The time was March 1966. Just out of high school in 1965, my buddies and I knew we would most likely be drafted due to the war in Vietnam. Instead of waiting for this to happen, three of us decided we would choose our own branch of service and enlisted in the Marine Corps on the buddy plan, which meant we would go through basic training together. Soon we were getting off the bus at Parris Island, S.C.
After a couple of weeks' training, I noticed that after lights out some of the guys would be eating in their racks. I asked one where he got the chow (Marines are always hungry), and was told they would maybe take a small box of cereal from breakfast or a muffin from lunch, hide it in their shirt or pants, bring it back to the barracks and store it for that night.
The following day in the mess hall at dinner I had two cookies left, so I carefully wrapped them in a couple of napkins and slipped them inside my shirt between my stomach and belt so they would not fall down my pants. After every meal, we were required to fall out and stand at attention until all were ready to march back to the barracks. Evidently my drill instructor had seen me hide the cookies. As he was approaching to march us back, I noticed he was walking straight toward me. His fist went straight to my stomach, smashing the cookies and grabbing my belt at the same time. "Boy," he said, "did you steal a cookie from my mess hall?" Stomach hurting, and cookie crumbs down my pants, I said, "Sir, no, sir, they were left over from my tray, sir."
He continued to yell in my face.
"Boy, nobody steals from my mess hall. You're nothing but a damn thief. There will be no thieves in my platoon," he bellowed. "Boy, when we get back to the barracks, I want you to pack up everything you have, clear out your footlocker, everything, and report to me because you're going to jail, boy."
What could I do except reply, "Sir, yes, sir"? I was devastated. I packed everything, went to his office and banged three times on his door. "Sir, Private Emerson reporting as ordered, sir."
"Get your sorry butt in here," he said. While the door was still open he began to yell so everyone could hear. "Boy, we don't tolerate thieves in my Marine Corps.... Take your sorry butt down to the bus stop and wait for the bus to take you to jail."
I gathered all my things in my seabag, along with my rifle, and did as he ordered. I stood at the bus stop waiting. I could feel the tears in my eyes, as many things raced through my mind. What is going to happen? How will I face my friends at home when my buddies go home on leave and I'm not there with them? What is my family going to think of me? Dear God, let me die now.
On this day my platoon was to go to the rifle range, I could see the guys from the bus stop lining up in formation to go.
Dear God I want to die.
Here they come, running in formation right past me. I'm so ashamed, why did I have to take that damn cookie? As the last group of men passed me, not more than 20 yards, I heard the drill instructor yell, "Platoon, halt." He began to yell at them - I don't recall exactly what he began to say but I remember it was more about how terrible I was.
"I am going to leave something up to this platoon. About face," he said. The platoon did an about face. "See that maggot back there at the bus stop?"
"Sir, yes, sir," they said.
"If the majority of this platoon wants Private Emerson to return to this platoon tell me now," he said. My heart was in my mouth.
"Sir, yes, sir," the whole platoon yelled.
Never again in my life have I had such a good feeling.
"Private Emerson," the drill instructor yelled, "fall in, in the back of the platoon."
My God, I could have kissed every last one of those guys. So there I was running behind everyone with my seabag and rifle while everyone else had only their rifles. That did not matter at all. It felt so good that I could have run past them if the drill instructor told me to.
Yes, the drill instructor wanted to make an example and his message came through. I never brought another cookie back to the barracks — or anything else for that matter — even if it was mine. This makes for a funny story today, but at the time....