I was surprised by the obvious difference in the way I was received at the gas station from previous visits. I knew it was the uniform, as well as the Saran treatment that kept me from looking like a weakened Hunchback of Notre Dame creature. Mickey’s friends, those who worked on the cars with him, who never spoke to me, or seemed to notice me in any way, smiled and nodded when I looked over at them.
Danny Ongais slouched against the side of the GTO, as I walked out toward him. Mickey had quietly gone back to work under the Mustang. I didn’t know what to make of the thin Hawaiian I moved slowly toward. He seemed like a typical Oahu local, or Kanaka, which I was not. He smoked a cigarette, glancing up at me as I approached. He didn’t smile, so I didn’t either.
“Your car?” he asked, not saying hello or anything else to introduce himself. I nodded. Ongais tossed his cigarette, not bothering to put it out, which seemed odd. It also seemed odd that he was so young; probably no more than a year or two older than I was. It was unlikely he’d been to the Nam or he wouldn’t have had time to distinguish himself to the point where he drove for Thompson, so I didn’t bother to ask. I was about to head back to the garage, and then limp home, when he spoke again.
“Get in,” he said, opening the driver’s door and setting himself behind the wheel.
I walked around the car, noticing that Ongais was belting himself into a three-point seat belt rig, the kind that went up over both shoulders and was used only in racing.I got in, slammed the door, and hunted around with my hands for my own safety harness.
“No belt,” Danny said, “don’t need it for the track.”
I understood, a little uncomfortable with that understanding. At the track, there would only be Danny making the runs, and therefore no need for passenger belts. The GTO had come without belts of any kind, having been sold prior to the Federal Law mandating them. Even if it’d come with belts, I’d purchased it used, so some things that might have been there when it was new might be long gone. Danny hit the ignition and GTO came alive, except not like its old self. It came alive like some wild animal waiting to attack. The car burbled gently but every few seconds bounced up and down, before going back to the deep-throated burble thing. Combine a quiet pervasive thunder with seconds of earthquake thrown in from time to time and the unique effect is describable.
“410 lift on the cam,” Danny said, looking straight ahead, “that’s the rock and roll part.”
I thought about my wife. There was no way she was going to want to have anything to do with the kind of jouncing action the car now exhibited, but there was no sense in saying anything. Mickey Thompson appeared at Danny’s window, so Danny opened his door. The glass windows had been replaced with clear plastic Lexan, except for the windshield, to save many pounds in weight. I wondered if Mickey would put the factory windows back in. The blender-like action of the engine vibrations might be a lot more acceptable to my wife than windows that didn’t go up and down.
“The slicks are already bolted into the rims, so watch it on the corners,” he said.
I didn’t know what he was talking about, but the way he said the words made me feel a bit worried about going out on the highway with Ongais behind the wheel. Mickey backed up,
Danny slammed the door and then eased the GTO forward and out onto the highway. I didn’t ask any questions, bracing myself into the corner where the door and seat came together. I had to do something to protect my healing torso, no matter what might be coming. As far as I knew Ongais considered me Haole slime from the island, and his willingness to give me a demonstration ride might be driven by some of that prejudice.
It was a short run to the 480 Highway heading for the Bay Bridge. The bridge was four lanes each way of the open tollway, with payment due only on the Oakland side. After a few minutes of driving the car seemed to settle down a bit in high gear, still making too much noise for true consideration as a family car, however. The road curved gently until we were under the first overhead truss of the bridge. There was no traffic. Danny brought the car to a complete stop. I craned around, wondering what he was doing stopping in one of the middle lanes of a major tollway. Ongais brought the revolutions of the engine way up until it emitted a screaming roar. He looked quickly over at me, seemingly to make sure I was turned back around and firmly braced in my seat. The rear slicks of the GTO started spinning, adding their noise, and throwing up a great cloud of blackish gray dust that blew past the front of the car and toward Oakland. Ongais hit a small switch on the shift lever with one finger and the car launched itself forward.
I was pinned to my seat very sharply, and then there was a series of hard jerks until the engine quickly began spooling out toward its maximum revolutions. And then it was over. Danny braked the car down hard. When the acceleration had been at its highest I’d noted that the rear end of the car was actually raised up in the air, but that all changed as the front of the car dived when we nearly came to a complete halt. Danny eased the GTO off the tollway and onto Yerba Buena’s main drive. He tightly turned the car around in the single lane circles that allowed for free travel without stopping and then headed the GTO back toward San Francisco. Danny said nothing, his full attention on driving. I waited, but there was no ‘blast off,’ like we’d experienced on the way to the island.
“What was that?” I finally asked, a bit exasperated, still recovering from the noise and harrowing high speed the GTO had reached in such a short period of time.
“Quarter mile,” Ongais replied. “Quarter from the strut over the bridge to the turnoff. About twelve seconds, I’d estimate, and a hundred and twenty."
I got it. He’d demonstrated the work everyone had done in getting the vehicle ready and also his own capability for driving the car at the strip. We pulled into the gas station. Danny parked the car exactly where it’d been before we left, only moments earlier. He got out and walked away. I could tell by his comportment that we might have had the last conversation we were ever likely to have.
Mickey walked toward the car.
“What’d you think?” he said, a great smile on his face.
“Wow,” was all I could think to reply.
I needed Mickey’s goodwill, and possibly that of Ongais too, as I had little money and no car. My wife, at the very least, needed a car even more because of what might happen to me following the actions I’d taken at the office. Any questions I had for Mickey would just have to wait until after the race, which was only a week away.
“I think it’ll run fine against Manfred,” he replied.
Mickey hadn’t mentioned his former partner or competitor at the event before. We walked toward the office. I knew I had to set out for home soon as my torso was beginning to ache all over and my hip was forcing a sharper limp than it had earlier. All of a sudden, the walk home seemed farther away than I’d calculated.
“Can you work a bit?” Mikey asked, “the guys helping me can’t deal with customers at all. Tell you what, you work for a couple of hours until I get this Mustang out of here and you can have the 442 for the night.”
I didn’t want to work, but the Oldsmobile would be a great help, particularly if I had to use it to rush to the observatory early in the morning. The sergeant’s advice was sound about my staying away until things settled down but I wasn’t yet ready to disobey the direct order of my commander to show up when demanded. The country was at war, and you didn’t have to be in the actual area of combat to get charged with some pretty onerous crimes.
I worked until I was simply too tired to go on. Just as I was about to go into the shop part of the garage a yellow Ford Convertible pulled in, filled with young men. I went to greet them. They piled out of the car and all stared over to where the GTO sat. All five young men appeared to be my age or a bit younger. The tallest of them, the guy who’d been driving, ordered me to fill his tank with ethyl.
I looked at the car, I knew the guy was toying with me because there was no evidence of a gas cap on either fender. I walked around before I registered the car in my memory. It was a 1966 Ford Galaxy ‘Seven Liter’ convertible. I walked to the back of the car, reached down to the license plate, and levered the plate toward me on its hinges. The gas cap was right under the plate. The guys looked at one another while I pumped their gas, and the looks didn’t seem to be friendly.
“My Ford can take that GTO hands down,” the kid said, nodding over at my car.
I sighed, finishing my chore, putting the pump back on its base, and then screwing the guy’s gas cap back on. I moved to go back inside but the other boys, seemingly inadvertently, blocked my way. I stopped and waited, wondering what they could possibly have in mind.
“The GTO’s purpose-built to run the quarter-mile,” I said. “It’s not likely your Ford, even with the 428 engine installed, would beat it, but it doesn’t matter. The car’s ready for the track and not to be raced on the street.”
I moved through the boys, gently brushing against them as I walked until I was finally through the door and inside the office. The boys crowded in after me, all of them.
As if by design, a song played out from the transistor radio just down from the cash register. “Just call me angel of the morning, angel, then slowly turn away from me…”
I was back. Warmth flooded through me, replacing my initial fear. I was home and the boys had come into my living room. I would not be blinded by the light, just like the song played out.
“You got that uniform on like you’re some sort of warrior prince,” the leader said.
“I’m not a prince, merely a lieutenant,” I replied, breathing in and out slowly like I’d used to do in the valley, to get control of myself and reduce the terror I once had but no longer really felt.
The boys were trouble. I was in no shape to handle physical trouble, but there was nothing inside me to signal that. I was ready.
“What do you weigh, about a hundred pounds?” the leader said, laughing and pointing at my chest. “You got that bent over twig look going for you too. I thought hot shot Marines like you, with that crap all over your chest, would be a whole lot more man than you are.”
The boy’s friends laughed.
“The crap is called ribbons,” I replied, my voice carefully modulated to be low and soft. "Most of the ribbons represent medals I got doing stuff like most people won’t do, or can’t do, or don’t live through doing,” I finished saying the words, knowing that I should simply keep my mouth shut. It didn’t seem a good time or place to admit that I didn’t feel like I deserved most of the ribbons.
Suddenly, the medals were my medals, and they were my Marine’s medals, and those guys had paid with their lives so I could wear them.
Mickey Thomson suddenly walked through the door, as if an apparition from nowhere.
“How you doing, lieutenant?” he asked, his words quiet but firm, like the brushing of water going over a low set of rocks in a stream, “Need to take a break?”
“I could use a visit to the restroom,” I said, before coming around the counter and walking through the gathered boys.
I walked out the door, and then went around the building, so I wouldn’t be able to hear anything of what might be going on between Micky and the boys. I didn’t move around the corner of the building until I heard the very distinctive sound of the Seven Liter’s dual exhausts roaring off.
I walked back around the corner of the building. Mickey stood inside the office. I moved toward him. He leaned down behind the cash register. He pulled out the oversized crowbar I’d put under the counter days before, just in case of some bad encounter.
Mickey slapped the big bar heavily into the meaty palm of his left hand.
“You were expecting to beat the shit out of them with this?” he asked with a cold smile.
I stared at the man and then told him the truth.
“No, I had no intention of beating the shit out of them.” We continued to look at one another for a few seconds longer.
Mickey put the bar down and walked out the door.
“I need a cigarette,” he said, stopping to light one just outside the door.
I joined him outside, not wanting to take a puff of his cigarette because my hands were shaking, which they had not done since I’d gotten home.
“You know,” Mikey said, “down in L.A. and in my other businesses, I run with a pretty tough crowd. When you get healed up I think I could really use somebody like you. For right now though, lose the uniform before you come here. That was their real gripe. They wouldn’t go to the war or missed the war, or whatever, and they feel less of men about that. There’s probably going to be a good bit more of that in your life as time goes by unless you don’t let people like them know.” He stopped, looked over at the GTO that Ongais was still polishing, and took another drag from his cigarette.
He blew it out into the sun-warmed afternoon wind. “Instead, let them know who you are, I meant,” he continued softly, before finishing, “what you are.
”The man was amazing", I thought to myself. I had no return for anything he’d said, so I didn’t say anything.
He knew. Somehow, he’d gleaned from the situation, and my single laconic comment, that I had had no intention of hurting the boys. I had been intending to kill them. I left through the office opening and Mickey went back to working on the Mustang. The keys were in the 442. I pulled the Cutlass onto the highway and then turned the corner to head the half-mile, or less, down my street toward home. There was nobody on street at all, pedestrians or vehicles. I pushed the accelerator to the floorboard of the 442, and the smooth wonderfully handling convertible became a brute. I hit about seventy in no time at all, before I quickly brought the speed back down. I smiled to myself as I idled the rest of the way down the street. The boys would very likely have been beaten by the stock 442, much less the specially prepared GTO, as it was lighter and more powerful than the big Galaxy, not that it mattered. I got out of the car. I didn’t have Mickey’s kind of ‘leave the keys in the car’ kind of trust so I took them in with me. I put the top up because the dew of San Francisco mornings was nearly as heavy in moisture as a light rainfall.
I waited downstairs for a full fifteen minutes until my hands were no longer shaking. I thought long and hard about my near encounter with the boys. I would have likely caused terminal damage if things had gone further. That could never happen again. If I killed another man in my culture then I was going to go to prison for a time so long that family and friends would not matter anymore. I could not do that to my wife and daughter. And the boys were just nasty young men with their own issues. They would probably work through them, given time. I went up the stairs slowly, thinking about the buck sergeant and his advice.
I did indeed need to avoid the direct confrontation with Lightning Bolt. He was no match for my mindset but I was no match for carefully gauging, and then measuring my response, so I could survive in a culture that mythically encouraged killing and maiming in almost all of its movie and television shows while in real life charging draconian prices from anyone who actually did those things.
Mary answered the door as if she’d been waiting intently for me to knock. I got inside. It took only moments to get my clothes off and have her cut the Saran Wrap away. It’d felt so good to have its support all day but the cloying material was such a relief to get off I wasn’t sure I’d be able to wear it the next day. But I knew that the next day was coming and I also knew I could finally take a shower. Two days passed. During that time, I ventured forth on the first day, wrapped in my plastic, over to the station in the morning for a few minutes, just to let Mickey know I’d be in the following day and to see if I could keep the 442 for another day. I’d rummaged through my rucksack to find sweat clothes, tennis shoes, and a light jacket that was from my college days, so I could avoid wearing my uniform when it wasn’t called for. The back of the sweatshirt was adorned with a green knight riding an equally green horse while carrying a green jousting lance. Nobody ever said anything about it but I considered it my strangest piece of clothing. The Green Knights had been the name of my college sporting teams.
Mickey grunted from under the Mustang, but that was it. I took off to Rockaway beach, down the coast a bit, with my wife, to play in the shallows of the cold ocean, and then try to race her across the sand. She won all our short races. I had no endurance. I was good for about fifteen yards, and then my ‘running’ was reduced to something that more closely resembled a walk. My wife gloried beating me. Julie stayed with Pat back at the apartment because the second day was a Saturday and Pat was off for the day. We couldn’t take Julie to the beach and be more than a few feet away from her at any time. There had been no calls at all on Friday, that first day, not that we took or Pat reported. The big race was to be on the following Thursday.
Ongais showed up at the gas station not long after I did the next morning, Saturday. He carried some old wash towels and a flat blue can. I watched him move directly to the GTO. He opened the can, set it near a back tire, and then went to work. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I quickly figured out what he was doing. He was waxing my car. I went into the garage to ask Mickey about it, Mickey who never seemed to take much of a break, even for lunch, and then went at it for seven days a week.
“He’s a quiet guy and keeps to himself,” Micky said. “He’s all about racing and that’s about it. I know nothing about his personal life, or even if he has one. That’s Blue Coral he’s putting on your goat. That stuff’s impossible to work with. Hasn’t ever waxed one of my cars.”
Ongais worked away, bringing the paint of the GTO to a shine it hadn’t known since its first day off the assembly line. I decided to say nothing. Obviously, the man, whether he approved of Haoles or not, had to approve of me or he seemingly wouldn’t have bothered to do the back-breaking work of applying the wax and then rubbing it off.
I knew none of us had much time left at the station, however, because a For Sale sign had gone up on the corner part of where the pumps were located, and also the number of cars to be worked on had dwindled down to almost none.
I went home for a break, a change of bandages, and my plastic wrap. I arrived at the same time as a blue Navy car from the base on Treasure Island. I parked in the apartment driveway and walked over to the double-parked official vehicle.
“You looking for me?” I asked, not bothering to identify myself.
“You the officer on this envelope?” the driver asked back.
I looked at the string-tied eight-and-a-half-by-eleven envelope. It wasn’t difficult to read my name and rank scrawled across the front of it. I took the envelope in my right hand, wondering what it could have in it, but knowing whatever it was I probably wasn’t going to like it.
“Orders,” the driver said, rolling his window up and starting the car. I stepped back and the car pulled away.
I sat on the stairs leading up to the door to our apartment. I worked to calm myself. In some ways, I would rather have had the direct confrontation with the Colonel rather than be the subject of his silent response, which was very probably what was inside the envelope.
There was nowhere to go or to hide, and opening the envelope in front of Mary and Pat upstairs would accomplish nothing. At least I might have a chance to prepare myself, I realized. After opening the envelope there wasn’t going to be much of the hiding of anything because all of us were deeply involved together.
I unwound the string from its small spool and then tore open the envelope There had been no return address on the outside of the big envelope but the thin sheaf of papers was flagrantly stamped “Headquarters Marine Corps” in red. No papers could have come all the way from Washington in the short time between when I signed all the approvals at the office and now. Permission had to have been given and approvals reached in D.C. to allow that origination designation.
After my name, rank, serial number, and date information, my new duty station was typed in bold-face letters: “Headquarters Company, 2/7, 1stMarDiv, “I” Corps, Republic of South Vietnam.”
I was staggered. I was ordered back into the combat zone of Vietnam, only weeks following major surgery. How could that be? The ‘Second of the Seventh’ was a renowned great unit but I wasn’t in any condition to serve at all inside a war-torn environment. My departure date out of Travis Air Force Base, the base I’d flown into only months before, nearly torn to shreds, would be my exit back into the war.
I walked upstairs in shock, beginning to understand that I was nothing more or less, outside of the A Shau Valley and real combat than an FNG. The Marine Corps back home was a place of mystery and politics slathered all over with lubrication of deception and injustice.
I didn’t use my key to the locked door at the top of the stairs. I knocked softly, instead. There was no point in rushing the kind of news I was carrying in my right hand.