“Crossing The River” by Bill Vernon


“Sit down.” Mom patted the wooden bench between herself and my brothers John and Tom.

They were yawning. She said, “Pacing back and forth won’t help. You’re too wound up.”

I shook my head. “It’s 45 minutes after the time they said to be here.”

Mom said, “They’re in charge. Not you.”

I thought I knew about waiting. In the past two months, I’d obsessed on moving to

California. I hadn’t worked, hadn’t played much baseball, had dated just a few times. My normal

summer routine felt dead because the new life coming would be so different.

Now I couldn’t relax because Mom’s tears and my brothers’ silence had made me think of

our house, our neighborhood, the familiar sites we’d passed in Mason and Sharonville. I was

leaving behind what I loved the most. Now I was doubting myself.

Finally, 78 minutes late, a sergeant arranged us 13 recruits alphabetically by last name

facing a desk in an office with a door labeled Commanding Officer. A chest-high wooden wall

supporting large plate glass windows separated us from the others who watched.

A Captain ordered us to raise our right hand and repeat after him: “I, state your name,”

and we did, “do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United

States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the

same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the

officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

So help me God.”

The captain walked to the recruit on the A end of the line, the sergeant read the recruit’s

name from a paper, the captain said, “Congratulations,” shook hands, then side-stepped to the

next man, repeating the procedure down the line, finishing with me. Then he walked behind his

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desk. “You men have sworn your oath, but you are NOT Marines. You’re recruits. You will not

be Marines until you complete basic training. You have to earn the name Marine. Understand?”

As his eyes moved slowly over us, one recruit said, “Uh huh.”

The captain grimaced. “Yes sir is the proper response. Now, do you understand?”

We all said, “Yes sir.”

He shook his head as if our unenthused response wasn’t good enough. “You have two

hours before you leave for the airport. Be back here at 1:15. If we leave without you, you’ll be in

big trouble. Now, everyone is free to go except you.” He pointed at me.

The other recruits turned, filed from the room, and with friends and relatives headed for

the street door. Why was I special?

The Captain picked through the sergeant’s papers, lifted one, and said, “Sergeant, show

recruit Vernon where the brooms are and have him straighten up the waiting room.”

“Yes sir.” The sergeant waved at me to follow him.

Why me? I passed Mom and my brothers, all the others were leaving the big room, and

John said, “Let’s go get something to eat.”

I shook my head. “I can’t. They want me to sweep these rooms.”

Mom said, “Can’t you leave? I heard the man say two hours.”

“Ma’am.” The sergeant faced them. “This recruit can leave when he’s finished cleaning

the rooms. There’s a nice little diner the other side of the fountain. You could wait for him there.

This won’t take long.”

Mom said, “How long?”

The man shrugged. “Half an hour. It depends on how fast he works.”

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I followed the sergeant toward the back wall, and Mom said behind us, “We’ll meet you

over there, Bill.”

My family left. I received a push broom, small brush, dust pan, and instructions. So I

began sweeping back and forth across the room’s width, pushing the dirt up the room’s length,

imitating the way I’d raked yards. A few minutes into this work, the street door opened, letting in

the sound of traffic. The captain was looking back inside at us. “Make sure he does a good job,

Sergeant. And secure the area if you leave.” Then he left.

The sergeant, sitting at a desk near the door, picked up a magazine. “He meant he wants

you to move the benches and clean under them. Fold up the chairs and stack them in that back

corner. Leave the benches where they are.”

As I finished the job, I figured things out. I’d been given this task only because I’d been

on the wrong end of the line. Plus, this stranger could keep me here the whole two hours if he

wanted. I’d just taken an oath to obey the people above me. I imagined four years of drudgery, of

doing whatever Marine Corps superiors ordered me to do, and I glanced outside where people

hurried past the recruiting office. Civilians, not members of the military, leading free, normal

lives as I’d been doing until just a few minutes ago.

In a crowded diner on the other side of Fountain Square, my family and I ordered food.

Our last meal together. We ate without conversation, walked through a few stores, and hurried

back to the recruiting office ten minutes before the appointed time of 1:15. There we waited

outside until at 1:45 a bluish gray school bus with USN on its sides pulled up. At 2:15 the

sergeant ordered us to board it. I said goodbye to my family and was about to get on the bus

when the sergeant intercepted me.

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“Vernon, the captain wants you to carry this.” He handed me a large, thick manila

envelope. “That’s the orders for all you recruits. When you reach Marine Corps Recruit Depot in

San Diego, give this packet to your drill instructors.”


“Do not lose the papers. Do not mess with them. Do not open the envelope. Understand?”

“Yes,” I said, then added, “Sir.”

“Don’t ‘sir’ a non-com, Private. Your drill instructors will meet you all at the airport.

Don’t mess this up.”

What was a non-com? I said nothing, unsure how to speak to the man.

He jerked his head toward the bus. “Get in.”

I found all the seats were taken on the sidewalk side.

Behind me I heard, “Move to the rear, Private.” The sergeant had followed me onto the

bus and stopped next to the seat behind the driver. I moved farther down the aisle, then leaned

toward the sidewalk-side windows to wave to my family. Mom was throwing kisses. When a

sailor got on and sat behind the steering wheel, the sergeant barked, “Take a seat back there.”

I saw my family one last time, far off, hiking to our car, not watching the bus. I waved

anyhow, at their backs. Crossing the bridge over the Ohio river into Kentucky, I remembered

from my Latin studies about Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon and pictured myself as if in a

movie, hung above the rushing, muddy water far below, leaving one state and entering a new,

unknown state. My stomach felt empty. It wasn’t the Rubicon down there. It was the River Styx,

and crossing it one could not turn back.

Bill Vernon served in the United States Marine Corps, studied English literature, then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folkdances. His poems, stories and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and Five Star Mystery published his novel OLD TOWN in 2005.