Saturday, April 4, 2009

San Clemente "Chapter I, " The Registered Publication"

The First Civil Affairs Group maintained an office on a small barren knoll, about a mile distant from the Headquarters of the 13th Artillery Regiment, of the First Marine Division. The area was uncleared, but comprised of such hard-crusted flooring that it gave the appearance of being set onto a great rounded concrete pad, broken up only by a few brown tendrils of struggling vegetation. I reported in to an ugly rectangular building at seven a.m. every morning. The morning sun, just mounting the Pulgas Mountain Range in the distance, reflected back a dull green hue upon the side of the building's wall. There was no Marine guard at the building door, unlike Headquarters. There was no "Mornin' Sir," or crisp salute, to start my day. I glanced back over my shoulder, to make sure that the new red Volkswagen I had purchased only a week before was properly parked. There were no real parking lines. Headquarters had asphalt parking, with bright white lines. Our cars were parked between lines scraped every day into the hard desert surface. But Marines parked inside the lines. Always. The Volks was easy to park, not like the GTO I had to trade in for it.

But the GTO had had to go. My leg would not take the torque, no matter how much patience and therapy I put into it. One of the bullets I had been hit with had broken my hip bone. Fragmented Ilia, they termed it. I'd loved that blue streak of a car, and had almost killed myself with it many times. But I was also a lieutenant, and didn't make very much money. Driving the Volks, however, had not been too terrible. It actually was a lot of fun, but not fun like the GTO had been. "Different, very different," I muttered to myself aloud, turning the last corner of my passage through the labyrinthian switch-backed corridor to arrive at my tiny walled in cubicle.

"No shit," a male voice said, from behind me. I turned before getting to my gray, rubber-covered desk, which had been produced some time right after World War I. Captain Merrill stood facing me. Captain Merrill was the Executive Officer of our small outfit. We disliked each other intensely, although very politely. It had been Captain Merrill who had 'collected' me when I had reported into Headquarters following my release from full disability status at the base hospital. I had thought, until meeting the Captain, that I would be able to serve out the short remainder of my Marine Corps tour with some light duty, along with getting ready to transition into civilian life. My entire prior year had been spent in hospitals, trying to come back from gunshot wounds in the abdomen, hip and legs. Pieces of Vietnam were still inside my body, working their way out through small festering boils, every few months. Vietnam wasn't in my mind, however. It was just that I couldn't sleep.

Captain Merrill had spotted my release forms, and immediately had me assigned to the Civil Affairs Group. We did nothing there except plan, plan and re-plan. We planned for a time when the Marine Corps might be fighting in the Palau Islands. I was in charge of planning the layout of a supply depot on the island of Babelthuap. The island had been planned for, as a depot, by the prior ten officers to hold my position.

I stared at the Captain, almost in shock. The man had appeared at my cubicle, and said a swear-word. Two things I had never known him to do. His aversion to swearing was one of the reasons he hated me so badly. When I had found out he liked to be thought of as some sort of left-over war hero from "Merrill's Mauraders," I had instantly converted the phrase into 'Merrill's Mother-Fuckers.'

"What is it, sir?" I asked, coming to a position of vague attention. I could not stomach any part of the phony Marine Officer Corps I had found back home. The one's who had avoided Vietnam like the plague, but then acted like they were God's gifts to macho warriors. Merrill had never been in combat, and his chest ribbons blared that. I had five rows of combat decorations on my own. I realized, looking at the vertical puke-tube of a human being, that I did not despise him, I hated him.

The Captain didn't answer me. He just pointed at the desk I was standing in front of. I twisted around to look, grimacing through a spike of pain. I would not show any reaction in front of Merrill, however, so I covered it with a "yes, sir." On top of my clean gray rubber desk-top was an envelope. A large eight-and-a-half by eleven brown one. The envelope was typical Marine inter-office stuff, but not the writing across the top of it. Large red letters were printed horizontally across it's entire surface. They read "SECRET." A small white note was clipped to the envelope. I moved closer, to be able look down and read it. It had only my name and rank on it. The envelope had had to be hand delivered. I realized right away why Captain Merrill was there. The Registered Publications System, which controlled all classified documents, had very specific rules for the handling of them. No classified document, designated above 'Confidential,' could be left unattended. Merrill was the assigned attendant. He had had to wait for my arrival. No wonder he was pissed off, I thought.

"Oh," gushed out of me. I could think of nothing else to say. I stared down at the unlikely envelope. My tour of duty, which would formally end with the implementation of the disability board's findings, was three weeks away. I could not walk right, eat right, sleep right, or do much else right, when it came to Marine Corps procedures and actions. I was history, and everyone, including me, knew it. Even my reports on the supply depot located at some idiotic, never to be visited, tropical isle had been scaled back. I continued to stare at the unlikely envelope. I had not secrets. I knew no secrets. I was a highly decorated, blown to smithereens low-life to the Corps. I had not even been promoted above Second Lieutenant. I had stopped wearing my ribbons to mainside. Too many higher officers had stopped me, and wanted me to prove that I really had the decorations indicated by the ribbons. They had claimed that a Second Lieutenant, who had received such decorations, would have been promoted to at least First Lieutenant by the time he got home. I did not mention to them that I thought I had figured that riddle out. Why I had not been promoted. That it was because the officers on promotions boards were just like them. But I had to wear the things to work, and so I did, which just caused Merrill to hate me more.

"Open the damned envelope!" Merrill said, behind me, quite forcefully. In the back of my mind, I smiled, to hear the human maggot swear for the second time that morning. I went around my desk, tossed my flat cover onto the moldy chair, then reached down and picked up the envelope. The flap was glued. Another unusual feature of it. I tore the edge off of it, slowly, watching the XO squirm with impatience. I slid out the single sheet of white paper it contained. I read the document. Then I read it again. "What does it say?" Merrill demanded, stepping closer. I took my eyes off the piece of paper, holding it so Merrill could not see the writing.

"I have to see the Commanding Officer." I said, flatly. I quickly replaced the sheet of paper inside the envelope. Merrill and I frowned at each other. I thought about our Commanding Officer. He was another of the more nasty creatures I had met in the Corps. Colonel Jack Taylor. He preferred other officers of his rank to call him by his self-designated nickname. Howling Jack. Howling Jack had been in both wars, WWII and Korea. He had been in Vietnam, which he continually pontificated, was not a war at all. He had been in the rear with the gear for all of his wars, I knew. Supply Officer. Which would have been okay, except he was a buff. A buff was an man who had served, but had not served in a combat position, yet acted like he had. I had had to stop going to the Commanding Officers lunch at the "O" club because of the fake war stories. My facial expressions, no matter how much I tried to control them, gave off emanations of boredom and derision. They had been noticed.

I followed Merrill out through the corridor of many unimportant cubicles. Both the C.O. and X.O. had big offices out front. They were the one's who watched the rest of us drive up and park, then wrote up reports when we drove across, or parked on, the make-believe lines. The C.O. was in. His short legs were propped up so he could rest them on the front edge of his desk. His shoes were the new face corfam things. Shine from the factory. Fake shoes. Fake Marine. I stopped in front of his desk. Merrill came up to me, and demanded the envelope. I just looked at him, putting it in my hand farthest from him.

"What have we here?" Howling Jack said, smiling his mean, scum-bag, smile. I smiled back at him, before speaking. "I have a registered document," I flashed the SECRET designation at him, "and it says that I can't tell you anything." I reached into the envelope. I took out the sheet of paper, and started quoting. "You will not discuss this document with your Commanding Officers or anyone else." I put the paper away, again. The two men stared at each other across the desk. Howling Jack brought his feet to the floor with a loud crash. I watched the X.O.'s face diffuse with blood and become dark. "Bullshit," he hissed at me, swearing for the third time that day. I almost checked my watch to get a record of it, but did not.

None of us noticed the entry into the room of a third individual, until he spoke. "Excuse me sir, but I'm from mainside. May I have a moment, sir?" I noted that the new man was a staff sergeant. He was carrying an envelope similar to mine, except there was no registered designation on it's surface, that I could see. "What the hell do you want?" Taylor screamed at the sergeant. The sergeant extended his hand, holding the envelope out. Merrill took it roughly, then handed it to Taylor. "You have to read it, sign for it, and then I have to take it back." I noted that the sergeant had not ended his presentation with the word 'sir,' which made me smile. "What the hell's going on?" Howling Jack said, opening the second envelope, then reading. He shook his head. He gave the letter to Merrill.

"It says that we can't ask him any questions at all. That we have to carry him on the rolls of our command, as if he's still here, even when he's not. It says we have to do what he tells us." Merrill's voice had gone low, near the end of his reading. Taylor grabbed the letter back, signed it, then gave it to the staff sergeant. The man took the envelope, then walked out without saying a word, a direct violation of Marine etiquette and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. I smiled again.

"We have to do what he tells us?" Howling Jack said, a bit of spittle coming from his mouth, giving away his building rage. "What he tells us? This pip-squeak of broken-down little bastard?" He stood, then turned to look out the window, to his commanding view of our desert parking lot. "Just what is it that you'd like us to do, before you get out of my office, Lieutenant?" he inquired, not turning to face me. I thought for a minute, about my remaining time in the Corps. My service in Vietnam. My treatment by these two supposed Marine Officers since coming to the command. "Well," I said, slowly, "I'd like you to both go fuck yourselves."

copyright 2009

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