The day wore on, my time spent playing with Julie, watching her sleep, and trying most unsuccessfully to write about what had happened to me in Vietnam. How to tell a story and have it accepted in a time when no such story was going to be received by anything other than derision, doubt, and dissension. I had no title for the work. Audie Murphy had already used the title ‘To Hell and Back,’ but it wouldn’t work for me even if it hadn’t been used. I was not fully back. The world as I knew it had changed so much in such a brief period of time that I couldn’t truly come to grips with it.
Mary was off with an overjoyed Bart Abrate doing what they both would be having a wonderful time doing, decorating an entire living area. The radiance I’d seen shine out from Abrate’s face when I told him we were going to the O’Club the following day had been something to witness. That the nice, but so very gay presenting man had no idea about the rather rough white water I was about to place him atop might take him over waterfalls he was in no way ready for. I had nothing against Colonel Fennessey, and in fact, found his apology to be the act of a classy intelligent leader. I’d invited Abrate to get furniture, a payment plan I could afford, and to send a lance of fire directly at Major Stewart. I was not about to forget his comment. That I could no longer call in a ‘battery of six’ made me feel powerless to deal with such death-deserving apes come down from the trees.
I shook my head and sat next to Julie’s crib. She slept soundlessly, totally secure in her small world, counting on someone as fragile and unstable as I knew myself to be for her very existence. I could not let her down. Aiming Abrate at Stewart’s tiny heart was about the best and worst I could do. If showing up at the O’Club with a very Nellie gay guy meant that the other officers of the regiment would find me distasteful, then so much the better. I’d needed the support of many Marines in the A Shau to survive but I sure as hell hadn’t needed them all.
My thoughts were running too dark to continue trying to write about the war. I had to do something to tamp down my anger and hard feelings. I went to the door of our small room and slipped out into the hall. I could not leave Julie for more than a few minutes, I knew, but there was something I could do.
Piaget wasn’t in the lobby or anywhere to be seen. No one was about. The San Clemente Hotel was like the hotel in the Tony Perkins movie Psycho, although Piaget in no way resembled the Norman Bates Tony had played so brilliantly. The hotel was apparently surviving financially by what Piaget had mentioned only in passing; his brother’s criminal enterprises, as it was certainly not making it from the revenue of the very few residents the place had.
I tried to write but the words would not come when it came to trying to describe the combat I’d just come out of, the combat I still went into many times in the middle of the night. I never dreamed about the reality of it. I dreamed about how I could have done it so much better. How was that possible? I’d wake up every morning, or many times in the middle of the night and have solutions implemented and ready to go for situations that were already long gone into history. How was that possible? It wasn’t, of course. My wife would wake up with me but I could never tell her the truth about what I was dreaming. I’d simply make up stuff that was much less violent or harmful.
The best nights were those that I would wake up and she would not. The wind blew through the window of our San Clemente Hotel room. The night was dark, and I wished, time and again, for a Starlight Scope so I could see in the night, like I’d done in the jungle, now seeming like so long ago. But I had no scope, only Julie, the baby, sleeping away to keep me sane and concentrated back inside the ‘real world’, which I knew wasn’t real at all, but it was my world…
The GTO sat in its slot, right in front of the hotel where I’d left it. It wasn’t locked, which it should have been because San Clemente was a tourist town, but I couldn’t get used to developing a habit to always lock it.
I’d grabbed a towel from the room when I’d left. I opened the door, leaned down on the driver’s seat, and reached my right hand under the carpet edge that bent up to rest on the center transom running all the way through the length of the car’s interior. I gripped the handle of my.45 Colt and eased it up onto the bottom of the seat and then slid it into the towel before getting myself back out of the car with some difficulty. Having one hip out to the extent it was disabled me much more than I could ever have imagined when my entire body had worked like a well-oiled machine. I locked the car and went back into the hotel, carrying my innocuous small towel-wrapped package.
Julie was as I’d left her. I put the Colt, still inside the towel, in my half-unpacked suitcase. I was reminded of San Francisco, where I’d kept the firearm wedged up on the top shelf of the coat closet.
I sat back down next to Julie’s crib, feeling better about myself and life too. Carrying the .45 into and out of the base was a risk that there simply was no percentage in taking. I also did not need to have it available when I was having dark thoughts about doing something of violence to someone else. Stewart’s insult did not rise to the level of taking terminal action. The automatic needed to be kept in deep dark reserve, only available if a situation demanded the direst of solutions, and I couldn’t imagine any of those occurring in or around the sleepy little Spanish town of San Clemente, its seedy hotel, or even the pacified Marine base stuffed full of warriors who’d never gone to war and were never going to. I didn’t need protection from anyone I could foresee. They needed protection from me, but I was the only one who could provide that protection. I laid on the floor next to the crib and tried to write my feelings about what I was going through with Major Stewart, the Colt, and just how upside down my life was in trying to accommodate a Marine Corps that was brand new to me. I finally gave up, again.
There was no place, down in the ‘misery of dying’ A Shau Valley for doing much of anything except using the most damaging and killing instruments ever invented to solve all the problems around me. I rocked back a bit and smiled to myself, trying to imagine voluntarily giving up my .45 when I was in the valley so that I wouldn’t hurt anybody.
The Marine Guards at the Pulgas gate on Camp Pendleton weren’t Marines I’d seen before. The Buck Sergeant standing inside the single electrically operated pole informed me that I only had another six days on my temporary pass. I had to get to Mainside and secure a permanent sticker for the car. The problem was that I couldn’t find my auto insurance documents and there was no way I was going to get a permanent sticker without proof of insurance. I’d written to USAA in San Francisco but my address had changed, and it was changing again. I would have to call and give them my Cabrillo address, which I hadn’t bothered to memorize.
Bart Abrate blathered on nervously. He was wearing a costume, not unlike the one he’d worn the day before but this time his coat, again made of high-quality cashmere, or some such expensive material was dark red. He didn’t wear a hat, but he had a big yellow Hibiscus flower in his left lapel buttonhole. I had not prepared him at all for what might lay just ahead.
The Officer’s Club wasn’t an imposing building, although it was fairly large and stood off on its own. A portico covered the approach to the big double doors and parking was plentiful. Bart and I walked toward the entrance.
“It’s magnificent,” Bart said, obviously excited by the prospect of finally entering the place.
Once inside the doors, I walked past Bart to approach a man in civilian attire standing at a podium slightly off to one side. I took out my I.D. card and placed it in his outstretched hand. Even though I was in full uniform I knew he would have to record my name and rank for accounting purposes. Officer’s Clubs were becoming endangered species on some bases, as the popularity of the military declined because of looming social lack of acceptance of the war.
I preceded Bart into the dining side of the club. One half the club consisted of a bar with a bunch of small tables in front of it, while the other was a fully formal restaurant area. Officers, in general, I had observed in the past, usually sat in the restaurant to drink during daylight hours instead of being more obvious by occupying the bar area.
Colonel Fennessey sat at the head of a table that was actually several tables strung together. He saw me as I walked toward the table, at which nine other officers sat, all of them either Captains, majors, or colonels with the exception of one rather heavy-set first lieutenant.
“Gentlemen,” I said, approaching, with Bart right on my heels.
Fennessey smiled a broad welcoming smile, which remained on his face after I went on, easing Abrate to my side with my left hand.
“I brought a guest, sir,” I said, smiling myself, “and his name is Bart Abrate. He’s been so helpful in getting my family set up in San Clemente and in return I thought I’d satisfy his curiosity and enthusiasm to see the inside of the club and meet some of the Marine Officers who frequent it.”’
Major Stewart sat at Fennessy’s side, at the first chair on the left. I didn’t look into his eyes after I finished my introduction because it wasn’t necessary. The anger expressed by his facial features was so intense that I imagined smoke rising from the top of his head.
“Of course,” Fennessy said, even though he almost quite literally had no choice.
The Marine Corps was nearly religious in its training about how the Corps treated the citizens who supported and paid for its services. There was no provision, especially once a civilian was granted entry to the base and then the O’Club itself, that such a person might be turned away. Civilians, other than those employed to support the base, were considered to hold a rank above all other military ranks on the base when encountered. The Marine Corps actually exhibited better manners to others they didn’t know than my own family had when I was growing up.
I guided Bart Abrate to the end of the table, so that he, and not I would directly face Colonel Fennessey at the other end. I sat next to him on the same side Stewart was located, so the row of officers between us made it so that we couldn’t see one another without purposely leaning forward or back to do so.
As if waiting only briefly for a cue, Abrate almost literally ‘blossomed’ into life, his ‘Nellie’ presentation so gay that it brought immediate smiles from most of the officers sitting around the table.
“It would seem that you’re in better shape today than when you reported in, lieutenant,” Fennessy said when he could finally break into Abrate’s monologue.
The waiter appeared and stopped next to Colonel Fennessey’s right shoulder.
“Gimlets around,” he ordered, making no effort to discover what others might have wanted or whether some of the officers present drank alcohol at all.
I didn’t drink, as my system didn’t seem stable enough after all the surgeries and slow recovery to add drinking to my problems. But I also understood the tradition.
The Gimlet, two ounces of gin, a half-ounce of Rose’s lime juice, and shaken in ice, was the drink of the Marine Corps, dating back to the days of Smedley Butler, a Marine who’d risen from enlisted rank to general officer and also gone on to win two medals of honor (back when the military still allowed more than one).
The waiter returned. The table had reverted to small talk and the telling of some jokes in his absence. I tried to occupy Bart Abrate while the only other lieutenant at the table tried to occupy me. His name was Craig Jackman and there was little question that he was impressed by my inviting not only a civilian to the table but also about the very nature and expressiveness of the man.
Jackman just would not shut up, and his dialogue, misplaced and out of place, sat very well with Abrate’s constant patter. I looked down the long table to where Fennessey sat and was surprised that he didn’t seem in the least bothered by any of what was going on around him, much less at my end of the table.
I was able to extract myself from the luncheon with relative ease, as the more the officers drank the less they cared about me and my strange guest. The ride back to San Clemente was not exemplified by a give-and-take conversation. Bart talked the whole way, about all the officers, who he could name from memory. I had the same talent so I was surprised, but still wondering what kind of a man Bart Abrate really was.
Somehow Craig found where we were living at the San Clemente Hotel and showed up. It was to be the day of our move, with Bart Abrate promising that two guys, his two guys, could move everything by the end of the day. Mary believed him but I didn’t. The stuff wasn’t coming from Bart’s store. None of what he sold was out of the store. People came in, liked something, and then had it delivered from the warehouse in Santa Ana, thirty miles up the freeway to the north. My faith in that system wasn’t very solid. It was true that we could stay at the hotel as long as we wanted. Piaget liked us, or rather Mary, whom he looked at like she was some sort of goddess instead of being a housewife and mother. He always stood in her presence and spoke only to her when we were both in his presence.
Jackman was in the lobby when I went downstairs at around seven in the morning. I was trying to work out twice a day, changing bandages, hot showering, and then getting the chores of the day done. I walked out of the stairwell and there he was.
“Jackman?” I asked, not knowing what else to say.
“First Lieutenant Jackman to you, a superior officer,” he replied ridiculously. We were both in civilian attire, me in my running outfit (I’d spent nearly fifty dollars on civilian outfits in a store down Del Mar the day before), and second and first lieutenants did not salute each other or were considered superior to one another except in situations where one was the commanding officer over the other.
“What are you doing here, oh great superior officer?” I asked, the sarcasm almost literally dripping from my lips.
“To help you move, oh lowly 2nd lieutenant that you are.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. The guy had overheard me talking about moving the next day at the O’Club luncheon and then shown up to help. I didn’t know what to say.
“The moving people will move,” Jackman intoned like he was some sort of expert on moving. “Then your wife will enter the picture and the real moving will begin, as she decides what must go where. I’m here for that because it’s obvious that you’re a cripple.”
Jackman delivered his lines so well it was almost impossible to understand the humor that had to be inherent within them. I looked closely at the man. He had some bruises running up and down the left side of his head.
“What are the bruises from?” I asked, more to change the subject than anything else.
“Road rage, ax handle,” he replied.
“Road rage, ax handle?” I could not help but repeat.
“Yeah, yesterday, after the lunch, some guy cut me off on the freeway. I caught up to him and gave him the finger. He pulled over to the side and so did I. He had an ax handle. He hit me in the head with it several times, “ Jackman said the words as he moved his hair to let me see the extent of his bruising.
“You stopped and didn’t have a weapon?” I asked, surprised since Jackman was obviously a real combat veteran.
“I had my lug wrench,” Jackman said, looking down when he said it.
“Well?” I replied, waiting for some conclusion to the story.
“I didn’t hit him back,” Jackman said, the answer coming out slow and quiet.
“So, you had serious rage and anger issues with this guy but when push came to shove you didn’t or couldn’t hit him?” I asked.
“No,” Jackman answered as if his conclusion was the sanest response in the world.
“You can help me move,” I finally said into the silence between us. “You’ve got what I’ve got, so moving furniture will be no problem.”
“What do I have?” Jackman asked, looking me straight in the eyes for the first time.
“It’s the Nam, and what happened to you there, but you already know that. Maybe sometime we can talk about it, but not right now. I’ve got to go for my run, then get a shower, and then get over there for the furniture to show up.”
“And me?” Jackman asked as if he was some sort of rescue animal waiting to be rescued.
“You?’ I responded, ready for that exact response. “You’ll stay here, sitting and waiting for me to return.”
Jackman looked at me, his expression was serious.
“You have that stuff on your shirt,” he nodded at my ribbons, and you have this way about you. “What were you over there, because it sure as hell wasn’t some second lieutenant billet you served in. The way you just ordered me what to do didn’t come from some second lieutenant, and neither did that performance at the O’Club yesterday. What are you?”
“I’ll be off the deck for a bit, running up and down the beach to recover myself. I’d appreciate it if you’d secure the area until I return,” I replied.
“Yes, sir,” Jackman said, no humor in his voice.
“I’m a second lieutenant,” I replied. “You don’t call second lieutenants sir when you outrank them.”
“Yes, sir,” Jackman replied, not changing his expression or his delivery.
I hobbled down Del Mar, bent slightly forward as I had to be to accommodate not pulling my bandages loose. I wondered about Jackman, Beard, and Fennessey. Who were these people and why had I descended down amongst them? There was no answer to my question, as I got to the beach and began my poorly measured five-mile run.
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