My brief career in the Marines was a result of being drafted when the Corps wasn’t making its quotas. I took the train to the New Haven induction center on a gray mid-November day in 1969. One other guy and I were pulled out of a line of 35 draftees and told we wouldn’t be going to Fort Dix but instead flying to South Carolina and transported to Parris Island. Because I scored well in math, I was trained in field artillery Fire Direction Control (FDC). That’s how I wound up at Charlie Battery, a unit stationed on huge Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in Southern California. FDC entailed using maps and specialized slide rulers to compute the range, direction and elevation of targets for a 105 howitzer battery. There were around 150 guys in my unit. After a few months in Charlie Battery, I was asked if I wanted to work in the office when not out on shoots. It beat doing guard duty or shit details so I said yes. I worked my way up in FDC as well as the office and got promoted a few times. The office wasn’t a bad gig but all my rowdy friends were in FDC, as well as some of the gun grunts who loaded the 100-pound artillery shells in the cannons.
I made Corporal in late-1970 and the job of answering the phone for our office fell on me. I’m not shy and my verbosity, I figured, would be an asset in representing the unit. It was early in the morning about eight, when the phone rang and I dutifully answered. “Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion, 12th Marines, Corporal Morelli speaking, how may I help you?”
“Where is he? Where is that sonofabitch?” was the screech from an annoyed woman. “Uh, who’s that, ma’am?” I innocently inquired. “You know who, don’t play that shit with me, where is he? Get his ass on the phone right now!” “Honestly ma’am, I don’t know who you mean.” “Martin, that’s who, Sergeant Martin, get him on the fucking phone now!” “We have anyone named Martin in the unit ma’am. I’ll check.” At this moment, I noticed a guy tip-toeing into the office. As I reinforced the fact that there were no personnel in the unit named Martin the gentleman walking in stopped short, put his finger to his lips, and then shook his head “No!” and put up both hands in an “I’m not here!” gesture. When I finally ended the call on an unfriendly note, he sidled over to me. “Nice job kid, you did real good! She’ll be alright in a few days.”
This was my introduction to Staff Sergeant Ronald “Mad Dog” Martin. He was between 35 and 40, but could’ve passed for 50. He’d done a few tours in Vietnam and was transferring in from our battalion’s Headquarters unit. The FDC section he ran was primarily involved in surveying and mapping. My old buddy Charlie worked there and told me, “Marty’s a good shit, you’ll like him.” Apparently Sergeant Martin had a few days off between leaving his old unit and reporting to mine. He hadn’t shared that information with his girlfriend and decided to go off on a toot somewhere without her. When she looked for him at his old unit, they directed him to mine. One of my main guys, Dennis, was a buck sergeant and I was a corporal in FDC. There had never been a staff NCO in FDC during my time in Charlie Battery. Maybe it was because Dennis and I were 20 and 21 respectfully. Perhaps the guys in HQ figured it was somebody else’s turn to put up with Martin. If any higher-up asked him a question, the answer was brutally truthful.
Marty’s girlfriend was affectionately known as “Tiger”; I never knew her given name. A few months after Marty’s arrival, the guy trained to take my place, “Hutch,” and I were invited to the Martin residence where the happy couple resided with Tiger’s daughter, a nice kid around 10. The occasion was the annual football brawl between Oklahoma and Texas which was attended by mostly Texas fans, including Hutch. Most of the officers in the unit were there and I was the lowest-ranking invitee, Hutch the next lowest. Marty introduced me to Tiger. “Here’s that kid you were screaming at on the phone.” She said, “Oh, I’m sorry, it was all a misunderstanding.”
A few months later, we were out on a shoot. We had a new 2nd Lt. fresh out of officer’s artillery school in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He was standing around looking clueless while we were working the numbers in the FDC tent. Marty looked over at me. “Morelli, you know what the two most worthless things in the world are?” I shrugged. “Privates and second lieutenants!” Another time, we were out in the desert and it was around 100 degrees. We had our shirts off and I saw a fly on Marty’s shoulder blade. “Hold still, you got a fly on you.” I whispered. “It’s a fucking tattoo, asshole!” was his polite response. It looked stunningly real.
When I first got in the unit, I learned a lot from Sergeant Eliot Dugan and Dennis about FDC. Dugan was a good guy and really knew his shit. He was the most impressive guy in FDC until Martin showed up. Sergeant Dugan was soon AWOL—he ran off with a girl. Dennis wound up the Operations Chief and I was assistant. Enter Martin. The young Martin had been on the guns, loading 100-pound shells and firing them before he made the switch to FDC. He’d gone to school on all of the different pieces of artillery, mortars and even Naval gunfire, which takes the pitch of the boat into account. He could listen to numbers (quadrant, site, range or deflection) and know instinctively if you were closing in on the target. Dugan was the same way, but Martin had a broader, richer and longer experience line to reference, especially when one considers his experience loading, setting and firing cannons.
Hutch told me that Martin gave a class for some Navy guys (gunfire) in San Diego. I never heard about it, but over a few beers Hutch said that a Chief Petty Officer was giving Marty some shit in a bar about his lack of decorum in the classroom. Marty told him, “Get the fuck outta my face!” The guy was a tight-ass and must’ve pressed the point too far, because Marty decked him. One-punch fight, and he was written up for it. I saw him tell a Major he had no idea what he was doing during a large war games segment. He told me he celebrated Passover whenever there were promotions to Gunnery Sergeant.
Another time we played war games when they thought we were going to be sent to the Middle East. This involved a two-week cruise on a Navy LST. As part of the operation we were transported from the ship via helicopter to the California desert. Then we did another two weeks of war games. One day we had a long stretch of shooting and we were beat. I was sitting down with the now-Lance Corporal Dugan. Martin sat next to us on the ground, leaning against a truck wheel. “You know how tough it is to get those little ships in a bottle?” he asked. We just stared at him. “How about getting a bottle in a ship?” he asked as he pulled out some potent rum. Dugan and I cracked up. We found some cans of cola and the three of us sat there and drank. When we woke up the next morning we found out we’d been overrun by the “enemy” and we were dead. No war games for the rest of the day.