Thirty-two languid days afloat. Thirty-two days cramped aboard a troop ship. Thirty-two days of eating every single meal standing upright while serving trays, heaped with tasteless chow, slide across stainless steel tables, responding to each roll or sway of a heartless freighter. Thirty-two days of cold salt-water showers. Thirty-two drawn-out days enduring sickening diesel fumes are spent living among clammy human bones wearing reeking socks. Thirty-two never-ending days of dry heaves come to a glad end. Young Aubrey waddles down the long gangplank as fast as he can. His first and singular goal is to reach the long-dreamed-for footing of solid ground at its end. His face contorts from the mighty strain of two cumbersome duffel bags; one perched precariously on his left shoulder, while the other he grips with his right hand. Anxiety over a potentially lost hat only adds to his discomfort as the thing tilts sideways on his bobbing head.
A steady stream of soldiers flow from the crowded ship. An assembly area along the creosote-soaked docks soon becomes precise order and quiet. Only then does a senior man read aloud from a clipboard while he barks out crisp directions. In a short time Aubrey finds himself hugging a metal pole for balance, as he stands upright inside a cattle car crowded with other inexperienced Marines. His bus leads a procession of six.
A ride to an airport takes the group away from the waterfront. They travel down jam-packed streets filled with unfamiliar sounds and strange sights, and most overpowering to all of his senses, a feast of exotic smells. The driver weaves slowly through throngs of cars and bicycles. Horns punctuate the steady roar of the diesel coach as Aubrey tries to comprehend these surroundings.
Two transport planes prepare for flight. A soaring above the mundane fast comes to an end, followed by a short ride in the back seat of a bouncing jeep, which in turn delivers him and three other young soldiers to their new quarters.
Aubrey and his companions are promptly dumped in front of a low concrete structure. Report inside, they are told. They stand on a sidewalk among foothills of sea bags as the jeep speeds away. Dust from a hard-packed dirt road surges up in its wake. Along the edge of the fresh-poured walkway, small wooden pegs protrude; the bare earth surrounding the men tells of new construction still underway.
A host of animated voices from within the barracks greets the four men as they enter. Once inside, a sergeant informs the four that a guard mount is about to gather out back for a routine inspection.
But we just got here, the young men attempt to explain.
No matter, they are told. You have exactly three minutes.
And with that, the man in charge turns on his heels and heads for the rear of the building.
Those prepared and accustom to this routine mill about, shouting raucous insults among themselves. Locker doors slam. Rifles are removed from racks. Men drift to the back exit.
Quickly Aubrey spins the dial on a padlock that secures one duffel bag. It is marked with a red tag. Inside a rifle waits, dismantled for easy stowage. He breaks into a sweat when the first try fails.
Wrong combination. That must go to the other lock. The first number should be fourteen.
Soldiers stream out the back door. Two minutes, a voice yells from outside. His three jeep mates pass on by, carrying weapons at the ready. You better hurry it up, man, one of them shouts.
He rapidly reverses the spin of the dial to clear the lock, but fumbles the order on the second try. One lone man slams a foot locker and leaves. Is it twenty-six or fourteen?
The barracks stands vacant now, except for Aubrey. Through the open hatch he catches a glimpse of the formation outside. He reverse-spins the dial again. The puzzle clicks open on the third try. After he removes the three sections of his rifle, the sea bag tumbles sideways to the floor. A tangle of boots and a crumpled rain slicker spill out.
He hastily assembles the weapon, and then as quickly slides opens the bolt. Anxiously hoisting the rifle butt-first toward light streaming from a near-by window, he peers up through the barrel. But instead of a metallic shine one should expect, he finds the shaft obstructed with an odd greenish glow.
Horrified at the sight, he tosses the rifle onto a near-by bunk. Dropping to his knees he begins to paw frantically through the opened canvas bag, searching for a small metal case. Rifle-cleaning rod! Rifle-cleaning rod! Quick! Where is it? Is this the right bag? Did I leave wadding in that one section? Fingers recognize the smooth box.
One minute left, demands the voice.
The contents of the case spill. A diminutive container of cleaning fluid rolls away. A small bag filled with cloth squares lands and lays still. Three single rods clatter to the floor, then travel in three directions. No wadding in the end section. No time anyway.
Hastily grabbing the mold-filled rifle, Aubrey sends the bolt home, leaving the mess where it lays. He trots out the back door, tugging hard at his brass belt buckle. At least that part of him is squared away.
A glare from the sergeant alarms the soldier. Joining the platoon, he stands at attention and tries to relax as he exhales and stares straight ahead. The sergeant spins around to salutes a young officer who approaches. The lieutenant returns the salute curtly. Both men then turn to the inspection.
Young Aubrey waits his fate with a draining sense of dread, knowing all too well his fortune is out of his control. He stands a grand chance of going straight to the brig today. The Corps will not tolerate dirty weapons; to be caught with one is a most serious offence.
Mold ignored? The brig for you, soldier. Hard labor and confinement. The shame. Losing the only stripe ever earned.
His imagination competes with trembling legs. The unsympathetic lieutenant suddenly steps into his line of sight.
Aubrey brings the rifle swiftly up to port-arms. Smack! And the adolescent officer takes it from him. Stare straight ahead. Don’t flinch. Try to appear calm. Try to look confident. Bread and water await you, son.
The lieutenant eyes the sheen of the polished wood stock. He cannot appear pleased; nothing can please young lieutenants.
He flips the rifle up-side down as blood races in the boy’s head. A tiny trickle of sweat glides down between his shoulder blades. The entire platoon seems to be listening; watching. In just a few seconds the secret shall be exposed.
The lieutenant holds the rifle steady. His eyes study the trigger guard. Balancing the piece with one hand, he extends a pinkie finger and rubs it across the metal surface. Aubrey silently wishes for two conflicting things to happen together: hurry up and get this ordeal over with, and to be someplace where no Marine nor rifle or officer exists.
Griffin eyes slowly rise to meet the soldier’s blank stare. Still holding the weapon with one hand, a fresh-shaved chin juts out deliberately, and then the man’s head tilts to one side. The cocksure lieutenant then hisses out a single question.
“How did this get there?” And his still-extended finger points to the outer surface of the trigger guard.
Surprised and jolted at this early stage of the game, Aubrey cuts his eyes downward.
He didn’t open the bolt yet. He hasn’t looked down the barrel. So what is he talking about?
The officer glares and waits for a response. A look of bafflement creeps over the soldier’s face as he searches to discover the problem.
In an accusing manner only young lieutenants are adept at, the officer leans forward and lifts the weapon a little higher. Aubrey cranes his neck closer to the threatening predicament.
“Do you not see that, marine?”
Aubrey sees something on the metal surface, but he is confounded for an answer. The officer’s neatly trimmed fingernail rests next to a tiny spot no larger than a match head. The blemish looks almost invisible, until the sun catches it right. Just a shade darker than the metal itself, the discoloration appears nameless to the perplexed soldier.
A look of disgust overtakes the officer. Before Aubrey can stammer out a word, the lieutenant tosses the rifle back. The enraged man marches off after ordering him to “get rid of that rust!” He leaves with a dire warning that next time, there would be no leniency for such a dirty weapon.
Aubrey is one lucky child.