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Shouts and Numbers – The Buddhist Zen Master Marine

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Shouts and Numbers – The Buddhist Zen Master Marine
We were taken to a building where we were tested for I.Q., aptitude and whatever else. They also had more paperwork for us to fill out.

Our first few weeks were spent learning how to march, close order drill, how, when and what to salute (when in doubt, always salute, but only if you’re covered), rules, regulations, history and the United States Marine Corps’ customs.

Sometime, in that first week, we were issued our 782 Gear, which included: Helmet, helmet liner, helmet cover, haversack pack, knapsack, poncho, shelter half (brown or green side type, one each), three piece tent pole set, four tent pegs, cartridge belt, first aid kit, belt suspender straps, canteen, canteen cover, canteen cup, mess kit with knife, fork, and a spoon.

We spread all that stuff on the ground in front of us, outside the Supply Building, and the Drill Instructor called out each item.

Week 1: Cadence and The Smoking Lamp

“Helmet, Hold it up!” We did. Finally, he was satisfied that everyone had everything they were supposed to have. Then we were shown how to make up the pack. Once we had done that, the Drill Instructors would walk down the lines, grabbing packs and throwing them up in the air and kicking them. They had better hold together.

By the end of the first week, we were able to walk in step with each other pretty well. This Recruit wouldn’t exactly call it marching, though. About this time, the Drill Instructors started calling cadence. Unless you have been in the Marine Corps, you have never heard cadence.

It is musical, and they teach it well in Drill Instructor school.

No other branch of the military does it like the Marine Corps Drill Instructors do it. There aren’t any words, just a musical cadence. You have to hear it to understand. We slowly and painfully began to learn how to march.

marine basic training

Also, during the latter part of the first week, when our Drill Instructor thought we had been pretty good little maggots, he lit the smoking lamp, for the very first time, after evening chow.

This Recruit remembers standing in formation on the platoon road when the Drill Instructor yelled, “Okay, the smoking lamp is lit for one cigarette!”

We all just stood there looking around at each other wondering what to do. We knew what it meant, but all the cigarettes and lighters were in our footlockers. Were we supposed to run inside and get them, or what? No one moved. The Drill Instructor lit up and smoked his cigarette and watched us watching him, very cautiously.

From then on, if we smoked, we carried our cigarettes and lighters with us. Unless we had really screwed up, the smoking lamp was usually lit after chow and just before lights out. Unfortunately, we screwed up a lot and it seemed like a pack of cigarettes lasted about a month.

It would have been the perfect time to quit smoking, but you can’t believe how much our platoon looked forward to a cigarette, even the non-smokers, like me.

The smallest kid in the platoon was the “house mouse.” This house mouse was sort of an errand boy for the Drill Instructors. When the smoking lamp was lit he would walk up and down in front of us carrying a red bucket for us to flip our ashes into. If he was slow getting to you, you flipped the ashes in your hand, never on the deck.

marine drill sergeant

One day, one of our Drill Instructors found an old, weathered cigarette filter-end adrift. He called the Platoon out on the road. He explained that he had found a Tampax littering our area. We were ordered to spend one full hour searching, while bent-over, at the waist, looking for any additional female hygiene products, trashing our Area of Operation (AOO).

None were ever found. If anyone stood-up, during a search, our Drill Instructor would have added yet another hour to our task.

Sometimes before lights out, instead of lighting the smoking lamp for one cigarette, the Drill Instructor would just say, “The smoking lamp is lit.” Then the recruits that smoked could smoke until he told us the smoking lamp was out. It didn’t happen very often, but they could sometimes smoke two, maybe even three cigarettes when he did that.

He would usually do it when he wanted to tell us the latest scuttlebutt he had heard at the NCO Club.

How I Became Like a Buddhist Zen Master

This Recruit became like a Buddhist Zen Master, in an ancient Japanese art form: Karesansui gardening.

Karesansui is the art of maintaining a dry sand garden. Some attentive Marine discovered Karesansui during the post WW2 occupation of Japan. As a consequence, each evening, just before sunset, the whole Platoon used buckets to “water the grass.”

zen garden

Now, there was no grass within a mile of our Platoon’s area. There was nothing but dry, brown, sandy soil, which enveloped our huts. Hence, we had the perfect media for a Karesansui Garden.

Right after we returned from morning chow, the Karesansui Masters within our midst would rake the still damp “grass” and produce a masterpiece garden, which rivaled Ryoan-ji, in Kyoto, Japan, during the Muromachi period.

Now, the Drill Instructors did not want to make any sissy statements like, “Someone damaged my Karesansui Garden, today, by leaving a footprint, whilst he was raking it!” So, you would most likely hear our Drill Instructor shout, “That clumsy idiot Private Gray screwed-up my grass by running all over it with his boondockers, deliver his ass to the Duty Hut!”

Saturday was just another day of the week while we were in boot camp. On Sundays, though, we went to church. Services were held in the base theater.

Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish services were held at different times during the morning. Take your pick, but you had to pick one.

Sunday afternoons we were given “free time.” Free time meant you washed your clothes at the big outdoor wash racks with cold water, your scrub brush and sand-soap. Then, you hung everything on a clothesline to dry.

You polished your boots, shined your brass, and studied your Guidebook For Marines. You also wrote a letter home, always lying to your folks that you were as happy as a clam and were being well treated.

Except for washing clothes, everything was done while sitting on our footlockers, lined up on the platoon road (a black-top side-walk) in front of our Quonset huts. The Drill Instructors watched us and made helpful suggestions on how to enjoy our free time.

Oh, we had a ball during free time.

References & Image Credits:
(1) Kawaii Kakoii Sugoi
(2) eHow
(3) All Marine history photos used by permission of Thomas Gray

Originally published on

United States Military

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