David Lauderdale

Parris Island: The many gifts of a good neighbor

Wreaths hang on the guard house at the gate to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island on Dec. 21, 2012, as a vehicle waits to enter the base.
Wreaths hang on the guard house at the gate to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island on Dec. 21, 2012, as a vehicle waits to enter the base. The Beaufort Gazette

One hundred years is a long time to be a good neighbor.

Come Nov. 1, that's how long the U.S. Marine Corps has been training recruits on Parris Island in Port Royal.

What an unusual neighbor they have been.

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Half the nation's male recruits and all of its female recruits arrive by bus in the dark wee hours, step on yellow footprints and start gulping the gut-check of becoming a warrior in 13 weeks with strangers in a strange land.

We're reminded of the grunt and grind of making Marines when we hear the tat-tat-tat-tat of rifles across the water.

If we're fishing close enough to the island of mystique, we may hear a drill instructor's singsong "Leyo, right-left, Leyo, right-left ..." or the unison burst of "Yes, sir!"

The island's street names tell us our neighbor shapes the world. Shanghai Street, Wake Boulevard, Chosin Reservoir Road, Tripoli Street.

Iron Mike spears the Lowcountry air with an iron pistol in a monument to the World War I Marines who helped build the recruit depot. Molly Marine strides with purpose as a monument to female Marines. We can salute the stars and stripes atop our own Iwo Jima memorial.

Our neighbor always gets interesting company, like FDR, Ronald Reagan and Marian Anderson.

We sometimes hear our neighbor arguing. What's the best way to implant honor, courage and commitment -- to be always faithful to God, family, country and Corps? How brutal do you have to be to prepare dazed kids for war? We're too soft! We're too mean! Back and forth they go.

But we also get to see the swagger, the confidence, the ripped bodies of loud, cocksure Marines. And we're glad our most unusual neighbors are on our side.

MANY GIFTS

For 43 years, Deacon Nathaniel "Shakie" Grant drove from his farm in Burton to Parris Island to work. So did his wife. He built benches for the back of his truck to haul others to civil service jobs there.

Parris Island has always meant work for its neighbors. It bailed Beaufort County out of a deep depression.

When Carolyn Smith of Bluffton was a child, her father got work welding the above-ground steam pipes that give Parris Island a surreal feel.

Without Parris Island, we wouldn't have the Beaufort-Jasper Water and Sewer Authority.

The depot also offered the first semblance of a hospital, and there are still a few civilians around who were born there.

It's been a place where African Americans could be treated as American citizens when they weren't afforded that opportunity downtown.

It gave us a museum to tell our region's history as the birthplace of American civilization. Neighbors are invited in to play the public golf course.

The Parris Island Marine Band has for 100 years pumped up our own esprit de corps, playing for every parade, festival, holiday and dedication. We got goosebumps when they played "Yankee Doodle" and "Dixie" on VJ Day 1945.

The almost-weekly ceremonies for the nearly 20,000 graduates each year anchor Beaufort's tourism industry.

Parents, grandparents and girlfriends pour in with signs painted on their vans.

And in 2013, the boys of Charlie 1/4 were honored at graduation -- 44 years to the day after they lost so many comrades taking Hill 484 in Vietnam.

Brig. Gen. Lori Reynolds, the first female commanding general at Parris Island, showed us all how to be a Marine that day.

"We may not have treated you well 30 or 40 years ago," she told the aging men over lunch, drawing a big laugh. "But believe me, this Marine Corps loves you, and we thank you and we appreciate the stories and standards and the legends that you created.

"You are welcome here anytime."

To that came a roar of applause.

BEST GIFT

Frederick "Sarge" Drake Jr. was right out of Montford Point when he led the first group of 25 black Marines on Parris Island.

For the most part, he spent the rest of his days here. Before he died in Port Royal in 2010, he'd shown all seven of his children and the entire Lowcountry what Parris Island's greatest gift to its neighbors has been.

Drake used his Marine Corps skills to get water and sewer to the poorest of the poor. He was an entrepreneur. His youngest child, Janelle, the first to integrate Mossy Oaks Elementary school, told me the Sarge's sermon:

You are Americans, and you have an equal right to everything in America. You can be whatever you want to be, but you have to work for it. There is no entitlement. You've got to step up with no fear. You must always be prepared. You must show respect. You must be an example for others. You must have manners, education, religion, civic-giving, oratory skills and the ability to debate with facts.

The greatest gift Parris Island has given its neighbors is Marines.

And in Parris Island's darkest hour, four days after six recruits drowned on a forced march into Ribbon Creek, a Beaufort Gazette editorial said:

"For it to have happened to Parris Island is the same as if it had happened to Beaufort -- so closely interwoven are the lives and fortunes of the military and civilian populations of this section.

"The Marine Corps to the remainder of the nation might mean a hard-hitting, fighting organization. The Marine Corps to Beaufort means next-door neighbors ..."

Follow David Lauderdale on Twitter at twitter.com/thatslauderdale.

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