Rain was pelting against the metal ceiling of the airfield hangar as Daniel Spunkmeyer walked off the plane in Camp Lejeune along with several other Marines. Having gotten through the brutal three months of Colonial Marine Corps Basic Training, they were headed to their next phase of training. For them, that meant something unique: they were going to be trained to become Reconnaissance In Force Team members.
Reconnaissance In Force Teams were one of the oldest and most important components of the United States Colonial Marine Corps. The program had been set up shortly after the formation of the USCM to take advantage of the smartest and strongest recruits by giving them in-depth combat and technical training to form twelve-member teams capable of operating mostly independently with little need of support from a larger parent unit. Every Marine regiment had an attached RIFT platoon with two teams that could be deployed separately from the regiment to take on dozens of different types of missions from reconnaissance, infiltration, sabotage, search and rescue, anti-terrorism, para-rescue, fire support direction, and engineer support. There were also quite a few RIFT platoons that weren’t attached to a specific regiment but rotated through various bases and colonies filling personnel and mission capability requirements as needed.
Spunkmeyer had heard even before basic training that RIFTs were famous for the sharp contrast between their high combat effectiveness and their unusually loose discipline. However, their effectiveness came with a number of privileges including much higher pay and additional post-retirement benefits. RIFT personnel, both officers and enlisted, were even graded on a separate rank system from regular Marines that gave them greater seniority than equivalent ranks of the same name. Just getting into RIFT training automatically granted a Marine the rank of RIFT Private, a rank considered equal to a regular Lance Corporal. Most RIFT training graduates would earn the rank of RIFT Private First Class, the equivalent to a regular Corporal with the Enlisted-4 paygrade, while some would make RIFT Lance Corporal, which was in the same Enlisted-5 paygrade as the conventional rank of Sergeant.
Spunkmeyer was still amazed he had even managed to qualify for RIFT training when so many other people claimed it took a lot of effort just to get the attention of the RIFT recruiters. Spunkmeyer didn’t think he had tried that hard, especially since his only goal when he enlisted had been to escape home. As he walked along with the other Marines to the designated area where they would be picked up for transportation to training, he was still struggling to comprehend what had led up to this, even though he spent graduation day thinking about it. He could remember waking up that day and feeling as though someone was cutting away the ropes that held him down tightly for the last twelve weeks… make that seventeen years.
The other recruits in the compartment had gotten up as though it was just another day. A few of them had looked as though their hopes and dreams had been beaten out of them; their eyes were dull, and had been for some time. The silence in the compartment was like a spike being driven into Spunkmeyer’s skull. It was something he couldn’t get used to, not after being born and raised in the heart of Manhattan. Noise was normal and familiar. He knew he was going to sacrifice a piece of his sanity when he made this decision, but the question remained of how much sanity he had lost.
He had lost more than just stability of his mind. Home? Gone. Familiar places? Gone. Decent food? Gone. Baseball with friends in Central Park? Gone. His only clue about his biological father? Gone, but he had a bruise under the right side of his ribcage to remind him of it.
That was twelve fucking weeks ago, but it feels like twelve years. Spunkmeyer dragged himself out of his bunk, sighing as he set about the meaningless and mind-numbing task of making the bed. It was a habit now. That had been his existence: making the bed. When he was finished, he walked around to the side of the bunk to remove his graduation uniform from its protective bag. The last three days of basic had been spent learning how to wear it properly so he had a good idea of what he was doing.
“You got family coming?” someone asked.
“Sure do,” another recruit replied. “Mom, Dad, older sister, Grandma, all coming over from Kansas City.”
“Cool. Mine are all coming from Florida.” The guy looked over at Spunkmeyer. “How ‘bout you? You got family coming to graduation?”
“No,” Spunkmeyer replied.
The recruit fell silent for a moment, giving him a sympathetic look. “Really? Not even your parents?”
“I don’t have parents.”
“Oh. They gone? I’m really sorry about that, Spunkmeyer.”
“No clue. I never even met ‘em.” Spunkmeyer avoided making eye contact with the two recruits, not wanting to continue this conversation. He finished his shave, and headed back out to put the rest of his uniform on. I managed to go all twelve weeks without telling anyone except the chaplain about my situation. This is fine, Danny, it’s not like you’re gonna see these guys ever again.
A few minutes after he was fully dressed, one of their drill instructors walked into the compartment, surprisingly quiet. He carefully inspected everyone’s rack and uniform and then moved to the center of the room. “Every last one of you in here wearing that uniform is a fucking Marine now. I told y’all when you first came here that I don’t care where you came from, what your home life was like, what your beliefs are, you all came here with one purpose. You all came here to become Marines. Now, when you pass the gates of this base, you’ll be moving on to the rest of your life.”
That includes me. This is it. I’m finally on my own. Spunkmeyer got in line with the rest of the males in his division, for their last breakfast in boot camp. They merged with the females, walking down the narrow corridors until reaching the mess hall. He stared ahead at the back of the person in front of him, knowing this was the last time he would ever have to force himself to stare ahead and keep his neck rigid this way. That combined with the inadequate bedding had created a pain he was far too young to be experiencing, but it didn’t matter now. He was so close to building a new life for himself.
The graduation ceremony was long and involved a lot of standing and staring. Spunkmeyer hadn’t been listening to half the things being said. He was daydreaming, hoping, and reminiscing on his journey.
Spunkmeyer had always known there was something off about him when he was little. He had heard the other kids in his preschool and kindergarten talk about their mommy and daddy. All he knew was that he had one and not the other. When asked about his daddy, he simply said he didn’t have one, and for the longest time, it felt strange. Not to mention the fact that his mother worked a lot and never hired a babysitter or sent him to stay with grandparents. He knew the basic rules of what could and couldn’t be touched around the apartment, so he would sit and read or do his homework in his room until his mother returned sometime after seven at night.
His constant isolation stunted his social skills, making his teachers throughout his elementary years concerned that something was wrong with him mentally. He’d heard “potentially Asperger’s syndrome” thrown around, but after a specialist had a look at him that idea was tossed. He wasn’t showing signs of being sensitive to light or sound and his intelligence was only slightly above average across varying subjects. His reading level was normal and he made eye contact with whoever was speaking to him. His mother had to come into the school to talk to the specialist and the teachers about his home life, and that was when Spunkmeyer found out the truth.
“You’re his mother, correct?” one of his teachers had asked.
“Adopted. I’m not his biological mother.”
“Daniel always referred to you as-”
“Well, he doesn’t know.”
Spunkmeyer had been incredibly confused, and the revelation left him with a lot of questions. Why was this woman not his real mother? Who were his real parents? Where were they? He asked all those questions at home and was met with the same response every time: “You’re too young. I’ll explain when you’re older.”
The knowledge of being adopted weighed heavily on him but it didn’t stop him from pursuing things every kid pursued as he made the transition from elementary to middle school. Middle school brought more activities-stuff that felt like fun rather than being babysat. Stuff like baseball. Spunkmeyer found he was pretty good at baseball, so he stuck with it throughout middle school. His little league team were all goofballs, but when it came to playing, they were good at what they did. It seemed miraculous that they all stuck together through high school. Almost through high school.
Despite his successes, Spunkmeyer dealt with a massive empty space in his heart. He felt incomplete, and wasn’t giving up on getting answers. He finally got them on the night he turned thirteen.
“If it makes you feel better,” his adoptive mother started, after taking a draw on a cigarette, “your real name is still Daniel Spunkmeyer. My last name is actually Kendriss, and… I’m the nurse who delivered you and took you in because your parents didn’t want you.”
“Why didn’t they want me?” Spunkmeyer asked.
“I don’t know. I didn’t know them personally. All I know is that your biological mother decided the day she was set to leave that she was not keeping you. I suspect your father wanted you and couldn’t argue with her or afford to fight for custody, I don’t know. But, you know the cap you’ve been wearing ever since you were little? He left it with you.”
“How come we haven’t tried to find him?”
“I did when you were five or six. Got nothing. Danny, I’m sorry.”
“Miss Kendriss,” Spunkmeyer said, not wanting to call her “Mom” anymore, “if you were sorry, you woulda put more effort into making me feel like you were my mom. How come you… How come you’re gone most of the time? You-”
“I just told you; I’m a nurse. I work at a hospital. I didn’t foresee any children in my future. I took you in because I felt sorry for you, and I didn’t realize that you would take up so much of my time-”
“So, you don’t want me, either.”
“When you turn eighteen, no. I’m just giving you shelter until it’s legal for you to be on your own.”
Spunkmeyer spent more and more time away from home after finding that out. He would alternate between staying at friends’ houses on the weekends, especially during baseball season. Even when their season ended in July, they headed to Central Park to keep playing and practicing. Off-season, though, Spunkmeyer was left with few options. He wasn’t stupid—he knew wandering New York City was dangerous, especially at such a young age, but he did it anyway. He became very acquainted with Manhattan and he considered it home. Despite that, he felt immensely alone. Am I just destined to grow up alone? That thought plagued him every night.
In high school the boys started competing with others in order to advance into JV and varsity baseball. They still had fun, but they didn’t get any recognition unless they did well. Spunkmeyer knew he could get a sports scholarship if he was good, and that’s what he tried to shoot for. At least until late in his junior year.
The military always sent recruiters to talk to students. A USCM sergeant showed Spunkmeyer’s class a video, and it intrigued Spunkmeyer. He approached the recruiter afterwards. “Where do I sign up?”
“You’re, what, sixteen?” the recruiter asked.
“Almost seventeen, sir.”
“Can’t enlist till you’re eighteen. Even then, you’ve got to either have your GED or wait until you graduate before you can ship out.”
“Sir, I wanna get outta here. Please help me.”
“It’s against the law. I’m sorry. I’ll keep you in mind, kid. What’s your name-?”
The recruiter didn’t get an answer because Spunkmeyer had already stormed out. Anger was filling the void within his heart. He didn’t want to wait anymore. Eighteen. Eighteen. Eighteen. Can’t get outta here till I’m eighteen. This would be bearable if I had real parents that loved me and wanted me to succeed.
After following the rules all his life, Spunkmeyer wound up breaking them—a lot of them. He spent all that summer doing research to find what documents he needed to enlist and how to get them. It had been a complex cycle of forging documents to use as proof of ID to get other documents to then use them to make “corrections” to existing documents that were already on record, and he had spent every moment terrified that he was going to make a mistake and get caught, but somehow, he pulled it off. He had a photo ID that showed his age at eighteen, his birth certificate had been “corrected”, and every other document that could possibly show his true age had either been forged or altered. There was no way anyone could find out his real age by looking at official records. As soon as that was done, he enlisted, making sure that his recruiter wasn’t the same one he had seen at school. Again, he had been terrified the whole way through the enlistment process that someone would somehow find a mistake he had made or a record he had missed, but in the end he had made it through and no one was the wiser.
Spunkmeyer snapped out of his thoughts when he spotted a uniformed man with sergeant’s stripes gesturing to him and the rest of his group. Spunkmeyer and the others walked over, seeing several other young Marines clustered nearby. The sergeant, who looked much nicer than the drill sergeants in basic training, explained that he would be driving them from the airfield to the section of the base where the Special Forces trainees were housed. The sergeant and a corporal with him directed the assembled trainees outside and into two M23 Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement trucks. The MTVR series was over one hundred seventy years old and far beyond obsolete for battlefield purposes, but newly-built trucks from the series still saw heavy use in non-combat support roles and Spunkmeyer had gotten used to seeing them and riding in them during basic training. He was glad that these two trucks had canopies over the troop compartment to protect them from the rain.
This really was it. He was going to become a RIFT member. No matter how long he thought about it, the fact that he qualified was still a big surprise to him. RIFTs were composed of highly skilled Marines. He hadn’t even graduated high school—then again, no one at basic knew that. Something about him stuck out to the RIFT recruiter who had come through and observed everyone in his training unit. It was more than just his test scores and physical evaluations. That he knew for sure, and he wondered if the base chaplain, Captain Jesse, had put in a good word for him.
Jesse had been the one and only person Spunkmeyer could trust on base. So much so that Spunkmeyer told him the truth about how and why he was there. Despite his initial fear that he was going to be sent back to New York, Spunkmeyer was promised that their discussions wouldn’t leave the room. That started a routine of visiting Jesse once a week to talk, something that helped Spunkmeyer pull through the toughest parts of boot camp.
The last time he saw the chaplain was right after graduation. The formation was dismissed and all the new Marines went looking for their families except for Spunkmeyer. He began pacing until he noticed someone familiar approaching him. “Captain Jesse?”
The base chaplain paused in front of him, holding a lightly-worn black cap with a gold leaf pattern stitched on the bill and the logo “CAT – Diesel Power” in matching gold letters on the front. “Congratulations on graduating,” he said with a smile. “I believe this is yours.” He handed Spunkmeyer the cap.
Spunkmeyer clutched it tightly as he tried to hold back his tears and disbelief. “How’d you… get this?” He had worn that cap for almost his whole life, not fully understanding why he had always felt attached to it until being told that his father left it with him as a baby. The memory of losing it still stung.
He was wearing it when he stepped off the bus upon arriving at boot camp. An instructor yanked him out of line, and took the brim of his cap. “What’s this, dip-fuck? You were told to lose all non-essential clothing when you got on the bus! Are you capable of listening?!”
“I-I wasn’t told that,” Spunkmeyer stammered.
“Yes, you were.” The instructor took off the cap, sending Spunkmeyer into a rage.
“That’s my dad’s! Give it back!”
“Drop the act.” The cap was thrown into the dark of night and Spunkmeyer was shoved back in line feeling as though someone had penetrated his chest and ripped part of his heart out.
If I’m truly going to let go and start over, maybe it’s a good thing I don’t have that cap anymore, Spunkmeyer thought. He continued to think that way for the next twelve weeks but he could still feel that aching space in his heart, and it wasn’t going away no matter how hard he tried to convince himself that he was starting over and the cap wasn’t necessary.
The chaplain patted Spunkmeyer’s shoulder. “I was in my car getting ready to go home for the night when I saw your little altercation. Your hat was flung pretty close to the parking lot and I waited till you all had gone inside before I got out to grab it.”
“So, this was all based on luck, huh?” Spunkmeyer whispered. “Or was it something more?”
“Whatever you choose to believe.” Jesse looked around to make sure there was no one else close enough to hear. “I did try to track down your biological father using the hat. The closest I managed to get was finding what store this hat was sold from, but when I called the owner he said that the only way to find the buyer would be to go through his receipts and he doesn’t keep any older than two years.”
Spunkmeyer felt like someone had jammed a corkscrew into his heart. “Is there… anything else I can do?”
“DNA testing, but the odds of that working are next to zero. One or both of your parents would have to be on record for something. Boot camp is over, Daniel. You have a lot more control over your life than you may think you do now. Try not to let this blind and overtake you, because you might be missing out on opportunities to let more people in your heart and feel love that you weren’t expecting.”
“You’re not saying ‘give up,’ are you?”
“Continuing is completely up to you. However, I did the best I could and came up empty-handed. I don’t want you whittling your life away on something that might end up being hopeless.” Jesse looked Spunkmeyer in the eye. “Do you trust me?”
Spunkmeyer nodded. “I worked hard to leave home. I came here to become independent, so that’s what I’m gonna keep doing.”
He thought about their conversation on the bus ride from the airport to the base. Flight training was all the way down in North Carolina. It would be the furthest he had gotten from home thus far, and he knew he would get farther. He was okay with that, but right now “overwhelmed” was the best word to describe how he felt. It was an emotional roller coaster that he wanted to get off of. If things had just been a little better, he would’ve been asleep right now, or waking up and hanging out with friends. This experience had, in a way, made him feel more like an adult, and that was what he wanted more than ever. He wanted to be seen as an adult so he could go out into the world. Passing boot camp was his first major step.
Miss Kendriss probably didn’t even bother reporting him missing. Then again, the high school probably wanted to know where he was. Either they gave up, or it was too late to do anything. Spunkmeyer was fine with that. Definitely too late now. I’m not going back. I’m not going back to someone who only took me in because it was an emotional impulse. Besides, he had a good long contract and lots of training to get through.
When he had been given the chance to take RIFT training, he had been given several different occupational specialties, or MOSs, to choose from. After some thought, he settled on flight school, realizing that he liked the idea of learning to fly, and also knowing that it was probably the best chance he had of ever sitting in the cockpit of any aircraft. RIFT pilots were the only enlisted members in the Marine Corps who were allowed to fly aircraft. Outside of RIFTs, that was a duty reserved for warrant officers and commissioned officers, and even though he could have opted for Officer Training School instead, he wasn’t sure he was ready to display the leadership skills he knew he would need to pass. Then again, he wasn’t sure he could pass RIFT training either.
But there had been a little more to his decision than just wanting to fly. Becoming a pilot promised a lot of experience and he probably wouldn’t have to wait very long to get a unit once he completed his training, given how essential pilots and co-pilots were. It would earn him respect and make him feel valuable. Or at least, he hoped it would.
Accompanying Music: I’m Dangerous – The Everlove