Craig and I rode in his 1960 Pontiac Bonneville Convertible. He’d driven in and picked me up outside my apartment, as he lived at the bachelor officer’s quarters on the base. We didn’t drive from there in silence, but we drove without talking. The Bonneville’s convertible top no longer functioned so the wind noise was all we had for company, and since Jackman drove at some ungodly speed on the freeway (the speedometer was also nonfunctional) that meant we couldn’t talk at all once he raced through the three manual gears to get to higher rpm as quickly as possible, which was pretty quick in the giant, but fast and nimble, convertible. For some reason, Craig spent hundreds of dollars to put three two-barrel carburetors on the big V8 engine. We headed back to the base, passing the exit at Las Pulgas and blasting right on down the coast to the main entrance to Camp Pendleton. The spray, generated by big surf waves encountering the shore beneath the cliff that paralleled the nearby highway, made seeing through the windshield problematic, not that the problem seemed to bother Craig. I wondered if the Bonneville’s windshield wipers even worked, or maybe Craig’s coke bottle thick eyeglasses were more helpful to his seeing than my own vision was for me.
Craig pulled the car into a big parking lot. I realized we were in front of the base theater.
“What are we going to see?” I asked, disappointment and frustration leaking through in my tone.
“You’ll see,” Craig replied
Once inside the complex, I saw immediately what was playing. It wasn’t a normal theater in that only a couple of films were ever shown in any week, and there was only one large screen.
“You haven’t seen it or you’d have told me,” Craig said, paying seventy-five cents each for our tickets. “It’s that remarkable, especially for someone like you.
I saw the title again as we headed toward some big closed double doors. The movie was ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’
When the lengthy feature film was ended, I realized that Craig Jackman had a better understanding of my mental state than I did. The movie lifted me from my depression and gave me some sort of ridiculous hope for mankind, a hope that had been draining out of me, capped by my brother’s death. I realized that something in what Stanley Kubrick was trying to say, along with Arthur C. Clark, the writer, was that the deaths of those about me, whether in combat or after, like my brother, were not mine to take personally. Those deaths belonged to the dead. They were not burdens for me to carry, no matter how involved I believed I might have been in affecting them. The drive home was slower, as Craig had all kinds of questions and comments to make about the movie and had to keep the road and engine noise down.
Life was about the future, living through the present but constantly preparing and guiding oneself into the future. That Craig seemed to understand that so well from the complexity of the entertaining film surprised me, and my own positive reaction to it, as well. Craig never mentioned his own time in the Nam and I didn’t share mine with him. We didn’t need to. We were both born in the valley and we had both died there.
I attended the first class of the RPS school the following Monday. I’d reported to the First Civil Affairs Group with Craig the Friday before, as ordered, but there’d been nobody to report in to. An unlikely placed, and near retirement from his appearances, Sergeant Major took our paperwork and strangely wished us well. He took us to two adjoining cubicles, buried in the back and only findable by somebody with a map or long practice at working through mazes. He left a single thick envelope on each of our desks. Mine only said “Palau” in red print on the outside. Palau was a place in the Micronesian Island complex somewhere out in the Pacific I knew, but that was it. Craig’s package had “Trebago” printed on it, which neither of us had ever heard of. I flipped the cover of the thick folder open. My project, it was stated, was to come up with a supply depot plan for the island of Babelthuap. I puzzled over how to pronounce the name until I saw a former lieutenant’s work on the problem. It was Babel-thu-ap. Strange place but the world was filled with strange places.
RPS school wasn’t difficult, as it was mostly didactic memory work, stuff I found boring but I was good at. There were three levels of classification in the military, and also extending into other governmental organizations. Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret. There were informal classifications above Top Secret, like “Q” and “Eyes Only” but RPS custodians (those of us who passed the course) like us would never see those designated documents unless assigned to be a physical guardian of them. The week passed slowly. I graduated with a ‘pass,’ the only acceptable score on the final, and only, test. The other nine students passed the test, as well. The warrant officer instructor informed us that we all had Secret classification, although there was no way to prove that in print, as having any certification was Secret. Nobody thought most of the classification system and its applications were funny, except me. The second ‘prong’ of viewing or acting upon classified information was called ‘need to know,’ and getting that was generally more difficult and even funnier (to me) than the original classification designation.
The warrant officer instructor made me stay after everyone else was gone, and I presumed it was because of some of my more humorous comments, but that wasn’t the case.
“You’ve been certified with Top Secret classification,” he said without emotion or follow-up.
“That’s it, you can go,” he then said, closing a folder and putting it down on his desk.
I realized he wasn’t going to answer any of the questions that were forming in the back of my mind. What was strange to me didn’t matter to him, and that had been evident all through the course.
On the following Monday, I returned to my cubicle at the Civil Affairs offices. The offices weren’t that far from my old battery, which meant that my only nemesis on the base, Major Stewart, was close by. Stewart drove a black Chevy SS, which was easy to spot and avoid. Craig let me know that the major nearly lived his days away at the Officer’s Club, drinking and talking to other officers who did the same thing. The O Club was as easy for me to avoid as the black Chevy and the battery grounds. A note on my desk from the Sergeant Major indicated that I was to report to the colonel, our new C.O. when I came in. At the bottom of the note, in very small print, the Sergeant Major had written with a light pencil; “be alert for this one.”
I sighed at the reading, but thought little of the veiled warning, as I made my way to the commanding officer’s office. Only Major Stewart, and possibly the lieutenant who’d wanted to fly my wife down to Dallas with him, might have any problems with me that I could think of. I knocked on the door, and then entered, as was the custom, not waiting for any comment that might come from the other side of the door.
I stepped gently through the door’s opening, closed it carefully behind me, before looking up and across the desk at my new commanding officer.
I froze in place, too stunned to move. Lightning Bolt sat behind the desk, a grim and evil smile set across his facial features. I was shocked, shocked that I’d somehow forgotten all about him. Reality came crashing back, recalling that he’d been transferred to Pendleton before I’d gotten my own orders.
“This is going to be entertaining,” he hissed across the desk at me. “My little adjudication officer, the one who helped me serve out my last days with the Corps on this God-Forsaken base, instead of the idyllic island just off the gorgeous coast of San Francisco. God has been kind in sending him back to me before I retire.”
There seemed no escape from this rotten commanding officer, this poor excuse for a Marine, I realized. How could I possibly survive or endure the cruel and painful vengeance he was no doubt planning for me?
I stood at attention and stared at the make-believe colonel I was once again being forced to deal with. There was nothing to be done that I could think of right then. After saluting, he waved me out with one hand, I turned and left through the same door I’d entered, depressed and angry and a bit afraid. In the A Shau I could have called a ‘battery of six’ and taken care of him, and the situation, but I wasn’t in the valley and I had no artillery backup I could call. In fact, I had no backup of any kind. Once in the hall, I went in search of my arcanely placed ‘office’ cubicle.
I walked around the desk, its World War One vintage gray rubber surface marked and stained, and sat down. A single brown envelope sat top-dead-center on the surface of the desk. The letter was stamped diagonally across its front surface in big red letters, just like at the RPS school: “Secret.” I looked around but there was no presence of an RPS custodian. Why was a secret document laying unaccompanied on my desk? Confidential, maybe, but not secret or above. I presumed it was something from the RPS school.
The letter inside the envelope wasn’t from the school, it was from Headquarters Marine Corps in Washington D.C. The orders stated that I was to proceed to a place called the Cotton Estate, which I recognized from the article I’d read in the local paper not long ago. The estate was located in southernmost San Clemente, right on the edge of the Marine base of Camp Pendleton. I was to report there and identify myself at the gate. The orders included no additional instructions, other than a confidentiality clause, and it wasn’t signed by anyone. I wasn’t to tell anyone about the transfer or about what my orders were. It did mention that my commanding officer had also received orders and I was not to reveal anything in my orders to him.
I might have been able to get a peek at the orders which had been delivered to my Lightning Bolt under separate cover, referred to in my orders but not revealing anything of their content. My orders were unsigned, yet it was very unlikely that the Commanding Officer of any Regimental Support Team in the United States Marine Corps would accept any document that was not impeccably inscribed and signed by a qualified officer.
Craig walked into my cubicle. I put the letter back into the “Secret” stamped envelope.
“Still playing with your RPS adventure, I see,” he laughed, before going on, “the C.O. wants to see you and it’s getting around that you are no stranger to him or any kind of a friend. What’s going on?”
“I wish I knew,” I replied, folding the lightly stuffed envelope, and sticking the small but thick mass into my right front trouser pocket. “Tag along and skulk outside Lightening Bolt’s door. Probably be quite interesting.”
There could only be one reason for the Lightning Bolt to call me in. Whatever was in his envelope was probably not going down well at all.
I knew I was leaving the unit. Whatever was driving me to head to the Cotton Estate, to do whatever the President or one of his people might demand, was much bigger than a near nonsensical Civil Affairs Group supply planning outfit working to plan for stuff that was never likely to happen in places nobody had ever heard of. The top-secret clearance issue at the RPS custodial school was explained. Whatever I was about to become a part of or do required that high classification, and one that was certified without the usual lengthy background investigation the FBI normally conducted. Whoever was driving this situation had placed a finger down from on high and pushed directly and solidly on my name. That part of the mystery I could not solve without more data. I had not known Fennessey for long enough for him to pull off something like what was happening to me, not to mention the fact that he was only a colonel and the orders in my pocket were from someone much higher in rank than a mere Marine colonel. The orders had been planned for some time and with some thought. No doubt, the orders for me to attend RPS school so close to my expected exit date of the Corps were also involved.
Lightening Bolt’s door was open and loud conversation was bleeding out into the hall I stood in.
“Temporary additional duty my ass,” Lightening yelled, his voice modulated to something a little less than a scream.
I stepped through the door. Captain Merrill, the group’s executive officer stood next to the seated C.O. while the Sergeant Major sat in a chair set against the nearby side wall of the office. I’d just met the Sergeant Major and didn’t really know him, but he seemed like a decent man, unlike either Lightning Bolt or Merrill. I thought I detected just the merest wisp of a smile cross his features when I nodded over in his direction.
“Reporting as ordered, sir,” I said, coming to a position of attention in front of Lightning Bolt’s desk.
“I want your orders,” Lightning Bolt bellowed, “I’m your commanding officer and that’s a direct legal order.”
“I have them right here, sir,” I patted my pocket. “You have your own orders that don’t allow for you to review or even see mine, sir,” I went on, my tone soft and smooth.
“You don’t know what’s in my orders, and why was the envelope delivered to you stamped with a secret designation?”
I turned to look at Captain Merrill and the Sergeant Major. “You might as well call the commanding general who signed his order, and then the Provost Marshal because I just came back from RPS school and what I learned there was all about this kind of thing. The colonel should know better, but apparently doesn’t, so he’s very likely to be placed in the brig before this day is out if he continues this line of irrationality.” I turned back and smiled at Lightning Bolt.
“You little bastard,” the Colonel hissed across the desk at me, his face having turned a beet red and saliva dripping slightly from the left side of his mouth.
“I’ll just get my things and follow the orders I was given,” I said, wondering if I shouldn’t have recommended that they call the hospital as the colonel wasn’t looking so good.
“How do we even know if any of these mystery orders are real?” Lightning Bolt screamed at the top of his voice, slamming his hand down on the envelope he’d received
“Call the general who signed yours and ask his Chief of Staff,” I replied, “I think they’re probably expecting such an action by you.”
I turned, looked over at the Sergeant Major, and winked as I exited the office. I only heard silence behind me. At the first corner, on my way back to my office to get my cover and some other office junk, I ran smack into Jackman.
“Holy shit,” Jackman breathed, accompanying me as I hurried to my cubicle. I wanted to give the colonel no time to really do anything before I was out of the building and on my way to getting off the base.
“You gotta fill me in,” Craig murmured, “I mean all you can.”
I felt a pang of deep regret. My brother was dead. My Marines back in the valley were mostly dead and now I was losing my new friend, whom I could not take with me to wherever I was going.
As if reading my mind, Jackman changed the subject. “I found an apartment half a block from where you’re living in San Clemente,” he said.
There was nobody to say goodbye to when I left the building. I’d instructed Craig not to come to see me off or any of that. He would need to work to avoid any nastiness that might flow down to him if the colonel figured out we were really close friends. I removed my cover and tossed it into the Volks.
I smiled to myself as I wound my new Volkswagen deftly through the many curves of the road that ran through Camp Horno, on my way back to the Las Pulgas gate. I smiled at the image of Lightning Bolt’s last look, so twisted and intense that it had been as if a lighted cigar had been inserted into his mouth, with the burning tip first. I laughed, with both front door windows cranked down, and the small tinny FM radio speaker belting out "In the Year 2525, if man is still alive, if woman can survive...."
The Christianitos Overpass exit, from northbound Interstate Five, loomed ahead. I began to slow from my Volks' top speed. I’d wanted to call my wife, back at our apartment, but there had been no place to call from. There was also the stipulation, in my single sheet of orders, which said "immediately." I would obey the immediacy order but never the part of the order to tell no one. My wife would be told everything, and Craig would get a good bit, as well, if that’s what he wanted.
I guided the car across the San Luis Rey overpass, and toward the ribbon of blue ocean visible near the horizon, to the west. The overpass ran into Presidio. That street ran half the length of San Clemente, paralleling the beach atop, alternately, one-hundred-foot bluffs and dunes rolling just above many alternating and flat sandy beach coves. I turned south at the "T" made by the dead-ending of the road over the interstate. I crumpled my one page of orders between the buttons of my Class “A” green coat, straightened the tie clip on my cream-colored Marine tie, then headed for the end of the road. Expensive homes lined the area, between the cliff down to the ocean and the road I was on. I passed first a small grade school, then the Coast Guard station. The road abruptly ended, just beyond the station. I turned around and crept back the way I’d come. Recessed back, just before I got to the Coast Guard Station, was a large white wall with a big arch in it. I’d missed it on my rapid pass the first time. A small asphalt road started and ran from just under the arch.
I drove to the arch, which had been converted into a gate. The gate had a guard, who only stepped out after I stopped in front of a rickety-looking wooden saw-horse. The guard turned out to be a single Marine Lance Corporal in field utilities. He stopped and stood at Parade Rest, waiting as I eased the Volks up until he was right next to the driver-side window. The Marine snapped a sharp salute. I didn't know if he was saluting the blue officer base-sticker on the windshield, or if he had seen the yellow bars on my shoulders. I didn’t salute back. My cover was on the passenger seat. Marines don’t salute indoors or uncovered (unless armed, and therefore wearing a cover), unlike personnel of the other military branches.
"How can I help you, sir," the young enlisted Marine asked, bending slightly toward me.
Once he finished that short sentence, his right hand rose up and extended to near the window of my car, as if he was waiting for some contribution. I looked at the hand. I knew immediately that security was tighter than the saw horse gave the impression of. The hand was waiting for documents of identification and some sort of clearance for why I was there. I said nothing, working my wallet out of my back pocket. I took out my military identification card, then pulled out the single sheet of orders from inside my blouse. He took the I.D. card, but just waved at the piece of paper.
"Be right back, sir," the Lance Corporal said, turned to enter the small guardhouse nearby.
I waited, looking over at the nearby Coast Guard Station, wondering if I was somehow going to be connected to that place until I processed out of the Corps. The wait grew so long that I finally turned the ignition off, and pulled my left arm out of the hot morning sun.
The Lance Corporal came back. "Proceed down the road, and through the gate there. Park next to the wall. Someone will meet you at the door located there, sir." I took my I.D. card back from his extended hand.
"What is the Cotton Estate, anyway?" I asked him, and then, "do they grow cotton here?" The Corporal just looked at me, not smiling at my weak attempt at a joke.
As my Volks idled in neutral, the guard saluted again, his expression remaining deadpan, before moving to the front of the car to pull back the saw-horse. I shrugged. I’d been having a comforting daydream about sailing a Coast Guard skiff among a bevy of Southern California beach beauties, but it didn’t appear that that was going to be my assigned function. I drove through, as instructed.
The new black tarmac weaved back and forth several times before the vegetation cleared, and I was able to see a second wall, with a second arch. I presumed the Marine's description of a second gate was, in reality, was at the second arch. I stopped near a barred wooden door, set deep into the solid stone wall. I parked as instructed and got out of the Volks to examine it. It was one of those thick old wooden things with black steel straps. There was no visible handle or port. I looked around, feeling foolish, then tapped on the door. I would have said "open sesame" at the same time, but my humor probably would have gotten the same reception it received at the front gate. I was intrigued, but more relieved than anything else. To be escaping the strangling grasp of Lightning Bolt was such a Godsend I was having a hard time believing it, and Craig would be my neighbor in San Clemente. Some of life was starting to have some positive meaning.
The big door sucked silently and inwardly open. A tall suited stranger filled the space left by the door. The man wore a small radio microphone in his right ear and large aviator sunglasses. The glasses were of too dark a material to allow me to see the man's eyes. I had only seen Secret Service Agents on television, but I knew instantly that I was standing in front of one of them.
"Identification?" the man said, his hand extending out, in exactly the same way the Lance Corporal’s had. I noted that he didn’t refer to me as 'sir.' "Wait here," he said, taking my I.D. card from my hand, just as the Marine had.
"Holy shit," I breathed, very quietly. Until that moment I hadn’t realized that, whatever I had somehow stepped into, was not to be taken lightly. The Secret Service was a serious outfit. Also, the Marine guard out front was not there for play. Real live Marine guards were only used for National Security assignments. The rest of the security was contracted out. The man returned, but his hands were empty.
"This way," he said, gesturing with the slight flip of his left shoulder while closing the door with his right hand. The door clicked instead of slamming. I realized that the door only looked like an old Spanish entryway. I wondered what it was really made of. I followed the man.
"What about my I.D. card?" I said to the man's back but he didn’t answer.
We walked through several more doorways, the doors open. Finally, we stepped through an interior arch into a great room with all windows along one wall. An empty beach, ocean, and sky filled all of them.
The agent stopped, turned, then leaned closer and whispered, "you'll get your old I.D., and the new one, when you leave...I think." He then departed the way we’d come.
"He thinks?" I whispered to myself. I looked out across the Spanish tile floor of the room. It was well appointed, with expensive furniture. The floor was partially covered by large Persian rugs, the kind I had only seen in stores and movies.
The room's windows ran side by side along the far wall, giving a complete curved panorama of the breaking waves, which were moving ceaselessly in toward the long beach of flat beautiful sand. There was only one other man in the room. He was standing, facing the ocean, right up close to the windows. He wore an unusual cream-colored suit nearly matching the color of my regulation tie. A distinctive feature caught my immediate attention. The man's blond hair was cut strangely. His haircut was like a Marine cut, except it was flat on top. It was an old flat-top cut I had only seen in photos and on television, not in real life. I looked around, but there was no one else there. I walked to stand next to the blond, flat-topped man. He was taller than me by several inches. I looked up at his chiseled profile. His face was clean-shaven, the muscles of his jaw tight, individually distinguishable, while his nose was long and straight. His face was slightly too long, I decided, and he looked a little too much like the Marine Corps posters of the perfect Marine. Almost every real Marine hated those posters. I didn't know what to say, so I turned and looked out at the waves too. We stood like that for several minutes.
"Your orders were generated through me," he said, his eyes remaining glued to the ocean just outside the windows. I held myself rigid, next to the man. I felt that he’d tell me when to say something. I listened, staring at the sea but watching him out of the side of my left eye. When the man talked it was almost impossible to discern any lip movement, I noted.
"You'll be working for me," the man said, his lips again not moving. I felt an impulse to giggle. Maybe the man was a ventriloquist sent to entertain the President, I thought. But I didn’t smile.
"Who are you, sir?" I finally asked.
"I'm H.R. Haldeman, advisor and Chief of Staff to the President of the United States," he replied, the words rolling out one after another as if a tape was being played at a slower speed than it was recorded, with all emotion sucked out of it. "They call me H.R., behind my back....so don't."
I nodded, wanting to ask "don't what?" but I didn't. H.R. Haldeman flicked his head to the rear. Somehow, I knew from the gesture, that our strange, one-sided interview was over. I turned, heading for the arch I had come in under.
"We start at 0900 in the morning around here, and get rid of that gaudy uniform," he said to my departing back. I nodded with a slight grimace, although I knew he could no longer see me. I vowed to check and see what military experience Haldeman had, knowing in my heart of hearts that he’d never been a Marine.
The Secret Service agent appeared, magically, under and around the edge of the arch at the same time I got there. He handed me my I.D. back. "You get the new one in the morning. Don't be late. He doesn't like to start late."
I nodded, putting my I.D. card away. "Start what?" I inquired, very quietly, so H.R. Haldeman wouldn’t hear me from inside the room.
The agent said nothing. I finally decided to ask a question that man had to answer:
“Do I report back to Camp Pendleton at all?”
"You work for H.R. now. You report only to him, and only him, and to here, only here. Welcome to his world," the agent finished.
I headed down the hall toward where my Volkswagen was hopefully still parked, the agent walking a little behind me, while I wondered whether I’d simply gone from a known and awful frying pan into an unknown, and potentially even hotter, fire.