"It is not one's criminal actions that are hardest to confess, but the ridiculous and the shameful."
--Rousseau, The Confessions
I joined the Marines in the fall of 1990, several months after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and several months before the U.S. beat Hussein's forces back to their home soil. The recruiter's office lay hidden in a bland strip mall in northwest Oklahoma City, the heart of middle America, where the government is trusted more than the media but less than the local PTA. Between a Little Caesar's pizza shack and a pungent Chinese restaurant lay four small storefronts, one for each of the armed forces, where uniformed soldiers with perfect creases -- the military equivalent of car dealers' loud ties -- tried to sell everyone who walked through the door on their particular style of adventure.
There was little difference between the window displays, each housing an American flag, a service flag, and a few recruitment posters. This was where the late-night-television campaigns paid off -- the Army's enthusiastic "Be All You Can Be," the Air Force's inspirational "Aim High," the Navy's lackluster "Go Navy," and the Marine Corps' subtly threatening "Maybe You Can Be One Of Us" (or, maybe you can't). The ads relied on the same consumer logic that moves toilet tissue and car batteries. Young men -- some eager to leave home after high school, others, like me, drifters or college dropouts increasingly aware of their general insignificance -- would park their cars between the burnt yellow lines, step over the curb, and stand on the mall sidewalk trying to decide which door to enter based on which commercial was freshest in their memory. The recruiters, forbidden to make their pitches on the sidewalk, were content to watch the window from their desks, noting the facial expressions of passersby as they took in each display.
I entered the Marine Corps office first, out of obligation to a Marine friend who had talked me into considering such a drastic change of scene. I was met by a stereotype, a wide-chested, close-cropped Sergeant with a deep voice whose uniform, it seemed, had been applied with a paintbrush. When I walked in he had his foot up on a chair, tying his shoe, revealing no less than four garter straps holding up one sock. Clearly this was a man who took his work seriously. The phone rang, and the man with "Sgt. Coleman" on his nametag gave me the silent "just-a-sec" index finger as he picked up the receiver. I sat in the corner near the window display, reading the pamphlets and wondering how much interest I would have to feign before slinking over to the Air Force office next door.
At 22, I still recognized the smell of a football player, and the boy who walked in after me reeked like he had come straight from the locker room. He was at least three years younger than me and twice my size. Sgt. Coleman put on his best smile as he set down the receiver and greeted the kid halfway to the door. Knowing my absence would be less palpable with a quarterback in the room, I prepared to mouth a silent "Thank you" and slip out.
The exchange between the Marine and the football player was brief, and would become one of the defining moments of my life. Before Sgt. Coleman could begin his pitch, the kid began one of his own. "The Army guy next door said he could give me $10,000 for college and my choice of duty station, so I thought I'd come in here and see what you could offer."
Sgt. Coleman's response was brief, unrehearsed, and -- fortunately for the football player -- restrained: "Get out."
The football player arched his eyebrows, but said nothing, as if the words had been uttered in another language, and if he thought about it really hard, he could figure out what they meant.
"We don't want you. Get out."
"You don't walk into my office and ask what my beloved Marine Corps can do for you. You walk in and tell me what makes you think you are good enough to joins my Corps, and then you humbly ask for the opportunity."
The football player stood frozen.
"The only thing I can promise is we'll make a man out of you. If you're in it for the money, you're better off joining the Army."
There are moments in one's life -- throwing up in public, getting caught shoplifting -- when stares become tangible, when the gazes of strangers burn so deeply that you can't help but see yourself from an outsider's perspective and agree with the crowd that you are, indeed, an utter waste of space. For the football player, this was one of those moments, and Sgt. Coleman stared him right out the door.
I knew Sgt. Coleman had quotas to meet and couldn't afford to kick out applicants without good reason -- certainly not star material like the football player. I had never seen anyone so passionate, so utterly betrothed to a singular ideal. I wanted to have that passion in my life. I wanted garters holding up my socks. I wanted in.
It was a yellow light, a motel sign the color of discarded urinal cake. It is my earliest memory.
I slept in the back of the station wagon, sandwiched between the spare tire and the curved rear window, staring up at those letters night after night. In some memories, my little sister sleeps in a laundry basket in the front seat, the other siblings in various poses of tangled sprawl. In others, I make a pillow of jumper cables and gaze at the sign until I dream of sunflowers and pencils.
My mother worked the night shift at the reception desk, usually after an eight-hour day filing records at St. Anthony's hospital. A single mother of six, she couldn't afford babysitters, so she would park the car under the sign and watch us from her post. Her third husband had recently accompanied her at my infant brother's grave, stillborn after my father threw her down the stairs in an amphetamine rage. The next week he left Oklahoma to find work. My mother told him not to come back.
Even at that young age, I knew something was wrong. Motel guests would drift in and out all night, waking me with doors and horns and drunken howls, but eventually they would enter the building and spread themselves between crisp, white sheets, or accelerate into the night, away from the yellow sign. I see in these moments the roots of my defining traits -- an unending thirst for movement and change, an intense craving for personal space, a lifelong quest for a good night's sleep. A three-year-old could not possibly have seen all this coming, but such are the tricks of memory. What is not a trick, what made my chest heavy and my breath painful even at three, was a distinct sense of humiliation, a grasp of my lesser-ness, a sharp, permanent twinge in my stomach that told me I would never be more than this.
My mother disagrees. She claims we never slept in the car, that she always provided adequate care, that we never went hungry or felt a lash that confined us to our beds for the weekend. But she also believes prayer killed her cancer, and has blocked out entire chapters of my childhood that I recall with absolute clarity. Memory is like that -- the more often we recall something, the more permanent it becomes, memories of thinking about memories.
What I remember well, because I have remembered it often, is the day it started, shortly after my 15th birthday, when my sister told me our parents wanted to see me in my room (my mother had remarried a kinder man who was forbidden to dole out punishment). They were sitting on my bed, between them a semi-raunchy paperback I kept stashed under the mattress. But it wasn't the book that made my stepfather stare at his boots and my mom's hands tremble in her lap, it was the gun I kept hidden next to it, his gun, that had been stolen, he had thought, by a burglar months earlier.
I think of this moment in my life as, simply, "the beginning." This was the day I met myself, saw myself as someone else's "other," weighed the first impression this stranger made as he skulked into the room where his parents looked at him like an alien, took stock of his manner, his walk, his personal hygiene, his moral composure, and found him, in every respect, a bitter disappointment.
My parents had plenty of guns. My friends had guns. This was the American Midwest in 1984 -- a cowboy in the White House, a truck in every driveway, and a pistol in every belt. One could almost imagine guns having guns, tiny ankle holsters strapped to their barrels just in case the shit hit the fan.
But here was me, watching another me cave under the weight of my parents' stares, a thing in my own presence. I wish I could say a part of me, but it was all of me, something I couldn't exorcise, just a reinforcement of the less-ness that hung about me like sweat. It was not the first -- or the last -- time I stole from my parents, and the pistol was one of three I had taken from them, selling the other two to friends. Once again, my mother doesn't remember. I don't blame her. This was the moment she gave up on me, not even worth a belt to the backside. I was given a weak lecture on stealing and had to retrieve the other two pistols.
My senior year, two weeks before graduation, I was caught with a handgun in my locker. The discovery was not without precedent -- this was the city's poorest high school, and the combination of country boys and impoverished blacks made survival skills as essential as literacy. The event was handled with little fanfare by my gym teacher, the school security guard, and the principal, who expelled me as if it were part of her daily routine. My parents were upset, but not surprised, and didn't object when I left home a few months later.
I spent the next four years working odd jobs and traveling aimlessly about the country, stretching my fingertips into vast, uncramped spaces, picking up money washing dishes and hustling drunks at strip-bar pool tables. My interest in guns dissolved with other teenage fixations, like first drivers' licenses and unexpected body hair. Eventually a girlfriend I didn't deserve prompted an impulse for self-improvement, but since I lacked both education and discipline, my options were limited. After a failed semester at the local college, I decided to enlist, and the military would again place a gun in my hand.
One in a million
The phone call came on my 30th birthday, eighteen months after I had left the Marines and made a fresh start at Columbia University in New York. For six years I had risen at 5:30 a.m. -- sometimes earlier, and sometimes I had not gone to bed at all -- but the day after my service ended I slept 'til noon, and rarely got up before 10 a.m. since. So when the call came at exactly nine in the morning, the early hour made it seem like a dream. I was told that a 39-year-old woman was dying of leukemia and needed some bone marrow, and apparently I had plenty to spare.
The statistic I've heard associated with bone-marrow matches is "one in a million." Whether accurate or conveniently impressive is unimportant -- I prefer how a receptionist later described the event to me: "a minor miracle." This was the first -- and I can only assume the last -- time a miracle would require my voluntary participation. So when the caller, a caseworker at the National Marrow Donor Program, asked if I would be willing to come in for a chat, I said what anyone would say. "Sure."
I had registered with the bone marrow program in 1994, three years into my enlistment, while I was a Sergeant stationed in 29 Palms, California. A face had begun to appear around the base, a little girl's face, about five years old, with straight blonde hair and the standard-issue, five-year-old girl nose. First on bulletin boards and in display cases. Then on telephone poles and in windows. She peeked out from behind cash registers at the PX, and watched her own infinite smile reflected in the barber shop's opposing mirrors.
She was dying of leukemia and required fresh marrow -- a one in a million match -- to move on to the second grade. A simple blood test was all they were asking for, a specimen that would be checked against her own and added to the national registry. Her father was also a Sergeant at the base, and whether out of loyalty to the rank or because it was a slow afternoon, I joined the line when the doctors visited my unit. If all 10,000 Marines on the base registered (and from the line, it seemed as if they did), her odds would be cut from one in a million to one in a hundred. Who wouldn't consent to be part of that equation?
The posters soon disappeared, and I don't know what happened to the girl. But my blood, or some record of the chemical formula that made it mine and mine alone, found a home in some dark corner of a file cabinet or computer database. I must have given them my permanent contact information -- my parents' address and phone number -- and five years later, when the stars of my DNA aligned, a woman I would never meet found an answer to her prayers.
It wasn't fair. I had only recently gotten my own shit together, and was barely holding on. It was painful enough being a college sophomore at 30 -- socially awkward, with little financial aid, and running out of time to choose a future. My entire GI Bill after six years of service only covered a single semester of tuition, but I was determined to invest every dime and minute I could scrape together into funding my own potential. Besides a full course load, a tutoring job, a magazine internship, and a position on the student council, I was straining to become a writer -- an exhausting, penniless dream. I couldn't afford this new distraction, this imposition, this woman who wanted to steal my time to extend hers.
I have a vague memory of a convenience-store heist gone wrong when I was a child. The news reported that a man had entered a store to rob it, but got into a scuffle with an off-duty police officer and shot him. Other officers arrived, forcing the gunman to take hostages, initiating an all-night standoff that ended badly for the gunman -- a moment of carelessness, perhaps, a reach for a candy bar or an absent-minded yawn that stretched his neck, exposing the back of his head long enough for a sniper to find it.
But mostly I remember the adjective the media ladled on the survivors: heroes. Their ordeal was terrible, no doubt -- twelve hours of wondering if the last thing you see would be, instead of your children's faces, an expired, overpriced Hostess Twinkie -- but they were not heroes. Heroes make decisions. A hero is not a victim of his surroundings, but one who decides to intercede for victims of their surroundings, willing to risk his own safe harbor to rescue the adrift. The dead officer was a hero, but the hostages were victims. They no more deserved the title "hero" than people who buy winning lottery tickets -- they simply walked into the right store at the right time (or the wrong store at the wrong time).
I wanted to be a hero, but I felt like a victim. Was there a decision process involved? Were there people out there who see posters of little girls, who catch their infinite gazes in barber-shop mirrors and do nothing? Special people, one-in-a-million people, who decide to walk on by? I didn't understand. Did people say no?
For the next two months, I would live my life in fast forward. I would be breathing on someone else's time, her needs overshadowing my own, dominating every moment of that late fall in a period that came to feel like one great big NOW. My present would be held hostage by the terror of possible futures.
Tomorrow: Harvesting marrow, abandoning hope. Part two of the memoir Little Sins.