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ARTFUL TOM, A MEMOIR
by Thomas Hoving
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8. WISE COLLEGE FUCK

The train arrived in Quantico, Virginia, the day after Independence Day 1953 and the temperature was in the mid-nineties. It felt like we were submerged in warm water.

As Donsy, Wince and I got into a line for paper processing and to pick up the basic clothing, we were chuckling about some of the obvious “working-class” candidates on line with us when a pimply-faced Marine of eighteen or so with a single stripe on his sleeves looked up, caught my eye, came around from behind the supply table, walked up to me, slammed his fist into my gut and snarled, "Wise college fuck!"

I dropped in agony and in a thousandth of a second grew up. Suddenly I was no longer young, kidding-around “Artful Tommy,” but a man about to endure continuous suffering. At that flashing moment a significant part of the childhood still lingering within me disappeared.

For the first four days all we did was wait and wait for operations that never happened and the boredom was stifling. Boots, as we were called, weren’t allowed books, although I had smuggled in Arnold Hauser's thick-as-a-brick, The Social History of Art, but didn't dare open it.

The three of us were assembled into a temporary platoon of forty-eight men and assigned a Quonset hut until the paperwork was completed. The worst thing that happened was getting our heads shaved. Ah, the humiliation of it! I actually saw a few handsome buggers get teary-eyed as their golden or raven-black hair was swept away. Not being much of a matinee idol, I didn't give a shit or, at least, convinced myself I didn’t. So far, except for getting slugged, the Corps seemed pretty easy.

Donsy offended a drill instructor -- D.I. -- and he was ordered to run around the circle until he dropped from exhaustion. Wince, who like me had grown up overnight, withdrew into a kind of tough, “I-can-take-anything” shell. He sailed through boot camp -- those "Toulouse-Lautrec" legs kept up with everyone.

A Major monitoring our progress through the weeks, interrogated each boot. I was asked what I had studied at Princeton.

"Sir, Art and Archaeology, sir!"

"You chose the right service," the Major barked. "Take this entrenching tool and go dig a latrine."

I was installed in the 4th platoon, Company C of the 18th Officers' Candidate Program. My pals went to other platoons. My drill instructor was Staff Sergeant Harry Sinclair, a stocky, powerful career Marine in his late twenties, with a sweet open Irish face that could turn into a devilish snarl in seconds. He turned out to be appropriately harsh, especially when drunk, but he was, unlike most other drill instructors, straightforward. You might hate his orders but you understood them.

I dubbed him "Double Fuck" (though never to his face). He was the first man I’d heard who invariably split words with "fuck," like, "im-fucking-possible." He would sing out, "I fucking hate you wise fucking college fucks." Then he would croon, "You fucking ass-fucking-holes are whale-fucking-shit and do you fucking know why? You're on the fucking bottom of the ocean because that's where fucking whale-fucking-shit rests -- on the fucking bottom of the fucking ocean."

One morning at the 4:45 a.m. line-up before marching to breakfast, Sinclair happened to see what he thought was a smirk on my face. He planted himself in front of me -- his face coming to the middle of my chest -- threw his head back and growled, "If that's a fuckin' smile, Hoving, you fat green sack of shit, I'm gonna punch out your left eye and skull-fuck you!"

I fell to the ground in hysterical laughter and he collapsed too and soon the entire 48-man platoon was on the deck, as the ground is known in Marine Corps “normenclature,” rolling around in uncontrollable laughter. We had to run several hot, disciplinary laps around the circle to pay for our unmilitary behavior.

The first weeks of boot camp were for learning essential drill and getting used to our weapons -- the M1 Garand gas-operated 30-caliber rifle with metal clips for the bullets, the 30-30 carbine, a lightweight and thoroughly unreliable firearm for officers. "It's better to beat the fucking enemy over the head with it than shoot the fucking thing," Sinclair proclaimed. There was the 45-caliber pistol. "This fucking piece is so in-fucking-accurate that you'd better throw it at a ‘gook’ than try to shoot him down," he sagely advised. We also got acquainted with the Browning Automatic Rifle, the BAR, a twenty-pound rig with a tripod which could fire out a prodigious number of rounds from a curving clip.

The rifle was called a piece never a gun. Any piece of whale shit who said, "gun" had to sleep on a bed of a dozen spiky M1s. I avoided the pleasure and laughed at the moans of poor guys who had made the mistake and suffered a sleepless night on top of ten steel rifles.

We got so we could field strip our weapons in the dark in less than two minutes -- if you couldn't you had to run laps until you vomited (the sergeants were fond of making us puke). We spent hours on the pistol or rifle range, firing from various positions and our scores were punctiliously recorded. I was so-so with the rifle and abysmal with the .45 pistol.

Heavier weaponry like the 30-caliber, 50-caliber machine guns and mortars was to await Officers' Training -- if we made it.

An average day in the first month of serene and placid boot camp went something like:

Reveille at 4:30. Line up. Inspection -- in darkness, of course. March to the mess hall. Line up for breakfast chow.

Not infrequently an officer just being mustered out would address us there to inspire our hearts. One morning I was surprised to see an Edgartown acquaintance in dress whites and a silver sword. He told us that only 60 percent of us would become officers and half of those would become good officers and that a good officer saw to it that as few of his men as possible became casualties.

I was cowed, because this was the first time anyone had talked about the high dropout rate. I decided to pattern my combat life -- if I made it into combat, which I had begun secretly to hope for -- after this officer who lived to protect his men.

Another officer, a socialite who I'd met in Stockbridge, went into a froth-mouthed tirade about his favorite moment in the Corps. Waving his sword above his head, he told us it was when he charged up a hill loaded with “gooks” with his men racing after him, taking many casualties but bayoneting scores of “slopes.” I tagged him as a lousy officer.

At breakfast we marched into the mess hall, stood at rigid attention at our places until a D.I. would shout, "Seats." We'd slam into them and dig in. Breakfasts were huge and satisfying.

Line up again. March to the drill field before the heat moved into the upper nineties. "Platoon 'ttention. Foreward 'harch. Won, twup, threep, four, and a threep and a four and a threep and a righ', lef,' righ'. Column lef' 'harch. To the rear, 'harch. Half righ' 'harch, half lef' 'harch. To the rear 'harch, to the rear 'harch. Platoon, halt. Righ' face. Present arms. Order arms. Parade rest. 'ttention! At ease. Fall out." For two hours.

We all had to lead a squad through the paces and then the whole platoon. I loved it and became the best drill boot in the company.

Classes on map reading, or the compass and azimuth. The platoon would file into the room where dozens of canvas campstools would be stacked. You'd open them and the officer would shout, "Seats!" Two sergeants patrolled the room with shovels and if they caught any Marine with his lids growing heavy he'd slam the shovel on the concrete floor next to him.

Line up. Back to the barracks. Change into another suit of dungarees -- this time green side out, instead of desert camouflage. More drill.

Weapons inspection. Sinclair would pass down the line of each squad, stop in front of each trooper, smack the middle of the rifle with his open palm, grab it in mid air, whip it around as if it were made of balsa wood, peer down into the bore, whip it a quarter around, crank open the chamber and inspect the inner workings. God save you if there were a smidgen of lint or a fingerprint somewhere.

Line up. March to the mess hall. Chow.

More classes. Always ending with a propaganda film or, on rare occasions, a John Wayne “oldie” about Bataan or Wake Island. One film did chill us -- it was Soviet and started with a pan of a snowy wasteland. The subtitle said, "Dawn." The snow began to move and a platoon of white-uniformed Soviet troopers rose up, stretched, shaved using snow and brushed their teeth with it, all smiling happily. Harry Sinclair's comment to us was, "Fuck up and we'll send you to the cold-weather training camp at Pickle fucking Meadows in the High Sierras of California."

March back to the barracks. One hour of free time when I wrote Nancy daily while trying to read Arnold Hauser simultaneously -- some of the letters she told me later were a bit confusing.

Lights out at nine. I was dead asleep five minutes later.

The physical part of the training was harsh and unrelenting. But it was the boredom of having nothing to read other than manuals -- "For the fucking ‘normenclature’,” Sinclair told us -- that got to me.

There was constant and well-planned harassment. A Major, who we knick named "Section Eight" after the part of the military code of justice manual dealing with the certifiably insane, followed us around with his German shepherd, which we had to salute. He wore a swagger stick with a 50-caliber round as its tip. His .45 had a round in the chamber. Few things are more dangerous -- or irresponsible -- than that.

Sinclair informed us that in his last platoon two cadets had died from exhaustion and half had flunked out. The latter vanished into thin air. At reveille lights would flood the barracks and frequently we gazed in silence upon a bunk or two stripped with the mattress rolled up on the springs, the occupant gone. Some thought that the missing had been shot, which I half-believed. We survivors mocked their weakness. They couldn’t take it and were not true Marine Corps material. One of the vanished ones was acquaintance from Eaglebrook whom I -- and others -- had picked and carried through several night marches when he had fainted. We tried to straighten him out but to no avail and when he vanished I was the cheerleader in deriding him. Friendship and buddy-buddy relationships meant nothing in the Corps when it came to performance. Today I am mortified at my callous reactions to these ill-fated souls.

I met the guy years later and was astounded not only that he was alive but also what had happened to him. They clearly hadn’t shot him. He’d fallen into a soft deal. He had been made a corporal, worked at a typewriter in an air-conditioned Pentagon office, bunked in a comfy room in a Washington apartment house and was mustered out in only one year.

Once in the middle of the night four drunken drill instructors came staggering into the barracks. They ordered us into brown camouflage dungarees and into lineup, then ordered us back into the barracks to change into green dungarees, then to line up, then to run around the circle for a while, then back into the barracks where we were ordered to climb inside our steel lockers. There we were ordered to run in place. The noise was deafening, forty-eight guys inside closed steel lockers half the size of phone booths running in place and all laughing like hell. The torment stopped when the D.I’s passed out and we carried them to their bunks. Never got a thank-you for that.

Some D.I. got pissed off one steaming Saturday and all four ordered us to prepare for a long march. Brown side out. 40-pound packs, rifles, BARs, steel helmets and two canteens filled with water. We considered ourselves lucky that we didn't have to hoist full packs weighing sixty-pounds.

We marched out ten miles in dust so fine that when you blinked your eyes felt a painful friction. Harry Sinclair halted the platoon. Then he ordered us to take the canteen "issue number 4321" out of the web belt "issue number 6675." He was a nut on equipment numbers, which made us laugh. We had to do laps until vomiting when we happened to forget what the number of a web belt was.

My tongue was swollen with thirst and, despite the smooth, soothing small stone under my tongue I could all but feel the warm but desperately needed spray of water in my parched throat.

But Sinclair shouted, "Now pour the contents of the canteen, issue number 4321, on the deck.”

Dumbfounded, we did.

He then went through the same nonsensical “normenclature” drill with the right canteen. I suppressed a smile, thinking that now we could drink.

"Now pour the contents of this canteen, issue number 4321, on the deck. Now, maybe you'll remember the correct normenclature for this stuff."

With perhaps five minutes for a break we started the ten miles back. That's when the smooth stone under my tongue really saved me. On the way four men in the battalion dropped out, suffering from heat exhaustion. We heard that two died and two were brain-damaged. There was a full-fledged investigation, which came to nothing. Those of us who had made it curled our lips at those who hadn't been tough enough to be a Marine. In war, the weak die and so what, we thought stupidly in our brainwashed condition.

The march and the heat and the lack of water didn't bother me all that much. Chauncey Loomis and the others at Princeton who thought I'd collapse under the pressure, being a “97-pound weakling” were wrong. My long legs and my stringy frame -- and a propensity to cold, well-directed anger -- fully equipped me for the punishment that felled many a hefty athlete. On the long hikes I used the special breathing technique I created at Eaglebrook and was seldom out of breath. I could also sleep -- or doze -- while marching, something that Harry Double-Fuck taught us.

On the way back in on this killer march, I fell in right behind Sinclair and, seeing him slow down, I picked up the pace and on occasion would clip the back of his boots with my toe. I kept whispering, "S'wrong, sir, can't keep up? C’mon, sir, you're a Marine, or are you?" He'd turn around like an infuriated, wounded animal but said nothing. I slightly quickened the pace, hitting him on his heel every third step. He started to limp as he tried to keep pace. I never passed him -- that would have been insubordination and grounds for flunking out. In the last mile I asked Harry formally, "Sir, permission to double time the rest of the way, Sir." He looked distressed but allowed us to jog, which we could barely manage.

The shower that afternoon was like Titian's fucking shower of cool gold.

Several days later Harry called me out from the barracks and took me to the side of the railroad tracks, which ran from Maine to Florida.

"You wanna fight, Hoving?"

"Never, sir that would be insubordination, Sir."

"I'll waive that. C'mon."

"Sir, respectfully, sir, no. You'd hurt me but you'd suffer more. You'd get investigated, especially after the deaths, and you'd lose your life -- I mean the Marine Corps, which is your life."

"You wise college fuck, get outta my fucking sight."

In a short while I was looked upon by the other members of my dwindling platoon as a leader and the guy to go to for the “skinny.” When inspections were called, I was the man the rest of the troops asked to check out our barracks to see if we had forgotten something. Several times I saved us from demerits -- and potentially countless vomitings -- by spotting some gunk some D.I. had planted on an upper window. The look on the D.I’s face when he couldn’t find the detritus had us all quietly chortling, much to the anger of the perpetrator.

On the railroad tracks very late at night I, by chance, may have prevented a murder. Harry Sinclair was a sweetheart compared to another D.I. who drilled the platoon in the Quonset hut near ours. I couldn’t sleep and went out to have a smoke on the back steps of the hut. I was gazing at the mesmerizing silver line of railroad tracks when I saw emerging from the nearby Quonset hut two boots lifting a body down the stairs. They started to heft him onto the tracks. It was without doubt that mean D.I.

I sat there for a minute wondering what to do. My first thought was, “fuck it, let them kill the son of a bitch.” Then, I came to my senses and realized I might be liable to courts-martial as a passive witness if the killing ever came to trial. I finally decided I'd do what a good Marine officer should do and stood up so that the boots could see me. I stood there smoking away like my film hero Sidney Howard in Night Train. Flustered, the two -- I couldn't see who they were -- carried the passed-out D.I. back inside.

Acts of deliberate cruelty were commonplace. When we did the poison gas drill, deep in the woods, one vicious Captain took pleasure in yanking off your mask just as he ignited the full blast of tear gas into your eyes. That's the time I almost “turned in my dinner pail,” as they say in the Corps. The liquid hit me and I blacked out. I was told by the Navy corpsman that he thought my heart had stopped, which is why he gave me mouth-to-mouth and I came to. He saved my life and I thanked him, asked for his name, which he never gave me, being too busy reviving other gassed-out members of the platoon. During the gassing, just before I conked, I recall hearing the most horrifying screams. I was proud they weren't coming from me. Later, Harry Double-Fuck, laughed at me and said, “you pussy, you fucking fainted and screamed like a baby.” I'll never know if I would have died had the alert corpsman not come to help me so quickly. I was, strangely, proud of the near-death experience.

Occasionally there was pure beauty, such as when we stumbled into a cold stream in the middle of another long march and Harry let us swim. I have a photograph of my squad in some divine waterhole looking like a bunch of wet and deliriously happy Olympian Gods. I had lost whatever blubber I had left, replaced by strings of muscles.

Another moment of beauty came during what was supposed to be a harrowing attack exercise. I was tented out with my favorite buddy, John East (he would later become a Senator from North Carolina, but would commit suicide in 1986 because he had cerebral palsy). John had the longest legs and the shortest chest I'd even seen. He'd laugh and in his southern drawl and say that he was born that way to become a Marine officer -- "You know, 'high-pockets' John." ‘High-pockets’ was the term for high-ranking officers.

We had been told that we could expect a simulated mortar attack any time in the night and then we had to form into fire teams, charge up the wooded hill and take it. We were lolling back in the tent, yammering about the differences between Dewey-Republicanism, which he loathed, and Taft-Republicanism, which I loathed, when all hell broke loose and dummy projectiles began to fall around the tents.

We grabbed our weapons, donned our steel helmets and started up the hill with the other two members of the fire team into what looked like a fierce lightning storm at ground level as the dummy mortar rounds blasted off. We slithered through an acre -- so it seemed -- of real barbed wire with heavy projectile canisters falling all around us. If one of the canisters had hit us we would have been severely cut.

Halfway up this truly dangerous route -- John and I turned to each other, as if by mental telepathy, and shouted, “God, it's so fucking lovely!”

We knew that was the moment when we'd become truly brainwashed. Once the Panmunjom ceasefire talks began and we realized we weren't going to die on some lonely Korean hill, John East and I talked about sending letters to the Defense Department begging them to continue the war. "Section Eight," or the nut squad, was where we really belonged.

Another friend was a pale, worn-out and slightly hunched-over misfit -- since Hotchkiss I'd favored misfits. I cannot recall his name but he was a Medal of Honor winner. On Okinawa he'd jumped on a grenade, covering it with his helmet, and had saved three others in his foxhole, although he suffered serious wounds. Civilian life had treated him unkindly, so he asked to get into officer candidate school after graduating from some local community college. A Medal of Honor winner must be saluted, even by the President. When he came to any military base, he had the right to ask for a full-dress parade.

He wore the medal constantly, even when in dungarees, once even naked in the shower, but asked for only one parade, which we were delighted to give him. As “whale-shit,” he savored being saluted by the D.I’s. His goal was to become a lieutenant and go from state to state selling war bonds, being saluted and having parades. I think he did. His secondary goal was, "To make ‘Section Eight's’ kraut mutt salute me." I know he didn't, but “Section Eight” never failed to salute him and with a bright, sane grin on his face, too. When he graduated and made his bars, he maintained his scruffiness. I wanted to be him.

Out of the blue, at the end of the first month, my all-but-invisible examining Major ordered me into his office for a chat. As I wrote Nancy, "My God, he knew everything about me since the hell started! How many times I wrote you, when, and how many times I'd sneaked a look at Arnold Hauser -- he had decided to let me keep the book. I had been in the top five of the platoon, especially after my gutsy performance on that “death march,” but tended from time to time to get blank-eyed and dial out in a “trance.” He said, “Hoving, you can be a superior Marine, but not if you go into this, how shall I call it, ‘intellectual trance’.” He said if I stopped that, I might make number one in the platoon.

I was flabbergasted, because I wasn't sure if on any night I'd become one of the vanished ones. Thank God, he hadn't spotted me that night near the tracks though perhaps he had. It was after that interview that I began to think seriously of giving up my hopes of being an artist or a writer or an art historian and becoming a career Marine officer instead.

The second half of boot camp was loaded down with classes and bivouacs, which were four or five day jaunts with full pack, steel helmets. BARs, rifles, pistols marching around the vast Marine Corps property. Dig, dig, dig was the order of the day. We'd stop for ten minutes and fox holes had to be made -- I mean serious holes, six feet deep and three wide. A quarter of the way down there had to be a five-foot lateral hole with a distinct bend. That was where you hurriedly threw an enemy grenade. Several times in the night Sinclair would throw a dummy grenade into our holes and time us to see if we'd by dead or alive. I always managed to throw the dummy grenade into the lateral hole before detonation.

Nancy and I were thinking of getting married some weekend in September before boot camp graduation; she would fly back from Europe at any time. I asked permission to see Sinclair in his office. Granted. I entered, snapped to attention and waited while he finished reading the text in the bubble that floated above a cartoon character in some comic book.

"Hoving, you fat green sack of shit and what do you want?"

"Sir, I'd like shore leave a fortnight hence, sir."

He went back to “reading” the comic. "And why do you need shore leave for, Hoving?"

"Sir, I would like to get married, sir."

Long pause. I imagined his lips swelling from the chore of reading.

"Hoving,” he pronounced. "If the Marine Corps would have had wanted you to have had a wife, they would have had issued you one. Dismissed!"

Nancy loved the story. We had to junk the invitations and reschedule the ceremony.

Because of the night disappearances of failed boots the platoons kept being compacted and the D.I.s changed. But Harry never let me go and I was always one of the first to be selected for his new platoon. East snorted, "He wants your ass, that's why he won't let you out to get married."

I was able to get a few one-day or weekend shore leaves and stayed with Quaker Hill friends, Sandy and Cecie Lankler, in their commodious flat in Washington, D.C. They were shocked to see me so "storm-trooper-like" and told Elliott and Amelia that I'd turned hard and tough. They wrote Nancy who began to worry about what exactly she would encounter when I got my commission. If I did. I was still paranoid about being washed out.

Her letters came in bunches and sometimes I wept when reading them. I also had one missive from the FBI, which my mother had forwarded, that made me laugh, alerting me to impending prosecution to the full extent of the law for rampant draft dodging. The firing squad. I treasure it still today.

I had another meeting with my examining Major who astonished me by saying that I was sure to pass boot camp and was, in fact, number three in the entire battalion and should perhaps think of making the Corps my life's career. I was tempted to ask him who the other two fucks were and argue my merits over theirs and, failing that, to call my father and fling some choice Harry Sinclair words. I had never felt a greater sense of pride in my life. That moment was a major turning point for me, for I thought from then on that I could manage anything, any tough situation, any grueling time. When I have doubts -- which are infrequent -- I go back to that day when the officer told me I was not merely okay, but stellar. In a sense I have been a Marine, body, soul, spirit and mind since that day.

The final three-day bivouac was a terror because the temperature dropped into the low forties at night. It got so cold in our holes that once I could hear some of the troopers actually crying. I didn't give a damn, for I was smart enough to wrap a light down jacket around my waist. I sweated like a pig in the heat of the day at the end of a twenty-miler, but I was toasty at night and rather enjoyed my turn at guard duty because of the curtain of stars.

A week before the end of boot camp, Harry Sinclair came up and I stiffened to attention, awaiting the latest harassment.

"Relax, Hoving, you're Tom Hoving, right?"

"Sir, yes sir!" His use of my first name really chilled me.

"Fuck that, you're almost a Lieutenant. Tom, I have a request."

My jaw dropped.

"I am getting married a day after you graduate -- it'll be at the Corps headquarters at 8th and I streets in D.C. Would you be my best man? I want you to stand near my ass and give it a hard squeeze when you think. . . . I mean I wouldn't want to be caught saying, 'I fucking do', you know?"

I was honored and did my duty. Harry never came close to the word. But he knew my strong hand was inches from his butt.

Graduation was a massive parade of the entire base because of our Medal of Honor grad. We lined up, each carrying a canvas folding chair.

"Seats!" The Colonel yelled.

Mine ripped in half and Harry scowled and muttered, "Make like you're sitting to pee, Hoving, you fucking faggot." I did. Thank God, my leg and thigh muscles were so strong that I easily crouched the half hour of the ceremony.

I met Nancy soon after her flight back from France, dressed in my summer khakis and the slim "piss-cutter" cap and my Lieutenant's gold bars, which I had tarnished to look “salty.” She almost fainted at the sight of what she later told me looked like a lean, shaved-head “killer.” She wasn't at all certain she wanted to get married to me, for she saw, as I had long before, that not only my childhood had disappeared but so had that funny, laid-back Cottage-Clubs-stairs wag she so loved.

I approached my draft dodging status directly. In uniform I went to the FBI headquarters on 71st Street and First Avenue. I found my case officer and handed him the letter he'd sent about my impending firing squad appearance.

He gazed for a long time at my uniform, chuckled and said, "Lieutenant, you sure chose a hard way to get out of this. You'll be receiving this crap for four months or so, but ignore it."

He stamped, "Closed" on my file and I marched out erect and very, very proud.


This is chapter 8 of Artful Tom, A Memoir, which is being posted in full in Artnet Magazine. For the complete book to date, click here.


THOMAS HOVING is author of Master Pieces: The Curator’s Game (2005). He is former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He can be reached at Send Email