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ay back when, I was a young PFC just out of boot camp enjoying my first tour of duty at MCAS Cherry Point, NC. The year was 1965, and in those days (and perhaps today) the notion of getting away from the base on weekends was in every Marine's heart. In those days, it was called, "Swooping." Marines who didn't have a car on base (only NCO's and above were permitted the privilege of having a car on base) would stand at a selected spot called "Swoop Circle" and await a ride to various states along the East coast ... North and South.
This one particular weekend in the Spring of 1966, I was picked up for a swoop to Pennsylvania in a 1958 Ford blue and white station wagon. The driver was a corporal from Hamburg, who lived about 25 miles from my home. The drive from Cherry Point to Reading, PA in those days ran about 7 1/2 hours, with two refueling stops along Routes 301 and the new I-95. Today, it takes a bit longer because of the 65 MPH speed limits which are now strictly enforced. Those of us who were lucky enough to be able to swoop home periodically almost always had a great time with family and friends. This weekend was no exception.
On our way back to North Carolina in the wee hours of Monday morning (we always timed our return trip to arrive by reveille on Monday morning), we had a breakdown on I-95, 12 miles North of Weldon, NC. The transmission of our old Ford just couldn't take it anymore. The poor car had over 150,000 miles logged on it, and many great swoops. But now it was ready to retire. And did!
The three of us started hoofing it South on I-95, trying along the way to get picked up by some benevolent soul who would help out three Marines in need of a ride ... one of us in uniform ... and all of us carrying our sea bags. Our first and only ride came from a middle-aged gentleman in a bright red Ford convertible who drove us all the way down to the Trailways bus depot in Rocky Mount, NC. We arrived there around 0530, and each of us could almost hear the bugle being sounded for morning reveille. Checking into the ticket counter at the bus terminal, we learned that the next bus rolling into Cherry Point would not depart until 1130. With all the stops in every small town in the grand state of North Carolina, we would arrive at MCAS Cherry Point at 1800. UNSAT!!!
Having no other choice, we took the tickets, then called the Duty NCO of our barracks and explained the situation. He patched us into the squadron First Sergeant, the one man we did NOT want to speak with at that moment, who told us in a calming but firm voice that we should get back to the air station as quickly as possible, report to him when we arrived, and then hung up the phone. "No sweat," we thought. The 1stSgt didn't sound angry at all.
Our bus pulled into the terminal at Cherry Point around 1805, and we scurried over to our barracks, dumped our sea bags, shaved, showered, then changed uniforms, and headed for the 1stSgt's office. We had heard along the way that the 1stSgt was not happy with us and that we should be prepared for the worst. BUSTED!
The best piece of advice that I ever got in my entire Marine Corps Career was from a tall, lanky corporal from Tennessee, who counseled me before I walked into the 1stSgt's office. "PFC Greene," he said, "the 1stSgt is going to recommend you guys for "Office Hours" for being UA. What that means is, you are going to go before the Commanding Officer, and you will surely get busted. And, it will mean a black mark in your record jacket that will remain with you for the rest of your career in the Marine Corps."
He continued, "My advice to you is that, if he offers you a choice between CO's Office Hours or the 1stSgt's punishment, take the latter of the two. By doing so, you will still be punished, and punished hard, but there will be no record of your mistake entered into your SRB."
The 1stSgt glared at the three of us, and told us in no uncertain terms that we were going to be hung out to dry to serve as an example to others who might want to make the same mistake. He explained that there was no excuse for being UA, and then asked each of us what we had to say for ourselves. One by one, we all responded, "No excuse, Sir." In those days, you were not offending a senior enlisted Marine by addressing him as "Sir." It was merely a way of showing tremendous respect (and a little ass-kissing ... something we thought might work in our favor at the time) to the man who would decide our fates.
I took the corporal's advice, and for the next three weeks, I worked from 0600 to 2100 every day (including Saturdays and Sundays) building a fence around several buildings in the squadron area. Hard labor, for certain, and I have never forgotten the pain. But despite the error of my ways (being UA for 12 of the most ungodly hours of my life), I survived the ordeal and was promoted to Lance Corporal three months later. There was no black mark in my record, just as the good corporal from Tennessee assured me. It was some of the best advice I had ever gotten from a sterling example of a leader in the Marine Corps.
As I look back to those tough days in the Corps, I sure hope and pray the Marines of today have got the guts to stand behind those old customs and traditions of taking care of each another ... just like 1stSgt Powers did for me.