My first day working with the Home of the Western White House, as the Cotton Estate was becoming known everywhere in and around the town of San Clemente, wasn’t a workday at all. After reporting in to the remarkably strange and alienating H.R. Haldeman, there was nothing left of the day. I went home, preparing some civilian outfit my wife and I thought might please Haldeman since everyone I’d seen at the compound had been wearing a coat and tie. Anything would obviously be better than my Marine officer’s uniform. Later in the day, I received a call at home to report to the San Clemente police chief, a call I couldn’t really follow up on or refuse to respond to. At three p.m. I drove to the police department, built halfway up a big hill overlooking the city, as a part of the fire and administration offices for San Clemente.
I didn’t have any idea of what to expect when I approached the front counter of the police department. A man with a name tag reading “Bobby Scruggs” sat talking on a desktop radio handset. I presumed him to be the department’s radio dispatcher. He looked over at me, didn’t stop talking, but motioned me around the counter and toward a closed door. I went through the unlocked door and stood in an unadorned undecorated white hall. At the end of the hall, I could see another door. Printed on that door was one word; “Chief.” I went to the door and found it also to be unlocked. I opened it and stepped inside. A woman sat at a desk, a big smile on her face.
“You must be the guy from the estate,” she said, pointing at another door.
I nodded at her, but there appeared to be nothing to say further. I went through the indicated door.
A man in uniform sat at another desk.
“Is that your vehicle?” he asked, without preamble.
“What?” was all I could think to say.
The man, obviously the police chief because of the stars on his shoulders, pointed out a window that showed the back police parking lot. I stared out, trying to figure what the man was talking about.
A Ford Bronco sat near the window, sand-colored, with giant fat tires at all four points.
“I don’t know,” I replied in surprise.
“They said you were coming to get your vehicle,” the chief commented as if that was somehow the end of our discussion.
“What’s the vehicle for?” I asked, dumbfounded by his statement. “You’re the new beach patrol for policing the sand, train tracks, and any other scrubland that runs around the Cotton Estate.”
“I am?” I asked, taking a seat in one of the chairs in front of the chief’s desk.
“I’m Cliff Murray, the chief here, which you probably figured out.” He said, and then laughed. “You don’t have a clue, do you, and that Bronco’s been sitting out there waiting for your arrival for almost a month, and finally, you show up, not knowing anything about.”
“What do I do?” I asked, not sure whether the chief liked my being where I was or hating me.
“You work for that prick in the Western White House, not me, that’s what you do,” the chief said, leaning back in his chair, obviously enjoying himself. “That idiot thinks you can patrol the beach and do God knows what else without having police powers. I’m here to tell you that you have to attend and pass the introductory course at the Rio Hondo Police Academy to become a California Peace Officer. Secondly, you have to have uniforms, which means you have to go to the police supply store in Santa Ana and buy a few. I’m sure they have an account with the federal government.”
“What uniforms do I order?” I asked, still stunned by the developments being showered down upon me“Who knows?” the chief replied. “You also need a gun and the rest of the stuff that goes with that, and you can’t possibly do the job alone.”
A silence settled over the room. I didn’t know what to say or ask and the chief didn’t seem like was going to volunteer any more than he had
“Will you help me?” I asked, not being able to think of anything else.
“I wondered what you’d do,” the Chief replied, leaning forward onto his elbows and looking deep into my eyes. “Here’s the deal, you go to the shop in Santa Ana and get your gun, leathers and uniform as a San Clemente Police Officer, and also get a couple of SCPD plastic stickers for the side doors of the Bronco. You sign up for the Rio Hondo Academy right away. You go back to the prick in the White House and tell him that you need to hire our part-time reserves, who don’t have much else to do in the winter, for ten bucks an hour each, you included. They get four bucks of that and the department gets the other six, which is four more than they get now. Finally, you work for that prick but you report to me about everything, and when you’re not working at the estate you come in and get a regular patrol car and support the city’s law enforcement effort by riding along or driving a squad car.”
My mind was spinning. Four dollars an hour was equivalent to what I was making as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Corps. If I worked most hours for the department, I would be doubling my pay. My wife and I were very close to being evicted from our apartment, among other financial problems.
“I’m in,” I replied, possibly too quickly, because the speed of my response once again made the chief laugh. I liked the man, a whole lot more than H.R. Haldeman.
“What if Haldeman says no?” I asked, wondering if what the chief proposed was really possible when dealing with people as obviously as powerful as someone like Haldeman.
“Then tell him that he can form his own police department, store and house his own Bronco, and hire the people he has to have to support what they are ordering you to do, which is probably a long way from what you’ll eventually really be doing.”
“The man doesn’t seem like an agreeable type leader,” I sighed, as I admitted the truth.
“Ehrlichman,” the Chief said as if I should know who that was, but I didn’t.
“Who?” I asked, befuddled again.
“John Erlichman is the ‘el secundo’ to Haldeman. Go to him and have him slip the deal right across the prick’s desk like they don’t have enough going on in that crazy mess of an operation. Ehrlichman is a good guy and he’s also a good acquaintance of mine.
“Let’s say he does it and we are okay to proceed, how am I to explain showing up in a San Clemente police officer uniform. He hated my Marine uniform and told me to get rid of it.”
“The prick’s a buff,” the chief replied. “I was a Marine a long time ago, in Korea. I don’t have a chest full of medals like you but never forget there are those like him who hate what you and I went through and did. He won’t even notice your police uniform, not that you ever have to wear it in front of him. He doesn’t go out to the beach parties and drink like the rest of them. He and Ehrlichman are Christian Scientists, so they don’t supposedly drink or carouse with beautiful women.
“Oh,” was all I replied, realizing that I was stepping into a world I had little or no clue about. I had no idea yet what I was supposed to be paid by Haldeman, unless it was my lieutenant’s pay in the Marine Corps, as I ran out my time, so the four dollars an hour resounded deeply within me.
“Did Haldeman serve in the military,” I asked, wondering if the chief could answer the question that was bothering me.
The comment he’d made about both Haldeman and Ehrlichman not necessarily staying away from booze or women hadn’t gone down well with me either.
“Navy, reserves only, officer, ‘nothing and out’ after the big war,” the chief replied. “Better not mention that to anyone, though.”
I got out of the chair and headed for the door.
“Call me,” the chief said, “or stop in any time. This is an unusual situation so whatever happens, is likely to be pretty unusual. The head of the Secret Service out at that place is a pretty good friend of mine if you get yourself stuck in a tough situation.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said, rising out of the chair. “One thing further,” I added, “Ah, you said that Haldeman was a prick, and I wonder why you used that term.”
“You used the phrase ‘not agreeable,’ and my word for that is ‘prick.’
I went out, thanking the chief’s secretary as I passed through her small office, and then waving at Scruggs behind the counter, who also seemed like a terrific guy. I got into my car, after pulling a small white note from under the windshield wiper. The note read: “park in the back from now on, the front is for clients and marked vehicles.”
I drove out of the small front lot, thinking about the note. In a way the note was one of acceptance, and I liked that. The San Clemente Police operation was squared away and friendly. I hadn’t expected that.
I had to get home and talk to my wife. She’d help me through, I knew. I was trying to play games with, and manipulate, the President of the country’s Chief of Staff. What was I supposed to do? I was nobody in the system, not the system of the United States Marine Corps and certainly not the United States Government. I was in way over my head and I knew it. It was only mid-day but I wanted to go to bed, get under the covers and hide.
I pulled into our driveway, slanting down onto Cabrillo Avenue, the driveway too short to even allow a Volkswagen to truly fit onto its surface without opening the garage door.
My wife was inside, waiting, while Julie drove around and around on the outside patio aboard a small battery-powered tricycle. She was a remarkable kid and fixated on the small vehicle. She’d drive for hours until the battery ran down, plug it in and then wait for hours more until it was charged again.
I’d filled Mary in on everything that’d gone down the day before but we hadn’t discussed much about any of it. We sat at the kitchen table. I loosened the only tie, not official Marine Corps, that I owned, hoping H.R. Haldeman had nothing against the British Royal Marines. The tiny insignia repeated though out the silk material was theirs. Colonel Fennessey had gifted it to me after he left, with a wonderful note.
I detailed every bit of what had happened with the chief and then waited.
Mary considered, lighting up a Kent filtered cigarette. The way she handled the cigarette was like physical poetry. I waited.
“The Bronco, that Jeep for the beach thing…” she said, surprising me. She took a drag from the cigarette and waited.
“What about it?” I finally asked.
“It’s been there waiting for you for a month,” she replied, blowing smoke in my direction.
“Yeah,” I said, wondering what she was getting at.
“It was there just before your brother was killed,” Mary went on. “You were never going to be commanding officer of anything at the base. They had to wait until you came back from Washington and the funeral. They sent you to RPS school for no rational reason at all, then gave you Top Secret clearance that only somebody way up in the government could possibly do. Somebody wants you for something and there’s no way to know what that is. The chief is guessing that too. They need a beach patrol force about as much as they need a water-skiing team to entertain off the shoreline. They could hire that done with the current police department, which the chief knows full well…and what they are doing there has probably made him angry, which is why he wants control of that outfit and you.”
I sat in silence, putting it all together. Every point she’d made fit perfectly into the mysterious puzzle that was being assembled and. developing around me. I was in the middle of it and couldn’t see through the clouds and mist, but Mary could.
“What’s the good news?” I finally asked.
“Money,” Mary instantly replied. “The reserve pay would change our life because there’s no way the president, which means his top staff as well, will be spending much time at the estate. You work for the chief when there’s nobody else there. Plus, when you write up the proposal for this Ehrlichman you put in a sum that you need on top of your lieutenant’s pay, which we’re going broke on. They want you badly for something. They won’t say they want you but everything they’re doing seems to point in that direction.”
“Well, okay,” I said, trying to take in everything she had said.
We needed the money, and what did I really have to lose other than possibly being sent back to Camp Pendleton and into the loving arms of Lightning Bolt.
“I’m headed over there to write up and give the proposal to Mr. Ehrlichman if I can find him in there. I didn’t know the president was here, but from what you’re saying he’d have to be here if those guys are here.”
“Pretty much, I think, but neither of us really know,” Mary said. “If they let you stay, then we’ll learn a lot more, but you have to be very careful not to say the wrong thing. It’s almost impossible for you, but see if you can spend as much time there as possible not saying anything at all.”
I hopped in the Volks, as Julie ground her electric tricycle by the railing along the top of the patio that ran above the garage. I sat with the car at idle, watching her pass by. I had a mission and I was dead set on carrying it through to success.
The gate to the compound was guarded by a different Marine, in fact, two Marines, a buck sergeant, and a full corporal. I stopped the car and both Marines walked over. I rolled my window down.
“You’re the new courier,” the sergeant said, motioning with one hand as the corporal moved the sawhorse, “You may proceed.”
I drove through, wondering about how strange security was, how they knew me on sight, and what a ‘courier’ might be. In RPS school they’d briefly used the phrase; “United States Courier,” and it had pertained to a traveling custodian of top-secret documents. Secret documents could be sent by registered or overnight mail, but not top secret. Those had to be hand-carried by a specially entrusted person, usually appointed by the State Department and only after an extensive background investigation.
I parked my Volks and went to the door, which magically opened, but with no Secret Service agent inside waiting for me. I walked down the hall and to the room where Haldeman worked. I stopped and leaned slightly around the edge of the door, trying to figure out what I might expect.
“Front and center,” Haldeman said, loudly but not with any nastiness in his tone.
I was hoping to find someone to tell me where Ehrlichman’s office was but there was no one about. I entered the room, walked to where Haldeman sat behind a big empty desk, and stood at attention.
“Knock it off,” Haldeman said, his voice dropping in volume, while he looked down at whatever paperwork he appeared to be working on. “You’re not in the military anymore, at least not here, and you’re not in uniform so stop acting like you are.”
“Here’s your new I.D. card”, Haldeman said, tossing an embossed card across the desk at me.
I caught it and then read the information on its front surface. The I.D. indicated that I was a courier and part of the White House staff. It was signed by G. Marvin Gentile, United States Office of Security, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, United States Government. It looked like the military I.D. I normally carried, but was weirdly different, in that all the printing was in red instead of black.
“What’s a courier?” I asked Haldeman.
“You,” he replied, still not looking up at me.
“Whose Gentile,” I asked, trying again since Haldeman wasn’t being very informative.
“Not a Jew, obviously,” Haldeman replied, smiling slightly while he read whatever he was reading on his desk.
“Yes sir,” was all I could think to reply, remembering my wife’s instructions about remaining as silent as I could.
Haldeman finally looked up to meet my eyes.
“You’re the beach patrol, so form that unit. Get over to Ehrlichman and submit the proper paperwork to make that happen. Get back to the police chief, incompetent as he is, and take him for a ride in the Bronco, which seems to be all he wants, idiot that he is. Buy a gun. Kissinger’s coming in. You’re his driver so get out there and make sure the limo is ready to head out to the El Torro airbase. He’s coming in about two hours from now.
“Yes sir,” I replied, still near totally mystified as to what was doing at the place. “I have to see Mr. Ehrlichman, get to the police department to give the chief a ride on the beach, and then pick up Mr. Kissinger at El Torro, not to mention buying uniforms and getting a gun.”
I stared across the desk at Haldeman, but he said nothing.
“How am I supposed to do all that in two hours. It’s a half an hour drive to El Torro alone.” My own voice had risen as I talked.
How could I be expected to do impossible things when there was simply no time in which to accomplish them?”
“Ehrlichman’s right back down the hall, the limo staff is waiting for you, and you really don’t have to drive the speed limit. You were selected because these are the things you can do, so go do them,” he said, waving his right hand in dismissal.
“You have carte blanche,” he finished, as I exited through the open door to his lavish but quaint office.
I turned and left, as he went back to reading whatever he was reading on his desktop.
The secret service agent appeared again, magically, once I passed under the arch leading into Haldeman’s office.
I stopped in front of him. He just stared at me.
“What’s this Mickey Mouse I.D. card?” I asked, holding my newly embossed and red-print lettered card out to him, “ And where’s Mr. Ehrlichman’s office?”
The big man turned and walked away, so I followed.
“That “Mickey Mouse’ I.D. card carries as much weight as a general officer in any of our military services, as you’ll no doubt discover. I’ll take you to Ehrlichman’s office, sir.”
“Now you’re calling me sir?” I asked my voice nearly a whisper.
“It’s the new I.D. card, sir,” the agent replied over his shoulder, “as I indicated.”
I sighed, but very quietly. The world I’d returned to was not the world I’d left, and it was so bizarrely different that I couldn’t quite grasp the extreme, but also very subtle differences.
The agent and I passed a closed-door I’d not noticed before. He pointed, but then kept walking.
“What does ‘carte Blanche mean? I asked the agent.
“It means ‘whatever you want,’ and it goes with the I.D. card you have,” he replied, before continuing to walk away.
I knocked on the door, figuring that Marine Corps tradition probably wasn’t something honored by the White House staff. I heard nothing through the door, nor did it open, so, after waiting almost a full minute, I opened the door and stepped inside.
An older woman sat at a desk, overweight but not entirely unattractive, except for her rather fierce expression. She stared at me.
I waited, again at the loose position of attention I’d come to learn was most acceptable when facing any personnel located inside the Western White House.
“Identification,” she finally said, holding out her right hand, as the Marine guards did at the gate.
I handed over my new I.D. card.
“She examined the card, made a few notes, and then handed it back. “What do you want?” she asked.
I ran verbally through the proposal I’d not yet written.
When I was done, she seemed to sniff, and then said that she’d tell Mr. Ehrlichman, before rising from her desk chair and going through a closed door located just behind her.
I wondered what she’d tell Ehrlichman if that was who was located in the office behind the door.
The woman returned a few minutes later.
“You may enter,” she said, waving one hand languidly, before taking her seat again.
I got up and walked through the open door, carefully closing it behind me. I was prepared to repeat my request, and then to offer to submit it in writing on the following day.
“The ten thousand is a problem,” a balding man with dark-rimmed glasses said, looking up into my eyes.
“It is?” I asked, surprised that he’d picked that piece of my presentation to his secretary, out of the mass of other things I’d requested.
“We’ll have to do a thousand a month, amortized, and paid out in lump sum at the start, or that won’t work,” He intoned, looking down at the notes he’d obviously made from what his secretary told him. “And you’re requesting nine hundred and ninety-eight dollars for a handgun. You’ll need more. I recommend, for your line of work, that you allot fourteen hundred dollars for a four-inch Smith and Wesson .44 Magnum, and an additional two hundred and fifty for the armory to provide you with depleted uranium penetrator bullets loaded up to the weapon’s maximum cupric pressure limits. Don’t worry about the police department. They only allow .38’s but the .44 looks almost the same, just don’t show it to anybody there
I was blown away, not just by how much of my verbal report had been transmitted to him by his seemingly normal-looking secretary, but by his ballistic acumen and knowledge.
“You were in the military,” I said, wondering if he’d answer.
“Army Air Force, B-17’s over Germany,” Ehrlichman replied. “Anything else?” he asked.
“Do I need to submit a written proposal tomorrow?” I asked.
“Nah,” he replied like we were done. “I think we got it all. Just stand by and everything will be done by tomorrow, or Friday at the latest. This is special budget stuff. Haldeman stuff. Who knows?” he asked.
“Thank you, sir,” I replied, not knowing what else to say.
I had to get to the police chief, give him his ride in the Bronco and then drive Kissinger to El Torro. What would be provided by the next day would have to take care of itself. The Marine Corps tightly held together and analytically precise training command behavior was fast becoming a thing of the past. The White House was more a combat zone, but not, hopefully, nearly as dangerous, although the .44 Magnum comments Ehrlichman made had been disturbing to me. What would I need such a powerful handgun for if I was merely a beach patrol officer and a high-classification document courier?