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Learning Curves: Carey Winfrey

The Smithsonian editor learns in the marines that he could go the distance.
By Carey Winfrey
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Carey Winfrey is editor in chief of Smithsonian magazine and a former reporter for the New York Times and Time magazine. The son of a famous racehorse trainer, Winfrey learned in a U.S. Marine Corps officer-training course that he could go the distance.

Cache and Carey:

I'm a veteran editor who looks much the way you might imagine one to look. When I am asked (rather tactlessly) by some younger colleague why such an unlikely specimen as I ever joined the U.S. Marine Corps, I answer that back when I signed up, circa 1959, there was something called universal military training, which I interpreted -- naively, in retrospect -- to mean that there was, inescapably, a uniform in my future. And the USMC, bless its heart, offered college students a program with no academic component; I would not have to take boring old ROTC classes or any other classroom course. The Platoon Leaders Class entailed only two six-week summer camps in Quantico, Virginia.

Which is where I found myself the summer following my freshman year of college. From the moment I stepped off the train in Washington, DC, to be berated by the angriest man I had ever seen, until I boarded another train six weeks later and 15 pounds lighter, I lived in a state of high anxiety. They were the longest six weeks of my life, and scarcely a day passes even now, nearly half a century later, that I am not grateful for them.

The first few days passed in a blur of rude awakenings, endless jogs, repeated cries of "Sir, yes, sir!" shouted at the top of my voice, drills, classes, meals wolfed down, shoe shinings, more drills, more classes, calisthenics, and inspections -- all to the bellowed imprecations of two drill instructors who had elevated fault finding to high art. And yet, for the better part of that first week, I somehow managed to remain more or less beneath the radar of the two Napoleons in training into whose care -- if that's the word -- my platoon, and my life, had been entrusted.

That all changed during our first forced march. It was a mere 7-miler, but as we humped our M-1 rifles and full field packs up and down the rugged firebreak trails of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, in ragged pursuit of a long-legged captain we could see, with horror, running up a hill hundreds of yards ahead, it seemed sufficiently challenging. For the first forty or fifty minutes, I gasped along, trying to ignore the chafing from the military-issue boxer shorts that had risen well above my belt and erased the last vestiges of joy from the exercise. But I could not ignore the rawhide bootlace that had come undone and that the "candidate" directly behind me was stepping on with maddening regularity.

Finally, I could take it no more and pulled out of line to retie my boot. At that very moment, Corporal Strickland, the larger of our two drill instructors by several kilos, came bounding along. Spying my bent-over frame, he used a strategically placed boot to send it flying spread-eagle into the air.

"What the f -- do you think you're doing!" Strickland yelled at me.

The sheer injustice of his query undermined all reason.

"Sir," I responded in a voice too loud by many decibels, "I was trying to tie my f -- ing bootlace!"

My days under the radar were over.

From that moment, I could do no right. And every time I screwed up -- appearing in formation with a tarnished belt buckle, turning right when the command was "Column left," failing to reassemble my rifle in the requisite number of seconds -- I would find the two drill instructors, their faces inches from my own, deriding my bearing, my intelligence, and my parentage at the top of their stentorian voices.

The next hike, some days later, was 5 miles longer, and the sun a few degrees hotter. After several hours -- aching and out of breath, my boxers up around my neck somewhere -- I arrived palpably at the conclusion that I had reached my limit and could not go on. I began looking for a place to fall out. Up ahead. Over there. A few more strides. Soon. Just then, a whistle blew. Ten minutes of rest.

Back on the trail, the same disgrace appeared inevitable, and again I scanned the landscape for a falling-out place. Just a few more steps. Just ahead. But a funny thing happened. Gradually, painfully, the 12 miles passed and I had remained ambulatory. When it was over, only about half the platoon managed to finish. By the next morning, several of the dropouts were headed home. Miraculously, Gunnery Sergeant Renesen and Corporal Strickland had found some other poor soul who was ruining their Marine Corps. Mercifully, I had returned to anonymous bliss.

The next hike was 15 miles. This time, though again I contemplated dropping out, it seemed a less likely option. I took it one step at a time. Finally, this one, too, was over, and to my amazement I was again among the still standing. The shower I took after removing my mud- and sweat-stained utilities (as marines call their fatigues) was so exquisite that to this day I remember thinking, "I am not worthy of this pleasure."

The last hike of the summer was 21 miles and was to end with an overnight bivouac. At one ten-minute break, a man I barely knew poured half a cup of precious water from his canteen onto the back of my neck, and I felt I owed him all my worldly goods. After 15 miles or so, the dropout rate was approaching two out of three. But although every fiber of my being ached and my legs felt like tree trunks, I knew I'd make it.

The summer camp had set out to teach me how to become a marine. In the process, much to my surprise, I learned that I might possibly have the stuff to become whatever I wanted to be -- and that being able to go just a little bit farther, then a little farther after that, might be a way of getting anywhere I wanted to go.

Supper at the end of the 21-miler was C-rations that dated -- all too literally -- to the Korean War: Beans and wieners. Spaghetti and meatballs. Ham and lima beans. We warmed them over the blue flames of Sterno cans. I can't remember a more delicious meal.

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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading this article. I have always felt that extreme experiences, especially of injustices, go a long way to build character. But is such training is justified? And how did it build skill as an editor?

I am an urban elementary special educator, and now truly know about human differences. I think about the effect of the experience on his comrades who couldn't make it. Did the experience benefit them?

I would be very interested to know more about how the US military builds the capacity/tenacity of our soldiers today, and the philosophy behind it. As our schools need to be more heavily involved in character building, perhaps a few lessons could be learned... or not.

Beth Rogers's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have never been in the military service, but I have endured public humiliation and survived. What is difficult is then not being able to take credit for the experience. I allowed my work, five pages of fiction from a full length manuscript, to be edited in Writer's Digest. Some tell me I shouldn't cite that published work as part of my credits. What do you think? I want to send you, at Smithsonian Magazine, a profile which involves an American family of the early 1900s on the Isle of Pines, Cuba. I hope you will consider me qualified enough that you will read my work. Thanks! Beth Rogers, James River Writers, Richmond, Virgina 2/1/08

nixons's picture

"Osmanagich, a blond, 49-year-old Bosnian who has lived for 16 years in Houston, Texas, has a more colorful explanation. "Maybe it's a burial site, and maybe it's an entrance, but I think it's some type of ornament, because this is where the western and northern sides meet," he says, gesturing toward the summit of Pljesevica Hill, 350 feet above us. "You find evidence of the stone structure everywhere. Consequently, you can conclude that the whole thing is a pyramid."

Are you aware that the three statements in your article on the Bosnian pyramids are actually quotes by three different people? Also, that none of these are explanations - they're speculations?

"Maybe it's a burial site" Egyptologist lammia El-Hadidi - Egypt

"maybe it's an entrance" - Dr. Dario Andretta - Italy

"I think it's some type of ornament" - Dr. Semir Osmanagic - Bosnia

Given that these are misquotes, are you considering a reprint?

Steve Nixon

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