The crowd was stirred up for the coming run, as Danny Ongais climbed into the GTO and belted up. Mickey and his helpers, many more than had been around before, gathered behind the car and pushed it to a place just a few feet from the starting line. The near-identical GTO in the outer lane from the small grandstand was the same color, the same body style, although it motored on its own to take a place with its front tires right on the starting line. Ongais was giving away a few feet simply because he didn’t want to idle the engine and possibly give away the fact that the headers were too loud, what with the eighth of an inch holes Smokey had drilled through the top of each of the eight pipes.
Everyone backed off and the cars were announced. I was expecting what came in the announcement about my GTO but it still hurt a little to hear it:
“The 1966 stock Pontiac GTO hardtop running a factory 389 with three deuces, driven by Danny Ongais.”
The record books, if the car won, would likely forever show that Mickey and Danny had won the race.
The Christmas Tree lights cycled up and down three times, and then settled with only the top lights on, and waiting. There was a smaller ‘tree’ in the center, just ahead of the two racers, with lights on both sides of it. The top two lights were lit there, as well.
Danny turned over the engine of the GTO, while the other GTO brought its engine's revolutions up to a screaming maximum. The lights began to cycle down, blink on and off as they descended, one after another, until only one light remained at the bottom. The crowd remained totally quiet. After a slight delay, all of the last lights lit up together.
Both cars took off in first gear, more smoke coming from Danny’s competitors' rear tires than his own. From the stands, it looked like both cars ran together without any advantage of one over the other, but the billboard at the end of the quarter-mile was clearly visible with its huge numbers reading out the time of each racer.
Both sets of numbers on the far billboard stopped changing, as the GTO’s finished their runs. Danny’s first number 13.03 and the number next to that was 106. Mickey’s competitor ran at 13.66 and 103. The second number I knew was in miles per hour. My GTO had just become the Winternationals E Stock Eliminator.
The crowd went wild. Mickey stood between the Christmas Tree lights and took bows.
I looked out to see what had happened to my car. All I saw was a blue shape aboard a trailer being towed away. I was amazed at just how fast Mickey’s guys had followed his directions. I knew I wouldn’t be riding in the pickup truck home. It was already on the highway headed for the gas station.
I found Mickey, hanging back with some of the other drivers and mechanics near where we’d prepared the GTO. His mood was not what I expected. Before I could say anything, he spoke.
“It was all a waste,” he said, his tone one of dejection, a tone I’d never heard from him before. “He was disqualified after the race, so I didn't really beat him officially at all. It’s like he was never here.”
“But you’re E Stock Eliminator at this year’s Winternationals,” I reminded him, with a smile on my face.
“E Stock,” one of the mechanics, who almost never spoke, replied. “E Stock to Mickey Thompson is like A.J. Foyt winning a go-cart race.”
I knew A.J. Foyt’s name but not well. I knew he’d won several of the Indianapolis 500 races, but that was about it. I got the message, though.
E Stock was nothing to Mickey, at the level where he raced and lived. He would be E Stock Eliminator for the rest of his life in the official records but it meant nothing to him. It would certainly have meant something to me but that was, apparently, immaterial.
“Let’s get back,” Mickey said, cleaning his hands with some orange goop and a few rags. Water was a precious commodity in the informal pits of drag racing, and not to be wasted washing hands or other body parts. “Jump in the 442. We’ve got to get back and have the guys rebuild your goat for the street.”
The journey was a silent one. Mickey kept the top down on the 442 and drove like a madman as if he was angry about something. I could not understand what was bothering him, but what with the wind and very rare periods of stopped silence, there was not much I could offer or question.
Mickey was E Stock Eliminator and I was the guy who needed his only car back in some sort of street-driving condition.
The shop was quiet when we got there, nobody on duty to wait on gasoline customers. I immediately went to the office, finding it unlocked as usual, and set the register for business.
Mickey was prowling around the mechanical shop part of the station when I found him in the back. He gave every appearance of wandering about the place with no real intent.
“What are you doing, boss?” I asked, not understanding why the amazing man in front of me seemed so lost.
“You’ve been great, “ Mickey said, not paying attention at all to what I’d asked him. “Your car and all the other stuff…your amazing wife, your kid, and all the strange stuff I’ve heard about you. Thanks for being a part of this. Your car will be ready in two days. I think I wanted to be more like you.”
I didn’t know what to say. It was like the man wanted to have a deeper friendship between us and wasn’t capable of making that move or accepting such a move in return
The strange beep generated by a car running over the small diameter lengthy hose out in front of the station made a small bell ding.
“You got customers,” Mickey said. Keep the money today. You’re going to need it as you get new instructions. Man, you have a great wife.”
Mickey left in the 442, making no tire screeching or racing takeoff to get into the traffic passing by on the nearby highway. I worked the rest of the day, taking in small sums of money. I put the cash into the register. I wasn’t about to leave the shop or station and have anybody think I wasn’t grateful for all that had been done for me. I worked for two days until the guys were ready with my GTO.
The GTO ran like a dream, but only at RPMs above 3,000 of the specially prepared V8. Three thousand was twenty-three hundred above the engine’s idle speed. Although Mickey had been more than kind enough to change out the racing slicks back to street tires (which had also required new rear rims because of the wood screws he’d used to hold the slicks to the rims for the elimination run) and replaced the plexiglass side and back windows with the original (and much heavier) real glass, the engine had not been gone back into. The higher compression, requiring more expensive fuel, and the high-lift cam made any operation of the engine, under the three thousand, an adventure experience not unlike sitting inside a giant blender filled with rocks with the speed adjustment set to a variable. Gasoline was thirty cents a gallon but with the GTO now getting somewhere around six miles per gallon, as long as the accelerator was not pushed on too hard for too long, that still meant that filling the tank cost six bucks. Six bucks for a tank when my total pay from the Marine Corps was three hundred and thirty a month. The car also only held twenty gallons, so even when filled the brim of the downspout it could only travel about a hundred and ten to twenty miles on a tank.
My wife hated the car. She’d not liked it before but still learned to drive it, even though she was only five feet tall and could barely operate the clutch with the driver’s seat all the way forward. Mickey had installed a thirty-five-pound clutch for the race. Now, Mary could push the clutch down with her foot but only hold it down for about ten seconds which didn’t work well on any of San Francisco’s hills where stop lights and signs were all over the place. Trying to wait on a hill behind traffic with the clutch pushed in fully or the transmission in neutral was a bother to me but sometimes impossible for her. She also hated the sound, any kind of real acceleration, but mostly the money the GTO consumed.
I loved the car. I loved that it started, every time almost instantly. I loved the sound and I loved the acceleration, understanding after some street racing myself that what Mickey had said was most probably totally true. He’d said that there was no production car outside of a 427 special built and very rare Shelby Cobra that could beat my GTO, not without pretty extreme modifications.
I was on my own for most of the day. Mary, Pat, and Julie were off to some shopping center across the Bay in Sausalito, where I knew they’d spend most of the day, even though neither of them had much money. My wife only drove the GTO if it was absolutely required and even then, would not drive it up any of the hills in or around San Francisco, which pretty much left almost all driving out of the question.
I sat in the car for a few minutes before starting it. Mickey and Smokey were gone, the cars he’d been working on gone as well. One of Mickey’s mechanics pumped gas, although could go in at any time and run the operation, as no more mechanical work was being done. I was due to report at Camp Pendleton in two weeks so there was not much time left. Mickey and Smokey had gone south to San Pedro, or somewhere south in the state. Camp Pendleton wasn’t far from the speed shop Mickey had there but I had a feeling that I’d never see either man again.
The night before I’d sat up into early morning hours. There were no fields of fire to be surveyed for the potential of coming enemy action. The small apartment window, offering the only view available from the place, didn’t allow for much in the way of observable paranoia. I’d spent some time simply going through the thick San Francisco telephone book looking for certain names once all three network test patterns came on, indicating, following a short military equipment film and the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner, that television transmission was done for the night.
I’d found Fessman’s parents' names unless there were more than one couple named Mr. & Mrs. Randall Tarndale Fessman out there somewhere. That Fessman’s parents would live so close to where I ended up seemed a stretch but I’d already been introduced to some really strange coincidences in my life Their address was in Sausalito, across the Golden Gate Bridge, and on the northern shore of the bay.
I decided that I was going to take a swing around the bay, across the Golden Gate to Sausalito, try to visit Fessman’s parents, over the Richards Bridge to the west side of the bay and then swing on down and stop at the lighthouse. The tolls for all three bridges would total almost three dollars. I had the money, and not much more, because of the pocket change, Mickey gave me at the station. My wife had complained to the Colonel in Washington, while she was on the phone getting my orders changed, about the fact that my pay had never come through. The Colonel promised that I would be paid at the instant I reported into my new command, so I had to be careful of every dime.
I knew I had to get into uniform, and I would have to do so for the first time without any assistance from my wife. The buttons might be difficult, but I could not show up at Fessman’s parent’s home in civilian attire. I needed to let them know what had happened to their son from the commanding officer who’d been there when he died, and I needed to look like that commanding officer. And then there was the matter of Lightning Bolt. I could not let that go. Someone had to stand up for the Marine Corps and for all the Marines the man had violated over the years. If things went south then I wanted to be wearing my officers’ bars and Green Class “A” uniform for one last time.
I pulled the Colt down from the top shelf of our bedroom closet. The wooden presentation box was heavy, mostly from the weight of the four-pound weapon. I opened the box and read the inscription carved into a brass plate glued to the red silk of the backing: “Military Skills Award, presented to Second Lieutenant…and so on…” I realized at that moment I had no holster for the weapon. I pulled it from the box, depressed the magazine release detent, and quickly observed that I had one in the chamber and five in the magazine, just as I’d learned from the NRA shoots I’d been on as a kid, and the habit of underloading I’d taken with me to Vietnam. I had no place to position the automatic on my body. Sticking it in the back of my trousers would not work. That worked only in the movies. In real life, such a placement of a heavy weapon would only end up falling out under any duress at all or, worse, maybe causing the carrier to lose some vital anatomical parts accidentally.
There was only one option. I’d have to place the weapon on the passenger seat, maybe with a paper bag or section of the newspaper over it. I set the automatic aside, leaving the single round in the chamber, the five in the magazine re-inserted into the butt of the automatic. I clicked the safety on. I hadn’t felt the kind of warm security I felt since before I’d left the Basic School, seemingly so long ago. I knew inside my very being that I was not a predator among predators anymore. I was a predator among prey.
I got into the uniform blouse using a bottle cap opener. The opposite end to the cap opener was a bent pry end kind of thing. I put the pry end in the buttonhole, and then pried the coat closed, buttonhole by buttonhole, securing each button when the opening was in the perfect position to do so.
I was ready. I went downstairs, locking up behind me. With any luck at all, the women would never even know I’d left the apartment. I carried the Colt inside a folded section of the morning paper. Once inside the GTO, I placed it carefully on the seat next to me. I would not have any need of the weapon until I got to the lighthouse, if then. If I got pulled over, then the seat next to me was occupied by a newspaper, not an automatic Colt .45.
The trip across the Golden Gate was fast and easy. I noted that fifty miles per hour in top gear was running at three thousand rpm. No wonder the car had only made it to 106 miles per hour in the quarter-mile. Its top speed was geared exactly to that. The GTO got to top speed extremely quickly but then topped out at a relatively slow 106 miles per hour. A big block Pontiac station wagon would hit 113 mph, but not get there nearly as quickly.
I found the Fessman home without trouble. It was set into the side of a long row of nearly identical three-step walk-ups, all made of brick with small perfectly kept grass lawns out front. The number on the door of the Fessman house was 821, written in bright white letters against the shiny lacquer black paint of the door.
I parked my GTO across the street at an empty curb slot. I checked the .45 but it was secure. I got out locking the doors as I went. I didn’t delay in walking across the empty street, climbing the stairs with no railings, and then pushing the doorbell button.
A tall heavily-built, middle-aged man answers the door. I spoke through the screen door, introducing myself and telling him that I’d come to discuss their son’s death in Vietnam. The man opened the door and I entered, walking by him. The hall opened up into a living room area. I stepped through the big opening and saw the man’s wife sitting on a sofa behind a low coffee table. The big man passed me and then sat down next to his wife. Without being invited I eased into a big overstuffed chair angled opposite them. They said nothing. They offered nothing. I thought that a bit strange but decided to do what I had come to do, tell them the truth that no Marine Corps telegram would ever get close to.
I began with the time leading up to the final night, but I got no further. After only a few minutes of my recitation, the big man got up, walked around the coffee table, and then to stand in front of me, only a few feet away.
“You son-of-a-bitch,” the man hissed out. “As sure as we are sitting here you killed our boy. You murdering bastard.”
I just looked up at the man’s angry agonized face in wonder and shock.
He then leaned forward and down, grabbing me by both upper arms in a very powerful grip. He jerked me upward. I stood. He then dragged me, almost literally toward the front door, which he kicked open when we got there. No words were spoken again. He took my body and seemed to lift me bodily into the air, before tossing me quite literally through the air. I landed on the grass down at the bottom of the stairs, seeming to almost be absorbed by it as my full-frontal torso landed flat and hard. I heard the door at the top of the stairs slam with a resounding crash.
I fought for breaths until they came. I then fought to breathe in and out deeply as many times as I could, before trying to move. I knew there had been damage, as I felt the warmth of blood against the skin of my chest. My mind could not take in what had happened. I humorously thought about the fact that I’d worn my greens instead of my blues or whites. At least the grass stains wouldn’t show, as we didn’t have the money to have the uniform cleaned.
I crawled on my hands and knees down the slight decline of the lawn, until I got to the low brick wall at the bottom, sectioning the lawn off from the sidewalk on the other side. I carefully and gently pulled myself erect, staring across the street where the GTO was parked.
“I can do it,” I whispered to myself, taking first one small step and then another.
There was no traffic or I might not have made it. Once behind the wheel of the car I knew I had to start it and get away from where I was. The 389 cranked up on the first turn of the key, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I didn't look over at the house I’d been thrown out of, instead concentrated on getting away to a safe place. The GTO idled around the corner and up a slight grade. I pulled to the curb, once again, this time to attempt to get myself together.
I realized, leaning into the steering wheel, shaken by the calculated. but never prepared for, intermittent shaking of the entire vehicle due to the installation of the high lift cam, that what had happened wasn't something I was capable of understanding or dealing with. I would have to tell my wife, and soon. She would know what I’d done so very wrong and what I might do to fix it.
I got the GTO underway and headed for the Richmond Bridge. I glanced down at the newspaper covering the .45. I knew in my heart of hearts, however, that I would rather shoot myself than either of my radio operator’s parents. Colonel Lightning Bolt was another issue entirely.
I drove slowly, the mental pain I was suffering much more significant than the fact that my chest incision hurt like hell. I worked to maintain control and to try not to think about the visit to Fessman’s parents. I approached the island from the east side, paying the toll for the bridge that I was going to stop short of using until my business was done. Upon reaching the parking lot to the lighthouse I shut the GTO’s engine down. The beating of the eight-cylinder engine stopped but only after resisting for a few seconds. I wondered if I was a bit like the engine. Was I trying to shut down but the forces of the universe would not let me?
I reached over and folded the newspaper around the Colt. There was no way to get the weapon inside my uniform, and no way for me to get out of any of the uniform alone. I packed the weapon under my right arm, as if I was delivering a late newspaper, and then began the long walk down to the office part of the lighthouse.
The corporal and the buck sergeant were there as if no time or actions had passed during the rather tumultuous days before.
Both the corporal and the sergeant came to a position of attention as I entered the office.
“Stand at ease,” I ordered, wondering about the formality of their reaction. “Is he in?” I asked, shifting the weight of the Colt from under my arm to let the package rest in my right hand down my side.
“Junior,” he said. “He said you were not who you claimed, but were this other officer.”
I noted that both the corporal and the buck sergeant could not keep their eyes from flitting down to the newspaper package I carried in my right hand.
“Well?’ I asked, my voice going down so low that it to be hard to hear the word come out.
“He’s gone, sir,” the buck sergeant said. “He’s transferred. We’re all transferred. The orders came in hours ago. This office is being combined with the Southern section.”
“So, where is he right now?’ I asked, realizing that my dual missions for the day were both going down in flames.
“He’s got orders, like I said,” the buck sergeant replied.
“To where?” I asked, not having much faith in being told what I was being told.
“The corporal and I would be honored sir, Junior, to drive you home. The corporal would give one of his eye teeth to drive that GTO and I’m only too happy to follow on my motorcycle to bring him back.
“Okay, I’ll agree to that, but only if you tell me where he’s being transferred.
“Okay, sir, it’s a deal. He’s being transferred to Camp Pendleton,” the buck sergeant said.
“Well, I’ll be,” was all I could think to reply.
Was it a bad day, sir?” the corporal asked.
I thought about the question, unable to put the different incidents together in order to come to some valid conclusion. After a few seconds of silence, it came to me.
“Hell no, it was a great day. I’m E Stock Eliminator in the Half Moon Bay Winternationals.”
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