Leather Feet and Dick Marcinko

By Scott Longman

Many years back, I had the disconcerting experience of having a boot sole mostly disengage while miles into the backcountry. The boots were a respected brand, and I’d inspected them before going, but they’d shown zero sign of any impending problem. I like to pack on the lighter side, especially with big elevation changes, as there were on that trip, so I didn’t have a second set of footgear. Fortunately, I had a small stash of fix-it stuff, including hockey tape and zip-ties, which held the sole on enough to return to civilization.

When I got back, I gave that issue some extended thought. Full loss of a boot out there could be anything between painful and outright dangerous. I thought I should try hiking over various surfaces in just socks, to see how it went. Predictably, smoother surfaces were mostly fine, but once you get to gravel about dime-size, it was not so fine, and rocks the size of golf balls were impassable. That did not take into account adding the weight of a 45 pound ruck. I knew that it had to be possible to toughen the soles of human feet, if only because our ancestors started walking upright about 3 million years ago, with nary a shoe store in sight. But instead of going all true-grit on that idea, I candyassed out and simply added a set of lightweight backup shoes to the load.

Fast forward a number of years, and a federal contractor I was working with landed a contract with the Navy to conduct “Red Cell”-type training. Long gone was the unhinged anarchy wrought by the original Red Cell run by the legendary Richard “Demo Dick” Marcinko. The Navy, apparently, would not stand for having admiral’s wives getting harassed anymore. Instead, what we would be doing would be highly restricted, set-piece exercises with defined participants, limited geography, and controlled timelines with eyes-on regulation.   

But since the first base we were scheduled for was one that Marcinko knew inside out, and since he had done what we were about to go do (which may win “Understatement of the Decade”), I thought hey, why not call him up just to see if we could employ some tiny fraction of his experience.

One of my buddies happened to have Marcinko’s cell number, and, to Marcinko’s credit, he instantly agreed to meet. Which led me one day to be seated in an Applebee’s in Warrenton, Virginia.

It’s not every day you get a personal audience with the freakin’ founder of SEAL Team Six, so I did my most respectful due diligence. I’d first read his autobiography, Rogue Warrior, when it’d come out long before, but I now re-read and marked the hell out of it. I also gathered all the information I could from those I knew who had some contact with him, or knew somebody who had. I even stopped at Fort Myer to get a fresh flattop, lest he think I presumed permission for relaxed grooming standards.

Marcinko stomped into Applebee’s, a big bastard in a trident shirt, shorts, sandals and that wooly beard, looking like something from Where The Wild Things Are. And his personality and speech were also right where you’d’ve hoped they’d be: colorful, hilarious, vehement, engaging. Now, Applebee’s sometimes gets a bad rap. We can safely dispose of that: the Applebee’s staff, rather apparently acquainted with Marcinko, immediately brought a pitcher of Killian’s Red without either of us asking, and no words were ever necessary for its more than one replacement.

He jumped into what Red Cell accomplished and how they’d done it, with great flair. While it was fascinating, it became evident within a few minutes that my team could use almost nothing of what he had gotten away with. Essentially, he didn’t have a real ROE but we now had a draconian one. I still took notes and enjoyed the hell out of it.

And then it hit me: there was a perhaps apocryphal story about him deciding to toughen his feet into horse hooves. As the story went, after he reported to federal prison (for those unfamiliar, yes, he did federal prison time), he decided to keep himself busy with all manner of PT, to include daily runs. On a cinder track. Without shoes. Or socks. It was said that he would walk back into the facility leaving bloody footprints. Understandably, the prison staff had no sense of humor about that. They didn’t make him stop running barefoot, but they did require him to put on footgear before entering the building. So I asked him if it was all true.

He immediately leaned back and swung a big gnarly thing that looked more like an ancient tree root than a foot up on the table. He took off the sandal, then pulled out a wicked folding knife, snicked it open, and handed it to me. Gesturing to his heavy callus, he said: “Go ahead.”

I will now blame the Killian’s, but right at that moment, it seemed to be a perfectly good idea to stab the founder of Seal Team Six with his own knife.

I went ahead and did it. Thankfully, I didn’t go overboard, or else he probably would have torn my head off and kept it for an ashtray. The callus was unbelievable. The man had developed honest-to-heaven natural foot armor.

Of course, I instantly had two questions: how long did it take to develop that, and what do you have to do to maintain it? Answers: a couple of months to start, then at least a barefoot hike or two a week.

So, if you ever wanted to do this, there are your answers.  Me? I am very happily keeping my candyass backup shoes.  

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