I’d been home for a week before my first contact came in from Oak Knoll, but it wasn’t from the medical side. It was from Johannson, the Marine Corps liaison officer both Mary and I’d dealt with when I was in the ward with the other prisoners. The call came in at seven a.m. which was unusual. Nobody called at seven a.m.
Thompson might show up, which he’d done before seven on three occasions, more to see Mary than I, or so I thought. His excuse was always the same; he needed to open early for one reason or another, and he’d gotten used to my pumping the gas for his patrons. My other job was answering the phone, although I never really got to talk to anybody because everyone calling in wanted to talk only to Mickey. I’d drag the phone, on its super-long extension cord, out to the garage and hand it over. When he yelled, I’d go get the thing and clean it because Mickey didn’t believe in using gloves to work on cars. I tried not to look at my GTO because it was such a mess. He’d even taken the doors off, and then fully apart. What could doors have to do with drag racing? I just shook my head and kept my mouth shut.
“Drag racing is all about the applying of sufficient power to the rubber, then getting that rubber to stick properly to the concrete, and finally balance and lastly the driving,” he’d once said, answering a question I’d never asked.
I didn’t really understand more than half of what he said or meant, but I made believe I did. He was an expert at making cars go fast. I was an expert at calling artillery. Those were not sympathetic pursuits, and although I could understand his area of expertise, it wasn’t likely he could ever come to understand mine.
The work at the shop intensified, as Mickey brought in friends who never much spoke, and I never really engaged with. I was just the gas station attendant, as far as they were concerned, as it appeared Mickey never discussed the car’s owner, or my existence, with them. Every chance I got I spent hanging in the garage, trying to figure out what was being done to the GTO. Mikey would occasionally mention what he was doing but, as for the rest, I had to figure it out for myself because when Mickey was working he didn’t want to answer questions, whatsoever. And, if the bell rang, and I was still in the shop, then he’d start bellowing until I was out of there.
“God damned Jaguar,” Mickey said from under the car one morning.
Finally, the GTO was up on the single lift the garage had, although the lift only went up about four feet, not high enough for anyone to stand fully erect under it.
“They design fantastically but then can’t mechanically figure out how to hold things in properly,” Mickey said. “The English can’t build a decent car to save their lives.”
I looked at the complexity of the system he was working to install under the left front wheel well. I realized it was a disc brake, with all the parts still attached.
“Why do we need disc brakes,” I asked, not being able to stop myself. My curiosity was just too great. “The track has to have a long flat surface past the quarter-mile since I know they run AA Fuel dragsters there.”
“Shut up, and find something to do,” Mickey yelled, sticking his head out, while two of his guys held part of the assembly up to the chassis. “Because the car is going to go just as fast on the street as it is on the track, that’s why. How the hell are you going to stop it out there when racing is over? Sure as hell not with the totally shitty drum brakes Americans stick on there.”
That seemed at odds with what he’d said earlier about English cars but I let it go.
“Where did he get the Jaguar disc brakes from?” I whispered to one of the men standing just outside the open garage door smoking a Marlboro.
“Appropriated from another job,” the man replied, shrugging his shoulders.
The man’s face was so deadpan and his expression so ‘of course’ that I had to believe him. I decided right then that Mickey might be a wild, wonderful, and genuine guy, but he was also dangerous. I went to the office smiling to myself, to await the arrival of another innocent citizen low on gas. Of the four things Mickey certainly was, it was that last one I thought I could handle with the most comfort.
Maybe the Marine Corps would send me to some other state where nobody could find me if it kept me at all. How many of the parts in my car would be on some hot list of ‘misplaced’ items I had no idea, but jail or prison, I suddenly realized, would be as nothing compared to inhabiting the A Shau Valley.
The Sears charge card came in the mail the next day. I was surprised by the fact that the card was not made of plastic but of embossed paper like it wasn’t real at all. The letter that accompanied it had good news buried inside it, however. The amount of credit I had at any Sears store or affiliate was eight hundred dollars, not four hundred, or even six hundred. I’d paid twenty-two hundred for the GTO, and still owed most of that to the Navy Federal Credit Union, so the eight hundred dollars, nearly twice what I made in lieutenant’s pay for a month, was something, indeed.
My wife was blown away by the card. Her father was a middle manager at the downtown Sears headquarters in Chicago. The CLC card was a coveted item. I didn’t mention that her father would never likely have gotten us one. That took a bizarre drag racing nut in a run-down San Francisco gas station.
“Cafeterias,” she said, waving the card at me with a smile.
“What are you talking about?” I asked, befuddled.
“They have restaurants and cafeterias in all the big stores,” she replied. “We won’t starve.”
I hadn’t thought of starvation, even in the deepest corners of my mind, but my wife was Irish, one step removed from County Claire back in the old country.
The drag racing track at Half Moon Bay proved not to be a stand-alone track at all. Instead, it was set on an isolated back landing strip of the Half Moon Bay airport.
I was surprised. I didn’t get to ride in my GTO to the track because Mickey wouldn’t let the car be driven on the street until it was converted back into what he called ‘civilian’ use. I thought he’d made the decision to tow the vehicle because of safety, but one of the guys that hung around him corrected me.
“Nah, he doesn’t want the ‘dial-in’ messed with, and the rear slicks are screwed into the rims so regular street cornering messes with their ability to hold air.”
I realized, at that point, that Mickey was all racer, and couldn’t care less how cars performed out on the street. His own Oldsmobile 442 was wonderfully quick and of very high quality, but it was unmodified in any way, including to make it go faster.
“Why is the track part of the airport?” I asked Mickey when he stepped back from under the hood, as he prepped the car for its first practice run.
“Because it’s made of concrete, not asphalt,” Mickey replied. “Asphalt has oil in it, so it’s too slippery for burning out, and concrete takes the wear when the Fuelies run.”
There were no spectators at the track, only mechanics, drivers, owners, and some people who ran the place. To me, it was boring, smelly, noisy, and filled with people all smoking cigarettes around surfaces covered with gasoline and alcohol.
The GTO ran to what Mickey called ‘specification.” The lights at the end of the quarter-mile lit up with 103 miles per hour in fourteen seconds. “We’ll tune next time,” he said, once we got into the cab of the tow truck. I didn’t know what ‘tuning’ really meant but presumed it was stuff like adjusting the floats on the three carburetors or changing the spark plugs.
The telephone seldom rang under M&M’s small front counter. I answered it and, to my surprise, it was Mary, my wife.
“Thanks,” I replied, after her short message. “I’ll be home in a bit.” I hung up the phone, and then slowly put it and the base back under the counter. Mary’s message had been short and to the point. Oak Knoll’s surgical team wanted to evaluate my condition for immediate surgery since they had a specialist visiting from back east. I stood at the counter, frozen, the crummy Zenith portable radio blaring out the Animals singing the last stanza of the House of the Rising Sun: “Well, there is a house in New Orleans, they call the Rising Sun, and it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy, and God, I know I’m one.”
“A poor boy,” I whispered in the silence, after the song was over, and before another could come on, “and I know I’m one.”
I had to get to Oak Knoll tomorrow. It was Tuesday. The big E-Stock Eliminator race was set for only a little more than three weeks away. How could I recover enough to attend the race in that short of a time? My last serious surgery had taken almost six weeks to come back from, and I hadn’t been fully ambulatory even then.
I realized that I had nobody to talk to about what was coming. My wife would not understand at all that I was concerned about being well enough after the surgery to attend some auto race, any kind of race. She, and Pat, no doubt, would take the position that I ought to be worried about surviving, getting home, seeing my rapidly growing daughter, and thinking other such more proper family thoughts rather than going to a loud, low-class running of our only car in a race populated by mechanics, owners, and spectators who might be considered cultural rejects, if such a generous definition was allowed.
The race was important to me, as was the effort that had so far been made on my, and my family’s behalf. I stared out the window at the passing traffic. A swept-back sixty-six Chevy pulled off the street and slowly moved to the side of one of the inside pumps. I inhaled deeply, pulled my shoulders back, and went out to pump gas. As I walked out, I thought about my life. I was a college graduate, an officer in the Marine Corps, and a combat veteran of some distinction, but here I was, pumping gas as my primary purpose in life. I moved around the back of the beautiful car, an Impala SS, and approached the driver’s window. I smiled down at the woman, who was smiling back at me. She didn’t know why I was smiling because of something she could probably not imagine if I told her. I was smiling because I was happier pumping gas than at being all the other things I was or had become in life and because it was something, anything, to do.
The woman, wearing giant sunglasses, with her hair wrapped up and around with some kind of cloth, held out two one-dollar bills.
“Can I put regular gas in this car?” she asked. “It’s my husband’s car. Usually, I’m not allowed to drive it, but I’ve got to get down to Rockaway beach, and it’s on empty.”
I stood back from the car and looked toward the lead edge of the left fender. There was no mistaking the 327 located just above the crossed racing flags on the emblem. The engine had to be one of the higher output 300 horsepower units, I knew, to be in an SS.
“You need premium, the 93-octane stuff, or you might hurt the valves,” I replied, watching the smile disappear from her face. The premium price was twenty cents a gallon above the 29-cent regular. It wasn’t likely the woman was going to make a 70-mile round trip in an Impala SS on about four gallons of gas. Even driven as conservatively as possible, the car wasn’t going to see much more than ten miles per gallon.
“I’ll have to risk it,” the woman said, after a few seconds of consideration, pushing the two one-dollar bills toward me.
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied, crumpling up the money and sticking it in my pocket. “Pull forward to the other pump,” I instructed the woman.
The woman frowned at me, but then pulled the car forward until the back of the car was just past the pump.
I knew the gas cap was located under the hinged license plate, although I couldn’t remember how I knew that. I took the pump handle down, pulled up on the lever to turn the machine, and then squatted down near the center of the Impala’s rear bumper. The license plate pulled down, just as I’d somehow known it would.
I inserted the handle’s nozzle into the tank filler and squeezed the trigger. I held it down for about a full minute, before letting up, enjoying the smell of the raw gasoline fumes as they surrounded me. Then I stood up and back, returning the handle to the pump. I shut it off and looked down at the woman.
The pump read 10.7 gallons.
I walked over to the woman’s window.
“You pumped more than you should have, didn’t you, and you put the expensive stuff in,” she said, taking her sunglasses off in order to look at me closer.
“You’ll have no trouble making it there and back,” I said, not being able to think of anything else to say, other than the fact that I’d just stolen about four bucks worth of gas from Mickey Thompson.
She leaned away from the window for a few seconds, bending down to get something nearby on the seat next to her.
“Here, that’s my husband’s card,” she said, sticking a gold embossed little white card out the window. “He’s a lieutenant on the police department. I’ll tell him what you did later. If you get in trouble just say you’re the kid from the gas station.”
The woman started the Chevy and pulled away, turned sharply to her left, and then entered the traffic passing by on the street. The 327 growled throatily as she accelerated the SS, but the rear wheels didn’t break loose.
I pulled the two bucks from my pocket, as I headed for the office to put the money in the register. “Thomas O’Boyle, Lieutenant, Traffic Division,” the card read, with contact address and information below. I put the money in the register but stuck the card into my wallet. One never knew. I also wondered why the woman had called me a kid. I’d been a ‘kewpie doll’ looking person not long ago, and now I was a kid. When was I ever going to be taken seriously?
The surgery was serious, that much I was certain of, and my own fear with respect to it. I was doing everything I could not to think about that. I didn’t want to go under general anesthesia again, much less come out of it in extreme agony.
But there was nothing to be done for it. I already knew what the evaluation would find. I was gaining weight and feeling stronger every day. I’d pass the inspection. I limped when I walked, but not terribly so, and I could make the trip to the gas station in only a couple of minutes instead of my first attempts, which had taken almost a quarter of an hour. I was going to be declared good enough to cut up again. I felt the slippery plastic bag snuggled between the lower part of my shirt on my left side and my skin. It would all be worth it, I knew, but still.
Once more, I stared out the window, leaning against the wall, trying to press my shoulders against its surface. I could not stand straight. The more I pushed against the wall, however, the more I stretched the incision running up and down the front of my torso. Finally, I had to give up and sit down. My hip hurt, my incision hurt, and my mind was filled with a dull fear. Not the terror, like that of combat in the valley, but the enduring central feeling of worry about the unknown that just stayed with me, like the never-ending awareness that I wore a plastic bag on my stomach.
Two Harley Davidson motorcycles pulled up to the inner pump closest to the office door. I looked through the window, waiting for the recurring blasts of their deep beating engines to come to an end.
I went out through the door, curious as to the men who might be riding such machines. They were both big brawny men, much like the Marines I’d trained with at Quantico.
I didn’t know whether Harleys took ethyl or regular gas, but I didn’t get a chance to ask.
“Hey, gimp,” one of the men said, both having dismounted the big bikes and balancing them on nearly invisible kickstands. “Put the good stuff in,” the man went on as if he’d read my mind.
“Chester,” I murmured, unscrewing the big gas cap from the center of the front Harley’s tank.
“What?” the man asked.
“The gimp thing, like Chester from Gunsmoke,” I replied, smiling.
“More like Quasimodo,” the man said back, then both started laughing.
“Not very complimentary,” I remarked, filling the tank with ethyl from the pump, making certain not to overfill it, “but then, at least you’ve done some elementary schooling, since you know the book or the movie the character’s from.”
The men stopped laughing and looked at one another.
“You may be a skinny know-nothing crippled kid, but your mouth can still get you in a lot of trouble,” the other man said.
Both men faced me, as I moved to the second bike.
I looked down at the tank of that cycle. There was a very small Vietnam representation of the Vietnamese flag next to the cap. I realized it was a plastic cut out of the Vietnam Service Ribbon, and across from it was another cut out of a Purpleheart.
“You been to the Nam,” I said, unscrewing the cap, and plunging the pump handle in.
“You said it correctly,” the first man replied, a small bit of wonder in his tone, “not that Nam crap, rhyming it with jam.”
“Yeah,” I replied, “The Nam, like in bomb.”
Both men laughed together.
“Who were you with?” the second man asked.
“Marines, A Shau Valley,” I replied. There were all kinds of possible answers to the question he’d asked, but I wanted to cut to the chase as quickly as possible. There was no point in getting even gently hit in my current condition.
“Con Tien, both of us,” the first man said. “When you get out?”
“Not out,” I said, finishing filling the gas tank, and then screwing the cap back on.
“Still in,” I went on, “just on medical leave to heal up before the next surgery at Oak Knoll.”
“Shit hole, Oak Knoll,” the second man said.
“Lookin’ kind of that way,” I replied.
“Sorry about the comments earlier,” the first man said, holding out his hand. “Both Marines,” he said. “I was staff and he was a buck under me. I didn’t get hit, but one small chunk of mortar took off his little finger a bit.”
The second man, the former buck sergeant, waggled what was left of his left little finger. It wasn’t much.
“No offense,” I said, heading back for the office door.
“What was your rank?” the staff sergeant asked from behind me.
I breathed in and out shallowly, not wanting to tell them that I was an officer. I didn’t need any trouble, but there was no way around it.
“Lieutenant,” I tossed over my shoulder, heading through the door.
“Sir,” the staff sergeant said, which surprised me so much that I twisted around, causing my hip and central incision to knife through with pain. I winced and bent my knee slightly, as I recovered myself.
“You didn’t get hit in the little finger, I’m presuming, sir,” the buck sergeant said, grabbing the door with his right hand to hold it open.
“Hey, thanks guys, but I got to sit down for a minute or two,” I replied, turning to put myself onto one of the three chairs strewn about the small area.
The two men came into the office after me. The staff sergeant took out a twenty and put it on the edge of the counter, then picked up a pencil lying next to the small white pad Mickey kept there to make notes on when he was on the phone. He started writing.
“Here’s how you can reach us if you need us,” the staff sergeant said, “we’re in the moving business just down the street when not hanging out on our bikes.”
I was recovering myself so I didn’t say anything, I just nodded.
Both men left, the buck sergeant throwing me a regulation salute once he got aboard his bike and got it going. I didn’t salute back, merely nodding again.
They were gone, in seconds, the scattered, yet syncopated roar of their two-cylinder machines disappearing out into the sparse traffic.
I got up and eased my way to the counter. Their gas bill couldn’t be more than six bucks, or so, I knew, although I couldn’t read the small numbers on the pump from where I was. A fourteen-dollar tip. Once again, very meaningful to me in my current situation, and twice in two days, I’d been given identity information from people who might help me if I was in trouble. I laughed out loud when I read their names. Tom and Jerry, like in the cartoons.
I went out to check the pump. The tip was actually a little more than fifteen dollars. I moved back inside to the register and made the change, pocketing the difference, wondering if Mickey ever bothered to true up the amount of money in the register. I didn’t know if I was trusted or not, although the answer to that question didn’t appear to be too important at the moment.
I smiled to myself. Both NCOs had called me sir, and that felt good, especially when I was headed back into Oak Knoll where it wasn’t likely anyone would treat me with any respect at all, and that was if I lived. I wasn’t afraid of dying during the surgery. I was now a known drug addict, however, no doubt wrote into my chart and file, even though I’d come through the brutal detox on my own. What I was really worried about was whether I’d be getting any pain drugs following the surgery. I knew at the center of my very core that I couldn’t handle the kind of pain that had to be lying in wait, just ahead, again.
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