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Jack Smith

In the music and drill of Marines, there are musings for more than a few good men

March 14, 1985

I drove up to the Rose Bowl last Saturday to see the Marine Corps battle color ceremony.

I'm not sure why. The circumstances were right, I suppose. I had received a flyer in the mail, advertising that the Marine Corps Drum and Bugle Corps and the Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon, both from the Marine Barracks, Washington, would perform. My wife was down on the second level, out of sight, planting her bulbs; it wasn't likely that she would come up in time to make my lunch. The show was free.

Maybe it was because I used to be a Marine myself. But I don't think of myself as being gung-ho. I remember the absolute finality with which, when they asked me, as I was being discharged after the war, whether I wanted to sign over, I said no.

I remember also, a few years later, when the general who had commanded my division became commandant and visited Los Angeles and I was sent to interview him in his suite at the Biltmore.

He let me in, and I introduced myself. "My name's Smith," I said. "I used to be in your outfit. The 4th Division."

He searched my face for a moment, as if trying to remember me, but quickly gave it up and asked me if I'd like a drink. I said I would, and I remember the feeling of civilian freedom that rose up in me as I watched my old commander, the major general, walk over to the bar and mix me a highball. The last time I had seen him I was standing at attention and saluting as his car drove by me on a muddy road on Maui, spattering mud on my fatigues.

I also remember meeting a later commandant in the press club and being introduced as an "ex-Marine"; and the general said, "There's no such thing as an ex-Marine, is there, Smith?" And I said, "General, you're looking at one."

So I considered myself free of it. An ex-Marine.

Still, once you have been in the Marine Corps, it is always a part of you.

I was surprised at the number of cars parked outside the Rose Bowl when I got there. Marines were guiding cars to parking places--some in dress blues, some in combat fatigues. They looked terribly young, of course, and very smart. There were Marines at every entrance, and inside the bowl, acting as guards and ushers.

There must have been 10,000 people there. I wondered who they were? Many of them, obviously, were former Marines themselves. They had the look. Many were just citizens and families, there for a free show.

The USC Naval ROTC Drill Team started it, looking very sharp indeed; and then a Scottish pipers band played a few highland airs and marched off to "The Marine Hymn."

Then the Marine Corps Drum and Bugle Corps came out of a tunnel and onto the field, playing the Olympic theme. They did "Old Man River," "Seventy-six Trombones" and "The Stars and Stripes Forever," moving constantly, weaving one precise geometrical pattern after another. They were splendid.

I knew they were professional musicians. As Marines they were pampered. They lived in the barracks in Washington right near the commandant's own ancient house; and all they did was practice and perform in exhibitions. They traveled all over the country. They probably had rifles, and had to stand inspection now and then, but they were professional musicians, don't forget it. Perhaps they were the world's best drum and bugle corps.

About the Silent Drill Platoon there can be no doubt. It has no match.

They are 24 men, and they go through their drill without commands, like a fantastic windup toy.

They wore navy blue blouses, white trousers, white belts, white caps and white gloves, so that every move of their hands made was visible. They carried 10 1/2-pound M-1 rifles, with fixed bayonets.

Their drill is incredible. Not only was the precision of their marching exquisite, so that the eye could catch no discrepancy between one man and another, but what they did with their rifles was intricate beyond description, and too fast for the eye to follow.

At one point they stood, as every Marine in the crowd had done, for rifle inspection. A corporal did the inspecting, which, with each man he confronted, was nothing less than a pas de deux. The rifle flew between them, was spun in the air a dozen times, and suddenly went flying back to its owner, who caught it on the fly and restored it to order arms.

Then the inspector took another rifle and marched on to the next man, and together they did a mirror drill, each executing the same virtuoso movements as the other, exactly together. Suddenly the inspector flipped his borrowed rifle back to its owner, who caught it just as the next man flipped his rifle to the inspector.

There was a sigh in the crowd; and then applause.

How I had hated rifle inspection, which was a daily ritual. One morning I had run out of my tent, trying not to be late, and scraped my rifle muzzle along the tent. I knew I was dead. The rifle bore would be full of dust. It was. All I can say is that my punishment, while severe, was not fatal.

The Marines are still looking for a few good men.

For a rootless young man who needs a job and a sense of identity, it isn't a bad way to go.

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