It was hard to imagine, much less witness, that everything my wife, daughter and I owned could be fit into the interior spaces of a 1966 GTO. Nothing was attached or tied on the outside. I’d been raised in a Coast Guard family where the frequent moves were paid for by the government. It almost always took a completely full moving truck to move our family of two adults and three children. It turned out, as I surveyed the packing job from next to the car, that the single largest possession we currently possessed was Julie’s crib, which came apart in three pieces or we couldn’t have taken it with us on the move. The front driver’s side of the GTO still had the three-point racing safety belt system Mickey installed, but Julie had nothing to hold her in so I constructed a plywood box to set in just back from the split front seats. She sat, seemingly happy as a tick, inside her low-walled box filled with blankets.
Our route would pass Rockaway Beach, the beach I’d spent every free moment I had running and walking up and down, trying to make my left hip work better. There didn’t seem to be much hope of getting employment if I couldn’t walk right, not once the Marine Corps was done with me, a result that had to be imminent. We stopped at the Thunderbird, the restaurant motel that sat right in the middle of the beach, the restaurant’s deck stretched out over the rocks and sand. We’d never been able to eat at the restaurant as we couldn’t afford it, but we loved wandering around the place every once and a while. I pulled into the parking lot that ran almost the length of the beach. ‘All I have to do is dream’ was playing on the radio. “When I feel blue, in the night, and I need you to hold me tight, whenever I want you all I have to do is dream…”. The lyrics resounded back and forth in my head. I wasn’t thinking of my wife when I listened to the song’s words. I was thinking about life itself. I was trying to make life mine but, like in the song, I was dreaming my life away more than living it. I wanted to be in action. I had wanted to drive the GTO in the race, help prepare it, and then work somewhere other than a gas station where I barely pumped gas, exchanging my minimal services for some small amounts of cash. Now the station was gone and I was headed back toward the Marine Corps, an amazing organization but also one that only seemed to have things for me to do that were not worth doing at all, and those under a kind of supervision that the word ‘draconian’ didn’t seem extreme enough to cover.
There was no time to walk or run the beach, as much as my crippled passage could be considered running. Our budget for the move only included, with the hundred dollars Mickey had given me, the day trip down the Pacific Coast Highway, paying for gas and a bit of food. That budget let out eating at the Thunderbird. I’d decided to wear my class “A” greens, with a khaki long-sleeve shirt, green trousers, and highly spit-shined shoes. I’d used the formal blouse only if the weather caused me to wear it. Although the general public was not very sympathetic to the Marine Corps in general, I’d come to experience a good deal of help, care, and concern that emanated from minor elements of i
Mary had taken Julie inside the restaurant to use the bathroom facilities, while I stood outside, leaning back against the hood of the GTO, not unlike Danny Ongais using the car as a prop for his ‘oh so cool’ image. I hadn’t smoked since the few occasions I’d done so with the Gunny in the A Shau and I didn’t intend to take it up now that I was back home. That meant I couldn’t appear as totally ‘with it’ as Mickey and Danny had. A small group of older men emptied out of a sedan that was parked nearby.
“Where you headed Marine?” one of them asked; all four stopping on the narrow sidewalk that ran along the edge of the parking lot.
“Camp Pendleton, sir,” I replied, straightening up to a position nearly that of attention.
“Probably going to make the trip in one straight shot, I’ll bet,” the man said. All three of his friends laughed at that.
“Yes, sir,” I replied, my expression remaining deadpan, as I didn’t get the joke.
“The Marine Corps never did pay well,” the man went on, his friends smiling but no longer laughing.
Mary came out of the restaurant, Julie riding on her right hip, and walked to my side, both their bright smiles radiating out over all of us.
I introduced my wife and daughter to the men, but in reality, I just wanted to end communications, get in the car and get out of there.
“We’d be proud to buy you lunch,” the man said. “Anything you want, and you can even pack something to go for later on.”
I started to thank him and refuse his offer, but I got nowhere.
“That’s really nice of you,” Mary replied before I could get my reply out. “Come on, maybe we can get a window view,” she continued, turning to me before walking away with the four men toward the entrance, Julie looking over her shoulder at me with something of an expression of surprise.
Following lunch and packing away two boxes of fried chicken, I made my way over to the corner table where the four men were sitting and talking.
“Thank you,” I began, but got no farther.
“We were all on Guadalcanal,” the man who’d first spoken outside said. “You wear the ribbons. You earned the medals behind them. You’re now home and they aren’t going to mean very much, sad to say, except to some of us.”
I tried to speak again, but couldn’t think of what to say. Guadalcanal was a giant legend in the Corps, and all four of the men in front of me had been there and survived. They were like me, I realized, but knew I didn’t have to and shouldn’t say.
“You’re now a man among men,” the man said, “but you’re different, and you’ve got one helluva wife. Don’t screw it up.” The man finished, and then all four of them started to laugh gently as if there had been some joke told that I was once more unable to comprehend.
We loaded into the GTO and began the ride down toward Southern California, stopping at ARCO gas stations frequently because they were the only chain that would accept Sears credit cards. Bathroom stops came with the gasoline refills and burgers and fries at Burger Chefs were the fare, once we’d polished off the packed away cold chicken. McDonald's was cheaper than Burger Chef but my wife wouldn’t eat their burgers, claiming that the meat was not real meat at all. I didn’t complain, although the meat in MacDonald’s products, at least to me, tasted better than most other meat I ate. If it wasn’t meat then all the better.
The GTO made the long trip better than I thought because of a performance mechanic who pumped our gas at one of the first filling stations along the way. He marveled at the engine when he checked the oil, and then went just about nuts when I told him that Mickey Thompson built it. Not exactly the whole truth but I figured it wouldn’t hurt, and I just knew Mickey wouldn’t care if he somehow got wind of my exaggeration.
“Man,” the mechanic marveled, working the mechanical link between the three carburetors with his fingers, “this thing must be a boat out there on the highway. It’s not built for that. Why don’t you disconnect two carbs and run on one deuce, unless you’re looking to drag somebody?”
“How much would it cost?” I asked, thinking about what credit I had remaining on the Sears card, and also wondering how it was that I had no idea that the engine was even capable of running on one carburetor. Camp Pendleton was still a long way off and I was unsure whether we’d make it financially, without having to stay over at some cheap motel along the way. Julie took a lot of time and care from both Mary or me, but her way of dealing with a long car trip made it easier as, primarily, she hunkered down in her makeshift crib in the back seat and slept or sat up holding the boxes edges and gurgling away on her pacifier.
“No charge, Marine,” the mechanic said, looking up with a big smile. “My brother was a Marine over there, and this will take five minutes, calls for two short plastic tubes and unbending the four ends of two connecting clips. You can put the clips back on and take the tubes off when you feel like really hauling ass in this thing…
I mean, wherever you get to where you’re going.”
I stopped myself from asking the man whether his brother had made it back or not. If the brother was dead, then what could I possibly say? I chose to say nothing until the man was done working under the hood.
I thanked Hank when he was done. That was the name stitched to the right breast of his overalls. The man laughed at that and said the name wasn’t his. He’d inherited the uniform from the last guy who worked there.
‘Hank didn’t give me his real name, even though I waited. Finally, I gave him six precious one-dollar bills for eighteen gallons of regular gas. Danny Ongais had told me, before we left, that the motor would run on regular and not ping or pre-detonate on that grade, as long as I kept the revolutions below four thousand and didn’t get on the gas too hard when I took off. ‘Hank’ gave me seventy-eight cents change, which I took and pocketed. Ethyl fuel, the gas that the GTO much preferred, wouldn’t have left any change leftover at all, and over the course of our trip, that slight difference would add up if the car kept getting about six miles to the gallon.
As soon as I pulled out of the station, I realized that the entire personality of the car had changed. It no longer bounced so much when it ran at low speed or sat at idle. It didn’t leap off from a dead stop either and therefore didn’t require an immediate adjustment to the gas pedal to control it. It was almost like a regular stick shift automobile. I headed the car south on the freeway, which had a speed limit of sixty-five, although trying to keep up with California traffic meant going at least seventy-five. The GTO ate way too much gas at that speed, plus the noise of the engine running at five thousand rpm was too much to bear over a long period of time.
The GTO drove listlessly but just fine with only one carburetor running, although it labored a bit at anything over sixty. I exited the freeway where the turnoff sign said Modesto. We headed west toward the coast and Highway One. The speed limit along most of that run, which would take us all the way down to Camp Pendleton itself, was fifty-five, but in most places, it wasn’t even that. Below Modesto, we stopped again for fuel and a rest stop. I filled up; having kept track of the mileage we’d put on from Hank's station. Thirteen miles to the gallon. I smiled, silently thanking Hank. We’d make it with money to spare, I just knew, and we’d probably do even better once we stopped again and I could measure the use of another full tank on Pacific Coast Highway.
KRLA, an AM station out of Pasadena located at 1110 on our radio, played the best rock and roll I could find, and for most of our trip was the only station we could receive with any clarity. There were many announcers but the one I always waited for, between songs, was named Dick Biondi. He didn’t have Brother John’s deep resonating voice or the laid-back humor that had been so evident to me when I listened to Armed Forces Radio back in the Nam, but he was funny and always upbeat, especially about the songs he played. One of those songs played while I drove, Mary sleeping, curled into the corner of her passenger seat and the barely padded plastic covering the door.
“Here’s one for you,” Biondi said, his usual jocular tone dipping into seriousness, “Guy named Phil Phillips, not his real name, wrote and recorded only one song before disappearing forever. He said once that all he got was eight hundred dollars for his effort. The song went to number one in the U.S. and in Great Britain. It remains one of my favorites for certain. It’ll be reproduced many times in the years ahead although only Mercury records will make any money.”
The song played after a brief silence, a silence so long that I almost moved my right hand off the wheel to adjust the frequency knob on the radio.
“Come with me my love, to the sea, the sea of love. I want to tell you how much I love you. Do you remember when we met? That’s the day I knew you were my pet. I want to tell you how much I love you…”
The song played through. My hands gripped the wheel hard and I stared straight ahead like I was driving down a narrowed tunnel. Phil Phillip wasn’t singing. Tex was singing, like before the bridge incident that got him killed, although Tex had never done anything more than sing the lyrics under his breath when the song played down in the A Shau. The song ended and I brought myself instantly back, glancing over to make sure my wife was still sleeping.
We drove on into the waning light and then the night, my wife hated to drive the newly refurbished GTO, mostly because of the thirty-pound resistance of the clutch pedal. She was great at driving stick shift but only five feet tall so her feet never really contacted the pedals as solidly as she was willing to admit.
We drove on into the darkness, the sun setting off to our right as we moved. The going was slower than would have been the case using the freeway, but we got to see most of the communities along the California coastline. It was dawn when we ended up in San Clemente, the last community before the base of Camp Pendleton began. The huge property mass of the base ran for another twenty-two miles down the coast to a place called Oceanside.
I found San Clemente in the early morning to be like a place one might find in an old Spanish movie, except siesta time was apparently in the early hours instead of mid-day. There was nothing going on, at all. I drove back and forth on the main road, El Camino Real, that ran through the center of the small town. I arrived back at the town center, at the intersection where the main feeder that might lead down toward the ocean was located. I realized that it was either drive further south again on El Camino Real, which is what the Pacific Coast Highway had turned into, or head towards the ocean. I turned down Del Mar, noting a crooked street sign as I took the turn, and then pulled into an empty parking stall only a few yards later. Parking wasn’t a problem, as all the stalls up and down both sides of the street were empty. An elegant, tall and very Spanish-looking building stood before me as I got out of the GTO and stared across the street. The San Clemente Hotel, a white sign with black letters indicated the name of the building.
Under that professional sign, closer down to the open wrought iron gates of the place’s entrance, was another sign. The sign that had caught my eye. “Special,” it said, and then underneath; “8 dollars a night, tonight only, and then 10 dollars forever, payable weekly.” The sign was handwritten, penned in black magic marker on white butcher paper. The sign was held up by massive amounts of regular scotch tape as if masking or duct tape had been unavailable to whoever put it up. I turned, bent down, and looked over at my wife. She looked over and I pointed, before walking across the street with no people and no cars. It was an eerie feeling, looking up and down Del Mar, as I moved. The place was like a scene from an Outer Limits television show.
Once through the courtyard, very delicately and well maintained with flowers and plants I couldn’t name, I climbed three steps covered with terracotta tile and walked slowly into the lobby of the place. The entire floor was covered in the same tiles. There was no one at the front desk counter, but there was a man sitting in an overstuffed chair in the middle of the room. He was holding up a coffee cup and looking straight at me.
“You looking to rent a room?” the man asked, his voice soft, cultured, and elegant to the point of being almost, but not quite, snobby.
I didn’t know what to say. The man was wearing a tuxedo but with the bow tie untied and hanging. Both of his arms were bent, one with the coffee cup and the other because he was leaning his elbow on one of the chair's arms.
“The name’s Piaget, like the world’s finest watch,” the man continued as if I’d replied, “and the rooms are all one-bedroom with a toilet, shower, and hotplate. Each has a television but the reception’s lousy because of the mountains over there.” He pointed weakly with the fingers of his left hand toward where the freeway ran through the middle of the town running east and west.
“How many beds to a room? I asked, not being able to get the eight dollars a day rate out of my head. In a town like I was in, not far from the ocean, and in a place that was so neatly taken care of and decorated almost any rate would have to be over twenty dollars, which I’d established as the upper end of our budget, at least until I could get properly transferred into my new permanent duty station and get a paycheck. I could stay at any BOQ, or bachelor officer’s quarters on any base, but there was no place or provision for dependents in such quarters.
“Two doubles and no rollaway, and that’s the deal,” the man replied, taking a slow sip of his coffee.
“Eight dollars a night,” I said, wanting to confirm what the sign out front said.
“It’s twenty-nine-a night with three-night minimum and all of it upfront in cash,” the man went on, nodding slowly as if he’d just made up the numbers while we were sitting. "The town doesn’t much like Marines, especially those fresh back from the Nam.”
I stood, not saying anything. My mind working over what had transpired so far. How the man knew I was fresh back from the war I didn’t know. Could it have been my heavy green blouse for ease of travel and because the weather was fine with me in my long sleeve wool shirt?
“How’d you know I was over there?” I asked, delaying the conversation for a few seconds, while I tried to think about how I might nail down the eight-dollar rate advertised out front.
“The blood,” the man replied.
I looked down. The incision had bled through again. I bit my lip, thinking about how I’d been so excited by the eight-dollar offer I’d forgotten that I was going out in public and my green blouse was the perfect armor and cover for such contact. I stood straighter and the blood would take a lot longer to get through. For the drive, it was just too hot and uncomfortable to wear the Saran Wrap.
“Plus, you are hunched over,” the man said, using his free hand to reach in and pull a pack of Marlboros from the right inner jacket of his tux. He tamped the pack.
“Marines walk around like there’s a ramrod stuck completely up their assholes, and you’re an officer to boot.” He lit the cigarette and then smiled as he exhaled his first puff. It was a nice friendly smile and seeing it made me feel a bit better.
I needed to get out of the shirt and back off my feet but I couldn’t relax without Mary and Jules being taken care of. I needed to get down, however, or I’d never recovered enough to get to the base when it opened up, check-in, and go to work getting the travel paycheck generated.
“Your sign out front says the rate is eight dollars a night,” I said, pointing behind me toward the open double doors leading to the courtyard.
“That was last night, not tonight,” the man replied, still smiling.
I didn't reply because I had no reply. If I had to pay our last thirty dollars, or so, for a room then I was in trouble, as all I had in my pocket for cash was the remainder of the hundred bucks Mickey had given me for ‘walking around money,’ as he’d termed it. The over four-hundred-mile trip down had taken almost all the cash I had. My pocket held about nine dollars, half of it in coin change.
“Alright, alright,” the man named Piaget finally said. “I’ll make good on the fact that I failed to tear the sign down this morning. I’ve got a helluva hangover. The nights around here can be quite lively, although it doesn’t appear that way to you this morning. It will later.”
I sighed silently in relief, but I had to nail down the details.
“I get paid travel money when I hit the base later today, but that’s a check and I won’t be able to cash it instantly, or anything.”
I didn’t tell the man that I had at least one night’s rent in my pocket. We’d need something to drink and eat and most restaurants, like the gas stations on the way down, only took Diners cards, not my Sears lifesaver.
Any questions?” the man asked.
“I’ve never heard of a P.J. watch,” I offered.
“That’s not a question and it’s P-i-a-g-e-t, not P.J.,” the man replied, spelling his name out. “The room comes with breakfast thrown in, so I’ll have a menu sent up after you get in. If you want, when you get your check, I’ll cash it for you as the government, not good for much, is sure as hell good about backing up its checks.”
“Why is it eight bucks a night?” I asked.
“Because I was drunk when I put up the sign,” Piaget replied.
“I’ll bet you own the place,” I stated, looking around to take in the beauty of the old-fashioned fixtures and ornately stitched oriental rug under my feet.
“My brother and I,” Piaget said, his tone matter-of-fact, like he was reporting the weather, before adding, “but he’s still in prison so it’s just me for a while.” He put his coffee cup on the small table next to his chair, got up slowly, still dangling the Marlboro from his lips, and walked toward the front desk counter.
“You can park anywhere out there on Del Mar. No limits and no meters, not yet anyway, although I’m sure they’re coming. We’re off-season since it’s May, but next month the rates will double. and the cops will stop letting anyone park overnight.”
“So, the rate will go up to sixteen dollars a night,” I said, smiling at my own small bit of a joke.
There was no reply, Piaget walking around the counter, pulling a key from one of the many hooks, almost all holding dangling keys, and held it out toward me. View of the ocean from the top floor, when the misty fogs blow out late in the morning.
“Bart’s Furniture operation is next door,” Piaget said, as I took the key.
I stared down at the oblong brass tag the key was attached to by a chrome-plated ring. Room 34. Edmond Dantes's cell number is from the Count of Monte Cristo. I wanted to shake my head in disbelief. Life could be so strangely mysterious.
“Bart works out later in the morning before business hours, with his windows open, as he lives upstairs. Careful, as he doesn’t wear much when he does his exercises and I get complaints.
“What do you do with complaints like that?” I asked, wondering just how revealing Bart’s workouts had to be in order to generate complaints from people occupying the rooms on that side of the building.
“Buy the complainer’s breakfast,” Piaget replied, with another of his mildly attractive smiles.
“But breakfast comes with the room,” I said.
“They don’t all know that right off the bat,” Piaget replied. “Usually, I have an employee here, but it’s too early for her, and she has memory issues, anyway.”
I pocketed the key, turned, and headed back out to where I’d left Mary, Julie, and the GTO. I looked up and down the idyllic street, with the unseeable ocean down and beyond. I had to get down for a few hours, cleaned up, bandages changed, and then report in. I had no idea when I’d owe Piaget money or how much it would be, but the fact that the family was in and safe, while I prepared for ‘battle’ on Camp Pendleton, made all the difference in the world. I crossed the street, making the decision to let Mary discover Bart’s proclivities for working out in the nude, or whatever, for herself.