Sophmore year high school, and I was part of the Marine Corps ROTC drill team in suburban Romeoville. We were better than good. In fact we had secured the title of national champions on both a high school and a college level, competing against some of the most presitious institutions in the nation. The unit looked sharp under the guidance of a no-BS retired Marine Major Mason and a Top Sergeant named Parsons. Both were combat veterans, Top Parsons a former Drill Instructor with a shaved head long before it was fashionable for white guys to do that.
Together Mason and Parsons whipped a bunch of kids into a cohesive unit, threading a line between treating us as students and as regular Marines. Within a semester I knew the Marine general Orders for sentries backwards and forwards and could field strip and reassemble an M-14 rifle blindfolded. By the end of the school year I had qualified as a sharpshooter by marine Corps standards using a .22 caliber rifle.
One memory above all stands out. We’d been invited to a new drill competition in Indianapolis, but had already entered another competition that weekend. We’d trained hard, with early morning and evening practices to hone the precision movements necessary on squad and platoon levels neede to win. A single misstep, errant movement, uniform issue from inspection through the actual drill could lose a competition. We were going up against the best of the best.
We’d gone to compete at Purdue University in a college level competition, but performed badly, leaving the unit little hope of even plaving in the top five. As kids, we were crushed and discouraged by our performance, not the least of which was for letting down the Major and Top Parsons. Seeing this, Major Mason made a quick decision and herded everyone to the bus, and told the driver to get us to Indianapolis as fast as he could.
We reached the small arena downtown just before noon and, with a bit of subtle and not so subtle negotiating, Mason got the squad entered into the competition as a last minute entry. Now we were the only Marine unit entered. The other teams more than represented the other branches, much to the apparent disppointment of about a dozen regular maines sitting in the stands. Top parsons gathered our eight man squad, and the sqaud leader, a tall blond senior named Ross, and told us this was do or die, or last chance to pull victory from the weekend. he left us as we rallied and encouraged one another. With that we lined up at the edge of the drill floor at Parade Rest, not quite at attention, but definitely not at ease.
We were smart in our Dress Blue Uniforms, hair cut Marine Corps-short, shoes and covers polished to mirror finishes, brass buttons and belt buckles shining, Caps and belts gleeming white. With a signal from the judges we snapped instantly to attention, brought our weapons to port arms and started forward in perfect unison.
The Marines in the stands leaned forward expectantly wanting us to Represent the Corps proudly.Later I’d learn each of us in the squad noted those men in their Dress Green uniforms.
We marched to the center of the floor, stopping as one, and turning precisely with Ross’ command, or heels snapping together in a single note that echoed away through the hall. We dropped our rifles in to the Present Arms rifle salute as Ross snapped a perfect salute.
“Sir,” he said to the Judge, a ritired Army Colonel in full uniform at the edge of the floor, “the Infantry Regulation Drill squad from Romeoville High School requests permission to use the floor. Sir!”
“Permission granted,” said the Colonel.
The drill was a shade under 10 minutes, showcasing our units cohesiveness and precision, incorporating marching and rifle movements. Every step, every movement was scrutinized by those Marines in the stands, anticipation and pride swelling in their expressions. At last we returned to conclude the drill. As we stopped, each of us was now playing fully to the marines watching. We brought our heels together a little harder, and again as we turned. As one we snapped the rifles down to Present arms, popping the straps against the fiberglass stocks of the M-14s with a sharp crack that resonated through the hall like a shot.
At once the marines in the stands rose in a deafening cheer, pumping their fists, before straightening to proper and respectful salutes, several nearly overcome with pride. I thought my heart would burst, and it was all I could do not to smile until we left the floor.
Those were otherwise awkward years for me, but I still recall those precious minutes now and again. Over the years some of those from the squad passed away. Some went onto serve. I’ve lost touch with the rest, tempering the joy of that day somewhat. I’ve done so much in 34 years since, travelled the world, been to war, written books and more, but that day I truly felt a part of something much more than myself. The nine of us had faced adversity and lost, which is where it might have ended, but we rose to the moment, rallied by the leadership and faith of Major Mason and Top Parsons, those Marines in the stands and by our own refusal to quit. It was a life lesson, indelibly etched into our hearts for the others as strongly I’m sure as in me. And I remember that for time to time fondly. Sometimes a memory comes.