Saturday, January 24, 2009

Left, Right, Kill

When I look back on the Marine Corps physical training (PT), I get the impression that, while it was cleverly designed with the purpose of keeping Marines in extremely good physical condition, in practice it manifested as little more than a couple people stroking their own egos.

The Marine Corps definition of fitness is high performance on the Marine Corps Physical Fitness Test (PFT), which tracks time on a three-mile run, 100 crunches (like situps, but with your hands crossed on your chest) in a two-minutes time frame, and a count on maximum pull-ups. Each of the three events is applied to a 100-point scale, with the best overall score being 300 (100 for each event).

The best time (for score) on the three-mile run is 18 minutes. I have only know about three people that could do this. I knew a few more that couldn’t run it in 28. The best score for pull-ups is reached if you do 20. For many, that’s extremely difficult. Even 100 crunches are, actually.

Oddly, however, the bulk of our near-daily PT was devoted to running. For some reason, if a guy could run quickly, every other limitation he had would be overlooked. It’s all the more odd considering that a Marine is taught to NEVER run from fire, but actually run into it. (We cleverly call this suicide attack, “assaulting through the objective.”)

For reasons that I never understood, our platoon sergeant was always among the fastest among us, and would lead the speed of the run as the rest of us would run behind him and sing cadences. I suppose, in theory, that singing cadences helps build lung strength – and gives us an opportunity to improve our thoracic muscles. Right. So we’d be running along gasping for oxygen, and the platoon sergeant would slow down every mile or so to pick up all the “turtles” that had fallen far behind the formation. We’d do little circles, stumbling over each other and trying not to fall, and wait for them to catch up. Then we’d take off again. One of the reasons that the platoon sergeant may have been more energetic than us is that he didn’t sing cadences, allowing him to devote all his oxygen to breathing – like normal people do.

What I found simultaneously humorous and exasperating is that we frequently had a few sergeants in the platoon that were overweight and hated to run. They would ALWAYS volunteer to fall back and run with the slow people while the rest of us just kept heaving and suffering. It was very noble of them. Sure, sure. It was an excuse to run slower. And they leaped at the opportunity. There were times when the platoon would be stretched out for well over a mile. It was ugly, and more than once we were accused of looking like, “a bag of smashed assholes.” I’m still trying to wrap my mind around a visual image of that.

As the Marine Corps has changed from gross and innately obscene to more socially acceptable, they have required an evolution in their cadences from awful to dull. In the days of yore (as few as five years ago), most cadences used to center on killing people, stabbing things, crushing skulls, and an elaborate recitation of coital experiences. The idea was to be as disgusting as possible – which took your mind off the fact you were starving for air, exhausted, and hating the fact it was thirty degrees and you were outside wearing nothing but a shirt and shorts – and miserable.

While a number of cadences dealt with women and doing awful things with them, to them, and on them, the more humorous ones pertained to killing things. One cadence celebrates the fun of mowing down kids on a playground with a machine gun. Another, the fun of luring birds to your window with bread, then crushing their heads (please note the eloquent rhyming scheme here). My personal favorite had the line, “Napalm sticks to kids.”

“Gather kids as you fly over town,
By throwing candy on the ground,
Then grease 'em when they gather 'round,
Napalm sticks to kids.”

It don’t get any funnier than seventy men all chanting that as they run. Well, besides when they get next to a non-infantry platoon and start singing something about “never let your dingle dangle dangle in the dirt. Take your dingle dangle and….” well, you get the picture. Or the one about killing your girlfriend and throwing her body in the river, then yelling at it until it slips below the surface and sinks.

Yeah; good times. Even in reading some of these cadences recently, I can’t decide if they’re funny or just horrible. Maybe it was situational.

By the time I’d been in the Corps a year or so, the commands were really trying to cut down on our public, swine-like behavior. Initially, we fought it tooth and nail. We would wait until we had run further away from high-ranking officers of staff NCOs, then start belting out the worst possible lines we could conjure – though admittedly half the fun is other people hearing them – and cringing.

Invariably, within a matter of seconds, some officer would appear from the woods, from down the road, parachute from the sky (it seemed they did), or just storm out of a building and start screaming at us. After a time, we just gave up altogether, which presented problems of its own.

The fact is, Marines aren’t the brightest guys in the world. Filth sticks with us – well, just like napalm. But boring cadences, the only ones we were now allowed to sing, were mundane, overly motivated (with a bunch of oorah crap interlaced in the lyrics), or nobody could remember the words. Tragically, the single cadence that we remembered without fail was the one that had zero practicality on our unit.

“Up from a sub 60 feet below,
Hit the surface and I’m ready to go.
Side-stroke, back stroke, swim to the shore;
Hit the beaches and we’re ready for more.”

And so on. Well, that’s just dumb. We are a ground-mounted anti-armor platoon, not a bunch of Navy SEALS launched from a submarine. Heck, even our own special forces guys don’t do that. It was stupid, and only had about two verses. Then the caller would switch to something even more pathetic:

“lo righty, lo right.
Lefty, righty lay-o
Lo righty lay-o
Lefty, righty-lo”

And we’d do that for great distances. Grown men (well, some of us) singing pieces of songs that would have definitely been cut from the Barney and Friends soundtrack if anybody had tried to sing them. We felt stupid, we looked stupid, and everybody probably THOUGHT we were stupid, too. And we probably were. But having been weaned off our filth, there wasn’t much left. Just some “left, right” nonsense that appealed to nobody.

And God forbid us run in silence. That’s sacrilege. If you’re running in a formation, dammit, you have to sing cadence. You have to strengthen that unit integrity, form stronger lasting bonds with the men to the right and left of you – as you try desperately not to trip over them, as the one in front of you lags back and you push him, as the one behind you pukes on your ankles, or one tries to blow his nose and ends up getting snot on the back of your neck. Or the one that trips halfway up the ranks and takes EVERYBODY behind him down, too. Or the guy that stops in the middle of a run to curse at a puddle. Or half the platoon that has booze seeping from their pores. Yeah, we were definitely investing in a lasting brotherhood. And we’d continue to foster it throughout the day by fighting with each other.

“Look to the right and what do I see;
A bunch of f***ing fags tryin’ to be like me.”

That went over really well. More screaming. One guy tries another;

“Staff Sgt, Staff Sgt, can’t you see;
This PT ain’t shit to me.”

But then the staff sergeant ran us even faster, so we all bitched at the guy for trying to be clever. Idiot. Thanks.

If I were to ever go back into the Corps, and I will not, I would make it my personal mission to bring back the disgusting cadences. They’re funny, and you learn just how easily people are offended. And that should change. If you have thin skin, if you gross out easily, if your ears hurt whenever you hear bad words, don’t join the Marines. Skip their office and keep on walking to the Air Force recruiter. They could probably find you a paper jam to fix – while wearing gloves, safety glasses, a reflective vest, and combat fatigues. The rest of us will be doing all the combat work – and probably something gross.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


  1. "Never saw a girl so large, bigger than a landing barge..."

    "Model A Ford and tank of gas, Face full of ... and hand full of ..."

  2. Why is something so disgusting so funny...and why am I still laughing? It's not the words in the cadence its the image of the delivery.

  3. Why is something so disgusting so funny? And why am I still laughing? I don't know.
    I guess it's the reference to the Barney and Friends soundtrack.

  4. Man. No wonder you never taught us kids any of all those fun cadences you must have learned in PT.