Monday, December 22, 2008

Don't Ask, Don't Chill

It's a bit chilly here this morning at the northern end of southern nowhere. The thermometer is reading in the low teens and the wind chill is lurking somewhere below like a snake under a rotted log--unseen, but dangerous. It's not the coldest morning the Colonel has ever experienced. That dubious distinction goes to the 20 below zero air that instantly froze the hairs in my snot locker the second I poked my snoot out of a tent in Minnesota.

It was late December of 1981 and I was wrapping up my last training exercise with the Marine infantry battalion to which I had been assigned three years previous as a newly minted second lieutenant. The Second Battalion, Second Marines (2/2) was preparing for an imminent deployment to North Norway to practice defending the northern flank of NATO against the godless communists, and I, based on attendance at a four week course in the mountains of California and a three month exercise in Norway the previous year on loan to another battalion, was 2/2's duty Arctic Warfare expert. It had been my task to build and execute a cold weather training syllabus for the nearly 1000 Marines and sailors of our battalion and the Marine Amphibious Unit headquarters to which our battalion landing team would be assigned. I wouldn't be going to Norway with them--I had orders to report to the Third Marine Division on Okinawa in February--but, I attacked my mission with all the sincerity I could muster.

On the frosty morning in question we had what we called a "round-robin" training event during which the subordinate elements of the battalion cycled through a half dozen different stations demonstrating Arctic survival and fighting methods. The station at which I spent the day was one where we demonstrated the rescue techniques, and subsequent first aid, for a Marine who had fallen through ice. We found a shallow pond, chopped a hole in the ice, and as each company showed up, asked for a volunteer to jump in the hole. As you might expect, there was no clamoring rush to volunteer. In fact, I never witnessed a clamoring rush to volunteer for anything--no matter how tantalizingly it was described--during my entire career as a Leatherneck. Marines have already volunteered once, and have learned their lesson.

Standing there on that frozen pond in the middle of Minnesota with wind chills in the obscene range was the coldest experience any of us ever had and bundled in every piece of issue clothing we could layer on we looked for all the world like dark green pillars of salt on the outskirts of Gomorrah. No one wanted to do anything but stand still, hunched against the wind and cocooned against the cold. So, I resorted to subterfuge. "Who wants to get into that sleeping bag over there on the bank?"

There would always be at least two who would fall for that ruse and mutter some expletive-spiced version of "I do" and that would be enough for me to accept them as volunteers. To one of those Marines I would give the order, "Strip and get in that bag." Once he had complied and indicated, to much catcalling from the rest, that it was warm and comfy in the sleeping bag, I would quietly tell the other Marine that the water in the hole was only three feet deep and that he would not be in the hole longer than about five seconds before I would yank him out. Then I would call him to attention, face him toward the hole, and command, "Forward, march!"

The moment the Marine stepped into the hole in the ice, I would shuck my mittens and dash, dive, slide out onto the ice and up to the wide-eyed Marine up to his chest in a hole in a pond in northern Minnesota on the coldest day of December. Several other Marines assisting me would link up behind me, and as I grabbed the dunkster by the arms, would pull all of us off the ice. I would then begin to furiously strip the wet Marine of his clothing and order him into the sleeping bag with its quite comfy and warm, and now wide-eyed, occupant. This was well before the days of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and I'll leave to your imagination the chorus of testosterone-induced expletive-spiced name-calling that ensued. To which the bag-mates invariably responded with their own expletive-spiced announcement of the relative temperature difference between their station and the rest's.

I believe it was during that long day of icy wet Marine stripping 27 years ago that I lost the sensation of touch in my fingers.
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