When the Marines told me about the 54-hour skill test they call "The Crucible" - a period in which recruits must complete a physical and mental obstacle course on almost no food or sleep - I felt pretty glad that I wasn't at Parris Island to attend boot camp.
I was there only as a journalist, invited to accompany close to 80 Tennessee and Alabama educators as they toured the base to learn more about what it takes to become a Marine. I could choose to participate when I wanted - i.e. when the Marines brought out big assault rifles and let us shoot them - and then opt out when I saw fit (like when the drill instructor made the group march in formation and parrot various command responses that I didn't feel like memorizing).
But I soon discovered that to make it back to Chattanooga, I would have to complete a "Crucible" of my own.
It started soon after we said our goodbyes at Parris Island and were bussed to the airport in Savannah, Ga., about 45 minutes away. We received our itineraries - booked and paid for by the polite, good-looking Marines who accompanied us - checked our bags and were on our way to Atlanta, where we would change planes to fly back to Knoxville.
Don't ask me to explain the logic in asking two journalists from Chattanooga (me and photographer Gillian Bolsover) to drive two hours north to Knoxville, only to fly south to Atlanta. We could have spent our two hours driving time headed in that direction and met up with everyone at the airport, conserving a little sleep in anticipation of the jam-packed schedule ahead of us.
But that's what the government had planned for us, so that's what we did. Well, it's what we started to do - until we realized that the 25-minute layover we'd been given to get from Terminal A to Terminal D in the busiest airport in the world probably wouldn't be enough.
We sprinted. We huffed and puffed. We even used puppy dog eyes to try to convince the gate agent to let us on our plane to Knoxville, but it was to no avail. We were stranded in Atlanta, with every flight for the rest of the night beyond booked.
Standby didn't seem to be an option, so we called our Marine friends and asked what to do.
Staying the night in a hotel was discussed, but ultimately it was decided that several group members had to get home and a more immediate solution was needed. There were eight of us, and we thought renting a van to drive four hours up to Knoxville was the logical solution.
We were hungry. We were tired. And we desperately wanted to get home. The Marine we'd be communicating with told us to go ahead and rent the van.
We did. I put the van on my credit card - a fateful mistake I'd come to regret.
The next few hours were a blur, because we were all hungry, sleepy and cranky. We didn't know each other very well but bonded quickly over issues related to who was willing to drive past midnight and how we would get our luggage back after the airport was closed.
The most painful part was driving straight through Chattanooga on our way up to Knoxville, knowing that I was going up there only to come back two hours south to get to my bed.
Gillian and I somehow stayed awake through the whole thing, ending up back at home somewhere around 3 a.m.
We were done with the Marine Corps, and apparently the Marine Corps was done with us.
When I submitted my receipt for a reimbursement of the van rental, just as the public affairs officer had instructed me, I heard nothing back.
I e-mailed, and heard nothing.
Finally, after a week, I called. The guy on the line - who'd acted throughout the ordeal like we shouldn't be bothering him with this - told me that he never promised us a reimbursement, so we'd just have to figure it out among ourselves.
I was out $280, basically, and he didn't really seem to care. I guess they must have already spent all of the $123,000 budgeted for our trip.
In the end, it kind of left a bad taste in our mouths. As DeWayne Arp, an intervention specialist at Loudon High School, put it in an e-mail to our trip organizers: "A lot of good will was developed between the Marines and educators (during the workshop). However, I feel some of that good will has been tempered by this development."
Now that I look back and see how overly friendly and accommodating the Marines all were during the trip and contrast that with our treatment after they were off the clock, I have to wonder how much of what they showed us was real Marine Corps spirit.
Was the whole thing just some sort of staged dinner-theater performance?
I guess maybe I'm just bitter, because although several group members have been nice enough to mail me checks, I still don't have all my money back.