EXCERPT
 

It’s the summer of 1958, and Carlos “Carl” Miller has dropped out of college and moved to New Orleans in search of a job. On a spur of the moment whim, he strolls into the Marine Corps recruiting office on Canal Street.

In Skin of My Teeth, the author recreates his coming of age during his four-year enlistment, from the culture shock of boot camp to the difficult decision of whether or not to reenlist. The social turbulence of the late 1950s and early 1960s provides the setting for this compelling memoir.

About Skin of My Teeth, the author says: “This memoir falls under a relatively-new category known as “creative nonfiction,” which presents actual people and events, through dramatization techniques usually used in writing fiction. My goal in writing this book was to recount my four years as a peacetime Marine, 1958-1962. At best, recollection can be subjective, and since more than half a century had passed, at times it was necessary for me to fill in memory gaps and to approximate the sequence of events. I’ve also originated dialogue, which I couldn’t possibly have remembered verbatim. Some characters are composites of more than one actual person, and except for a few notable public figures, I’ve changed the names of most characters, out of my respect for the privacy of the actual people.”

- Carlos Ledson Miller

 
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ISBN-10: 151461037X

 

 

EXCERPT:

CHAPTER 1

ROAD TO ADVENTURE

In early July, 1958, two weeks after I’d signed my enlistment papers, I returned to the Customs House Building on Canal Street in downtown New Orleans.  I walked into the office of the Marine sergeant who’d recruited me, but instead of responding with his usual smile, he scowled.

“I’m Carl Miller,” I said, thinking he may have forgotten my name.

“I know who you are,” he snapped, then dismissed me with a curt, “Wait across the hall.  With the others.”

As I turned and left his office, the reality struck me.  By signing those enlistment papers, I’d brought radical change into my life.  Perhaps too radical.  The Marine Corps no longer was courting me.  Now I was theirs — for four years.

* * *

Late that night, twenty-two of us Marine recruits sped north on the train known as The City of New Orleans.  For years I’d seen this train rumble through my hometown.  Locally, we referred to it as simply The City.  Now I was on it, and Hammond, Louisiana lay hundreds of miles south.

We’d passed the first several hours getting acquainted, swapping life stories, and looking out the windows at the passing scene.  Then we’d moved to the club car.  There were few other passengers on the train, and by nightfall we had the car to ourselves.  

Most of our group had enlisted right out of high school.  I was nineteen and had completed a year at Southeastern Louisiana College, so the others regarded me as “older.”  My relative age also apparently was the reason the recruiter had given me the stack of file folders, and had told me I was in charge.  I wasn’t sure exactly what being “in charge” entailed, but I understood from his no-nonsense demeanor, I was responsible for seeing that all twenty-two of us arrived, on time, for boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.  He also cautioned me that the trip would take more than two days, since for some reason his superiors had routed us through Kansas City. 

All of us came from Southeast Louisiana.  The largest contingent, perhaps a half-dozen, were from Baton Rouge.  Three had played for Istrouma High School’s renowned football team, including an imposing defensive end named Bertillon.  Two years earlier, he’d been a teammate of LSU’s All American, Billy Cannon. 

New Orleans also was well represented within our group, with perhaps another half-dozen recruits.  The rest of us came from smaller towns within a hundred-mile radius, which extended from Baton Rouge, south through bayou country, all the way down to Grand Isle.

A New Orleans recruit named Reed had been a member of his high school Army ROTC program, and that night in the club car, he held forth, trying to give the impression he knew what awaited us in boot camp.  Reed also was an above-average singer, and as the lights from nameless towns flashed by, he led us in rhythm-and-blues of the era — “Pledging my Love,” “Earth Angel,” “To the Aisle,” “Silhouettes,” “Tonight-Tonight,” “The Great Pretender,” “Still of the Night” . . . 

* * *

The passenger car we’d been assigned was located near the end of the train.  It didn’t include sleeper berths, like we’d seen in the movies, so we had to try to sleep sitting up. 

Sometime after midnight, possibly near St. Louis, one of the black porters awakened me by shaking my shoulder.  The train had stopped, and he told me that my group had to change here for Kansas City.  With his help, I managed to awaken the others and herd them off the train and into another passenger car on an adjacent track.  It too was located near the end of the train.  There was general grumbling as my group boarded and discovered this car also didn’t have sleeping berths. 

Once everyone was seated, I counted heads and verified I could account for all twenty-two of us.  I asked the porter if he was coming with us, and I was disappointed when he said, no, he was going on to Chicago on The City.  I reached into my wallet, uncertain what would be an appropriate tip.  As I withdrew a five, he smiled and said, “Y’all in the military, aren’t you?”  That wasn’t quite true, yet.  However, when I nodded that we were, he politely shook his head, refusing the tip.  “I enjoyed y’all’s singing last night.  Good luck!”

* * *

The real challenges began a few hours later, when we arrived in Kansas City.  Without the friendly porter, I was on my own.  We detrained, and twenty-one sleep-deprived recruits gathered around me, wanting to know, what next?  I had no idea.  I’d hoped there’d be someone to meet us and coordinate this second train switch. 

Former-Army-ROTC-officer Reed grew impatient with my indecision, assumed command of our contingent, and took off down a concourse.  The rest of us trailed after him.  We bunched up again as we entered an enormous, marble-floor, high-ceiling station lobby.  Still no one to meet us; however, I spotted a sign that read “Information,” and I assumed command again. 

The woman agent was helpful, and after several telephone conversations, including one with the recruiting office in New Orleans, it became clear that no arrangements had been made for us to continue from Kansas City to San Diego. 

Finally, an overweight railroad official showed up, frowning and shaking his head in obvious displeasure.  According to him, another group of Marine recruits recently had caused a disturbance on one of his trains.  It was his understanding that his line had cancelled future transportation of recruits.  I pleaded our case, doing my best to reassure him that he wouldn’t have any problems with this group and that we had to be in San Diego in less than two days.  Grudgingly, he agreed to improvise arrangements for us to complete our trip.

We killed the next several hours there in the spacious lobby.  I frequently checked with the information-counter clerk, but she wasn’t being kept up to date with progress.  Most of our group tried to nap in chairs, while others wandered about, killing time.  Fighting sleep deprivation myself, I passed most of my time counting heads and keeping slumbering recruits from blocking chair aisles.

* * *

Sometime later, the disagreeable official returned, and instructed us to follow him out onto the loading platform.  When we arrived at what was to be our third train, I noticed our car appeared to be a different generation — old and boxy, while those on either side were sleek and shiny.

The official told me, against his better judgment, he’d added this car, which we were not to leave during the next day and a half.  Our meals, sandwiches, would be brought to us, and the porters had been instructed that if any one of us left to go the club car, the dining car, or any other car, all twenty-two of us would be put off the train at the next stop. 

I relayed this restriction to the others.  There was general grumbling, but we had no choice but to board.  Due to the delay in Kansas City, we already were running several hours behind schedule. 

Inside, there was a stark difference between this antique and our earlier two cars.  Sometime in the distant past, this one had been painted a depressing pastel blue, which now was overlaid with years of grime.  The leather seats were cracked and hard, and again, there were no sleeping berths.  More significantly, the temperature inside was at least ninety degrees.

When we were underway, a porter informed me that, not only was our car not air-conditioned, he hadn’t been able to open the windows.  We discovered the problem was layers of old paint.  With angry tugs, Bertillon managed to force open several windows, fortunately without breaking any glass. 

As night fell, Bertillon also solved the club-car ban.  Since we couldn’t go to the club car, he arranged for the club car to come to us.  The legal drinking age in Louisiana was eighteen, and most of us had been sneaking into out-of-the-way honkytonks since we were sixteen or seventeen.  Under Bertillon’s direction, we pooled some money and bribed the porters, who responded with paper cups, a large pan of ice, a case of Nehi Orange, and four fifths of vodka. 

And so, windows open and makeshift vodka screwdrivers in hand, we rumbled southwest.

* * *

Before dawn the next morning, the porters brought us toasted cheese sandwiches for breakfast, hardly an antidote for screwdriver hangovers.  A second collection was taken, and the porters replenished our group’s vodka, Nehi, and ice supplies.  This time I didn’t contribute to the fund or participate in the drinking.  With another day ahead of us, I anticipated the possibility of problems. 

Our group now had gone two nights with little sleep and lots of vodka.  As the heat of the morning rose, our car increasingly took on the appearance of a hobo jungle.  As directed, each of us had reported to the recruiting office with only a small travel bag, so none of us had been able to change clothes for the past two days.  Some of our group now went shirtless, empty Nehi bottles rolled around the floor, and melted ice turned into dirty puddles in the aisles.  And while we were prohibited from leaving our car, other passengers were allowed to leave theirs and to traipse through ours.  Several showed their distain at our appearance and surroundings.  The porters also grew annoyed with us.  They no longer made any attempt to clean up our car, and only responded to out-and-out bribery.

* * *

We crossed open plains, and then shuddered to a stop in a little town, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  A porter passed by my seat and said, “One of your boys just got off the train.”

I looked out the window and saw Bertillon staggering along the loading platform.  Beyond the station, I saw what appeared to be the town’s main street.  I jumped up, and as I hurried down the aisle, I asked the porter, “Where the hell are we?”

“Dodge City.”

That had an ominous ring.  “How long we gonna be here?”

“Maybe five more minutes.”

“Don’t let ‘em leave without us.”

“Can’t help you.  Train leaves, when it leaves.”

I caught up with Bertillon, just as he started to cross the street.

“C’mon back,” I said. 

His eyes were bloodshot, and he swayed from side to side.  “I ain’t goin’ back.  And I ain’t goin’ to San Diego.”

“You got to, man.  You signed a contract.”  I grabbed him by an arm and pulled him toward the train.

He yanked his arm away, staggered back a step, and looked as if he were about to throw a punch.  I put up both hands, palms out, signaling I didn’t want to fight.  “Easy, man,” I said.  “We gotta get back on that train.”

“Not me.  I’m gonna go to Lake Charles.  I got a football scholarship waitin’ for me at McNeese State.”

I knew he’d signed the same enlistment contract that I’d signed.  At best, it would be four years before he could play college football.  However, I lied, saying, “Okay, but to get out of the Marine Corps, you gotta clear it with the people in San Diego.  That’s the rules.”

That seemed to placate him.  This time he allowed me to take him by the arm and lead him back to our pastel-blue squalor.

* * *

Day turned into night; nevertheless, dry hot air still blasted through the open windows.  According to the conductor, we were within a couple hours of the coast.  Our car was a pigpen, and Bertillon and some of the other guys had stripped down to boxer shorts.  Other passengers no longer ventured through our car.  The porters now were openly hostile, but still could be bribed.  I tried to reassure myself that every click of the wheels was getting me closer to my goal:  turning these twenty-one guys over to the Marine Corps.  If this was what being “in charge” was like, I could do without it.

The door at the far end of our car opened, and two Marines in tan dress uniforms entered.  I had a fleeting hope that they’d been sent to take charge of our group.  It turned out, however, they’d only been in the Marine Corps for four months, and they were returning to Camp Pendleton after their ten-day boot-camp leave.  They’d apparently learned there were recruits on the train, and decided to have a little fun at our expense. 

One of them began voicing his contempt.  He said we were cruds and pussies, and most of us probably wouldn’t make it through boot camp.  Bertillon was standing nearby, and he’d heard all he needed to hear.  Before I could get up from my seat and hurry to the front of the car, the talkative Marine doubled over, then dropped into a dirty pool of melted ice.  Bertillon moved forward and hit him again, and the Marine’s nose and mouth gushed blood down the front of his sharply-pressed tan uniform.  The other Marine backed up against a wall. 

I pushed my way in front of Bertillon, helped the bleeding Marine to his feet, and managed to usher him and the other Marine through the door and out of our car. 

Moments later, a porter appeared.  He told me that he was going to have us put off the train at the next stop.  Bertillon stepped forward, and this time I had to get between him and the porter.  Whether it was the threat of Bertillon, or my pleading that we had less than two hours to go, the porter finally agreed that we could ride on.  However, no more booze and no more trouble, or we’d be put off the train, no matter how close we were. 

As a show of good faith, I led the guys in a halfhearted attempt to clean up the mess we’d made of our car over the past day and a half.  Those who’d stripped down to underwear got dressed, and then we all returned to our seats, where we sat quietly, wondering what awaited us in San Diego. 

* * *

The wheels of our train had barely completed their final rotation, when two young Marines in starched green fatigues strode into our car.  They wore hats with broad flat brims, and from having seen the Jack Webb movie, The D. I., I assumed these must be drill instructors.

One demanded, “Who the hell’s Miller?”

“I am,” I said, stepping forward. 

“You’re late,” he snarled.  “We’ve been waitin’ here for you assholes for five fuckin’ hours.”

I was too exhausted to attempt to explain what had transpired over the past two and a half days; I was just glad I was no longer responsible.  I opened my travel bag, withdrew the twenty-two file folders, and handed them to him.

“Keep ‘em ‘til we get to MCRD,” he said.  “You’re in a world of shit, Miller.”