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Pizza Box

A grandfather relays to his grandchildren a tale from his days as a Marine first sergeant.

The Rehoboth Beach, Delaware waters swelled into a blue-green splotch against the graying skies. Master Gunnery Sergeant Hamner Coral sat with his grandchildren Titan and Marietta. A fire in the corner toasted the trio on this February day. Coral always loved to see the snowflakes fall on the sand like pencil shavings spilling into a wastepaper basket.

Photo by Evelyn on Unsplash

Titan gripped a toy rifle and so did Marietta. They dueled with the smart toy weapons that could pinpoint and laser in on the opponent and record whether a “kill” had been administered. But they grew tired of all of this play. They wanted a story.

“Paw-Paw, tell us something we don’t know,” Marietta, aged nine, said.

“Yes, say something that we’ve never heard,” twelve-year-old Titan said.

“You don’t want to hear my war stories,” Coral said.

“But we do, Paw-Paw,” Titan said.

“We want to know what it was like for you,” Marietta said.

“Yes, then I will impart a tale about Marines. They were sharp, oh yes. We had a time gelling all at once but when the time came to handle business, everyone was all about it.” Coral stoked the coals in the fire. He conducted this action with a graceful expediency. His moves remained precise quick yet with a smooth way of accomplishing his task.

“If you want to hear about something, I’ll first have to show you something,” Coral said. He put the fireplace poker in the stand and then ventured into the basement. “You two just sit tight and don’t get too close to that fire.” The two siblings just looked at each other and shrugged. Once Coral had returned, he clutched in his palm a gleaming piece of metal. It shone like diamonds in the sky. Coral walked over to his grandchildren and produced the shiny object.

“What’s that Paw-Paw?” Marietta asked.

“This is what you would officially call a marksmanship badge.” The piece of metal dangled and snatched at the light produced by the fire. It dangled from Coral’s fingers. The portion at the top remained suspended by two links that read RIFLE MARKSMAN. It also showcased a square with three circles that diminished in size from largest to smallest.

“This, my dear grandchildren, is the lowest level of qualification for the M16A4 service rifle also known as a pizza box.”

“Is that your best?” Titan asked.

Coral gave a short chuckle like a small backfire of an engine.

“No, young man. This device signifies my worst score available on the range without a DQ.”

“DQ?” Marietta asked.

“It’s a disqualification. I know that much,” Titan said.

“Now, that you have the gist of the idea and how I got to that which you’ve probably seen a thousand times but never quite noticed,” Coral pointed at a plaque with all expert badges encased in glass.

“Tell us, Paw-Paw,” Titan's and Marietta’s faces lit up to hear another yarn from their beloved grandfather. He relaxed in his armchair.

“It wasn’t that long ago. I was a first sergeant then. That’s what’s called a senior non-commissioned officer or SNCO. That just meant that I took care of more Marines than others…..”

Photo by Pinar Kucuk on Unsplash

“It’s too dark to see my own hand,” Corporal McKenzie Showalter said while on patrol. With Sergeant Case Wittles.

“Look, we just have to sweep this last hooch and then we’re out of here.”

The two Marines banded together, their weapons at the ready. Nothing appeared to be out of place so they moved out of that hooch.

“You’ve said it twice and I still don’t know what ‘hooch’ means,” Marietta said.

“It’s a house,” Coral said.

“Okay,” Marietta said. “Now, what happened to the two Marines?”

Mac, we’re done here. Let’s get back to the wire.”

“Roger that, Case.”

“They called each other by their first name?” Titan asked.

“When you’re that close in rank, you’re almost obligated to address your battle buddy on a first name basis.”

“Oh, you can continue.”

Wittles and Showalter reported to First Sergeant Coral’s office that next Friday morning. They carried themselves in their Service Alpha uniforms like green knives. Their rifle expert badges gleamed on their chests. The first thing that they noticed upon entering Coral’s office that is a distinctive feature: a pizza box.

“First Sergeant has a pizza box?” Sergeant Wittles just grinned and put his hand on his brown head. “It’s a trip.”

“I called you both into my office to commend you on your outstanding job of clearing those residences." Corporal Showalter couldn’t stop smiling. Wittles nudged him in the ribs.

“What? What’s so funny Corporal?”

“Nothing First Sergeant,” Showalter responded.

Coral then looked down at his chest. “Oh, I know why you laugh. It’s because of the pizza box that’s filled you full of you the giggles. Here’s the story: I was on the range and I had shot expert from Boot Camp all the way up to gunny. This time, I got the idea to close my eyes on the firing line. I just got overconfident and thought that I could still ace those targets. Didn’t happen.”

Photo by Zac Ong on Unsplash

“First Sergeant, you have to forgive me if I don’t believe you,” Corporal Showalter said.

“Corporal, are you calling me a liar?”

“Why no, First Sergeant Coral. I’d never…”

“Okay, then Corporal. Now, that that’s settled, I’m going outside the wire with you both and PFC Finley.”

Corporal Showalter could not contain himself.

“First Sergeant,” Sergeant Wittles said, “It’s really not a thing. Our corporal here just has a momentary loss of bearing.”

“Well, alright but make sure that he keeps his head on a swivel and that he can be an NCO and still play games.”

“Yes, First Sergeant.”

“Alright, we’ll head out at about 1900 hours. Dismissed.”

The two Marines then proceeded out of the office.

“So did the corporal have to run back and forth?” Titan asked.

“No, no. Nothing like that, just mentioning something can have the greatest effect on a junior Marine.”

“So then what happened?” Marietta asked.

The vehicle rumbled like a bear in search of victuals. The first sergeant sat as the A driver or front passenger while Sergeant Wittles drove. Corporal Showalter sat in the back next to PFC Finley. Each possessed a rifle equipped with a grenade launcher, except for Coral. His skin almost matched the black of the firearm. At about 2005 hours, the vehicle crept up to an extremely dilapidated space. Papers and dead animals and shards of metal and glass littered the pathway. Like a disease eating its way though tissue, the assembly of objects infected the outer components of the vehicle. PFC Finley became jittery but stayed focused. First Sergeant Coral took a look back at the young Marine. He was nineteen while the corporal was twenty-two and Sergeant Wittles was twenty-six. Coral was thirty-nine. The vehicle stopped. They piled out of the truck like beans spilling out of a can. Then, the sound of a round ricocheting off of the front door prompted the men to dive into the action. Sergeant Wittles and Corporal Showalter returned fire but came up with no strikes. Even PFC Finley let off a few rounds. But no one but First Sergeant Coral summoned the agility, skill, and keen eye to eliminate the threat. He sent three shots through men wearing sport clothes and corframs. They fell. Silence fell. The PFC, corporal, and sergeant all stood in dazed amazement at the first sergeant’s competence in the field.

“I told you that I had my eyes closed on the range last time, didn’t I Sergeant and Corporal? PFC, outstanding job covering our six,” Coral said.

“That all happened, Paw-Paw?”

“As I just told you,” Coral said, as he watched the tide roll in on the bluegreen water. A few flakes floated down as ashes. The flame from the fireplace continued to keep the three Corals warm during that winter day.

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