Saturday, May 27, 2006

Face Time

Next week marks my 28th anniversary of the beginning of an experience shared by all Marine officers. Regardless of future assignment, whether as a pilot, logistician, tanker, motor transport officer, or whatever, all Marine officers go through a six-month basic officer course, known as The Basic School, or "TBS." Because the Marine ethos is that every Marine is a rifleman first, every graduate of TBS is trained to the point that he is prepared, at least intellectually, to command an infantry platoon in combat--many non-infantry Marine officers have been pressed into service as such in every war, police-action, and glorified bar fight in which the Corps has participated. TBS is the great equalizer and unifier for all Marine officers, who go on to their non-infantry assignments with a complete understanding and a sharp appreciation of the combat grunt they will support, as well as a common frame of reference.

With the newly minted gold bars of a second lieutenant on my collar, I stood in a formation that first morning at TBS with nearly 250 other shave-tails and met the man who would shepherd us through the next six months of training and education. Our company commander was a newly promoted major named Wheeler Baker. But he was no ordinary junior field grade officer. Baker had a decade or so of enlisted service (including combat in Vietnam) under his belt before he was commissioned as an officer. His face was chiseled, unkindly to say the least, by nature and by combat experience, and we were soon to discover that he intended to chisel our minds and bodies in like fashion. Baker was, in simple Marine parlance, "hard;" an appellation that in a Corps of hard men was not lightly assigned. He was a superb leader who understood that young men responded to, and bonded as a team with, challenge and adversity. He provided us with ample amounts of both. While other companies went through a light work out and then played football or softball as part of their daily physical training, Baker took us on grueling formation runs, culminating towards the end of our training in "The Loop," a hilly hardtop 9-mile route that encircled TBS and our neighbor FBI Academy.

Baker was never seen smiling, and we lieutenants reveled in rumors and unconfirmed reports of a "Baker-Smile." Some of us began to believe that his battle-wearied visage was physically incapable of anything beyond his ubiquitous scowl.

Baker had served on an exchange tour with the Royal Marines and had undergone the arctic warfare training in Norway for which the Brit Marine Corps is famous. As winter neared in Northern Virginia, and our final field exercise, known as the "3-Day War," approached, he assembled us in a large classroom and gave us a class on surviving and fighting in cold weather. He lectured on the critical contents of a cold weather fighting pack and summarized each article with, "good piece of gear; put it in your pack," as he packed his pack in front of us. At the end of his presentation, he scanned the audience in his hawkish way, and asked, "Any questions, lieutenants?"

One of our class spring-butts leaped to his feet. Ordinarily, the rest of us would have accompanied this action with a low "sproing." But not in Baker's class. "Sir, Lieutenant Smack," (not his real name, but descriptive nonetheless) he began, and meaning to ask about protection from the cold, he stated, "I would like to ask about your face." The atmospheric pressure in the room dropped precipitously as 250 men collectively sucked in their breath at this gaff. I swear, the only sound audible for at least ten long seconds was the faint whistle of air entering under the doors of the auditorium as the atmospheric pressure equalized.

Baker stood stock still, and we waited in mounting terror for the verbal lightning bolt to arc from his mouth and turn the errant lieutenant to a pile of grey ash. Then..., he smiled. The resulting roar from our company resounds to this day in my memory, and can still raise the hairs on my neck at its remembrance.

Wheeler Baker retired from the Marine Corps as a colonel. Today, Dr. Baker serves as the President of Hargrave Military Academy. I can only imagine the awe in which those cadets hold him.

Wonder if they have ever seen him smile.
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