The lifeguard boat ran with the wind after making the turn to round the end of the San Clemente Pier, the only thing standing between the fast moving craft and the harbor opening into Dana Point’s yacht basin. The helicopters, Coast Guard boats and the yacht itself, were left in the lifeguard boat’s wake, as if disappearing into a misty night, although it was full daylight.
The harbor entrance was empty of all boats of any kind, even the tall thick triangular seawalls were devoid of humanity. The fishermen usually lining them with poles sticking out too far to be safe or comfortable and lines leading down into the normally calm water were nowhere to be seen. The lifeguard dock was part of one of the main docks set deep inside the ornate and very expensive complex. It took no time at all for the guards to pull the boat in, tie it up and then stand on the dock with outstretched arms to assist Gularte and I in getting ashore. Elwell moved off the boat more like a well-coordinated ballet dancer than a big muscled and thick-bodied swimmer. A bright orange yellow San Clemente lifeguard Jeep sat waiting only a couple of yards from where Elwell, Gularte and I ended up standing. Elwell looked every bit the ideal picture of a lifeguard, even his longish hair in perfect order while Gularte and I looked like waifs from an old Saturday morning Our Gang segment.
Bob climbed into the passenger seat of the vehicle.
Gularte and I crawled into the rear seats over the open but fairly-high and slippery fenders. Both of us struggled to get into the vehicle, our bodies new slipperiness caused more from the diesel fuel impregnated into the material of our uniforms than anything else, not that it mattered. The guard doing the driving and Elwell next to him simply waited with almost stony patience.
The ride back to San Clemente was short, the V8 powered Jeep covering the distance down Pacific Coast Highway at over sixty miles per hour. After only a few minutes in the buffeting fast-moving air blowing across and through my uniform I was almost dry. Once we were past the ARCO gas station located at the very northern boundary of San Clemente, I leaned forward. There were no seat belts in the Jeep so leaning all the way forward wasn’t a problem.
“Take us back to where we left the Bronco, and not the station,” I said, my mouth not far from Bob’s left ear.
We could always go straight to the station if the department had picked up the Bronco. I finally recognized the driver of the Jeep as being Steve Bro, the funny and fairly wild guy who seemed to almost always be wherever Bob Elwell was. Once we got through the double gates guarding the railroad tracks, Bro eased the Jeep along on the asphalt that ran from the lifeguard headquarters to the entrance to the pier. After that, everything changed. Bro had a reputation as a ‘fierce and fearless driver,’ and accessing the dry sand beyond the pier allowed him to prove that. The two- and half-mile distance to where we’d left the Bronco was covered in just about two and a half minutes, I calculated, trying to hang on to anything I could to stay inside the confines of the rear area of the vehicle.
The scene we’d left, seemingly only moments before, with the Bronco sitting right next to Elwell’s lifeguard Jeep was just as before.
Gularte and I dismounted from the Jeep and staggered more than walked over to the Bronco. As I’d imagined, the vehicle was sitting exactly where we’d left it almost an hour before, idling quietly, as if patiently awaiting our return. Elwell stood with us between the Bronco and the lifeguard Jeep.
“46673,” came out of the Bronco’s speaker. Bobby was calling.
I pulled the Motorola handset from the dash and responded.
“Pat needs to see you at the meeting place,” Bobby sent.
I looked over at Gularte before answering, holding the handset out between us like it had something untouchable on its surface.
“Not exactly an official police communication?” Gularte said, which was funny but neither of us laughed.
“Ten-four,” I transmitted, before carefully clipping the microphone back to its hook, having a good idea of where the ‘meeting place’ had to be.
“You know the place, I think,” I commented, as Gularte drove off, heading in the direction of the pier.
The restaurant at the end of the pier was just as before, except for the inside. Shawna’s arrangement of the corner where the Dwarfs first met was now more like that of a conference room, with one chair at the head of a row of the restaurant’s longest tables, assembled end to end. Where the place had been storing white tablecloths, which were never used while the tables were in regular restaurant service, was a mystery, as Shawna merely blew the question off when she escorted me to the head chair. The young girl, toughed by her work responsibilities well beyond those most teenagers might ever encounter, and by having a ‘tough’ dad, as she described him, was nothing short of amazing in the way she went about running the place.
“Here,” Shawna said, taking my right arm by my elbow and leading me to the head chair. “I know you don’t like your name, so I did it this way.”.
Shawna’s right index finger was extended down to pointing at a small, folded tent-like piece of white paper upon which “S.W.” was written in thick black Magic Marker ink.
I sat down, uncomfortably, wondering what the group might discuss about the latest seemingly connected nautical occurrence that might dig me in ever deeper trouble with respect to the new life I was trying to build. That new life which would somehow not allow itself to be simplified or made less potentially dangerous in any way, or on any level.
Before I could say anything, a tall gangly man wearing a big Stetson cowboy hat walked through the front door and headed right to where I sat.
The man, older than anybody at the table, including Pat who was at least ten years senior to the rest of us, smiled hugely, swept off his hat, and bowed deeply before saying: “Richard Berkheart, at your service.”
I was a bit uncomfortable in appearing in front of the Dwarfs once more without much to say, so I was a bit relieved, although also mystified as to why the man was among us and giving such attention and deference to me. I didn’t know what to say so I stood back up and stuck out my right hand.
“Nice to meet you, Richard.”
Richard shook my hand enthusiastically, and then spoke again.
“The yacht you were on is docked at a pier on San Clemente Island, and my sixty-foot yacht is in a slip at the Dana Point Marina ready to go.”
I didn’t know what to say or do. This strange man I’d never met or seen before was somehow in possession of information I’d thought would be totally unavailable. The boat had been taken by governmental forces so powerful and far beyond what I had expected that I still couldn’t assimilate what might have happened or what is now going on. I was barely recovered from being overcome with a bout of seasickness from being out on the ocean in such miserable conditions not many minutes before. I knew that the forces that swept in, seemingly from nowhere, and had taken over, could only have come from positions of prepared readiness somewhere nearby. There was no way a CH-53 combat helicopter, loaded with Marine Special Operations forces, could have reached the yacht in such an extraordinarily short period of time unless prepared and waiting nearby to perform such a mission.
Pat appeared at my left elbow, gripping it tightly in her right hand before pulling me toward the front door of the restaurant. I went with her, leaving Richard’s smiling eyes, unchanged, as he carefully replaced his obviously expense hat back on his head. As I turned to walk, physically escorted, toward the door, I vaguely hoped this new person in my life would take over the lead position at the table and just let me stand by at a distance. I was in the A Shau Valley again and wanted to run or find some small place to hide, but the hand gripping my elbow, like that of the Gunny only months before, would not let go.
“There’s some things you don’t know yet,” Pat said, letting go of my arm, as she closed both the main and screen doors of the restaurant.
I noted the closed sign once more dangling from it by a flimsy bit of string. I wondered how the owner of the place, somebody or thing I had no knowledge of, might be approving or disapproving of the place being closed so often for non-business-related stuff.
“Okay, what is it?” I asked, breathing in and out deeply once, and then waiting, not truly knowing whether I wanted to know or not.
“The boat was towed to San Clemente Island where it sits at the only pier on the island, but it’s about sixty miles across the ocean from Dana Point,” Pat said, but didn’t stop there. “Richard came to me because he applied to be a reserve officer but the Chief said he was too old, in spite of his own Navy background, contacts and everything else about him.”
“Everything else about him?” I asked, the lines across my forehead deepening.
“He’s got the kind of deep-sea yacht that can handle rough water but it’s shallow draft enough to dock at that pier. I know him from the auxiliary I belong to at the harbor and he’s a great guy. He just needs someone to intercede for him with the Chief in order to get a waiver for the reserve age requirement.”
I stared into Pat’s big, round and very clear brown eyes. If this woman, I thought, the Chief’s right hand person and most loyal employee and supporter, couldn’t get the Chief to give Richard a waiver then what was I expected to be able to accomplish?
The wind across the end of the pier still blew hard enough to cause both of us standing unprotected to sway a bit, but I felt enlivened by the life it seemed to blow back into me.
“You think I should go out to that yacht, a boat that’s been taken by U.S. forces of unknown origin, placed at a pier where no civilians are allowed to dock and connected to a land mass that’s entirely government property? To find what, other than getting deep into federal trouble? Aside from that, if I’m to intercede with the Chief on Richard’s behalf, a man I’ve never met before, nor seen any background about, then what am I supposed to trade in return to gain the Chief’s approval?
“We,” Pat said, as if by taking the Dwarfs with me would somehow make the impossible mission somehow less threatening or dangerous, not to mention the fact that making such a trip in cross-breaking large swell conditions was potentially life-threatening to anyone, even traveling aboard a good-sized vessel built for difficult sea conditions.
“Please,” Pat replied, staring straight into my eyes, her own unblinking.
“Send out Richard and let me talk to him before the group meets inside,” I sighed out, ignoring the questions Pat had chosen not to answer.
Smiling, but not replying in any other way, Pat went back inside.
I waited, watching the seagulls play in the wind, rising and diving into wide, and then ever tighter turns, the wind so strong just a little bit aloft from the pier surface that they didn’t have to flap their wings at all to stay in the air, but simply adjust them in minute ways most observers wouldn’t notice at all.
Richard stepped out through the door, carefully closing it behind him. We stood facing one another, both bent a little into the strong wind.
“Left my hat,” he said, rather weakly, once again holding out his right hand and wearing his signature welcoming smile. I smiled back, as it was almost impossible not to, and took his hand.
“Pat says you want to be in,” I said, letting go of his hand.
“Yes,” Richard replied, his smile fading a little. “You’re the Reserve Commander, but is it really your call?”
“No, it’s not,” I informed him. “What can you bring to the table?”
“Ten years up in Idaho as a field agent for the Office of Species Conservation, college degrees in agriculture and sociology, and I’m single. I can work all or any hours.” he replied.
“Why’d you leave?”
“Shot a bear that turned out to be a strange wild pet of a state senator there,” Richard responded, some wistfulness in his tone, his smile completely gone.
“Age limit for becoming a reserve officer is 45, and Pat tells me you’re a bit older than that.”
“Yeah, but I think it was a dark wind blowing down from up north that did the thing. The Chief really liked me but said his hands were tied by the city council rule.”
“And then there’s your boat,” I added,
“Yeah, there’s that,” Richard said, “didn’t come up until later when I talked to the Chief’s great secretary.”
“Pat says it’ll easily make it out to San Clemente Island and back without a problem,” I ventured, not sure just how far I wanted to commit to getting the seemingly great and qualified guy on the job as a reserve. I was also not sure at all that I had the power to do so even if I wanted to exercise it.
“Sixty feet of pure brilliantly designed power,” Richard said staring out into the wind, as if seeing his vessel somewhere out across the storm-tossed distance.
“Custom designed and built by Palmer Johnson in Sturgeon Bay, with MTU diesels imported from Germany. Holds almost two thousand gallons which’ll take it about fifteen hundred miles at twenty-five knots.”
“For me to stick my neck out with the Chief, I’ve got to know more,” I said.
“A custom job like you describes costs a lot of money. Where did that kind of money come from? Do you own it outright or are you in some sort of shared partnership? And, finally, are you willing to allow the boat to be used now and then by the department for police business on into the future?”
“My dad was a wealthy senator in Idaho,” Richard replied, “and I was his sole heir, even though he couldn’t stand having a ‘tree hugger’ for a son. I spent my inheritance on a home in Dana Point and the boat. It’s paid off. I’ll agree to the boat usage as long as I’m the skipper for every occasion.”
“The bear, it was your dad’s?” I asked, softly.
“Yes,” Richard replied, his tone at about the same low level as my own.
I nodded but said nothing more, as there was nothing to say until I could talk to the Chief. I motioned for Richard to go back inside, which he did. I followed, immediately noticing an animated discussion going on at our table.
I took the lead seat Pat and Shawna had set for me and waited for the ongoing discussion to come to an end. Shawna served me a steaming cup of black coffee, for which I was thankful. I used it more as a prop than something to drink and enjoy as there was no cream and sugar. The discussion slowly died down and everyone finally turned to look at me.
“I’ve got to get to the department and see the Chief,” I said, not opening up the group for discussion in any areas I didn’t feel we had time for.
“The boat is out at San Clemente Island according to Richard and Pat although we don’t know the source of that information yet. Richard here has got the kind of boat that can reach it. The island’s a U.S. Navy protected area and off limits to civilians, which we all are. If we’re going to go out there and check out the yacht, then there’s going to be risk. Gularte and I can go in Marine uniform because we have active duty I.D. cards. How that’s possible is beyond me, but armed with our disguise and the division commander’s letter we can probably survive landing on the island and possibly even being allowed to check out the yacht. Something’s going on with the death of those Marines and somehow the boat, the Marine Corps, the Western White House and even the Navy has something to do with it. My question to you is, since I think I can sell the Chief on appointing Richard to the reserves and his boat is big enough, do any of you want to go?”
I stopped talking and waited as heated discussion began again, with everyone talking at the same time. I waited, sipping the black coffee I didn’t normally drink that way. Once again, after several minutes, the discussion died down.
“We all want to go, but I can’t,” Pat said. “The Chief needs me and I need to be there in case anything else happens while you’re gone.
“Everybody else?” I asked.
“I’ve got to stay and run this place,” Shawna piped in from across the restaurant’s single serving space.
“The rest of us can all wear civilian attire and be part of your ‘investigative team,’ Hoodoo offered.
“Okay, fine, everybody needs to get changed and ready,” I said. “Elwell, you drive the Jeep to the harbor if all this works, so we don’t have a fleet of cars to park and gain further notice. Gularte, you’re with me and Richard. The rest of you walk and collect your vehicles at the headquarters or wherever you parked them. We’ll take the Bronco and Richard’s car up to the department and then go change clothes if the Chief approves.”
“You’re telling the Chief where we’re going?’ Gularte asked.
“Certainly not,” I quickly replied. “I’m merely hoping to secure Richard’s acceptance into the reserve force, and I don’t believe he’ll ask anything more.”
“Let’s go,” I said, standing up. “Shawna, we’ll report in just as soon as we get back from the island.
Pat stopped me just outside the door.
“You talked like you had this all planned out,” she said, excitement in her tone.
“No, you thought this all out, all I did was verbalize it. If I was to name this part of what we’re doing, I’d call it ‘on a wing and a prayer.’ Everyone has to stand by in the parking lot behind the department and wait, except for Elwell. You can wait down at the Lifeguard Headquarters, as we can phone down with whatever results we have to report.
“You really think this is going to work?” Richard asked, as he bent the Bronco seat back and folded his long lanky body onto the bench-type seat.
“Pat gave me a ride down in her car.”
“What part of it?” I asked, Gularte getting the Bronco underway.
I pushed the button to open the electric gates guarding the tracks. I knew Bob Elwell was standing near his Jeep to let everyone else out who’d driven to park at the beach.
“What happens if we get detained?” Gularte asked, as he slowly drove the Bronco up toward the station.
“Look, you guys,” I replied, a bit nonplussed. “This whole thing is nothing short of bizarre and that all the Dwarfs want to go out there over these seas to an off-limits island to possibly inspect the interior of the yacht, and likely find nothing, is beyond my ability to understand or comprehend. There are about a hundred things that can go wrong.”
Once parked at the rear door of the station I instructed Gularte and Richard to stay in the vehicle. I walked through the back door and headed down the hallway. Pat’s desk was empty, as she was following behind and hadn’t arrived yet. I stepped through her office.
“Chief?” I inquired, quietly from just outside his door.
“Enter,” he replied.
I walked in and stood before his desk, not taking a seat. I knew that either the Chief would quickly agree or not. I wasn’t likely to be spending any casual time with him.
I delivered my prepared speech about needing Richard as a reserve officer. I avoided mentioning his yacht, other than to say that Richard would make it available to the department, crewed, as an additional tool for the department to use at its convenience while he was an officer.
The Chief sighed, took his feet off his desk and looked into my eyes.
“Ever since you came aboard there’ve been changes, and I’m not at all sure whether those are great changes or not so great. We now patrol much larger parts of the beach, have a closer working relationship with the Western White House and now you want to add a sort of new police patrol vessel.”
He stopped talking, looking like he was lost in thought.
“This one more thing…” he said, putting emphasis on each word individually, “I’ll go with it, but that’s it. Solve this mystery or let it go but do it quickly.”
I said nothing more. Tom Thorkelson, in his brilliant insurance sales training course had burned an expression into my mind. “When the client says yes, stop talking and fill out the paperwork, as from that point on you can only talk yourself out of the sale.”
I turned and exited through his office door. Pat sat in her usual chair, having obviously made it up from the pier. She smiled her usual supportive and knowing smile, as if she already knew how my laconic exchange with the Chief would go. I nodded on my way by, wondering just how much power and knowledge the seemingly innocuous ‘secretary’ really had.
I walked to the Bronco, approaching Gularte’s open window. Richard stood nearby, wearing his big hat once more.
“Richard, you’re in,” I said, “Gularte, tell everyone it’s a go. Get changed into your greens and pick me up at my apartment.
I drove the Volks home, trying to figure out just how much of what had happened to tell my wife. Her analysis and input meant everything to me, but I’d set a course of action that was pretty ‘set in cement’ and I didn’t want to try to modify it.
I parked the car and went inside, but there was nobody home. Obviously, my wife had gone off shopping with her best local friend, the woman who lived with the pilot next door. Janet Werve was married to Nick, another Vietnam air combat pilot from the war who’d come home and been able to take up with United Airlines. We didn’t talk much as he wasn’t much into ‘ground pounders,’ as he described what infantry participants were. I changed and went back outside, my letter from the general folded and tucked into my left breast pocket. Would the uniforms, I.D.s and letter from the general get us access on the island, or to the yacht? I didn’t know. All I really hoped is that they’d keep us from ending up in a stockade.
Gularte showed up in seconds, coming up Cabrillo at too high a rate of speed, as usual. His driving was back to ‘normal’ for him, which I took as a good sign. Gularte, like the rest of the Dwarfs, was ready for a real mission.
The yacht was everything Richard indicated it was. It sat snugged up in its own slip near the center of the huge marina, lower and sleeker than those nearby, located in other seemingly endless columns of slips. When I got aboard, I realized the entire boat was made of aluminum of varying thickness. The cabin doors were made of solid aluminum and operated more like submarine hatches than doors. There was no way a heavy sailboat crank handle could break one down or even beat through it without taking many hours to accomplish such a feat. I went up to the big main cockpit. There was a flying cockpit, smaller and up above the main one. It acted like a roof and sunshade for occupants of the main cockpit. I moved to the small ladder that gave access up to it, but Richard waved me off.
“That’s not for use in rough water,” he said, “when the boat sways from side to side out there the whip of it topside makes controlling anything impossible.
I looked back at the gangplank when I saw the distinctive yellow orange color of a San Clemente Lifeguard Jeep drive up to the base of the pier. Elwell and Gularte got out, followed by Herberich and Steed from the rear seat. All four stood by the Jeep as if waiting for someone. Another vehicle drove up and parked further away. I knew right away that it had to be Hoodoo. Apparently, none of the Dwarfs, other than Shawna and Pat, who could not get away, wanted to be left out of what they considered an adventure. In the Marine Basic School, I’d learned that an adventure was defined by the Marine Corps was ‘doing something dangerous that had a happy ending.’ Without the last part of the phrase, the adventure descriptor would be changed to tragedy.
Richard stood at the console, which was mounted on the center of the forward bulkhead, unlike the luxury yacht Elwell had reclaimed from the beach. The interior cabins were accessible only through side-mounted aluminum hatches. He pointed down to the starboard hatch, held open by some metal latch, as the others filed aboard, all uncommonly silent but all also very alert. We didn’t wave or acknowledge one another. I understood. They were going on an adventure and the danger potential of that was just beginning to penetrate their minds.
Richard climbed down and spoke through the open hatch.
“Two or three hours out and an hour and a half back if I ball the jack,” he said loudly, there’s plenty of refreshments and snacks, just look around, and the couches make great beds if you pull them out.” He then closed the hatch before popping back up to join me. There was no reservation in the man himself, I realized. I noticed that the cockpit had no cushioned chairs like had existed on the yacht, instead it had only bolsters. Anyone on the bridge, while the boat was at sea, stood, with thick padded cushioning surrounding their waists, tightened in by heavy safety belts pulling the clamshell cushions together to solidly ‘trap’ their occupants.
Richard started one heavy diesel, and then the other, both catching and running in nearly an instant. The engines didn’t sound like those of the other yacht, which seemed quite powerful in their own right. These engines didn’t howl or scream, they thundered a quiet twisting thunder that was more vibration than it was engine or exhaust sound. A single puff had come upward over the back of the boat when each engine fired up, but then was quickly blown away by the strong wind coming out of the south.
Gularte, Hoodoo, Steed, Herberich and Elwell were below in the cabin which meant that I was the deckhand crew. There was no point in belting in since the ropes needed to be handled before the big boat could pull away without hitting the other boats and yachts that were packed in all around and with the construction barges, tugs and small craft working away on the parts of the harbor that weren’t fully finished.
The ropes were no problem for me, my time as a merchant marine on the iron ore ships in the Great Lakes, during summer breaks from St. Norbert College, making me quite adroit at handling shipping hawsers and lines.
The powerful yacht slowly made its way out toward the harbor entrance, while I strapped myself into the bolster next to where Richard hovered over the controls.
“I don’t know how you pulled that off, getting me accepted,” Richard said, looking straight ahead, most of his concentration on guiding the big boat through the close quarters and work equipment strewn all around that the harbor consisted of. “You did that in no time at all. Who the hell are you, anyway?”
“It was Pat, the Chief’s secretary,” I replied, smiling to myself. “She’s a fan of yours, for some reason or other. I just did what I was told.”
“Why do I get the feeling that you don’t easily do what you’re told?”
I didn’t respond, as the boat exited the harbor entrance, Richard fed the MTU’s more diesel and we encountered the first swells of the open ocean. I’d noted the yacht’s name, written in small black letters across the transom, as I’d come aboard, “Waltzing Matilda.” The boat dived into the swells as it picked up speed. I thought of the words to the unofficial Australian national anthem and hoped that the dire fatalistic lyrics weren’t a precursor omen for our adventure.