The .45 was in the box it’d come in when the commanding general of the base at Quantico had awarded it to me. My wife had put it up, and as far back on the top shelf of our bedroom closet, as she could. She and Pat had taken Julie to the shopping center for some things I hadn’t been informed about. I pulled the box down and opened it. An eight-by-eleven shiny picture of the general handing me the automatic was the first thing I saw as I opened the special box. I carefully removed the Colt from the red velvet interior of the oak wood box. The words “Clark Custom, Shreveport, La.” burned once again into my forebrain. They were carved into the metal in cursive, not like the printing underneath that described the weapon itself. The Marine Corps Association had paid a lot of money to have the weapon specially accurized. I knew that because my dad had been in charge of the Coast Guard Pistol Team for years when I was younger. A Clark .22 or .45 was prized over all other accurized pieces for use in competition.
I sat with the Colt in my lap. It was the only weapon I’d touched since leaving the A Shau Valley. My right hand slowly, almost all on its own, curled around the grip. The gun was loaded with factory ball ammo since hollow points wouldn’t explode effectively at the relatively slow speed a .45 bullet travels. Possessing the Colt once more made me feel warm and secure, but, as I sat there breathing carefully in and out, I knew there was really no truth in that. Not for the place I’d returned to. There was no security in having a gun if using the gun would almost certainly involve going to prison, not to mention adding another to the many dead who haunted my waking, as well as nighttime, hours. I thought of the slime ball in the ward, who’d insulted both my wife and me. I’d shoot him in less than a heartbeat, and I’d shoot him several times, I knew. But I could not. I wasn’t in the A Shau anymore. I was a training command Marine who would shortly not be a Marine anymore at all. I looked at the front door, closed against the middle of the living room wall across from me. My bullet placement would be perfectly executed if that man came through the door under threatening conditions.
I slowly tucked the unfired beautiful piece of collected metal shapes back into the box. I left one round in its chamber, just like I’d kept my .45 in the A Shau. The slide safety locking tang was stuck up into the slide locking safety notch on the side of the slide itself. I clicked the safety off, just once, and the sound seemed to echo through the whole living room before I re-engaged it. I was drawn to it, the sound, the automatic, the need to again experience the satisfaction of using it with great precision and application. The Colt was calling me back.
I closed the lid on the box, taking one last look at the photo of the general grinning, and me returning a grin. The photo hadn’t aged, the gun hadn’t aged, and neither had the box, but I was so many years from where I’d been only seven months back, at the time the award was made, that it seemed like light-years. I couldn’t go back without being back, and I wanted nothing ever to do again with the A Shau Valley or any situation that even distantly resembled the place or any of what had happened there. I put the box back exactly where my wife kept it, knowing that one day I would have to take it down to clean the automatic, but that day would not be now. The Colt knew it was there, waiting, and I knew the Colt was there, waiting. I was determined that it would wait a long time. If violence was to come out of my current environment, I was going to have to find another way of dealing with it.
I decided that there was no rush in heading over to M&M since Mickey would be doing whatever he was going to do to the GTO. I was window dressing, as I could do almost nothing to help him physically.
The fog lifted just before mid-day, so, after eating as much leftover pork as I could possibly take in, and working to fool with the ridiculous mess changing the colostomy bag turned out to be, I got fully dressed, changed my bloody abdominal four by four bandages, and headed for the garage. I limped along in the cold aftermath of the lifting fog, the sun beginning to shine and warming things up but not at a very rapid rate.
When I arrived at the station there was a customer waiting by a gas pump. I secretly hoped that the man, standing by the open driver’s door of the vehicle might want new tires, as the twenty I’d gotten the day before meant so much to my wife when I’d presented it to her. I walked around the pumps without encountering the man, and into the shop through the open bay door. Mickey was leaning over one fender of my open-hooded GTO while another man leaned over the other.
“Pump the damned gas,” Mickey said to me, without any hello or other salutation, “unless you can sell the guy a set of tires.” Both men laughed.
I went out to pump the gas, wondering if I was ever going to be treated with respect in my life at all. I’d thought, during Marine Officer training, that I would have automatic respect when that training was done, at least from Marines of lesser rank throughout the Corps, or certainly from those in any command, I served in. That had not turned out to be the case. Now, without money and without a running vehicle, I was once more like a freshman in college. I was the FNG, although I didn’t have to walk the point, as in combat, or wear a beanie or do some other totally dumb stuff as I’d done in college, to prove I knew nothing.
I took the eight bucks the guy paid for his gas back into the garage. I held the money out to Mickey, but he pointed at the office, before going back to talking to the guy on the other side of the car, the guy wearing a big weird-looking curly-brimmed cowboy hat and smoking a cigar. The office was empty. It took me several seconds to figure out how to open the money drawer on the register. When it sprang open I was amazed. The slots were filled with cash of all denominations. I carefully put the five and three ones in their proper places, very much aware that the slots for ten and twenty-dollar bills were pretty much stuffed. I frowned, closed the drawer, and went back out to the mechanic’s bay, wondering if I was being tested. Who leaves cash like that laying around and sends somebody almost unknown to check it out?
“This is Smokey,” Thompson said, staring down into the mess the engine bay of my GTO had become. It was like the entire engine had been taken apart, and then the parts heaped back into the open space where the whole assembled engine had been.
I stared down, ignoring the smoking man, noting in the back of my mind that there was no smoke in the garage or coming from the man’s cigar, even though it was in the guy’s mouth.
“Engine’s shot, from one end to the other,” Mickey said, his tone analytical and seemingly uncaring. “The block’s cracked, the crank’s toast, and the heads can’t even be milled back into shape. I don’t have an engine for this thing, not that’ll be allowed under E-Stock rules at the NHRA event. You take this thing anywhere to get an estimate before talking to me?”
The question surprised me. I almost said no, then remembered the failure of a phone call I’d made to the Sears and Roebuck garage. I told Mickey about it, and the hopeless part wherein I had to admit that I had no money or almost none. I did have the twenty Mickey’d given me from the day before. I didn’t bother to admit my wife had gone shopping with that twenty only hours before, however.
Mickey and Smokey looked at one another for a few seconds, saying nothing.
“What is it?” I asked, wondering what was on their mind. The guy at Sears had said he wouldn’t do it without the money.
“I’ll call him,” Mickey said, ‘unless you want to,” he went on, obviously speaking to Smokey.
“Nah, they’re sponsoring one of my cars,” Smokey replied, taking the cigar from his mouth, and tapping it on my GTO’s fender as if the cigar really had any ash to be tapped off of it. “I don’t want to appear taking advantage.”
“What are you going to call about?” I asked, having no clue what the two men were getting at.
“Listen and learn,” Smokey replied, as Mickey headed for the office.
I trailed along. Smokey took one of the three chairs while Mickey pulled a rotary phone from under the counter, which was too small for anything other than the big metal cash register that sat atop it.
It took minutes for Mickey to come up with a number from information, never bothering to ask me whether I still had the number, which I didn’t, anyway.
“This is Mickey Thompson,” Mickey said aggressively into the phone after dialing. “Yes, that Mickey Thompson,” he went on after a slight delay. “Let me talk to what’s his name, the shop manager there, I’ll hold.” Mickey clutched the phone to his chest, smiling over at Smokey broadly. “See, they’ve heard of me, not like you,” he said.
“To their embarrassment and chagrin,” Smokey replied.
I noted that Smokey’s southern twang or accent was totally out of character with the words he used when he spoke.
“You got a Marine, shot to shit in Vietnam, recovering from his wounds and his GTO won’t run,” Mickey said into the handset, to my complete surprise. “You said you could rebuild his engine but he needed six hundred bucks so you turned him down. How in the hell is that story going to play when Smokey and I get to Half Moon Bay and run at Winter Nationals?”
“How big of you,” Mickey said. “How about twenty bucks a month, first month due the last day of next month?” Mickey clutched the phone to his chest once more and turned to me. “You can afford twenty a month by the end of next month, right?” he whispered.
I nodded. My pay, plus expense money for living off base, came to about four hundred and fifty dollars, dependent, of course, on my pay records catching up with me.
“And he needs one of those CLC credit cards you guys give out like candy,” Mickey said.
I had no idea what Mickey was talking about. I just stared at the man without being able to say much of anything.
“Fine, how about four hundred dollars in credit, the twenty percent Sears discount and take the first twenty bucks out on the rebuild?’
I knew I was inside a game wherein I didn’t know the rules. Mickey was making decisions for me that I knew had the patina of good news but I couldn’t be certain. All of a sudden, it came to me. He was like the Gunny. Somehow, I was being tossed about decisions to make that I had no choice in making the way he wanted me to. I had no experience or data to ground anything, and I was being given no time.
“When the Marine calls on you, make sure you require that he bring his wife with him,” Mickey concluded. “She wears the shortest skirt in all of San Francisco.”
He hung up the phone and started to laugh. Smokey laughed with him, pulling the unsmoked cigar from between his lips, and taking his cowboy hat off for the first time.
“That true?” Smokey asked. Both he and Mickey looked over at me.
“Is what true?” I asked back
“That your wife wears the shortest skirt in all of San Francisco?” Smokey said.
“Where do you guys get this stuff from, some kind of late-night comedy routine?” I asked, nervously, because, afraid to alienate the only people who seemed to be helping me. I was still suffering some discomfort from the treatment the inmate in the ward had given my wife and me.
The two men stopped laughing.
“What’s a CLC card?” I asked.
“That’s a revolving credit card that gives you twenty percent off anything you buy at Sears, although the shop isn’t really part of the organization,” Smokey replied. “The shop’s a contract place, but it all works fine. Your new card will only work at Sears stores or contractors of Sears who agree, so ask first.”
“Why did you mention that we might be taking advantage of Sears?” I asked, Smokey’s comment sticking in my mind.
“The engines shot,” Mickey said. “We got an Isky racing cam, some solid lifters, and a bit more, but the car’s engine needs a new block, pistons, heads, radiator, and probably a generator to boot. That bill alone will come to just under a grand, at least, not counting labor, guarantee, and whatever, before you get it back and we take it apart to make it go faster.”
“So, Sears is getting stuck with a pig in a poke, all for taking care of some wounded veteran?” I replied, not feeling very comfortable.
“Smokey?” Mickey said, turning to look at his friend.
“They make a fortune in advertising off of Mickey and me, and many of our friends. They only pay by doing us favors and giving us stuff they don’t want anymore or can’t sell. It’s an even trade, pretty much, but if there’s an imbalance, believe me, it’s in their favor.”
My mind raced. My wife and I were getting a four-hundred-dollar credit card from Sears, a twenty percent across-the-counter discount there, the GTO repaired and guaranteed for twenty dollars a month we didn’t have to pay for quite some time and there was something else, I realized. I wanted to work with Mickey and Smokey if I could. I had nothing to cling to except the inside of a small apartment, a lovely daughter too young to really know me, and a wife who was going to grow tired of me hanging around only to be cared for. Mickey and Smokey stared at me, neither man saying a word. I realized, after a moment of silence, that they were waiting.
I could get the car back from Sears and then disappear, I knew, but I couldn’t do that. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to go to the track, watch the car work being done and live again. I would pump gas or do any other menial chores to be a part of that.
“Okay, I’m in,” I finally said, wondering if it was the right thing, the thing they were expecting.
“We knew,” Mickey replied, smiling.
“How did you know?” I asked, surprised, not at me being in but why they might have doubted, given all that seemed to be getting done for me, that I might not be.
“Mickey talked to me,” Smokey said, taking the cigar from his mouth. “What choice do you have?”
“And you’re a Marine,” Mickey said, “when do they want you back on full duty?”
The question came from nowhere. I hadn’t and didn’t want to think about the coming heavy-duty surgery, going back into that hospital or entrusting my life to people I didn’t want to be around, much less allow to decide whether I lived or died.
“Plenty of time for that, I presume, or you’d be telling us,” Mickey said, somehow sensing my inability to want to come to terms with the answer. I’ll pull the goat in the morning and haul it over there. Got a wrecker down at my yard. You’ll have to go in later in the day to get your card. You can use the 442. You got a driver’s license, by the way?”
“I do,” I answered, not sure I did. I hadn’t looked at the Virginian license I’d gotten while at the Basic School since returning home, but I presumed it hadn’t timed out in little more than a year since it was issued.
“You’ll need the license to get your card, as I’m not sure they honor military identity cards.”
I was once again surprised at just how much Mickey seemed to know about everything. The Gunny had been like that.
“My wife…” I started, but Smokey cut me off before I could get out another word.
“You don’t have to take your wife, that was just Mickey and me playing with you,” he said, “having a beautiful wife should always be a wonderful benefit but everyone doesn’t see it or use it that way.”
“Stay and work for a while so I can get these cars out of here,” Mickey said, looking over at me while moving away from the edge of the counter he’d been leaning on.
“I’ve got to get rid of these cars promised to people before I can run the GTO inside, and go to work on it. It’s gonna take a few days for Sears to put that mess together, so we have time. The race is in three weeks, so there’s that, as well.”
“What are you running Smokey?” Mickey asked.
“Just along for the show, this time around,” Smokey replied.
“A little advice here and there wouldn’t hurt, before the big day,” Mickey said.
“I’ll check in, you know that,” Smokey replied, then got up and went out to his car, which was a Chevy Camaro.
I was surprised. The car seemed just like a regular car, yet the man had the aura and knowledge of a racer, especially given that Mickey seemed to hold him in very high regard about advising him on making the GTO go faster.
There wasn’t much work to be done. I tried a few times to approach Mickey while he worked in the garage but he didn’t want to talk while he worked. Mostly, I sat in the office and watched the traffic go by, or when someone came in for gas tried to spend as much time talking to the customer as I could.
I left in mid-afternoon, after calling my wife several times on the under-the-counter phone. No calls ever came into the station. I wondered if, should they, would Mickey even answer them. It was another mystery with no solution I could think of, and it wasn’t worth bothering Mickey about. The man was wonderful in some ways and a terror in others. I did not have the CLC card, the car back, or anything without Mickey Thompson, and I wasn’t about to screw getting those things if I could help it.
The walk home was exhausting. I’d changed bandages several times during the hours I’d been gone, but still, the blood seeped through to my shirt, only my Marine green sweater holding it back and giving me the appearance of being okay. I was hungry again, and that made me feel good. I was gaining strength but didn’t really have it yet, not in full, anyway.
Once home I worked to get up the stairs, one at a time, one foot up, and then raising and setting the other next to it, and so on. My wife heard me coming and opened the door, but she didn’t come out to help, guessing that I needed to navigate on my own all I could.
Once inside, I went straight to the bathroom to take care of the bag on the side of my belly. The pork had processed through and I wasn’t happy about the result. Although I was afraid of the coming surgery I also wanted it to come as quickly as possible. I knew I couldn’t live my life with the bag. I wouldn’t live the rest of my life that way.
I talked to my wife about everything that’d transpired. She took it all in. I even told her about the joke Mickey and Smokey made about her wearing mini-skirts. She didn’t laugh, which didn’t surprise me, but what she said next definitely did.
“We get the car back, repaired and in good shape, and have to pay twenty dollars a month after your pay starts again,” she said, finally. “We get a Sears card for four hundred dollars, plus a twenty percent discount from them, and you get to spend some time walking back and forth to that gas station. I’d wear whatever kind of skirt they wanted me to for all that.”
I looked at her. She wasn’t smiling. I started to smile though. I’d married a very special woman and it was only really beginning to become clear to me the depth of her intellect and her drive to make our family work.
My daughter crawled across the rug and pulled herself up on the small table in front of the couch where I sat. She stood, looking very seriously at me, before saying “Da,” which I’d come to know as her word for me. I wasn’t at all sure that someone so young could understand what was being said, but both she and I seemed to understand. I held out one hand, and, rocking unsteadily, she took it.
My life was changed, and the changes for the good were just beginning to become evident to me. Everyone had decided some time back that I was going to live, but I hadn’t made that decision for myself, until sitting where I was in that place and time at that exact moment.