God Bless Ronald Reagan and Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill
By TIM BARTO
The United States Marine Corps celebrates its 248th birthday on Nov. 10, and this is my personal story to celebrate it.
Back in 1982, when I was at the end of my teen years but smack dab in the middle of my wandering years, I was with some fellow underage friends, sitting in a hot tub and illegally consuming a couple bottles of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill. It was then that it struck me how fortunate we all were to be teenagers sitting in a hot tub sipping cheap wine. And it was then that it hit me that I should probably do something to serve this great country that allows me to squander my time like that.
It wasn’t necessarily the booze talking. Afterall, it was strawberry wine, the alcohol content of which was somewhere between fermented orange juice and light beer. No, other factors were at work here – namely our new president.
Ronald Reagan had been in the White House for just over a year, and he talked about the greatness of the United States, and how it was the last best hope for mankind. That was certainly more appealing than the malaise preached by his predecessor, and it got my blood flowing.
So, I started talking about joining the military and talking to recruiters . . . all of them except for the Marines. I had watched those World War II movies, and those guys seemed a little too intense.
After talking with various services, I found myself sitting in an Air Force recruiting office, convinced I would be good at changing light bulbs on airplanes. Seriously, that was the pitch. “Yep, those red lights have to be changed every so often. Sounds challenging, right?”
It sounded pretty easy actually, like sitting in a hot tub with a bottle of Boone’s Farm, but there was something nagging at me as I was about to sign stacks of official looking papers with multiple carbon copies.
The recruiter showed me a copy of their physical fitness standards and, if I remember correctly, the requirements included running a mile in ten minutes. I looked at the recruiter with a raised eyebrow, and he said, “I know, you could do it in your sleep, right? We’re not like the Marines who wake up and do 50 pushups before breakfast.” He nodded across the hall towards the Marine recruiter’s office and rolled his eyes.
For some inexplicable reason, that sounded appealing to me. “You know, Sir,” I said, pushing the papers back towards him, “I’m gonna’ hold off signing these and go talk to the Marines.”
Now, to be quite honest, I was expecting a recruiter that looked like John Wayne in “The Sands of Iwo Jima,” but the man I met, Sergeant Jose Montoya, was a five foot six Filipino dude with a big smile. The man, I would find out, was tough as nails – and he had a great sales pitch. Boot camp was twelve weeks; twice as long as those Air Force guys over there. A wink reflected he knew he had me.
“What job do you want to do – infantry?” Now, my exposure to the Marine Corps was almost entirely from those old movies, so in my complete ignorance, that’s all I thought Marines did.
“Yes, Sir!” was my reply. Iran was making noise again, and President Reagan was talking like we might have to go over there and take care of business, so the idea of hitting the sand and shooting the people who took our fellow Americans hostage a few years earlier sounded like deserved justice and a more than a bit of naive fun.
So, I nagged a couple of my buddies to join with me – and it worked on my friend Andy, after I showed him photos of Marines in their dress blue uniforms with the high collars.
The problem was that Andy was still only 17, so his parents had to sign for him. His Dad had emigrated from Mexico and become a citizen just in time to serve in the Navy during World War II. But Andy’s Dad (always Mister Vasquez to me) never talked to any of his children about it. He knew what the Corps went through as they island-hopped through the south Pacific in the early 1940s, and he wasn’t too sure he wanted his son to be a part of that. But we persisted and Mr. and Mrs. Vasquez acquiesced and signed the consent form.
Then a fascinating thing happened. I asked Mr. Vasquez about his time in the Navy, and he walked off, only to return with a scrapbook full of photos and memorabilia of his time in service. One of the pictures showed a bombed out city that looked familiar to me. “Mr. Vasquez, that looks like photos I’ve seen of Hiroshima after the bomb.”
“It is,” he replied. “We pulled into port in Japan after the surrender and were in Hiroshima shortly afterwards.” It was said quietly and without any braggadocio. None of his family knew that story until then, and it was one I repeated to his friends and family that gathered at his funeral a few years ago, when I had the honor of presenting our nation’s flag to his widow and five sons.
After boot camp, Andy and I attended Infantry Training School at Camp Pendleton. One weekend when we weren’t slotted for guard duty, we got on a public bus to tool around Southern California. We were feeling pretty proud of ourselves, going on leave in civilian clothes but with high-and-tight haircuts and collared shirts that instantly tagged us as young Marines. A handful of other young grunts boarded the bus with us and, before driving off, the bus driver stood up and faced the passengers, “Alright, you Marines, I don’t want to smell any dope smoke today.”
I wanted to crawl right under the seat and hide. My prideful ignorance was shattered in an instant. Marines using drugs? In public? What was going on?
What was going on was the transition from a military that suffered through the turmoil of Vietnam, racial strife, and rather large doses of neglect and disdain, to one of order and a commitment to be the peacekeepers of that shining city on a hill. Once a week at formation, it would be announced that yet another private was being drummed out of the Corps for using drugs. There was a new sheriff in town, and Sheriff Reagan meant business.
Still, there were issues that had yet to be resolved. The Reagan buildup was just starting, and it was quickly evident to us how badly it was needed. It’s hard to fathom, but we were so low on ammunition that we were running through the hills of Camp Pendleton shouting “Bang bang, budda budda budda!” as we practiced assaulting objectives. Marine Corps Infantry Training School was that low on ammo. We were told that the Corps makes do with what they have (or they steal it from the Army), so we made do.
Andy and I got our dress blues and shortly found out that the uniform was magic. It instantly meant we didn’t have to beg for dates or pay for drinks. Women loved the uniform, and any bar or restaurant in America seemed to have a Marine veteran in it who was ready to buy a round.
Happy birthday Jarheads, Gyrenes, and Devil Dogs. Semper Fidelis – Always Faithful.
Tim Barto served in the Marine Corps and Marine Reserve from 1982 to 1990. He is currently Vice President of Alaska Family Council, a regular contributor to Must Read Alaska, and is now that former Marine that buys drinks for young Marines.