Yellow Wood is an image from a Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken.”
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth
The Yellow Wood series is about choices and consequences. There are many paths in this Wood, some safe, some unknown, and the poem glorifies choosing mystery above security. Sometimes I chose to go one way, sometimes another, tripping, stumbling, getting into this jam, or that situation, and then getting out of trouble, mostly.
Now I have to change this theme to accomodate, as we say in the theatre, an "obligatory scene," something you need to witness in order to understand the climax.
I didn’t know I was being hunted.
Back in the shadows, following my every twist and turn, a beast was silently padding along, waiting for just the right moment. Did I sense the beast? I don’t think so. It was a long time ago, but I’m pretty sure I never saw it coming. How could I know it had flanked me and found undergrowth up ahead in which to crouch and wait?
Parris Island, South Carolina. Marine Corps Recruit Depot. Boot camp.
I’m not going to tell the story of boot camp. Go rent a movie if you want the Technicolor version. My thirteen-week sojourn in Gung Ho Hell was no different from that of a million other Marines. Except for one event. The ambush by the beast.
Somebody was shaking me awake.
It was the “Firewatch,” another recruit who had the duty of constantly patrolling the squad bay to make sure no one was jerking off or trying to escape. We didn’t have the energy for the first or the balls for the second.
“Senior Drill Instructor wants you in his office right now. Boots and utes (utility uniform with a T-shirt). One minute. Get your ass in gear and move.”
“What time is it?”
“Almost zero one (one o’clock a.m.)”
In a panic I fumbled with my boots and trousers. “Oh God, what have I done?” In the semi-dark I could see other recruits silently watching. I raced up the squad bay. As I passed Marion’s rack, he whispered, “What the fuck?”
“I don’t know, man, but it must be bad.”
I pounded on the jamb of the Drill Instructor’s door.
I entered the inner sanctum and snapped to attention.
Staff Sergeant Vernon E. Barker, my senior Drill Instructor was fully dressed in Alpha Uniform and squared away so much he almost sparkled. At this time of night, that was not a good sign. Then I noticed that the other two Drill Instructors, Sergeant Ross and Corporal Costello (who hated my guts) were also in full uniform. This was going to be bad, really, really, bad. What the fuck could I have done to warrant this reception?”
Barker took a deep breath.
“Private Jenkins . . . “
Not Shitbag or Fuckface. Oh sweet Jesus.
“I have the regrettable duty to inform you . . . that your mother has shot herself.”
Frozen. Paralyzed. Out of time. Mother. Shot. Herself. Mother. Herself. Shot. Mother.
“We don’t know much except that she is still alive in a hospital in Tallahassee.”
Herself. Mother. Shot.
“Sit down, Jenkins.” This from Costello (who hated my guts).
Ross brought over a folding chair and a glass of water. “Drink it.”
Barker took over.
“I’m going to take you over to the chapel. The Chaplain is waiting for you. You’re going to stay there until reveille, then you’re going to report back here and pack your gear, all of it. Do you want someone to help you?”
“Sir, yes sir, Private Baldwin.”
“We’re going to put you on the first available bus and send you to Tallahassee. You’re going to get a week’s leave plus travel time. Sergeant Ross, give him travel funds.”
Ross handed me a wad of currency.
“I know you’re not going to like this next part, but there’s nothing we can do about it. You won’t be coming back to the Three Three Eight. We’re going to set you back two weeks in another platoon.”
“Sorry, Jenkins, bad break.” This from Costello (who hated my guts).
“Sir. Isn’t there something you can do to keep me in the platoon? We have mess duty next week. Couldn’t I miss mess duty and do it later?”
“Mess duty is not the problem. I don’t give a fuck about mess duty. But you would be missing the first three or four days of rifle range. That’s not negotiable.”
“But, Sir, I’m already a crack shot, I know I can catch up.”
“My great grandpa, Papa Keel, taught me to shoot when I was a little boy. My Uncle Albert taught me to hunt the backwoods. In high school I was a member of the Junior National Rifle Association and got my expert badge. Please don’t send me back, Sir, I want to graduate with my buddies, I mean, the platoon. I know I can do it”
Barker looked at the other two Drill Instructors.
“What do you think?”
Ross opined, “Well, he was in the NRA. The CO might buy that.”
Barker said, “He would need extra instruction. Someone would have to volunteer”
“I’ll do it.” This from Costello (who hated my guts).
“Sergeant Ross, Corporal Costello, you have a lot of ground to cover. Make it happen.”
Ross and Costello came over and, in turn, put out their hands, which I shook.
Ross and Costello left. Barker came over and actually put his hand on my shoulder.
“Son (son?), we’ll do what we can to take care of you here. Now, you go home and do what you need to do. You got that?"
"Come on, I’ll walk you over to the chapel.”
I don’t remember much about the rest of the night, the Chaplain, what bullshit he said, the travel arrangements. Gus helped me pack, helped me get uniforms ready, and stow my gear. (When you go to the rifle range, you change barracks and have to take everything with you.) The other recruits, whenever possible, sent me sympathetic looks, or a smile, or found an opportunity to brush against me, or touch my shoulder. The Drill Instructors pretended not to notice.
Nor do I remember much about the long bus ride south to Tallahassee. I don’t remember getting there, or who I saw, or what I did. Fragmented images, memory flashes of my stepfather crying and trying to cope, friends offering support and food. Where were my sisters? I just can’t remember.
But I do remember my mother. She had been moved from Intensive Care. They had already determined that she was never, ever going to wake up again. The bullet had shattered into several pieces and had tunneled deep into her brain. She was already gone, except for the heart pumping and the breathing. I held her hand, so skinny and cold, and talked to her.
You know what you think to yourself in a moment like this? You think, maybe just maybe, way down there she can hear you. It’s dark and she’s scared. Your touch is a rescue line and she’s holding on to it. Your voice is a little flickering candle light that she crawls into, away from the blackness. You say all the things that can be said that might bring her comfort if she can just hear you a little bit, and, yes you use every platitude you know about heaven and Jesus and a better life because you are desperate for something to say and if platitudes are all you got, then that’s what you use.
Hours passed, then days. Her body wouldn’t die. And I hope most of you will forgive me when I say, I wanted it to. Die. Even after all the abuse she had inflicted on herself for many years, her lungs kept pumping and her heart kept beating. There really wasn’t much of her to keep alive, was there? She couldn’t have weighed more than 90 pounds.
There’s one final memory I want to tell you about because it always gets to me. The first couple of weeks in boot camp, before the shooting, my high school sweetheart, Judy Vance, had sent me a “Dear John” letter. What a cliché! I didn’t mention it earlier, because the event was so trite and predictable, that it’s not in any way remarkable. Judy and Bob. Kaput. Fini. Over and Out. Stick a fork in it. But, at the hospital, some church had provided a guestbook for friends to record their goodbye visits to my mother. There, on the first page, among the earliest to arrive and give their condolences, were Judy Vance, and her mother, Pat, my arch-nemesis. I can’t express to you how much that small kindness meant to me, and still does.
The day came when I had to catch the bus back to Parris Island. Mother still alive.
Back at boot camp, it all worked out. Costello (who maybe didn’t really hate my guts) helped me catch up with the “snapping in” phase of rifle training. On the range I delivered on my promise and fired Expert, second in the platoon, in fact. Top marksman was a skinny little coot from Kentucky with no teeth. That boy was dumb as dirt, but, oh Bubba, could he shoot! Rifle range was good for me. Simple. Focused. Just do it. Don't think about anything else.
But we’re not quite done, are we? The day after rifle qualification, I got the news that my mother had finally died. Her body was being transported to New Bern so that she could be put to rest next to her father, Frank, who had, ironically, also killed himself.
There was simply no way I could take another leave and still graduate with my platoon, and it was impossible to arrange transportation for me to attend the funeral on a weekend pass.
Or was it impossible?
My stepfather, Lu, who never quite got around to adopting me, the ex-Marine fighter pilot, called in a favor from an old comrade. I may be the only recruit in the history of Parris Island to be escorted to a funeral and back in the rear seat of a Marine Corps fighter bomber.
I’m not going to detail the funeral, one of the saddest you can imagine. Small town girl runs away with the dashing Marine pilot, fails at life, dies, and comes home to be buried. Not much grace in that. There’s more to say, but I think I’ll leave that to my sisters, Linda and Lezlie, who were nine and ten years old at the time, if they want to color in my hasty sketch.
Back at the Island for the final weeks of boot camp, the fun part when we were almost Marines, and went out in the weeds to learn war. We all wanted to be infantry Marines, devil dogs, leathernecks, but the Corps had other ideas for a few of us. Gus and I scored very high on certain tests, almost identical scores, and when they announced each Marine’s MOS (Military Occupation Specialty) there were two assignments to the 6742 MOS. You guessed it, me and Gus.
Costello smirked, “Jenkins and Baldwin. Fucking Air Wing pukes. Just what I expected.”
But Gus and I grinned at each other. We were going to our first duty station together! Together! I swear I saw Staff Sergeant Barker wink at me.
So we graduated, two days before my eighteenth birthday. They gave us the sacred Eagle, Globe, and Anchor insignia, and baby, there’s only one way to get one of those. The CO gave the order and the Senior Drill Instructor dismissed us with those cherished words,
“Congratulations . . . Marines.”
We were all standing around feeling twelve feet tall and patting each others’ backs when Corporal Costello walked up to me and said, “Jenkins, you know I hate your guts, don’t you.”
“Yeah, Corporal, I know you do.”
Costello grinned like a demon from hell, stuck out his hand, shook my own, laughed like a crazy man, and walked away.
So let’s wrap it up and move on. Thanks so much for sticking with me through this. The beast you could call grief and remorse and guilt and regret had ambushed me and mauled me. It didn’t kill me. Hey, beast, bite me again.
I promise the concluding episodes will be jolly good fun, and, God knows, you deserve it.
Marion Baldwin, third row from the bottom, second from the left.
Robert Jenkins, fourth row from the bottom, at the end of the row on the right.
Also, Staff Sergeant Vernon E. Barker, Sergeant Ross, and, of course, Corporal Costello