Thursday, April 21, 2011

My Memories of Gunnery Sergeant Jess Ferguson USMC

In the Old West, among other things, believe it or not, Bat Masterson was known as a darn good fisherman.  And yes, there were others in our history who were great fishermen as well.  Of course, during the 20th Century, there were men like Ernest Hemingway who wrote a lot about fishing of every sort really.

One of my favorite fishermen was a good friend, but he was my old Gunny. He found fishing wherever the Marine Corps stationed him. And if memory serves me right, yes he was not shy when it came to entering tournaments as well. Trout, Bass, Fly fishing, bank fishing, surf fishing, Marlin, Mahi Mahi, Blue Fin, Big Tuna in Hawaii, deep sea, off a pier, it never mattered to Gunnery Sergeant Jess Ferguson.

Jess Ferguson
Yes, he once said he lived to fish.  And although his love of the Marine Corps sat just second to his love for his family, his love of fishing was something that everyone knew about him.

All you had to do was mention that a fishing trip may be a possibility and he'll jump right on it. And as a matter of full disclosure, I learned to trout fish from my Gunny when I was a young Sergeant.

It was back in 1976, after finishing my tour of Sea Duty, I reported in at 1st Battalion/1st Marine Regiment, Camp Horno on Camp Pendleton. I was immediately informed that I would be assigned to Headquarters Training because I was awaiting orders for Instructor Duty in MCRD San Diego. At MCRD, I found out that I was assigned as an Instructor at Correctional Custody Facility on Camp Pendleton.

I was there a few months when Gunny Ferguson walked up to me, and in his Oklahoma drawl asked me, "Cor-rare, do you fish?" Yes, since in the military we call each other by our last names, he always called me "Cor-rare." That is of course unless he was being formal and then I was "Sgt. Cor-rare."

I remember telling him that, "as a boy in Hawaii, I used to enjoy surf fishing especially with my grandfather."

Then he asked, "Do you trout fish?"

"No, I don't trout fish," I said with a tone that he read as not being very friendly to the notion.

"Why not?" he asked looking me right in the eye.

"Because, when I first came to California, I went fishing with a friend from high school.  After we got our lines in the water, I asked him a question and he said that we shouldn't talk because the fish will hear us.  Imagine that!  So for the next 3 hours, other than getting a nibble now and then, it bored me to death!" I said while trying to make the Gunny understand how bad an experience it was.

"It sounds like you went trout fishing with the wrong people," he replied.

"Maybe but ..." then he cut me off.

"No maybes about it, Cor-rare! This Saturday you are off duty and will go fishing at KC Springs with my family and Staff Sergeant Kelly. No ifs, and, or buts about it!"

I had all week to get my pole and setup a tackle box with everything that I'd need.  In those days, if a Marine didn't have his own fishing pole and gear -- then he could probably get everything he needed on loan from Recreation Services at his unit or on base. I figured once done, I would turn the gear back in and be done with it.

On Saturday, while I was getting in my old '57 Chevy, Staff Sergeant Kelly asked me to ride with him. He had a Ford pickup that was outfitted to fish and travel. He had a camper shell with built-in fishing-pole racks, and he always had coolers and tackle-boxes ready for any moment's notice to go fishing.

Yes indeed, like Gunny Ferguson, Staff Sgt Kelly was definitely into fishing. In fact, looking back on those days, I can say without hesitation that there were a lot of Marines who were into fishing on the off days.

Now that was good since I didn't really know where KC Springs was located on Camp Pendleton, but it was bad since I wouldn't have my own car if in case I was bored and wanted to leave.

It was a typical sunny day, not a lot of wind, and the Gunny helped me setting up my leaders.  As we walked the few feet to the lake.  The Gunny's wife and kids sat on the tailgate of their station wagon. That looked sort of strange, but I didn't know if this is what they actually did when they went with him fishing.

The Gunny was the first to cast out, then Kelly and then me.  After we said down on the bank, I asked the Gunny, "So you think ...."

He then moved a finger to his lips and said, "Shhhhhh! They hear you!"

Just then Kelly got a bite and jumped up and screamed like a madman.  I looked over at the gunny and said, "Hey, what about Kelly?"

And yes, the Gunny just started laughing.

His wife and kids started laughing as well.  Then the kids started running around and playing.  His wife brought us beers and sandwiches.  And the three of us ended up catching quite a few fish that day.

It was a great day and a great time.  And yes, that was when I fell in love with trout fishing.  In fact, that's why my old '57 Chevy started smelling more and more like a fish wagon right after that. It seemed my off time after that day was spent fishing with Gunny or at the Base Stables dealing with horses. 

A few days later back at Correction Custody facility, a fellow Instructor asked how I enjoyed going fishing with the Gunny?  I remember being in sort of a hurry that day, and all I said was that "it was fine."

Well unknown to me, Gunny Ferguson just happened to have walked up and was standing behind me when he heard me say that "it was fine." 

Though I was leaving to rejoin my Platoon, I heard "Cor-rare, be in my office in 20 minutes."

Twenty minutes later, I was at his office. We went through a few ideas for new classes, and then he lit a cigar and offered me one.  I remember how we enjoyed White Owl Miniatures those days.

He then looked at me and said, "Did you have a good time the other day up at the lake?"

I can still remember his furrowed brow and him rolling that cigar from one side of his mouth to another as he waited for my response.  He knew that I wasn't the most sociable person those days, and in fact was sort of a lone wolf other than my friendship with Corporal Mathis who worked pretty closely with me.

"You bet I did Gunny. In fact, I went up there by myself the next day."

"Well, that's not what it sounded like when you were asked you if you did. You know it is okay to say it was fun.  And you know the secret of a good fish story don't you?"

"What's the secret?" I asked, waiting for him to hit me with some of his sage wisdom. And then it happened, as always, he didn't disappoint me.

He smiled and said, "Cor-rare, telling a good fish story doesn't mean you make the fish bigger.  What you do is keep the fish the same size, but you make the catching sound better."

It's something that I've always tried to keep in mind my whole life. A good story is just that, a good story is where you don't exaggerate the truth -- you just make the catching sound great.

I remember that it was during the summer in 1977 that Gunny Ferguson's name appeared on the First Sergeant Selectee List. I was so happy for him. He deserved that promotion more than any of the other Gunnery Sergeants who I'd known. He was truly an "Old Corps Marine." A "Marine's Marine." Someone to emulate, and proud to know. And because of what was taking place with me at the time, he would be someone that I would miss.

I remember his disappointment when I told him that I couldn't follow through with reenlisting. The fact is, I was in the middle of re-enlisting when I had stopped the re-enlistment process. I left the Corps because my father had been diagnosed with cancer. I left my beloved Corps because I wanted to be closer to my dad while he was going through whatever treatment came along.

A few weeks before I left the Marine Corps the first time, Gunny Ferguson and I got together and talked about my leaving. We definitely had a few beers that night.  He didn't know if he wanted to take the promotion to First Sergeant, because it meant he'd have to sign up for another two years. 

I remember him telling me that he was always in my corner and that he backed me as an Instructor. He went on to say that he thought that I should re-enlist because the Marine Corps needed NCOs who were "Old Corps" and not "New Corps." All in all, while I felt that I let him down, I believe he understood why I was leaving the Corps. 

Later that night, when we were both feeling the effects of too much beer, I remember how he wanted me to turn on the Fire Alarm at my barracks to roust everyone out of bed. He said if we got caught we could tell them that it was a drill to check on "fire safety procedures."

As I was walking away to pull the alarm, he stopped me and laughed that "we may want to rethink that action." So we had another beer. And yes, he said that I was making a mistake by getting out and tried to get me to re-enlist that night.

Throughout my life, I look back and feel that the only big mistake that I did in my life was my not reenlisting when I should have. I should have never left the Corps that year.  I was leaving the one thing in the entire world that I truly loved doing.  Being a Marine meant everything to me. I loved it. I loved the ceremony, the traditions, and the responsibility that went along with the title "U.S.Marine." 

As for the pettiness, the shit-details, and some jerks in charge? Whether we like it or not, that's all part of life. Such things are going to be found in every branch of service, and in the civilian world. The fact is attending to trivial things, having to do unpleasant jobs, and putting up with jerks who happen to be in charge is part of life both in and out of the Corps. We simply can't escape such things no matter how much we try.

The reason I left was that my father was diagnosed with cancer.  Months later, after I got out, that my dad's doctors admitted to making a mistake about my dad's diagnosis. While that was great news, I remember wishing that I heard that before I left the Corps.

It was then that I re-enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves. Being among other Marines was being at home for me. When at the "drills," it was a great feeling at first. But after dealing with Reservists for a few years, I found it a lot different than working with Regular Marines. Soon I became disheartened with the Marine Reserves. I remember being told that I should remember that Reservists were civilians for 28 days of the month and that I shouldn't expect to be Marines as if they were in the Corps one Saturday and Sunday of each month. Frankly, being a Marine only two days out of a month was not the same as living the life day in and day out.

Just a few days ago, I decided to write this story about Gunny Ferguson. Then I had the curious thought if whether or not I'd be able to find him using Google. So I typed in his name in the search box. And since remembered that he picked up First Sergeant after I left the Corps the first time, I typed in his rank. 

To my amazement, I found him. He was listed as living in Modall, North Dakota. Sadly though, he had passed away in 2009 at the age of 72.    
 
So who is Jess Ferguson to me? 

Well first of all, though I had other Gunnery Sgts over me over the years. he would always be my Gunny. He was an outstanding Gunny.  He was a man, who if he gave me the word, I would've followed him to Hell and back! And frankly, in my book, besides that he was an outstanding Marine, he was one of America's greatest fisherman. Yes, he was a good friend. 

He taught me how to fish for trout and bass. He taught me how to make priorities and keep my family first. He taught me what it was to be straightforward, not beat around the bush, have a commitment to duty while treating people under me with dignity and respect.

While at Camp Pendleton, I later spent my days fishing and at the base stables with the horses there. I know I repeat myself a lot in my articles, but that comes when wanting to remind myself more than my readers. In this case, I can't help but shake my head and smile, remembering him. And yes, I'll say it again, he was a great Gunny and damn fine friend.

To me, he's still alive both in my mind and in the stories that I tell about him. I still see that furrowed brow and his smoking a cigar. I can still hear his great Oklahoma drawl. And yes, he's still the man who I've respected and admired for pretty near 35 years. God knows he was a good man. And I know, he was a great Marine -- definitely "Old Corps."

Since it is my belief that people know, even after they have passed on, when people are thinking about them. I hope he can hear me saying, "God Bless you Gunny! Thanks for having my back! Semper Fi!"

Tom Correa

2 comments:

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