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I couldn't help sucking in my gut when the Marine recruiter walked into my office a month or so ago to invite me to boot camp for a week.
Marines, those rock-ribbed hard-guys with square jawlines, have always had that affect on me.
I reckon it started when, as an 18-year-old looking for a cheap way to go to college, I glanced in a Marine recruiter's front window. There, behind a desk, was a nattily dressed, bristle-haired sergeant with muscles in places of which I could only dream. Visions of spending several months in boot camp having guys like that yell at me made it easy to keep walking, all the way to the Air Force recruiter's office.
Through his window I saw a short, bespectacled, thin fellow in a sky-blue uniform with short hair, but at least it appeared he could drag a comb through it each morning.
Now that's more like it, I thought, and a few months later, off to basic training I went, all six weeks of it.
It wasn't until the final 18 months or so of my four-year hitch that I again encountered Marines. After two years of copying Morse code in England, the only stateside slot available for me was utilizing my top secret security clearance to sit in a vault, making sure linguist trainees had proper ID with which to check out training materials.
In Air Force terms, I was in pretty good shape back then. I had no trouble running the required 1.5 miles in the 15 minutes allotted us boys and girls in blue, which was the only annual physical requirement we had.
In Marine terms, however, I soon learned that us flyboys weren't even in the same team picture when it came to being ready for war.
During breaks, the Marine instructors who taught the linguists shot the breeze in my vault. While I was planning where to eat dinner that night, those guys were making plans for that night's 10-mile run, followed by an hour or two pumping iron.
My weekend? Hang out at the pool until noon or so, swat a few tennis balls with a fellow flyboy and return to the pool for cold beer and hot dogs.
Their weekend? A 25-mile march through the west Texas desert, likely followed by bending framing nails with their bare hands and doing chin-ups until they puked, for all I knew.
One day, a couple of Marine instructors came in the vault and began discussing that night's Marine vs. Air Force softball game. Because I was on the Air Force team, I eavesdropped and was immediately sorry I did.
Our team's ritual before games was to meet for burgers, fries and a cold beer - an indication of how seriously we took what was supposed to be a recreational league.
The Marines, I found out, were just a bit more serious.
"What are you doing before tonight's game?" one instructor asked the other.
"I'm going for a run as soon as we get off work, then I'll probably lift until the game starts," he replied.
"Me, too," his buddy responded. "I'm not going to eat anything until after the game. After all, a hungry rat's an alert rat."
Our bellies bulging with burgers and beer, our team was promptly run-ruled by the hungry Marines, each of whom I swear tried to break our fingers during the after-game handshake on the field.
As you read this, I'm once again cowering in front of Marines, only this time it's drill sergeants at boot camp in Parris Island, S.C., as part of a program used by the Marines to give average Joes and Jills a chance to see the place and share our thoughts with those considering becoming one of the few and proud.
By now, I will have been given what was described in my itinerary as a "very vocal" welcome by the drill sergeants, and a behind-the-scenes view of how some of the bravest Americans ever born are preparing to defend our nation.
And while about the only activity in which I plan to participate is shooting the M-16s and whatever other weaponry they'll allow, I have no doubt I'm in for some mighty sore muscles.
You know, the ones that help me suck in my gut.