I finished the shift with Herberich and Gularte. Nobody got shot, and they sort of bonded in that single time together. Not with me, but with each other. I understood, in the back seat, that I wasn’t really bondable material. I had my wife and daughter and that was about it, and maybe the way it was supposed to be.
I drove home in the dark, the Volks making sounds like it was more ready to do a Fourth of July celebration than a simple ride back to Cabrillo where I lived. I wondered about my approach to giving Herberich the therapy he so badly needed and also the counseling that Gularte, late of the A Shau Valley where he’d been shot like me, also badly needed.
My wife was up and waiting. She was always up and waiting. I wondered, from time to time, if all wives were like that. My wife could not sleep unless I was tucked in and then, if I moved to get out of the bed, she was like a cat in the night, right there, asking questions I usually couldn’t come up with a rational answer for.
I walked into the apartment with the cash in one hand and the envelope and letter I’d saved in the other. I pushed the thick stack of new twenties toward her and she took it without question, immediately beginning to count the bills. I put the letter and the envelope into my right front pocket, nicely folded both, and nothing she needed to see.
My wife had no interest in anything but the twenties.
“We’re going to the Pat Nixon birthday party, and we’ll be properly dressed for the occasion.”
How did you do this?”, she asked.
She stopped counting the twenties to look up at me. I hadn’t moved to get out of my armament or uniform. I felt, in her expression toward me, that I might indeed be the war hero that some people thought I really was, instead of what I felt like what I was.
The next day was a Saturday so I took the money I had left and headed up to Santa Ana and the uniform/gun/whatever else you might need store. I left the store fifteen minutes later, two hundred bucks lighter, with an old Government Model .45. I wasn’t sure how old the weapon was, but I could do a bit of research to find out. I had plenty of ammunition, all full metal jacket hard ball, that I’d purchased at a gun show when I got down to San Clemente from San Francisco. There’d been no questions, no receipt or any of that at the store, like cops went into the shop all the time to purchase ‘lay-down’ guns to place at shooting scenes to make sure the other guy had a weapon, if a shooting went down the ‘wrong way.’
I wanted to work in the afternoon with Gularte. I sensed that he wanted the time, although the pay was only $4.50 an hour. I also felt like he’d be a good training officer for Herberich, as I would be inundated with work (Tom Thorkelson’s insurance meeting in Newport Beach would have to be missed with some idiotic excuse I hadn’t thought of yet).
I had four applications to turn in, but I could send those to the office with Chuck Bartok. The commissions on all four would be about four hundred dollars in my next paycheck, as I’d already covered the ‘guarantee’ amount required to continue to qualify for the thousand a month that was like a salary. It was a strange system, but along with my pay from the government and the P.D. (I made the same as Gularte although I had a dubious non-existent title and had the responsibility to train and lead the growing reserve force). More reserves meant more commissions if they bought the life insurance I was selling.
My wife was getting irritated with the number of hours I was putting in, plus, when I was home and on into the night I worked at filling out the applications I’d collected and arranging for whatever physical exams might have to be taken to qualify for the policies. Vietnam had left me without the war during most of the days, but the nights were a different matter entirely. I didn’t sleep much at all and having work to do at night helped me keep my mind off the dying, dead, snakes, leeches and more that surfaced from the depths of the valley. The worst was the people I’d lost. They were some of the best guys I ever knew, even if I had known them for such a short time. I didn’t feel guilty about their passing. Deep inside I knew that the situation ruled everything I’d experienced over in that valley. My participation had been marginal, at best. I missed the men as the men they were and who allowed me to be a part of. I was a real commander of Marines in combat, not a fake Reserve commander of a small band of men who wouldn’t make up half a squad in the Corps. The faux invitation to Pat’s birthday gala had left her happy and allowed me a little more freedom from her constant interrogation and investigation.
I placed the .45 under the rear driver’s side floor mat before going into the apartment. I would have to bring it in when my wife was shopping in town or asleep upstairs. The automatic had to be stripped, cleaned with brushes and Hoppes, then oiled with Sperm Whale oil. It had to be fired, to gauge just how much the sights might have to be moved for accuracy out to about fifty yards, and also to make sure it would fire at all under duress. The weapon would have to be cleaned and oiled all over again when I was done with that little chore. My dad had given me a bunch of .45 automatic barrels, which were very easy to change out. Since I didn’t know where the gun came from or how it was previously used, I’d change out the barrel immediately and toss the old one into the ocean while I was on patrol. Dad’s barrels were brand new so there was no rifling data that might reveal anything that could hurt me.
I was seriously worried about having had to acquire the thing. Possessing it, as a police officer, was no problem. It was what I might be required to do with it, and that bothered me whenever I thought about it. Who and what did Haldeman and Ehrlichman think I was? They trusted me not to talk about the incident at Calafia Beach, but the automatic’s use might require a trust level very much higher.
Nobody was upstairs when I went in, both my wife and daughter were gathered in the kitchen doing something. Evidently, they hadn’t heard the Volks drive up or my coming in the door. I went upstairs and stashed the twenties I that I had left wrapped in a polishing rag and placed the still hefty stack inside my shoeshine box. The money would be partially spent on one thing. I’d buy a life insurance policy on myself, using my life insurance career as my only job. At my age I could purchase a hundred-thousand-dollar whole life policy on myself without taking a physical. If I had to take a physical, I understood that a medical expert might have some things to report when he saw the mass of scars that crisscrossed my torso like the dividing lines between the fifty states.
The gun would have to be transported inside after I put in at least part of a shift with Gularte, although I knew he’d want to work the whole thing for the money, and probably nothing else kept him from taking drugs or drinking. The department didn’t allow the beach patrol to have less than two officers on duty after dark, as the beach was difficult to access, impossible to hear on, and the rest of the small department units on patrol were needed to stay on patrol and not bail out officers who needed another man to handle some simple, yet potentially dangerous situation.
I checked in with my wife after getting into the uniform, which she’d so wonderfully ironed. As I suspected, she was getting Julie ready to accompany her to the Southcoast Mall. The shopping would begin and not stop until the money I’d provided was gone. I knew she’d need the Volkswagen, as the mall was a good twenty-five miles back in the same direction on the same freeway I’d just used. I called the department on our house phone and got Bobby Scruggs on the line. He was in a hurry, but then he was always in a hurry. I managed to get out that I needed a patrol unit to pick me up. He hung up without answering. I knew a car would break free and be sent down to get me. I’d have called Gularte, but it was too early, and I needed to do some paperwork on the new incoming reserve officers.
The car was out front in only a few minutes, one squawk on the external speaker alerting me to its presence.
I went downstairs and walked up to the idling patrol car, which was not Lieutenant Gates’ special Marauder, but one of the more nondescript Dodge black and whites, although it still had the powerful 440 engine under the hood. Rick Steed, a new officer, was out on patrol. Rick was also a reserve officer, but was selected, no doubt, to come in because someone, a regular officer, couldn’t make it. Reserves usually worked with another full-time officer.
Rick drove conservatively, considering the monster of power the car really was. He talked mostly about starting training in the following week to work at the beach. He’d heard my ideas about beach patrol officers wearing shorts and short sleeve shirts and was a big fan of it. The hot sand of summer was a problem for everyone who worked many hours on the beach. Without air conditioning, or with it but having to keep the windows rolled down to properly hear what was going on around the vehicles, made some of the summer season a very uncomfortable place to spend much time in. The Chief didn’t seem to like the shorts and shirts idea, however.
Rick dropped me off and headed back to the street. I was still amazed about how lackadaisical the post academy training for new officers really was. Only riding with senior officers helped in on-the-job training, but the senior officers didn’t want to train or have another junior officer around to do anything but write the laborious and boring reports of missing pets, burglaries, thefts and so much more of the police routine that was simply no fun at all.
When I was done with my work, I had Bobby call Rick back in to transport me to the lifeguard headquarters.
“What’s the matter, your little German eggbeater quit on you already?” Bobby laughed at his own form of a joke. “Those things are never going to really sell, you know. Drive a real car like you do out on patrol. Our cruisers are faster than a bullet and can leap tall buildings in a single bound.” He laughed some more.
I got the gist of what he was saying but made no reply. Volkswagen was selling just about as many cars in the U.S. as Ford Motor Company, but my comment about it would just fan the fire. Some people didn’t like Japanese cars because of the war, and some didn’t like German cars for the same reason. Since there were no cars made in Vietnam, I had no skin in the game.
Rick showed up as quick as before, wearing the same big smile. Gularte had come to and gone from the departmentwhile I’d been working, which was why the Bronco was gone and I was left to my own devices. He was working alone for a bit, for some reason, but it made no difference as it was still daytime.
Rick had alerted Gularte on the radio to be at the guard station where I waited. I looked off toward the Western White House but could only see the point sticking out where Trestles beach was brewing up some high thrown spray which looked more like smoke than spindrift. I saw the Bronco. Gularte was ‘surfing’ it, which is what we called driving toward the ocean until an incoming wave was fast approaching. The Bronco was then turned and raced away to beat the wave up onto harder wet or even dry sand. I disapproved of the practice but barely ever commented to anyone. It was relatively harmless entertainment and police work, even on the beach could be mind-numbing in its boredom. One day the Bronco was going to lose that sort of racing against the waves, and then the beach patrol would be in trouble. There was no other vehicle capable of replacing it.
Gularte drove up, leaving the vehicle running and held the driver’s door open for me. The senior officer generally drove the vehicles in every part of every police department, including San Clemente’s. However, I smiled, waved, and then went over to open the passenger door.
Gularte nodded before turning and leaning the driver’s seat forward as far as it would go. He dug around in the footwell in front of the back bench seat. He came up with a box all sealed up with masking tape. He put it down on the seat between us before getting in to drive.
“The package you need to accomplish your mission for the big guys,” he said.
I stared down. Another .45 automatic. I was accumulating guns faster than I could believe. Soon, I knew I was going to get tired of cleaning them all the time, or taking them to the range to scope in. I was good at shooting, whether it was a rifle or a handgun. It was a precision analytical thing. I was really good, but I didn’t like it. The sound took me back to the valley, as well as the smell of cordite and the crude jolting, sometimes painful recoil, depending upon how powerful the weapon was. The best part was studying and using the ballistics to gauge where a bullet was going to go, which was very similar to working in combat with artillery. Distance, caliber, windage, powder and then the precision aiming over any necessary distance.
Gularte got back in and turned the rig around, heading it back the way we’d come. He steered the Bronco along the edge of the sand berm closest to the ocean, the waves roiled and restive just beyond. The tide was in so there was no way the Bronco, even with four-wheel drive and giant tires, could be expected to deal with the upsweeping expiry of the wave sets fury should it move too close to the water. The surf just beyond wasn’t huge, running at about four to five feet, but there was a significant, and potentially deadly, inshore hole that ran parallel to the beach as far as the eye could see. I looked through the mist-covered windshield. Every once and awhile Gularte would turn on the wipers, as the Bronco had no spray system to clear the glass. Visibility to the front wasn’t that great with the blowing sand and seawater making a mess of the glass, even with the wipers on high.
“Stop,” I suddenly yelled.
Gularte braked so suddenly that I was thrown against the flat windshield and slightly outthrust metal dashboard.
“What?” Gularte asked, plaintively.
“There,” I replied, pointing straight ahead of us.
“I don’t see anything,” Gularte said, peering through the mess of a windshield. He turned the wipers on before speaking again. “Oh, I see it, some folded towels on the beach. What’s the big deal, we’ll just move toward the rocks and avoid them.”
“No,” I said, in return. “Get out and unsnap your holster.”
“What the hell,” Gularte replied, immediately unsnapping his clamshell rig, and opening his door.
“Three formally folded towels?” I said, more to myself than Gularte. “There’s nobody on the beach. There’s nobody in the water. Why three folded beach towels, and they’re green.”
“Marine Corps issue,” Gularte replied.
I opened my own door and stepped out, before heading toward the three towels, each equidistant from the other, about five feet apart. I walked carefully in a semi-circle around them, noting that the edges of the towels revealed partial identity information. I could see parts of two wallets and the edges of some cash bills, although I couldn’t make out the amounts.
“Perimeter,” I ordered, my voice very soft against the slight wind and movement of the spindrift up over the berm from the beating surf.
Gularte immediately went down to one knee and pulled out his duty weapon, propping it up and forward in both hands, his eyes sweeping back and forth to cover as much of the beach as he could.
“What we got here, Junior?” he asked.
“I have no idea,” I replied, truthfully.
There were no swimmers in the rather treacherous water. The hour of the day was fairly late for swimming at all, and there was no sunshine as dusk was not that far away. The three folded towels, along with probable identity papers and money seemed to indicate that three swimmers, likely Marines, had gone into the surf and not come back. That conclusion just didn’t seem reasonable, however, so I remained on full alert.
I walked back to the Bronco, its passenger door still hanging open and swinging slightly in the salty wind before grabbing the police radio handset.
“I need lifeguard rescue and detectives at the northern edge of the State Park Beach, just north of the Western White House compound,” I transmitted to Bobby Scruggs, holding the button down, just in case there was going to be something much more threatening coming at us.
“Roger that,” Bobby sent back almost immediately. I could tell that he was using his official tone, without any of his adolescent humor a part of it.
“You need backup?”
“No,” I transmitted back. “I think that I’ve got three drownings here, as I’ve found towels and I.D. stuff but no swimmers on a rather rough surf and strong current part of the beach. We’re about a mile from the compound, a bit past the state beach.”
“Three?” Bobby asked, his tone one of exasperation. The number of times there’d been three swimmers lost was well before the start of any of the San Clement personnel’s history, including Bobby’s. “Don’t touch anything,” Bobby concluded, letting me know that help would soon be on the way and not to screw anything up.
I ignored the put down and didn’t respond back. Gularte and I had to hold the scene as it was until more suitable investigative services arrived. That was our only mission after discovering the three folded towels with identity papers under such conditions. There was no question that the situation would need looking into by authorities more equipped and ranking than we were.
“There’s nobody here,” Gularte observed, coming to his feet, and holstering his weapon.
“Let me know when you see somebody,” I said, moving toward the three folded towels.
The only way that the detectives could reach our position was by either recalling us to pick them up or having us isolate the scene, as they’d more likely use the lifeguard jeeps to get them access to where we were. They weren’t recalling us because Gularte and I were the only personnel capable, and on the scene, of securing the area. The lifeguards would be along carrying the detectives, but it’d be a while.
“What are you doing?” Gularte asked, his tone one of disbelief.
“Just taking a look,” I answered, as I carefully crept forward to move from one folded towel to another, paying particular attention to open wallets and read what was inside.
“They’re all Marines, enlisted and black,” I finally said, after carefully examining their governmental military I.D. cards. “Just how many black guys has anyone ever seen swimming on this beach?”
“Do I really need to answer that?” Gularte replied.
“There’s going to be three missing Marines, once the detectives get here,” I said, analytically coming to an inescapable conclusion. “What is that going to mean to us?”
“We’re the beach patrol, so I don’t have a clue as to what you mean, Junior. We see tons of people all the time.”
“Don’t call me that,” I replied, as quietly and meaningfully as I could. “My name is Jim, and if you have trouble with that then it’s commander, but I prefer Jim, I mean if we’re going to be friends.”
“Well, okay commander,” Gularte replied, delivering his response in a slightly insulting tone. “What are you looking for?”
“They left their street clothes, shoes, wallets and perfectly folded Marine Corps issue towels sitting here on the sand, as if they were making a statement, or someone else was,” I replied, working patiently across the sand to cover the footprints I’d left in accessing the scene. “And notice that there are no footprints anywhere around here, except our own.”
“Well, commander, you’ll notice there’s a wind blowing and spindrift flying through the air around. We also have no idea how long this stuff has been laying on the sand. This is a pretty abandoned part of the beach, especially in conditions like these.
I climbed back into the Bronco passenger seat, taking out a small note pad I carried, which generally had nothing in it. I wrote the names, ranks and serial numbers of the Marines in my book, along with a description of the exact area. Once the belongings were gone Gularte was right, there’d be almost no evidence that anyone or anything had been where we were. Beaches seemed solid and always there but beaches in San Clemente were fully exposed to the direct surf always moving directly onshore, changed the nature and shape of the place all the time.
“You going to check them out?” Gularte asked, sitting next to me, the Bronco continuing to drone away in neutral.
“Whatever happened here, and I think there are going to be three dead bodies found soon, is fairly close to the Western White House grounds,” I said, after a couple of minutes. “We’re not close enough for any of the surveillance stuff to pick up anything on their equipment around the compound but close enough for me to make an effort to make sure there’s no linkage. I’ll have Haldeman run them through the system, just in case.” I said the words as if I had the power to make Haldeman do anything, which I certainly didn’t.
The next half an hour passed quickly, as I made more notes, making believe I was a detective assigned to the case. Gularte frequently got out of the idling Bronco to walk around and ‘stretch out,’ as he called it. Finally, three lifeguard jeeps running at high speed came from the direction of the pier, racing across the sand, their strange orange yellow paint color easily visible, shown ever brighter by the penetrating rays of the waning afternoon sun.
The Jeeps pulled up with a sliding flourish, sending sand everywhere before them, making me wish I’d rolled up the passenger window.
Hoodoo was the lead detective, as San Clemente had only two. He was alone except for the guards. He was an aged man with serious wrinkles, a drinking habit, and an even worse smoking addiction. He was smoking when he crawled out of the lead Jeep. I presumed he’d establish his own perimeter, mark, and tape the entire area as a crime scene, and then make certain nobody touched anything before forensics were called in.
Smoking one of his signature long brown cigarettes, the detective walked to the scene and then did none of what I thought he’d do. Without speaking to Gularte or me, he turned to the assembled team of three lifeguards.
“This is a recovery operation,” Hoodoo said, “We start here and then sweep the shoreline, as far out as we can and slowly make our way back to the pier, as that’s the direction the current is running right now. God knows which way it was running when these clowns went into the water.”
I was shocked to my core. I stood behind the detective and couldn’t believe he would miss just about everything about the circumstances and evidence about the apparently missing men. Hoodoo hadn’t bothered to examine the belongings of the men, nor check out their I.D. cards or any of that. He’d simply driven up, made an immediate assumption, and then run with it.
The lifeguards fanned out, beginning to string rope, floats and everything else they’d need to comb the surf line for bodies.
Hoodoo turned to face Gularte and I, both standing just behind him.
“You two can go on about your business,” he said, walking past us in order to sit back down in the passenger seat of the Jeep he’d come across the sand in.
He immediately got on the radio, talking to somebody or other while Gularte and I stood stunned by the strange turn of events.
Slowly, we got back inside the Bronco. Gularte drove toward the sand that lay stretched out before the compound.
“What the hell was that?” Gularte said, moving the Bronco ever closer to the break in the rocks that would let us cross into the alley that led up to the parking lot behind the compound.
“That was either an exhibition of basal stupidity or planned brilliance,” I replied, putting away my pen and notepad. “Either he’s right, what with his many years as a real detective, he’s an idiot or there’s more to this mystery that he knows about, and we don’t.”
“So, you think they’re dead?” Gularte asked.
“Yes, I do,” I replied. “And their bodies aren’t going to be found anytime soon, although it’s likely they’ll turn up eventually. Bodies are hard to hide or destroy. Lots of meat, sinew, bones, fat and more. What happened to them may never be known, however, whether that’s deliberate or accidental I don’t know yet. The bodies, and there are bodies, won’t be found down current near the San Clemente pier where the guards will be searching. They didn’t get put in the water here or down there if they got in or were put in the water at all. They’ll be found somewhere else, and then their fate will be braided into a story the detective may, apparently so far, be making up as he goes along.”
“You can’t know that,” Gularte said.
Gularte was right, I didn’t really know. However, there was simply so much physical evidence that seemed to lead toward the rather obvious fact that the three enlisted Marines had likely been murdered that I couldn’t let it go. They weren’t my Marines to lose, anymore, but I felt like they were.