22 November 2011 

“Welcome Ta Cucumber Flats"

Anthony F. Milavic
Major, United States Marine Corps (Retired)


The afternoon of Sunday, 10 January 1960, I was rapidly approaching the end of a four-day Greyhound bus ride. Several months before, I received orders to an unfamiliar place called, the "Marine Corps Cold Weather Training Center, Bridgeport, California", now called the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center. Fortunately, the orders included Gunnery Sergeant Sharp who was also stationed at the Marine Corps Air Facility, Iwakuni, Japan. After searching him out, he explained how the Center was established during the Korean War to indoctrinate Marines in cold weather as the name indicates. That conversation was a persistent echo in my ear as the bus plowed through an uncommon snowstorm that engulfed the entire northern United States for the last three days of the journey. Coming from a month’s leave in Miami, Florida, I had an eerie feeling that the snowstorm was a frigid introduction to what awaited me in the mountains of California.

“Hey, Marine! Welcome ta Cucumber Flats!” shouted the bus driver as he pulled off Highway 395 to a stop.

Not understanding, “Cucumber Flats,” I exclaimed, “Do you mean me?”

“Ya don’t see any other Marine on this bus, d'ya?” he answered.

I stepped off the bus into some six to eight inches of snow and followed the bus driver back to the luggage compartment. “Excuse me,” I said, “But I’m bound for the Marine Corps Cold Weather Training Center and not ‘Cucumber . . .’ whatever you said.”

“Yeah, well, they call the place, ‘Cucumber Flats.’ Anyhow, here’s your gear,” he said in handing me my sea bag. He then closed the luggage compartment and started back to the door of the bus.

Looking about, all I saw were mountains and snow. In muted panic, I called after the driver, “Where’s the base or whatever it is?”

He turned and, with a smirk on his face, asked, “Ya see them orange stakes goin’ inta the mountains?”

I looked across the highway and saw a row of tall, orange-colored metal stakes rising from the snow and extending and disappearing into the mountains and said, “Yes.”

“They mark the road that goes ta ‘Cucumber Flats.’ It’s Route 108. Ya follow it fer about four miles and you’ll come ta the base.”

I’m thinking, “Follow those stakes for ABOUT FOUR MILES IN THIS SNOW!”

“Or, ya can go back up the highway ta the Highway Maintenance Station and maybe they’ll help ya.” He then turned, disappeared into the bus and drove off.

“Are you shittin’ me!” I thought as I stood there shaking from the cold in my Winter Service A uniform with my low-quarter dress shoes buried in the snow. Furtively, I looked back up the highway and saw some buildings—hopefully the Highway Maintenance Station the bus driver mentioned--several hundred yards distant: I shouldered my sea bag and headed toward it. The choice between trudging through snow for a few hundred yards and four miles was a no-brainer.

The Station attendant welcomed me with hot coffee and the use of a telephone: He said that I was just one of a long line of Marines who had appeared at his door. On contacting the Training Center, the Duty NCO advised me to hang loose and he would send an Otter to pick me up . . . an “Otter?” I didn’t bother to ask for an explanation. In passing the time with the Station’s attendant, I was, however, able to resolve another mystery. The term, “Cucumber Flats” was a play on the name Pickel Meadow where the Training Center was located.

The “Otter” turned out to be the M-76 OTTER Amphibious Vehicle that was also effective in snow. The main street of the Center went through the main gate and below the headquarter building. (Frankly, I use the term “building” loosely for it and most of the other “buildings” were Quonset huts.) On stopping abreast of the headquarters building, I noticed a bald-headed man in civvies walking down the hill toward the road with a Saint Bernard dog. “Who is that?” I asked the Otter driver.

“Oh, that’s Colonel Averill our commanding officer,” he answered matter-of-factly.

I sat there until my new commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Gerald P. Averill, and his dog passed by before dismounting the Otter and climbing the hill. On the way into the headquarters to report-in, I passed under a sign that read, “WINNERS NEVER QUIT - QUITTERS NEVER WIN.” I gave the sign short shrift for I was in a hurry to get out of the cold. The orders turning-in process went pretty Marine-normal until the Officer of the Day turned to the Duty NCO and said, “Take Staff Sergeant Milavic to Supply to draw his linen and Calihoopy suit. Then show him to the Staff NCO quarters.” He then turned to me and said, “You have to fall out tomorrow morning at 0700 for Calihoopies.”

As we walked out of the building, I asked, “What the f*** is a ‘Cali . . . suit’?”

“Oh, ya gotta draw a sweat suit, helmet, and gloves from Supply. But, ya use your own boondockers fer Calihoopies,” he answered.

I’m still confused, “What are . . . ‘Calihoopadydoos?’” I also had trouble remembering how to pronounce this new word.

“CALIHOOPIES . . . PT . . . physical training, every morning the whole Center falls out fer Calihoopies!” he explained with irritation.

“In this weather?” I asked.

“In ALL weather and Colonel Averill leads! You’ll see tomorrow morning,” he answered.

I haven’t even been assigned a job and I’m being hit with this Cali . . . stuff in the snow. Anyhow, I drew my gear and the Duty NCO showed me to a room in a Quonset hut I would share with Staff Sergeant Basil B. Goodrich; a room equipped with a kerosene stove. The Quonset hut did not, however, have a Head: the Head was in a separate hut. Many a morning, I would later observe yellow snow just outside the door of my hut.

I dropped-off my sea bag and headed for the Staff NCO Club where I found Gunnery Sergeant Sharp. He had somehow wrangled the job of eventually replacing Technical Sergeant Jesse Story as the Staff NCO club manager, but that didn’t mean he got out of Calihoopies. The only ones who didn’t have to make that morning ritual were those on watch or in the field with students. Gunny Sharp also introduced me to Technical Sergeants John Sheridan and Dempsey McLain who were assigned to the Evasion, Escape, & Survival (EE&S) Course. Since I was an 0369 infantry-type, they felt I would probably be assigned as an instructor in one of the three course in the S-3--Mountain Leadership, EE&S, or Unit Training. They also mentioned that Calihoopies were only conducted when the temperature was zero or above at Reveille—0600. It was the job of the Officer-of-the-Day to make that determination and announcement. For some unknown reason, I wasn’t comforted in hearing that.

At 0700 the next morning, I dutifully made my way to the main street of the Training Center—the one I came in on. It was a sight: a couple hundred grown men dressed in helmets, sweat suits, gloves and boondockers bent over digging holes in the snow with their hands. I was to learn that this was for push-ups. As forecast, down the hill above us came Lieutenant Colonel Averill and his Saint Bernard. He led us through some warm-up exercises as the dog wandered through the ranks of Marines and Sailors. Then, he gave the command, “Down for push ups!” As I was trying to keep my face out of the snow—my hole wasn’t fully developed—I heard the Colonel shout, “Corporal Kuechler! Go kick the Chaplain in the ass! His ass is sticking up!” I thought, “Corporal . . . kick the Chaplain . . . !?!” My face went immediately into the snow.

I survived my welcome to Calihoopies without getting kicked; showered up; and reported to the "head-shed" to complete my checking-in. Ultimately, I was introduced to 1st Lieutenant James K. Reilly. “Welcome, Staff Sergeant Milavic. You are now an Instructor-Guide in the Mountain Leadership Training Section,” he told me.

”Thank you, Sir,” I answered. “What do I do as an Instructor-Guide in the Mountain Leadership Training Section?” I asked.

“This time of the year, you will be teaching military skiing.”

“Lieutenant, I’ve never seen a pair of skis before,” I answered.

“Oh, don’t worry about it. You’ll go through the next class and learn everything you need to know,” he assured me. At the moment, the differences between “military skiing” and my romanticized ideas of skiing did not register.

Weeks later, I joined a group of some 30 Marines starting a new military skiing course. After a couple of days in the main camp area of the Center undergoing classroom instruction and an introduction to our skis, we moved out to the field where the slope for the down-hill skiing instruction was located.

As my classmates were setting-up a bivouac site in the snow, I put my gear into the instructor’s hut and joined my fellow Instructor-Guides. No sooner had I sat down than Master Sergeant Carl Raue, the Section NCOIC, took my rucksack and threw it out the door into the snow and told me to get out there with my fellow students.  In spite of what Lieutenant Reilly had said, I wasn’t accepted as a fellow Instructor-Guide. With tail between my legs, I left the hut to earn that acceptance by completing this reality course called, “military skiing”:

--The Ski Chalet was a snow cave.

--The roaring fire of a flagstone hearth in the center of a Chalet's Great-Room was the flickering flame of a candle in a C-Ration can in the center of a snow cave.

--Après-ski Hot Buttered Rum was catch-as-catch-can C-Ration cocoa.

--Down-hill Head metal skies were WWII vintage Northland wood skis with non break-away bindings—only ankles and knees broke-away. The following year, Staff Sergeant William R. "Wild Bill" Lightfoot jury-rigged the skis to accept Thermal Boots (AKA: Mickey Mouse Boots). These were pliable as opposed to the rigid WWII dual purpose Ski and Mountain Boot we were using and saved a  lot of ankles and knees.

--Hip-pack with Thermos was a rucksack with M-1 rifle attached. On falling during a down-hill run, the rifle butt  hit the snow first and was driven to the rear as the muzzle of the rifle went forward striking the back of the head  to remind the military skier he had screwed up.

--The chair-lift/T-bar was a temperamental rope-tow. The alternate assured means for ascending the slope were the sidestep and herringbone climbing steps; effectually, Calihoopies on skis.

--A couple hours on the slope in the morning and afternoon were training sessions lasting all morning, all afternoon and military cross-country skiing at night.

--The final exam was a night attack on an aggressor camp with the temperature far below zero and the wind-chill below that.

Of course, we had to ski back to the main camp after the final exercise. That entailed skiing down an ice-covered mountain road with rutted switchbacks during the night. I got a lot of “you screwed up reminders” from my rifle on that trip down the mountain.
On entering my room, I was stunned by the sight of someone sleeping in my bunk and just stood their staring incredulously until Sergeant Major Bill Conley, the Center’s Sergeant Major, awoke. He apologized, saying that he didn’t think we would be back so early—it was 0300-0400. Along with the commanding officer, he and other Center personnel served as the aggressors for our final exam. After the sergeant major had left, I took off my uniform, LEANED IT AGAINST THE WALL—it was frozen stiff—and hit the rack.

That morning, 21 February 1960, I stood with the members of my class--15--and received my diploma from Lieutenant Colonel Averill. Each of us suffered from wrenched ankles and/or knees, frostbite, aches, bruises and near incapacitating fatigue. Yet, those ailments were eclipsed by an invigorating sense of accomplishment: We had succeeded where some 15 other Marines who had started the Course with us failed. Ironically, the past three weeks were about much more than just military skiing as was inscribed on our diplomas: “MOUNTAIN LEADERSHIP TRAINING COURSE.” And what separated us graduates from the classmates who were not with us that day was the application of the Course’s leadership "lessons learned" encapsulated on the sign I had passed by on my first day here: “WINNERS NEVER QUIT - QUITTERS NEVER WIN.”


Semper “Welcome Ta Cucumber Flats!” 

 Anthony F. Milavic                                                                                                            Major USMC (Ret.)

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