I left the compound as I’d come in, feeling about the same. Although the Beach Patrol part of my life with the San Clemente Police Department was unsettled, it was at least predictable and there also seemed to be no inherent danger in working with the personnel, the equipment, or the people the department was supposedly set up to serve. The Western White House was a hotbed of seething and fomenting intrigue, near silence, and extremely high-strung tension. Only the Marine guards ever smiled at me when I entered or left the place. Nobody else smiled or laughed inside the compound that I’d ever witnessed.
I drove my fire engine red Volks to the police parking lot, got out, and walked the short distance to where the Bronco was parked. The keys were inside at the front desk in the control of whoever was running the dispatch counter, which, it being day shift, was almost always Bobby Scruggs. I’d decided, after discovering the way things were likely to develop with the real beach patrol, I couldn’t carry the keys to the vehicle anymore. Others were going to need the rig, and that might happen at any hour on any day or night. I might be the Reserve Commander, but in effect, I was really just another minor player in a performance I had no clue about. Accepting that position, without an understanding of what it entailed in my current life was the key to my survival and that of my family, and I knew it.
What was the Chief of Police in San Clemente expecting of me? What was known of my military background, either good or bad that might come to affect my life in intensive ways, aside from my own seemingly and occasionally not totally in my own disciplined control?
I drove the Bronco to my apartment, intending to have an evasive but still likely helpful discussion with my wife about how, since I’d stepped through the ‘door of reality’ in Vietnam and then been repatriated to the supposed real world, nothing seemed to make much of any sense. I was just going from day to day with no real plan other than a plan to react with a survivable response to all the changes that were being thrown at me.
I left the apartment in uniform, intending to work a shift on the beach, possibly my last shift alone, although most of the life down on the stretch of beaches I patrolled was filled with teeming amounts of human life. I was alone, for the most part, on those beaches but alone among so many others. Somehow that made life acceptable between the times when I was actually working at something productive, like taking care of the necessities of my wife and daughter while also trying to demonstrate that I was okay. At my age, I already knew that I was never going to be able to fit in with the throngs of associates, friends, workers, and even family I circulated among, but I had to be among them. I had to do a good job of imitation, I knew. The young neighbor girl who’d called me Mr. Perfect had been revealing, as I’d thought through her childish but brilliant conclusion. I was toeing the line too closely. I was watching and controlling myself, in every action, too tightly. That kind of behavior could work to protect me unless others were able to spot the same behavior and come to the same conclusion. And then, questions would be asked that I knew I couldn’t answer.
The beach was nearly full when I got through the gates into the access road that ran from the pier to the Lifeguard headquarters. The Bronco cruised slowly and without difficulty through the throngs of people moving about the wide old wooden pier. A quarter mile of the pier was a long walk and not a short drive at about one mile per hour. The Bronco’s low register lever, once pulled, allowed the capable vehicle to run that speed while in idle with the clutch engaged.
The restaurant at the end of the pier was not as filled as I was used to. Shauna Murphy, one of the daughters of a local fireman was on duty behind the counter. I parked the Bronco and went in, noting just how many fishermen could work their sport almost shoulder to shoulder around the walkway that extended out and then around the small restaurant complex. There was a bait shop but it was separated from the restaurant by a twenty-foot open space.
I sat down at the half-filled counter and checked the place out. There were no threats. In fact, there were no tourists of much interest at all. Fishermen, and families with little kids. After a few cups of free coffee (Shauna was the only person in the area I allowed to comp my coffee), I moved on. As I moved the Bronco back on down the pier I felt like I was a predator of some truly unaware sort or simply a lost member of the passing prey that I thought myself the better of or more powerful than.
Turning toward “T” Street, it was easy to conclude why my wife had not been home. She was lying on the beach, down near the water, while Julie, our daughter frolicked quietly in the sand at the very edge of the lapping water.
I stopped briefly and my wife and I exchanged waves. She didn’t care for it at all the times I’d stopped the Bronco to visit with her. She said she couldn’t stand the attention it brought. I’d gotten used to being in uniform, first the Marine one and then the police one. After a while, it was hard to notice the attention such attire brought, but that wasn’t so for my wife.
I ended up north of the front of the compound, on the other side of the railroad tracks to see what I could of places where the Bronco, if on the tracks when a train came, could hastily exit and be far enough away not to get hit, or even anything but vaguely visible to anyone on a train that might rush quickly by.
There was no train, however. The sound of the Bronco’s whispering, but husky, gentle exhaust was inaudible once I climbed up on one of the larger rocks that lined the track on the surf side. The water’s own voice took over until I heard distant laughing sounds echoing up from the beach further south near the compound’s most sensitive area. I was more than surprised, before being irritated.
What was I supposed to do with a bunch of young idiots celebrating whatever the hell they were celebrating on the portion of the beach that was more hypothetically than really protected as a perimeter keeping the public away from entering, or even seeing the compound area? I sat in the Bronco, in the night, as the sun had gone down hours before. I didn’t want to go home and had no other place to go. My wife would have gone to bed and Jules many hours earlier. One day soon I would not be able to prowl through the night on my own. I wanted this time, although I also didn’t want to be alone, those two feelings were something I couldn’t quite come to bring together in my mind.
The fire they’d built was large and beautiful, as it wavered red and yellow flames up into the dark sky above the naked sand of the pristine beach area. I knew the group of what had to be college students had worked among the rocks guarding the railroad tracks to come upon the many bits of thick and dried wooden chunks of drifted in wooden debris. Their celebration fire rose hot and bright into the night sky, with flickers of still-burning embers shining bright, like tiny fireworks, into the black sky.
The group of about fifteen young people had chosen their place to build a huge beach bonfire and gather around it, poorly. From my perspective, viewing the participants through Leica 50mm brilliant binoculars, the group’s presence was too close to the compound. Although the beach area they’d chosen was a bit distant from the invisible and unknowable line that separated the public beach from private ownership it was still too close to the Nixon estate.
I couldn’t just let it go. If this group’s celebration fire was on video from the surveillance equipment emplaced around the outer edges of the compound then my Bronco was on video, as well. Based upon that suspicion alone, I had to act. But how?
I backed the Bronco slowly toward the San Clemente Pier on the path running over the tracks at “T” Street. It didn’t matter as I wasn’t going far enough to reach either one. I found what I was looking for, which was another break in the rocks that the Bronco would fit through. It took no time to reverse direction and put the Bronco’s fat tires onto the tracks. I drove, once again, toward the fire the young people had built. When I got close I stopped the vehicle and go out. There was no place to ‘rest’ the Bronco off the tracks. I would have to gamble, and it was something of a serious gamble, that no train would come along and destroy the thing, and I’d have absolutely no decent explanation for my conduct.
I left the Bronco running in neutral and exited the vehicle. There were three giant boulders that triangulated out toward the surf line from where I’d stopped. The boulder located furthest out onto the dry sand rose up over and above the area the young people had chosen to make a small portion of the beach home for their party.
I climbed silently out over the tops of the boulders until I was on the largest and outermost of the three. I gazed down. The party of beach revelers were all leaning back from the heat of the fire and talking. It took no time at all to realize that they were all students from Berekley, a California State University campus located up further north in California. I was disappointed. There was no way I was going to make a group arrest of a bunch of college students smoking pot and enjoying a night around a fire on the beach. It just wasn’t in me. But I had to do something, if nothing else I had to take action to get them off the beach and off a surveillance recording system they not only had no clue about but also a system I couldn’t tell them about.
Totally without thinking it through I acted upon an instinctive physical decision. I leaped outward from my rock and flew through the night air, noting the rising cascade of sparks I flew through. I landed on both feet in the middle of the fire, before leaping quickly to one side. The tinder and sparks that flew from my landing showered the group with undamaging fire.
The students lined the fire in a circle, all having thrown themselves upon their backs at the violence and shock of my fiery arrival. I looked into their eyes and saw unbelievable shock and horror in their eyes.
“Get the hell off this beach right now,” I forced out in a commanding whisper. “You are on U.S. Government property and the forces that run this beach are gathering for your incarceration, or worse. Now move!”
The last two words I yelled out, as they were the only ones I hoped the sensitive Marshals’ sound equipment might pick up. The surf and lapping water nearby would hopefully block the warning. I knew I wasn’t there to give warnings and I also knew the other agents might see such a thing as weakness or cowardice.
The students reacted, jumping to their feet and running. Two turned back to retrieve items they’d abandoned.
“Get!” I yelled, and they disappeared down the dark beach with their friends.
I sat down on a closed cooler and stared into the fire. I waited, but no other security showed up. Slowly I smiled. Somehow, the bleakness and abandonment I’d been feeling was gone. I wasn’t sure why so I reflected for longer as the fire slowly burned down and the dark began to regain its hold over the sand once more.
It finally occurred to me what it was. I’d done something good for those students, most of whom had been high on Marijuana, a felony in California to possess, much less smoke. If they’d encountered the Marshals and Secret Service on private property, as potential threats to the president and also in possession and smoking Marijuana, then their college careers would have been over, and likely much worse.
I got up, stretched, made sure the fire was out and looked toward the rock I’d jumped from, amazed just how high it was, and the fact that I hadn’t broken an ankle at the very least. And then I heard the train whistle.
I ran for the Bronco, still sitting on the tracks, just waiting to be smashed into an unrecognizable hulk, just like my career. I literally ran up and over the huge rocks worried that I’d not get to the Bronco in time or be able to maneuver it off the tracks so the coming train could pass. I thanked God that I’d somehow left the driver’s door open. I literally dived in, pulled myself up, hit the clutch, and threw the transmission into reverse. I stared at the orbiting single light of the approaching train. I punched the accelerator and let up on the clutch. The Bronco shot backward. I pulled my eyes from the approaching train to stare into the rear-view mirror. I had one hope. Steer the center of the Bronco backward down the center of the tracks and hope to reach the cleft I’d discovered earlier. The cleft where there was room for the Bronco to pull off and avoid being torn apart, along with me.
I could not find the cleft or even look for it while concentrating on keeping the Bronco on the tracks. The giant tires, almost uninflated for beach sand travel, draped over the steel rails but their continued ability to do so as the speed of the vehicle went up to its maximum in the low reverse gear differential was not likely to last. I didn’t know where I was, but I knew the train was inexorably bearing down.
My eyes closed for an instant as I made my decision. I jerked the wheel of the Bronco to the left, which instantly careened the vehicle off the rails and into the rocks. I stood on the brakes as the Bronco bounced so wildly, that I thought it would turn over. And then everything was consumed by the train’s arrival and passing. It was over in seconds. I sat there, my upper body draped across the steering wheel, not having to look outside. I’d somehow, through blind luck, backed into the cleft, the only area large enough for it to get deep enough in not to be struck.
I got out after a few minutes and checked the Bronco. I wished at that point that I had somebody to show the situation to. The Bronco cleared the rocks by four inches, almost exactly, on a side. I could not have made that happen on purpose, not so accurately, even if the Bronco had been turned around to go the other way.
I got on the tracks once again, heading toward the pier and the lifeguard headquarters. I took the first opportunity to get off and back onto the sand, where I stopped the vehicle to sit for some time before heading back to the station to swap the thing out for my Volks, a car that would never fit on the tracks even if such an attempt was made.
The second mission warning or preparation comment lay in the very front of every conscious thought I had. I laid awake in the night, having already spent a few hours making certain that all was quiet in the areas I could observe around the apartment’s outer grounds. When I was financially able, hopefully soon, I would purchase a home where the fields of fire were open, flat, and clear of all rising vegetation. The alternative of failing to keep flank security out was death, not just for me but for my family. I breathed in and out deeply. The second mission was on my mind. Would it be another test, and at what point was I to be deemed as trusted or simply let go? There was nobody coming outside the building. I thought about the fact that I knew there was nobody out there and yet could not let my guard down enough to relax into a more ‘normal’ kind of life.
I finally fell into a deep but short-lived sleep. I was up at six, my eyes popping open with the first sign of dawn’s early light. Astronomical dawn, I knew it was called. The kind of light only somebody coming out of a combat situation a scientist might notice or care about.
I got up as silently as I could, but there was no amount of slow or gentle care I could take that would not wake my wife. I’d seen television shows where the husband sneaked in or out of bed without the wife waking up. Those character roles had nothing to do with the sensibilities my wife possessed.
“Where are you going?” she whispered.
“Coffee, paper, and waiting to see what the day will bring,” I replied, throwing my robe on and slipping my feet into a pair of deerskin slippers, both items I’d left strewn beside the bed that I’d gotten in earlier.
I moved away from the bed, and headed for the stairs, but stopped and turned to wait and listen. My daughter’s gentle breathing reached out to me across the short distance from her door to the top of the second-story stairs. She was okay.
I went down, not to check security but to make the coffee and hope that the newspaper was tossed to the bottom of the outside stairs. There was no television news on until eight a.m. so the local Sun Post newspaper was all that might have anything interesting in it to occupy me. The paper wasn’t there when I went down to check, but a limousine was. I stood near the bushes at the bottom of the stairs, making myself as invisible as I could without letting anyone see that I might be doing that on purpose. The car was a black Lincoln Limo It was obviously from either the Marine Base or the compound. Why was it there at such an ungodly hour? I could not see into the vehicle, as it was parked on the far side of Cabrillo, but I could see that smoke occasionally appeared outside near the top of the driver’s side window. Someone was inside the car, waiting. He, or she, could only be waiting for me.
I crouched down where I was, trying to think. Why was the driver there waiting? Where was the car really from? I shivered at the idea that I was so seemingly important as to cause such an out-of-character reaction on anybody’s part. Then I almost smiled at how important I might really be, even though I had no special talents or experience anyone might know of that might put me into such an uncommon position.
I turned slightly to look up the concrete staircase. How was I going to get back up without the driver seeing me, or maybe it didn’t matter, as he or she might have seen me when I came down?
It was a conundrum and an uncomfortable one, but it didn’t last long.
A van pulled up and rubber-banded slim newspaper flew through the air from the passenger side window. The paper struck me in the head and then bounced into the bushes.
“Hey, Lieutenant, what are you doing hiding in the bushes, like you did your whole time in the valley?”
The van took off without any other comments from the driver and with no reaction from the person sitting in the limo across the street.
I stood up. There was no point in trying to hide. Mislovik had outted me. Mislovik, one of the lieutenants from my own Basic School Class in the Marine Corps. Mislovik had come home from the Nam seemingly unharmed. But he wasn’t unharmed. He was mentally screwed up. Normally, he wouldn’t even talk or reply to me if I tried to confront him. I didn’t know who he’d been with in combat, although I was certain he’d been in hard contact, and he wouldn’t give me anything to go on except his near-insane lack of communication and behavior. He called me lieutenant, for example. Lieutenants didn’t call other lieutenants by that rank, ever. His comment about me hiding in the bush wasn’t nearly so bothersome as how he knew I’d been down in the A Shau. Where was he getting such accurate information? Why was he using it? Why was I some sort of coward to him and why did it matter?
There was no reaction from the car parked across the street. More smoke puffed out from the top crack of the window, but that was it.
“The second mission,” I whispered to myself, grabbing the newspaper and heading back up the stairs to re-enter our apartment. Except the door was locked. I sighed and my shoulders sagged. I’d installed a lock that automatically engaged when anyone closed the door, like the kind commonly found on hotel doors. My wife never locked anything, so I felt I had to protect her. I knew, without either the key, which I did not have or advanced lockpicking equipment, which I also didn’t have, that I wasn’t getting through the front door. If I pushed the doorbell button I also knew that I’d be waking up my wife and also my daughter. I checked my cheap Timex watch. It was six-fifteen in the morning.
I tossed the paper up onto the small upstairs balcony that opened into the master bedroom through a large double glass door, where my wife was sleeping. It was never locked. I climbed up the pipe supporting one corner of the balcony and swept my right knew up and over the railing.
“Really nice view,” an ancient female voice said from below.
I froze, looking down. Mrs. Dunow, a renter from further back in the complex was standing just below, staring up.
I scrunched my robe closed with my right hand, hanging on to the railing for dear life with my left. My wife’s complaint that I didn’t wear pajamas under my robe rushed painfully into my mind.
“Sorry,” I breathed out, before carefully sweeping up and over the railing. I retreated back toward the sliding glass windows, finally somewhat happy that I could not be seen by either Mrs. Dunow or the driver of the limo. I grabbed the handle and pulled.
I tried again, in shock. The door was locked.
There was nothing left for me to do, other than to knock on the glass as quietly as I could.
My wife leaped from the bed, grabbed her nightgown, threw it over her head, and opened the door from her side.
I stood, with the newspaper in my right hand, and a disbelieving expression on my face.
“You got the paper, climbed up the balcony, and then woke me up to get in here?” she said. “What the hell is going on? Have you lost it entirely?”
I went inside, walked through the bedroom, and then went down to get a cup of coffee, expecting at any moment for the person in the limousine to be knocking at the front door. There was little question that someone sitting out on the street and watching the apartment, could not fail to guess that everyone was now up and active.
I cared but didn’t care. I wasn’t about to make the first move, and combat had taught me many vital lessons about confrontation. The best confrontation doesn’t exist, because it’s no confrontation at all that yields the best result, but of course, if the confrontation was only avoided until a later time then it would still likely be caused to occur on (quite possibly) more unfavorable ground. I decided to wait for the driver of the limo out unless the phone rang or somebody else showed up. Normally, a limo was not used as either a confrontative or aggressive vehicle, but normally didn’t have one sitting, exposed like a big red and sore thumb in front of my apartment, either.
I finished two cups of coffee, read the newspaper, and then, when my wife came down, explained what I thought was the role of the car parked across the street. Mission two was what I went into, being as detailed as I could, although there wasn’t much to be detailed about. I also explained why I was reticent to confront the driver out in the street. My wife wasn’t happy about the situation, however, much less understanding. She wanted no more to do with the ‘mysteries’ of my possible work.
“Go out there and ask the driver what the hell he’s doing there and what you are supposed to do,” she finally ordered.
My wife didn’t understand, I knew, possibly because I hadn’t told her enough truth about my real position with the Western White House crew. I couldn’t demand or force anybody to act or even reveal anything to me. I had no authority at all, even over the driver of the limo, which is what I presumed was the position of the man waiting in the car.
Of course, I was going to have to approach the driver of the limo. I knew I had to do that unless he or she took the initiative and came to the door, which didn’t appear likely to happen. I was coming to understand the rules of the game. I was, indeed, nobody, but not to the driver. I was his mission, his charge, and the reason there was a job to be done by him at all, instead of his usual gig of sitting in a parking lot or out on an airport tarmac waiting for someone. I had to act like I was important, even though I knew inside myself, that that wasn’t really true. The driver wanted me to be important or he wouldn’t still be waiting outside.
I slowly dressed in leather shoes, shined, dark socks, khaki trousers, and a short sleeve button-down white shirt, hoping the doorbell would ring and the mystery would be resolved. I knew instinctively that I couldn’t wear my police uniform. Business at the Western White House level was all about suits, jackets, white shirts, and ties. Uniforms were for low-class blue-collar types, no matter what their rank in that order. As I walked across the street I noted that the driver didn’t get out of the vehicle. Instead, he lowered his window and pointed toward the rear of the vehicle. The car wasn’t a real full-size limo. It was a 1966 Lincoln Limousine.
“Where are we going?” I asked.