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All Grown Down: Okinawa


by Mike Skinner
I’m guessing that this was the last week of November, 1998. It was just after my 22nd birthday. The 28th or 29th of the month, give or take. I was allowed the greatest free pass ever. The United States government decided that it would pay me to go to the complete other side of the world and live in a ridiculously free environment…on a tropical island. Right? I mean, c’mon.
Shit, that sounds awesome. Doesn’t that sound awesome? Do you remember yourself at your 22nd birthday? A free vacation to Japan for a year, all expenses paid? Idealistically, this seems like a dream scenario for most people, right? It really should have been, but I played it all wrong. Most of us did.
We were a young and stupid lot. Just bags of rocks with strong legs and backs and we wore our pretend badges with great pride, even though everyone knew that they really meant nothing. We were tasked to corral our brothers and sisters with a stiff, yet subtle arm and to remember who buttered our side of the bread. It was then, as I’m sure it is now, a fair trade. Perhaps there is honor amongst thieves. We didn’t judge and we didn’t get involved when it wasn’t our business. We would only interact when it was physically necessary, which was hardly ever. When it did, it sometimes got gnarly. That was mostly fun. This was to become the recurring theme that defined most all of my experiences amongst MIL/LE personnel up until forever. We don’t want to kill you, we just can. So, follow the rules.
The problem is that unified rules are not a thing. I mean, there are rules that apply to standards of living, but that all depends on your culture. There are rules that apply to the public life vs. the private life, so on and so forth, but there are no real rules. If you want to be a biker and shoot at cops and eat prison food, you can. I’m getting off topic.
So anyway, I’m 22 and I’m on this island. It’s foreign and it’s not. It reminded me a lot of being in Mexico. As long as you’re polite and your money is American, you can kind of get whatever you want. The short version is that I treated my free year abroad as one long weekend in Reynosa. Sure, I had a wonderful time. I partied and laughed and made memories and did silly, quasi-adventurous things that might have been something to write home about at the time. I watched Fight Club in a theater and then bought a Tarantino leather coat and had my friend Evan punch me on purpose outside of a bar like an idiot. I went swimming in two entirely different oceans, one fully clothed at dawn and the other naked at midnight. I learned how to drive a manual transmission on the wrong side of the car. Fun, but meaningless.
I look back on the whole thing as generally pleasant, with trouble and yelling and mandatory punishment and endless toil notwithstanding. For instance, my third floor window was directly above the air conditioning unit for the entire building. The parking lot was being torn apart and restructured for reasons that I will never know. That means our whole building’s a/c was down for the better part of a calendar year. This is a tropical island and I was working nights for 6 months. The cinder block walls would sweat during the day. Oddly, this memory does not bother me. The thing that does bother me is much more suspicious and causes me to wonder about my own sanity. That thing is the rifle range.
The rifle range. Ok, so the theory goes that ‘Every Marine Is A Rifleman’. It’s a sound theory in that it requires anyone wearing a uniform be held accountable for Marksman qualification. That means a Captain and a Private have to be equally trained with a standard service weapon. It’s smart. It guarantees that the man behind me can pick up my rifle when I’m dead and do the same job with a fair amount of accuracy. That means that all Marines, from top to bottom, go through the exact same preparation and training for qualification. It works. It’s been working for literally hundreds of years. The proof is in the pudding.
It’s too long of a process to get into here because I don’t have the word count, but the whole thing takes two working weeks and I could talk about it for two hours. The gist is that one must fire from 100, 200, and 500 yard positions onto fixed targets with open sights. Gibberish, I get it. The only way to do this is to create what are known as burms. A burm is basically a raised piece of earth. This is how you create a “level” ground for horizontal shooting over large expanses of land. There are several Marine Corps installations on Okinawa, but the grunt base was always up north. Camp Schwab. This is where the only rifle range on Okinawa was.
I remember the range specifically because Okinawa, despite it’s weird beauty, is a volcanic island so it’s kind of ugly. It’s hilly and flat. It’s at sea level and mountainous at the same time. It doesn’t know what it wants. The range was fully artificial. Completely man-made. Now, some idiot decided to line every burm, 100, 200, and 500 yard line, with a strip of old school black top. Black tar and gravel. Yeah. It’s 98 degrees with 90% humidity 9 months a year there. It’s a goddamned tropical volcano nest. Imagine spending 7 hours a day in June, sitting indian style on boiling tar. It was a painful nightmare. I remember every part of this experience. I remember the bus ride at dawn. I remember the boxed lunches. I remember a girl named Eva from Minnesota getting a sunburn so bad that it caused burn marks on her arm where her sleeves met. I remember sweating out Seagrams at 7:15 a.m. on a Wednesday. It’s all right there in my mouth, rolling around over my teeth.
The problem is that, Marines are excused from their annual qualification when they’re in Okinawa. I knew that then and I’m guessing it’s still happening now. So then, what exactly did I do when I was there? Do I remember something that didn’t happen? It forces me to question everything always, which I suppose is a good thing? I can no longer trust my own memory. Anyway, that’s how I squandered my opportunity to experience an interesting and diverse culture on someone else’s dime. Ah, to be young again.

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