The staff sergeant and I made small talk all the way to El Toro. It was normally a half hour drive, but the sergeant took his time, staying in the slow lane. His background was embassy duty, so he talked on and on about the different embassies and consulates he’d been attached to. In spite of my foreboding about the coming meeting with the Chief of Protocol the sergeant’s constant chatter relaxed me and entertained me, as well. Whatever the staff sergeant really was he was obviously quite good at it. I had been fit into a mold by the staff of the Western White House and I was evidently doing okay in making myself fit the shape of that mold, as I didn’t think regular employees or appointees ever got in front of someone from the White House who held ambassadorial powers, as well as being responsible for every formality required in White House Operations.
I deliberately asked no questions about anything, other than about some of the places the staff sergeant had served. There was no question in my mind, after taking in a few of his responses, that he’d actually performed in the embassy guard role.
We pulled off Interstate Highway 5 at El Toro Road, which came up well before the 5 and 405 cleaved apart. The gate to the base was open and bright with several Marine guards in short sleeve blues guarding the single wooden plank that normally served to allow the guards to check out the credentials and identities of visitors. The gate was open, however, and the Marines were all standing at attention and saluting.
“Good grief, Charlie Brown,” I said to the staff sergeant as our Lincoln cruised through. “Does everyone know everything about where the hell I am even before I do?”
I didn’t say the words with any anger or rancor, however. I wasn’t upset, just a bit nonplussed. Staff sergeants didn’t rate salutes being given first by those of lower rank. But I did or would have if I was still on real active duty. The I.D. card I carried said I was on full active duty as a 1st Lieutenant, and that card also said the period of expiration was ‘indefinite.’ What I really was to the Marine Corps I had yet to question anybody about, but the Marines were saluting the officer they had to know was in the car.
The staff sergeant remained silent, although in truth I’d expected no answer.
The crossing runways of the airport’s tarmac were just ahead, except there was no plane near where the staff sergeant stopped the Lincoln. Another limo, bigger than the regular-sized cars kept at the compound referred to as limos but weren’t really. The car that was there in front of us was a ‘real’ limo. It was at least twice as long as the one I was in.
“I’m to drop you off, wait here in this car while you communicate with the man waiting in that car, and then we’ll drive back to the compound.” The staff sergeant opened his door, got out and then came around to open mine.
“Am I getting more important or you less?” I whispered as I climbed onto the bright white concrete of the runway.
The sergeant closed the door crisply behind me and got back into the driver’s seat. There was no answer to my question, but then again, like the previous one I’d asked, I wasn’t really expecting one.
The limo driver of the bigger limo got out, walked around and opened the back door for me, his expression impassive, his eyes focused on the distance, like he was a Marine at the position of attention on a parade ground. Unlike the staff sergeant, he wore a pure blue chauffer’s outfit topped with a hat that looked too small for his large head.
I got into the limo, the driver did not. I noted immediately that the windows were so blacked out to a degree that the only real light coming inside was from the front windshield and my open door, which quickly closed. Ambassador Smoak was sitting facing backwards toward me in the car. I could only make out his outline once my door was shut.
“You’re the lieutenant,” he said, not in a questioning tone.
I wasn’t a real Marine Officer anymore, but I didn’t know who knew what about anything anymore. Nobody off the base ever called me by rank anyway and I was wearing my Haldeman-required compound outfit of slacks, white shirt and my only sport coat so that wouldn’t give it away.
“You hold normal ‘secret’ classification, and you reached top secret as an RPS custodian, they tell me,” he said, as my eyes grew used to the small amount of interior light and I began to see the face of the man before me.
Why was the man telling me about myself, I wondered? I was aware of my security classification although until that moment believed that they’d ended it when I signed my DD214 discharge papers.
“The head of the Russian government is coming to the Western White house in two weeks and he’s bringing a contingent of his guards that’s twenty-four strong. This is top secret information, although everyone will know most of this in a week or so. You are to tell no one. I’m giving you this information because it’s been decided by others that you will join and guide the Soviet delegation to Disneyland, where, for some idiotic reason, they all demand, as part of the negotiations to come here, that they get to go. Mr. Brezhnev is not going to be allowed to make the trip or visit that fabled entertainment center. That last bit of data is also top secret. That’s it. Any questions?”
I sat in stunned silence, my mind racing. I was not Secret Service or anything close to being trained the way such specialized agents had to be, and I was not part of the diplomatic service or really attached to any part of the White House group. I was a rookie beach patrol officer, part-time insurance agent and the unofficial ‘Snow White’ leader of the Seven, now Eight or more, Dwarfs.
I thought briefly about my role again and why I probably had it.
“No questions,” I replied, having about a hundred but I wasn’t going to ask anything at all of someone I’d just met and who was spouting high classification material inside a giant limo sitting on what gave every appearance of being an abandoned airstrip.
When I stepped out of the Lincoln, I realized right away that I’d never been on a military base where no one was visible. There were no planes, no vehicles or any of the usual hubbub that went with such active bases.
“That’s what I expected,” the rather non-descript man said.
I noted that his hair was almost pure white, longer than Haldeman’s but shorter than Ehrlichman’s, and that he was vaguely attractive in facial features. I would have guessed his business suit to be brown but the light was too bad to tell. His shoes were new Johnston and Murphy expensive things because the bottom of his crossed left leg allowed me to see the name branded into the sole just at the inside edge of the heel.
I unlatched the door, after a moment of silence passed. I presumed the interview to be over.
“I’ll tell you when you’re dismissed,” the man said, his expression as flat and plain as the driver’s had been when he let me into the limo.
I noted again that the driver had never gotten back into the car. Evidently, he lacked the clearance, but I couldn’t be sure.
I took my hand off the handle and let it fall to my side.
I didn’t like Smoak, and I didn’t care if he was an ambassador or not. I had obviously been selected to perform an important mission. I hadn’t been selected to sit through arrogant and baseless instructions from a man who quite obviously didn’t approve of my selection, or had I?
The driver’s door of the big limo opened, and a man climbed in. I knew immediately who that man was. It was the staff sergeant, my driver.
“Cobb,” Smoak whispered, his voice pegged so low I almost couldn’t hear the word.
“Cobb,” I repeated, mindlessly, before it dawned on me that I’d heard that name brought up once before. Cobb was the owner of the yacht named ‘Small Change’ sitting in the harbor not far from Richard’s expensive boat.
My mind whirled. The stuff about Brezhnev and his guards, and even the president’s wife’s birthday ‘gathering’ all went into the background.
I said nothing, once again, trying to give off no facially expressive information at all.
“Cobb, as I said, she’s not to be any part of what you’re doing,” Smoak said, pushing his overly large black rimmed glasses up on his nose with two fingers of his right hand.
I stared into the man’s eyes until he averted his gaze to look over my left shoulder, where there was nothing.
I wanted to ask the question; “what part of what I’m doing?” so badly that I had to inhale deeply and then exhale slowly to stop myself. I needed my wife. I was in unknown territory, and I didn’t know how to process.
My wife always gave the same advice to me in such circumstances. “Say nothing,” she’d forcefully spit out, right in my face. “You talk too much and what you say is too damned interesting, so shut the hell up.”
“Yes, sir,” I replied to the man, taking her silent unspoken advice.
Smoak knocked on the window next to him with a knuckle on his clenched right hand.
The staff sergeant stepped out of the vehicle at nearly the same time my door was pulled open from the outside.
“Dismissed,” Smoak said, although I was already half way out the door.
I walked to the compound Lincoln and let myself into the back seat. The whole charade of meeting Mr. Smoak was all about Viola June Cobb, and nothing else. It was the only thing that had to be witnessed, for some unknow reason. The Kennedy assassination was still very much on everyone’s mind. Why June Cobb had to be left out of the Dwarf’s investigation was unknown, but whatever it was pointed itself directly at the Western White House and divulged by its revealing nature that June Cobb was very definitely involved.
The ride back was in silence as far as conversation went. The Lincoln was equipped with a regular radio, unlike patrol vehicles. The sergeant turned it on and the latest rock and roll came out of the speakers.
The last part of a newer song played, the animal nature of the different vocal tones and the words hitting me physically: “Hush, my darling, don’t fear, my darling, the lion sleeps tonight. Hush, my darling, don’t fear, my darling, the lion sleeps tonight.” I looked out the window as Mission Viejo flew by. The staff sergeant wasn’t wasting any time at all in getting back to the Western White House. Whatever his connection to that operation was I would probably never get to know but he sure as hell was no professional chauffer and nothing as lowly in rank as a staff sergeant. Neither Smoak nor I would have been in the same limo as him, unless he wasn’t him at all.
My wife was right again in what she hadn’t said. I was going to shape information I gave her while depending upon her objective judgment and conclusions with respect to that judgment. In other words, I was consciously or unconsciously setting her up to tell me what I wanted to hear, which was sometimes I knew a long way from what I needed to hear. The last stanza of the brilliantly written South African song was preceded by words that indicated that the lion preying nearby was asleep. I was dealing with lions wide awake and so well disguised, like the man driving the Lincoln I was in, that I couldn’t tell the predators from the prey…although I didn’t feel at all like a predator.
“Take the PCH off Crown Valley Parkway,” I said to the staff sergeant.
On the bluff above and overlooking the new Dana Point Harbor was an old white Spanish building. The building had been abandoned for some years but then was taken over by a controversial drug rehabilitation center for addicts assigned out by the court. When I’d driven out the back way from Dana Point Harbor the week before I’d noticed a small sign on the flat white expanse of the building, the part that faced along the highway. The sign read, ‘outpatient psychology $50.00 an hour.’ There’d been a phone number, and I wanted that number. There was no way I could talk to anyone at the Veterans Administration or go to a regular therapist, as I was certain that my role as a police officer, beach patrol agent for the Western White House beach and even my license to sell insurance would be compromised in one way or another if I admitted I was having any kind of mental problems at all.
The staff sergeant pulled the Lincoln into the Straight-Ahead parking lot. We had one hour to kill before I had to make it back to the compound, get home, get changed and then go meet the Dwarfs. I was lying to my wife, and I didn’t like it.
And now, there was all the classified material I was supposed to reflect on and quite possibly act on which I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone, even my family. I couldn’t tell my wife and keep my oath, or whatever it was I had with the people I was working for, and if I broke the oath and told her would I not simply endanger her? I didn’t want to tell her the truth about some things. What I needed was some help with the mental state I was in. I knew it was Vietnam-related. The nights waiting up staring out into the darkness for an enemy that was never coming. There was also the rigidity of my conduct in doing almost everything (except filling out insurance applications), washing our Volks every morning, as well as cleaning and ceaselessly oiling my growing battery of short and long weapons. I was coming to understand that I was in some kind of a difficult state and not able to put everything together. I simply trudged on every day, like through the thirty days of my combat September going on two years back.
Straight Ahead was a drug outpatient care center that was hated by just about everyone in the surrounding communities. In thinking about the sign, I figured that any therapist working there, and sticking out his or her sign, wasn’t likely to be reporting to anyone about private clients paying extra cash.
I stayed in the Lincoln as it came to a stop, took out my Day-Timer and wrote the psychologist’s number down. There was no name. It was worth a call, although I didn’t know what to expect. I’d never spoken to a professional therapist before.
The staff sergeant looked at me through the rear-view mirror but didn’t turn around or say anything before pulling out of the parking lot and heading toward the compound. Pacific Coast Highway from Dana Point to San Clemente is truly about the Pacific Ocean as the road is right near the edge of the water most of the way, only separated by rows of large, stacked rocks, the railroad tracks and some inexpensive mobile homes plopped down in one row after another. I watched the scenery and tried to begin reviewing what had happened during my short meeting. There’d been no talk whatever about protocol, which I was ready for because my wife figured out that Ambassador Smoak needed a witness to what he was saying about Cobb.
Reviewing the accuracy of that analysis on her part, I made a decision. I wasn’t going to lie to her about any of what I was doing, and the government could ‘whistle Dixie’ when it came to me keeping classified knowledge from her. If I was to work my way through the wildly bizarre and complex assortment of things that I was deeply involved with then I couldn’t and wouldn’t do it alone.
“Do we have a few minutes for a quick coffee break?” the staff sergeant asked, looking over his right shoulder for the first time since taking the wheel, either going or coming.
Maybe my meeting scheduled by Pat for a bit later was still a bit of data about me that the compound was unaware of, although I would not have bet on any of that. The people working for the president were almost beyond paranoid in protecting him. The comment about no recorders in the residence, the compound or the president’s bedroom in the White House bothered me and simply fueled my own paranoia. If they didn’t record everything in those places did that mean they recorded everywhere else and everyone else? And who was ‘they,’ anyway.
“Where?” I asked, wondering if the staff sergeant had any place in mind.
“Your place, there on Del Mar Avenue. Tom and Loraine’s restaurant,” the sergeant replied, turning his full attention back to navigating the road that became El Camino Real as it curved up into the city from the shoreline.
“Galloways,” I murmured back to him, once more adding to my discomfort that a mere gate guard commander would know so much of stuff that I felt was completely private.
“Yes, that’s the place.”
We turned down Del Mar from El Camino Real and drove the half a block down to take one of the many open slots in front of the shops located up across the sidewalk from the high curb.
When we walked in together Loraine came forward to seat us, which she did at the center window table because we were the only customers.
The restaurant was more of a coffee shop than a restaurant at all, although it did a great job of turning out breakfasts and lunches using only a hot griddle.
Lorraine, being the ebullient, expressive, personality she was, also possessed a keen sensitivity to everything and everyone around her. She disappeared after bringing out two cups of coffee, the staff sergeant’s black and mine with the usual two sugar packets and milk.
“Did they talk to you about how you and your wife should conduct yourself during the event?” he asked, after taking one long sip of his coffee. The high heat of the liquid seemed not to bother him at all.
“No,” I replied, not drinking my coffee and staring into his bottomless black eyes. Eyes like Gularte had but Gularte’s were always filled with mirth and emotion, not like the staff sergeants at all.
“You will be there when you’re informed that the president and Pat are inside and ready. Go through the door and walk down the reception line. There’ll be about ten people in that line and you should, by now, recognize a few of them. Smile, shake hands and move on, as if you don’t know them at all. The president and wife should be the same and they’ll be at the end of the line, first her and them him at the very end. Quickly move along and walk to the back of the room. There will be filled wine glasses and a service table along the back wall. Stand at a table and drink the wine or not. Do not go to the service table to get anything. If you speak or are spoken to then make as sure as you can that person is young. Young people, other than the progeny children are unimportant. Wait fifteen minutes and then quietly exit the room through the door you came in. That’s it. Leave and get away from there. You have no friends in that room and no standing.”
The staff sergeant took another drink of his coffee and waited.
“So, how do you know all this stuff?” I asked, “and you weren’t part of the planning, I would assume, so who talked to you about how we are supposed to act?”
“I’m telling you all this because I have literally done a hundred of these functions and you’re not ready for prime time in there. Haldeman and Ehrlichman both probably only made the plans because they think doing such things is funny. I’m telling you because I owe it to you lieutenant.”
“Owe me for what?” I asked back, surprised. The staff sergeant barely knew me, or I him.”
“I wasn’t over there with you and the utter horror of what you had to go through, that’s why I owe you…like everyone in this crazy compound should.”
I sat in silence, sipping my coffee and thinking that either the guy was even better at whatever function he served, or he was being sincere. The advice I knew had to be solid as it lined up with many of the people I already knew and also just sounded so very logical, although I didn’t think I rose high enough in important for neither Haldeman or Ehrlichman to be entertained by my being put in the difficult position my wife had forced me to put us in.
I looked at my watch. The Dwarfs were meeting in forty minutes, and I had to get home to change.
“I can’t thank you enough,” I said, truthfully, “but I’ve got to get home pretty quickly, and part of that will be to deliver the instructions you just gave me.
I wanted to ask him about his real work but thought better of it. He’d probably stepped out of his role in order to help me with the coming gathering for the President’s wife, and I wasn’t going to put him on the spot or force him to lie to me.
Lorraine waved us out without having to pay. She’d so far collected a couple of hundred dollars being my bird dog, so I figured she understood. That the staff sergeant had probably studied complete backgrounds of both of them would no doubt shock her nearly to death so that kind of talk had to be the kind that was never allowed to come up.
The trip to the compound was made in minutes, and the gate was open for our passage. I thanked the staff sergeant and got into the Volks. In five more minutes, I was in the driveway on Cabrillo. I rushed inside. Although Richard was on a training run with Gularte in the Bronco I wanted to wear my beach patrol uniform. If I got the chance, I would ride with both of them following the meeting, as Richard’s whole identity was still a mystery. I wouldn’t go out on patrol, either, without full equipment or armament.
When I got to the lifeguard headquarters there was nobody there. I went into the chief’s office and picked up the phone. I had the number of the restaurant at the end of the pier memorized. Shawna picked up after the second ring.
“Will you send Gularte or Elwell to come get me at the headquarters?” I asked her.
“Gularte, get your butt down to the headquarters and pick up Snow White or we can’t have our meeting.” She hung up without saying anything further.
The Bronco was there in two minutes. The pier was a quarter mile out to the end I didn’t want to walk fast or run and perspire in the uniform. My wife worked too hard for me to demand the thing be cleaned after every wearing.
“We been waiting,” Gularte said with his usual good humored laugh.
Everyone was there, I noted as I walked in and over to my place at the head of the table. I took out the governmental pen, the second one and put it on the table in front of me.
“This is what we got from the yacht,” I said, pointing at the shiny black tube.
“That’s it?” Pat asked, while everyone else merely stared at the innocuous thing.
“We’re being played,” I said, looking straight into Richard’s eyes. “We’re being played from both the outside and the inside and I don’t know why. The pen was left on purpose so we’d find it. The yacht was returned so fast and so clean so we’d notice how fast and clean the job was done and also, how unattached to anything or anyone the craft seemed. Finally, they can’t know everything they know at the compound out there without someone on the inside telling them. I’m not being followed and even if I was it’d be pretty tough for them to know about the Galloways, their place and even their first names. That has to be stuff they are getting from here.”
“Why?” Hoodoo asked. “Why would they bother? What’s really going on here and why are we being toyed with like this? What’s at stake here to be gained or lost?”
“Our jobs,” Pat blurted out. “If the police department goes over to the sheriffs and the lifeguards to the state then the only people at this table that will be unaffected are Shawna and Richard. The town has a big stake in all this too, as their services for fire, police and lifeguards would dwindle to almost nothing, much less being degraded because none of those outside agencies have a clue about how this place is run.”
“It’s not me,” Shawna whispered into the silence.
All the original Seven Dwarfs, and Snow White looked across the table at Richard.