On nights when my father was in his party mood, I begged him to do the Silent Drill. He was still too weak to go back to work in that year following his heart attack, but I liked to pretend he still wore his Marine Corps blues.
He began by standing in the archway of the dining room in our new Seattle home: stick straight, eyes forward, the tip of an umbrella resting on the floor by his right toe. Then he stepped forward, landing on his heel. He was walking, just walking, but the steps didn’t look human, slowed to half speed. He rapped the umbrella next to his foot and lifted it to his left shoulder, where his left hand caught it with a smack and pushed it to the right. As he marched, he slapped his thigh.
This percussion was the drill’s only accompaniment: the slap on the thigh, the catch on the shaft, the rap of the tip. It reminded me of the ta-ta-tee-tee-tah chant that my first grade teacher used to introduce rhythm. The steps themselves were silent, like a cat padding down the hall.
The best part came near the end: roundhouse twirls, once, twice, three times around, performed with the right hand, then with the left, over the head, in front of the body, and for the finale, a toss in the air. There my father gave up. An umbrella was too light compared to the drill rifle he was used to.
I didn’t remember the Silent Drill Platoon, the highlight of the Marine Barracks’ Evening Parade. The first time I saw it, when I visited the Capitol to arrange my father’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery in 2013, I began to understand what I’d witnessed 50 years before.
The Barracks is the spiritual home of the Marine Corps, its oldest post. Its site was chosen for its location “within marching distance of the Capitol” in 1801 by the second USMC Commandant and President Thomas Jefferson. Early in the twentieth century, the first ceremonial parades were organized to boost the post’s military preparedness. Ten years after WWII, the twentieth Commandant recognized the Barracks’ new strategic importance — fighting for the continued existence of the Marine Corps. He called the Parade his “muscle” and used it to entertain elected officials and influential guests.
The Evening Parade was established during the summer of 1957. I was born on June 15 of that year. My father came aboard as the Barracks’ Executive Officer in August. In October, the Commandant asked Lt. Gen. Victor “Brute” Krulak to respond to this question: “Why does the U.S. need a Marine Corps?” Gen. Krulak had first addressed this question in 1946, he told the Commandant, when the USMC had last faced elimination. Playing devil’s advocate, he and a group of officers acknowledged that the Marines have no “mystical competence.” The Marines’ distinction, they concluded, lay in the country’s grassroots belief that when trouble comes, the Marines will be ready to do something useful, at once.
When the Commandant asked Gen. Krulak his question in 1957, the Marines were once again threatened by Washington’s amnesia. Nearly forgotten was the Corps’ feat during the first battle of the Korean war. The Marines’ fighting force had been reduced to six battalions and 12 aircraft squadrons by the end of the 1940s, and the Secretary of Defense had declared his intent to further cut the Marines and transfer its remains to the Army and Air Force. Then on June 25, 1950, the North Koreans invaded the south with a force of 75,000 soldiers. Within three weeks, the Marines pieced together an air-ground force of 30,000 and improvised a landing, despite tidal swells that were amplified by two typhoons prior to D-Day. The battle for Inchon, which lasted four days, was a decisive victory. Through Inchon and every other battle to which the Marines had been called, Gen. Krulak believed the USMC had earned the support of the American people. But between conflicts, the Marines foresaw the need to remind decision-makers of its value through traditions like the Evening Parade.
The memory of my father’s slow cadence seized me that first time I saw the Evening Parade. When my father executed his gliding steps — each knee rising to regulation height, each stride stretching to regulation length — it was a solo performance, mesmerizing and weird. At the Barracks, it was like watching him multiplied in a house of mirrors, marching alongside an invisible legion.