George and I joined the Marines shortly after we graduated from high school. He didn't think it was a great idea at first. He was always suspicious of my plans since the episode in Mr. Wasaski's class when we were lab partners and we were supposed to dissect a frog. Wasaski, the old bastard, reached into the jar with his pinchers and slapped the frog onto the tray in front of us. A drop of stinky fluid splattered into George's eye.
"Oh shit! Jesus, that stings!"
"No need to curse, Peterson. Come with me. Wasaski yanked him to the back of the room to the eye dowsers, two round metal balls which spray water up like geysers. "Why don't you pay more attention to what's going on around you? Then things like this wouldn't happen." He bent Georgie over the basin and stepped on the lever to run the water. It squirted into Georgie's eyes and ran down his face and throat. The class started to snicker; but they were silenced by Wasaski's stare. "Let this be a lesson to you, Peterson. Safety always comes first," he said as he returned George, looking like a wet cat, to the seat next to me. That really pissed me off, the old man blaming George for his mistake. So I thought of something to get him back. George didn't want to do it at first, just like he didn't want to sign up for the Marines at first.
"I remember the last time you talked me into something I didn't want to do," he said to me when I mentioned the prospect of becoming Marines.
"This isn't Biology class, Georgie," I said. "I'm not talking about roasting some frogs on a Bunsen burner. I'm talking about being Marines! It's a chance to earn some respect. Whatcha gonna do, stay on the farm the rest of your life?" I think he was planning on doing just that. George never went for anything too far out of his reach. He was smart enough that he didn't need to try very hard in school and was content with a C+ average. The only subjects he really cared about were history and geography. He read all the books he could find on those two subjects and knew more about the Civil War and World War II than our teachers did. He could even match knowledge with Mr. Anderson on Vietnam, and Mr. Anderson had been there.
I used these facts to convince Georgie the Marines would allow him to travel and witness history in the making. I told him stories of men of steel and pointed out the money we could make for college. I was so persuasive that even George, who rarely became emotional, was excited when our glorious day arrived and we boarded the plane with puffy chests, big smiles, and weeping mothers. But for forty hours after we arrived in San Diego, sleep was replaced with instructions on what it means to be a Marine. I knew we were in for a rough time, and George became very quiet.
His not talking to our new comrades wasn't surprising; he rarely talked to anybody. But after our training began, he didn't even talk to me. After many days, I managed to squeeze in a few words before lights out.
"Hey, Georgie, how you holdin' out?"
"You were so quiet, I was worried."
"Not as worried as me."
"What do you mean?"
"It's so nerve racking, man, their yelling. I don't know what to do. I just want to leave, but they will never let me go," he said, his voice almost cracking.
"Just try your best not to give 'em a reason to yell. And when they do, don't take it so personal. Before long, we'll be out of here."
"I don't know if I can last that long . . . I --"
"Hey you two, shaddup," somebody whispered in the darkness of the bunkhouse. George was once again silent. I figured he needed the shuteye, so I didn't press our luck.
I decided not to worry about him; I had myself to take care of. Things were going to get better, and he would thank me later when we graduated as Marines--tanks, men ready to bulldoze the world. I put George out of my mind and consoled my own physical and mental pain with thoughts of a victorious future and memories of the old days on the farm.
One day after football practice, I was helping dad secure a sick bull so the vet could have a look at him. It was the first year I made varsity, two years before our senior year when George made the team. I was so cocky that I thought I could tackle the whole world. But when I threw the rope around the bull's pulsing neck, I knew I had made a mistake. It was like water skiing on dry land. Fortunately, the bull ignored me and ran in circles around the small pen. I ran with him, praying my hands wouldn't be rendered into hamburger. Dad was yelling at me, "Tie him up, tie him up!" I would have told him to do it himself, but he was in a cast up to his hip.
I hung on until the bull got bored with running and stopped and stared at me. His roaring breath sounded like someone starting a chainsaw. I slid the rope around the base of one of the oak posts which made up the pen. I knew I needed to tie a slipknot, but I could not remember Dad's lessons, so I tied a clumsy granny knot and climbed over the fence.
Dad and I watched as the bull struggled against the new restraint. He backed straight away from the post, tightening my hurried knot and strangling himself with his massive power. He collapsed onto the ground but continued to push his front legs. In a few moments, his sides quit heaving in and out. Dad yelled, "Untie him; untie him!" but I couldn't. He hobbled over on his crutches and cut the rope with his jackknife, but it was too late. The bull was dead.
I was usually awakened from such daydreams by the drill instructor's voice. He was preparing us recruits for combat with a voice like an AK-47. Many times he went off on Georgie.
"WHAT IS YOUR NAME, PRIVATE SHITFACE?!"
"Sir, Private George Peterson, sir!"
"I HEAR YOU'RE FROM THE MISERABLE STATE OF MINNESOTA, IS THAT NOT TRUE, PRIVATE SHITFACE?"
"I BET YOU MISS IT, ESPECIALLY SLEEPING WITH YOUR SISTER EACH AND EVERY NIGHT, ISN'T THAT RIGHT, PRIVATE SHITFACE?!"
"SO IT IS YOUR BROTHER THAT YOU MISS SLEEPING WITH, HUH, PRIVATE SHITFACE?!"
"WELL WHICH IS IT, PRIVATE SHITFACE?!"
"DO YOU MEAN TO TELL ME, PRIVATE SHITFACE, THAT IT IS THE COWS THAT YOU MISS DEEP DOWN IN YOUR SWEET FARMBOY HEART?!"
"Yes sir, I mean NO SIR!"
The sergeant liked to talk to George the best, probably because he took it the worst. He was a great example for the rest of the guys. I could handle the abuse better because I had as system, at first anyway. I pretended the sergeant was a principal or a father who I couldn't smart off to. I figured George would work out a system for himself, but he never did.
A few days before we were issued rifles, they moved George out of the barracks. I heard of his suicide shortly afterward. He had talked to the camp head shrinker a few times. During one session he asked to go to the bathroom. George smashed the mirror and jammed a dagger-like shard of glass into his neck. The doctor kicked the door open and tried to cover his torn throat, but Georgie lost too much blood.
A few weeks later, I tore ligaments in my knee jumping an obstacle and was able to get a discharge. I went to visit Georgie's grave on a chilly fall day. Looking down at his small tombstone, I realized how little I really knew about him. It's funny I didn't learn more in the years we were together in school, but I guess I didn't pay close enough attention.
The wind stung my face, and the snowy slush made the soggy, brown, oak leaves stick to the rubber ends of my crutches. I found myself remembering the fall day years before when I strangled the life out of a two-thousand pound bull. That bull hadn't done anything to deserve me.
Last update: 5 June 2000