This is another story from the original first draft, but I have rewritten it to add more detail. In either event, it didn’t make the cut because once again, it was too upbeat.
I’m extremely fond of this story as well, as it was, in my opinion, the first time I told a good stand-alone story. I had to chop up the chapters about Boke and Sid to make sure to preserve the continuity of the narrative, so I thought it to be a display of versatility to have at least one isolated story that would not disrupt the flow. After all, my idea up until I re-started in 2017 had always been to make the book a series of vignettes with an underlying narrative.
When I was re-cycled (or recycled) in AIT, I took it pretty hard. Even the addition of alcohol to the barracks was not able to lesson the sting of failure. Though I suspected that my failure was a deliberate kneecapping, it’s not like I didn’t give them a reason. AIT seemed like a joke, and I treated it as such. I’m not saying I was right, but that’s certainly how I saw it.
But I still needed to pass. Watching AFI soldiers on the sidelines waiting day in and day out for word on their release was enough motivation to keep going. Even the soldiers who were in trouble were taking forever to process, so there truly was no choice. Out the door by way of graduation was the fastest way to get away from everyone.
As I said in the previous story, the classes were even easier the second time around, and I also liked my classmates a lot better. I don’t know why I didn’t get along with the first group, but I just didn’t. There was a girl from the air force I really liked, and there were also two guys from the navy that I sat with in class, but as far as any of my other classmates, I actively didn’t like them.
And I’m sure the feeling was mutual.
Word was out at the school that I was cocky and a little unpredictable. Certain personnel always seemed to have their eye on me when I came back through on my second rotation. I’m sure I made it no secret that I was drinking and smoking, but eff them. I was being punk rock.
For whatever reason, the marines were very tough on me. Though I was no way involved with their affairs, their officers and NCOs would go well out of their way to break my balls, anywhere on that base. I was even stopped by an officer who was in his regular clothes because I didn’t recognize and salute him as he was jogging by. I knew I was an untidy moron to them, so I took everything the way I should have. By no means was I rejecting their words, either; I simply doubted I could live up to the image of the person they all said I could be.
So, you could imagine my surprise when, a month into the new cycle, I was assigned a marine corps sergeant as my partner for the photojournalism class.
I had watched this particular marine around the courtyard at school. She was a veritable watchdog among her own Devil Dogs. A strong, stocky build, a block shin, and a mat of curly brown hair all centered around two of the sharpest green eyes I had ever beheld. In those eyes was the look of a person who could snap your idiot neck if you made her angry.
To add to the severity of her appearance, this female marine sergeant had a rather pronounced scar over the top of her mouth. The scar was at a weird angle, as it seemed to split her mouth a second time on the left side of her face. The scar began underneath her nostril, but curved oddly up and through the corner of her mouth. Whatever caused this scar had to be ugly and, in my overactive imagination, it was more than likely related to being a marine.
It was hard not to be absolutely terrified of this woman.
She also kept company with two other fellow female marines. One was taller, thinner and blond, while the other was about the same height but with a regular build, black hair, and glasses. Both seemed far less severe than the marine with the scar, though all three could be seen policing the campus for marines who were not doing what they were supposed to do. Furthermore, it was everyone’s charge to look out for the army and the air force sneaking a cigarette, so that, too, fell under their umbrella of spare-time activities.
As a guy who didn’t much care for the rules, they were my natural enemy.
I was pleasantly surprised, however, at our introduction. The marine sergeant with the scar cheerfully introduced herself to me at lunch, as I had snuck out of class in an attempt to not meet her right away. She made note of this, too, but playfully slapped my arm and told me she wasn’t upset about what I did.
My fears temporarily suspended, I stammered through an introduction of myself. I came clean with her and let her know that I had been recycled, but she shook her head and interrupted my groveling:
“Hey, hey. It’s cool, alright? Just don’t dick around on my watch and we’ll get through this, copy?”
“Roger that, sergeant,” I replied, trying to sound a little more confident.
“And call me Jess,” she added. She was smiling, but I was too distracted by her scar. It only made her look like she was about to kill me.
Furthermore, I was absolutely certain that she had not just told me to break a rule. You don’t call anybody who outranks you by their first name. You’re not even supposed to do it with each other when you are in uniform if you are in the lower ranks. I know it’s an odd rule among equals, but you’d have to imagine that it just makes sense when referring to a superior.
Just to clarify, I countered, “Well, I’m Devon, but I can’t call you that, sergeant. Your fellow marines would chase me up and down this campus.”
Jess chuckled. “You let me worry about them.” But she thought about it for a few seconds, and said “How about ‘sarge?’” she asked. This time I chuckled, but I silently shook my head.
“All right,” she said. I take your point. “Well, Devon, you need to smoke before we get started?”
I’m sure my eyes nearly popped out of my head.
I casually tried to feel my pockets, and sure enough. The outline of a pack of cigarettes was clear as day. I looked at Jess guiltily.
“It wasn’t that. I saw you with that Hudson guy a few days ago.”
I cursed under my breath.
Though she was smiling, I still did not believe what I was hearing. No, this was a test. Calling her by her name was the first one, and ‘sarge’ was the second. Now she was tempting me to light one up. Nope. I wasn’t going to fall for it. I appreciated the challenge, but she wasn’t going to make me slip.
We went back to our photography class early. There was another ten minutes left on the lunch break when we returned to the classroom. I came clean with Jess about not really understanding anything about the camera. She assured me that I didn’t need to worry. That did nothing for me, of course, because I was certain that this well-polished marine was testing me.
As I said before, the classes were much easier the second time. Actually, the grading was easy. The class never changed. I still sucked. I just never caught on. Jess never said anything about it in the beginning, but one day she finally offered to set the camera for me. For this one, I didn’t put up a fight. This didn’t sound like a trick or a test; this sounded like somebody being nice.
Since she was my partner, I hung around with Jess while I was at school. I’m sure people drew their own conclusions about us hanging out together (if only I were worthy to bed such a warrior), but if anybody thought it, they sure didn’t say anything. Marine subordinates certainly didn’t seem to like the spectacle of an underling casually chilling with a decade-long veteran, but I kinda didn’t give a shit. I think nobody needed to make a problem about it, and so that is the way it stayed.
Furthermore, Jess was for real about the smoking. She’d cover me during breaks when we were out doing one of our photography exercises.
For every photography class, they would release us for the afternoon to go do our shots for the day. The exercises would vary, but we would have until two or three in the afternoon to come back with enough photos to pick out the best two or three for submission. Instead of going to do our shoot, we would leave the campus. A PFC by himself on the base during the day looks suspicious, but a PFC with a supervisor looks normal.
Pretty clever, right?
So, Jess and I would duck out and go get protein bars and mineral water from one of the Class Six shops. We were both dieting and were trying to skip the rich, fatty foods that were prevalent in all the DFACS. We would take our protein bars to the navy barracks, and I would smoke with a bunch of nervous squids. None of them seemed to buy into Jess’s friendly persona, so her presence more times than not cleared out the smoking deck.
During lunch, we would do our shoot. Jess normally had her shots done within fifteen minutes, so she would simply take my camera and take photos with the correct settings. We’d come back to the school early, print out the photos we wanted to submit, then we would wait until the teacher came back. We’d either let the teacher simply see us before we took off again, or we would submit our work early. In either event, we wouldn’t come back until the end of the day.
One afternoon, Jess announced to me that she was bored. Though the saga with this unusual marine had already reached what I thought was peak absurdity, I was certainly surprised to hear such a childish remark coming from her. I didn’t say anything, however; I waited for her to either elaborate or let it pass.
“Let’s take a funny picture,” she said, grinning. I was halfway endeared with her by this point, but the smile never ceased to scare me.
“Take a picture of me in some flowers,” I blurted jokingly.
“Perfect,” she said, “let’s go.”
I balked. “Go? Sarge, hold on. They will kill me,” I said, of nobody in particular. That was the first time I called her Sarge, too. That was actually a very deliberate thing. I was making that concession instead of the current one. Though I doubted that’s how things worked, I still gave it a shot.
“Come oooooonnnnn,” she said, mimicking a squeaky teenage voice. Good Lord, what the holy hell did I start with this woman.
“Fine.” I said, though it was hard to pretend I was reluctant any more. What the hell did I care, anyways? They’d have to bitch at her too, right?
We returned to school early once again, and we went around to the far side of the school where all the smoking decks were. In front of the decks was a huge arrangement of flowers, so Jess told me to lie down in between them. I carefully positioned myself among them, making sure not to break any of them, and I place my head thoughtfully in my hands while crossing my legs behind me. Jess took a few quick shots, then told me to hop up so we could get the hell out of there.
With the classroom still empty, we selected the best photo and sent it to the printer. I beheld it in all its majesty. The photo was hilarious. Somehow, I pulled it off amazingly, though a lot of credit goes to Jess for the depth of field technique. Me gazing thoughtfully at the sky in a bed of tulips while wearing a standard-issue army uniform was so amazingly absurd that I asked Jess to print out a few more copies. I was going to send one to Matt Ross, and another to my mom.
The class came back, and Jess and I were just about finished printing out our assignments for the day. When I looked up from my computer, however, I noticed that the marine gunnery sergeant from the previous cycle was talking with my teacher. I wondered what had brought him to the classroom, though I honestly didn’t think much about him. The bad man was gone, and he couldn’t hurt my GPA anymore. I had a nice teacher now, so the best he could do was scowl at me.
I finished selecting my photos for the daily submission, and I got up to walk to the printer. The gunnery sergeant was no longer talking with my teacher. Now, he was standing at the printer and looking at me.
I tried not to make eye contact, though I was sure he was about to nitpick something on my uniform or asking me what my score was for the semester.
But then I saw that he was holding a half-crumpled piece of paper.
Shit. I forgot that I told Jess to print more copies.
I approached the printer, guilty and ready to get it over with.
Looking very much like the gym coach from Beavis and Butthead, the gunnery sergeant spoke.
“Perkins,” he said in a low growl, “can you tell me what in Our Blessed Lord’s Name I’m looking at right now?” He shoved the crumpled copies of what is arguably the best photo I have ever taken in my life into my chest.
I chose the fifth.
“Where is Hudson,” he growled, “are you two idiots still hanging around each other, because we’d love to reclass you to a cook and…”
“It wasn’t Hudson, gunnery sergeant,” I interrupted. I’d heard that spiel before, and though the guy still scared me, this was much ado about nothing and if he asked me what I thought he was about to asked me, then…
“…then who the fuck took this dumb-shit photo with government property?” He was now roaring in a whisper, a large red line appearing on his forehead.
I looked over at Jess, who was smiling.
The red in his face quickly vanished. In place of his typical rage, I saw something I had not yet seen from him: the guy was stumped. Had I just infiltrated his beloved marine corps? Were my shenanigans so irresistible that even combat veterans couldn’t resist mucking around in my presence? I know that’s what was going through his head.
But gunnery sergeant had regained his cool. He shook his head at me in what appeared to be the way a dad looks at his son the moment he disowns him. “Take your little portrait and go sit down, Perkins. God help us all, soldier.”
As luck would have it, I was seated between Jess and the other two female sergeants at our graduation. Two of the three were furious about me reeking of alcohol, too. Jess was trying not to grin about it. She simply told me to keep my head down and don’t say a word.
That was the last I saw of her, too. She was actually the class valedictorian, so she ended up giving a speech at the close of the ceremony. I remember being a bit in awe of her at that moment. It made me wonder if I could actually get away with being my own weird self in the army.
If that was the case, then maybe the military wasn’t going to be that bad.