A bugler played Taps for my father a few minutes before he was lowered into the ground on a Friday afternoon last August.
I hadn’t seen the bugler, standing at attention near the overpass on Hancock Lane, just beyond the tree line that separates the Jews from the Gentiles at the Austin Memorial Cemetery. It startled me when he began to play – maybe the most searing, beautiful tune I know – and all I could do was smile.
That moment – shortly before Shabbat came in, a few hours before we drank late into the night at my childhood home – was a fitting tribute to my father, and in particular, to the man he was for a brief and fateful time in his young life.
My father enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in the summer of 1963, when he was a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Texas. He’d joined a Jewish fraternity (Tau Delta Phi) a year earlier and was busy partying his way to repeated stints of academic probation. The son of a doctor who lived in River Oaks, Houston (by way of Beaumont, Vidor, and Newton, Tx but still), he’d already been on scholastic probation twice when he decided to do something drastic.
The way he told it, he needed to straighten up and get right. He’d push himself through the fire and return to UT a changed man – a Marine. After his death, my aunt Marie told me how driven he was to prove something to himself and others, and since he figured the Marines were the most hardcore, the most unforgiving, the Marines it would be.
It wasn’t easy.
He was in basic training in the dead of summer from July to October 1963 in Parris Island, South Carolina, which he’d always described to me as a sweltering cesspool of swamps and pain far beyond the grace of G-d. In one of his letters home, he wrote about how it reminded him of Wynne Farm, the prison farm outside Huntsville, Tx where my grandfather was the resident psychiatrist and a physician for 3 years. For my father, it was no exaggeration to compare Parris Island to a penitentiary.
Like a prisoner, soon after he arrived my father began plotting his escape. In one letter home early in basic training he talks about how the “Great Escape” will play out. Others have tried and failed in the past, but Lee Hartman Jr, he knows the way out. You see, most people who try to escape make the mistake of heading over the hill and down into the swamps, where they get caught. According to Lee Jr, “I’m one of the few who has figured out the only way to get away and it has proven sure-fire in the past.”
The letter gives no further details though of the way out. As for what he planned to do after he got off the island and was pursued by MPs, he doesn’t say.
The escape plan is part of one of the early phases in his time at boot camp, which is depicted in 21 letters he wrote home to my grandparents, about half of them sealed in USMC envelopes stamped with the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima. The rest are tucked into envelopes and written on stationary from the Jewish War Board, which he would fill out at weekly Sunday prayer service at a chapel on base.
The timeline shown in the letters should be familiar to countless men who have volunteered to serve in the Armed Forces. Initial optimism and excitement are followed by crippling shock and awe as he crashes to earth and realizes he has made the single worst mistake of his life by far. Then there’s the denial phase, where he seems to think of ways he could get out of it, how he could escape and the Marine Corps would never find him. Next begins a sort of begrudged acceptance, where he realizes that though he’s made a colossal error in judgment, he has no choice but to stick it out, even if it kills him. Next, there are the letters where he realizes he can make it, he can actually push through and finish. Finally, there is the sweet, triumphant letter where he says out loud that this is the finest day of his young life – he’s done it, he’s going to be a Marine, and no one can ever take that away from him, not even the Marine Corps.
His trials in basic training began almost instantly, when he failed to meet the basic physical training requirements and was sent to the corrective battalion – aka “the fat farm” – where he and the rest of the misfits tried to work their way back to their platoons.
He almost didn’t make it out of fat camp and was continuously sent back. In one letter he expressed real heartache at being separated from the guys in his platoon.
Maybe my favorite installment is the “breakthrough letter” from October 13th, 1963, where he finally realizes he’s going to make it – he’ll be a Marine. The redemption comes on the rifle range, in the form of his beloved M-14 rifle. A Marine is first and foremost a rifleman, and marksmanship can be the ultimate equalizer (this was the moral of the story, as my father told it, one that can be applied elsewhere in life).
In his letter home, the only one addressed solely to his father, he shared his unbridled joy:
“I qualified as an EXPERT RIFLEMAN with the M-14. Without a doubt it was the most thrilling and gratifying and certainly the proudest day of my life. It was a tight race for high shooter and unfortunately, I threw a couple of shots in rapid fire and finished in a tie for 4th place – but I was in the thick of it and am now recognized as one of “the high shooters of the platoon” – a very proud distinction. I was presented with my badge by the battalion commander (a Lt. Col. yet!)…When I came off the “big line” Friday, knowing I was an Expert I experienced feelings I’ll never be able to completely convey to anyone. First, I smiled and grabbed my rifle like it was my “one love” and kissed her and almost cried. That beauty means more to me than you can imagine. I’m really devoted to “Baby Doll” and grateful as hell for what she’s done for me. I’m only sorry that I’ll never be able to fire her again. The next two weeks until graduation are going to be more hell than all the others put together but now – I don’t care what they do to me because I know I’ve accomplished one thing truly worthwhile since I’ve been on the island….Show the letter and all the good news to mom and the gals – be sure to remind them that “little Jr.” is now a deadly, steely-eyed killer (hah!). PS. I saw a paper this morning outside the chow hall. From a glance I noticed that UT beat the piss out of OU, 28-7. That really makes this a memorable weekend!. Bye now, love – JR.”
His troubles were far from over though, and in subsequent letters he continues to dwell on his difficulties in the Corps, and his great and ever-present fear that he will continue to fail the obstacle course and be dishonorably discharged, all due to a single obstacle he calls “the rib crusher”. At some point, reading through these I wanted to reach through the page and the faded ink, grab him by the shoulders and shake him, and tell him “calm down Hartman, just finish it”. I wasn’t there though and never have been, not at age 20, and not in the Marine Corps of the early 60s, a rough place indeed.
He also talks often to his parents about his friends back at the fraternity, asking them to drop a line to his buddies and send them his regards, saying that the 5 minutes he has to write letters is not enough for him to keep in touch with them.
He describes becoming closer to his Judaism, not only because of the tendency of the Marine Corps to put the fear of G-d in you, but also, as he puts it, it made him feel at home when he met other Jewish Marines, “even if aside from religion, we have little else in common.”
In a letter in August he talks about attending a breakfast held by the Beaufort, South Carolina congregation for the Jewish recruits, which was nice, but made him feel homesick. He also spoke of a lovely day attending Yom Kippur services with the rest of the Jewish recruits at the Mikveh Israel congregation in Savannah, Georgia, built in 1733 and one of the oldest in US. My brother Avi and I heard my dad tell this story a number of times. He’d mainly emphasized the bone-headed calculation the other recruits made when given the option to choose the reform shul or the conservative one. He said not knowing any better they figured the reform shul would be more liberal and have more young Jewish college girls in attendance, only to find a sparsely attended service of mainly elderly Jews.
There was a lesson there too, but maybe not a universal one.
Regardless, he found himself turning closer to religion, saying:
“On the island I have begun thinking a great deal more of these matters which in the past, I have neglected – that is, religious matters…Maybe it’s a genuine feeling or maybe it’s just that Parris Island puts the fear of god in you. I sincerely hope my renewed interest in my religion will outlive my time in the Marine Corps and will prove to be more than a mere crutch supporting me in times when I have nothing else to turn to or think of.”
Speaking of the fraternity, he talks about his dream of attending synagogue in Austin in uniform with his fraternity buddies, and then makes a rather humorous observation.
“I have learned a lot here about the real meaning of strength. Strength, I have found, is not brute, physical force alone. For instance, of all the boys I know back home, I think David Horwitz would be most likely to breeze through boot camp because he has agility, which is essential here.”
Horwitz, who I have known since I was a child, never struck me as the most agile guy, but I didn’t know him in his younger days. No other fraternity brother gets such a positive appraisal as a potential recruit, certainly not his old friend, country singer and folk hero Richard “Kinky” Friedman, who would probably still be in a military prison if he’d been at Parris Island with my pop, or maybe still buried by a drill instructor somewhere in a swamp outside the base.
But amidst all his middle-class college Jewboy kvetching, there are moments where a real passion for the Marine Corps comes through, or at the very least a young man’s desire to put himself to the real test someday if duty called.
In a letter written on Jewish War Board stationary on August 1st 1963, he writes:
“Some of the guys got a glimpse of a headline about Korea and a headline about 2 US soldiers being ambushed. Rumors of course, spread, and you know how war talk is – well, we got to discussing the situation. Here is the shocker – almost half the boys I’ve talked to almost want a brushfire war like in 1950 – myself included. Whether it’s because we’d leave here in just 5 weeks and get 30 days leave or because we’re just nuts – I don’t know. At any rate, it’s an interesting phenomenon.”
Along with the love-hate relationship my father had with the Corps, there was also a sort of hagiography he had for the Marines. Like many “war babies” born in WWII with fathers in the service, he admired the military (especially his all-time idol Audie Murphy, one of the greatest heroes ever to come from Texas) and was an ROTC cadet and battalion leader at Lamar High School in Houston.
Still, a self-taught historian with hundreds of volumes of military history crowding our childhood home, it was the history of the Corps that seemed to interest him the most (I’d wager that of the Israel Defense Forces being in second place). He could recount a constellation of facts, anecdotes, and lessons learned by legends like Smedley Butler and Lewis “Chesty” Puller, and tales of valor won and lives lost from the “Frozen Chosin” to Khe Sanh to Veracruz. He also always relished any occasion to speak to a young Marine and swap stories, especially my cousin Rafael Geisler, a Lance Corporal who served his country with distinction in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of whom my father was very proud. (Rafi wore his USMC combat utility uniform at my father’s funeral, and saluted his uncle’s casket as the bugler played taps)
This appreciation was forged in part by the experience at Parris Island, and in a letter from mid-August he writes:
“Reading the accounts of Guadalcanal I more than ever realize the immensity of the reputation of the corps and the responsibility for upholding that reputation that has been fostered upon my shoulders. I’m just one man but 190,000 others like me have the task of living up to the heritage of the WWII and Korea Marines. Sounds a little gung ho on my part huh? Well to be perfectly frank, I don’t care for the Marine Corps but if the occasion ever rises in which I may be forced to submit to the ultimate sacrifice I want to do so as a member of the Marine Corps.”
He also relates how sometimes in physical training in the sweltering heat of boot camp, he’ll find himself humming the Marine Corps hymn, and thinking of battles like Iwo Jima and Tarawa and that “you would be surprised at the strength it gives me.”
Along with the moments of pride and newfound strength and spirituality, there is the humbling realization that there are many men who are simply better than he is at this and will always be. It’s a realization made clear to him by young men without his smarts or his education, who are excellent Marines and leaving him in the dust.
“Brains and education haven’t done me a damn bit of good, there are boys in the platoon with 8th grade educations who are outstanding marines. This is the first time I’ve ever been in an environment where intelligence counts for naught, zero, nothing.”
Lee Jr. may have been a bit hard on himself, but passages like this are part of a recurring theme of self-doubt and admonishment, as he tries to force himself through a desperately trying experience that he chose for himself.
There is also a theme of guilt and regret about his hard-partying ways and his failure to do right. In one of the letters home he penned a poem that he wrote during a low moment of boot camp, which Rabbi Neil Blumofe read graveside at his funeral.
If all my yesterdays were yet to come, how glorious would my future be
Vanished would be the trials and tears
Which plagued my clouded past
And no more would I weep upon the altar of my mistakes
The gnawing pain of neglected opportunity
The memory of a hasty rebuke
The disgrace of a thoughtless act
Gone forever the pains of the past
If all my yesterdays were yet to come.
My father went to Parris Island only a few years younger than I was when I moved to Israel. Like him, I chose a strange and extremely challenging redirection that zero of my friends back home chose and most probably could not relate to. For both of us, this was a defining and life-altering experience, and the setting for so many of the stories we would tell in the years to come.
For my father these stories often dealt with hard ass wisdom imparted by drill instructors, such as the DI who told the recruits before a week of leave “don’t go home thinking you’re tough now, if Johnny could kick your ass before the Marine Corps, Johnny can kick your ass now” (sure enough, one guy came back with his arm in a sling after trying to fight his ex-girlfriend’s new love), or the one DI who looked over my dad as he stood inside a pit smashing rocks at fat camp, and asked him “this sure beats college doesn’t it Hartman?” Of course, there was also the story he told of the time when he was doing his reserves duty out on the west Coast in 1967 and news of the Six Day War came in. As he told it, standing inside a barracks full of Marine reservists, a sergeant called out from across the room “well Hartman, guess we won’t be going over to Israel after all, those Jews are kicking some ass!!”
While he eventually left Parris Island and infantry school at Camp Lejeune, I never left the island. Though the two experiences are radically different, I see something of myself at that age in his letters, something of the same struggle.
So often when we’d speak long distance from opposite sides of the globe, I’d relate what I was up to and the interesting and strange things I’d witnessed, especially after becoming a journalist. He’d often find it fascinating and would say “you’re so brave Ben; I could have never done this at your age.”
Truth be told, I could not have done what he did at age 20. I don’t believe I could have finished boot camp on Parris Island in 1963, leaving behind everything to push myself through such a severe and brutal challenge.
He never gave himself much credit for it, but it took courage and great willpower, especially after all the setbacks.
My father was fond of saying of his time in the Marine Corps that “I served in peacetime; I was never within a hundred miles of a shot fired in anger.”
That’s true, but when the Austin branch of the Jewish War Veterans of Texas heard that my father had been in the Marines they hastily organized an honor guard to be graveside the next afternoon at his funeral, complete with bugler and a US flag draped across the coffin. It was a very real and touching honor that would have moved my father very much. He would have been humbled and said he was undeserving, but I think inside he would have known that wasn’t true.
He only served in peacetime, but my father was proud to say he was a marine.
It was something no one could take away from him.