The driver of the Lincoln limo was a man I didn’t recognize from the compound, but then I wasn’t surprised. I circulated among but knew very few of the men and women who constantly flowed in, through and around the Western White House and its grounds. I was so low on the totem pole that nobody had much of any reason to talk to me about anything. I took orders and followed them, and that was it.
“Get in,” the driver said. The window went back up.
I understood. He wasn’t getting out to open the passenger door. I didn’t rate that. I opened my own door and got in. I’d never driven one of the special vehicles, even when driving Kissinger back and forth to El Toro.
The ride was quick and uneventful. When we got to the gate the Marine waved us in without any delay or complication. I got out when the Lincoln stopped not far from the entrance to the inner portion of the compound. I was surprised the driver didn’t take the limo to where the others were normally parked and make me walk.
“I’ll wait,” the driver said before I slammed the rear door. He’d surprised me again.
Since I hadn’t driven my own car I’d need a ride, not that the two-and-a-half-mile run on the beach back to the main pier, which was only a quarter mile from the apartment, could not have easily been done. I wasn’t dressed for running, however, nor for working the beach patrol function. I wore what had come to be known as the ‘uniform’ for White House work. Leather shoes, shined, dark socks, khaki trousers, and a short sleeve button-down white shirt. There were no adornments of any kind, not even a name tag.
I went up to the door, and it opened, as it always did. Security at the complex was much more about on-site and immediate recognition than it was about producing documents.
The hallway was empty. There was no Secret Service or U.S. Marshals present at all standing guard. I moved to where the hall opened into the great room, the big windows sparkling with salt crystals but allowing the sunny beautiful view of the breaking surf beyond to come right on through.
Both Haldeman and Ehrlichman sat at their desks, neither of them looking up as I approached. Once in front of Haldeman’s desk, I stood, at a relaxed form of Marine Corps attention, and waited. I purposely ignored the paperwork on his desk, which my eyesight allowed me to read upside down and then remember. I worked at not reading and memorizing. Finally, the man stopped what he was doing and leaned down to the floor at the left side of his swivel chair. He pulled up a paper bag large enough to hold a bowling ball. He put the package in front of him and then shoved it across his desk, like whatever was inside the bag he didn’t want close to him.
“Open it,” he said, once more returning to the paperwork in front of him, still never having looked at me directly.
I opened the top of the bag and peered inside. A zippered leather case was revealed, but only the top, which had no identifiers on it.
“It’s a Polaroid camera,” Haldeman said, finally stopping whatever he was doing to look up at me. Take the camera to where they’re building the Dana Point Marina and snap a package of film of the under-construction marina pier, isthmus, or whatever the hell it is. I particularly want the very end of that structure from all angles.” As soon as he was done talking, he turned his attention back to the papers on his desk.
“Take the camera to wherever the driver is driving you inside the harbor,” Haldeman said, looking back down to either read more of his voluminous piles of paperwork or simply because he didn’t consider me to be important enough to even look at while he was talking. “The driver will instruct you as to what you need to cover. Give the finished photos to him when you’re done, and that’s it.”
“That’s it?” I repeated, feeling stupid. “What do I do with the camera?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Haldeman replied, shaking his head like he felt I was being stupid, as well. “Get rid of it. Keep it. Give it away. Nobody cares.”
I pulled the leather case out of the bag and then threw the single thin strap over my left shoulder. I turned without saying anything further and walked away. I was already well schooled about the fact that Halderman didn’t do hellos or goodbyes.
The limo sat idling, awaiting my return. I got into the back of the vehicle, noting once again that the driver didn’t open the door for me, as he did for everyone else. I was going to do the actual work of the mission but he was obviously in charge.
Security let us through without stopping the limo or snapping out a salute. We were just through the gate and gone as if there really was something secret about taking pictures of just about anything or nothing outside the compound.
The driver guided the Lincoln along gently, obeying all the traffic rules of the road, which I myself usually violated. Having a badge meant that most of the traffic rules simply didn’t apply unless they were of the major variety or ended up in an accident. Most cops might stop another cop if they didn’t recognize the person or car but they wouldn’t normally write up another member of the ‘big beer brotherhood,’ as most of us called it.
I read the camera manual in the back seat, but not before catching the receipt for the thing that fell out from between the manual’s pages. $89.00. I could never have afforded the camera at that price, not that it mattered. It was government property. The two boxes of film in the bag were probably beyond my threadbare budget, as well.
The instructions in the book were very simple, and well-described with plenty of illustrations. The Land camera took pictures almost all by itself in regular light conditions. All I would have to do is point the thing and press the shutter lever, pull out the film, develop it and then do it all over again ten more times. Mardian, who Haldeman was obviously fronting for, wanted ten shots, or one roll of film. I eased the camera out of its case. It weighed a ton, or, in reality, about four or five pounds. It was a big hunky piece of equipment that couldn’t be mistaken for anything other than what it was, but then I wasn’t on some sort of secret mission as I had presumed earlier, where recognition might mean anything. The Lincoln was the biggest giveaway and whatever I was doing was kind of special. Most photo buffs didn’t get out of the back of a limo to photograph scenery, or whatever it turned out I was going to take pictures of.
The driver guided the Lincoln onto the Pacific Coast Highway and then on into Dana Point. He turned at the main signal near the bottom of the hill and drove into the construction site that was fast becoming the Dana Point Marina. As we passed into the construction site itself, we saw a small sign indicating that the book Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana had been written about the place. It was posted atop a strangely assembled braced pipe affair stuck into the disturbed ground. Only then was it evident that the formerly quiet and almost unused harbor formerly used by whalers was becoming a full-scale yacht harbor.
Through the dust and rough gravel of the construction road’s surface, the Lincoln made its way to the base of what was an extension of filled land sticking out into the middle of what was becoming the outer harbor. That harbor was only partially completed with so much activity it was hard to figure out what big machine was doing what job. The limo stopped some distance away to one side of the earthen promontory on the north side.
“He wants a roll of that, so take some on this side and then we’ll go around so you can shoot directly at it from the breakwater road across the water.
“That’s it?” I whispered to myself but asked no questions. My mission was to take pictures of the ‘pier’ area and that was what I’d do. The mission was laughable, but what the hell? I was also coming to understand that certain things assigned to me were like pieces of a mosaic. I could only see and evaluate my small bit. I could not see or even imagine the whole assembled picture.
Working with the camera proved even easier than I’d thought from reading the manual. The box of film opened smoothly, a smaller box falling out as it did so. I knew the small box contained the stick of the developer that had to be rubbed across the front of the developed film once the images appeared. I took five shots and motioned to the driver, as I walked back to the Lincoln. I got inside. The driver worked the limo around the interior of the developing harbor with construction equipment and trucks moving to allow him through. The gravel road was rough so the trip took about ten minutes. Once there I took the other five shots, waiting the few minutes it took for the images to appear before rubbing the strange-smelling, but not entirely unattractive developer, over each one.
We drove out of the development. Once clear, the limo covered in dust, the driver pulled back onto PCH and began the trip back. Halfway along the route the man pulled a brown envelope out of his breast pocket and held it up over the lip of the back of the front bench seat.
“Put them in there,” he intoned, his eyes staying glued to the road ahead.
I followed his orders before replacing the camera back in its bag and then relaxing into my well-padded seat. I didn’t ask where he was driving me, as the options were basically only two. Either he’d drop me at home or we’d return to the compound, from which I’d either have to walk or run home. I was relieved when he steered the limo onto El Camino Real before turning down Avenida Cabrillo, my street.
Once in front of the apartment, I got out, dragging the camera bag behind me. Before I could slam the door, the driver leaned partially to face the passenger seat, with his right arm extended over the top of it.
“The name is Sam,” the driver said, before inexplicably going on to say, unaccountably, “thanks.”
I frowned at the man’s smiling countenance. I had no idea why he was telling me his name or seemingly happy about the ridiculous exercise we’d performed together.
“Nice to meet you,” I got out, trying not to show just how surprised and a bit nonplussed I really was.
“Mr. Mardian said you and I’d be together for the third one,” the driver replied.
“The third what?” I wanted to ask but instead simply closed the back door of the Lincoln and headed across the street.
I knew what the third one was, at least what the single word meant. The third mission. What Sam might have to do with it was a puzzle I couldn’t figure out, and I knew I wasn’t meant to. The staff at the Western White House, almost to a person, exhibited a strange droll sense of humor, at least the way I was coming to view it.
Our apartment was empty when I entered. There were only two places Mary could possibly be. Either next door at the Werve home, where she and Janet were friends, or she and Julie were down at the beach. I presumed the beach. I didn’t want to check at the Werve apartment because Nick, Janet’s husband, was a Vietnam Veteran like me. He’d been a fighter pilot, flying a Phantom while I was there. We didn’t talk about Vietnam at all, although I thought he might want to. Like Mislovic, my mailman, however, Nick didn’t seem too pleased by whatever he’d gleaned about what I’d done while in country. I dumped the camera bag onto the living room couch, got the keys to the Volkswagen, and left. I needed some relaxation time to think.
I parked the Volks in front of Galloway’s Restaurant. It was a tiny restaurant set on the south side of Del Mar Boulevard in the main area of San Clemente’s upper downtown. Coffee was only twenty-five cents, and I could afford the quarter. Although it was lunchtime, I usually only ate a sandwich at home for the mid-day meal or, if I had reason to be there, I was sometimes able to grab a free meal at the compound. Security members weren’t normally allowed to eat in the compound cafeteria but the staff running the kitchen and cafeteria probably weren’t sure about what or who I was. Nobody asked others questions in the compound, not that they didn’t already know the answers to. The quiet well-oiled operation of the Western White House breathed a silent air of suppressed malice. I didn’t make a habit of going in to eat, but so far hadn’t been encountered by anybody like Haldeman, who would assuredly be troublesome over the issue of my improper presence. Fortunately, the man took his food delivered directly to his desk on every occasion.
Tom and Lorraine Galloway ran the place, and it was always a pleasure to sit, drink coffee, and watch and listen to the discussions of local businesspeople who gathered there around lunchtime. Lorraine was the expressive waitress, with quiet Tom in the back doing all the cooking. Tom’s professed claim to fame was that he’d somehow purchased a white Shelby GT 350 from a racer named Jerry Titus for fifteen thousand dollars. Where Tom had gotten 15 grand neither I nor anybody I knew asked.
I knew I was just killing time before going home to report to my wife that I’d done the nonsense job in Dana Point. She’d just laugh all the more, I knew. I wasn’t making much of a real living doing what I was doing and the family needed more. She was kind enough not to push that issue too strongly, but at any minute on any given day, I also knew that might change.
I thought about the money we didn’t have and the third mission that would be coming up.
There were only a couple of secretaries at their tables across the room, however, and they didn’t bother to look up.
The third mission, Sam had commented on, followed by the words “dress rough,” as the limo door was closing. I didn’t know what ‘dress rough’ meant but didn’t much like the implication. I knew it would have been foolish to ask him as he wouldn’t know either. Mardian likely told him I was to ‘dress rough’ with no explanation or Sam would probably have said something.
Chuck Bartok walked through the door of the restaurant. I sipped my coffee, hoping he wouldn’t notice me. He wanted me to join the Jaycees, the US Junior Chamber of Commerce, about the last group of seemingly crazy young businessmen I wanted anything to do with.
“There you are,” he said, walking to my table and sitting across the table from me without an invitation.
“Hello Chuck,” I said, over the lip of my cup, hoping he’d gauge the lack of welcome in my tone. His opening line, however, seemed to indicate that he’d been looking for me.
“You interested in saving money?” he asked me, waving to Lorraine at the same time.
“One for me too,” he went on, loud enough for everyone in the place to hear. “Put it on his bill. What I’ve got to say is going to be worth a lot more than a cup of coffee.”
“I don’t have any money to save,” I whispered out, not that it’s any of your business, and would you please keep your voice down?”
Chuck merely laughed. “What do you make a month?” he asked.
I didn’t answer his question, instead staring at him over the lip of my cup. Even with what he was saying, the man was infectious in the expression of his obviously positive nature.
“A new job, added to your others, some of which I probably don’t even know about,” Chuck began after Lorraine delivered his coffee. “The job is selling insurance. All you have to do is attend one training seminar up in Newport Beach, and then the company will pay you a thousand dollars a month for six months. If you don’t sell anything then you still get to keep the six thousand. Now how’s that for a deal of a lifetime”?
I couldn’t believe my ears. Chuck didn’t appear to be a con artist, and, in fact, seemed every bit the opposite of that. He was president of the Jaycees and totally wired into the small circle that encompassed San Clemente’s entire social culture. I thought about my third mission, not having a clue as to what it might be, but I knew for certain that it wasn’t going to add a thousand dollars to my income during the current month, much less six thousand over the next six months.
“What’s the seminar deal?” I asked, looking for the ‘hook’ in Chuck’s presentation.
“The deal is that I’m the district manager for a man named Tom Thorkelson,” Chuck said, pronouncing the man’s name as if he was some sort of Indian guru of note. “You’ll work for me, but not really. Once you meet Tom you’ll understand. He’ll likely change your life if that’s currently possible. Me, I get paid for hiring new agents not for what they do or don’t sell.”
“I’ll think about it,” I replied, not knowing what there was to think about. If the money was real, then, regardless of Tom Thorkelson’s ability to affect my life, the six grand would change it for real.
“While you’re thinking about it, there’s a guy down that street that might be able to use your help,” Chuck said, the big smile he’d walked in wearing never leaving his face. “His name is Mike Vanni. He runs a shop not far from here called Uniquities. He’s just back from Vietnam like you, but in a bit more trouble about his time there.”
I would have breathed out “just great” but I held back, the six thousand big on my mind. I was suddenly adding more people to my life in every area than I’d ever considered or known. What was I to do?
“Okay, I’ll stop by to see him,” I replied, mostly to satisfy the overly enthusiastic man across the table from me but also hoping not to kill off the chance to supplement my income in a way that had to impress my wife.
I left Chuck at the table in order to go to the counter and pay Lorraine at the counter, but she only waved me away, as if I’d already paid enough by enduring Chuck’s sales presentation. Just down the street on the same side, I was on, the little shop called Uniquities sat wedged between two other shops. I’d seen the guy running the place but, although with his full beard and wild hair he seemed way too short to have been a Marine officer. I wasn’t certain but I’d heard that anything under five feet five inches tall required some form of waiver.
I entered the store and Mike was behind a far counter set near the back wall of the small space. Just meeting him, saying hello to a fellow veteran, and then getting the hell out was my goal, Chuck’s last words reverberating through my mind to nearly the point of total distraction. He’d said, as I walked out the door, that I should know that as soon as I completed the four-hour seminar with Thorkelson that I’d receive my first thousand-dollar check, minus taxes, of course. Then he handed me a card with his name in bold print with his district manager title and a company I’d never heard of called Massachusetts Mutual. On the back, Chuck had printed the numbers 1000 six times and then the 6000 sum under the stack.
Mike looked up as I approached.
“You’re the guy Chuck was telling me about,” he said, a guileless smile lighting up his bearded face, his mustache too light and thin above it to be considered much of anything other than scraggly.
I nodded and stuck out my right hand, having no idea what Chuck might have told him about me, or why I was encouraged to meet him in the first place.
I wasn’t for sale, I told myself, so I wasn’t going through the exercise because of the thousand dollars. I smiled at the thought, Mike probably thinking that I was returning his own form of a welcoming visage. I smiled, however, because I realized that I wasn’t for sale but was sure as hell willing to accept the thousand and more and to do what was required to get it.
“You were in the Nam,” Mike said, the smile fading from his face.
I noted that he said the shortened word for Vietnam correctly and not the ‘Naam’ so many people back home called it. “Welcome back to the world.”
I was struck, not just by the welcome home, which was totally uncommon back in the ‘world,’ but also the use of that phrase for the USA, but also by the glint of intellect in the man’s eyes. Mike didn’t look away in discussing the war and his eyes seemed to look right into me through my own.
“Basic class?” I asked, trying to possibly place where Mike and I might have crossed paths, although there were so many basic classes, one after another for officers in Quantico, that it wasn’t likely.
“10/69,” Mike replied. I was with 7th Motor “T” battalion, 5th Marine Division. Highway One.”
I’d been with the 1st Division, so I knew Mike and I hadn’t crossed tracks in the Nam. He was Motor “T” and I was artillery and infantry. Motor “T” officers seldom saw ground combat, but I could look into Mike’s eyes, take in his presentation and see that he’d had a bad tour, maybe not with the intensity of my own but a bad tour nevertheless. Highway one was legendary, maybe not as much as the A Shau Valley was but a lot of bad stuff happened on and along that main north and south running concrete passage.
A man walked through the door behind me. I turned to check out the customer, only to see that it was Sam the limo driver. I looked back at Mike Vanni but he remained expressionless, waiting. All of the jewelry in the store was from abroad but not high in price. All of it was also very carefully locked under large half-sphere Lexan protectors. Either Mike Vanni had a puzzling sense of mediocre worth and shoplifting or he was suffering from the same paranoia that plagued me almost every day and night.
“Sam?” I inquired when Sam pulled up beside me.
My forehead was wrinkled in surprise and trepidation. The third mission couldn’t possibly follow the second in such close order, or at least so I thought.“
See the man,” Sam said, keeping his voice very low, with his head turned away from Vanni. He then turned and walked about out through the door without waiting for any reply.
“Who was that?” Vanni asked, “and who’s the man?”
“Just a guy I know,” I replied. “I have no idea about seeing anyone,” I lied. “I’ll go check it out and be back to see you later.”
“You might consider buying something for your wife then, it’s been a pretty crummy sales day,” Vanni said.
I stepped out of the store onto the sidewalk and headed immediately for the Volks parked nearby.
The man referred to only one human on the planet and that human was the president of the United States. I’d never met him and wasn’t likely to at my low level of servitude, or whatever it was I was supposed to do for the Western White House. See the man was code for immediate personal attendance. I drove at speed to the compound. The gate was open and the Marine corporal on duty waved me right inside. I didn’t bother to find a parking place, instead simply stopping at the main door set into the compound’s outside wall and turning off the key.
The door opened, just like the security gate had. I walked in.
“Where?” I asked, not knowing what else to say or ask.
I was excited but more afraid than excited. The president of the United States had heard of me? He had asked for me. My head swelled to the size of the Hindenburg.
“The pool,” one of the Secret Service agents present said, pointing needless at the door leading to the residence part of the compound where I’d been before.
Neither Haldeman nor Erlichman were at their desks I noticed as I went through the door the agent opened. Nobody normally opened doors for me without request or identity checks but all of a sudden, every door I faced was opened immediately and without any hesitation or ceremony. Instead of feeling even more excited, I started to feel a sense of trepidation.
I walked the short distance down the side of the residence, as before. The dog wasn’t present, although I watched out for him. When I turned the corner there was nobody at the pool. I stopped for a few seconds before proceeding to one of the chaise lounges. I sat on the end of one to wait, wondering if that was what was called for. I wasn’t dressed to meet the President of the United States. I only wore the outfit my wife had selected for the photo mission, even before she knew it was a photo mission. The outfit would have to do.
I waited alone until a secret service agent came around the building’s corner and headed along the side of the pool to where I sat.
“He’s down on the beach waiting,” the agent said, gesturing toward the stairs near the south end of the pool that led through an opening in the low wall, as well as the higher hedge.
“Who’s waiting?’ I asked, genuinely curious.
“The President,” the agent replied as if it was no big deal. “You walk with him south along the shore as far as he wants to walk. Then turn around with him and come back. You don’t talk to him or even look him in the eyes. You’re there to accompany him and that’s it. Understand?”
“Why me?” I asked, kind of in shock.
“In truth?” the agent replied, sounding impatient and tired. “Because nobody else wants to do it but it’s part of the protocol. You’ll be under intense surveillance the whole time so you don’t have to do anything no matter what happens. You’re the beach patrol. It’s your beach. Go down there and act like it but with your mouth sealed shut.”
I realized that the President didn’t know me and hadn’t asked for me at all. I was merely the pawn who served in the artifice of a role as the beach patrol. I was ‘beach boy,’ nameless and detailed to perform uncomfortable, albeit not too dangerous our interesting, White House chores.
Following orders, I went down to the sand and quickly saw that President Nixon was standing at the water’s edge, facing the open breaking sea. When he sensed me approaching, he turned to the north, toward San Clemente proper, and began to move.
Nixon walked very slowly, his shoes and socks sinking into the soft wet sand up to his ankles. I kept a little further up the sand from him, not wanting to ruin my own shoes, and wishing that I’d worn my boots. The sand in and around my socks was uncomfortable. The President stopped about every twenty feet to stand, the lapping waves washing over his feet while he looked out toward the fading sun. It was a long way from the dark, however. He didn’t say one word, as I’d been led to expect, and he never looked in my direction, although I carefully surveyed every move he made. The Secret Service and the U.S. Marshals, and God knew who else was standing ready to move in at an instant’s notice but I knew in my heart of hearts that if something strange did happen then I was the one close and on hand.
Nothing happened, however. The walk up and down the beach was without incident. Twenty minutes later the president stopped to curiously and silently peer at the wall’s narrow opening before heading through the hedge and making his way back into the residence. I breathed a sigh of relief.
I pulled Chuck’s card from my pocket and studied it once more. If I was going to be associating with the men and women of the Western White House and those they were connected to then I was going to need some decent new clothes. I didn’t think I could sell insurance to anybody but I was perfectly capable of sitting through Mr. Thorkelson’s lectures and collecting a thousand dollars a month.