I remember the quiet.
The quiet … and the blows; it sounded like a wooden baseball bat hitting a heavy bag—muffled, methodical. Occasionally, a hiss of air followed a blow as a breath whistled through clenched teeth.
The other newly-promoted corporals and I stood in the gear room. The sounds were coming from the other side of the row of lockers that split the room. A moment after the blows stopped, Cpl Branson came back around the lockers to join us. His face was controlled, the only thing giving him away was his fists; they were white-knuckled balls welded to the ends of his lanky arms.
Cpl Carter and Cpl Lewis nodded at me. I walked around the lockers.
A group of sergeants stood waiting for me. I’m not really sure what I was expecting. Maybe a grin or a catcall. But there was nothing; no smiles or crazy looks, just business, like they were waiting to supervise a new Marine’s gear assignment.
Sgt Vance turned my left shoulder toward the other guys while he held my right arm, and—almost gently—turned my face towards him. Before I realized what he was doing, the first punch rocked my left arm. Bulls eye. Direct hit, sir, thank you very much. My biceps jumped under my skin, and I swayed into Vance; he was expecting it. A moment later, I had my footing back and absorbed the second hit, and the next, and the next. He watched me calmly, and I watched him right back, trying to catch the telltale hint his eyes betrayed before each punch landed.
My left arm was done. Sgt Pratt took over from Vance, and turned me around, leaving my right arm exposed.
Pratt was a cheerleader at the school where he was finishing up his degree, and he looked the part—handsome, trim waist, and shoulders wide enough they could hold the entire girls squad while he wondered which protein shake to drink with lunch. He braced my body, but this time I was ready for the first blow and took it. I thought my arms would hurt more than they did, but somehow the first hit seemed to numb them. Don’t get me wrong, they hurt, but I was pretty confident I’d be able to steer my car home.
“Lewis,” Sgt Smith called out. He had a baby face that guaranteed he’d be getting carded for the next decade at least. It was almost difficult to take him seriously at times. Almost.
I passed Lewis as I made my way back around the lockers and gave him a nod. Branson still hadn’t unclenched his fists. Carter was staring holes in the ceiling.
The whole bat and bag scenario repeated itself as Lewis and then Carter took their turns. As Carter made his way back around to join us, we heard Branson’s name called again.
The games were only half-way over.
Except this time there were other noises. We all heard the first impact, and there was something deeper about it, something you felt yourself, and with it came a grunt. Another blow, another grunt.
And before I knew it, I was back around the other side again. This time Sgt Vance wasn’t taking any chance with “spotting” me. He squared up beside me, turned my face towards him, and that’s when the horse kicked me. Or at least that’s what it felt like. The strike I’d just taken in the side of my left thigh teetered me, leaving me fighting for balance as little explosions of light splattered across my eyes. I coughed low and hard, sucking air back into my lungs, trying to make myself believe the rest of it wouldn’t be that bad. Vance grounded me, and I steeled myself for the next hit. Or at least I thought I did. The second strike somehow amplified the first. There was no numbness this time. Just another horse.
A knee strike is one of the most devastating blows you can deal in close quarter combat. If you can get a grip on your opponent’s head and bring it down into your knee, the cumulative effect of the downward pull and the upward torque that stems from your opposite foot all the way up through your core pretty much guarantees that when your knee hits home, it’s going to splatter the bad guy’s nose like a cauliflower, knock his teeth down his throat, and maybe send him off into never never land with an orbital fracture or two for good luck.
The guys weren’t delivering full-force knee strikes, but dammit, it sure felt like it. Each impact left me reeling, trying to figure out where all the mesmerizing constellations on the gear room wall had suddenly come from. A minute later, it was all over. This time I didn’t volunteer to move by myself; I couldn’t. Sgt Pratt grabbed my shoulders and guided me back around the lockers while I wondered if the long wooden stilts attached to my waist were still legs. The electrical bursts of pain that were lighting up my brain like New York on New Years’ Eve confirmed that, hell yes, those legs still belonged to me.
I stood (make that swayed) in a fog as the other corporals went around those lockers and then came shuffling back. When Carter finally came back around to join us, he looked like he’d seen a ghost and maybe was contemplating going off to join it. Wherever it was, there was no way it was hurting like we were.
The sergeants came back and stood facing us, serious, but with a touch of respect. We’d done well.
Sgt Smith looked at each of us as he spoke, “Congratulations. You just earned your blood stripes. You’re NCO’s now … don’t fuck it up.”
And with that, they turned and filed out, leaving us like half-slaughtered lambs granted a reprieve on life. I managed to maneuver my way into the head where I semi-collapsed against the sink. I wasn’t so sure about that whole driving thing anymore.
“You okay, Stratton?” Branson shuffled by behind me. I looked up at him in the mirror.
He nodded; he didn’t talk much. The door whispered shut behind him as he left me wedged against the sink. Gradually, I got my legs under me. The radiating pain spasmed, then receded, but I wasn’t kidding myself. I knew I’d be walking like an old man for the next week or two. Leaning into the mirror, I studied the chevrons on my collar: two stripes up, crossed rifles underneath.
You’ve earned your blood stripes … don’t fuck it up.
*author’s note: This story is correct to the best of my memory. Names have been changed for privacy. The military does not endorse hazing of any kind. In writing this, I am not interested in starting a debate either for/against it. My goal is to share the seriousness that the Marines hold for our ethos and the core that forms the backbone of Marine Corps leadership—the NCO’s.