While memories often dissipate or disappear completely, there are certain aspects of particular memories that stick. I believe that something like a smell, sound, or other association can suddenly recall a vivid recollection of an event or person. For me, there’s a few of these strands out there that all recall one person in particular, or at least memories of his wrath. So, as I laced up my boots this morning, I recalled memories of Drill Instructor Staff Sergeant Ramirez.
It was during one of his speeches, most likely regarding why he loved the Marine Corps, that he tailored towards accusing us recruits of tarnishing its glory by our presence. We sat on the deck rigidly, cross-legged, packed in tight enough to individually count the hair follicles of the head of the other recruit in front of us. Having the current order to look directly at a Drill Instructor (the command was EYEBALLS, the response CLICK, SIR) we all stared attentively at SSgt Ramirez. He was a tall, wiry man of Hispanic heritage. A long face with high cheekbones framed two of the most sinister eyes I have ever seen, amplified by glaring out from the shadow of the Drill Instructor’s unique campaign cover. Whatever routine he used for his shaved head paid off, since it occasionally reflected sunlight. In between bouts of frenzied recruit punishment he glided around the room, seemingly coiled, smirking in anticipation. If I could describe him at all, he was a very snake-ish man. Smart as well. He apparently had a degree, and there was sharpness and eloquence to his language that perked my interest because of its contrast to the varying grunts of the Marine dialect. He enunciated certain words with a resounding reverence. Among the words were “PX,” “Boots,” “Shave,” “Drill” and “Up North.” “Up North” was what he called the Camp Pendleton training area we moved to for the second phase of boot camp. Before we got there, the holiness in the sound of “Up North” led me to picture forests, rivers, somewhere pleasantly colder than San Diego, but the dry expanse of dirt I saw upon arriving crushed those expectations.
Going back to SSgt Ramirez’s particular speech, I remember that he attributed our irresponsibility and other undesirable traits to “a shitty upbringing by our parents.” He gave us a personal anecdote to show us how he learned how to be respectful. Simplified, at around ten years old he was on the bus with his mom when an elderly woman came aboard, his mom immediately “smacked the shit out” of him for not immediately giving up his seat. From then on, young SSgt Ramirez was very aware of the necessity to give up your seat to elderly people.
This isn’t so much the significant part of the memory that tying my bootlaces reminds me of, but the complicated context of recruit training relentlessly prevents me from explaining a single event concisely. Understand that Drill Instructors were gods, angry gods, perfect Marines dedicated to making our lives miserable in order to pull us out of the civilian mindset. They ran our entire day, and were half role-model and half terrifying monster that you would go lengths to avoid the attention of. So when privy to SSgt Ramirez’s ridiculous parenting advice, the legitimate side of my brain had to reiterate to the indoctrinated side that beating your children was not, in fact, an appropriate (or humane) method of teaching values.
We had a few more insights into the life and mind of SSgt Ramirez, once during a class regarding the fraternization policy he said: “So let’s say we’re married, and I have to salute her while in uniform because she’s an officer. Obey all lawful orders and so forth. But when we’re at home would I take out the trash? Fuck no. Bitch, you take out the trash.” The issue of who’s taking out the trash came up frequently enough in these speeches that I assume it had a strong significance in how he defined status in a relationship. While most of the details I remember about him include these… interesting value sets, I don’t want to diminish how much I looked up to him. He always led by setting a perfect example and demanding the same from us. He taught us the most close-order drill, and his marching cadence was beautiful in its simplicity that even after hearing it thousands of times I still felt somewhat inspired. When I look at myself in the context of being a Marine I can’t help but compare myself to him and highlight my own deficiencies.
The speech I most remember was about his own dedication. I can’t do it justice, but after explaining the value of what the Marine Corps had done for him he stated that he would serve until he was forced to hang up his boots. Again, “Boots” was the image-triggering holy word. The conviction of this statement I saw in him really stuck with me. From then on, boots have represented something particularly important. As a reservist, I only put them on for one weekend a month, but in bending down to lace them I always get kicked by the memory of my experiences. Lacing them by myself at 5am, about to drive down to Springfield for drill. Frantically shoving my feet into them while being counted down as a recruit. Pulling them out of my sleeping bag after spending the night awkwardly sharing space with them (avoid those spiders at all costs) and a rifle. Boots that great Marines like SSgt Ramirez would do anything to keep. For however longer I have the honor of wearing them I will work to hold myself to the professional standard that he would expect.
P.S. Shout out to friends Jalal, Taja, and Cleo. Whatever happens, know that a whole lot of people (like me!) care about you very much, and will for a long time to come.