. Dodds strode around the rest of the recruits, singled out a squad leader then stood to face the group. "You will turn around, bend down, pick up your gear and move into the building." He looked directly at Ryan, smiling. "You, Rip Van-fucking-Winkle, will stand there until I tell you to move. Take the opportunity to rest up a bit, because I have plans for you. Recruits, the rest of you, get your asses into that building now!"