horse-head smith

by tobias crabtree

i was a marine once. i know there’s that saying i’ve heard in movies, and then repeated in real life, “once a marine…” you know the rest.  i say was because that’s the way it is. i no longer fold my skivvy drawers (underwear, tighty whities) and mark them with my little set of square rubber stamps of which i used only the “c r a b t r e e, t” .  i no longer meet in formation to be told the plan of the day. i don’t salute tall guys with shiny stuff on their collar. i don’t even say, yes sir, except to my dad, because he deserves it. i am operating solo these days.

but where i still feel like a marine is in a way that is nearly inexplicable. it has to do with a muscle memory type feeling when things start to suck. like when i’m real cold or afraid of something or hungry. i might be able to say it like this, there is a path that my brain takes and along that path are reminders of a time when it sucked worse than the present, and i made it then so i’ll make it now.  there’s a shit-ton of lean jawed, hard-cussing, go-getters whose faces appear. most of my experience in the corps was not affected by rank or age or time-in-grade, it was directly dependent on the amount of fire that was burning in your gut.

i didn’t stay in past one 4 year stint. i started out a knuckle-dragger and i left the same; it was by choice. in many ways i wasn’t the best marine — my boots were never the shiniest, my nomenclature was always shaky, i didn’t really like saying, “yes sir” to people who didn’t deserve one, i didn’t like being in an inspection and i thought formation runs were maybe the dumbest thing ever, the list is bigger but i don’t wanna sound like a whiner. even so, i experienced some success; i went in a recruit and left a sergeant. i went to a good amount of difficult schools and came out the other side a more competent animal. i was in a recon unit and operated with some of the greatest fellas i’ll ever know in this life. we swam in night-time oceans together with weapons and comm gear and compasses, it was common-place to jump out of a low flying helicopter into the pacific with a pack tethered to one wrist and a pair of fins in the other fist and a mile of black, february ocean between us and the beach. that stuff can’t be recreated, can’t be replaced. it’s not tough-guy stuff, it’s just a testament to what humans can do…even average ones, like myself.

at the end of my time, towards the spring of ’98, i was almost done. i had six months left. recon had a new gunnery sergeant. the gunnery sergeants are a breed to themselves. they know a lot. they are usually not really wanting to be bothered. they were to be avoided for the most part. gunny smith was a huge black man. he had a massive chest and huge arms and an enormous head. behind his back, we called him horse-head smith. to his face we said things like, “yes, gunny,” and “no, gunny.” it was fairly rare in recon for there to be an african american gunny. for whatever reason, the crazy, i-think-i’m-gonna-drown water training took it’s toll on most black guys. it also usually crushed the big muscle bound guys. i’d like to make it clear that this is not a blanket statement about race or type or anything, it’s my observation over a period of time where i didn’t have time to wonder who was quitting or who was breaking, because i was sucking wind and wondering if this…will…ever…end. horse-head smith broke all the rules concerning any misconceptions anyone might have had about black men, or muscle-men, in the water. he competed and finished plenty of crazy water events. he was…one bad-ass dude.

before i got out of the marines, gunny smith put me in charge of the new recon marines, the ones that weren’t really in yet. they are called “ropers” (at least they were called that, things change in the military…they might not allow you to call anybody anything these days). they had to go through an in-house school called r.i.p. (recon indoctrination program) before they got sent to the basic recon course in coronado.  there was some time before the next r.i.p. would start and gunny smith didn’t want these ropers to sit around and “get fat”. he told my staff sergeant to tell me to keep ’em fit. my dream come true.  i didn’t have to be involved with the regular baloney that being a marine is all about, instead, i could run this group of ropers till our tongues were dragging.

i experienced two different kinds of extreme physical training; one, the trainer is doing what he tells you to do, the other has the trainer barking commands while he sits on his ass. i responded much better to the former. there’s no better gauge for knowing how hard to push someone than to be in the mix. beyond that, there is no better way to earn respect than to be willing to do the things you are calling on others to do. in one of these sessions, gunny smith showed up. we ran a nine mile stretch of river to the ocean and swam and then ran back. at the end gunny ran next to me and asked me if i was ready to get out. i said, “of the marines, gunny?” and he answered, “yeah, what else is there to get out of?” i laughed a little and said i was, you know, ready to get out. we ran along step for step with the ropers strewn out and straggling behind us. “you prob’ly gonna grow your hair out all hippy-like and put some earrings in them ears ain’tcha, craaabtree?”     pause.   “probably, gunny.”  the sound of our feet, his 230 lb frame, my 140 lbs of skin and bones.  “well, i like you crabtree, but when you out there with your long hair and your earrings, you gonna wake up in the night and be ready to go? or are you gonna get soft?”    pause.   “i’ll be ready to go, gunny.”  his smile, as you might imagine was big like his head, and combined with his huge, lantern jaw, he was a pretty damn handsome fella. of course, that ain’t something you’d say to him.

i got out. gunny stayed in. i got word a few years ago that he’d been killed in afghanistan. some piece of flying debris hit him in the head and cut through that magnificent skull. i heard it when i was in the mojave desert. i took a bit of time and let my heart thump. ol’ horse head smith was such a warrior. but he was a wise dude too. one of the last things i heard him say was to my buddy christian regenhard.  “remember, the pen in mightier than the sword.” and so i remember, in writing, that big ol’ wolf who wondered if i’d get soft and who said to write is better than to fight.

ain’t no fat on my gut, gunny. i’m writing. and my knuckles still drag on the ground. and i suppose, in that way that you meant, i’m ready to go.