Tough Guy

It was autumn of 1950. The early morning sunlight splattered onto the grass and walks of the quadrangle formed by the high school buildings. The students crossed this space but did not linger there. The upper grade girls assembled on the senior wall that ran along the main walk into the main classroom building. A daunting gathering to the boys who swiftly strode by in their Levi’s, collared shirts and topsiders. The girls, as if dressed by central casting, wore plaid wool skirts, lambs wool sweaters and saddle or white buck shoes. They were lined up with their perms in glorious sunlight along the west side of the main walk. They appeared unapproachable but individually would welcome the right boy to greet them.

Staff Sergeant Ernie Messik was a native of the Mississippi delta and veteran of several deadly battles during WWII before war’s end and his assignment to the babysitting job of drill instructor, the god to Marines inductees. He was 147 pounds of bone and muscle, Marine myth with irreverence for all officers or authorities.

Don Carruthers hated the morning walk through the gathered la-di-da students of the quadrangle, with their girls permed vs Monrovia girls with pin curls and the boys topsiders vs Monrovia boys wearing tennies. The boys of the football team had just completed an illicit practice at the local park. The la-di-das had spent Easter week at Balboa. They drove cars gifted by their wealthy parents. He knew they made fun of him when they spied chicken feathers and droppings stuck to his shoes.

Don Carruthers was one of the new inductees, shaved head, baggy corps work uniform and exhibited a fearful manner, not knowing what to expect or how to conform to it. He was yelled at, humiliated, disrespected, worked to exhaustion, and willing to fall into his bunk at sundown. But then there would be guard watch that ensured that he would each day near exhaustion and wish most fervently to go into real battle as a release from this inhumane situation that would last for 12 more weeks.

It came to an end. He got his private stripe. His uniform tightly fit his new hardened body. He and his troop got three drunken days to celebrate and then were crammed into a cargo plane on a three-day trip to Korea, finally to be deposited at Chosin Reservoir.

It was worse than any place Don Carruthers imagined. Never above zero degrees and at night down to 30 below. No trees, grass or shrubs, constant north wind up to 60 mph. The U.S. Marines were in a deep valley, the enemy Chinese communist army up on the ridge of the surrounding hills. They attacked at night, swarming into the valleys to overrun the Marines and retreat back to the heights during the day to take potshots at individual exhausted Marines trying to take cover.

Don Carruthers’s uncle had shown him a grenade rocket used by Chi Con forces and he recognized it as one crashed into the ground and took the right leg off below the knee of the next man to Carruthers. The man cried for his momma and was silent thereafter.

The last time I saw Don Carruthers was late on a Tuesday night. It was at the high school hot spot, CARPS to the MAD students, where they looked forward to someday being served in the small bar there. He was standing alone, in corps fatigues, at the curb in back of the drive-in behind the cars just off Huntington Drive.

I beckoned him over to my ‘40 Ford where Jerome and I sat after ordering hot apple pie with brandy sauce. Don got in the back seat. He was just short of delusional as he muttered on about 30 degrees temperature frozen ground, no trees and never ending swarms of Chinese before the Marines got out. He was now as before: alone, friendless, and at least shaken by that experience. He whimpered, “So long,” got out of my car. He was the same as in high school.

The war in Korea ended in 1950. I don’t think Don’s war has ever ended.

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Bernie Suttle
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