The trip to Yerba Buena Island wasn’t remarkable in any way, except for the fact that I remained entranced with the passing scenes of difference and beauty that the entire San Francisco basin always offered. Pat drove her low-powered Pontiac to the parking lot and I got out, much more comfortable in my Saran-wrapped body than I’d been the day before. Because of the usage of the NVA preparatory wrap I’d given in, and not worn my Class “A” blouse, as I’d planned.
It was a few minutes before 0700. I had not given in on the Colonel’s order to be fifteen minutes early.
When I got out of the car in the parking lot, I was surprised to see the sergeant on his Honda Dream, waiting at the entrance to the path.
“Sergeant?” I asked, wondering why he was sitting there, on his quietly running Honda Dream.
Pat and Mary pulled out of the parking lot, no doubt intending to beat the traffic which would swell later, first on all the lanes across the Bay Bridge, then throughout the remainder of the downtown streets of the busy city.
I stood still for a few seconds, to take in the scene, feeling the cool wind off the bay blowing over me. I didn’t know what I was waiting for, but part of it was, I knew, that I would not, under any circumstances, arrive at my place of work on ‘Lombardi Time,’ or one second before I was required to by the Marine Corps, not some self-bloated Colonel calling himself Lightning Bolt. The myth of Lombardi Time would not be retired. In fact, it would likely never be retired, I knew. But I was not going to let Lightning Bolt use it on me as some sort of servile obedience device. I looked down at my cheap but accurate Timex, to see that it was now exactly seven a.m.
The sergeant eased the Honda Dream up right next to me, the bike gently and quietly idling away.
“Thought you might need a lift,” the sergeant said, taking out a pack of cigarettes. He held out the pack to me. I instantly went back to the valley and how I’d smoked there just to make Gunny feel better about my being one with him.
I looked at the small red and white box, one cigarette protruding out of the opening at its top. I wasn’t in Vietnam. I wasn’t trying to win the Gunny over. I wasn’t anywhere near that world. I struggled mentally for a few seconds, before taking the offered cigarette. The sergeant pulled out one for himself, lit it with a Zippo lighter, and then offered the barely flickering flame to me. I inhaled lightly, remembering the Gunny’s special Zippo, the Marlboro smoke entering my lungs, seeming like an old irritating friend. The sergeant’s Zippo had disappeared quickly once my cigarette was lit so I hadn’t had time to see if it was specially engraved.
We smoked half our cigarettes before, in unspoken agreement, crushing them out against the ground and ‘field stripping’ them before tossing the remnants into the moving air around us.
I climbed onto the back of the idling Dream, clutching the sergeant close. I was no longer afraid of bleeding through my shirt. I’d decided that Lightning Bolt did have the authority to assign the use of the more informal “C” uniform.
The cycle eased on down the path, taking the unstable gravel and small bumps easily, as if the street machine had somehow been designed to handle off-road travel, as well. I girded myself for the coming confrontation, which I knew had to take place. Lightning Bolt might be a mean-spirited curmudgeon but he was an outspoken and aggressive bully when it came to dealing with Marines under his command.
The sergeant pulled his machine up to the side of the building, close to the door, then shut it down and leaned it against the wall. Just as a thought was forming in my head about why he didn’t use the kickstand built into the beautiful little machine, he spoke.
“In case we need a quick getaway.”
I almost laughed, but then noted that the sergeant’s facial expression was quite serious.
I walked through the door. Corporal Pugh jumped to his feet.
“Good morning sir,” he said, standing at attention.
“Stand at ease, corporal,” I ordered, before stopping in surprise.
“He’s not in this morning, sir,” the corporal said, slowly lowering himself back onto the seat of a cheap wooden swivel chair, identical to the government issue ones we all used. “He’ll return at 1300 hours from a meeting in San Francisco.”
I stood there, not knowing what to think. I was relieved that there would be no immediate confrontation or emotional explosion over my ‘tardiness,’ or any of the other domineering control attacks the Colonel was likely to make.
“Your orders, sir? the sergeant asked, pulling up next to me at the counter.
“Gentlemen, we have five hours,” I replied, not being able to keep a completely straight face while I talked. “Five hours for you to help me approve each and every complaint file, exactly the way it’s come recommended, and then one hour to spend at the Officer’s Club for lunch.
The Officer’s Club on the island allowed an officer to have up to two enlisted guests, by invitation, although they could only be allowed into the restaurant, not the lounge.
All three of us approached my desk. The corporal went around and began to load the piles of files from the stacks nearby onto the top of it. The sergeant began separating and counting the files.
“Two hundred and twenty-seven,” he finally said, as he began walking files over to his and the corporal’s desks. “God knows how old some of these are,” he said, more to himself, rather than to the corporal or me.
“What’s the procedure?” I asked, knowing the answer to that question was the most important part of what I was attempting to do.
“It’ll take about a minute a file, to go through the checklists, mark them in the right places with your initials, and then sign and stamp,” the sergeant replied, nodding his head when he finished. “Yes, we can do this.”
The three of us went to work; the corporal selecting a file and recording it, the sergeant opening and isolating, with small tabs, the places that had to be initialed and then signed in two places along with my official identity and rank indications. There was no time to read much of anything that didn’t absolutely have to be read. At top speed, without a break, if the sergeant’s calculation was correct, just going through the process to completion would take a bit under four hours. As I began work, my mind raced. It was the best possible circumstance, I realized, with the Colonel not being in attendance. He would have no clue, until his return, about what was going on, and therefore couldn’t stop the process by using some sleight-of-hand maneuver or clever subterfuge, of which he was fully capable.
The work was complete by 11:05, which meant that there was time enough to get a mailbag together and haul the load of finished files over to the Marine contingent on Treasure Island for immediate shipment to Headquarters Marine Corps Logistics and Disbursement.
When the files were properly broken down and stacked, corporal Pugh prepared to pack them into large leather reinforced shipping bags.
“How do we get them over to S-4 Logistics?” I asked. “Each bag weighs about fifty pounds and we don’t have time to make four runs on the Dream.”
“The Colonel’s jeep, sir,” Corporal Pugh replied.
The sergeant and I both looked at the Marine as if he’d lost his mind.
“It’s Marine Corps business, sir, and that’s what the jeep’s for, even if Lightning uses it for everything else,” Pugh said as if he was making total sense.
I smiled and then so did the sergeant. It was perfect. The Colonel was going to be cut down using his very own equipment.
“Let’s go,” I said, moving to the door, opening it, and looking up toward the parking lot. The very last thing we needed was for the Colonel to come back early from his meeting.
The corporal went through the door I held open at a lope, disappearing around the right rear corner of the old lighthouse building. In less than a minute I heard the distinctive sound of a jeep. The four-cylinder “Hurricane” engine powering the machine coughed every few seconds but then smoothed out, as Pugh pulled the green vehicle in front of me. The sergeant appeared from behind me, dragging two of the canvas bags. The corporal jumped down from the Jeep, leaving it running, and raced in to get the other two bags. I kept my eyes peeled on the parking lot, trying to urge the men on without saying anything. I climbed into the passenger seat and was quickly joined by the sergeant and corporal.
“Go for it,” I said needlessly, looking up the path.
The Jeep took off, moving faster than it seemed its barely seventy horsepower engine could possibly make it go. The corporal ran through the gears, running up the path and onto the flat asphalt surface of the empty parking lot too fast for comfort, and probably too fast for safety, as well. There were no seat belts so I hung on by holding the emergency brake handle with my left hand and a curved bar projecting out from the side of the windshield in my other.
When the Jeep settled down in top gear, beginning our short highway run under the road that fed the Bay Bridge from both sides of the bay, it became quiet enough, in spite of the buffeting from the passing wind, to say something. The Jeep was a problem, I realized, in spite of the fact that it allowed us to get the bags to Marine Logistics quickly while doing so by making only one trip. The Colonel was going to return and if the Jeep was gone then there would be no excuse the sergeant and the corporal would be able to manufacture, other than the truth. And the truth wouldn’t do at all.
“You’ve got to drop the bags and get back to the office as quick as you can, and I’ll find a way to make it home on my own,” I said.
The Colonel was going to be howling mad once he figured everything out. He needed to direct all of his rage at me, but he wouldn’t do that if he believed for one minute that the sergeant and corporal were working with me instead of merely following orders. The use of the Jeep would serve as an open exposed wound, if he knew about it, and allow for an avenue of questioning that might lead to more places for the Colonel to direct his rage, as well as the bags being recovered before they were shipped.
“No Officer’s Club, sir?” Corporal Pugh asked.
I only realized then that the O’Club invite was a big deal to both the sergeant and the corporal.
“Okay, you’re right,” I countered. “We drop the bags, head for the office, and exchange the Jeep for the bike.” I looked directly over at Corporal Pugh. “The sergeant can drive me to the O’Club, and then come back and pick you up.”
“Oh, that’s okay, lieutenant,” Pugh replied. “I can jog over faster than he can make the round trip. It’s only half a mile.”
I didn’t say any more, remembering the days when a half-mile run would have been as easy for me as a regular citizen walking a city block to pick up the morning paper.
The corporal knew just where to turn, once we arrived at the Treasure Island Naval Base. The Marine guard on duty at the gate instantly took in the vehicle and the three uniformed Marines inside. He waved the Jeep through well before it passed him.
Corporal Pugh left the Jeep idling in neutral. He and the sergeant hauled one of the heavy bags in each hand up the stairs. I followed as I couldn’t maintain their pace even though they were so weighted down.
It took only minutes, once we reached the S-4’s office to scribble out the instructions for shipping.
“When will these ship?” I asked the young civilian woman working the counter.
“Tomorrow morning at 0600,” she replied, opening a hinged surface of the part of the counter so the sergeant and corporal could haul the bags inside.
Once back at the Jeep, we climbed aboard the Jeep as we’d done before.
“Okay, now the best we can hope for is that the Colonel doesn’t notice the files all gone missing when he returns,” I said the words while wishing I’d never invited them to the club for their reward in supporting me so fully.
I should have thought of a different way. If they returned to the office and stayed until the Colonel returned, if he wasn’t already back, then they could do a lot to make sure he didn’t notice the missing files. The bags would go out before normal Marine Corps business hours, as almost all Marine activity in units began at 0700. The critical time was between the time the Colonel returned and the close of Marine business for the day. That time was 1600. Any time after four in the afternoon wouldn’t work if the Colonel tried to call the bags back.
Corporal Pugh drove the Jeep back even faster than he drove on the earlier trip, making our travel almost a full ten minutes shorter. Pugh raced the Jeep down the path, the parking lot still empty. Everything looked okay but I couldn’t be certain. The Colonel might have parked his personal car elsewhere and gotten a ride from some other officer. The sergeant jumped out and raced inside.
“The Colonel’s nowhere to be seen, sir.”
I got out of the Jeep and the Corporal pulled the vehicle back around the corner of the office, stopping only to turn the Jeep around, and then back slowly from view.
Corporal Pugh immediately jogged away, heading up the path. He was gone even before the sergeant could get the Honda started.
The trip to the Officer’s Club was short. We hadn’t passed Pugh along the way so I presumed he was waiting just inside the entrance to the beautifully built place. The sergeant parked the Dream, this time using the kickstand, at an open slot in front of the club.
I walked up to the podium set against one wall near the main entrance, which also served as the guard tower for the place, I presumed. A man in a well-tailored civilian costume, looking like something between a suit and a tuxedo, greeted me.
“Can I help you, lieutenant?” he asked.
“Yes, lunch for three,” I replied, as Corporal Pugh joined us from some unseen place he’d been waiting.
“I see,” the man said, making no move to do anything.
“You see what?” I asked, noticing that the man had not called me sir.
“What is the nature of your invitation?, he asked, his voice velvety smooth, his smile so phony it could have been painted on his face.
I said nothing, while I thought.
“An officer,” he went on, “may have two enlisted guests because normally enlisted, even NCOs and warrant officers are not permitted in the establishment without such an invitation.”
“The nature of my invitation, the one I am extending to these two fine Marines, is my recent promotion,” I lied. I knew I had first lieutenant’s papers coming but there had, as of yet, been no hint of them showing up.
“Ah, that’s perfect,” the man replied, his smile growing more sincere. “That explains fully why you’re wearing so many ribbons on your shirt.”
I instinctively looked down at the left side of my chest. I hadn’t considered the ribbons, since laboriously sliding the little things onto the thin brass bars of metal they rode on. The feeling that ran through me was first of surprise and then of a building anger. For the second time in only two days, the wearing of my decorations was being demeaned. Not as directly as the Colonel had the day before, but still the coiled snake of nasty supposition was buried quietly near the surface of the costumed man’s comment. It was like my ribbons had gone from being ‘probably fake’ to ‘maybe not fake’ in only a few seconds.
The man guided us to the worst table in the place. The restaurant was one big rectangle with the right side, away from any view of the water, and sidled up next to the back of the kitchen. The kitchen had two double doors that swung open when pushed and then closed on their own when someone passed through. Our table was the closest to the near constantly swinging doors, yet half the tables in the restaurant were empty. I wanted to do something, or at least say something, but my combat experience took over. My mission was to get out of the place as quickly and quietly as I could. It wouldn’t do to be remembered, much less booted out the front door.
We ordered burgers around, cokes, fries and that was it. The waiter brought the bill. I had little money but the O’Club had to be the cheapest lunch in that part of California. Three dollars, with fifty cents for a tip. I feigned not to notice the maître de on our way out.
“I’ll take you home on the bike,” the sergeant said, not phrasing the words like a question. “Corporal, you get back to the office and hold things down. Make some files, anything. When Lightning shows up he’ll walk by, but probably give you as much attention as he usually does. Act normal.”
“If anything happens then follow the NCO rule,” I said to Pugh. “Blame it on the officer, and, in this case, that would be me.”
“Yes, sir, and thanks for lunch, sir, that was great,” the corporal said, placing his cover on his head, as I did my own. He saluted before running back toward the office and I saluted back, although he was already gone.
“Good man, that corporal,” I said to the sergeant.
“Yes, sir,” he replied. He started the bike and let it idle for a minute, taking out a cigarette and offering me one.
I waved him off. I wasn’t about to add smoking to the physical problems I already had.
“Sergeant Major,” the sergeant said, leaning into the side of the bike like I’d seen real bikers in movies do. He inhaled and blew out a long stream of smoke into the mild wind. I had to admit that the effect was pretty cool.
“That’s why you went to see the sergeant major yesterday,” the sergeant went on, taking another inhalation of smoke.
“I went to see the commanding officer,” I replied.
“The commanding officer’s never there, and that left the Sgt. Major, since the C.O. has no X.O. in that unit.”
“Yes,” I said, giving in. The sergeant was a bright as he was observant. “It was his idea, this whole thing, but you can never let that leave your lips.”
“Been to see the man a time or two myself,” the sergeant said. “He’s an outstanding Sergeant Major and good man besides.”
“The medals,” he said, pointing his smoking cigarette at my chest. “They’re all real, aren’t they, sir.” He didn’t say the phrase as if it was a question.
“Yes, they’re real,” I replied, knowing that the unusual conversation with a junior NCO wasn’t proper about the subject, but also knowing that the sergeant had risked himself to help me.
“I guess, from the standpoint that they were officially awarded, they are real. However, I truly only deserve the Purple Heart and the National Defense Medal. The rest are someone else’s opinion about what I did.”
“Interesting viewpoint, lieutenant,” the sergeant replied, field stripping his cigarette and tossing the bits and pieces aside. “I never heard that one before, but I think I like the answer.”
I clambered aboard the Dream, behind the sergeant, making sure to remove my pisscutter cover and tuck it firmly into my belt. Replacing the cover would be a considerably greater expense than lunch at the O’Club had been. I directed the sergeant to drop me at M&M so I could check the progress on the GTO. The Saran Wrap actually did more than hold my bandages on better and keep the leakage from spilling through. It also gave me a bit of a stiffer spine. I didn’t hunch over so much, which made walking easier. The limp from the hip might never leave me, the orthopedic doctors said, but I didn’t believe that. To me, the hip felt solid as a rock, with only the twinges of post-surgery pain keeping me from exercising it fully.
The sergeant pulled into the slot between the inside pumps and the building at the station. As usual, when I was not manning the office, nobody came out when the Dream’s tires crossed a rubber tube and made the bell ring. I got off, thanking the sergeant profusely.
“Well, lieutenant, this may be our goodbye,” he said, his voice wistful. “Don’t come in tomorrow and don’t take any calls. Your medical chart says you don’t have to. Let the Lighting Bolt play himself out. I’ll come by if needs be, otherwise call the day after tomorrow to get the lay of the place. You got sand, I’m sure as hell happy to report that, sir.”
The sergeant put the Honda in gear and accelerated out onto the street without looking back. I almost wished he’d have stayed a moment and offered me a cigarette. I’d have accepted it. The good people in my life just kept coming, and then quickly going. I didn’t even know the sergeant’s first name, nor the corporals for that matter. I put my cover on, straightened it as best I could, and then walked into the shop bay.
“Mickey, one of the men yelled upon seeing me. He immediately leaned over the fender of a Mustang, “You gotta see this.”
Mickey slid out from under the car, making me wonder passingly, once again, why such a semi-famous racer and businessman would bother spending his time directly working on cars, no matter what the situation.
I looked around the garage. My GTO was not there and my heart sank a bit.
“It’s over there,” Mickey said, wiping his hands on a rag that looked worse than any I’d seen in some time. He pointed behind me. “That thin Hawaiian guy standing by the car is our driver. His name’s Ongais. We call him the Fly’n Hawaiian. The car’s ready.”
Mickey walked over from the front of the Mustang, as I turned to peer out at my GTO, which looked almost brand new out in the sun. Mickey stepped around until he was in front of me again. He looked me up and down, then smiled his biggest smile. “Quite a rig you’ve got going there, that goat. I was right about it, just as I knew I was right about you.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. The car was done, we had a driver from Hawaii where I’d been raised, and Mickey Thompson had put his personal stamp of approval on me. Things were improving.