Each autumn about this time when the first frosts come and the sun hangs lower in the sky and sets sooner and little kids ponder costumes and masks for All Hallows Eve and grocery stores put out displays of pumpkins, I think back to when I was young and going to the war. I cannot help it.
Especially in autumns like this, when Marines have again been sent in harm's way. To Haiti this time, four years ago to the Gulf, a few years before that to die in Beirut.
It was the second autumn of the fighting and a dozen Marine officers, lieutenants like me, and about 90 master sergeants and gunnery sergeants and other staff NCOs, men of enormous dignity who made me uneasy when they saluted, had been pulled out of Camp Pendleton to be flown up to San Francisco to take a Navy plane across the Pacific. We were replacements for men dead or wounded in the bad autumn fighting on the ridgelines of Korea.
"Fresh meat," one of the gunnery sergeants remarked pleasantly.
It was my birthday, something I mentioned to someone. He wished me well. "You know," he said, "at 23 George Custer was a major general." Which rather put me in my place.
At Moffett Field outside San Francisco they found something wrong with our plane and we were given a free day and told to be back at 6 the next morning. That was luck, a day in San Francisco. On my birthday. Bob Phelps said we ought to drive down to Palo Alto where he played football the year before for Stanford. So Mack Allen and I and a few others piled in a borrowed car and drove down.
"You've never seen such a place," Phelps bragged. But he was right. Even Mack said so. And he a Virginian.
Stanford happened that week to be the top football team in the country in the wire polls and when Phelps took us to the stadium to see the practice the coach, Chuck Taylor, whose photo was in Life, came over to shake hands. He made a fuss over Phelps and welcomed the rest of us. Mathias came over, too, the big All-American end who was the decathlon champion from the Olympics and who would, like us, soon be in the Marines. Then all the others came over, seeing it was OK to break from practice, and we met most of them, including a couple of unpronounceable Armenians who ran so well in the backfield. They were all famous young athletes but we were in uniform and going to the war and I suppose they were as awed as we were.
After watching football for a while we went back to the car and drove over under some big trees to this beer garden where students went, so we could sit and have a beer. Somewhere, far off, I could hear a banjo. A college boy serenading his girl?
"There might be some girls coming by," Phelps said, "you know, after class."
Maybe he'd heard the banjo, too, least martial of musical instruments. No girls came by but that was OK.
Mack Allen had been in the big war, against the Japanese, and one or two of the others. Phelps, like me, had never been in combat. We were the babies. But Phelps was a large, smooth young man, arrogant with strength and family money. You could see that, how he carried himself, with Coach Taylor and Bob Mathias and the others.
I was just plain out scared. A few days from now, a week, tops, and...
We all knew what happened to the Marines exactly a year before when the Chinese came in and nearly destroyed the Division up at Koto-ri and the Chosin Reservoir. At Quantico, where we trained, they lectured us about it, quoting Colonel Litzenberg:
"...men came down to the sick bay suffering from what appeared to be shock. Some of them would come in crying; some where extremely nervous; and the doctors said it was simply the sudden shock of the terrific cold." Another officer told us his men came off the line "just like zombies...a sort of paralysis...that sets in in the extreme cold."
And these were Marines, most of them regulars, the best men MacArthur had that first winter.
I remember something Colonel Davis wrote back. Today was Nov. 15 and Davis wrote the year before that on Nov. 12 up there in North Korea, "it was already 16 below zero Farenheit, and with wind."
They'd tried to get us ready for that, sending us up, a thousand men at a time, to five days of cold weather training at Pickel Meadows, up near the Donner. But it was a fiasco. It was still October and two feet of heavy wet snow fell the night before we arrived and we were running field problems in that stuff at nine or ten thousand feet. The cold wasn't bad; it was the altitude that got you. And in Korea the mountains didn't go much over four or five thousand. So what did we learn at Pickel Meadows?
The pitcher of beer was empty now and the girl brought another and, as she walked away, flat-backed and hips moving gracefully under a cotton dirndl skirt, we enjoyed her look, the tan legs and honeyed hair.
Men from our class of young officers at Quantico were already dead, guys my age, friends, boys I knew and with whom I'd worked and played and trained and grown up.
They'd gone fast. You're fighting the Chinese army, it didn't take long. I could see their faces yet. And the faces of men who'd come back from North Korea to train us at Quantico and how, at Waller Hall, the officers' club, some of them drank too much and stared with empty eyes and spoke too loudly. Or not at all.
Phelps tossed some money on the tray and said, "Come on, it's time."
We drove slowly through the vast, lovely college campus in the autumn afternoon, toward the highway north, passing pretty girls and track men in sweats loping around an oval, past cyclists and parked convertibles, all the delicious accessories of America at peace.
That night we had dinner at the Top of the Mark, looking out over the Pacific at the lights of fishing boats and coasters, staring toward Asia.
In the morning they'd fixed the plane and we went to the war.