The trip onto the base was quick and easy, although getting through the gate for the first time without having to travel ten more miles to Mainside to sit, qualify for, and get a base sticker, was a bit problematic. The two guards were suspicious of the car, which I had the registration for but had forgotten the USAA auto insurance packet back at the hotel. They motioned me to the far side of the tiny guard booth, but then everything changed when I got out.
“Holy hell, lieutenant, you okay?” the Corporal said, noting the fact that it had been difficult for me to extricate myself from the seat and stand upright.
“Now those are some ribbons,” the Private First Class with him exclaimed, before going on, “you must be just back from the Nam. I only got this one shitty little ribbon that everyone else has.” He pointed at his own left breast.
“They’re going to give you some trouble here about you being just a second lieutenant and having all those decorations,” the Corporal stated. “Better bring your auto insurance papers and stuff to back up the medals too, because they’ll never give you a permanent sticker without it. Here’s a temporary to get you by for the first week, and here are your orders back.”
The corporal wrote on a large yellow and orange piece of stiff paper, before handing the document to me. I glanced at the driver’s side hood briefly, where he’d put the paper down to do his writing and signing, but let it go. The body of the GTO had been good but after being acid-dipped by Thompson to get rid of weight, the paint they’d sprayed back on was many times better quality than had ever come from the factory. The GTO had been blue but now it was a very deep shiny blue, and I loved it almost as much as my wife hated it.
“Speed limit's twenty miles per hour on the whole base, which is big so it can be a bother, but the MP’s are everywhere so hold the reins on that beast as best you can.”
The Corporal handed my registration back and then carefully got into the front seat of the car took the placard I was holding and placed the temporary pass tipped up on the very center of the dashboard, resting in the main center heating vent.
The Corporal got out of the car, leaving the door hanging open. Both men then stood side by side and saluted me.
I crisply saluted back, wanting to thank them but knowing it was better if I just got into the GTO and left. They were good Marines doing a good job. As I drove away, carefully maintaining the ridiculous twenty-mile per hour speed limit, I wondered at the fact that there had been no other cars entering or leaving the base while I was stopped. It was late morning and I would have thought there would be more regular traffic in and out of the gate. I figured that I had a lot to learn about Camp Pendleton.
I drove the GTO slowly in second gear for a few miles, mad at myself for not having asked directions to my reporting-in unit, which was the second battalion of the thirteenth Marines. Amazingly, the first turn-off to the left I came to had a big sign with an arrow. The sign gave the battalion colors and had a big 2/13 painted in red across it.
The drive up to the headquarters building was short, the parking lot nearly empty, but with each space having printed titles. Only four vehicles were present, none of the spaces occupied that had the letters; C.O., X.O., and 1st Sgt printed across the top of them. I pulled the GTO into a space that was reserved for some warrant officer named Smyth. There were no handicapped places, no visitor parking, and not even a fire curb or lane. I grabbed my hastily written orders, stepped out of the GTO with some difficulty, but thankfully with no one there to see me. The double doors that opened into a hall reminded me of Hawaii, in that they were screen doors. I guessed that the building wasn’t air-conditioned like almost nothing was in Hawaii either.
I removed my cover and then stepped inside. The first office I encountered along the right side of the hall had a closed-door with a rectangular glass inset. The glass was the kind you couldn’t see through. The title on the glass, in cursive black paint very well done, said Colonel William Fennessey, and under the name; Commanding Officer. I knocked several times lightly, and then, following the code of entering a superior officer’s office, I stepped in. If the commander was in and didn’t want company I would have been shouted at prior to my entry.
A corporal sat behind the C.O.’s desk.
“Can I help you?” he asked, looking up from some paperwork.
“We’re not in combat,” I replied, my voice flat, my expression the same.
“Ah no,” the corporal replied.
“So, we’re in a training command stateside on the United States Marine Corps base of Camp Pendleton,” I went on, with the same deadening flatness in my tone.
The corporal didn’t respond, only his hands, which had been fiddling with paperwork, were all of a sudden frozen in mid-air. I stared into his eyes.
“Do you need me to order you to come to a position of attention and address me as sir, or might you want to do that on your own?” I asked, my voice now softer, making it more difficult for the corporal to hear me.
“I’m the Colonel’s aide sir, sorry sir,” the corporal responded, standing and coming to the position of attention.
“Colonel’s, even regimental commanders, do not rate an aide, and if you were a real aide you’d be wearing an aide’s badge to denote such. What are you doing in here and where in hell am I supposed to report in to?”
“The Colonel isn’t a normal commanding officer, sir,” the corporal replied. “Trust me when I say you’ll like him. He’s having lunch at the O’Club with the other officers.
You can go to the club, although I doubt you’ll want to report in there, or you can wait here until he and Major Stewart, our XO, get back.”
“Stand at ease,” I ordered, “and where can I wait?” My GTO had no air-conditioner and even in May, the bright Southern California sun was heating everything up that was outside under its bright glare. There was also the not so apparent fact that my wife had wrapped me up again in the Saran, and that would make the heat in the car totally unbearable.
The corporal came around the Colonel’s desk and headed around me for the door, making sure we made no contact as he went by. I noted that the Colonel’s desk was the usual Marine Corps duty metal affair with a crummy marked-up rubber top. Maybe I really was going to like the guy.
The Corporal led me down the hall to an opening that had no door. It turned out to be the coffee/break room. A ratty couch and many regulation chairs lined the walls of the relatively small space. The coffee pot was full, centered on top of a small corner table, and the red light was on, indicating that the coffee was hot. I walked over to it, noting that the ceramic cups were nearly exactly like the parking places out front. They all had the same names painted on them in black.
“A cup?” I asked the corporal, as he made to leave back through the door.
“Under the table, the double doors, sir,” he replied, pointing. “Coffee’s yesterday’s though because nobody drinks it after early morning hours, and not many at that.”
“Shocking,” I whispered to myself. Shocking that nobody wanted to drink day-old reheated coffee. I waited until the corporal was gone, and then very carefully lowered my mostly erect torso down so I could get the door panels open. There was only one stack of Styrofoam cups. I sighed. I felt like taking the coffee cup of the same guy whose parking place my GTO occupied, but I thought better of it. I’d already terrified one corporal at my new command and I didn’t need any more potential trouble.
I poured a cup of the likely terrible coffee, putting four spoons of the Coffee-Mate cream into it, and three big dollops of sugar.
I got slowly to my feet, straightened my back as best I could, and moved to sit in one of the chairs. I could only imagine how long it would take to work my way out of the couch if I sat in that deep-cushioned thing.
The coffee wasn’t as bad as I thought. I sipped and thought. My first entry into the rear area Marine Corps at Treasure Island hadn’t gone well. My hospital stay at Oakland Naval Hospital had been about the same. I wondered what it might be. Had The Marine Corps changed so much while I was gone that I could find no commonality with almost any of the men serving in military positions back home? Or, had I changed?
I drank my coffee slowly down and then got another cup. I realized that I was more patient than I had been prior to my going overseas. I attributed it to not really giving much of a damn about most things that might once have interested me.
I loved my wife and daughter, liked the GTO, and I missed Mickey Thompson and Danny Ongais and what they’d done for us, but backward and forward from that was mostly a blank. A passing canvas of unremarkable work that was of the past and the present but the ‘painting’ on the canvas not seeming to have much of a depth of emotional quality to it. I thought about the corporal serving as ‘aide’ to the Colonel. I hadn’t been angry with him. I’d been cold, and in a way, I was uncomfortable with, deadly. I also knew that I had nearly instantly turned him into some sort of threat and then reacted to the threat mentally in a way the poor corporal could, and never would, understand. I promised myself that I’d get better. I heard the whole crew of the Headquarters command structure returning. They talked, laughed, and drifted down the hall.
“Who the hell’s in my parking spot?” said a deep male voice rising above the rest. “Where in hell am I supposed to park?” the voice continued.
There was no answer to the man’s question that I could hear, as I stepped out into the hallway and made my way back to Colonel Fennessey’s office. The door gaped open. I walked through the congregated but moving mass of returning officers. It wasn’t hard, as my cover was folded under my belt and all I carried was the folded sheath of papers that were my orders. Some of the officers looked at me fairly closely but nobody said anything.
I knocked on the door jam that was part of the commanding officer’s door.
“Enter,” a voice said.
I stepped in and walked up to the C.O.’s desk, noting something I hadn’t noticed before. The desk sat atop a raised platform. The platform was only about six inches high but it assured that anyone occupying the two chairs in front of it would have to look up to see across the top of the desk properly. Another desk was situated in the left corner of the room. A big man with silver hair sat at the desk in front of me. I did not make any move to sit in one of the chairs, stepping carefully between them. The Colonel was a full bird colonel, polished silver eagles perfectly mounted on both parts of his collar. The other man at the other desk was a major, whom I presumed to be the X.O., although it seemed odd that he’d be at a desk in the C.O.’s office when his own office was right next door.
“Reporting for duty,” I said, formally, coming to the position of attention. I didn’t salute. Marines do not salute inside buildings, unlike Army soldiers, unless they are wearing a cover because they are underarms. I pushed the thin folded set of papers across his desk after he ordered me to stand at ease.
The colonel looked at me strangely, but accepted the papers, unfolded them, and began to read.
“Travel pay,” he said, flicking his eyes up for a few seconds. “You don’t get that here. You have to go to Mainside, check with Personnel and they’ll give you cash unless you want a check.” The Colonel stopped talking and read on.
“You were an artillery forward observer attached to 2/11 over there, it says here,” the colonel noted, still reading.
I said nothing. There was nothing to say I realized. I didn’t have a believable combat record and I knew it. I had been a company commander of Marines in combat, two of them in fact, but my actions would likely never be written anywhere. It was useless to tell the story. I waited.
“Forward observer’s a dangerous job in combat,” the Colonel finally said, putting the papers down in front of him. “What else did you do?”
I remained silent, trying to think up a good believable lie.
“You didn’t get that chest full of medals being a regular forward observer, not in my experience.”
I glanced back and forth between Major Stewart and the Colonel. Neither man was wearing Vietnam campaign ribbons. The Colonel sounded okay but in truth, I knew I was dealing with two FNGs.
“You don’t seem to stand too straight,” the Colonel observed after some time had gone by and I’d been unable to find a proper answer to his previous question.
“Yes, sir,” I replied. “The central incision from my surgeries is healing from the inside outward. If I stand too straight, then the bleeding gets worse.”
“What’d you do, run into one of your own guns in the middle of the night?” Major Stewart asked, his voice laced with sarcasm.
“He’s got the purple heart,” the Colonel said, putting some anger into his tone, “and he’s wearing five decorations for combat valor, which is five more than you have and he’s been a Marine for only just short of seventeen months, not your ten years.”
I didn’t look over at the major but I felt his gaze, a gaze of acid hate, I didn’t have to see to know was there. Other Marines, those who hadn’t seen real combat and didn’t have combat decorations for valor, mostly resented those who wore them. That much I’d picked up in the hospital and at Treasure Island. I hadn’t made an enemy for life out of Major Stewart. The Colonel had made him that for me.
“The bleeding gets worse, you said,” the Colonel stated as if catching the phrase only in review.
“Yes, sir,” I replied, wondering where he was going with his question.
“So, you’re bleeding right now?” Fennessy asked, his eyebrows going up.
“Yes, sir,” I replied, surprised by the surprise evident in his voice. “My wife wraps me in Saran Wrap so it doesn’t leak out, although I have to change bandages every chance I get, and she’s not always around.”
“Unbutton your blouse,” the Colonel ordered.
I unbuttoned one button after another of my tight outer coat, the coat that held me together so well. I didn’t want to unbutton them all, however, because I might not be able to get one started in a loop again without outside help.
“Open it,” the Colonel asked, his voice becoming hushed as he bent forward and stared.
“Jesus Christ,” he suddenly yelled, coming to a standing position behind his desk. “Stewart, call the hospital, have them send an ambulance, and get some corpsmen in right now. I don’t need this guy to die right here in front of me in my office.”
I bottomed up my blouse while the Major, the Colonel, his corporal ‘aide’, and others conferred about my condition. I noted that none of them was paying much attention to me. I retrieved my orders from the Colonel’s desk. I wasn’t due to report into the command, by order, for six more days. I had shown up early to get a travel check. The most important thing the Colonel had said, that impacted heavily on me, was that I could get cash for the travel at Mainside.
I turned and walked out of the Colonel’s office, down the hall, out the double doors, and then made it to Smyth’s parking spot and got into the GTO. Mercifully, the car started on the first revolution of the new engine. I didn’t know where Mainside was but I’d somehow find it. Nobody had come out of the Headquarters office behind me. I turned right at the bottom of the road that led up the regiment and headed back toward the guards at the Las Pulgas gate. They’d been more understanding and helpful than anyone I’d met so far, and I knew they’d know where Mainside was and how best to get there.
I smiled as I drove. I had no address and no telephone number. I was free as a bird until I had to report back, and that reporting could take care of itself. Only one thing bothered me. Would either Stewart or Fennessey remember about the travel money? I’d made no point of being truly interested and the Colonel had only mentioned it offhand. The last thing I needed was to be encountered at personnel and forced to return to the 2/13 command structure. I knew that eventually I’d have to serve time there but the whole experience so far was best described by the parking lot. I had no place there. Could I somehow force myself to fit into the kind of creature they would find acceptable to work with?
Once the Marines at the gate turned me around to head back into the interior of Camp Pendleton, I drove by the turn-off to 2/13 and kept going. Mainside was ahead not more than eight to ten miles and I had the directions down.
I laughed out loud as I drove. What would a couple of corpsmen have said or done if they’d showed up in time to catch me? Take me to the hospital where the dirty surgery staff there, if they even had such a team, would tell them that I just needed to rest and recuperate…although the Marines Corps wasn’t quite up to wanting to provide that part of it? I’d have a week to get myself healed as best I could and in shape enough to at least perform a desk job for a full seven-hour day, given that back in the rear there was always an extended one-hour lunch for officers.
When I found the personnel office I was a bit put off. The long low building reminded me so much of the personnel office in Da Nang. It was much larger, however. I went inside and walked up to the counter, expecting trouble but not knowing what kind. And then I was surprised. The young civilian lady at the counter wanted my poorly written set of orders, my I.D. card, and whether I had reported in to my command. Although I had nothing to prove that I’d formally reported in to 2/13, I simply acknowledge the reporting I’d done and also told her that Colonel Fennessy had insisted that I get to personnel and get cash before the day was out.
“He’s quite the wonderful man, you know,” she smiled. “He’ll be Commandant if there’s any justice in the universe.”
I didn’t want to tell her that there really was almost no justice in the universe, at least my universe, so I simply cloned her smile and nodded my head.
“Yes,” I added, “He seems like he’ll be a great commanding officer.”
“Base housing for officers is full,” the woman said, processing paperwork but no showing any of it to me. “That means you’ll have to live off base. I’ll advance the first off base housing allowance to you but it’s to be taken out of your next paycheck in one lump sum.”
“Fine,” I replied, having no idea when my next paycheck would be or how much it would be for. I was out of the hospital so the forty-four dollars a month combat pay would be gone. I did know that.
The woman left and I waited for ten nervous minutes for her return. I waited in silent worry. Had anybody from the regiment called about me?
When she came back she handed me a thick envelope, my orders, and I.D. card back.
“Welcome aboard,” she whispered, “and thanks and welcome home too.”
I walked out to the GTO, reflecting on the simple fact that the woman’s sincere welcome and thanks were the most genuine I’d gotten from anyone outside of my wife and the guys who’d bought us lunch at the Thunderbird Restaurant at Rockaway Beach days before since I’d returned.
I left the base as quickly as I could, not wanting to take even the slightest of chances that I might run into one of the officers from 2/13. The run from Pulgas gate back to the hotel in San Clemente took mere minutes, once I got through the gate. There were no procedures for exiting the base, which made me feel easier. The GTO was half empty of gas, and I’d been about nowhere in distance. I knew that car had to go, as much as I loved it, as I couldn’t afford to have it eat up so much of my income. I regretfully parted with five dollars from my cash stash, and paid the attendant at the Esso station, vowing to trade in the special automobile, which wasn’t just any old car but a key part of my returning home from the war.
I pulled into an open parking stall outside the hotel on Del Mar. I took the envelope off the seat and counted the cash. Eight hundred ten dollars and 75 cents. It was more cash than I had ever held in one amount since I could remember. I had to get a bank account but before doing that I needed to change my bandages and get some more rest. I sat in the car, almost too tired to get out and move into the hotel lobby. Relief was building inside me. We’d be able to afford an apartment in San Clemente, a nearly idyllic small Spanish town that was almost totally unmilitary, at least in appearance. That it was snuggled right up against the northern side of the Marine base might have effects that I could not easily see, I also understood.
My wife was ecstatic. After carefully cutting me out of my Saran Wrap coating, I lay on the sofa, careful not to bleed on anything, as I pulled off old 4X4s and put new ones on. The regular surgical tape would hold them sufficiently well as long as I didn’t exert myself overmuch. I was surprised at my wife. She wasn’t nearly as excited by the sum of money, giving us survival and some good bit of freedom, as she was in finding out that I was going to trade in the GTO. I’d underestimated her hatred for the car, I realized.
“What are they going to do when they can’t find you at the command or the base?” Mary asked as I tried to nod off for a bit.
“I don’t know,” I replied, not really caring. “They’ll figure it out I presume. One of them, probably that nasty character named Stewart, or maybe the fake aide, will call personnel.”
“You didn’t technically report in, though,” my wife said, still worried.
“Read the orders,” I replied. The paperwork’s over on the kitchen counter. The orders say that I have to report in next week. This time I’ve been given is recuperative time and I’m taking all of it.”
“Well, you did get the money, and you are selling the car,” she continued, as my eyes started to close.
“You got the money,” I replied, “it’s right there in your hand, and I’ll take care of the GTO. What kind of car do you want?”
But my eyes finally closed and I didn’t hear her reply.