I pulled away from home in the Volks, only wanting to escape back onto the stretches of beach I realized I was finding some solace driving, if not doing anything else productive. Vietnam had come again out of nowhere. Nguyen, reaching forward from the past, and so emotionally effective that I was smitten into silence over receiving the Christmas Nativity set. The wind blew through the open windows. It was neither too cold nor too warm, in other words; very Southern California.
I parked the Volks in the rear parking lot of the station and switched over to the nearby Bronco. I carried the keys with me, although at some point I knew those would have to be held somewhere inside the station. I drove to the beach, heading down Del Mar until I got to the sharp turn that led to the double electric gates that protected the railroad tracks. I hadn’t made it through those gates, with the lifeguard headquarters sitting on the other side when the radio call came through.
“The Chief wants to see you as soon as possible,” Scruggs intoned, neglecting the formality of either using my identity code or even my name. The call was sent on channel one, which everyone could hear too. The call was uncommon, to say the least, which meant there was something of real import behind it.
I sat with the Bronco idling. He knew. Somehow Murray knew, even though what had happened at Rio Hondo was supposedly going to be held entirely confidential. At the very least, my current driving of the Bronco was very likely to be my last. But there was no place to go or anything to do about it. If I was ‘divorced’ from the P.D. what would happen to my compensation package through the federal government, and what would be my status with the Western White House? There were no answers to those questions that I could conceive of as having any positive result. I collected myself, watching the surf smashing into the beautiful sandy shore, coming in and sweeping up almost all the way to the railroad tracks. It was almost high tide. I smiled to myself, both arms draped over the steering wheel.
I replayed what had happened at the academy in my mind, getting myself ready to defend myself as best I could. It was about the gas. My wife had picked up something from me when I’d come home crying, which would never have been such a long-term result of any regular gas training incident. Everything had been going fine, with graduation right at my front doorstep when the gas instruction had begun. I replayed in my mind everything that had happened, and everything that I’d been more than happy to put into the past, as I was in no great hurry to answer Scruggs’ obviously urgent request.
I’d been unaware until the instructor began his CS riot gas tutorial, that police were fielding a new weapon against demonstrators, rioters, or whatever. The new weapon was a canister device that strongly resembled the M-79 grenade launcher I’d experienced in Vietnam. The instructor, a huge bald-headed sergeant with a mean glint to his stare, stood and took the weapon down while standing in front of the assembled class of about forty candidates, me being one of them. Once he reassembled the canister device he loaded it with a shell that also resembled the M79. He turned to look at the bare countryside that went for half a mile along the south side of the outdoor class area. In the distance, a chain-link fence, with a couple of barb wire strands strung atop it could be seen in the distance.
“Well, hey, look at that,” the sergeant said, holding the grenade launcher in his left crooked arm and pointing out toward the fence with his right index finger. “That’s private property and a free-fire zone,” he continued and then worked to prepare to fire the device. I stared out to where he’d pointed and saw two kids on bicycles pedaling madly along down the eastern part of the fence. I stood up to get a better view, my mind trying to grasp what was happening.
Suddenly, the sergeant brought the device up and slanted it upward and in the direction of where the kids were riding. All of a sudden it occurred to me what he was doing. He was going to fire the gas grenade at the kids on the bikes.
I quickly pulled my.44 Magnum from the clamshell holster, held it up with both hands in front of me, and yelled as loud as I could.
“You fire that thing and I’ll shoot you where you stand, sergeant,” I exclaimed.
The sergeant turned his head to look over at me, standing about four rows back in the middle of other seated candidates. We stood that way for what seemed to be seconds until the students located between us parted like the Red Sea before Moses.
The sergeant lowered the canister device, his eyes never leaving mine. I immediately holstered my weapon and took my seat, as if nothing had transpired.
The sergeant placed the canister device on the table in front of him, from which he’d taken it, put his palms on the wooden surface, and leaned forward as if he was protecting the thing.
“The commander’s office, right now,” he said, his tone low and menacing.
I got up and worked my way through the other candidates, all moving and talking at once. The sergeant walked toward the school’s main building. I trailed him by ten meters or so, wondering whether I’d lost the job I wanted so badly and thought I had, with one very swift and nearly automatic misjudgment.
The sergeant walked inside the building, making like he was unaware of the fact that I was right behind him. The commanding officer’s door was open to our left. The sergeant entered but slammed the door before I could follow him.
I decided to wait, taking a seat in one of the straight-back chairs lining the hall. Ten minutes went by before the door opened the sergeant came out, marched down the hall without deigning to notice me, and left the building.
“Enter,” I heard come from the open office.
I walked into the commander’s office and stood before his desk in a position of attention, waiting for the worst.
“The sergeant is suspended, the commander said, sitting in his chair, his eyes not meeting my own.
“You’ll finish the gas training course and then you’re done here. Return to your unit in San Clemente. None of this will be spoken of again. You will be successfully credited with passing the course and then we’re done with you.”
I waited a few seconds before replying.
“Yes, sir,” said, relief flooding through me, and surprise. I saluted, as if I was still a Marine Officer, did an about-face, and headed for the door.
“One last thing,” the commander said before I could step away. “That man is one of my best. I’ve worked with him for three years. I don't think he would have shot at those children.”
I stopped for a few seconds, not turning around, and then decided that his statement called for no comment on my part. I’d survived. It was time to leave the field of combat. I walked quickly back to the entrance and closed the double doors carefully behind me when I was out.
The outdoor training center was as before, although the other students shrank back from me when I walked toward and then through them. I had to complete the course and I knew that meant I’d have to experience the chamber.
Real CS gas canisters, rockets, and grenades were used in the chamber, wherein the candidates were required to enter a tent so as to understand and endure what citizens would go through if the gas was used on them in the future. The effects of the powder, when so concentrated were horribly painful and long-lasting.
Two new sergeants were conducting the chamber test, putting four to five students or candidates into the tent at a time, zipping up the door, and then timing the event for about a minute before letting them back out.
The candidates came out coughing, crying, and pressing their hands over blinded eyes, to be escorted by waiting students back to the chairs where the ‘victims’ could sit and wait out the effects. I knew it wasn’t good when my turn came. I was guided by the two sergeants themselves and pushed through the canvas opening. I heard the zipper close and tried not to breathe, but there was no way to stop the immediate assault on my eyes, ears, nasal cavities, or still raw and nearly open scars on my torso. I was in so much agony that I went to the floor and automatically folded up into a fetal position. After what I knew had to be minutes hands that I could no longer see grabbed me and pulled me back through the opening. There was no way I could make it to the chairs or even know where they were. I was instead dumped on a patch of grass to suffer on my own and alone.
I tried to breathe my way through, wondering how much of the powder would remain in the fibers of my uniform, holster, and other web and leather gear. It was almost like laying on the floor of the jungle after being shot in the A Shau Valley, but even at a high level of pain, nothing like that terror-ridden trip through the very gates of hell. I breathed and waited.
It was over an hour before I could see, move to a standing position and stagger my way from the training area. Nobody made any effort to help me. I didn’t attempt to get to a bathroom back at the main building. All I wanted was away from Rio Hondo and away from my classmates and training officers.
The trip home had taken two hours as I had to pull off the Interstate several times to find a bathroom in which to bathe my eyes. I could drive with any of the other ancillary problems the gas created but I had to be able to see to drive.
I stripped off my uniform, belts, boots, and gun on the patio, leaving the equipment and clothing behind.
“Why have you been crying?” was my wife’s first question when I got into the apartment through the double glass door opening, trying not to stumble as I made my way to the kitchen sink.
“What kind of idiotic training are you going through? Do they realize that you’re not that long out of the hospital?” Her tone was anything but complimentary.
The return home had not been any more satisfying than my basic dismissal with a barely passing grade at the academy. There was no point in reviewing any more of what happened in my current position or time. I had only to prepare myself for hearing a rendition of the story which would no doubt be substantially different from my own.
Driving slowly up from the lifeguard headquarters I got myself mentally ready. I parked in the lot behind the building and made my way inside using the rear entrance, hoping to avoid any officers or staff. The Chief’s secretary waved me through the Chief’s door behind and off to the side of her, so I went through without comment.
The Chief sat behind his desk, facing sideways and smoking his customary Camels cigarette.
I stood at attention in front of his desk, suspecting but not knowing why I’d been called in.
“So, you get your rookie butt kicked out of the academy and draw your duty weapon for the first, and likely only time, on another officer,” he said, between puffs, not making the statement as anything that needed a question mark after it.
“You’re aware that no San Clemente police officer has ever shot anyone…ever?”
I said nothing, remaining at attention before him, staring straight at the wall behind him, while sardonically thinking about how the commander of Rio Hondo had stated that the event in training would never be spoken of again.
“We did have one officer who got drunk, drove down to Trestles Beach, cradled a revolver on top of his left arm, and shot at a seagull from his open window.”
The chief stopped talking to slowly inhale and exhale more smoke.
“Yes, sir,” was all I could think to blurt out in reply to what seemed like a pointless comment.
“That officer rested the barrel of the revolvier inside the crook of his elbow, instead of above it,” the Chief went on. “He shot most of his arm off.”
“Yes, sir,” I responded once more, not understanding why he was telling me the seemingly idiotic story, but also thinking about the fact that I’d survived the academy somehow but could be fired by the department, or at least barred from having any presence there, with impunity. I was almost certain that appealing to Haldeman would result in being fired by the Western White House, as well.
“That patrolman was drunk when he shot himself into permanent disability,” the Chief said. “What the hell is your excuse?”
I could not think of a reply that didn't portray me as some sort of child-protecting crusader, without the cape. I knew that such a portrayal would be a mistake and probably not fly at all. I had no way of knowing what the commander had said about what I’d done. I once more remained silent, trying to blink my eyes, still feeling the residual effects of the gas, with the smoke from the Chief’s cigarette not helping at all.
“The only thing I’m truly shocked about, knowing your background as I most certainly do, is that you didn’t shoot the son-of-a-bitch.”
I waited, but he didn’t go on. The silence lengthened, but all the Chief did was light another cigarette, having put the first one out in an ashtray made from the base of some old artillery shell. Finally, I knew I had no choice but to say something.
“I didn’t shoot him because I didn’t know if the canister launcher held a dummy round or not,” I whispered a bit, the CS having an effect on my speech, as it did on most of the rest of my damaged body. “I didn’t know, although I guessed, that the device had insufficient range to actually reach the kids at that distance, and also, I wasn’t certain that the overbearing asshole of a training officer wasn’t just showing off, in a macho display, for the candidate class.”
“Interesting,” Chief Murray finally said. “That son-of-a-bitch had and has no idea at all how close he came, and do you recall what I said to you earlier?”
“No, sir,” I replied.
“I don't believe you about that either,” the Chief said, laughing out loud. “You have this strange memory but I’ll go along. I told you not to shoot anyone with that thing.” The chief pointed at my holster briefly, with the hand not holding the cigarette.
“I didn’t, sir,” I said
“Okay, let me modify what I said, for future actions, or even thoughts about actions,” the Chief said, turning and dropping his second cigarette into an available space inside the artillery round casing, before staring up at me.
I brought my eyes down to look into his own.
“This isn’t the A Shau Valley,” the Chief continued, “you are not a combat leader, because this isn’t a combat zone, or you would be. Your mission is to protect and to serve and therefore I enjoin you to keep that hand cannon in its holster. Don’t take it out for any reason you or I might be able to conceive of. I’m not firing you simply because they’d probably just come and get the Bronco instead of trying to find someone else like you.”
He paused, before whispering “someone like you.”
“Yes, sir,” I breathed out, understanding for the first that I would not be let go over the incident, and trying to process the oddness of what the man had said. Finding someone else like me, and its difficulty, was either a compliment or an insult, but I couldn’t figure out which.
“Alright, now get the hell out and don’t come back in again under any such circumstance,” the Chief said, waving his hand toward the door. “You somehow managed to do the right thing for all the wrong reasons. Is that what happened in that valley?”
I didn’t answer his question because I didn’t really understand it. Instead, I executed an about-face and headed for the door, passing his secretary, and walked as fast as I could to get back to the Bronco.
“Nice work,” the woman, wearing a name tag that said ‘Pat Bowman’ on it, murmured quietly as I went by.
In the parking lot, with no one else anywhere around that I could see, I sat in the Bronco once more and messaged my stinging eyes. I was a mess in every category and dimension, but at least I still had the job. The main road into the heart of the city was downhill all the way. I started and idled the Bronco for a few minutes, still sitting there, before realizing that I was done. Fatigue overwhelmed me. I turned off the ignition, locked the vehicle up, and went over to my Volks, only a couple of spaces away. I knew the only good effect of the CS gas exposure would help get me home in one piece. I couldn’t close my eyes properly without my lids snapping back open, and therefore I wasn’t going to fall asleep during the short ride home.
I slept from late afternoon and then through the night, my wife down on the couch in the living room because of the residual particles of CS that could not be completely scrubbed from every part of my body. I was up early and so was she, my uniform out, pressed and ready. I drove to the station and exchanged my Volks for the Bronco and headed back to the beach. There was nobody on the beach in either direction, once I got through the gates. The sand was clean flat and pristine everywhere I looked.
The heat of even the morning sun reflecting from the sand required that the Bronco be made to move, for some air-circulation, if the windows were to be left down. If the windows were up, then the air-conditioning had to be running, but then outside sounds could not be heard. The solution was to keep the vehicle moving with the windows down. I drove very slowly up and down the beach of my responsibility, occasionally rolling on the beaches of Northern Camp Pendleton or more south, onto San Clemente State Park territory. The movement made me feel that I was actually doing something, other than riding around in a costume of my own design, inside a Bronco mythically proclaiming itself to be San Clemente Beach Patrol. The day passed without incident or radio call and I was slowly able to get my mind back together.
The weeks rolled by, one bright sunny day passing on into the next. The evenings were cool and invigorating, filled with the aroma of ocean water and the liveliness of fresh moving sea air. I rode the smooth and roughened sands of San Clemente's most abandoned beaches, the surf in certain areas breathtaking on good days, and deafening on stormy days. I had come to an accommodation with both the lovers and the border-crossers. and deafening on stormy days. Other than the surfers (who comprised about three percent of the people I saw, and with whom I had no interaction) I had come to an accommodation with both the lovers and the border-crossers.
The lovers I allowed to stay and make love, as long as they did not complain about the presence of my vehicle in any way or the presence of me and my binoculars. The mildest look of antagonism, however, assured them of a rapid escort to the borders of my beach area. The State Park closed at ten p.m. Camp Pendleton was off-limits at all times, and my area had no public limits I had heard or read of, other than I might impose.
So, it was my beach, the way I saw it, and I treated all who inhabited it accordingly, using my own rules. The illegal aliens up from Mexico were another matter, and the easiest to deal with. They never argued, when encountered. I gave them a free pass through the area every time I found them attempting to creep North. I made them crouch low, along the surf line, and run north. In my analysis of the compound security system, I discovered a weakness. The low-level scanning radar didn’t detect anything between the high sand berm beyond the railroad tracks and the water's edge. If the aliens couldn’t understand my communications to them, or disobeyed and went up onto the dry sand, where they could be instantly 'painted' by the radar, I had no choice but to detain them and call for the Border Patrol. That seldom happened, however.
I hated the interdiction of the illegal alien part of the job. The ‘beyond-poor,’ totally bedraggled, and down-and-out Mexicans, were so pitiful that their mere appearance pulled at my heartstrings. And my observation of the brutal manner in which the Border Patrol took them into custody, and treated them, didn’t motivate me to cooperate with those agents at all.
The first three ‘real’ weeks at my new work were mildly exciting. I’d been 'boarded out' of the United States Marine Corps with zero percent disability, but with a designation of 'totally disabled.' That allowed the Corps to dump me, but not pay me anything. I was given forms to submit to the V.A., which I threw in the wastebasket. I’d heard enough stories of horror and woe about that organization, and the last thing I wanted was some combat-related psychological analysis to follow me around for life. I liked the beach work, for the most part. I liked watching people making love, or close to it, right there in front of me, at all hours of the day and night. I liked the freedom of not really having to report to anyone. But I didn’t like going home to my wife’s criticism. My claim, that I was guarding the President of the United States, only made her laugh and shake her head.
“You went through OCS, became a Marine Officer, were wounded in Vietnam, got all those medals, and you are happy being an unknown low-life security guard on the beach, making almost no money at all. What’s wrong with you?"
I backed the vehicle into some big rocks, then shut it off to think. I was working swing. The P.D. divided up every twenty-four-hour period into three chunks. The day shift was from eight to four. The four to midnight was called swing, and the midnight to eight was a graveyard. I liked the swing, although, apparently, and in what practice I so far had, I could work any shift or part of a shift that I felt like. As of yet, nobody seemed to care what I did, anyway. The pay was considerably more than I had received as a lieutenant in the Corps so the bills were being covered. I’d requisitioned my duty .44 Magnum, and all the other stuff from the shop in Santa Ana, and nobody had said a word about those rather considerable amounts.
"Beach Boy," came out of the radio speaker, jarring me from my thoughts. My hand darted to the Motorola microphone.
"Forty-six-six-seventy-three," I replied in my best policemen's voice, pressing the button on the side of the small hand-held unit. My code was five numbers long, the rationale for which was never explained, as the entire department only fielded twenty-seven officers.
"What's your problem, forty-six-six-seventy-three?" came back from Scruggs. His tone did not indicate a question, more a bored 'what the hell are you bothering me for’ kind of attitude.
"Beach Boy," came again through the speaker. I realized that it wasn’t
coming from the P.D. speaker, but the speaker connected to the Secret Service. I grabbed the other microphone, without bothering to say anything further to Scruggs.
"Yes, sir," I said, pushing down on the transmit button. There were no codes or numbers with the Secret Service. When I had asked them about that they had just looked at me, then ignored me.
"See the man," a deep male voice said. I replaced the mike, slowly back into its slot. I pushed the transmit button down once before I let go of it. I had been taught that that small click was radio slang for "10-4” at the other end.
There was no answer or click back from it. I stared at the Bronco and then turned to move north. The only way to get back to the compound quickly was to go up through the State Park trail, then use the city surface streets. Once I got onto the streets, I took the Bronco up to its unsafe maximum of forty miles per hour. I careened toward La Casa Romantica.
The Marine had the sawhorse pulled aside as I arrived. He merely waved. My adrenalin went up. It was the first time I had not been required to show identification. I was not even asked to stop. I parked by the phony door leading through the wall, after working my way around an odd-looking Lincoln Town Car. The top of the black Lincoln was festooned with antennas of every sort. I walked to it, using my hand to shade my eyes, and peered inside. I was amazed to see no radios or other electronics visible anywhere in its interior. I went to the door in the wall, tapped, and was admitted. A group of men in suits stood talking together. One wore a cowboy hat. I recognized Murray. Next to him stood H.R., with Ehrlichman at his side. All three men were attentive, standing next to a fourth man I did not recognize. He was a fattish man, wearing a blue suit, his face long, drawn, and serious.
"Beachboy," Murray said, before laughing gently.
I nodded at him but said nothing. He smiled back with his usual welcoming warm smile. I relaxed a bit but still came to a more formal position of Parade Rest once I stopped in front of the men.
"This is Henry Kissinger," Murray said, motioning with his right shoulder toward the stately man in the blue suit. The man looked down the hall, ignoring his presence, as did both H.R. and Ehrlichman. The three men whispered to one another, then laughed together.
"Take that limo,” the Chief said, “the one you passed when you came in, and drive Doctor Kissinger to El Toro Marine Base. Air Force Two is waiting on the tarmac. We'll all ride along in the car to keep you company."
I looked at the Chief strangely, but Murray only smiled back, before shrugging mildly. Everyone in front of me turned at the same time and then walked back toward the faux wooden door. I got into the driver's seat of the limo. The keys were in the ignition. I adjusted the mirrors, then checked to see that everyone was getting into the back. They were, except for Murray, who slipped into the front passenger seat. He had removed his hat, but his head still touched the lower surface of the interior liner. I turned the key. The Lincoln's engine caught immediately. I checked the mirrors to make sure all the doors were closed, carefully put on my seat belt, and then pulled out onto the access road and headed toward the checkpoint. The Marine Guard was saluting when I went through, the sawhorse gone.
Once out on Interstate Five, I looked in the rearview mirror. There was no limo partition, I noted, and there was no conversation in the automobile until I drove through San Juan Capistrano.
"What and who is he?" a deeply accented German voice said, from the rear seat area. "How can we speak in here?" it added. There was a silence.
Murray reached his hand over and patted me on the shoulder. I glanced at him, then put my eyes back on the highway.
"This is the guy Mr. Haldeman hired. From that Marine Outfit,” Murray replied. “He doesn't talk, at least not about anything we might talk about. He's cleared. Isn't that right, sir?"
Murray craned around to look back at Haldeman, seated next to Kissinger but the man said nothing, merely turning his head slightly to look out the limo’s window.
I looked at the German in the rearview mirror, finally recognizing him for who he was. I’d seen him on television before, at the White House, but I hadn’t been able to recall what his job was until that moment. I looked into the rear-view mirror and met his cold staring gaze. I smiled, but he didn’t return the smile. All I could read from his was deep suspicion. I smiled, but he didn’t return the smile, instead of looking out his side window, like Haldeman was. All I could read from his was deep suspicion.