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A Marine and Moscow on the Mind

April 06, 1987|LAWRENCE CHRISTON | Times Staff Writer

As Ernest Hemingway's surrogate writer and big game hunter Harry lay dying on an African plain, gazing up at the Snows of Mt. Kilimanjaro, he remembered all the stories in him that had gone unwritten and now would never be told.

Every aging writer knows the curse. One of my lost stories is about my boot camp drill instructor, Staff/Sgt. Robert Caulkins. Of course, next to the coming-of-age story, every writer is tantalized by the notion of writing about his military experience. That's one of the reasons I never tried. I could feel the fungicide of banality running over my hands and into my typewriter with the speed of kudzu.

Still, the taut, somewhat diminutive figure of Caulkins occasionally pops up on the edge of memory, just the way he used to step out nimbly at the head of the squad bay of us sleeping Marines before securing it for the night. He was light on his heels, like a dancer. His uniform was impeccably fitted and pressed. If he caught you eyeballing him, he'd return your look with his wry, crooked Richard Widmark grin. It was an eerie, absurdist grin, sometimes positively sinister, as when he slipped on his black leather gloves and you knew some luckless recruit was in for added misery to his day.

Now that the phrase "Tell it to the Marines" has been amended with "and a couple of them will relay it to the Russians," I wonder what Caulkins is thinking. He had had a tour of embassy duty in Germany before becoming a drill instructor. In the way he alluded to it, you knew it was a plum for an enlisted man who had come out of a poor background with little chance for formal education. He never said so openly, but you sensed his pride in having completed the assignment.

For a time I hated and feared Sgt. Caulkins. He wasn't a bull DI. He wasn't especially physical (though, when he pulled on those gloves, you cringed; he knew the body's weakest points of resistance, and his hands struck like cobras). Caulkins worked on your head. He'd try to smoke out your fears and suspicions, and get to the flashpoint of your temper. He liked to see how much psychological pressure you could take.

When the other DIs were on duty, you knew the routine and suffered their harassment with disinterest. With them, it was a physical matter of shaping a platoon of kids from all over the country into a unit. When Caulkins was on, you grew leaden with depression. He bullied your mind and emotions. The more sullen you grew, the more oppressive that insinuating grin became.

Mine was the closest bunk to the DI's office. One night after lights out, I woke to the sound of a voice issuing from the office. It had the unmistakable tone of a lover's voice, low, fond, warm, intimate. It was Caulkins, speaking fluently in German, which for once didn't sound harsh and militant. More amazingly, he was talking to his wife with a lover's romantic, playful protectiveness. I never suspected he was capable of such tenderness.

That was one of the moments that led me to change my attitude toward him. Others involved the day he told of the battle of Chosin reservoir in Korea, where he had fought, and where a lot of soldiers had frozen to death. And of the Marines' invasion of Tarawa in World War II, where intelligence had failed to take the seas into consideration and the invading force, wading through a coral reef at low tide, was decimated by the gunfire of defending Japanese forces.

The image of a blood-reddened reef, and of helpless Navy pilots weeping in their cockpits as they reported the carnage, reminded us of why we were at Parris Island. We were going into the death business. We were being trained for efficiency at it, but the training would never have come about had we not entered into a blood pact with Corps and country first. Caulkins knew the terms of the pact; he'd already lived them.

I began watching Caulkins the way I'd once been watched. I discovered subtle evidence of his compassion. Somehow he caught on, and a covert bond developed between us.

On the day after my platoon graduated, I helped him process records. It was a balmy South Carolina day; I'd never seen him relax before. He offered me a cigar and lit up for both of us. "Why'd you join the Corps, Christon?" he asked. I never quite knew myself. There were many reasons, not a lot of them particularly noble. "I don't know. Some friends said I'd never make it. . . . "

I wanted to say more, but Caulkins cut me short. "Friends, eh?" I could feel the weight of his disappointment moving against anything more I had to say. "Why'd you join?" I asked. "It was a way out," he said. "It was something I could believe in."

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