Friday, January 22, 2016

Brain-bucket Bounce

The Colonel learned early that being diminutive in stature was actually a marked advantage in his Marine Corps career.  

Always underestimated and overlooked, he flew in under the radar and capitalized on one of the more important principles of war --surprise

Being light on the hoof also had advantages in light of the Marine Corps' near-obsessive focus on physical fitness and appearance.

There were, of course, some obvious disadvantages to being a "short-round."  The Marine Corps prides itself on its thrift and under-reliance on technology.  Any motorized vehicle that carries people is untrustworthy in battle and therefore Marines must be able to carry everything they bring to a fight on their backs and over long distances.  There were occasions when the mission and the environment required so much gear that the Colonel nearly carried his own body weight on his back.  

Small wonder the Colonel's back tortures him today.  Payback.

But, the Colonel also liked to think that a short stature was a plus on the battlefield -- he figured he could keep his head down and out of the line of fire a lot easier than the 6 footers. 

When the Colonel went to Marine Corps Officer Candidate School (OCS) at Quantico, Virginia in the summer of 1977, he was very nearly the smallest candidate of the 250 in the company -- 5'6 and 3/4" (don't ever forget the 3/4) and 130 pounds dripping wet.  

Reaching things in high places was (and still is) a bit of a challenge.  
The Colonel vividly remembers trying to put away his pack on top of his wall locker the first few days at OCS. There was, of course, a certain way the pack had to be situated, with the helmet strapped on top. 

The Colonel had developed a practiced, time-saving (time was of the essence with a drill instructor breathing down your neck) method to get his pack onto the top of his seven-foot wall-locker. He would get the  pack and helmet all squared away on his bunk, pick it up, spin around, and pitch it up on top of the locker to land facing the correct way. 

Since the Colonel was in the last bunk bay in the squad bay, his locker backed up against a bulkhead and he could actually use a bank-shot of sorts to get his pack, with helmet riding on top, into position. If he got the pick, spin, pitch, and bank just right, the pack would land in the perfect position on top of the locker and not require further adjustment.  The Colonel would then be free to use the resulting extra seconds to attend to the next task for which the certainly insane drill instructor was screaming unintelligibly. This routine worked perfectly the first half-dozen times.

The seventh was different.

All plans and actions on the battlefield (and all of life is one big battlefield)  are subject to what Clausewitz (some dead German guy who, like most Germans, spent way too much time thinking about war) called "fog and friction." 

Even the simplest things are difficult under stress. 

Newton's laws of physics aren't nullified by a screaming drill instructor either. 

From the grave, both Clausewitz and Newton conspired to cause the Colonel to light up big-time on Sergeant Psycho's radar screen. This time, although the pick, spin, pitch, and bank was executed to perfection, there was a catastrophic equipment failure (thank you, Clausewitz) that introduced plan-altering friction and allowed inertial physics (thank you, Newton) to take over. 

The chin strap on the Colonel's helmet broke. 

Said chin strap had theretofore served admirably as the device with which the helmet had been quite securely affixed to the pack. 

Had been being the operative phrase in this case.

The practiced conclusion of the pick, spin, pitch, and bank of the Colonel's squad bay ballet was a combat-booted pirouette, executed at the moment that the pea-sized computer in his brain-housing group calculated that the pack's trajectory was such that it would bank and rest in inspection-ready position atop the wall locker. As the Colonel spun back to his bunk this time, he was struck hard on the top of his hairless noggin and driven to his knees. 

The Colonel's helmet -- its broken chin strap freeing it to follow Newton's third law -- had performed a half-roll and landed, round-side down, squarely on the Colonel's head.  Later, his buddies told the Colonel that the resulting "thonk!" was so loud and impressive that everyone in the squad bay stopped what they were doing... for a millisecond. 

A milisecond being the exact length of time one could get away with pausing without attracting the attention of a rabid drill instructor.

Would that the story ended there. But, alas, there is more. 

The Colonel rejoined the conscious world a second later, stood, and began searching for his errant brain bucket.  He remembered hearing/feeling only one "thonk!"  He hadn't heard a second "thonk" indicating that his helmet had hit the deck.  

Since he had been standing at his bunk, the Colonel assumed that his helmet had ricocheted off his head and landed quietly there. 

He looked on the bunk.

No helmet.

He looked under the bunk. 

No helmet. 

Then, the concussion-induced fog lifted a bit more and the Colonel heard the unmistakable bellow of an enraged drill instructor. 

The unmistakable bellow was coming from outside the open window next to the Colonel's bunk.

The unmistakable bellow was coming from three floors down. 

This is no lie. The Colonel's helmet had bounced off of his head, out the window of the squad bay, and landed, following an impressive bounce, at the feet of the company First Sergeant -- the senior and most feared of all of the officer candidates' tormentors.

Our names were on our helmets.

"Candidate Gregory!!! Get (insert appropriate unprintable epithet here) down here!!!"

Momentarily, the Colonel contemplated jumping after the helmet.

But, then, falling back on the candidate mantra, "they can't kill us," the Colonel raced from the squad bay, down the ladder well (Marines don't call them stairs), and came to the position of attention at the appropriate distance front and center of 1stSgt King. 

The Colonel believes it was the fact that one of his pupils was dilated and the other wasn't that stopped the First Sergeant's rant on the sorry state of American youth and my questionable parentage in mid-sentence. 

"Candidate, are you okay?"

The Colonel kept his story short -- just the facts -- and made sure he used the third person when referring to himself (Marines talk funny that way). 

"The candidate's helmet fell off the candidate's wall locker, bounced off of the candidate's head, and flew out the window."

I believe it was the phrase "flew out the window" that broke the hard-bitten combat veteran.  He grabbed the Colonel by the arm and barely made it into his office, and out of sight of anyone, before breaking down in uncontrollable laughter.

The Colonel learned two valuable leadership lessons that day.  

Stuff happens, and it's okay to laugh.
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