It was about this time in February 1970, 52 years ago, that I realized that I was in serious danger of flunking out of college.
I really enjoyed high school. I had great friends, was involved in athletics, and was very active in the Methodist Youth Fellowship at Mountain View Methodist Church. During high school, I would date beautiful girls, be in the school’s karate team/club, learn to play chess, compete (poorly) in a boxing tournament, and generally have a good time.
What I did not do was study and earn good grades. And therein lay the problem.
Life at the university was much tougher than I anticipated. Whereas, in high school, my goal was to make good enough grades to stay on the football team and not lose access to the family car, my college goal was to stay in school and avoid the military draft. Back in the waning days of the draft, lottery numbers were drawn.
When my birthday came up in the lottery, it was #16, a sure-fire guarantee of being a soldier if I left college. Vietnam was in full swing and two of my classmates had been killed in that war and a next-door neighbor with whom I had grown up had been terribly wounded.
The problem was European History 102. I had squeaked by EH 101 with a low C and I was faring worse this time around. I was carrying 12 quarter hours, the minimum full-time load, so a failing grade meant I was no longer a full-time student and, having just turned 19, my destiny was assured.
I began to look at options — which were few and far between. Defecting to Canada was out. I didn’t want to be drafted but I didn’t want to be thought a coward by my father and peers either. The National Guard was an option but there was a waiting list, and I didn’t find that appealing either. And that was a six-year commitment.
So, I investigated the other services. Both the Navy and the Air Force were possibilities and I had already decided against the Army, although I was in my second quarter of Army ROTC at the university. In the end, for several reasons, the Marine Corps was at the top of the list. My parents didn’t know about my academic troubles, so they were confused as to why I was considering enlisting at all.
Then on a Monday evening, my father had almost convinced me to enlist in the National Guard. He was good friends with the commanding officer and, sad to say, in those days, it was who you knew. He got some strings pulled and I was advanced to the top of the waiting list.
And then, just as I was ready to concede, he said this: “Besides, son, the Marine Corps is a tough outfit. I’m not sure you could hack it.”
My dad was in the Navy in World War II and, in retrospect, I believe he was scared to death of the extremely high casualty toll for Marines in the Pacific and wanted, at all costs, to spare me that possibility. It was the wrong move on his part.
The next day, Tuesday, February 10. I walked into Mr. Rushing’s European History class to take the mid-term exam. It was an essay test with five questions, you pick two. Each question counts 50 points. Fail the test bad enough and it won’t matter what you make on the final.
I looked at all the questions on the board and I froze. Everything ran together and I couldn’t remember anything. My lack of preparation and study in high school had caught up to me with a vengeance. I sat for fifteen minutes waiting for a calm and a clarity that never came.
I picked up my blank test booklet, signed my name, turned it in and headed out the door. Mr. Rushing flipped through the blank pages of the test booklet and said, “Excuse me, Mr. Epps, but where do you think you are going?”
I stopped, turned toward him, and said, “I’m going to Parris Island, South Carolina.”
I went to the next town and enlisted. I waited while they cut my orders. I then went back to the university and withdrew from school. Because I had military orders, and because the school was pro-military, I was withdrawn passing and refunded my tuition. That evening I went home and told my parents and younger brother.
On Thursday, February 12, I got on a bus taking me from Kingsport, Tennessee into whatever awaited. My parents and brother were there to see me off. It was the first time I ever saw my father cry. He was sure I’d never finish college and he was deathly afraid for my immediate future.
I changed busses a time or two then, finally, in the wee hours of the morning, I boarded the last bus from Beauford, S.C. to Parris Island. The bus was filled with nervous young men, some bragging about how tough they were, others just keeping their thoughts to themselves. Once we rolled through the gates of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, there was only silence. The bus came to a stop and a man with a smokey bear hat stepped onto the bus and life changed forever. It was Friday the 13th.
People asked me sometimes why I joined the Marines. I’d like to say it was to serve my country or to do my part during a time of war. Sometimes I joke and say, “I was tired of my parents telling me what to do so I joined the Marines.” It wasn’t even for the challenge or to prove myself, although my father saying he thought I “couldn’t hack it,” did influence me at the end.
One of the reasons is that I couldn’t bear the look of disappointment on my father’s face if I flunked out. Another was the fact that, if I had military orders, I could be withdrawn passing and return to school later without the handicap of a failing grade.
And, I must admit, if I was going to have to go to the military, I wanted to go as a Marine. But the real reason I joined the Marines is that I was too dumb to listen to my parents, teachers, and coaches about the need to study and apply myself in high school.
I did hack it. Thirteen weeks after I stepped off the bus, I graduated from Parris Island. I was one of the 10% of Marines who qualified as a Rifle Expert with the M-14 using iron sights only. I outshot my father, which was a source of supreme satisfaction.
My parents and brother (and my wife) were there when, five and a half years later, I walked across the stage and received by undergraduate degree at that same university – cum laude (with honors). Later I graduated from seminary magna cum laude (with high honors) and earned a 3.7 GPA in doctoral work. I have regretted many times not doing better in high school. But I have never regretted enlisting in the Marine Corps.
Sometimes we just have to take life as it comes, with all the mistakes and bad choices and the consequences that come with them. But, more often than not, that broken, winding, treacherous road on which we find ourselves, has a way of leading us back to where we belong.
It has been said that “Experience is the best teacher — but the tuition is really high.” But hopefully, if we get to where we are meant to be, the experiences – and the tuition – will have been worth it all.
[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). During the pandemic, the church is open at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays but is also live streaming at www.ctk.life. He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South (www.midsouthdiocese.life) He may contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]