I spent the next four days working out, as best I could. I had the endurance to run five miles straight, but I hadn’t regained the speed I one had before being shot and operated on so much. My fears about the coming academy stretch were active, particularly at night. I could no longer sleep at night like I once had. Instead of sleep, I stayed up in the dark, peering out of windows and listening for movements or any odd sounds in the night. I waxed the fire-engine red Volks, and it sparkled, its chrome wheel covers so bright in the morning sun that they appeared to be made more of glass crystal than highly polished chrome plating. I was going to go to work on the Bronco and give it its first-ever waxing until I polished one small spot on a front fender. I stepped back and had an epiphany. The Bronco was partially meant to be a stealthy vehicle, well-muffled but powerful. A vehicle of silent death. I smiled at the thought. I had no intention of killing anyone ever again, but I couldn’t scrub the killing of humans fully from my mind no matter how hard I tried.
Drinking alcohol didn’t help. It only made things worse, as it seemed to magnify my emotional reaction. I had to totally quit, which I had, to my wife’s welcome relief.
“Do you realize that I spend about three-quarters of my waking hours worrying about you?” she asked, one morning, as I struggled before her while totally hungover, trying to drink a cup of coffee but not succeeding.
Her words had bitten deep on that day, not that she really spent that much time thinking about me but as an illustration of my unsatisfactory behavior in being a dad and husband. I hadn’t had a drink since that morning in San Francisco.
My neighbor from the apartment directly across from our own was out polishing his Mustang. He couldn’t help but notice the two cars I now had to squeeze onto one driveway. He walked over to talk to me. I noted the Marine “T” shirt he wore. He wasn’t and hadn’t been a Marine, as we’d talked before about his job. He was a civilian contractor working on the Marine fighter jets stationed at El Toro, the Marine base I was familiar with.
“What the hell is that thing?” he asked, moving to the side of the Bronco which I stood peering at.
I didn’t get a chance to answer because he caught sight of the San Clemente Police sticker plastered to the passenger-side door panel.
“How can a police vehicle not have license plates, don’t they just issue those automatically?” he inquired, before continuing, “and you’re not a police officer, anyway, are you?”
“The plates haven’t come yet, Greg,” I replied, not wanting to go into detail. I had no title for the vehicle, no registration, no insurance I knew of, or any proof at all of whom or what the Bronco belonged to.
“So, are you a cop now?” he replied, seeming to not notice that I’d avoided the meat of his question.
“I start at the police academy on Monday,” I replied, again avoiding a direct answer.
“So, you’re going to be a cop?” Greg said.
I sighed. The man was smart, curious, and my unavoidable next-door neighbor. I couldn’t simply ignore him, but I also didn’t yet know what to reveal to anyone, much less someone who worked at the Marine airbase.
“Sort of,” I answered. Aside from security issues, I knew the telling my story so far, especially the part where I was working or somehow ‘taken in’ by the Western White House, was not believable. I didn’t need credibility issues in my own neighborhood. The Bronco had to go back to the police or the estate parking lot. It’s very existence and presence in front of my apartment simply would not work, and I couldn’t really let Mary drive it. No plates, giant tires that made it unstable on highway surfaces, and a beautiful woman at the controls. I could not think of a better recipe for a potential automotive disaster. Greg’s curiosity was an alert that I had to pay attention to.
I showed up at Rio Hondo Police Academy, located an hour’s drive from San Clemente, just up above Whittier, where Nixon was born. I discovered immediately upon entering the campus, that it was indeed a campus. The signs all read the same as I approached. Rio Hondo Police Academy was actually Rio Hondo Junior College. I parked and walked through the big double doors into the registration building. It took only minutes to discover that police training was done at the police academy portion of the campus, located on the rear grounds of the place. I drove to the back of the campus and parked again, this time near a banner-like curved sign that described the place. I sat for a few minutes, taking the place in. I knew immediately that my fears about an extremely rigorous and unforgiving boot camp type of program wasn’t what I was going to run into. A small ‘platoon’ of obvious candidates marched on the grounds, behind a chain-link fence. I could do that part. Marines march, maybe more precisely than almost any other military body on earth.
I got out of the Volks, not bothering to lock it. I wore my shorts and short sleeve shirt, having seen the candidates marching. I grabbed the hanger with my newly minted long sleeve SCPD shirt, plain white undershirt, and the trousers Jake had taken the trouble to have tailored on time. I also took my Marine boots, well worn, broken in and highly polished. Footwear was vital in any training environment and I wasn’t about to begin whatever training course was in front of me wearing new leather, not if I could help it. I’d arrived an hour before I was supposed to report in on purpose. I wanted the lay of the land and time enough to introduce myself and change clothes. I’d already discovered that thank God, I could leave at the end of each day and come back the next morning. I wouldn’t have to go through the barracks life experience again.
The two weeks passed quickly. The chief in San Clemente never called about my returning the Bronco to the department lot, Lieutenant Ehlow didn’t contact me either, and all was silent at the Western White House, at least as far as I was concerned. The strangeness of my situation remained steady and true. I was a ‘Casper the Ghost’ kind of character, which was comforting in the fact that I was left alone but with an ominous unknown and truly unknowable element to it. There were a few runs, calisthenics, and weight-lifting exercises but no forced twenty-mile marches or any of that. The harassment of D.I. instructors, some of whom were attired in Marine uniforms, along with the D.I. hats, was much easier to endure than it had been in regular Marine training.
Weapons training was also easier, as all the candidates fired .38 revolvers with range loads at seven-yard ranges. Shotgun training was more interesting and new to me. I’d never fired a twelve-gauge shotgun in my life, and the experience of using such a pump-actuated smooth-bore on moving field targets was challenging, while also being interesting and fun. The recoil of the Remington 870 was hard and solid if the stock was held to one’s shoulder, but easier to fire if held away from the body. All training was at close ranges, assumed to be what it would be like if the weapon had to be used in real-life situations. The very worst part of the course was going through the tear gas afternoon. Real CS gas canisters, rockets, and grenades were used before the candidates were required to enter a tent so as to endure what citizens would go through if the gas was used on them. The effects of the powder when so concentrated were horribly painful and long-lasting. It was so bad that after hours of exposure it was a challenge to be able to see well enough to drive home.
“Why have you been crying?” was my wife’s first question when I got into the apartment, trying not to stumble as I made my way to the kitchen sink.
I explained the training I’d just gone through, while I held my whole head under the pouring cold water coming full blast out of the spigot. Only the icy water, continuously streaming, gave full relief.
I looked down at the radios, mounted under the center of the Bronco’s dashboard. The regular police radio was closer. The other one, which was identical in make, except painted bright red in color, was the direct link to the Secret Service office of the Western White House. Only the central police department dispatch and the Bronco were tied into the Western White House. The dispatch by old fashioned landline, but the Bronco immediately available at any time by radio. The local radio twittered and cooed all the time. Short static sounds were interrupted with police chatter.
San Clemente only 'streeted' three cars full-time (two on graveyard shifts), yet the back-and-forth traffic on the radio was constant. The Secret Service radio never made any sound at all. The local cops, and Scruggs, all used ten codes. They said the number ten before they said another number code. I didn't know why. It seemed silly to me. "Ten-seven" meant you were home. But the officers all said "Ten-seven, home," anyway. Ten-eight meant at work. Ten-four meant you understood. There were more codes. I had a book of hundreds of them. I spent some time memorizing all of them. I especially liked "Fifty-One-Fifty," which was used to describe a person who was stark raving nuts (or ‘unable to care for his own safety or that of others around). The whole system seemed to be fifty-one-fifty to me.
The driving codes were mildly humorous, as well. Code One was driving like you always do (which is fast, for cops). Code two was really fast, with your rear amber lights flashing. Code three was with a siren and all lights. You could only get to code three with permission from Scruggs. I liked code 'Two-and-a-half," best, however. It was driving code three without permission, then lying to the dispatcher about it. The city of San Clemente was so small and cove-shaped, that running code three could be heard all over town, including at the dispatcher's desk. When someone ran code two-in-a-half, everyone knew. Scruggs would go crazy trying to figure out who was breaking the code three rule. Nobody ever admitted to it, but everyone did it all the time. The nicest feature about the local radio was that it had two channels. One channel communicated with the dispatcher at the station and the other, channel two, was car to car, and the station didn’t have access to that channel. Cops in the field could communicate with one another without worrying that whatever was said might make it into either the rumor mill or go up the line to higher command.
I decided to check-in at the Coast Guard Headquarters. At 0900 exactly, I walked in the door. Nobody noticed me. There was a central open office, where several men in civilian attire sat at desks. They all wore their suit coats, so I could tell they were Secret Service. It was too hot for coats. I figured it had to be one of their rules. I asked for the head agent. That made a few of them smile.
"Ben Williams. You want Special Agent in Charge Ben Williams?"
I nodded. I wanted to ask why agents were all called 'special' agents but did not. It was like the FBI. I had never heard of a regular agent. The desk agent pointed me to a door located at the corner of the building. I went over and knocked.
"Enter," a voice yelled, from within.
I stepped through, closing the door behind me. Ben sat at his desk. His suit coat was on too. I wondered if they took the things off at home. His office was not cool either.
"What do you want?" he asked. A phone sat off the hook in front of him. I presumed he had interrupted a call for me.
"Ah, just introducing myself. I'm the Beach Patrol. I was hired by Haldeman, I think, or so he said. Hell, I don't know. I just thought I should check in with someone, before starting the day." I did not mention that I didn't know what to do during that day.
Ben laughed out loud.
"So, you didn't want to check in with H.R.?"
I just looked at his large smiling face. His smile fell away.
"I can't blame you for that. First-class prig of a man. What'd he hire you for?"
I shook my head but said nothing.
"Typical. I wonder if he even knows. He's so damned busy trying to act smart he doesn't have time to be smart. Ehrlichman, though, that son-of-a-bitch is smart. Watch out for him in the clinches."
I just stood there astounded. I could not believe that a secret service agent would talk the way the man was talking.
"Who are you?" I finally asked.
"Ben Williams, head of the entire agency of the United States Treasure Department known as the Secret Service. This is the Presidential Detail. The class act of the whole shebang."
I had to smile at the man's presentation. He was a hard man not to like, I realized. I also began reflecting on the strange arrangement of power I had stepped into. Obviously, the head of the Secret Service did not care much at all what a presidential advisor might think about his comments. Who was who at La Casa Romantica, and what power they actually had, was going to be a difficult thing to figure out?
"Actually, I do know a bit about you," Ben said in follow-up, "and you don't have to check in with me, or anybody else you're likely to run into around here. Whatever you're really here for is a mystery. Somebody high up over there," he waved in the direction of the estate, "wants you around for something. That's okay with the Secret Service. It may not be okay with you. I don't know. You have a pretty damned good war record. Maybe they want you because of that."
I didn't know what to say about his presentation, so I didn't reply directly. Instead, I hedged a bit.
"I've got a Bronco out here with San Clemente Beach Patrol written on the side of it. I'm being paid from the White House though. I thought I'd just try to do the Beach Patrol job until somebody tells me to do something else. One thing though, H.R. told me that everyone started at 0900 around here. What did he mean? Am I supposed to report in? If I am, then to who?"
Ben stood up and stuck his right hand across the desk. "You have my approval, which you don't need. Nobody really reports to anybody at the level those guys are operating at. I'd just go about my business and wait to hear from them. They're not bashful, those people. But good luck. I'm sure we'll see one another around here."
I shook his hand, went back out to the Bronco, and headed for the beach. I had a lot to learn about creating a beach patrol out of nothing at all.
It took me almost half an hour to figure out how to get to the beach. Where the bluff did not rise too high to drive down, like along the entire front of the estate, brush grew so thick it was basically impenetrable to any kind of vehicle. Finally, I drove North to the first public beach I ran into, called Calafia Beach Park, then drove over the railroad tracks and onto the sand. The Bronco came into its own on the soft sand. It rose above the sand on its huge grooved tires. The detuned V8 was not so much detuned as it was set up to provide most of its torque at low RPM. The vehicle powered over and through things with an inexorably slow gait and inertia. On the street it was one of Ralph Nader's 'Unsafe at any Speed Vehicles,' but on the sand, it was home.
I drove to Trestles beach. A group of surfers sat on the shore working their surfboards, drinking beer, and puffing on homemade cigarettes. My silent arrival in their very midst caused a universal cessation of movement and the burying of many lit cigarettes into the sand. I stopped in the middle of, what appeared to be, more than a dozen frozen beach mannequins.
The Bronco idled, its six mufflers making it either pleasingly or deadly silent. Nobody moved or said anything, most of the surfers looking out to sea instead of at the apparition that had appeared in their midst. I looked out to sea and watched swell after swell roll in. I’d surfed growing up in Hawaii but never found the sport as entertaining as so many around me had. To me, it was, unless working down a twenty-five-foot wave, mostly a sport of waiting and being bored for long periods of time, not totally unlike police work, I was discovering.
I met the eyes of a few of the men, rather boys to me really. I wasn’t wearing sunglasses, like a lot of them. I’d already decided that sunglasses were an offensive look for a cop. I intended to project no aggressiveness whatsoever, particularly when I was able to go out as a regular enforcing peace officer for the State of California. All cops in California were the same and there were no geographical limits to enforcement within the state.
There was no enemy around me, I realized, as I tried to gauge the nature of everyone who was down on the beach with me.
“Forty-six-six-seventy-three,” came out of the small square speaker attached to the center of the Bronco’s shaped steel dashboard.
I replied, saying my identification number right back as an assent that I’d received the call.
“Ten-seven,” Scruggs said.
I waited but nothing more came out of the tinny little Motorola box.
Ten-seven was home. Did Scruggs mean I should find a way to contact my home, or go there, or come off duty, or what? Our apartment was three miles north on the beach and then a few blocks west up into San Clemente proper.
As I considered what to do, the radio squawked again. “Go to two,” Scruggs intoned, laconically, before ending the communication.
I hit the little switch on the face of the radio unit and then pushed down on the button located on the side of my hand-held microphone. Before I said anything a voice deeper than Scruggs gruff rumble spoke.
“Stockdale,” the voice said, “your wife called and wants you to get hold of her. It’s personal so Bobbie won’t say anymore over the general frequency.”
Stockdale was the watch commander, having just reached the rank of sergeant after taking the sergeants test for the sixth time. I’d only met him twice but I liked him.
“I’m only a few minutes away, sergeant,” I replied, keying my microphone once again.
“You’re on the beach,” Stockdale said back. “That’s no man’s land. Handle however you want. Almost never a call on the beach. Let me know when your ten-six again.”
I hung up the microphone. The San Clemente Police Department was nothing like the Marine Corps, especially the Corps in peacetime commands. The informality and distributed responsibility were vaguely uncomfortable but cloyingly and pleasantly familiar, as well.
I turned the Bronco south and headed toward the San Clemente Pier, running just beyond the reach of the waves beating into and slightly up the sand. The surface was hard but not as hard as concrete or asphalt. The Bronco responded perfectly. High-speed runs up on the softer sand were quite possible except for the fact that there were so many undulating low dunes. Running at forty-five, coming over a rise, and then trying to stop the vehicle in soft, and therefore slippery, sand wouldn’t do at all. People laid down towels between the sand swells to block out the wind.
Running at about thirty in third gear was no trouble at all and in only minutes I was passing the “T” Street overpass that ran high above the railroad tracks. A quarter-mile later I had to slow, as I was forced toward the railroad fence because the San Clemente Pier pilings were too close together and covered with barnacles to chance racing between. Going very slowly, I inched the Bronco through the people coming and going around the base of the long pier. At a quarter-mile, the pier was among the longest piers sticking out into the ocean along the whole Pacific coast. That the water at the end of the pier was only twenty-eight feet deep always surprised me when I stared down into the clear depths from the very end of the wonderful edifice.
I hit the clicker mounted on the visor above my head and the gates located at the lifeguard headquarters slowly clattered open. The long gates took about a full minute to fully open. The guards and all police units had clickers because there was no way the public could be allowed to cross the tracks. The trains running up and down from San Diego to Santa Ana and then beyond to L.A. ran at fifty-five to sixty miles per hour. San Clemente averages three train deaths every year, but none of them were auto-related. I’d been told it was usually beachgoers walking on the tracks and failing to properly gauge the speed of an approaching train.
I drove up Del Mar toward home. What could have caused my wife to call the station when she knew full well that I was working and not available for personal stuff?
In minutes I was parked in our driveway. I ran to the front door but it was already open. My wife stood waiting, holding a box about one foot square on each side.
“This package came for you, but I’m not sure it should be in our home,” she said, extending the package out toward me.
I took the box and examined it. There was no address information of any kind on it. The cardboard box had been wrapped with brown wrapping paper, sealed with clear tape, and that was it.
I looked at my wife, in question.
“An oriental man delivered it, maybe Vietnamese, maybe from the war,” Mary intoned, making no move to let me in the door with my package. “He said that you would understand and that the two Marines who were at Oak Knoll with you would not be a problem again.”
“Vietnamese,” I breathed out, more to myself than her. “About as tall as my shoulder, thin, with penetrating black eyes?” I asked.
“That’s him,” Mary replied. “I don’t think he blinked during the whole time he stood at the door.”
“Nguyen,” I whispered, my voice even lower, while I tried to think about anyone from the units who served within the A Shau who might have been at Oak Knoll.
There’d been none. And then it dawned on me. The treatment I’d received that had been so shabby as to almost be humiliating, the fact that they knew my nickname of Junior, the fact that I’d been discharged without question with open bleeding wounds, all of it came together like a crashing wave. All of it was confirmed by Nguyen’s few words. I wondered how he’d know where I was, how he'd gotten into the U.S., and what he might have done to the two Marines from my company who I'd not know were alive or back, much less in the same facility as me.
“What’s in the box?” my wife asked.
I stood holding the thing, realizing it was just about the right size to hold one single human head. Nguyen would never have delivered such a thing to my wife, however. That I knew for certain.
“I don’t know,” I replied, honestly. “Where did he say he was staying? How can I find him?”
I sat down on the steps leading up to our front door and cradled the box.
I’d known, however hazily, that Nguyen had made it out of the valley, so I wasn’t truly relieved. I smiled to myself. Once again, the strange Montagnard was saving me from things I didn’t even know I needed to be saved from, and somehow, he’d gotten into the states. He’d also resolved the mystery of the lousy treatment I’d received. I pulled out my modified Imperial Scout knife, the one I’d been awarded when I attained the rank of Eagle.
I carefully cut the tape along the top edges until I could unfasten the two cardboard flaps covering the top, and the other two supporting the first two. I peered down into the inside of the box. It was loaded with newspaper-wrapped pieces of something. I pulled a chunk of paper out that was about as big as a lemon, and then unwrapped it. When the paper fell away, I was holding a small ceramic statue of Jesus in a manger. There was no indication that it was Jesus, except for my memory. I knew what was in the box, all of what was in the box.
One miserable rainy night in one of the caves we’d help up in I’d told Nguyen about my love of Christmas. It hadn’t been a religious moment, however. I had merely mentioned my time in Chicago, living in a small home with a Christmas tree while I was in high school. Those years had been hard ones, and I’d spent a lot of time sleeping under the tree, inhaling the pine aroma, enjoying the multi-colored lights, and looking out the windswept Chicago scene in the front yard. A single streetlight lit the outside cul du sac in front of our house. Back then, the only relief I felt I had from anything in life was given to me by Christmas. I hadn’t believed in Catholicism or Jesus, but I’d believed in Christmas.
My wife saw the infant in the manger and then reached in to unwrap some of the other objects.
“These are nativity scene figurines,” she said, examining one of the wise men, “and there filigreed in real gold, I think.” She turned the wise man over. “Made in France,” she read. “These must have cost a small fortune.”
I stared at her, as she talked. Christmas was many months away. Somehow, I’d come back home to the wonder of her and our child. Somewhere out there Nguyen was still looking out for me. And I had Christmas back. My mind was already calculating what materials and tools I had to make a proper stable for the set, knowing that Nguyen’s gesture wasn’t a gesture at all. We were both back home. To new homes devoid of killing and war, or the other horrors that accompanied that word.
I knew the nativity set would remain with me for the rest of my life.
The Chapter Image is the actual Nativity Nugyen gave me 50+ years ago