This Chapter is dedicated to Jim Flynn
The entire mess of paperwork that transferred the GTO to Slate and the 1969 Volkswagen bug to me took almost an hour. The Volkswagen was brought out from the back of the dealership and parked for me to drive. The GTO had disappeared and I somehow knew that I was never again to see it on this planet. The Volkswagen was slow in acceleration. It was also slow in top speed, hitting only eighty-one miles per hour on the freeway, as I took the thing home. I also realized that the car was fun to drive. Shifting up through the gears, not worrying about the revolutions of the engine because the instrument panel of the car had no tachometer. I had the temporary base pass that was good for a few more days and I was happy that I hadn’t bothered to get a permanent sticker or I’d be doing that all over again because of changing cars. The speed limit on the freeway was seventy and the Volks could do eighty-one, which was close enough. No problem, the way I saw it.
The furniture was stunning. The Volkswagen was pretty terrific too, for what it was. There was no question that Bart Abrate knew his business and Slate had come through pretty well at the dealership too. My wife was overjoyed and Julie always happy about everything. The only real problem I had, other than a severe shortage of money, was the Marine Corps. The look in Major Stewart’s eyes had not been missed by me. It was a look from the past. It was a look from Sugar Daddy or Jurgens back in the valley. It was a look of death.
I was fully exposed. I’d never seen a major while I’d been in Vietnam, and the only colonel in my life at that time had been the battalion commander. Aside from chewing me out for using foul language on the combat net, and accusing me of getting almost everyone in my company killed in combat, I’d never had much communication with him either. The Gunny had handled almost all the communications our companies had with the battalion, and most of that wasn’t with the ‘six-actual’ himself.
The time passed rapidly, as I recovered enough for my abdominal wound to heal over. No more four-by-fours or any of that. Every morning and every afternoon I stood for thirty minutes with my shoulders pressed into the bare living room wall, working to be able to once again look like a proper Marine. I learned to sleep on my back instead of my side, so my torso would be straight all night long.
When I reported back to Headquarters battery I was assigned as executive officer to the outfit, with a small office right next to the commanding officer’s much larger corner one. The captain was from the south somewhere, as his drawl was pronounced, but he was a great guy. He was ending his tour in the Corps in the near future, however, so I had no idea what or whom would be replacing him.
The headquarters battery wasn’t a battery of artillery at all. It was the organizational collection of analytical information about how the real gun batteries operated and stayed fit and functional. It was also the paperwork generator for all the personnel and supply of the firing batteries. My job was to report in at seven a.m. every workday and hover over the First Sergeant who labored to get the daily report out before noon. Every time the daily report was examined by the officers at Mainside and any errors were reported back to individual units, like my own, and that reporting was neither kindly delivered nor gently received. Since the invention of the electronic IBM typewriter, interconnected by telephone, daily reports had become nearly instant in transmission, although it took hours to get one ready and then edited to send. Since the system had come online for the entire Marine Corps, two months before I’d arrived, not a single report had ever cleared inspection without at least one error being found, at least not from our battery. Each day, right before lunch, was the only time I ever saw the captain mad. A week into my tour with the battery he called me into his office and pointed at my erect chest, as I was finally able to stand fully at attention.
“You think you can edit the daily and get it right?”
“Yes, sir,” I replied, looking straight out over his head and through the window behind his sitting position.
“No, I’ll try, maybe, or any of that crap?” he asked, surprise in his voice.
“No, sir,” I replied. I wasn’t really as certain as I sounded, but I knew I was pretty good with the written word and numbers.
“Tomorrow you take over from the First Sergeant, but tonight you take over as officer of the day. Nobody else to do it. If we go error-free on the report, even for one godforsaken day, I won’t ever volunteer you for that again.”
“Yes, sir,” I replied, immediately wondering what was so rotten about being officer of the day.
“Officer of the day for the battery?” I asked, hesitantly.
“Officer of the day for Camp Pendleton,” he replied, leaning forward and down to read something on top of his desk in front of him.
I knew I was dismissed. Officer of the day for the whole base. I had no clue about what that might mean, but the First Sergeant would.
“Yes, sir,” I whispered more than said clearly out loud.
“Report to Mainside at 1600 in Class A’s and wear the raincoat as it’s not cold enough tonight to require your overcoat,” the captain said, not looking at me. “You’ll be under arms provided by the armory unless you want to use your own personal weapon. Even so, you’ll need the basket-weave leathers.”
“Yes, sir,” I intoned again, turning to exit from his office. My overcoat had been stolen from the Basic School the day I’d paid for it using a Navy Federal Credit Union loan, but there was no way the captain could know that.
I moved through the large room where all the battery’s clerical work was done, and then exited through the double doors and stepped out into the sun. The First Sergeant stood near the doors, smoking a cigarette and looking out toward the not-so-distant mountains.
“I hear you’re taking over,” he said, omitting the sir which my rank called for. Being Junior for so long had inured me, however, so I didn’t react. “Thank the living Christ,” he followed with, taking another deep drag from his Camel, the distinctive pack scrunched up in his left hand.
“What’s the deal about the OOD thing?” I asked, hoping to learn something to prepare me.
“Race war every night in the barracks at ITR,” he said.
ITR was the infantry training regiment for Marines just coming out of basic, sort of like The Basic School was officer training following OCS.
I didn’t let on anything in my expression or demeanor, but I was immediately taken back to the A Shau and the race war that’d gone on inside my own company. There was no chance that such a ‘war’ could be as violent as it had been for me, I knew, but still, the knowledge didn’t make me feel very good.
After calling my wife there was nothing for me to do at the battery so I drove home, got my raincoat, and into full Class “A” uniform, before heading off to Mainside, checking before I left to make sure my .45 was loaded with an extra magazine. When I found the place, having to ask three Marines on the way in for directions, I found the office of the OOD to be a small isolated place, with two tiny bedrooms off the main room. The main room had one desk with a single telephone on it and a holster and the duty Sam Brown basketweave leather belts. A buck sergeant came in the door behind me.
“Lieutenant?” he asked.
“Got the duty,” I replied, strapping on the leather rig over my Class “A” green uniform.
“Armory?” the sergeant asked.
“Got my own,” I answered, moving back through the door to get the Colt out of the car. The buck sergeant followed me.
We went back inside the office.
“What do we do?” I asked him, taking a seat next to the desk, letting him have the ‘command’ chair behind it.
“We wait, and if nothing happens for us to be called to do, we go out on patrol when darkness falls. That’s when the trouble may or may not start.”
We sat and read magazines until a call came in just before dark.
“Trouble out at the ITR barracks near Pulgas,” the sergeant said, his breath more of a string of sighs than any other descriptor I could think of to use to describe it.
We drove to the ITR barracks, a long one-story building located across a drill field, with other buildings built on the other side of that drill field.
The sounds coming from the barracks, yells, screams, and worse, told me all that I needed to know.
“Drive the Jeep into the center section of that barracks sergeant,” I ordered.
The Buck Sergeant didn't reply, merely heading the Jeep toward the big double doors that hung open, gaping into the night, the light from bulbs running up and down the length of the long structure providing only the dimmest of illumination. When the vehicle stopped, I got out. I walked directly through the double doors. Bedlam was occurring inside the structure. It seemed that everyone was yelling at everyone. I decided instantly that nobody was going to hear anything I said.
I took out my .45 Colt, aimed it at the ceiling of the building and began to fire. I walked the long-distance of the right side of the structure, firing all six rounds from my automatic. Some of the rounds I aimed at windows with dramatic effect. The windows blew out in explosions seemingly not connected to the impact of the high-speed heavy rounds. I stood at the end of the structure, turned, and then walked back to the entrance I’d come through. The Jeep was still there, its engine quietly humming away and its lights illuminating the entirety of the double-door space. I walked to the Jeep, climbed in on the passenger’s side seat, and then went to work reloading my .45 from one of the double canvas pockets that held my spare ammunition cartridges.
“What have you done?” the sergeant asked, his voice harshly low and demanding. “What are you doing now?
“I’m reloading, what in the hell does it look like I’m doing?” I replied, exchanging the extra magazine into my weapon. I cycled the slide, gliding a round into the chamber, and waited. My ears were ringing from the close-in nature of firing .45 rounds inside without ear protection.
“We’re getting the hell out of here,” the sergeant said, putting the Jeep into gear without any orders or instruction from me.
“What about the riot?” I asked, having to hold onto the windshield with my right hand to keep from being tossed out of the vehicle as the Jeep sharply turned and then accelerated away from the scene.
“You hear anything back there anymore, sir?” the sergeant yelled, as the Jeep went up to higher RPM in second gear. “Those men are scared shitless and it’ll be a miracle if both of us aren’t called up on charges when this shift is finally over.”
The Jeep pulled out onto the hard asphalt road, heading back into Pulgas proper where the ridiculously small office of the duty officer was located.
“What’s our plan now?” I asked, settling the Colt back into its holster and snapping the clip to keep it secure. I engaged the safety first, though, leaving a round in the chamber with the hammer fully cocked, just like in Vietnam.
“We’re going to drive to the office and wait until dawn,” the sergeant said, “that’s the plan.”
“What about the mission?” I asked, wondering why the sergeant seemed to be so emotionally upset.
“You really think those idiots are going to make one move for the rest of the night?” the sergeant said, holding the speed of the Jeep down to the point where it lugged in high gear. “Those Marines back there are scared to death and they’re not wrong. You need to check into the hospital or somewhere, and not because of what you just did but because you don't’ have any idea of what you’ve just done.”
We rode on into the night, back toward the main part of Las Pulgas. I knew the sergeant was right about some things. I didn’t truly understand what he was talking about. The men who’d been creating the disturbance had been properly silenced. The night was pacified, cool, and filled with inactivity, as it was supposed to be. The mission of taking care of the base had been satisfied. What was the problem?
I checked the Colt, just to make sure. It was loaded with six rounds, one round in the chamber and on safe as I’d prepared it. I had six more in an extra magazine in the car if I needed them. The night should be quiet, but if it was not then the Colt was ready to do its job.
“No matter what happens tomorrow, sir, I’m not serving with you in any role whatsoever as the duty officer again,” the sergeant said, speaking loud enough to be heard over the whine of the Jeep’s little four-cylinder engine.
I said nothing, as we drove on. Leadership in combat wasn’t something that was done with social approval. I was used to the sergeant’s kind of reaction.
The mission was what was primary and then the survival of the men, or at least that was what was always taught and trained for. No Marines had been lost in the night. That fact was a compliment, the way I saw it, of my leadership understanding and application. I tried to get my mind to wrap itself around what had happened. The real mission was secondary, back in the USA, just as it had been in the A Shau Valley. Without Marines surviving, the mission became pointless, at least for those Marines involved. I knew that I had to get along somehow, however, and I also knew I had to do it by dropping everything that I had become in the valley if I wanted to have a family, friends and any kind of life back in the phenomenal world to which I had somehow returned.
The sergeant’s fear and concern could not be ignored, nor his description of what the Marines in the barracks must be experiencing. They were not combat Marines, and, according to the ribbons the sergeant wore, neither was he. My handling of the race riot had been a mistake and, if I wasn’t required to pay dearly for that mistake, I needed to make sure I didn’t make that kind of mistake again.
The rest of the night went quietly, the sergeant and I drinking copious amounts of bad coffee, and he spent a considerable amount of our remaining time together outside smoking and staying away from me. There were two bunk beds in the duty officer bedroom. I finally fell asleep atop one of them. When I awoke a few hours later, the sergeant was gone. I left the basket-weave leather rig on the desk where I’d found it, grabbed my raincoat, and carried my .45 out to my car. I’d only have two hours to make it home, get showered, say good morning to my wife, and get back to prepare the entries necessary for the vital daily report at the battery.
I walked in the door to our apartment and knew something was terribly wrong. I turned to look at my wife, standing in the kitchen, separated from the living room by only a half wall. She pointed at our own telephone, sitting on the wall.
“Your father,” she said, her voice low with a bit of a break in it.
I didn't’ get a chance to ask her anything, as the phone immediately rang.
I picked it up before the second ring.
“Your brother is dead,” he said, his voice flat. “The plane bringing him home crashed at Fort Belvoir last night.”
I said nothing, trying to process what he’d said. He didn’t say any more so I hung up the phone, glanced at my wife, and then went back to the front door and left. I walked to the beach not more than a couple of hundred yards away. I headed south, dressed in full uniform, my shoes filling with sand.
My brother. First all the Marines in Vietnam and now my brother. The world was filled with those dead and those waiting on the brink to be dead. Yet I lived and walked. There was nobody on the beach. The weather was too cold, the sun a day's old memory, and cloud-covered waves swept angrily into the shore nearby.
It was hours before I returned home, my uniform a mess, my shoes even worse. I called the base, not saying much of anything to my wife. What was I going to do without the guy who’d just begun to be my best friend in the world, other than my wife and daughter? The man who’d come to see me in Japan, to play chess with me and lose on purpose, and then ask me to be his best man at his wedding. Colonel Fennesey immediately granted me leave to attend my brother’s funeral, once I got through to him. I tried to talk to my wife but nothing would come out. Her ability to allow that silence spoke volumes about her. I could not lay down and rest or sleep. All I could do was walk around, aimlessly, letting the ocean air, and the spume of the breaking waves wash over me
The trip to Washington was a trip through hell for my wife and me. I knew I shouldn't be driving. I was suffering from a lack of sleep like I hadn’t had since the Nam, but driving on into the miserable days and nights anyway, risking everything I loved or cared about but not able to think about it.
The funeral passed in a blur, the wonderful team that did the burial was impressive and the people who gathered were not memorable at all. My brother’s fiancée had come in from Buffalo. She was shattered but I wasn’t capable of doing anything but nodding at her, buried in my own grief. The grief seemed magnified by all the Marines I’d lost just such a short time ago, making their appearance at the very edges of my consciousness. I was seeing things, I knew, from a brutal and extended loss of sleep, but the Marines were there nevertheless. I could feel what I didn’t actually see.
The return from my brother’s funeral was like my return from Vietnam, without the airplane, the plastic bag holding me together, or even the long reception hall at Travis Air Force Base. I was changed once again in some insidious unknowable way. We arrived home in the night, Mary, me, and the baby, having driven the Volkswagen all the way from Texas in one shot. I was in no shape to report to the battery but I had no choice.
My leave was up and Colonel Fennesey had been only too kind to advance me the unearned leave days and nights it took to drive back and forth to Arlington National Cemetery. There was no way we had the money to fly. I dressed, my uniform unpressed and uncleaned since my departure. My dad had worn his Coast Guard Uniform at the funeral and wondered why I had not. He also said these words, which still resound in the very back of my mind: “You know, if this had been you instead of him we could have had a service with honors, escort, and the caisson.” My brother ‘only’ had the Bronze Star with combat V while I had a bunch more. I knew that was what my dad was talking about but still couldn’t believe his statement intimated that he’d have preferred me being dead to my brother. I hadn’t taken my uniform to Washington because I wasn’t parting with my brother as a military experience. It was way too personal for that.
I got to the battery without incident, driving the Volkswagen I’d somehow had the good fortune to buy. The car had been splendid on the trip except for passing through Arizona without air-conditioning. We also hadn’t packed any water. Halfway across the ninety-nine-degree desert, we stopped to get water. Some gas station guy with a big iced tank of water was upset that I thought he was charging money for water under such conditions. The water was free he said, but any container to put it in was five dollars.
Amazingly, Lieutenant Jackman was sitting on the single step up to the doors of the place when I arrived at the battery.
“Craig, what the hell are you doing here?” I asked, stopping right next to him and looking down.
“Your brother, so sorry,” Craig replied, not looking up at me. “You were supposed to be the new commanding officer like Colonel Fennesey said you would be, but Fennesey got transferred to Headquarters Marine Corps and Major Stewart is commanding the battalion.”
“Yeah,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
“You’re not battery commander,” Craig intoned miserably.
“Okay,” I replied, a bit depressed and stung by the change, especially in light of the fact that I’d been burying my Army lieutenant brother. “So, who and where's the commanding officer?” I asked.
“It’s me,” Jackman replied, this time looking up to meet my eyes. “But you can be the real commanding officer,” Craig said in rush, coming to his feet and smiling fully and sincerely. “You can have my office. Only you know how to do that stupid daily report. You never had one kickback before you left but since you’ve been gone the thing’s never made it a single day without mistakes, and the Top keeps blaming me.”
I understood Craig’s quandary and his lack of care for Marine Corps procedure and discipline back home. He too had had a really bad tour in the Nam. The First Sergeant, however, was quick and experienced enough to be able to ‘play’ Craig in a way he couldn’t play me.
Craig and I turned the battery upside down as both of us threw ourselves into fighting back from what we’d become in country. The battery began to gleam, the rocks out front all repainted, the walk refinished, the storage area reorganized, prioritized, and accounted for. We saw nothing of the command structure or any of the officers at battalion, and the experience reminded me of what had happened in the valley.
After two weeks I was called to the command post to report in to Stewart, which I did, only to find him not there. My fitness report was handed to me. I sat down, read it, and then laughed out loud, surprising the major’s staff. I had gone from being the number one officer in the battalion, first out of 13, to the 23rd. I was required to sign the fitness report, as it was so bad. Instead of signing and leaving, however, I asked one young clerk for a big envelope. I put the fitness report inside and then addressed the envelope to the division commanding officer, General Dwyer, the same man who’d ordered me to my death in the A Shau Valley, and the same man who’d decorated me several times after I came back.
Craig and I worked away on the battery and waited. It took three days for the division to reach out to me. A staff car showed up at nine a.m. on a Wednesday morning and a Colonel stepped out, looking around like he’d never been to our part of the base before. Craig and I went out to greet him. We saluted, and he crisply returned the salute and then smiled.
“This place looks pretty damned great,” he observed.
“Thank you, sir,” Craig shot back. “I’m the C.O. but he’s the one who really makes the place jump.” Craig pointed at me.
“I’ve heard,” the Colonel replied. “I’ve heard you hold some sort of record for the most daily reports without error, but let’s go to your office about another matter.”
We walked into the office and everyone came to their feet.
“Stand at ease,” the Colonel ordered, and then headed for Craig’s corner office. I looked at Craig, not knowing what to expect, but all he did was smile and lead the way, following the Colonel.
Without comment, the Colonel took Craig’s seat, or at least the one I’d been occupying in Craig’s stead.
“This fitness report,” he said, leaning back in the chair. “This won’t work. You being in this battalion, that won’t work either. You have six months left in the Corps, probably, as they are holding a medical board that I can’t fathom you might pass. The general is solving this problem but only with your agreement. Forget about the fitness report, as it disappears. Forget about the battalion as you get transferred to the First Civil Affairs Group, another place that might benefit from your ability with the daily reports since they’re pretty terrible submitting them too. That outfit is commanded by a colonel serving out his last year and nothing much happens in Civil Affairs. What do you think?”
“He’ll take the deal if I get to go too, sir,” Jackman said from behind me.
The Colonel frowned. I stared into his friendly but also very intelligent eyes. I was waiting for him to ask me if the deal was what I wanted, regardless of Craig’s out-of-place and idiotic comment, but the Colonel didn’t reply.
“Okay,” he finally said, getting up from the chair. “I’ll have orders over here for both of you in the next few hours. It’d be best if you didn’t see the major or any of the other staff officers before your move.”
“That's it, sir?” I said, rising to my feet.
“Oh, there’s one other odd thing,” the Colonel said, stopping in front of me. “You’re to attend RPS school next week.”
I just looked at him, dumbfounded.
“That’s the registered publications school,” he said, “so you can move from secret to top-secret clearance,” the Colonel stopped talking for a few seconds, the frown having returned to his facial features. “You’re being processed out, and if you aren’t you’re at the end of your three-year commitment. I presume you would exercise that discharge if the board doesn’t toss you out?”
“Yes, sir,” I replied, my head spinning. Top secret was a rare classification unless there was some need for the designation.
“So why would Washington require you to attend RPS training if you’re getting out?”
Neither Craig nor I answered his question.
“The general sends his condolences about your brother,” the Colonel finally said, his tone light and diffident, as if his work was done in resolving the matter between Major Stewart and me, and my brother’s death was just a part of Marine Corps life.
The Colonel left, the battery staff all sitting back down after rising once again. Craig and I sat in his “my” office.
“RPS school, what the hell is that?” I asked.
“Undoubtedly it’s a school that had nine students but had to have ten for funding or some other Marine Corps bit of chicanery,” Craig said, before openly laughing. “And I’m going over to Civil Affairs instead of this shithole battalion crap, and you have to do the daily reports.”
“That was tacky as hell, what you pulled on the Colonel,” I said, not adding that he’d pulled it off on me too.
“He needed a deal, so I gave him one,” Craig replied. “You just don't get it.
You’re a real live wounded hero and that bad fitness report, plus your brother’s recent passing in the line of duty, was about to echo through more than the division if it got out. This whole thing with you and Stewart had to be buried and they probably wanted to make sure that you were really getting out of the Corps too. There’s no place in the military for what you and I have become.”
“What have we become?” I asked, mystified as to what Jackman might say.
“We’re going someplace tonight,” Craig replied. “I’ll show you since you won’t believe me if I just tell you. You’ve been way down and you’ve got to pull yourself back up. For letting me come with you to the First Civil Affairs outfit I’ll buy.”
“Buy what?” I replied. “I don’t even drink.”
“You won’t be taking anything in with your mouth,” Jackman said. “You’ll be taking it in with your mind.”