The Major’s Son

by J. B. Grant


“Son,” said the major, fetching up the rear as they marched through the snow-blanketed forest, “what’s the problem, boy? Straighten up there, let’s see it. And square that rifle away. It’s a question of pride. Always important to cultivate an air of pride.”

Despite the bulky backpack he was carrying, the major’s son straightened his spine. The major noted the change with a nod of approval.

“Simple as that. Don’t forget, pride of a person feeds into pride of ownership. And now you’re the owner of something to be truly proud of: that rifle. Start out with, it’s just matter and molecules. But you make a practice of saying to yourself, ‘This belongs to me, it’s mine to have and to hold’ – kind of burn it in. Brings it on home, if you know what I mean. Pride in your rifle, your very own piece – and from here on out I don’t plan to interfere one iota. Up to you henceforth to keep her clean and smooth-functioning. Adult responsibility in other words, and far as I’m concerned the adult variety is the only variety to bother with. But duty aside, you’ve got to admit – you are tickled to have that rifle, how ‘bout it?”

“Yes, sir,” said the major’s son. With each step he took, his canteen banged into his right hip, which was beginning to get sore. Quickly, he shifted his cartridge belt so that the canteen bounced against his buttock instead.

“Right-o,” said the major. “Gives you a certain grown-up feeling. I know how it is. Back when I was a lad myself, not a whole lot older than you are, in fact, I can remember exactly how I felt there at Quantico when they handed me my first issue…. Back where it all began…. I ever fill you in on what that was like?”

“No, sir,” said the major’s son.

“Never did, ay. Wellp, serious lapse on my part. So here’s what: we’ll put you at parade rest and takes care of business. Now’s as good a time as any…. HAWLP!…. Orderrr – HARMP!… Parayyyd – REHLP!… Yessir, it was a watershed moment. There you had me, green as grass, and they never came greener than your old man, no denying it. Fortunately, Somebody-up-there provided me with sense enough to see the light and sign up, but I believe you’ve heard that story already…. Anyhow, we hadn’t been aboard long, no more than a week, and they came across with our weapons. Not ours to keep of course; to learn about and care for. And the program at Quantico: better take care of what’s yours, or they’ll take care of you. Them’s the choices. Well, you had your usual ten percent, carrying on like poor put-upon females. Then most everyone else, going along with it – one moe chore. And finally, old green-as-green, happy as a pig in you-know-what.” The major grinned nostalgically. “But seriously, the way I took that piece in hand, I guess it was … instinctive, you’d have to say, because, in addition to learning her ways, stem to stern, I just naturally kept her in outstanding condition. My first, you understand. That’s a fact, son: my father never did give me a rifle of my own. Don’t know why he didn’t think to, but he never did. Your grandfather was a decent man, son – worked hard all his life. But he was not what you’d call a manly man. No, I’m afraid manliness was not one of his points. He was lacking in … fiber …. But you won’t go mentioning it to your mother I said that, will you now.”

“No, sir,” said the major’s son, still at parade rest.

“Temm – HYUCK!” barked the major, and the boy snapped to attention. “Porrrt – HARMP! Cut it away nice and sharp…. Forrr’d – HYULP! Wom, hoop, hreep, hore, y’lel; y’lel, ripe, lell…. Route step – HYULP!”

They followed a vague path, bare trees to either side. Although the major remained two or three paces behind, he seemed to hold invisible reins. Each time he paused in his stride, so did the boy, as if reined in – or as if there were eyes in the back of his head.

“Yes, son,” the major went on fondly, “I certainly did have a special feeling for that first-ever rifle of mine. The way you’ve been brought up, you can’t imagine what a thrill it was, youg fella fresh out of the city, just being able to pick that beauty up and hold her in my two hands. The other candidates might act like it was no big deal. Not I. For me, that rifle was my first contact with perfection. I mean it. Simplicity. Elegance. Power…. Think about it: unadulterated perfection. Makes your heart leap into your throat, I swear.”

“Yes, sir,” said the major’s son.

“The warrant officer in charge of the armory, he said to us, ‘A rifle is like a woman. And just like a woman, you’ve got to stay on top of all that she requires and all her sly little tricks, otherwise she’ll give you nothing but trouble.’ There, my friend, was a man who knew the score. Rifles and women. I’ve always contended that learning how to handle a weapon gave me an education in handling the fair sex. Reason why your mother and I still get along after all these years, it’s because both of us know who’s boss. The domestic chain of command: what I call it. And believe you me, son, it’s the only way. Gals will be gals, God bless ‘em, so it’s essential to treat ‘em accordingly.”

“Yes, sir,” said the major’s son.

“You realize, don’t you,” said the major, his tone veering from jocular to stern, “what you’re totin’ there is a veritable jewel. The Springfield: most accurate rifle ever manufactured. The sniper’s weapon of choice. I considered trying to locate an exact replica of my old Quantico babe, but there’s a gun shop in Wilmington where I know the fella, and he laid that Springfield on the counter, and I just couldn’t resist. A beautiful weapon, son, a real beauty. As a Christmas gift, what a knockout.”

“Yes, sir,” said the major’s son.

“Ha hah!” crowed the major. “Don’t need to tell me. I saw your face this morning, said to myself, ‘There’s one mighty surpriiised boy.’… Confession; time for a confession. Past couple of weeks, you thought I was down below in the basement cleaning up. Fact is, I’ve been putting a finish on that stock. Some stick of wood, ay?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Tell you the secret of how it’s done,” said the major, “then when we get back home you can turn to. So listen up. Linseed oil and elbow grease: that’s the recipe, plain and simple. You all checked out on elbow grease, lad?”

“No, sir,” said the major’s son. With a field jacket over his utility jacket, he was warm enough by now to feel the imitation dogtags cool against his chest.

“Elbow grease,” said the major, “is a highgrade lubricant distilled from the sweat of the brow.” He laughed heartily. “No, son – just pure, unadultered effort and lots of it. Get yourself a dab of linseed oil in the palm of your hand and you start to rub: back and forth, around and around. Work it in – rub, rub, rub – and gradually you build up the gloss, build it up and bake it in. Keep at it, really bear down, before you know it you’ve got a shine guaranteed to take your breath away. Gotta have patience, though. Patience and perseverance. Want something for nothing, rely instead on some commercial polishing agent, you never will have a good stock, and that’s a fact. Only way to get dividends is invest your capital.”

“Yes, sir,” said the major’s son.

“You can’t imagine how envious I am,” said the major. “As you know, irony of field grade, nowadays I’m reduced to that silly pistol. The vintage M-1 I’ve got on display down at the battalion office, I had to pay cash out of my own pocket. But money well spent is its own excuse. Especially now, with the M-14 being phased in, looking like a mail-order piece – though if C.M.C. says it’s a superior rifle, then it must be a fine weapon, and kindly remember that I said so. What I mean, I just don’t see where she’s quite as superior as the Springfield or the Garand. And everybody knows it. Take your average young trooper, just been issued his M-14. He’ll stop by my office, have a look at that display case in the passageway, and it’s one open mouth and two big eyes. And if I happen to be in the vicinity, often as not he’ll say to me, ‘Major, sir, is that your rifle, sir?’ And ten minutes later off he’ll go, much better informed. History, son. Because a rifle like the M-1, in addition to being such and such in the way of reliability and firepower and so forth, there’s a line of ancestors you can trace back over the centuries. Along the way, just like people, you’ve got trash and you’ve got quality. But even if she’s quality to start with, she’s still dependent on a proud and happy owner to keep her up to par – which is you, lad, if you’re any son of mine. Oh, I know what some say, your mother for one, how pride goeth before thus-and-so. But between you and me that’s just a lot of pious hogwash, and I’m sure nobody of our Lord’s caliber ever said anything of the sort. And if He did, what He meant was we shouldn’t overdo it as far as bragging about our good fortune. But there’s nothing at all wrong with a little pride. You read me, boy?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Straighten up,” said the major. “That pack doesn’t weigh a thing.”

“No, sir,” said the major’s son. The pack, a regulation field marching pack, contained poncho, clean T-shirt, clean drawers, a pair of wool socks, three cans of C-rations, mess kit, and various health and comfort articles. Strapped around three sides of the haversack was a neat, tight blanket roll – the brownish blanket rolled up inside a shelter half, winter camouflage pattern, with a core of tent pegs, guy rope, and sectional tent pole. An entrenching tool was buckled to the haversack flap, handle down.

“Think kind thoughts about that pack,” said the major. “It’s the best friend you’ve got. Calamity strikes, and your life may depend upon it. You never know. That blanket roll, for instance. I have eyes in my head; I could see that you were singularly uneager when I told you to fix that blanket roll. Nevertheless, it was gratifying to see you swallow any objection and fall to with a will. Don’t think I haven’t noticed, son, the way you respond willingly, even cheerfully, to orders. What I call a good sign. Bodes well. After all, only about three more years and you’ll be off to Annapolis. Three years plus a few months, off and gone…. How time does fly. I swear, life’s a hundred-yard dash, half over before we know it. So easy, so unbelievably easy, to just piddle it away like your typical John Civilian. Tell you, son, we’re a couple of lucky guys. It’s a fickle world we live in, and here we are in the driver’s seat.”

“Yes, sir,” said the major’s son.

“By golly,” said the major, “I hadn’t been at Quantico twenty-four hours and I knew. I knew I was where I belonged. Home free. No more wondering what next. No more pin the tail on the donkey. There she was, laid out like Jacob’s ladder, all the way up to four shining stars.”

The major paused to fire his twenty-two carbine at a jackrabbit, which sprinted away unhurt. “Goddamn thing cut left at the last second.”

“Yes, sir,” said the major’s son.

“Yes sir, what? You mean you’re already looking forward to … taking up the swagger stick, shall we say?”

“Yes, sir,” said the major’s son.

“Atta boy,” said the major. “You’re a credit to the old man. I get around. I come in contact with the current crop of offspring – Colonel McAuliffe’s boys among others. I’ve spent time with them, had words with them. Nothing to write home about, that’s for certain. But of course I say this in strictest confidence, son, and you wouldn’t be so rash as to repeat it.”

“No, sir.”

“Well, you try and make allowances, but frankly, each time I cross paths with a young McAuliffe I can’t help feeling a twinge of disgust. Now, don’t get me wrong; we’re talking about a fine officer. But it’s clear that Colonel McAuliffe never cracked the manual on child-rearing. Left everything to his wife, discipline included. Fatal mistake. Worst thing you can do: allow a lad to be governed by the weaker sex. In all humility I do believe I could show Colonel McAuliffe a thing or two when it comes to the business of raising a son.”

“Yes, sir,” said the major’s son.

“Beyond me,” said the major. “It’s absolutely beyond me. There’s McAuliffe with three boy, and myself with just the one. What was the good Lord thinking? Not that I have any complaints about you, son. You’re a fine product, everything a father could expect. But by all rights I at least deserved one or two more. You’d have liked a couple brothers, I’m sure.”

“Yes, sir,” said the major’s son.

“I know you would,” said the major, “and don’t think I haven’t done my best in that regard. But the powers-that-be, and your mother … Well, let’s be honest: your mother has yet to fully grasp the concept of wifely duty. She’s got the idea that she can fill the bill whenever she feels so inclined. Now, I realize, a woman enjoys calling the shots, and I’m the first to go along with a degree of independence. However, there are definite times when a wife should bend to her husband’s will and obey him without question…. So, for the record, son: it was my intention to provide you a brother or two, but your mother didn’t wish to cooperate. And now it’s just too late.”

“Yes, sir,” said the major’s son.

“But don’t misunderstand me,” the major hastened to say. “I love your mother. In many ways our marriage has turned out entirely satisfactory. But as with anything else, you can’t ignore the negative element. Get involved with a woman, she’ll foul things up when you least expect, and let you down when you need it most. Regrettable, but that’s how it is.

“Yes, sir.”

The major sighed. “In a way, same goes for the Corps, unless you happen to be well connected or mighty lucky. Why? Because the law of nature is ‘dog eat dog,’ and recently the Corps has become infested with the sort of mongrel dog who wants all the bones for himself. Can’t escape it, can’t avoid it; that scavenger mutt, sniffing all around you, hoping to find a hole in your performance in order to make himself look better by comparison. Though in the long run he’s destined to meet his comeuppance. The good Lord will see to that.”

“Yes, sir,” said the major’s son.

“Bearing in mind,” said the major, “we’re not talking about enemies. Nosir, only one enemy, only one, and that’s the forces of evil. Well-disciplined outfit like the Marine Corps, you may run into a pocket of ill will here and there, but it’s purely incidental and certainly not typical…. All the same, son, it does seem that the incidental ill will coming my way over the years has been more than a gentleman’s fair share.”

“Yes, sir,” said the major’s son.

“Not that I consider myself a victim of circumstance,” the major stipulated. “I much prefer to look at it from another standpoint. You see, son, it’s like this. In more ways than one your father’s like a hardware item left over from a bygone era. Made to last a lifetime, top-notch condition, but kind of old-fashioned. I know, human nature stays more or less the same, generation to generation, yet all signs point to the fact that this country of ours was a mighty different place, some years back. Lots more space for a man to be himself, to assert himself. Far cry from nowadays, people afraid to speak their mind, stick up for the courage of their convictions. However … well, no sense going into it at great length, but it still comes as a shock how, in this day and age, honesty just doesn’t pay off, courage neither for that matter.”

“No, sir,” said the major’s son.

“Have to say, though,” the major conceded, “in retrospect I realize there’s times I might have been a little more careful about things I’ve said. And done. Discreet is a word. All too often, discretion is the better part of valor: painful truth. Got to watch your mouth. Can’t just haul off and be yourself – not these days, anyhow.”

“No, sir,” said the major’s son. Uncomfortably warm, he reached up and made an attempt, without breaking stride, to undo the top button of his field jacket.

“Belay that,” barked the major. “Nothing looks worse than collar flaps that flap. And don’t be wiping your forehead. Keep those hands at the ready…. Anyhow, as I was saying, takes a manly man to stand up for himself these days. Because even among one’s fellow officers there’s bound to be that scuzzy polecat out for his own precious advancement, and the strategy includes spreading wild gossip about other’s beliefs. I assume you’re aware of what I’m referring to.”

“Yes, sir,” said the major’s son.

“Good,” said the major. “Then there ought to be no mystery why, after twenty-four years of loyal service, I am number eighty-six on the promotion list, whereas Major Yarbrough is number nine on the list despite having served only twelve years, if that. Because, while I have no bone to pick with Major Yarbrough – he’s never been uppity to me personally – and while I’m the last person to make an issue of the color of someone’s skin, it’s obvious that the man is riding on the coattails of liberal sentiment, which explains why he’s gotten where he has so fast – Pentagon kowtowing to pressure from the White House.”

“Yes, sir,” said the major’s son.

“And since we’re on the subject of Major Yarbrough, something else needs to be said. Yarbrough is one of the handful of his race lucky enough to make the Academy and go on to graduate. And you can imagine, being an exception to the rule gives him an advantage in the promotion boards all of proportion. One more reason, son, why you must win that appointment, because later on, if it’s ever a choice between you and a Quantico boy, no matter how gung-ho he is, no matter how loyal, it’ll always be – guess who. So you can appreciate why Annapolis is an absolute must.”

“Yes, sir,” said the major’s son.

By this time they were a fair distance into the forest. There was no longer any trace of a trail, and the snow was deeper, blown into drifts around the tree trunks. Occasionally a small animal took fright at their approach. As it dashed away, the major would point his carbine, but he refrained from pulling the trigger.

“Yes indeed,” said the major. “But we can thank the Lord that you have exactly what it takes, Academy-wise. Grades are good but not too good. Almost an Eagle Scout. You play basketball, baseball. Go to church most every Sunday, do that newspaper column thing. And also – well, son, may sound trivial, but you happen to be endowed with a fine, straight nose, and nothing does it like a straight nose in uniform. Poster material: profile of the all-American fighting man. Put it all together and … watch out, world!”

“Yes, sir,” said the major’s son.

“I can see it now,” said the major. “Graduation, commission. First lieutenant. Captain. Then, hopefully, a little action to your credit. Can’t beat a little action. Even if it’s only a brushfire incident, you know who gets sent in first – that’s what the Corps is for. And I’ll bet my bottom dollar we’ll soon be seeing something crop up in Southeast Asia, something really big where the risk factor means decorations, meritorious promotions. Yessir, if all goes well, you could make bird colonel before you’re forty. Matter of fact, call it wishful thinking, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see you go all the way to the top. Because you’ve got it, son. Bearing, attitude. You’ve got it. Someday, my friend, you may well wake up wearing a star.”

“Yes, sir,” said the major’s son.

“To be sure,” said the major, “this is all off the record. I know you’ll agree that it wouldn’t do to go broadcasting our little plan of battle. Don’t want anything else to get in the way of my chances. Because, son, to be perfectly frank, there’s an outside possibility that I may get passed over again in April. You heard me, they may deny me 0-5 for a third time. And you know what that means. Three strikes and you’re out. Sure as shootin’, they’d ask me to retire. They’d force me to retire – all because I might’ve made an unpopular comment or two along the way. Though heaven help us if this nation can’t put up with an honest man. Heaven help us….”

“Yes, sir,” said the major’s son.

“That’s the spirit,” said the major. “Nobody ever got anywhere by harboring a grudge. Here’s a fact: no matter how things pan out, I harbor no bitterness toward the Marine Corps. Another fact: I feel no bitterness toward anyone in it. I love the Corps, son. Whatever happens, she’s still my Marine Corps. Can’t say enough about her. Some like to compare her to a woman, but even the most glamorous gal on earth is … mortal, for one thing. And in the act of creation Eve did come second, and never quite grew out of needing to be watched after. Second best – you can love it to death, but it’s still second best.”

“Yes, sir,” said the major’s son.

“Well then,” said the major, “you can begin to appreciate why I put my foot down on you going to these weekend dance parties. No worse distraction in a boy’s life than a posse of adolescent females…. But seriously, son, there’ll be every opportunity for all that sort of foolishness later on – socializing, golf, fiction books. Now, however, is the time to be laying the groundwork. And you know, son, you know in your heart I’ve never done anything that didn’t turn out for your own good in the long run. One of these days you’ll look back at this unique upbringing of yours, and you’ll see it in a totally different light. And when that day arrives, you’ll step on over – midshipman, lieutenant, wherever you are on the ladder – you’ll step on over to me and say, ‘Sir, I just want to thank you for everything you’ve done, to make me what I am.”

“Yes, sir,” said the major’s son. “Thank you, sir.”

“Oh, well,” said the major, “not now. You’re only a boy still. Put it back in your pocket, let it set. What I say, son, I say one of these days. One of these days you’ll step on up and we’ll make it a real occasion.”

At that moment the major and his son neard the edge of a small clearing. Before they could leave the cover of the trees, the major reached out, took his son by the arm, and pointed. There, at the far side of the clearing, stood a deer, a yearling doe. Under the uniformly gray sky the remaining spots on her sepia coat were like flecks of sunlight. Silent as the forest all around, the young doe sniffed daintily at the air. The major’s son, transfixed, started till his lips parted of their own accord.

“What luck,” the major whispered hoarsely. “We’re downwind, so she can’t smell us. Chance of a lifetime, so get that rifle down off your shoulder. No, no – not by the manual. And don’t fool with that sling, just take two rounds out of your belt. One in your teeth, boy, your teeth. Now load the other one – quietly, quietly. Good. Easy with the bolt…. Goo-ood, well done. Now, kneel down and sight in. And don’t worry, I’ll circle over yonder and nail her in crossfire in case she’s only wounded.”

All crouched over, the major skirted left and propped himself against a dying pine. He waved to signal that he was ready. One last check of his son’s kneeling position, then he raised his carbine.

“Fire!” yelled the major. But before the word was half out of his mouth he heard the crrack-thwack! of the Springfield and its ambient echo, and almost instantly the doe jumped straight up, twisted in midair, and began leaping for the nearby brush. In response, the major jerked away his entire magazine, the shots whining off high and wide. Meanwhile the Springfield cracked once again, and by then the doe had vanished into the trees.

Red with rage, the major stumbled back to where his son knelt with the rifle still in his shoulder, barrel sloped earthward, his face wet with tears. The bittersweet reek of gunpowder oiled the air.

“I saw that!” The major screamed. “Don’t think I didn’t see every bit of that! You bungled that huge stationary target! How could you do such a thing? Look at me, boy. I said look at me, goddamnit! Best quit that slobbering and look at me and explain yourself!… No, on second thought, don’t say a word. Don’t bother. Obviously, everything I’ve taught you: in one ear and out the other. Complete waste of my time. All those hours and hours of practice, and you squeezed off those rounds like some idiot civilian! Do you have any idea what that does to me, boy? Do you realize what it means to your father? Might as well call the junkyard right now; no reason to wait till April…. Well, I suppose you intend this display on unmanliness as an apology. But all the sobbing and slobbering won’t get it, son. Being sorry is not enough. We need to take up the slack. We need to learn. And if punishment is the only way, well then, time for punishment…. Get up, boy. Up! Head high, chest out, breadbasket in, feet at a forty-five degree angle. Stand by to assume the position: rifle at arm’s length and hold it there until I tell you when. On my command…. Ass-sooom the position.”

“Yes, sir,” said the major’s son.

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