You wouldn't believe it, but the biggest, baddest, meanest Marine can be stopped dead in his tracks by a song.
I was thinking this weekend about memorable Independence Day's in my life and I recalled the 4th of July I spent at Officers Candidate School thirty years ago. When the lights came on at 0430 (about the time most of my civilian college classmates were getting in from partying) that morning, and Gunnery Sergeant Sadist bellowed his cheery wake-up call to the tune of a large metal trash can bouncing down the squadbay, most of us didn't know or care that it was the 4th of July. The only thought in our groggy minds was getting out of the rack with enough alacrity to prevent being singled out by our tormentor as "too slow."
"Hurry up, Ladies! You got five minutes to sh**, shower, and shave. Uniform of the day is utilities with your PT shorts underneath. Bring your running shoes in your gym bag. Hurry up! I said, HURRY UP!"
Five minutes later (amazing, all that you can accomplish in five minutes with the right motivation) 49 other candidates and I were standing at attention in front of our barracks. To our right and left were two platoons each, indistinguishable from us but for the slightly different tones of voices of each platoon's assigned drill instructor. To the untrained hear, all five platoons' harriers' barking sounded nearly identical; but over the past couple of weeks we had become so well attuned to the sound of our own that in close proximity to the four others giving different commands to their platoons, we only responded to ours. Equally unintelligible to the untrained ear was the language of drill, with which we had become bilingual.
"Aauuf, HEESE!" (Left, face), "Auwerd, ARCH!" We stepped off smartly, a team of fifty moving as one man.
Five minutes later we arrived at the curb in front of the chow hall. "Plautooon, HALT! Candidates you got fifteen minutes to poke some groceries down your necks and be back in my platoon formation! Don't be lolly gaggin'! Column of files from the Ryee, ARCH!"
Once inside the doors of the chow hall, we grabbed metal trays and shuffled down the serving line to the tune of, "Keep the line moving, candidates! Hurry UP, ladies! We ain't got all day. You're burning daylight!"
'Burning daylight' made absolute sense at the time. But thinking back on it 30 years later, I realize the sun wouldn't even be up for another hour.
We shoveled watery scrambled eggs, stale toast, and grits (the Marine Corps is a strikingly Southern institution) into our pie holes in silence broken only by the insistence of our sergeants that we were taking entirely too much time away from their plans for inflicting bodily punishment without leaving marks. "You're done! Get up! Get out! Hurry up!"
Ten minutes later our platoons circled a platform on which one of our inquisitioners stood high enough to be seen and heard by all. We were in extended formation, the better to flail and flop in a seemingly unending series of lung stretching and limb wrenching calisthenics. "The next exercise will be the Marine Corps Push UP!" To which we all hollered, "Ooorah!"
"I said, THE NEXT EXERCISE WILL BE THE MARINE CORPS PUSH UP!!"
"That's better, ladies! I'll count the cadence, you'll count the repetition. We'll do thirty."
Now before all you Ranger Ricks out there snicker about Marines just doing 30 push ups, I'll remind you that Marine Corps Push Ups are a four count exercise with two push ups counting as one repetition.
"Exercise position, MOVE!" We dropped like stones from the position of attention to what our cruel masters lovingly referred to as the "Front leaning rest position." "Too, slow! Get back!" We scrambled back to the position of attention. "Exercise position, MOVE!" Again we dropped like dead men and locked our bodies in the 'up' position of the push up exercise. "That's better."
"Re-ady, exercise! One! Two! Three! Four!"
"One!," we hollered.
"I, Love, the Marine, Corps!
"Oorah!" we responded to count the second repetition.
And so it went, as it did every morning, every day. Without rest, without pause. Constant movement from the moment we awoke to the last minute of the day when we we lay at attention in our racks and in unison reverently asked God to bless Chesty Puller.
But this morning as the sun began to sap the last bit of blessed coolness from the Northern Virginia summer dawn, our exercise leader made a tactical error.
"Happy Fourth of July, ladies."
It was like an invigorating bucket of cold water poured over collectively overheated brain housing groups. It WAS the Fourth of July!
With boldness born of the belief, "They can hurt us, but they aren't allowed to kill us" one candidate began to sing with a voice that still rings in my ears, "O-oh say, can - you - see?"
The rest of us stole furtive glances at our drill instructors to see which one would race to squash the errant trainee like a bug. To our amazement, all of those Marines stood transfixed, mouths open, unbelieving. And then to our further amazement, they all assumed the position of attention, feet locked at a forty-five degree angle, head and eyes to the front, thumbs along the out seams of their trousers.
We did the same, and by the time our soloist had belted out "What so proudly we hailed" 249 other voices had joined in. I've heard a lot of choirs over the years, good ones. But, to this day I've never heard one that matched in fervor and tenor the rendition of our National Anthem we future Marine second lieutenants managed that morning. Turns out, our initial soloist knew, as did enough of us to pull it off, the other verses of the Star Bangled Banner. Our tormentors had no choice but to remain at attention and allow us to sing.
At the conclusion of the anthem, our drill instructors all inhaled as one in the preparatory phase of a string of epithet-laden commands to break our stolen rest. But, before they could exhale past their raspy vocal chords, another officer candidate voice began, "From the halls - of - Mon-te-zu-uma..."
Once again, those battle-hardened Marines were frozen in disbelief at the brazenness of their worthless charges, and then solidified into rock-steady positions of attention as we joined in for all three verses of the Marines' Hymn.
We sang, resting at the position of attention; refreshing our souls as we stole rest for our bodies.
"...they will find the streets are gua-arded by United States Marines!" We all, battle-scarred Marine NCOs and wet-behind-the-ears would-be Marine officers, relished the crescendo of our sacred song and stood still momentarily as the last refrain echoed off the parade ground and lifted to the Marines now standing guard of "heaven's scenes."
"Oh, beautiful, for spacious skies...," another candidate voice began, hoping to extend our singing break from strenuous activity a few more precious minutes. But, alas, while Marines are required to stand at attention for our National Anthem and the Marines' Hymn, there is no such sanctity proscribed for any other song.
"No! No! No! Get your gear on and let's move! Hurry up, ladies! Too slow! Grandma was slow, but she was old! Hurry up! It may be the Fourth of July, but it ain't YOUR birthday!"
Wrong, again, Gunny. It IS my birthday. And yours, too.