I walked outside the office and onto the gravel trail leading up to the parking lot I’d come down from earlier in the day. I heard a motorcycle start up behind me. I stopped and turned. The motorcycle drove slowly up to me on the gravel. I stepped off to one side. Then I saw it was the sergeant driving the cycle. I let out a sigh. It had never occurred to me that the sergeant would have anything other than a car.
“Want a lift?” he said, as the machine under the sergeant purred away.
“Honda 305 Dream,” the sergeant said, pulling his goggles up. “Hop on, or crawl on, in your case. Every day I can pick you up in the parking lot, drive you down to the office, and then back when you’re ready to go.”
I crawled onto the sleek black machine. I didn’t comment on the fact that neither my wife nor I had our car back running, and the cars we borrowed were not always available to borrow. Even if everything worked out perfectly, I would owe Sears and Roebuck for the rest of my life, not just for the loan of the money but for helping my family survive in its worst time. Mickey Thompson was another case entirely. He never ever discussed my owing anything, loaned me his car, and even tossed me a few dollars when I did something extra to earn it.
The bike handled the gravel like it was built for it until we got onto the asphalt. I’d had a Triumph motorcycle when I was a sophomore in college, but the Dream was a wonder compared to that hacking, it’ll start someday and run like a lump of coal rolling down the road kind of thing in comparison. After three accidents in six months and a Bell helmet cracked right down the center, I swore to my girlfriend, and soon-to-be future wife, that I’d never ride a motorcycle again, but here I was. I was relieved to ride it, however, as the walk down to the office had been taxing and the walk back up would have been even tougher.
The gate was in the center of the road, once you got under the main thoroughfare of the bridge traffic passing overhead. A building sat to the left side of the road, while giant palms ran, seemingly forever, from the building further into the base. There was no traffic. Church stopped the bike as a Marine PFC held up one white-gloved hand.
“You don’t have a base sticker?’ I whispered into the sergeant’s right ear.
“Hundred percent I.D. on this base,” the sergeant replied, pulling his wallet from his left rear pocket.
I did the same. I was reminded of the nuclear comment. Almost all military bases required identification stickers, but not this one. Evidently, they cared a whole lot less about auto or cycle insurance, registration, and any of that much less than they did about military identity.
The Marine leaned over and peered down at my I.D. card, then snapped to attention and did a perfect hand salute. I hadn’t put my piss cutter cover on for the motorcycle ride, so I couldn’t salute back. I merely nodded, and then put away my identification.
The sergeant pulled the 305 from the guard checkpoint at a very slow speed. Military bases around the country were almost zero tolerant when it came to speeding around on the base, given that the services are filled with so many young people that are a bit impulsive and expressive. I peered out past Church’s left shoulder. The road ahead, lined with the giant palms on its left side, ran the length of the base in a straight line. I made no attempt to say anything to the sergeant, as he knew where I was going and, obviously, how to get there. There were no traffic control devices on the main road or at least none that we encountered. About halfway down, without warning, Church leaned the bike to the right and entered a street marked with an “H” painted atop what looked like a grounded and dug into one-by-six wooden board. In front of what was obviously the administration building the sergeant made a U-turn and pulled the bike up to a row of white-painted rocks that served as a curb in front of the place. He turned the bike off but didn’t get off. I crawled off from behind him.
“You got about twenty minutes, sir,” Sergeant Church said, lighting up a cigarette he’d tapped out of a red and white Marlboro pack. “Twenty minutes gives me about half an hour to get to your place in Daly City and back, long as you don’t mind a little bobbing and weaving through the traffic.”
“I didn’t call my wife,” I began, trying to explain that I hadn’t called her for a ride, not that she probably couldn’t come for me even if I’d reached her, not in mid-day, and not with the vagaries of Mickey’s 442 availability or the needs of a less than one-year-old child because Mary was alone with Julie. Pat worked until five.
“Half an hour, sir,” the sergeant said, blowing a puff of smoke into the warm windy air.
Somehow, the sergeant had been able to guess that my life was being held together with threads, his having to help me in the bathroom no doubt contributing to his conclusion. Why could I not get along with other officers almost not at all but enlisted NCOs were almost, one and all, wonderful to me?
I checked my Timex and made for the stairs leading up to the double door entrance to the place. Once inside I stopped and pressed my back into the closed-door I’d just come through, trying to get rid of the ache running up and down my torso and trying to straighten my shoulders back, but it was no use. Neither the ache nor my shoulders were in a cooperating mood.
I noted immediately that the barracks was commanded by a major, which made sense since I thought the commander of the entire base was probably only a Navy captain. The captain would outrank the major. Next to a black and white picture of the major was an imposing shot of a man who looked more like a ‘real Marine’ than anyone I’d seen in some time. Hard eyes, a bit aged, lantern jaw. His rank was sergeant major. I held my cover in my right hand, having had to wear it once I got off the bike for the walk up to the office entrance. I didn’t want to replace it in my belt in case my blouse leaked through. Wearing a stained coat was one thing, but a stained cover would never be overlooked.
I approached the commanding officer’s door but entered without knocking. Through the glass windows, I could see a counter and people working behind that counter. The commander’s actual office had to be smaller and probably behind the working area I witnessed. I stepped up to the counter. A woman noticed me and walked over.
“What can I do for you lieutenant?” she asked, with a smile.
“I need to see the commanding officer,” I said.
“Maneuvers,” the woman replied. “Won’t be back for two weeks. Somewhere called Twenty-Nine Palms down south. Sounds delightful. I wonder if there really are twenty-nine palms there.”
No commanding officer. I thought for a few seconds.
“The sergeant major in?” I asked, hoping she’d say he wasn’t.
“Want me to announce you?” the woman asked. “But then, you’re an officer and outrank him so you don’t have to be announced. His office is against the wall over there,” she pointed behind her, “His title's on it. The door's closed but that shouldn’t matter to you.”
I noted that the two other women, both civilians, like the woman in front of me, had stopped working to look up. I didn’t take that as a good sign. They were eager for me to go over and disturb the sergeant major, no matter what he might be doing in his office. The man’s appearance in the photograph had probably perfectly captured his attitude and comportment.
“Announce me,” I said.
The woman’s smile got larger. “Got it, did you?” she replied.
She stepped away and headed for the sergeant major’s door. She knocked three times but said nothing.
The door opened almost immediately. I could not hear what was said, but the sergeant major towered over the woman by almost a foot, and the woman hadn’t been that much shorter than I was, especially in my hunched-over condition.
The sergeant major disappeared. The woman walked back to stand in front of me again.
“The sergeant major will see you,” she said, then whispered, “like he has any choice.”
I got the distinct feeling that the woman had no use for the sergeant major but I said nothing, merely following her after she raised a hinged panel on the counter and let me through.
The woman opened the door in front of me and then closed it when I stepped through. I felt like she’d guided me into a lion’s den at the zoo. I almost wanted to check the door behind me to see if it automatically locked, but I didn’t.
The sergeant-major came quickly to his feet and stood at attention behind his desk, surprising me.
“I’m the new adjudication officer over at the lighthouse,” I said, forgetting to give him my name or rank.
“What can I do for you, sir,” the sergeant major replied, staring straight ahead, right through me.
“Stand at ease, or sit at ease,” I replied, looking over at the only other chair in the room, up against the wall.
I made for the chair, pulling it out and then placing it directly in front of the sergeant major’s desk before sitting down.
“I need your advice,” I breathed out, not wanting to say the words but I had absolutely no place else to go.
“That’s a new one, sir,” the sergeant major laughed out. “A junior officer needs my enlisted advice.” He said the last sentence with no humor in his voice at all.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m in trouble and don’t know what to do.”
I noted the sergeant major’s decorations for the first time. His chest looked like my own, rows of ribbons, with both the Korean and Vietnam campaign ribbons. He had a purple heart. A tendril of hope rose up inside me.
“Marine Sergeant Major to Marine Lieutenant, or man to man, sir?” he asked.
There was no beating around the bush with this Marine, I realized. Either I was to take a risk and trust him or simply make an uncomfortable situation even worse.
“Where’d you get hit?” he suddenly asked me, not waiting for my response to his previous question.
“Three in the torso,” I replied, knowing the obviously weathered and bright man had to have seen my ribbons and noted my physical presentation.
“No, that’s kind of obvious,” the sergeant major replied. ‘I meant, where in-country were you hit?”
“A Shau Valley,” I replied, wondering if that horrid crease in the earth, thousands of miles away, would ever dim in my consciousness. I already knew it would never leave.
“Rock Pile,” the sergeant major said, his conclusive tone seeming to indicate that there was no more to be discussed. The Rock Pile in South Vietnam was located close to Khe Sanh, only a few thousand meters from the A Shau, toward the sea, and like down in the valley, a lot of Marines had died there.
“What is it?” the sergeant major asked.
I started with my release from Oak Knoll but very quickly went into the nightmare I was just beginning to experience with Lightning Bolt. I detailed just about everything I could remember of the dialogue between the colonel and myself. I looked at my watch. I had fifteen minutes to get any help I might get before I had to get back to the sergeant or forego a ride home.
“I pulled a bit of a better billet, that’s for damn sure,” the sergeant major said, once I was done. “The major almost never shows up and then almost never talks when he does show up. The Officers Club over on Yerba in the tower is Lightning’s hangout, and I support him hanging out there all I can.”
I waited, trying not to show my impatience. The sergeant-major was running on about himself while I sat miserably in front of him. I wondered if he was prolonging my agony in order to do the sometimes obnoxious enlisted/officer tap dance, wherein officers were portrayed as effete lazy snobs and the enlisted men as hardworking strong ‘real’ Marines.
“Okay, here’s what you do,” the sergeant major said, surprising me once again with his directness and willingness to help.
“You’re the Marine Corps Adjudication Officer for this region or zone, or however they break the world apart for that sort of thing. Your commanding officer is not the adjudication officer. He’s your commanding officer, which means he has nothing to do with the decisions you make or any of the rest of it when it comes to the adjudication part. His job is making sure you are there and do the work.”
“Yes?” I asked after he’d stopped talking for almost half a minute and did not go on.
“You’re going to go in tomorrow, sign, and then stamp every one of those cases and files as approved. You get up and leave. Call Lightning the next day and tell him to call you when more claims come in.”
“My God,” was all I could get out. The audacity of the plan was more than shocking. It was stunning. “He’ll have me court-martialed for certain on that one.”
“He’s screwed,” the sergeant major said. “He’s not the adjudication officer so he can’t change, certify or do a damned thing. If he reports you, then neither can anybody else change your decisions on the cases, not without a nuclear explosion going off that will certainly cost Lightning Bolt his career, if not more.”
“Are you sure about this?” I asked, a shot of excitement traveling up and down the center of my body, followed by small bolts of fear.
“You won’t have to call or stop by to let me know what happens,” the sergeant major said, a great smile opening up to cross his face. “I should be able to hear the results all the way over on this island.”
At that, he slid a card across the desk toward me. It was the major’s Marine Corps card with the eagle, globe, and anchor in gold on its surface. Major Martin Bullman was crossed out, and the sergeant-major had written his own name under it.
I took the card and smiled, mostly to myself. The sergeant-major was having some of his own problems with his commanding officer but saying nothing about it, other than the hint the card modification gave away.
“I can’t thank you enough sergeant-major,” I said, grasping the card and then standing to leave.
“Quite some ribbons you have on that uniform,” the sergeant major replied, getting to his own feet.
“It wouldn’t seem to me that you were any kind of regular company-grade officer over in the Nam, and you sure as hell don’t give that impression now. Before you leave the islands, we’ll have to have a drink up in the Officer's Club over on your side. They let me in as a sergeant major, although I’m not sure why.”
“Thanks again, sergeant major,” I said, standing and extending my left hand
The sergeant took it, gripping my hand more gently than I would have guessed. He held my hand a few seconds longer than was necessary
“They play hardball back here, so, as quickly as you can get yourself a glove,” the sergeant major said, letting go of my hand. “Until then remember the Marine Corps motto.”
“Motto?” I asked.
“If you can’t baffle them with your bullshit then dazzle them with your footwork.”
The sergeant-major smiled at me with a twinkle in his eyes. I would be sure to contact him again, no matter what happened, I realized.
I rushed from the sergeant major’s office, glancing down at my Timex. I had only two minutes to make it to the bike, although I knew in my heart that the buck sergeant would never desert me. I lifted my head as I limped down the steps, using the railing for support. I had a plan. I hadn’t had a plan for anything in some time. The last real plan I’d had in the A Shau had cost a lot of Marines their lives. It was such a release to know that my plans now would not cost lives, not if I could help it.
The motorcycle ride was tougher than I thought it would be. Without goggles, I had to keep my head out of the slipstream, which meant I couldn’t see much of anything or where we were going. Our speed was such that there wasn’t any real opportunity to talk either, or I would have had the sergeant drop me off at M&M. The race was important to me for reasons I couldn’t explain, even to me. When I was in front of the apartment in Daly City, I turned, once I got myself off the bike with some difficulty and thanked the sergeant.
“See you at zero seven hundred,” I said.
“What about Vince Lombardi time?” the sergeant asked, a sly smile crossing his face.
“Screw Vince Lombardi. He’s a Green Bay Packer and this is the United States Marine Corps,” I replied. “See you at zero seven hundred.”
“Yes, sir,” the sergeant said, with a smile and some enthusiasm.
I realized I could not make the walk to M&M. I had to go inside. My bandages were probably soaked through. I also knew that I was wearing my Class “A” uniform with blouse the next day. My orders said Class “A” and that was the order I would follow. If the colonel wanted to court-martial me then I was ready for that. The sergeant-major had not only given me a plan but put some spine back into my attitude and my step.
I went inside, taking my time, assured of nothing but no longer afraid of whatever it was that the Marine Corps could throw at me.
My wife was a wonder, although I avoided telling her anything about how the day had really gone. I was not going to be swayed by the plan the sergeant major had laid out for me.
I collapsed onto the couch in the living room, but I knew the peace of a quick nap or simply a short period to lie down and recover from the day’s events wasn’t going to happen. A very small person made her way across the room, sort of crawling, sort of walking, and using every bit of furniture to beeline for the couch. Julie was glad I was home. How could I not respond to that kind of totally accepting and open greeting?
The debate going on inside my mind could not be quieted. I had bandages to change and a uniform to get out of. I only had two khaki long sleeve shirts, and. although the officer shirts required by the Marine Corps were wonderfully made of the best quality materials, how long could the shirts endure the constant leakage of blood?
Mary washed the shirts first in cold milk, which worked every time, but I still wondered. How long would it take for the incision to heal, and what was I to do about wearing the Class “C” short sleeve shirt that was a whole lot thinner and would not hold me together at all?
Mary walked into the room carrying a small thin box.
“Here it is, the solution to the problem,” she said, tossing the box over Julie’s head, to land on the couch next to me.
It was a box of Saran Wrap, I saw immediately. I recoiled back from it automatically, then looked up at Mary.
“Something wrong?” she asked, reading the expression on my face that I hadn’t been quick enough to hide.
Saran Wrap, the effective tool the North Vietnamese Army had been clever enough to field down in the A Shau Valley. Tightly wrapping their bodies with the thin plastic substance allowed them to charge into the fire of very high velocity, but low mass, M-16 bullets. Instead of the bullets tumbling, like they mostly did when hitting something as water-filled as a human torso, the quarter-inch in diameter bullets would simply race right on through. The soldiers could keep charging. The wrap was the solution to my physical problem, I realized, but the psychological problem of using the wrap in that way made me almost nauseous. The graphic mind photos that appeared before me, of the wrapped bodies penetrated by thousands of flechettes fired by the Ontos, nearly replaced the reality of my wife and daughter standing in front of me.
“Nothing,” I got out, breathing shallow and trying to hide my feelings.
“Let’s get you changed and try this out,” Mary replied, choosing to ignore my rather obvious negative reaction to the plastic wrap.
I would wear it and I’d also drive down the mental demons that had risen up at the sight of the box.
Saran Wrap, had, after all, been invented right after WWII, a long time before the Vietnam war. It’d been invented to cover the wings of exposed aircraft left out in the open for storage, and so it would cover me. I needed to get over to check on the GTO and I needed to be able to be presentable for whatever new command I would probably be very shortly assigned to, either that or the brig.
In the bathroom, I looked at myself in the mirror before I changed. The Sergeant Major had given me two platitudes, but they were platitudes that would help me survive the remaining time I had in the Corps. I’d figure out as quickly as I could what might serve as a ‘glove’ in the game of the peacetime Marine Corps I’d been thrust back into, and tomorrow I would go to my Yerba Buena Island office and ‘dazzle them with my footwork.’ I stripped off my shirt, tossed the bandages I eased from my torso, and called through the open door for my wife, as Julie had crawled right along with me to end up sitting on my right foot.
When Mary came in, I handed her the box of Saran Wrap and applied new four-by-fours up and down the outside of my center incision. I extended my arms out from my sides when I was done, and Mary went to work wrapping my torso tightly. The NVA had prepared for combat in exactly that same way I was preparing for it.
They’d gone out and been hit, as I would be on the morrow, but they’d not gone down. I was determined not to go down.
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