I walked into the room, turned, and handed the orders to my wife, tossing the useless envelope it’d come in onto the couch located across our small living room.
“Hand-delivered by a Naval messenger,” I said, not knowing what else to say, my mind already beginning to adjust to going back into the A Shau Valley.
My wife read the orders slowly, then re-read them, standing before the small coffee table in front of the couch where Pat sat, with Julie next to her playing with some of her stuffed toys in her lap.
“What is it?” Pat asked, directing her question to Mary since all I did was stand aside and stare out toward the single window the apartment had that allowed any view of the street out in front of our place.
I had to gather what gear I had, I knew, and also provide somehow for my wife and daughter to be taken care of again while I was gone. My SGLI life insurance was for $20,000 but I had no idea how quickly that would pay when I was killed. There was no way in hell, I knew deep inside my core, that I could possibly survive in my condition, in any condition really, back down in that valley. I would not be going to some cushy ‘in the rear with the gear’ billet. I knew that as well. If the Colonel could pull off getting the orders issued that he had then he, no doubt, had plenty of horsepower to have me back down inside that valley with little effort. The Second of the Seventh was a great outfit, but my first regiment had also been great, and it’d been terribly, near completely, decimated.
“The race is on a Saturday, but I have to leave before then,” I said into the silence that had followed Pat’s asking of her question. “I have to somehow get the car back or you won’t have anything.”
“Shut up,” my wife said, without looking over at me, the tone one that I had never heard from her before.
“These orders are for Vietnam, leaving on Monday,” Mary went on, finally answering Pat’s question.
“What are we going to do?’ Pat asked, her voice going up an entire octave.
Julie started to cry, not understanding anything except things were not going the way they normally did, and whatever way they were going wasn’t good.
“I’m thinking,” my wife said, her stare, directed at Pat, as hard as my own, but with fire instead of resignation in it.
“Canada,” Pat said.
“Canada?” I repeated, stunned by the fact that Pat would consider running for the border or at least having me run for the border to avoid going back. Running after receiving such orders, sending me back into combat, however, would not be considered an unauthorized absence. It’d be considered desertion under fire or in the face of the enemy. That was not going to happen, but I stayed quiet.
“Take that green knight thing off,” my wife said, still not talking to me like the kind gentlewoman I knew her to be. “You’re a Marine Officer and a great one. Put on the Marine sweatshirt, the one you got at Quantico. You’re not going back into combat on Monday. You’re in combat right now, we all are.
I’m calling Headquarters Marine Corps. I want that same Colonel I talked to who let you stay home for Julie’s delivery before they sent you over the first time.”
Mary rummaged inside her purse. Neither she nor I had taken a seat since I’d walked through the door. I slowly made my way to the couch and took a seat at the end that Pat and Julie were not occupying. My wife seemed to know exactly what she was doing. I pulled off the Green Knight St. Norbert sweatshirt she’d somehow come to find offensive. It was time to change my dressings and release the wrap. Julie looked across the short distance from which she sat, her back pressed into Pat’s left hip. She gurgled out a giggle and stretched out one small hand toward me. I looked down. The light coming in from the single window was reflecting brightly off the stretched plastic wrapped around my torso in moving sparkles as I turned.
Mary walked to the telephone, having found the scrap of paper she searched for that was secreted at the bottom of her purse. She dialed a number. She talked for only a few seconds before hanging up. I couldn’t hear the conversation from where I sat but was surprised at how short it was.
The phone rang, almost as soon as she hung it up.
“Long-distance is a dollar a minute from here,” Mary explained, picking up the receiver.
Mary talked briefly on the phone, turning her back and speaking in a low tone. I made no effort to leave the couch and try to hear what was being said. For some reason, the notification of orders to return to Vietnam had placed me in a sort of stasis, and I was having a hard time doing or saying anything. I knew I was not myself but was helpless to influence the strange effect.
She hung up the phone once more but didn’t move away from it for a few minutes.
“What are you waiting for, another call?” I asked her.
“I can send a message to Steve to see what he can do from over there,” Pat said, from her place near me on the couch.
Julie played between us, oblivious to what was happening. Steve was Pat’s husband, serving his Vietnam tour in Da Nang at the 1st Marine Division’s legal offices.
The phone rang again. Mary picked it up on the first ring, waiting for a few seconds, and then began to talk. She quickly laid out what had happened, detailing the orders I’d been notified of as well as my recent surgeries required by the injuries I’d suffered. The call went on for a full fifteen minutes until Mary finally stopped and held the phone out to me.
I got up and stepped close to her, wondering what I was supposed to say.
“I’m Colonel Holden, Adjutant General, Headquarters Marine Corps,” the deep voice at the other end of the line said. “Where do you want to serve out your time stateside lieutenant?”
When I didn’t instantly reply, the Colonel continued, “Probably little doubt you’ll soon be up on a medical evaluation to terminate your service, from what your wife says. I’ll pull the medical records to support the change in your orders.”
Thinking as fast as I could, with a sudden flood of questions popping into my head, I worked to slow down and consider. Seconds went by. He’d asked where I wanted to serve, and, although the real answer was; anywhere but where I was, I also knew that was not the answer the man was looking for.
“Camp Pendleton,” I blurted out. I’d heard of the Southern California Marine Base, although I’d never been there. It was close, on the ocean, and maybe not a training center dedicated to sending Marines over into the war. I didn’t know that for certain, but I had to have a place to go or I might get sent to a duty station even worse than the one I was coming out of.
“You’re on medical leave right now, for the next thirty days,” the Colonel said, “and I’ll have your new orders cut and off to you by tomorrow. Do not, and I repeat, do not return to your former duty station. I’ll also enclose a letter from my commanding officer to the division commander there that your physical condition is to be respected fully while you serve out your remaining term of service.”
“Thank you, sir,” was all I could think to reply.
“Welcome home lieutenant,” the Colonel replied with a short laugh. “You might have your hands full while you recover, with that firebrand you married.”
The phone went dead before I could say anything further. “Firebrand?” I whispered to myself, placing the handset back on the receiver base.
“What?” my wife asked.
“Nothing,” I replied, changing the subject. “I have to go to the base one last time to visit the Sergeant Major and thank him,” I said, getting the lie out just as quickly and flatly as I could.
I was going to see Lightning Bolt if I could find him. He’d not met Junior, and I thought it was high time he did.
“Okay if we borrow your car for a bit?” my wife asked Pat.
“Fine,” Pat replied, but I’ve got to leave in an hour from here.”
“Can you get a ride back from the base or have Mickey pick you up if I drop you?” Mary asked.
“Sure,” I replied, thinking of the sergeant and his motorcycle. I had no plan at all for my encounter with my former commanding officer. I knew one would rise up to serve me once I was in front of him, however.
It took me half an hour to get undressed, unwrapped from my Saran Wrap covering, change my bandages and then get my wife’s help. I could not wrap myself in the plastic alone. Mary was busy doing something, I assumed it had to do with Julie, so Pat helped me get re-wrapped.
“What are you going to wear?” Mary asked, asked when I came out of the bedroom without a shirt on.
“Just my Marine sweatshirt, pants, and tennis shoes,” I replied, hoping she would not probe further. Her instincts were so sharp; however, I knew she hadn’t asked her question out of mere curiosity.
“So, you won’t be going to the lighthouse then?” She asked.
“No, not a chance,” I replied. “I’m out of there.”
The ride to the base was a silent one. I knew Mary was not believing what I’d told her but refused to encounter me about it. She had no doubt, I felt, decided that her place was to ride it out and trust that I would not do anything totally stupid.
Knowing where the Sergeant Major’s office was down the hall I walked past workers behind the counter, stopped at his open door, and then angled my head to look inside the space. The Sergeant Major was sitting back in his swivel, a smile on his face.
“Wondered if you’d be back,” he said, waving me inside.
I sat down before him.
“How’d it go?” he asked.
“Like magic, except he somehow got me transferred immediately back to Vietnam,” I replied. “My wife called Headquarters Marine Corps though so those orders were countermanded and I’m now headed to Camp Pendleton. I came by to thank you for your advice and support.”
“Your wife drop you off?” the Sergeant Major said, brushing aside my thanks. “She drove you in from Daly City and then headed back.”
I wondered how he had guessed that Mary’d driven me, that we lived in Daly City, and also that she wasn’t able to wait for me in the parking lot outside, but I didn’t pursue getting answers to those questions. My mind was already over across the highway, as I prepared to get ready to enter the lighthouse and confront Lightning Bolt.
“You’re going over to the office, are you not?” the Sergeant Major asked, again surprising me.
“Yes,” was all I could think to answer.
“You limp like hell, and you’re on medical leave,” he replied, with a slight but not derisive laugh. “Come on, I’ll take you in my rig,” he went on, rising from his chair and grabbing a set of keys from the right top drawer of his desk.
I followed him out the door, wondering how I was going to meet with Lightning Bolt if the Sergeant Major was with me. I had to leave him in the parking lot somehow. Lightning Bolt and I had to meet one on one. I wanted no witnesses to any of what might transpire.
The Sergeant Major drove a WWII Jeep. A Jeep without doors or top, with the flat windshield folded down against the hood. I noted the barely visible and painted-over “U.S. Army” designation running along the hood’s curving surface.
Could the Jeep be stolen, I wondered, but then shook my head. Of course, it was stolen but inter-service spats of that nature were never taken to the authorities. The Army would have a payback of some form or other and the Marine Army contest, established nearly two hundred years before would continue on unabated and mostly in secret.
The Sergeant major strapped on some googles and tossed a spare pair over to me. I put them on, feeling like I was some character in a bad war movie.
The Sergeant Major twisted the key, the little four-banger engine coughed to life and the Jeep surged back, and then forward as the little vehicle headed at full speed for the highway, except the Sergeant Major didn’t use the turnout that would have taken us immediately across to the other island. Before I could gather much more of my bearings the Jeep was in top gear and out headed west across the Bay Bridge.
“Where are we going?” I yelled, in shock, turning my head to stare at the side of the Sergeant Major’s grinning face.
“I’m taking you home,” he yelled back. “Your wife called. You’ve made your last visit to Treasure Island. All that’s behind you now. Leave Lightning Bolt to the Corps.”
My wife called. I was shocked even more. I rode in silence for the rest of the way. No wonder the Sergeant Major knew where I lived and that Mary had driven me and not waited outside, as well as knowing I’d been given medical leave. But there did not seem to have been time for her to make that call until I realized she’d probably figured out and feared what I was going to do as soon as the orders were changed. She’d made the call when she’d been ‘busy’ with Julie, I knew, and Pat had stood in for her.
When we reached the garage that served as the outer wall of my apartment the Sergeant Major stopped his Army Jeep and held out his left hand. I climbed out of the vehicle, pulled off the goggles, and tossed them to him
“You’re one hell of a Marine lieutenant,” the Sergeant Major said. “I wish the Corps had more officers like you.” At that, he put the idling Jeep in first gear and took off.
I watched the vehicle accelerate down the street. There would be no goodbyes. One man to another, we didn’t need any. One Marine to another. The next four days passed quickly, as I walked back and forth to the gas station to work and visit with Mickey. The fifth day, Saturday, was the running of the races. I rode with one of the guys in the pickup pulling the trailer with my GTO chained to it. The hourlong trip seemed to pass in an instant.
The track lay as before, although, it being the Winternationals, the crowd was significantly larger. Mickey had insisted that my GTO be trailered to the event, as last-minute adjustments could be all screwed up just by driving the car on the street, plus, the police would be all over the track and slicks bolted to wheel rims that were driven on the street was a favorite complaint of theirs. Apparently, upon cornering hard, the air could leak completely out of the tires in an instant, although that made no difference at all for the straight runs the cars made when running on the dragstrip.
There were no stalls or covered areas to work on the cars, so the GTO sat on the graveled edge of the airport tarmac almost a quarter-mile from where the dragstrip was laid out. The Winternationals had about forty or more events, with hundreds of racers doing warming up runs, and other things, so the roar of the crowd and the screaming of the dragster’s engines could be heard in the distance at all times.
The car was unloaded from the trailer without my help, as Mickey wouldn’t let me touch anything. Danny Ongais stood nearby. He was leaning against the passenger door of the car as it sat with its hood up, waiting for Mickey to do whatever last-minute things he might want to do. Mickey talked to everyone nearby, not taking much interest in the GTO. I finally realized that he was waiting but I couldn’t figure out what he was waiting for. The time for our run was almost an hour away. There would only be one run. The race wasn’t to be a race against another car at all. I knew Mickey badly wanted to be opposed on our run by his nemesis from the failed gas station venture. The race was to be against the clock, however, and there was no way, supposedly, to arrange what car would be in the next lane when my GTO made its run.
I watched several people approach the car. I realized there was no point in attempting to engage Ongais in conversation. The man didn’t talk socially, whether that was an Island/Haole kind of cultural bias or just his nature. The guys that were helping Mickey from the garage were useless to talk to. All I could do was observe, stay close to the car and crew, and try not to get in anyone’s way. I was a fish out of the water and I knew it.
Then I saw Smokey. Tall and thin, he rose over the heads of most of the men in the crowded graveled area he was passing through. He headed straight for the GTO. Mickey saw him too and immediately stopped talking to the men he’d been regaling with whatever tales he’d been regaling them with. Smokey walked to the front of the GTO, leaned forward, and began to closely examine every aspect of the engine compartment he could see without leaning in too closely.
“What do you need?” he asked, speaking to Mickey after somehow figuring out it was Mickey who’d walked up behind him.
“We’re running mid to high thirteens and that won’t get it,” Mickey said, moving to stand next to the taller man. “He’s in the low thirteens so we don’t need much, but I’ve run out of ideas. Hotter plugs maybe, but everything we’ve tried there hasn’t recorded anything in static tests that might lead to performance on the track today. I need something fast and now.”
“Drill,” Smokey said, rubbing his chin with one hand.
“Drill?” Mikey answered. “What do you mean?”
“I need a drill with an eighth-inch bit, not larger nor smaller than that,” Smokey replied.
“Where in hell are we going to get a drill and what are you going to drill, anyway?” Mickey asked, in a tone of exasperation.
“Drill,” was all Smokey said, taking a pipe from his pocket, slowly packing it from a foil packet he drew from his shirt pocket.
“Jesus Christ,” Mickey breathed out, turning to the men we’d brought when driving the car to the track.
“We need a generator,” he said to the small assembled group. “Somebody’s got to have a generator. Then we need an electric drill with an eighth-inch bit. If the generator’s D.C. then we need an inverter too.”
Smokey smiled, turning to lean his lower back into the front of the car. “Electric drill, good call, as I’m not going to strain my back using some manual piece of junk.”
“Electric drill, Jesus Christ, what next, and how’s that supposed to do anything to help. For God’s sake Smokey we have to gain a second here, and drilling anything isn’t going to give us that.”
“You want my help, or not,” Smokey replied, blowing his first puff of smoke directly into Mickey’s face, once more smiling his wide smile.
I realized that Smokey loved toying with Mickey. It was like watching a master puppeteer making his puppet perform without the use of strings. Mickey walked away swearing and throwing up his hands while his guys fanned out to try to find the uncommon equipment necessary to satisfy Smokey.
I moved next to Smokey and looked down into the same engine bay the bigger older man had looked at only minutes before. I stared, my eyes sweeping over everything but my mind not able to comprehend at all what might be something that could be drilled to provide any help at all.
“What can you possibly do with a drill?” I whispered to Smokey, my eyes never leaving the engine compartment.
“Aerodynamics,” Smokey said.
I waited, but he said nothing more, almost imitating the composure and smoking silence of Danny Ongais, standing only a few feet away,
Moments later, as I finally gave up at figuring out the ‘aerodynamics’ mystery, Mickey came plowing through the guys hanging around, towing a medium-sized cart with one hand, a drill hanging down from his free hand, the cord for the thing dangling and dragging along on the gravel surface.
Smokey tamped out his pipe down against the surface of the GTO’s bumper, as I stood aside for Mickey to close in with the generating cart.
Smokey put his pipe away and took the electric drill Mickey handed him. One of the crew guys pulled the cord and started the generator after a few attempts. Then he plugged the drill cord into a socket.
Smokey removed his hat and handed it back without looking. I grabbed the big worn but beautiful thing and stood, once again to the side. I had to know what the great racer and brilliant mechanic was going to drill.
Smokey bent in, hit the button on the drill to make sure it was working, stopped the thing to check the drill bit already inserted, and then bent again, this time deep into one side of the engine bay. He drilled away for almost a minute before stopping, changing position minutely, and then going at it again. He did this eight times in a row, four on one side of the engine bay and four on the other.
The three-eighty-nine cubic inch engine had eight cylinders, I knew, with four on each side of the bay.
When Smokey stood back, I knew he was done. The shrill whine of the drill had gone silent, and he handed it over to Mickey. Nobody said anything, as Smokey retrieved his hat from me, and then took his pipe out to prepare it and smoke again.
I looked into the engine bay but could see nothing out of place or different than I’d seen before. Mikey stood frowning.
“That’s it?” Mickey asked, leaning under the hood to look down. “We’re supposed to get a full second on the final run from some holes you drilled somewhere?”
“The headers,” Smokey answered, lighting the tobacco he’d carefully placed in his pipe.
“What about them?” Mickey replied, giving the exact same wording to the short question that appeared in my mind.
“Aerodynamics,” Smokey said.
“Jesus Christ, you drilled holes in the headers!” Mickey said, his voice delivering the words with a tone of near-hushed shock.
“Those headers, welded onto securing plates, attach directly to the motor’s heads at a bad angle for the dispersion of combusted gases,” Smokey said as if anyone could easily understand what he said.
“So?” Mickey replied, still mirroring what I was thinking.
“The gasses, under such high pressure, but only for mere instants, create a vacuum on the upper exit side of the exhaust ports, like the vacuum that takes away so much power if a propeller is spun too fast in a body of water. They call that cavitation. The holes I drilled at the very top of the headers, near their connecting ends, should relieve the vacuum by allowing normal atmospheric air to be sucked in. No vacuum, more volume of gas exiting and exiting in a smoother more uniform way.
“It’s going to be noisier,” Mickey replied, once more leaning close under the hood to view what he could of Smokey’s work.
“Not really, except at idle, because the air is being sucked in under power not pushed out,” Smokey replied. “Have your guys push the car up to the line, then start the engine when the lights on the tree get ready to turn. There is no tear-down at these Winternationals, so unless they have real reasons to believe you’re running with non-stock headers you should be safe. Shut down at the end of the run and coast to a stop where you can have your guys there load the vehicle onto the trailer and get it out of the area.”
Smokey said no more, merely blowing out another small cloud of pipe smoke and walking away off into the nearby small clumps of racers gathered around other competing cars.
“Will it work?” I asked, still peering down at the barely visible holes drilled through the very top of the header manifold tubes. It seemed like a pretty minuscule modification to affect almost a ten percent gain in performance over the length of a quarter-mile run.
“He’s Smokey Yunick,” Mickey responded, cutting the generator’s engine and getting the generator ready, with the coiled cord of the drill atop it, to be returned from wherever it’d been borrowed from.
I waited for more but Mickey didn’t add anything to what he’d said. I wondered if Smokey wasn’t something of a more important character in drag racing than I’d thought when I first met him. I also noted that Mickey hadn’t even bothered to examine the man’s work with the drill. Drag racing was an exceptionally loud, burned-oil-smelling, and pretty dirty sport, but I got the distinct feeling that it was also filled with a good measure of genius, although the level of genius was pretty hard to measure at any given time.
Great horns blasted irritating sounds through the air, like tornado sirens but louder. The Winternationals were about to begin.
Factory Stock, the class of cars run that was supposed to be completely stock, with stock engines from the factory along with regular ‘street’ tires and unmodified suspensions or other parts, was introduced and called out over amplified loudspeakers. E Stock would be the category called next, I knew. Mickey re-appeared and closed the hood of my GTO.
“We’ll push it to the starting line,” Mickey said across the fender to Ongais, lowering his voice as much as he could against the din of announcements and activity around us. “You get one shot and that’s it. If the car doesn’t start then we’re basically out of here.”
Ongais, in his already established tradition with me, nodded at both Mickey and me but said nothing.
“At the other end, shut it down and let the guys come move it onto the trailer,” Mickey went on.
I saw Danny smile, at that. He’d been right where he was and perfectly capable of hearing what Smokey had instructed. He again said nothing in reply.
The Factory Stock class of cars ran in eleven heats. Mickey said it would be the biggest category because regular people could enter family sedans without spending any money on modifications. E Stock would be the second-largest for similar reasons. Super Stock and the classes above took many thousands of dollars invested to have any chance of winning and hence would have many fewer racers.
As I made my way to the stands, I realized that every race was wildly celebrated as it finished, apparently no matter who won. Mickey was down with the car. Only he and Ongais were allowed across a single yellow line running back from the ‘Christmas Tree lights’ that were set vertically, like small towers, on each side of the starting line. I was relegated to the stands to watch and supposedly cheer, like all those around me.
The other cars, preceding my own lined up and moved one after another toward the starting line. It took about three minutes to get two cars to take off and make the quarter-mile run. Each car was called individually, with the type of vehicle, the class, the racer’s owner, and then the driver. The owner of my own entry was not me. It was given as Mickey Thompson when my GTO was called. Amazingly, or quite possibly in a nod to the fame of Mickey Thompson, the GTO running against my own was Mickey’s ex-partner. I was disappointed that my name wasn’t called but taken up by the excitement of the crowd anyway. It seemed that most people attending, whether in the stands or in the gathering groups of racers out near the line of departure, were gathering for my GTO’s single run.