Jaws Fanfiction: Captain Quint Shark Hunter - 8. Chapter 8 Boot Camp
Chapter Eight: Boot Camp
The camp at Saratoga Springs occupied several acres of land on the outskirts of the town. Surrounded by barbed wire fence and patrolled by MPs with dogs, it was more like a prison than a naval base. It wasn’t even on the ocean. The recruits were housed in mizzen huts, sleeping in bunk beds, forty to a room. They ate at long trestle tables in the canteen, the same food every week: meatloaf on Mondays, stew on Tuesdays, fried chicken on Wednesdays. They spent hours drilling on the parade ground whatever the weather, being humiliated by the staff sergeant, who had the sadism of a true bully. The town was located between the Catskill and the Adirondack mountains, and the bitter wind whipped at their uniforms as they marched, wheeled left and right, halted, and stood for inspection.
From the moment he had reported to the base commander along with another two hundred fresh-faced recruits, Abel felt his identity being slowly stripped away from him. Like everyone else, he was given a buzz cut by the barber. He was sorry to have to lose his moustache and sideburns, which he had been cultivating for the last six months, partly to enrage his father, partly because a girl called Mary Lee had said they gave him a piratical look. He was issued with a uniform and given a number. The days were measured out by regimented routine, starting with reveille at six a.m. and finishing with bunk inspection at eight p.m. In between, every minute of every hour was accounted for: forced marches around the camp perimeter before breakfast, weapons practice, assault course, parades and inspections, instruction on morse code, navigation and basic seamanship.
There were punishments for the smallest infringement of the rules, or the slightest evidence of sloppiness – a scuffed boot, a misaligned crease, a spot of grease. The punishments were harsh and always malicious: blasted with icy water from a fire hose, made to do fifty push-ups in the rain in nothing but your shorts, beaten with bars of soap rolled up in towels, deprived of sleep, shouted at, abused, shamed, and humiliated.
Abel recognised early on that the regime was designed to weed out the weak, and slowly but surely they fell away. Some were transfered to clerical posts, others were sectioned for medical reasons, some simply took off, their strength sapped and their will broken by the machine designed to create fighting men. For those who remained, though, for those who could stay the course, there was a growing sense of shared purpose, and an immutable bond was formed between them.
Abel rose to every challenge. He wore his uniform with pride and carried his weapon – a Garland rifle – with honour. He polished its wooden stock lovingly, oiled the breach, broke it down and reassembled it every evening. He was top of his class in every subject. At first the drill sergeant singled him out and tried to force him into a fault. But Abel could not be bested. Whatever question was barked at him – on parade ground etiquette, radio call signs, or enemy ship identification – he always roared right back with the answer. Whatever task was given to him – tie a sheepshank, disarm the enemy, resuscitate a victim – he performed it swiftly and efficiently.
The sergeant tried to get a rise out of him with mockery and insult. There were times when the sergeant waggled his tongue and said things about Abel’s mother that almost made the young man snap. His jaw tightened, the veins on his forehead popped, and his fists clenched at his sides. But he always managed to master his anger, and his eyes took on a cold sneer, which even the drill sergeant could not stare down.
The weeks became months. All the while news of the distant war came from the radio broadcasts. The Japanese had turned their attention to the Philippines. Every Saturday evening the mess hall was converted into a temporary movie theater and before the feature, newsreels were shown: the stoic faces of General MacArthur and Admiral Hart, the lines of retreating American infantrymen, the advance of Japanese tanks cutting a swathe through the jungle landscape. The recruits in the audience cheered and yelled at the news that their countrymen still held the Orion-Bagac line, but as the weeks passed, the sounds turned to whistles and catcalls and finally – at the footage showing the fall of Bataan – silence.
The lights came up and the camp commander flanked by two aides marched down the aisle and took up position front and centre. As one, the recruits rose to their feet and snapped to attention.
The commander felt a slight constriction in his throat as he surveyed the rows of young men before him. How many of them would come back, he wondered? Maybe fifty percent, maybe less. He had seen what war did to a man back in the 1917-18 conflict. He had been a young man himself then, just turned thirty with a pretty wife. Alice, gone now, taken by cancer in thirty four.
An aide leaned close and whispered.
‘The men are ready, sir.’
The commander cleared his throat.
‘At ease, men. At ease.’
The recruits let their shoulders relax.
From where Abel stood in the front row, he could see the lines on the commander’s face and the soft wattle of skin that trembled under his jaw as he spoke.
‘Men, I’d like to read something to you. It’s a piece of philosophy, I guess, and when I was a young man going into battle, it gave me a sense of purpose. Maybe it’ll help you one day.’ The commander took from his pocket a small leather bound book and opened it at a marked page. As he fumbled in his tunic pocket for a pair of half-moon reading glasses, there was a embarrassed shuffling of feet. Without looking down once at the page before him, the commander began to recite in a measured emotional voice.
‘When faced with death there is only one choice. Be determined and advance. To say that dying without reaching one’s aim in life is to die a dog’s death is to misunderstand the purpose of life. When pressed with the choice of life or death, it is not necessary to gain one’s aim. We all want to live. But not having attained our aim, and continuing to live is cowardice. Set your heart right every morning and evening, and you will be able to live as though the body were already dead, and so gain freedom. Your whole life will be without blame, and you will succeed in your calling.’
The commander closed the book.
‘Those, gentlemen, are the words of a seventeenth century samurai warrior. A Japanese warrior. Make no mistake, the Japanese are a warrior nation, and if you underestimate them, you do so at your peril. Next week, you’re going to be shipping out. You’re going to see combat and you’re going to meet the enemy face to face Some of you will not return. Your country asks the greatest sacrifice of you, and if that moment comes, as to some of you it surely will, remember those words: Be determined and advance.’
There was an uncomfortable silence until an aide lent forward and whispered something into the commander’s ear.
‘That is all, men.’ The commander raised his hand in a trembling salute. ‘God bless you all, and God bless America.’
The assembled company came sharply to attention and returned the salute. Only when the commander had left the room did the men break the silence.
‘Jesus H. Christ,’ Abel’s neighbour said. ‘What the hell kind of speech was that?’
‘The old man’s lost it,’ said another.
‘You said it,’ said a third. ‘Section Eight.’
‘You think the guy actually admires the Japs?’ asked a fourth.
Eventually, the lights came down and the movie projector at the back of the room whirred into life. When the name of Betty Grable appeared on the sagging screen there were wolf whistles and applause. Images of showgirls in feathers and seamed stockings and men in tails and top hats flickered in the darkness, but Abel paid them no attention. In his mind, he was repeating the words of the samurai warrior – Be determined and advance – commiting the speech to memory and enfolding it into his heart.