Parris Island, South Caroline, the United States Marine Corp Recruit Depot, and eight-week college for the phony-tough and the crazy-brave, constructed in a swamp on an island, symmetrical but sinister like a suburban death camp.
Gunnery Sergeant Gerheim spits. “Listen up, herd. You maggots had better start looking like United States Marine Corps recruits. Do not think for one second that you are Marines. You just dropped by to pick up a set of dress blues. Am I right, ladies? Sorry ’bout that.”
A wiry little Texan in horn-rimmed glasses the guys are already calling “Cowboy” says, “Is that you, John Wayne? Is this me?” Cowboy takes off his pearl-gray Stetson and fans his sweaty face.
I laugh. Years of high school drama classes have made me a mimic. I sound exactly like John Wayne as I say: “I think I’m going to hate this movie.”
Cowboy laughs. He beats his Stetson on his thigh.
Gunnery Sergeant Gerheim laughs, too. The senior drill instructor is an obscene little ogre in immaculate khaki. He aims him index finger between my eyes and says, “You. Yeah–you. Private Joker. I like you. You can come over to my house and fuck my sister.” He grins. Then his fact goes hard. “You little scumbag. I got your name. I got your ass. You will not laugh. You will not cry. You will learn by the numbers. I will teach you.”
Leonard Pratt grins.
Sergeant Gerheim puts his fists on his hips. “If you ladies leave my island, if you survive recruit training, you will be a weapon, you will be a minister of death, praying for war. And proud. Until that day you are pukes, you are scumbags, you are the lowest form of life on Earth. You are not even human. You people are nothing but a lot of little pieces of amphibian shit.”
“Private Pyle thinks I am a real funny guy. He thinks that Parris Island is more fun than a sucking chest wound.”
The hillbilly’s face is frozen into a permanent expression of oat-fed innocence.
“You maggots are not going to have any fun here. You are not going to enjoy standing in straight lines and you are not going to enjoy massaging your own wand and you are not going to enjoy saying ‘sir’ to individuals you do not like. Well, ladies, that’s tough titty. I will speak and you will function. Ten percent of you will not survive. Ten percent of you maggots are going to go AWOL or will try to take your own lives or will break your backs on the Confidence Course or will just go plain fucking crazy. There it is. My orders are to weed out all nonhackers who do not pack the gear to serve in my beloved Corps. You will be grunts. Grunts get no slack. My recruits learn to survive without slack. Because I am hard, you will not like me. But the more you hate me, the more you will learn. Am I correct, herd?”
Some of us mumble, “Yes. Yeah. Yes, sir.”
“I can’t hear you, ladies.”
“I still can’t hear you, ladies. SOUND OFF LIKE YOU GOT A PAIR.”
“You piss me off. Hit the deck.”
We crumple down onto the hot parade deck.
“You got no motivation. Do you hear me, maggots? Listen up. I will give you motivation. You have not esprit de corps. I will give you esprit de corps. You have no traditions. I will give you traditions. And I will show you how to live up to them.”
If this scene seems familiar, it’s because you’ve seen it in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 movie, Full Metal Jacket. In the film, former Marine drill instructor R. Lee Ermey takes Sergeant Gerheim’s dialogue and embellishes it with his own improvised insults and obscenities, creating an electrifying and unforgettable scene. (You can find it excerpted here on YouTube).
Written by Gustav Hasford, upon whose experiences the novel is heavily based, The Short-Timers (1979) received enthusiastic reviews when it was first published. Newsweek called it, “The best work of fiction about the Vietnam War.” Harlan Ellison praised it as “One of the most amazing stretches of writing I’ve ever encountered.”
Based on this critical acclaim, the hardback sold several thousand copies and Bantam issued a paperback edition in 1980. It was the kind of book that was passed along and had a much wider readership than its sales figures suggested. A few years later, Hasford was contacted about selling the film rights, an inquiry that eventually traced back to director Stanley Kubrick. When Kubrick began to work on the screenplay, he hired Hasford, along with reporter Michael Herr, whose 1977 book, Dispatches, is widely considered the best non-fiction book about the Vietnam War. The three men were later nominated for the Academy Award for best screenplay adapted from an original work, and The Short-Timers was reissued with an explicit tie-in with the movie.
Although Hasford went on to write a sequel to the book, The Phantom Blooper (1990), as well as a pastiche of the Raymond Chandler-style hardboiled crime novel, A Gypsy Good Time (1992), he had more than his share of personal demons to struggle with. You can read Grover Lewis’ moving account of Hasford’s decline, “The Killing of Gus Hasford,” originally published in the L. A. Weekly in 1993 following Hasford’s death from untreated diabetes, on Alex Belth’s “Bronx Banter” website (link).