I tried to sleep in the morning following my meeting with first Haldeman and Ehrlichman, and then Chief Cliff Murray. I was troubled, yet it was too early to get up because my getting up would awaken my wife, and then Julie, both of whom deserved to sleep in because of the worry I usually brought home with me, like a visiting salesman carrying an old tattered and smelly suitcase.
I very gently slipped my right hand under my wife’s left shoulder, as she slept flat on her back. I simply lay there, drawing strength, the way I imagined it, from the tower of reason and power the woman next to me seemed to exude in the face of all threats and danger. I was long-weathered, although my twenty-four years might belie that. I’d been through hell, back again, and then through more hell. It was easy to imagine, as my undetected parasitic hand remained undiscovered, that the mission-driven woman’s power, although not based fully on anything other than my related and transferred experiences, plus the strength of her solid foundations, was re-energizing my own ability to deal with the multi-phased and complicated universe I somehow had something to do with creating.
My wife turned over, slowly but decisively, like she was done allowing me to sap her core energy. I pulled back and looked at my offending hand. I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t engaged in anything more or less other than seeing that the right thing was done. I lay there, next to her gently breathing body, thinking about what I had to do for the good of everyone. I was needed. I knew that, just like I’d been needed by the company of Marines down in the valley, although my temporarily surviving Marines had taken a while to figure that out. Gularte needed me, or he was lost, traveling a path shaped by his traumatic past that would eventually kill him. Shawna needed me, as I was part of the answer to the adult male leader her own father had sort of opted out of by being brutally dominant. The Chief needed me too.
Tom Thorkelson, my boss at Mass Mutual, needed me. I knew his own Marine combat experience, or lack of it, bothered him to his core. There was no way to ever make him understand that he would have been a fine leader in combat…until it killed him, which it did most officers who were any good at it. Accommodating his situation, as a proven combat ‘war hero,’ even if I wasn’t really, was an arm’s length therapy of a kind he’d never get from a psychologist or psychiatrist back in our ‘real’ world that I knew. And I was the tacit Marine Corps hero. He thought that he was, to himself, a poser of that hero he wanted, and even believed himself to be. My acceptance, no matter what it might be perceived to be, was something to him, but also a necessary burden to me. That he was a great man in his own right wasn’t the issue, as I’d already learned a lot about life back at home from his training. No, it was a man-to-man thing that would likely remain unexplainable to and by both of us.
I lay in the secure and comfortable bed next to my wife. Julie was awake and playing in her barred crib, the noisy evidence of an early happy existence evident from the rattling and chortling sounds coming through the open doors between the two bedrooms on our second floor.
I stared at the ceiling knowing I’d have to get moving soon. Personnel at Mainside aboard Camp Pendleton would be open with some warrant officer very likely filling out my departure document, a DD 214, while I was spending time thinking about him, or her. I’d wear my “alpha” green uniform with blouse, upon which would be all my ribbons, my expert medals for pistol and rifle shooting dangling below the rows of those ribbons.
It would be my last time wearing the uniform as a Marine, and I was a little upset with myself for not being happy about that. I loved so much about the Corps but couldn’t explain to myself or others why I felt that love so strongly after all I’d been through since my first day in OCS.
Aside from processing out of the Corps, I had a mixed mess of situations and players; those who were hugely powerful at the Western White House, and whom I was afraid of, the San Clemente Police Department where the Chief, a man I mightily admired, was fighting for the department’s very existence, my budding career in life insurance that was paying me more than all the other sources (not counting my ‘bonus’ awarded by Haldeman), and then the Seven Dwarfs, a gathered collection of oddball characters thrown together to really do what I hadn’t yet fully grasped yet. On top of all those things and players I was the commander of the reserve force operating a growing and full-fledged beach patrol operation. Finally, if there was to be any finally, I was moving ever closer to building deeper ties with the roughly organized, but very effective, members of the San Clemente Lifeguard force.
Getting dressed was easy, although pinning on the ribbons and placing the shooting medals was detailed and painstaking. I went downstairs, while my wife and daughter prepared for the day. Since they didn’t come down to see me off, I left without comment. This mission, the last of my Marine career, was all mine to perform. The drive to the base was quick, with almost no traffic. When I got to the Mainside Personnel building I was directed to an office where I found what I’d expected.
My guess had been correct, the Marine was a warrant officer, a senior one, denoted by the four red ‘pips’ spaced across his gold officer bars. He sat waiting impatiently for me to sign what I had to sign and then get out of his office and life. He hadn’t risen from his chair when I entered, even though I was a full officer and not a warrant, but then I hadn’t expected him to.
“Here’s the package,” he said, shoving a clipboard across the nearly empty top of his Marine Corps issue rubber-topped desk. “I’ve never seen any expiration of active service package that looks anything like this.”
I didn’t pick up on his unasked question. There was no point. I pulled the clipboard toward me, as I dragged my chair to get close enough to handle the envelopes and what was under them. I opened the smaller envelope, pulling out two I.D. cards, one in my name and one in Gularte’s. I noticed that the personnel staff had used my three year old picture for the card, which seemed strange. The most important part of the card was right on the front below my picture. The word “Indefinite” was typed into the expiration box on mine and Gularte’s both. The second envelope held a bunch of stickers, with month and year numbers separate from the base designation, my designation in blue letters on a white background, while Gularte’s was the same but in red letters, as he was enlisted. There were two extra base stickers, both in pink, denoting qualified V.I.P. civilian identification and access. My I.D. rank was 1st Lieutenant and Gularte’s was staff sergeant.
“In three days, you’d have gotten out as a captain, not that it probably matters to you,” the warrant officer stated, watching me closely, the tone of his voice letting me know that he thought that fact funny and possibly demeaning.
Again, I didn’t respond. I didn’t care about being or not being a captain and the warrant officer wasn’t the kind of man I wanted anything to do with other than processing out. I opened the last, and larger envelope. It was a letter on Marine Corps two star stationary, the kind with two big red stars at the very top. It was a letter, signed by Major General Ross T. Dwyer, commanding general of the 1st Marine Division, stationed at Camp Pendleton. It was more an order than a letter. I scanned through its rather short passages. I was to be given whatever permissions were required in order to pursue looking into and observing any operations I might deem I was entitled to. It was the most unusually strange military letter I’d ever read.
I almost laughed out loud. General Dwyer, the same man who’d attempted to send me to my death in the A Shau, the same man who’d pinned my highest combat decorations onto my chest when I got home, and here he was again. He wasn’t the commander of the base, however, so whatever pull Haldeman used to get the letter had to be channeled through someone who’d write it or copy it and not ask questions or give a denial. I knew that it probably wouldn’t matter at all. Who, on a Marine base, was going to question a letter written and signed by a general officer who was also the division commander?
The DD 214 was, I felt, no doubt exactly in order as what it was intended to be. I almost turned it over to sign the back before I glanced down at the very top of the front side of the two-sided form.
“I entered active service in Buffalo, New York,” I said to the obviously bored, but curious, warrant officer.
“You live in San Clemente,” he replied.
I’d been in the Corps long enough to know that, when one leaves the Corps, one was entitled to all the travel and moving expenses from the location of separation from service back to the entry point of that service.
The warrant officer sighed, and then pulled a thick folder from the top right drawer of his desk. He paged through it, making some notes on a legal pad in front of him while I waited, not moving or speaking, not exactly sure what he was doing or why.
“How many bedrooms to your residence?” he asked, without looking up.
“Four,” I replied.
“Three of you,” I presume,” the warrant officer went on, “and driving mileage…”
“Three,” I agreed, not responding to the mileage part he hadn’t gone on about.
“One thousand eight hundred and forty-five dollars,” the warrant officer concluded. It seemed strange, as I sat looking at his busied work with papers and pencil, that he wasn’t wearing a name tag.
“Take this, with your discharge and the other junk, and go over to payroll. They’ll cut you a check. We’re done here,” he finished up, tossing both hands dramatically in the air.
I took the papers, added them to the pile I had on top of the clipboard. I stood up.
“Where’s payroll?” I asked, now certain that if I hadn’t spoken up I’d have deliberately been denied the payoff I was due.
“You’ll figure it out for yourself,” the warrant officer said. He’d never once referred to me using the word ‘sir,’ which didn’t bother me that much but was also strange.
I walked out of the man’s office and back to the front counter where I’d come into the low flat building. I waited for the young civilian lady to notice I was standing before her. The entire interior of the building was painted in some sort of cream shell yellowish white that was just awful in reflection. The floors were solid polished concrete, no doubt polished every evening or early morning with big rotating electric machines soaked in some sort of special wax.
I handed over my DD 214 and the travel expense document the warrant officer had filled out. I was told that I’d have to wait, as the DD 214 needed to be changed to reflect the correct entry point for my service.
A few minutes later, the woman came back to the counter to let me know that a check and the form would be mailed to me. She kindly commented about whether my current address was also my mailing address. The woman seemed a little uncomfortable asking me to sign a blank DD 214 form, as the proper information would have to be typed in and the warrant officer’s signature would then have to appear below my own.
I drove away, not caring about how long it would take for the check to come or the DD 214. If there was a problem when I got the paperwork, then Haldeman or Ehrlichman could deal with it. I took the back way toward San Clemente, just to drive through Las Pulgas, the artillery part of Camp Pendleton, the part where I’d been detailed awaiting my release from service. When I got there, I figured out that there was really no place to go.
There was no place on the entire base to sit or stand in finality and say goodbye to the United States Marine Corps. The parking lot to my final command, the Civil Affairs Group, was empty. I wondered if the Corps had finally disbanded the unit, as I’d always doubted the need for it or the kind of planning for supply depots across the world that might be predicted and planned for by a bunch of young lieutenants waiting to be discharged because the Corps no longer had a need for them. The Volks, with me inside it, sat idling as I wondered how to spend my last minutes in uniform. I turned on the Blaupunkt radio, hit the button for AM and then tuned the bar carefully across the face of the little machine until the needle reached 890. Dick Biondi’s voice came out of the car’s single speaker.
“Now, here’s one for you guys just back from the Nam,” Biondi said, his normally nasal voice low and slow in delivering the words straight to my heart.
“There is a house in New Orleans, they call the rising sun…” came from the small speaker. I’d never been to New Orleans but I knew well the rising sun and being just back from the Nam. I waited until the song played through. I realized, even back home, that I was still, like the closing lyrics of the song, living with “one foot on the platform and the other on the train.”
I drove the Volks home, arriving to find both my wife and Julie waiting.
“Jimmer pretty,” Julie exclaimed, sitting atop her cheap little electric vehicle I’d paid only twenty-nine dollars for.
I couldn’t help but smile.
“It’s time,” was all my wife said, very softly, and I knew she was right.
I went upstairs and changed, carefully placing my uniform into its plastic bag holder. I hung it next to my blues, my whites and khaki uniforms, all in their own matched hanging bags.
I stood and made a decision. I was going to follow the Chief’s advice. I was going from one service, and one uniform to another. I carefully and analytically dressed in my police uniform, replacing my spotlessly spit-shined shoes with Vietnam jungle boots I’d never been issued in Vietnam, but had been able to afford at the police supply store in Santa Ana, thanks to the ‘pay off’ money provided by Haldeman. Those canvas jungle boots, with anti-booby trap inserts, had been only for the guys in the rear with the gear while I was in country. The jungle boots weren’t police issue, but I’d so far never received any order requiring that I wear the leather shoes or boots authorized and paid for by the department.
When I went downstairs my wife wanted to know where I was going.
“I just need to go out for a bit,” I answered, remembering the package I’d left in the Volks. “The identity cards and vehicle stickers came in and I’ve got to get them distributed.”
“I see,” she answered.
I knew she knew that I just needed to get out, do something productive in uniform. I also had to pray that Gularte was home when I went to get him. Nobody was scheduled on beach patrol for the remainder of the day, and the weather would probably have cancelled any normal assignments down there, anyway.
We said nothing more. I left through the front door, Julie’s battery-powered scooter whining away while she wheeled it around every part of the downstairs.
I drove to Gularte’s place and found him home, thankfully. If he hadn’t been there, I knew I’d have gone to the beach on my own.
Giving him his new active-duty I.D. card, with an indefinite expiration and an official window sticker, sold him on dressing out for a supposedly investigative mission on the beach. I said nothing about my own mustering out of the Corps.
Once acquiring the Bronco, and then reaching and getting out onto the beach, Gularte and I drove on the sand toward the compound, through the roughed-up parts of the deeper sand, rivulets of it, with the Bronco’s huge absorbing tires taking most of the beating, but still bouncing the vehicle to the point where both of us wore seat belts. Generally, while on beach patrol, neither partner wore a belt or kept the front side windows closed. With the windows closed, nothing could be heard of approaching danger, or interest, for that matter. Seat belts meant having to free them to exit the vehicle, where such a seemingly minute delay could be the difference between life and death. Gularte was the only partner I had who truly understood that danger still could very well lurk nearby, in spite of our return home from the Nam. The reality or likelihood of such danger didn’t matter to either of us.
The day was nasty, a little wind, a little rain, a bit of blowing spindrift from the nearby crashing waves, but otherwise okay. The stormy surf and high tide of the days before had reshaped the beach from a bifurcated surface of deep warm sand up near the railroad track rocks and nearly flat smooth hardened sand closer to the water’s edge. Now it was rough everywhere except where the waves actually struck the sand and flattened it. Gularte drove rationally for a change, our pace slow and as even as he could make it. Once more, we closed on the small section of beach where the Marine’s towels and other stuff had been placed, not that conditions would really allow, probably ever, for the kind of very close examination we’d discussed wanting to give it at the Dwarf’s meeting.
“We’ve got to get back on the base, you and I,” I said, looking over at him not bothering to look around to check out any beachgoers, because there weren’t any.
“Then what?” he answered, staring straight ahead, almost convincing me that he was a very safe and secure driver of the specially built, but very finnicky, beach-purposed machine we were in.
“We’re going to Horno, near the back of the base, by Las Pulgas,” I replied.
“Horno?” he asked, his tone one of surprise. “All Camp Horno has is the Infantry Training Regiment.”
“That’s where the Marines were based,” I replied.
“Only privates and maybe PFC’s go through Horno, other than instructors,” Gularte said, but he sounded more like he was talking to himself rather than considering what I’d told him and responding to me, so I said nothing.
“They were corporals, all three,” Gularte mused. “If they were corporals, then they simply had to be somehow part of the training detachment.”
“What the hell is that doing there?” Gularte exclaimed, turning the Bronco toward the nearby edge of the sand berm and facing it out toward the ocean. The Bronco’s inadequate wipers thumped away, as I tried to see what Gularte might be talking about. The wipers pushed the collecting water from the windscreen instead of truly wiping it clear and giving me a good view out into the ocean where Gularte was staring.
I ignored the mess on the windshield and stuck my head outside the open window instead, using my left hand to form a visor over my eyes. The wind was slight, coming off the breaking surf, but the mist and spindrift made it hard to see, even across the open air to where Gularte’s attention had been attracted.
It was a boat, I could see rather dimly. I realized, after a few seconds of adjustment, that it was no regular boat. It was a lengthy beautiful boat of some very expensive design, and it was moving directly toward the shore where we were.
“What the hell’s going on?” I asked Gularte. “What could they possibly be doing this close to the shore and in these conditions?”
“I can’t answer the second question,” Gularte replied, opening his door and stepping out onto the sand, “but I can sure as hell answer the first. That boat is coming ashore, fast and hard.”
As if following Gularte’s directions, the boat pointed directly toward the shore, it’s bow so dead on to us that neither side of it’s hull was visible. I sat mesmerized, staring as the boat came at us, powering directly into the backs of the big swells that were rearing up to break and then expend their energies onto the sloping shore and sand below.
“You going to call it in, or what?” Gularte asked. “What are we supposed to do?”
I jerked back into the real world. I hadn’t even thought about calling in, but we were going to need help, possibly lots of it, very shortly. I pulled the department Motorola handset to my mouth.
“Forty-six-six-seventy-three,” I sent, but didn’t want for Bobby’s receiving response. “We’ve got a boat coming at full speed toward the beach, right in over the surf and it’s going to hit at what appears to be full speed, any second now.”
“You’re not kidding?” Bobby replied.
“We need the guards, equipment to get aboard the craft once it beaches and probably some way to transport victims from the beach.”
“Where are you exactly?” Bobby asked.
“Exactly where the towels and stuff the Marine’s left,” I replied, I replied, not fully thinking about what I was saying. I stopped talking and inhaled deeply as I watched the boat rear up once before falling back, only to rear up again, its bow seeking the sand below it like a bull plunging toward the sharp killing point of a bullfighter’s sword.
I exited the Bronco and moved slowly toward the surf, my feet taking the first hit of sea water as a wave swept up toward and past me. There was no question I was going to get wet, so I ignored it as best I could. My jungle boots were supposedly made to be fully exposed to the most water-logged conditions.
The boat plunged down the front of a big breaking swell, it’s sharpened bow so angled down that it seemed like it would stab right into the sand bottom before it, but it didn’t. Somehow the bow struck the hard-packed sand high enough up so that the forward bottom section of the hull took the hit.
The boat literally bounced, not veering to either side as I thought it might.
Gularte joined me, both of us moving almost unconsciously toward what was fast becoming a major wreck. The waves came in, now up to our knees, forcing both of us to bend into the force of the rushing water.
A swell rose up, bigger than the rest, and struck the boat fully on its flat stern, pushing the craft down in the stern but up by its bow, and thereby sending it forward, almost in a controlled glide, right onto the hard flat surface Gularte and I were standing on, as if waiting for its arrival.
“Back,” I warned, needlessly, as Gularte backpedaling as fast as I. “It’s still under power,” I shouted, “that’s why it came straight in through the waves.”
The boat didn’t stay pushed directly into the shore in front of us for long. Succeeding and unending swells continued to break, striking the boat unevenly across its stern. Slowly the boat began to angle its stern toward the San Clemente Pier, with the shallower water allowing the thrashing propellers to throw sea water up behind it in a low but powerful rooster tail.
“We’ve got to get aboard,” Gularte yelled, plunging forward to approach a thick shoreline that had fallen off the port side facing us.
Before I could say anything, Gularte grabbed the rope. Hand over hand, with his boots pushing against the hull, he climbed madly up the hull. In seconds he was up under the chrome guard rail and standing on the deck. He held the guard rail tightly, as the boat was canting from port to starboard and back severely, almost to the point where it looked from below that Gularte wouldn’t be able to negotiate his way to the main cabin.
I knew there was no way that I could perform the gymnastics Gularte had demonstrated in getting aboard, but I didn’t want him entering the cabin portions of the large yacht alone. I guessed the boat to be about fifty feet long and maybe twelve feet in width. The noise of the breaking sea, along with the wind, the mist and the thumping sound of the boat bouncing up and down on the hard sand prevented any verbal communication. However, Gularte didn’t seem to need verbal communication. He turned his back briefly, and then bent and twisted his torso. A big round lifesaving buoy came sailing through the air toward me. He tried to shout, cupping one hand over his mouth. I knew right away that he was no doubt trying to tell me to get inside the buoy and he’d pull me up.
I grabbed the buoy, hoping I’d fit inside it, before looking up and down the beach. There was no one yet in view, or in hearing distance, to indicate that help was on the way, although I knew it had to be. Bobby was considered the very best dispatcher up and down the coast of Southern California. My last thought about the beach that came to me, before I squeezed myself through the hole set in the center of the buoy, was about coincidence. How was it that the Marines, or others, placed the towels and personal effects right at the same spot that the outlandish yacht we were boarding had just landed not fifty meters from? How was it that the Western White House compound was little more than a mile away? How was it that a large very visible and imposing yacht was not intercepted by the Navy or Air Force, or whomever, before coming ashore where we were?
Gularte pulled hard on the rope attached to the buoy. I was literally jerked off my feet, left to dangle against the side of the pounding hull. I didn’t get a chance to climb at all as Gularte pulled me ever upward. I wondered what I was being raised up into, as there appeared to be nobody operating the boat or, quite impossibly, nobody aboard at all.