There was this part of training when I was in the Marine Recon Indoctrination Program, called RIP for short, that I found particularly daunting. The corporal running the morning evolution would say it with a particularly wicked snarl on his lips, “oxygen appreciation, fellas, get ready.” Corporal Siedenswartz certainly had a way about him, and it wasn’t a pleasant way at all. Oxygen appreciation might consist of any number of different events, but you could count on one thing for sure, you would be counting every second of your existence until the drills were over. They all took place in a swim tank (that’s the term used for a swimming pool, since “swimming pool” has a note of pleasure to it, they used “swim tank” in it’s stead) and, most often but not always, there were props. The props might include ropes, different sized camouflage blouses and trousers, combat boots, cinderblocks, 45 lb. weight-lifting plates, helmets, 7 and a half lb. rubber rifles, and anything on the pool deck that might add chaos to the churning, gasping, wall-eyed debacle that was called training.
For almost 6 weeks, there were 4 of us. The 4 united by a strange and convoluted training regimen that was loaded with unknowns. Everyday was different. We did not know the schedule, only that the day would usually start in the zero-dark thirty and end when the bodies no longer performed the functions commanded of them. The 4 of us were men, not boys. We looked to one another to make it. Another thing to point out was that we had volunteered to be where we were. Recon is a volunteer unit, you can quit at any point in time and you will be sent away accordingly. Back to the normal Marine Corps.
“Looking to your left, looking to your right, making sure your buddy comes up on the other side, underwater crossover…GO!” Siedenswartz’ voice was always audible. The distance underwater varied from 25 meters to 50 meters. The time between intervals always collapsing down as the burn in the lungs created a panic in the heart of the 4 of us. To come up in the middle of a crossover would create a world of hurt that included burly instructors with tree-trunk legs entering the tank and riding the panicky fool to the wall. Once the instructors were in the water, the games became far more difficult. Each of us would swim under the shadow of the shark above us. Each of us knew that to come up would result in a struggle that would escalate and spread to the rest of the 4. We learned the hard way, but by god, we learned. A kind of steel started to set in. As we ran like soaked rats to the chow hall, we would find peace in the quiet jokes about the instructors. Jokes they would never hear but might feel just a little when the 4 were in the water with our beady little eyes just above the surface and our hearts slow thumping like alligators. So used to the dreadful evolutions were we that panic became a far off world that took a very long journey to get to. More weights in the water. Tie and re-tie the knots in the ropes that waited down by the drain.
One morning we got to the tank and there was a heavy feeling amongst the instructors. I never figured out what had happened but it was probably personal. The had lives other than being professional bruisers, it’s just that the 4 of us hadn’t a clue what their lives were like. The bottom of the pool was dark and the sun was still a couple hours away. For warmups we would often lie on our backs with fins on our feet and do flutter-kicks while Siedenswartz walked around with a hose, blasting cold water in our faces. “I can’t hear the count! Start again.” We were told to find our boots on the bottom of the tank and put them on before we showed our cake-holes (mouths) above water. This meant, put the boots on the correct feet and have them tied because we might very well be going on a run straight out of the water. –Ever ran with boots on the wrong feet? I have. It sucks.– We all surfaced with boots on, tied and ready. The 4 of us were Jamie Urlahb, Christian Regenhard, John C. Thomson, and my ownself, Tobias. Christian and I wore boots that were close to the same size. John’s feet were a couple sizes bigger and Jamie’s were bigger yet. In the meeting at the bottom of the tank, there was a quick sorting out. Time is of the essence when surface air is unavailable. We would do our best to quickly put all the rights to one side and all the lefts on the other, then it was a grab at sizes. It sucks more for a bigger footed guy to try and jam his foot into a too small boot than the other way around. –Ever seen a big guy go for a run in a too small pair of boots while you were running in a pair too big? I have, and it sucks.– These are precious seconds without air that make a big difference in the long run. It paid off to let it burn and sus it all out on the bottom, down there where all of our eyes seemed glazed and tiny bubbles collected around our mouths while our hearts thumped and thumped. At the surface, the instructors commented on the time we spent below. They joked that maybe we were starting to like it down there. That maybe it was more peaceful because they weren’t yelling at us. Maybe it was a little peaceful in that particular way. They told us to fetch the 45 lb. plate that was at the bottom. If you’re a water polo player, this would be your kinda gig. It takes a good amount of strength to get a plate that heavy off the bottom. It takes more to keep it at the surface. And it don’t matter who you are, it ain’t staying on the surface for long, especially when the object is to hold the plate free of the water. I went down and got the plate, half way up, Johnny met me and grabbed ahold. Levels, man, levels. The trick was we all were given the task to keep the plate up, but our legs were kicking into one another. The boots weren’t making it easier, that’s for sure. Somehow we kept it up long enough for Siedenswartz to get bored, “drop it, partner up!” Here I could continue to tell you about the different things we were told to do, but it’s easier to go to a pool and show you, so I ain’t doin’ it. Just know that it sucked, and in the end, we made it through that dark morning. There were more days and nights of dread and pain, but I believe that week and those hours were the pinnacle of what amounts to the most difficult moments of my life. To this day, I never enter a swimming pool without thinking of the tank and the living, walking, menace of Siedenswartz. He pulled me aside once and said, “Crabtree, you’ll never have harder days than these…never in your life.” He might’ve been right about that, as long as we’re talking in the physical realm. I believe I’ve endured things heavier than that in the region of my heart. There’s a difference and I’m more suited to physical suffering. I guess I’d have to thank ol’ Siedenswartz for that.
One thing I can tell you, I do indeed like to breathe.