I’m a coward.
It was the final zone inspection of boot camp. Navy Recruit Training. Get hit in this inspection, and you’re set back a week. Maybe two weeks.
My mom and dad had already booked a hotel room in Orlando. They couldn’t wait to see their son pass in review.
I knew everything in my area was perfect. My rack (bunk) was made to perfection. Every garment of clothing was folded to its ridiculous, bizarre specification. I was ready.
As the company yeoman, I was one of the first three inspected. I was third in command behind the Recruit Company Commander and the Master at Arms.
It didn’t take long before the inspector barked my name. That meant I’d failed. I snapped to attention and marched into the lounge.
I was set back. I’d shamed my parents.
But something strange happened.
After the last of my 80 or so shipmates were done, Petty Officer Gutiérrez, my Company Commander (Navy’s version of drill sergeant) ordered me into his office. With him was the assistant company commander and the master chief petty officer who performed the inspection.
“Do you know why you were hit, Recruit?” one of the said.
“Gear adrift in your ditty bag.”
I stood silent, at attention.
“Why did you have gear adrift in your ditty bag, son?”
“There was no gear adrift when I stowed it yesterday, sir.”
The ditty bag was a cotton sack with a rope to cinch it shut. It’s where we kept our gym gear. We didn’t dress for gym the day of the inspection, and yesterday the company commanders had us empty and carefully restow every item in the bag: running shoes, one white Navy t-shirt, one pair of blue nylon Navy gym shorts, one pair of clean white crew socks. I hadn’t touched my bag since the day before.
“How do you explain the gear adrift, recruit?”
“I can’t explain it, sir.”
“Do you know what the gear adrift was, son?”
I lifted my left foot from the attention position and replaced it six inches to the left. I could hear my heartbeat even over Petty Officer Gutiérrez’s shouting.
“Look at this, recruit.” Gutierrez held folded sheet of paper. It had been ripped from notebook—the notebooks we all kept in our left breast pocket. The books were about three inches by five, but this sheet had been folded to about one inch square. It had some writing on it.
“You put this paper in your ditty bag, recruit.”
“No, sir,” I started to say.
“Are you disrespecting me, recruit? Push-up position, hut!”
He ordered me through about forty push-ups.
I popped to attention.
“You want to try this again, dirtbag?”
“Why did you put this paper in your ditty bag, recruit?”
“I didn’t knowingly put any gear adrift in my ditty bag, sir.”
“Are you retarded, Hennessy?”
“Because only retarded people put gear adrift in a ditty bag and not know they’re doing it.” He glared at me. I could feel his breath—from his nose—on my chin.
“This paper has unauthorized words on it, Hennessy. That’s your second hit.”
“What words, sir?”
“Are you asking me to read this filth you wrote, dirtbag?”
“You tell me, dirtbag. You wrote it. You ripped this page out of your notebook, which is your third violation.”
We weren’t authorized to rip any pages out of our notebooks.
“You folded up this paper and hid it in your ditty bag, Hennessy.”
“No, sir,” I said. My heart raced. Not scared like before, but excited.
“What the fuck did you just say to me, maggot?”
“No, sir. I didn’t rip that page from my notebook. And that’s not my handwriting. And I didn’t put it in my ditty bag.”
Now, the master chief approached me. “Hand me your notebook, son.”
I handed him my notebook. The master chief carefully paged through my book. Every sheet was there, hand-numbered 1 through 80. We numbered them on day two of boot camp. We also learned the hideous consequences of losing even one page of that precious, thirty-five cent notebook.
“I’ll rip your head off and shit down your windpipe,” was the punishment.
My company commanders and the master chief were talking. I was too excited to pay attention. I was working on my next line of argument.
“Is there anyone who might sabotage you?” the master chief asked.
I hesitated. But not for long.
“Liddy, sir. Seaman Recruit Liddy.”
Liddy hated everyone with authority: me, the MAA, the RCC. He was an angry Puerto Rican kid who didn’t even get along with the other guys from Puerto Rico. And Liddy couldn’t march right. He wagged his head like Gomer Pyle when he marched, which made our company look like crap.
“Why would Liddy want to sabotage you, son?” the master chief said.
I hesitated again. “We don’t get along,” I said.
The three men looked at each other. Then they sent me back to the lounge to wait with the other failures. My shipmates who passed the inspection were gone, probably enjoying “gedunk,” Navy slang for snacks and soda.
About ten minutes later, Petty Officer Ferguson, the other company commander, escorted Liddy into the office, which was adjacent to the lounge. We could hear the screaming, but we couldn’t make out the words.
Based on what happened after, Liddy’s notebook was missing pages 33 and 34—the pages on the sheet in my bag. I’m surmising that the handwriting in Liddy’s book matched the handwriting on the page in my ditty bag, too. I know it wasn’t even close to my crappy penmanship.
After the shouting, Liddy stomped to his locker, packed his sea bag, stripped his rack, put on his raincoat (you had to wear your raincoat whenever you were sent out as punishment), and marched out of our compartment.
I never saw him again.
Petty Officers Gutierrez and Ferguson never explained why Liddy got set back and I didn’t. Technically, I was responsible for my ditty bag. I should have been set back. But I wasn’t.
I didn’t get to watch TV that night with my shipmates. We hadn’t seen a TV since we arrived at RTC Orlando six weeks before. I did get cycled or hurricaned or whatever they called it. I had to spend an hour in winter PT gear and my raincoat doing calisthenics with seven other dirtbags. After that, nothing was mentioned.
But I’m still a coward. I had not a shred of evidence that Liddy sabotaged me. I still don’t. Orlando, Florida is damp. Liddy could have ripped that page out of his notebook, folded it up, and dropped it anywhere. (We all marched together.) It could have stuck to the sole of my gym shoe.
I accused him with absolutely no evidence. A week before, I’d made him stand down. I don’t remember what the disagreement was, but he was about to get into a fight with another recruit. I was the senior man in the compartment at the time, and it fell to me to stop it. I did. Liddy didn’t like it.
“Watch your back, fucker,” he said, grinning.
On that evidence, I blamed my zone inspection failure on some poor kid from PR who probably never even saw a house as beautiful as the one I grew up in.
I didn’t have to call my mom and dad to tell them not to come down, though. That’s really all I cared about at the time.
So now the IRS gets caught persecuting conservative groups, the State Department gets caught lying about Benghazi, and the Justice Department gets caught wiretapping just about every reporter in the Associated Press’s bullpen. Immediately, they all start blaming other people.
They’re cowards. And Barack Obama’s the biggest coward of them all. I should know.
The White House blamed State for the Benghazi talking points, Republicans for Benghazi outrage, low-level IRS workers in Cincinnati for persecuting Tea Party groups, and Eric Holder for wiretapping the AP.
It sucks having to admit in public you were wrong. It sucks harder to admit being a coward. Something tells me Obama will never know what that feels like, though. He has 300 million Americans to blame before he has deal with himself.