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socks

A couple months back, I reminisced about how the Marine Corps smells. Well, today, I came across something else that I owe to the Corps: My feet still smell like the Philippines.

You see, a long time ago, in the Marine Corps…

Our ship sailed up to this island in the Philippines, called Panay. We got off the ship and started hiking around in the jungle. It was so hot and humid that sweat poured off the rim of my cover (hat) not in drips, but in a steady stream, like the inaudible trickle of water no thicker than a shoelace that comes out of the tap just before you close it off. The sweat soaked my uniform until it felt like I’d just crawled out of a river. The sweat permeated my jungle boots until, when I stepped, moisture pushed through the seams, or the little brass grates on the insole. It even soaked my backpack, and into my poncho liner inside my backpack.

Anyway, we each only had a few pairs of socks. After three days, I had to recycle them. Even though I left them out at night, draped across the tops of my boots, they didn’t get dry. This might have had something to do with the constant rain at night, along with the damp cold, or taking our nature strolls through underbrush still wet from the previous night’s rain, or the fording of rivers while on maneuevers during the day. In case you weren’t aware of this, Marines don’t take off their boots to ford rivers. Or their socks.

You know, when you look at someone, you’re really looking at their hair, eyes, and, most importantly, skin. And, this is particularly hard to believe when your looking at someone attactive, like Gisselle, or Tom Brady, or your one-year-old, but that person’s skin is actually host to millions of bacteria microbes, most of which have been living there for years. Some skin bacteria like to live on your eyelids, or your nose, or your hands. But, most bacteria like to live in moist, dark places, like your mouth, your armpits, your crotch, and your feet. And, the bacteria that give rise to body odor can come from anywhere, and land on a random part of your body. If that part of your body suits them, they will thrive. And smell.

When I say that my feet still smell like the Philippines, I don’t mean that the Philippines is in itself a smelly place. Well, actually, that’s not true. There were parts of Manila that made me want to vomit from smell alone. But, the jungle in Panay smelled like a jungle. Nothing in the jungle itself smelled say, as bad as my feet do today if I wear the same socks for two days. And, my feet don’t actually smell bad at all. As long as I wash them every day, dry them out completely aterward, and never, ever ever, ever – please,never, wear the same socks twice without washing them in between wearings. Because if I do…

In relation to the annals of military history concerning feet, my feet didn’t take any abuse whatsoever during their service in the jungle of Panay. We were only there a week. I didn’t step in a punji trap. I didn’t trip a toe-popper. I didn’t get trench foot, immersion foot – heck, I didn’t even get blisters, or footsore. I didn’t even get athlete’s foot, or plantar’s warts – I got those from the ship’s showers, even though I wore my frigging flip-flops to prevent those things. But still, after our playtime in Panay, my feet were never the same.

After a week in the jungle, I – and my comrades – weren’t even aware of how filthy we were, until we got to the beach, for return to the ship by CH-46 helicopters.We had to wait a long time on the beach for our helicopters, because the CH-46 was an antiquated piece of crap that spent most of its time being repaired. For the first time in a week, we were exposed to the tropical sun, and in stark contrast to the jungle, the beach sands had zero humidity. While we all had three pairs of socks, we had only one pair of cammies. And, our cammies instantly dried out, and the fabric turned white and stiff from grime and body salts. My collar actually cut my neck. Our uniforms made crackling sounds when we moved the fabric. It felt like we were dressed in cardboard.

We recognized how dirty our clothes were, but we didn’t recognize how much we stank, because our stink was the only thing we smelled. But, the sailors who tried to pass us in the ship recoiled away from us. The Marines in berthing who hadn’t gone ashore kindly remarked that we smelled like shit.

I shoved my crusty cammies and my three pairs of socks into a laundry bag, showered (with my flip-flops on), came back, and put on a fresh set of laundered cammies. They were broken in, and felt like clean pajamas. Then, I smelled my laundry bag, hanging from the corner of my rack.

The stench radiated from the nylon mesh bag, knocking me back. I transferred the whole laundry bag to a willy pete bag, which was basically a waterproof rubber sack. I sealed the top, and, forgot about it. Big mistake, because I missed the call for the ship’s laundry. The toxic clothing had to wait until we got to Cebu, where we were given liberty. I took the laundry out to the city, and found a launderer. I think it cost three bucks to do the laundry, but I gave her ten, out of guilt, for putting up with that nightmare.

Regardless, after I got my clothes back from the launderer in Cebu, I still put them through the ship’s wash. Then, a week later, I put on my socks from the jungle. These socks were olive-drab, cushioned on the bottom, and when you got them, they’d have printing on them that said in white ink: “50% cotton, 50% wool.” When new, they’d reach up past your calf and stay there. When broken in, which only took a couple wearings, they’d sag down to the top of your boot. Anyway, I put them on, and we had a hot, sweaty, tiring day in uniform. My feet felt gamey and wet in their socks, and I was glad to kick off my boots at the end of the day.

Then, the smell hit me. It was the same nastiness that came crawling out of that willy pete bag, a mix of old gym socks and fermented zombie puss…

I guess, lying there on the tops of my boots, exposed to the jungle air and all the dust and yeast and bacteria and stuff flying around in it, my socks must have picked up a strain of microbe that, despite flourishing for thousands or millions of years in the jungles of the Pacific islands, never knew that its perfect environment happened to be on the melanin-deprived skin cells of the feet of a human being evolved in the environment of Northern Europe. And, when this microbe found itself in its version of paradise, it could only rejoice by being fruitful, multiplying, and producing what, to its version of a nose, must be a great odor, but to the nose of its host species, was a nightmare.

The socks were ruined. Even laundered three times they still had the odor. I tossed them. But, the damage was already done. My feet were the new home of this smell. I quickly found that any lapse in foot hygiene would not only ruin socks, but sneakers and boots, too. Once those microbes found a new home in the fabric of my footwear, they were there for good. No matter how many times the shoes were washed, bleached, sun-bleached, microwaved, or frozen, they would always come back whenever the temperature and humidity level recreate their utopic environment. It really makes me wonder, What in Heaven’s name landed on my socks in the jungle – a non-virulent form of Anthrax?

I was forced to up my game, and take my foot hygiene, sock wearing, and footwear usage into a pattern that resembles an obsessive-compulsive disorder, all to prevent a recurrence of The Odor.

Flash-forward to today. I can go years without being bothered by it, because I am vigilant. But, then, victory will weaken me. I will do something like I did this morning. It’s cold out, and I only have a few pairs of wool socks that are really primo – nice, new, and thick. And, this one pair, I wore yesterday. But, I was in the office all day, and I don’t sweat much in the winter…

So, I wear them again. But then, by about ten in the morning, as I swing one leg up to rest it over the other, the breeze made by my leg kicks that scent up to my nose. It’s not The Odor, not a stench anyone uninitiated to its legacy would recognize, but for me, it’s a reminder:

Despite 19 years, tens of thousands of washings, daily sock changes, anti-bacterial creams, summers spent only in sandals, wearing different shoes every day, and two decades worth of new socks and footwear…

My feet still smell like the friggin’ Philippines.

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Kaiheitai’s epic war novel: Mark of the Legion

'Mark of the Legion' - available on Kindle.

‘Mark of the Legion’ – available on Kindle.

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