I met Leslie Cloud when I was in the Marine Corps Boot Camp in San Diego, California. He was proud of the fact that he was a Chippewa Indian from Wisconsin.
In boot camp we only knew our fellow Marines by their surname because first names were unimportant. However, if we took a liking to someone, we introduced ourselves. Leslie approached me first. He said, “Hi, my name is White Cloud.” I started laughing because I immediately thought of the toilet paper by the same name. When I noticed he was staring at me with a menacing look, I stopped laughing. Then he laughed and said, “My name’s really Leslie.” I felt an immense sense of relief because for a second there I thought he would pound the laughter out of me.
We shared the same set of bunk beds, so that made us partners for many of our boot camp activities. Actually, he picked me for his bunk partner, although I’m not sure why. He said that I had to sleep on the top bunk, and the way he said it, I knew I didn’t have any other option.
I never really learned too much about his personal life, but occasionally he would say something that revealed his past. I was a regular Marine and he was a reservist who would return to his reservation after boot camp. Sometimes he would reminisce about his life on the reservation, how he could hunt whenever he wanted. But other than that, he remained a mystery to me.
He had a sense of humor that today would be considered politically incorrect, but he always made laugh. There were moments when I thought he was the funniest man in the world. Unfortunately, laughing was not allowed in boot camp. So he tried to make me laugh at the most inappropriate moments. In the morning, we had to make our bunks and stand at attention. The goal was not to be the last one done, or you and your partner would be ordered to do pushups or another callisthenic exercise. The first day we were bunkmates, I thought I was making my bunk at breakneck speed. By the time I had finished tucking the hospital folds of the bottom flat sheet, Leslie began helping me with the top sheet. When I looked at his bunk, I was amazed that he had already made it. It was so perfectly made, too, that it passed the quarter-bouncing test when the drill instructor bounced a quarter on the bed to see if the sheets are tucked in tightly enough. “Where did you learn to make a bed like that,” I asked. With a wink of an eye, he said, “It’s an old Injun trick!” Then, he got serious and said that he had grown up in an orphanage.
When we were in infantry training, we shared a tent that we put up faster than any other team in the platoon. I realized that I had only assisted him while he did most of the work. We stood at attention for what seemed an eternity waiting the next team to finish setting up their tent. While we were standing there, I asked, “How did you put up the tent so fast?” He looked at me with a straight face and said, “Injun-uity!” I had to contain my laughter so as not to be punished for not being at attention. The incident I remember most? I was looking at picture from my last trip to México immediately before entering boot camp. I had a picture of my grandmother with her long black hair with traces of gray in the traditional Mexican braids and her dark brown skin and broad cheeks. I saw Leslie looking at the picture, so I told him she was my grandmother. He solemnly said, “So you’re one of us.”
Toward the end of our boot camp training, we were informed that we had both been meritoriously promoted to Private First Class (PFC). He began calling me PFC Rodriguez, and I called him PFC Cloud. Those titles sounded so prestigious in boot camp when most recruits were only privates. However, during the promotion ceremony, I was promoted but not Leslie. He showed no outward indication of disappointment. I never found out why Leslie didn’t get promoted. When we said our good-byes after boot camp, I asked him for his address so we could stay in touch. He said no because he wouldn’t write to me anyway. And that was the last I ever heard of him.