The Line

This is a work of fiction, loosely based on multiple life experiences. All persons, activities and events referred to in this work are imaginary. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

When McKenzie served in the military, he trained at special schools. This included language, electronics, interrogation, information processing, pretty much whatever you can think of that served the covert netherworld. Though serving in uniform, he trained with students of all ranks from all services, as well as from various government agencies. He often dressed as a civilian. It was an interesting mix, and constantly challenged his perceptions.

One such episode arose when he became aware of shortages at the dining hall.

Typically, meal time would be of limited duration. Schedules were tight. Cafeteria lines would be long. It was never fun nor convenient to get stuck at the end of the line. Long standing protocol allowed commissioned officers and government agency staff direct access to the front of the line. This chafed McKenzie. It rubbed hard against his blue collar sense of social decorum.

Nevertheless, as a practical person, McKenzie would race from class to dining hall making sure to arrive early as possible, assuring he would be close to the front. Not infrequently, after securing a position and nearing entry, he found himself slipping further back as the stream of officers and agency staff arrived and stepped ahead.

McKenzie, a patient and centered person, could normally see past this nonsense, except that somewhere, in some thinly buried space he kept for scores, he collected the names and faces of those who perpetuated this practice. Long experience taught him things like this evened out over time, and to that possibility he always kept a ledger.

But here's what really got to him!

Mindful of these proclivities, it didn’t take long for McKenzie to notice other patterns emerging. Often, after the ranking group entered to dine, McKenzie followed in only to find the meal offerings wanting. Read that to mean the meat and deserts were gone, as were the milk and coffee, and what was left for guys like him were some potatoes, maybe lettuce, string beans if lucky, all to be washed down with some lightly flavored water.  He began to lose weight.

The first couple weeks, he accepted it was because the cafeteria was so poorly managed. It wouldn’t have been the first time he encountered it. He assumed initially that everyone was getting the same fare. He was younger then, and much less prone to reading nefarious intent into what, in his later years, would have been obvious. That is until one day, one of the officers from language class wanted to chat regarding some lessons. To facilitate, he brought McKenzie with him to the line’s head. Talking with the officer, McKenzie noticed on entering there was a full serving of multiple selections of meat, side dishes, deserts, juice, milk, you name it.

Perhaps it emanated from his keenly developed sense of propriety, or perhaps it was the deep rooted inner city reservoir of rage. It simmered like a dragon in the well begging for an excuse to emerge. His officer companion noticed only a momentary turn of McKenzie’s head, and their dialogue continued uninterrupted, but in that brief instant McKenzie had scanned and registered every face in the food line and the serving area behind, settling on the noncom in charge, and three of his cronies, who were very busy, but not serving, just looking out. McKenzie had of course experienced those cautionary stares before. Life in the city meant always being on the lookout. For opportunities, and for threats.

To counter the weight drop, from the beginning, he made it his routine to head into town every other night to eat some real meals at his own expense. He didn’t have much cash to spare, but there were no alternatives. He could deal with the expense, but now he knew the "privileged" group was getting everything he wasn't. Those less favored were getting whatever was left, literally, the crumbs, plus some. Shafted again!

He tried to raise his concerns within the command structure, to no avail. He wasn’t a rat, he was looking only to move on, not to take anyone down (unless there were no other options). He told the up channel that food was running out before meal hour was half done, large numbers of personnel (He didn’t say “enlisted personnel.” That wouldn’t have gained traction) were not getting their full meals.

No one believed what he was saying. Typical responses would be, "We're eating in the same mess hall as you, and we don’t see anything wrong."

Of course, from their spots in line, all creation looked different! Is it not wondrous how perspective can blind for some, while granting hard insight to others!

There was a Marine Captain in his class. He was a professional soldier, with a chestful of ribbons from prior campaigns. The officer had early on taken notice of McKenzie, recognizing the emerging potential. More likely, he was interested in what he had seen of McKenzie’s training regimen at the gym, which included a healthy serving of the combat arts. Sometimes they sparred. He liked that McKenzie cut him no slack.

One day, he accompanied McKenzie to the dinner line, and remained in line to chat with him. McKenzie reminded that as an officer, he could go to the front. The Captain responded it was fine, he was OK where he was. McKenzie then stared directly into his eyes and told him he would eat much better if he went to the front.

Puzzled at this, he begged McKenzie to explain. McKenzie responded all would soon become self evident.

On entering, they found the typical sparse servings that were norm for the second wave. McKenzie could see the Captain’s skin tone shading beet red. They sat together (as others from the first wave stared and registered what they felt to be a breach in protocol) and the officer vented how it was a travesty a mess hall would run short during a scheduled meal. McKenzie responded this was the daily norm, even worse on weekends. The Captain stared, now at a complete loss for words. Until hearing that, he had been certain what he witnessed was a single occurrence. McKenzie returned one of his Mona Lisa smiles, adding the Captain was eating what for McKenzie was standard fare, then invited him to town that evening, for some real food. He promised he knew a few good places.

From that point, the good Captain made it his habit to stand in line with the enlisted personnel. McKenzie enjoyed their moments together, and once asked if he was getting used to his lighter weight. The Captain only responded he would not eat better than those he served with. McKenzie liked that. He liked the Captain, and because he liked the Captain, he liked the Marines. In the future, whenever military connivance allowed, McKenzie maneuvered his way into Marine ops. They were his adopted family, cut from the same fabric.

But, we digress.

During that period, it was McKenzie’s practice to take late afternoon distance runs before settling in for evening studies. He eventually found and explored wilderness trails winding through the peninsula hilltops above the base. He enjoyed the solitude of running through wilderness and frequently encountered the indigenous animals, notably the half sized deer of the locale. These magical moments lifted his spirit. It was his practice to do this in all weather, even on those winter evenings where rain was so thick a runner could disappear into a curtain of water, and not be seen by anyone else.

On one such occasion, he did his warmups in a grove of trees overlooking the cafeteria. At first everything looked to be normal. Then he noticed some members of the staff, in fact, the noncom and his three cronies, coming out the back as several cars lined up. Next thing, they loaded the vehicles with what appeared to be meat, and frozen food product. McKenzie’s rage emerged even before he pieced together the meaning of what he witnessed. He had an instinct for dissemblance, and sometimes smelled it before he knew for sure it was there. He carefully noted all he saw, then continued on his way, trying to weigh its significance, and his plays.

Afterwards, he timed his jaunts carefully, witnessing the same behavior several times each week. He could almost predict when it would occur, and marveled that MP’s would drive by the scene routinely, and not register anything. So too would other officers and administrators doing their evening jogs and walkabouts.

Like a lot of folks, McKenzie learned to adjust to life’s challenges on the fly. By then, he had become content with walking, or riding his motorcycle into town for his real meals. On one of those forays, he hooked up with the Captain and asked how his diet was holding up. The Captain had discovered Dennys and Sambos and responded things were looking better. Good food, good price, good coffee.

McKenzie decided to share the whereabouts of his secluded jogging trail, knowing the officer believed in conditioning, but would also be observant. He made sure to add, “You'll see all sorts of interesting things back there.”

His friend stared quizzically, McKenzie covered his mouth with both hands like the Chinese monkey speaking no evil, "You'll figure it out when you see it."

At some level, McKenzie wished it had been he who made it all come together. It wasn't meant to be. Like most, he was simply trying to survive and get by. He had not yet evolved into a man of decisive and immediate action.

Not long afterwards, there was a combined military and civilian police raid on the cafeteria, and an overnight change in personnel. Subsequently, menus improved dramatically.

They never talked further to the issue, except the Captain continued to join McKenzie’s once disadvantaged spot in the food line. Food servings improved to everyone’s relief and benefit.

McKenzie once asked him why he continued to enter from the rear. The officer responded that earning the right to the front means knowing first what is happening in the rear, and ultimately that’s where leadership skills were nurtured.

Words to ponder.

The Captain and McKenzie remained friends, and in time, came to share several adventures. They ultimately parted ways, each taking his own fated life path. He felt to always remain in the good Captain's debt for a life lesson learned. Over the years, as he continued his own growth and transformation, McKenzie took care to emulate the Captain’s fine example. Stand with the people who drive the engine, see that every last person gets their due, and never step over those whom you are committed to serve.

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