There’s a stretch of land in northern Chile that embodies the word barren. For hundreds of miles the world is an arcing horizon without a single sprout of green. The hills are subtle. The sky and the earth look like they’re in a contest with forever. It is a landscape the evokes emotion. It stops the tongue from wagging and galvanizes a kind of soulful inventory that might cause one to think of past deeds and future changes. I stepped off the bus to stretch and look for a snack in the kiosko, and I looked out over the massive Atacama Desert. I remembered reading that scientists believed that during one particularly long period, 1500-something till 1971, the central part of this desert had no rainfall. Four hundred years is a long time to wait for water. But as a man, a human being, there is an inexplicable feeling I get from places like that. I am only me. Just this boney, blinking sack of blood. I am the engine of my mind and my heartbeats are limited, I am prone to think on things like the immensity of this crusty desert. On the bus to Antofagasta, I tumbled backwards in my memories. I remembered other things that were vast like that desert. I finally fixed on the big mama of all things vast. The Ocean.
If you’re a slow-grinder like me, Physics is a thing you believe exists, but it’s kinda like the sun: it affects you, but you’ll never, ever, ever touch it. So instead I read anecdotal stories by the smart people, and I understand more about the internal workings of the universe. Something I read once talked about how every motion, no matter how small, starts a ripple on the surface of reality that goes on and on. This might be stressful to some, but it makes me feel good about movement. It makes me feel significant against the backdrop of infinity. I’m glad Physics is not something I need to check on, like boiling water for my coffee, ’cause we’d all be screwed. I forget that shit all the time. But I will use a word from physics to begin this story. In fact, I’ll bring the word to life by giving it flesh and blood. Gravity. And gravity to me, on this particularly dark night, had a name, Doc Fitz.
This is about Doc Fitz and the ocean. This is about men, like me, who were focused on survival in a very real way. No matter how tough you are, no matter how hard your fist, the ocean will soften you. She does not wait, she begins at the shore and never relents. The ocean isn’t cruel, but I can see how she might be mistaken for something malevolent. I remember it was February. It was my first week in Reconnaissance Company. Whatever romance there had been with becoming a Recon Marine had been dissolved in the briny Pacific. I worked non-stop to keep my inner fire from being snuffed as I could see no end to days that were lined up in front of me. Cold days. Gaunt days.
I had been charged with the security of the boxes of MRE’s stacked in a tight square just outside of the GP(General Purpose) tent.( MRE=meal ready to eat. And that is a truth and a generalization. A person can eat an MRE, but so can a person eat a box of rocks.) I was there because I was new. I had arrived just a few days too late to be in with the fellas that were in the throes of the dreadful initial training referred to as RIP. (Recon Indoctrination Training) And so I was watching what was to come. This is what I had to look forward to. And with each man that came, shaking and quaking and stuttering out the words, “I quit,” I had to check my desire to be.
These fellas were not sissy-boys. They were studs, all of them. And from the mud cliffs over the sea, with the foggy hinterlands of Pendleton behind me, I could hear them counting off numbers in the dark. And the waves rolled in and brought the cold. And the Recon men sang out in broken unison. And the dark filled my soul right to the top.
“Did you bring your PT gear.” Doc Fitz was looking at me. He was filling his camouflage uniform the way a tiger fills it’s skin. Doc had a beard like mine, black and immediate, but that’s where our similarities ended. Doc Fitz was big enough to eat a bowl of men like me as a snack before coffee. He looked like he might be smiling, which worried me since I wasn’t really all that funny. Later I realized that Doc Fitz always looked like he was smiling, and maybe he was, but it was the kind of smile that is disconcerting. I think Doc Fitz smiled because he had the foreknowledge that as long as man existed, so would pain and the endurance of pain. To Doc, these things were warm and fuzzy. I’m sure he was born on a cold, dark night. My views on pain and suffering have changed. You know that saying, “pain is weakness leaving the body?” Bullshit. Pain is pain. Weakness is weakness. To endure is to desire and all that jabber in between is people trying to make sense of it.
With my PT gear (shorts, t-shirt and running shoes) on, I was able to kill two birds with one stone. I not only could guard the MRE’s in the rain, but I could also do all manners of calisthenics. This matched up perfectly with the powers that be and the boredom that inevitably comes from waiting for the fellas to come back from thrashing about in the surf zone. There were at least 4 other instructors besides Doc Fitz so they took turns running the boys ragged day and night. In case you wondered why the MRE’s needed guarding, especially since no one with any sense would ever want to eat one, well, me too. This is something I learned from the beginning, if you ain’t busy, the Marine Corps can find a job for you.
At some point, in those hours before dawn when the birds haven’t started singing yet, I walked the 20 steps between the boxes and the edge of the bluff that overlooked the melee down below. The ocean was roaring and a red light was blinking in the inordinate blackness beyond the surf. I could just make out the dim chem-lights attached to the boys that were on their pre-dawn swim. A mile out and a mile back. In all the world, I’ll never forget that feeling. It was a foreignness mixed with deep understanding. Each man swimming. The shape of the world and the vastness of the thoughts that came with it. The darkness of the water, which is different than any other darkness, and the lurking unknown beneath. (there is a change in a person once they have ventured alone and into the ocean at night. there is a vulnerability imbibed through the willingness to swim out beyond the security of terra firma. there are equal parts submission and connection. man alone is naked in the sea, beyond all control save that of the simple self, and even that is in constant question.) I stood looking out for a while and then I turned back to the boxes of bad food I was guarding. Doc Fitz was there in the dark, right there, where he lived. “Are you thinking it over, Crabtree?” The question was simple, so was my answer.
And then he said something that fit. “It sure is real, ain’t it?”