Getting a full Marine Corps Class-A green uniform together took more work than I expected. My report date was for the next day, as there were no free or lull days in Marine Corps life. I had been determined to be available for duty and ordered to my duty station, whether I was somehow entitled to more recuperation time, I did not, and could not figure out how to know. That was it. The PUHLES report was to be ‘appended’ to my orders as available, whatever that meant. For the time being, no matter what the state of my wounds or recovery, I was deemed fit for full, albeit temporary, duty.
My uniform, which had been nearly too tight prior to my leaving for the Nam, was now too loose, and there were no tailors either available to work on such a specialized outfit, or the money to pay for the needed adjustments. My wife and I decided that bandage packing was the only way I could pass even the most cursory of inspections, and there was little doubt, from Trainer’s nickname, that I would have to go through such an inspection.
The uniform worked, as my wife buttoned me in. Actually, the coat, or blouse, as it’s called in the Marines, held me all together better than any other piece of clothing I owned, although it did nothing to straighten me out. I was still bent about ten degrees forward at the waist; the hunchback Marine.
Getting up at six a.m. the next morning was no problem at all, as Julie gurgled away, having used the bars to lever herself up to a standing position in order to get our attention. With her crib right next to the bed it was impossible to ignore even the softest of noises radiating out from it. Mary could drive me in Pat’s car since she wasn’t due at work until nine. We left before the traffic started for the day and she would be leaving after it was over.
The drive was uneventful, but the hard steady wind coming off the bay was cold when I got out of the car on the island. Mary departed right away, hoping to beat the rising traffic just in case, even at the early hour we were up and moving. I took it easy, as I walked carefully down the long gravel path from the parking lot to the lighthouse itself. The bottom portion of the building had been turned into small offices when the light part of the lighthouse itself was turned into a robotically operated machine. There was only one white door set into the back of the gray building. A very small sign said simply “Marines” above the painted-over window located just below it.
I checked my cheap Timex watch, a pang of loss going through me in recalling the wonderful Omega Speedmaster I’d lost when I’d been pulled out of the A Shau Valley. I was right on time. I turned the door handle and then entered the office. I saw immediately that the medium-sized room was occupied by three desks behind a long counter. Two enlisted men sat at two of the desks. One was a corporal and one a three-striper buck sergeant.
“Good morning, sergeant,” I said.
“Good morning, sir, the C.O. is waiting for you,” he replied, pointing at single closed door on the far wall behind him.
I stood for a few seconds without moving. The sergeant had not gotten to his feet or called the corporal to attention, which was standard operating orders for Marines when in buildings, offices or any covered area. Both Marines, instead, went immediately back to work on whatever they were working on. I took this failure as a bad sign of what I might expect when I got through the far door.
I walked around the corner of the counter, approached the door, folded my piss cutter cover into my belt, and then knocked.
“Enter,” I heard through the door; a man’s voice, deep and gravelly.
I opened the door, stepped in, and was shocked. A huge picture window was located just behind Lightning Bolt’s chair. The view was astounding. Water was lapping onto something out of view below, the city across the bay occupied the left two-thirds of the window while one of the towering legs of the bridge filled up the rest. It was a stunning scene.
“You’re on temporary duty from Oak Knoll, it says here,” the Colonel said. “Uniform here, by the way is not Class ‘A.’ It’s Class ‘C’ like you see the rest of us wearing.”
“I see, sir,” I blurted out, not thinking.
“If you think that’s funny, it’s not,” the Colonel shot right back. “Your job is to occupy that empty desk out there. As the Marine Corps Adjudication Officer, it’s up to you to approve or disapprove of travel loss claims. The sergeant and corporal are the investigators of the claims. Hours are seven a.m. until four, with an hour for lunch. We run on Vince Lombardi time so that means you’ll be here fifteen minutes early every day, is that clear? That also means your late.”
I’d gone to St. Norbert College in West DePere, Wisconsin, where the Green Bay Packers did their spring training. I’d served as the breakfast cook for the Packer team every morning while they were in training, including Mr. Lombardi himself. I knew instantly, however, that there was no point telling the colonel any of that. This was my first command, outside of what time I’d spent in the valley where there was no real command, and it was already evident that it was not going to go well.
“Yes, sir,” I replied, as crisply as I could.
“You walk like a lobster because of the medical stuff, I know,” the colonel said, before I could turn to leave. “You’ve also got a drug problem. If I get one whiff of that or see any evidence at all then your ass will be court-martialed faster than you can say the words drug addict.”
I stared at the man, noting the ribbons pinned to the left side of his shirt. The man had to have served almost twenty years in the Corps, to be his age, and to be a Colonel, yet even though he’d been a Marine through Korea and now the Vietnam war he only had six ribbons, the top one being a Navy Achievement award. My green blouse had ten ribbons on it. I’d been a Marine for little more than a year, and my own Navy Achievement ribbon was the fifth one down, in order of importance.
Going out through the door I couldn’t think about anything much except that I was about to sit at a desk and try to do something that I had no idea how to do, but first I had to get to the bathroom and change my four-by-four bandages before the blood could leak through my shirt. It was uncomfortable to feel the familiar wetness, but at least there was no pain. I’d been able to fit sixteen folded bandages into my back pockets, thanking God that my smaller frame made for plenty of room.
I walked over to the buck sergeant, not expecting much.
“Where’s the restroom, sergeant?” I asked.
“In the corner behind your desk, sir,” he replied, his voice normal, but then he continued on in a near whisper, “The wall between the bathroom and his office is thin so he’ll be able to hear you if you have to puke.”
The sergeant went back to work, like he hadn’t said something pretty strange. I thought about what he’d said on my way into the small bathroom, and then got it with a smile. The sergeant was telling me that both he and the corporal knew exactly what they were working with and that my being introduced to Lightning Bolt had to be a shock to my system. It was a shock, but not one that truly rocked my world. The A Shau had rocked my world. Surviving the surgeries and getting home from Japan had shocked my world. The Colonel was simply another difficult Marine waiting to go out on point or fall into the muck from damage suffered by a booby trap or ‘enemy’ fire.
I went to work on replacing the bandages, only to discover that I had a problem. I could unbutton the blouse, but I could not button it back up. The material and the buttons were so tough that neither would suffer damage from my trying, but my fingers just weren’t strong enough. The shirt was already stained so I couldn’t go out carrying the blouse under one arm.
Cracking the bathroom door open, I knocked on the wood to get the sergeant’s attention. I didn’t know how thin the walls were, but I didn’t need ‘Lightning Bolt’ hearing anything. The sergeant looked up and I waved my hand to call him to me.
The sergeant got up and came to the door. I opened it fully.
“Holy shit,” the sergeant said, coming in and then taking a look at me. He quickly closed the door behind him. “What in hell happened to you?”
He asked the words as he glanced down into the unflushed toilet bowl, which was filled with bandages and blood. The scene in the bowl made things look worse than they really were, I knew and I wished that I’d flushed the thing before calling him in.
“Vietnam,” I replied, not knowing why I had to, but then went on. “Discharged from Oak Knoll to duty until I can get a permanent station and a medical board.”
“Those assholes discharged you in this kind of shape, sir?” The sergeant asked.
I couldn’t think of a reasonable answer to the question, other than the obvious one. Yes, they had, but what was the point in continuing that line of discussion or thought? I changed the subject.
“I can’t get buttoned back in,” I said, clutching the front vertical edges of the coat together as far as I could. “My wife took care of the buttons at home, so I could use a bit of help. No coat anymore though as the Colonel ‘Bolt’ indicates that we all wear Class “C” uniforms.”
The sergeant went down on his right knee and started to work on the buttons, one at a time, from the top down. I noted that he didn’t wear a nametag. I had inadvertently left my own at home on the top of the dresser. It was going to take some time to get my mind back into the kind of analytical precision it took to appear in public as a Marine Officer in full uniform.
“What’s your name, and why no name tag?” I asked.
“Name’s Church, sir, and the corporal is Pugh, pronounced like pew, as in church, and the Colonel’s discretion has us not wearing name tags, not standing for officers other than him, and not saluting one another when covered, unless other military personnel are in the area.”
“Church pew?” I whispered out, wondering if the sergeant was kidding me.
“The colonel doesn’t think that’s funny, and neither does the corporal, sir” Sergeant Church said, finishing the buttoning job and returning to a standing position before me.
“I think it’s funny as hell,” I said, unable to hold back a smile.
“Me too, although he’s so quiet I almost wish his last name was Mouse.”
At that, the sergeant turned, opened the door, and went back into the office area. I finished getting my belt buckled, my cover replaced, my tie straightened and my back pockets fluffed out as much as I could fluff them. The bandages had been perfect for filling me out but I wasn’t going to replace their mass with toilet paper, the only available alternative, so I flushed the toilet and turned to the door.
I went out to my desk, noting that a high pile of files sat next to the wooden swivel chair bellied up to it. I pulled the chair out and sat down. The sergeant got up and came to my desk, leaning forward and picking off the top file from the stack.
“Here’s the gig, sir,” he said, opening the file. “The top page is the summation and result of the investigation that the corporal and I have done to determine the merits of the case and compensation that should be paid if any. Your job is fairly simple. Review the file and decide whether the claim should be denied, modified or approved for payment. Initial and sign under one of the three alternatives and then stamp the file with your special Marine Adjudication Officer Stamp that’s in the center drawer.
That’s it. As you can see, we haven’t had an officer here for some time. The last one only made it three days.”
The sergeant handed me the file. I took it, turned it around, and immediately came up with about ten questions I’d like to ask, particularly the first one which would have been about why the prior officer left in such short order, although my suspicion immediately went back to my introduction to the Lightning Bolt. I asked nothing, however, merely nodding and thanking the sergeant instead. I had to get my feet on the ground and find out as much as I could before revealing that I knew nothing about the job that I was supposed to do. The corporal and the sergeant both probably knew I didn’t know a damned thing, but I wasn’t ready to admit anything.
I went through the file. It was half an inch thick, like the others in the big stack of backed-up claims. It took almost three hours to take in the whole mess of what was supposedly lost, what the moving companies claimed wasn’t lost at all, the damaged goods, the appraisals, and then the investigative procedures and interviews the corporal and the sergeant had conducted. I closed the file and looked at the stack with some weary skepticism. There were at least a hundred hours of work to be done just to catch up. Eight hours a day, divided into the hundred meant that I would have to work straight for thirteen days. But it wasn’t that simple. There were also rules to check. The investigation did not cite such things as if the military would ship personal weapons, or what kind of weapons they would if they did. The first claim was partially for stolen rifles that had been packed inside rolled-up rugs, for whatever reasons. “Mysterious disappearance” was the term the corporal had used instead of suspected theft. I liked the mysterious disappearance touch, given that the claimant was also a full bird colonel and who knows what position he held, or where, in the Corps.
It was an awful job, but I knew I’d have to dig in and somehow do it. My body hurt from the vertical position I had to attempt to remain in order to read. I hadn’t read anything for three hours straight since I’d left for the Nam, seemingly so long ago. I wasn’t up to doing the job for five hours and then three more after lunch. Not every day and, in fact, I knew, not even for one full day.
I decided to call Johannson. I had to know more about the PHULES thing in order to see what I could do in order to perform my job with any kind of effectiveness. I couldn’t work straight through and I knew that Lightning Bolt wasn’t going to give me one bit of slack.
The phone for the lieutenant rang but nobody answered. I decided that I had to go outside and move a bit, even if it was just to walk a short way over to the water’s edge and take in some fresh air. The cold air of the morning was gone when I got outside. I’d said nothing to the sergeant about leaving and they’d ignored my departure.
I sat on some big rocks set right near the lapping water’s edge and enjoyed the view, the wind, the sound of the wind, and even the faint noise of the vehicles crossing the raised but nearby bridge highway. The experience both re-energized me and restored some of the hope that had seemed to seep from my mind while the blood seeped from the central incision.
My steps back to the office were careful and measured. The last thing I needed was to fall and either add any more injuries to my tattered body or cause more bleeding than my now non-existent supply of bandages could lap up.
When I walked in through the door the corporal stood and held out his phone.
“For you, sir,” he said, as I went around the counter and retrieved his handset.
“How’s Treasure Island?” Johannson asked before I could do more than acknowledge my presence.
“I’m not on Treasure Island,” I replied. “I’m on the main island.”
“Yeah, the one nobody can remember so everyone calls the whole thing Treasure Island,” he said.
I wondered what was so difficult about Yerba Buena but ignored answering the strange comment.
“Exactly what do I not have to do,” I asked him directly and pointedly, “No matter if ordered or not, in order to not be court-martialed at my level of disability?” I asked, making no effort to hide what I was saying from either the corporal or the sergeant.
“Well, I guess things aren’t going so well,” Johannson intelligently responded. “You pretty much can make your own rules about hours, what you can or can’t do physically and also can take breaks, show up late or leave early. Hope that helps.”
“What if ‘Lightening Dick’ doesn’t agree?” I asked. “Can I be court-martialed for any of that?”
“Nope, but he can write a letter to your 201 File that’ll follow you to your permanent duty station, I mean, once you have one.”
I thought for a minute without saying anything.
“Anything else he might do?” I asked.
“He can recommend where your permanent duty station is going to be,” Johannson said.
I laughed lightly. Like I cared. There were no permanent duty stations I could think of that didn’t allow for my family to be posted with me.
“My pay hasn’t caught up with me yet, and I’m tired of depending on my wife’s roommate to survive,” I said. “Find my pay and find promotion. I have to become a First Lieutenant one day soon as all the other guys from my Basic Class have gotten their promotions.”
I hung up without saying goodbye or thanking the lieutenant. He’d basically done nothing for me, so far. From his tone and his understanding of my situation I knew he’d known when he’d sent me to Treasure Island what I was in for, and he hadn’t bothered to warn me or, in any way I could figure, keep me from walking into the nightmare mess that the adjudication officer billet really was.
I handed the phone to the corporal, who’d returned to sitting at his desk. Suddenly, both he and the sergeant sprung to their feet and assumed the position of attention.
I realized that the colonel’s door was open.
“Lieutenant, my office, now,” Lightning Bolt said, his voice raised and hard before slamming the door shut.
“Did I speak too loudly?” I whispered over to the Sergeant Church.
“Four party line,” the sergeant replied, pointing at his own phone, his tone rueful. “He was probably listening to the whole thing.”
I looked at the closed door and then prepared myself, as best I could before walking the short distance and opening it. I didn’t close the door behind me, but simply walked to the colonel’s desk and stood as straight as I could, staring, unblinking, through the window behind his head.
“You little pissant,” the colonel hissed across the desk. “You think you can disrespect me in my own command? Do you think your battle wounds and ribbons mean jack to me? You and I are not going to get on here.”
After the three initial hissed words, the remainder of the colonel’s delivery was made at an ever-growing volume until ‘here’ had come out as a shout.
“We are not getting on here, colonel,” I observed calmly, still staring out the window.
“Look at me when you’re talking to me,” Lightning Bolt yelled.
I dropped my gaze to stare into the man’s angry eyes.
“You’ll do exactly as I tell you from here on out with no comment or complaint, do you understand me?” The colonel’s eyes were not filled with anger, they were brimming with hate.
“I am a 4 on the PHULES chart, colonel, which you have a copy of with my orders. I will follow the Marine Corp regulations with respect to those things I can and cannot do, will and will not do, and you can court-martial me all you want.”
I said the words soft and low, just as I’d learned. The verbal delivery of a true predator among mankind never threatens and never yells. A true predator merely prepares and then acts. I could not stop the thoughts from cascading through my mind about what actions I might or must have to take, to eliminate any threat Lightning Bolt was rapidly turning into.
“Ha!” the colonel said, an evil grin crossing his visage.
“You’ve forgotten one thing, my inexperienced friend,” he went on. “No matter what the PHULES chart and instructions are, you must still perform the mission you were assigned and I’m not putting you on notice that you have fifteen days to complete all the work on those backed-up files or you will indeed be court-martialed for failure to obey a lawful order, and quite likely the corporal and sergeant along with you.”
At that, the colonel looked away, crossed his arms, and spun his chair around so he could stare out the window. I presumed the interview was over, so I turned and left the office. When I walked through the door, quietly closing it behind me, both the corporal and the sergeant were twisted around and staring at me in shock. I knew their look of near terror had nothing to do with what had happened between me and Lighting Bolt. It had to do with their being included in my situation and the potential that they could face the loss of their careers along with me.
“Is there a Marine contingent over on the island at the Naval base?” I asked.
“Of course, sir, the Marine Barracks,” the sergeant replied, his brow fully furrowed in question. “The guard contingent for the Naval base is pretty large, given the nuclear stuff going on.”
“Nuclear stuff?” I asked, surprised.
“Don’t go anywhere near the fake ship called the Pandemonium,” Corporal Pugh said. “Everyone having anything to do with that ship gets sick.”
Fake ship?” I asked, beginning to feel pretty stupid.
I had no idea what either Marine was talking about. All I knew about the real Treasure Island Naval Base is that the four-hundred- and three-acre island had been artificially constructed to hold the 1939 World’s Fair, and after that, a few years later, the entire assembly was taken down and junked.
I was headed for the base, but there was no point in telling the corporal or sergeant that. If they were in fear of losing their place or career in the Corps then they could, at any moment, turn and side with the colonel. I saw it as the likely smartest move for both of them, as I was a second lieutenant and, therefore, as far as officers went, a nobody.
“You need a ride over there?” the sergeant asked, going right to the heart of what I’d just thought about when it came to going anywhere.
“That would be great sergeant, but what about leaving your duty station?” I replied.
“Lunch break,” he replied. “But, I’m not very hungry anymore.”