Chief Murray and I stood, looking at the specially equipped and painted Boeing 707, until Kissinger, Haldeman and Ehrlichman disappeared into its side door. The plane was called Air Force One when Nixon was aboard it, but usually he flew a newer 707. The crew on the tarmac called the plane Sam Twenty-Six, for unknown reasons.
“Henceforth, whenever Kissinger needs to be driven somewhere, you get to do the driving,” Murray said to me. His cigarette lay burning itself out on hot the concrete under our feet. I wondered, idly, if it might not ignite stray fumes and blow us all to hell. There must have been ten ‘no smoking’ signs visible, but Murray didn’t seem to care, and nobody confronted him about it.
I drove the big limo back to San Clemente at ninety miles per hour. There was no traffic, to speak of, on I-5 at off hours. Murray stayed silent in the passenger seat, unmoved by the high speed, smoking one cigarette after another. I wanted to ask my laconic passenger a ton of questions but could not work up the courage. He had let on that my Beach Patrol job was good for a year, funded by a Congressional earmark to the Department of Justice. It had to be redone at the end of that year, if it was to be redone. Amy called the job a phony exercise invented by phony people for phony purposes. The ‘Three-P’ job, it had become.
In truth, I did not patrol the compound area much at all. There was nothing to do along the short stretch of sand, except harass an occasional surfer, watch oblivious lovers or chase border crossers further North. I preferred to run up and down the beaches of San Clemente in the super-silent, near invisible Bronco. Those beaches had real people doing real things. It was also fun to patrol the streets on occasion, although I stayed away from car stops. The California Highway Patrol, termed as ‘Chippies’ by the local cops, had actually sent a car to inform me, specifically, that I was not to work the interstate highway at all. That would be ‘poaching,’ and it was not to be tolerated. Ben Williams, head of Secret Service had received a letter to that effect, as well. I had been called in. I listened to the lecture by the Chippies, then William’s brief nod, before I made any comment.
“The Bronco can’t even make it up to the minimum speed required to be legal on the freeway,” I said. “How the hell am I going to go out and catch speeders?” The Chippies ignored me, examining the Bronco from bumper to bumper, as if it was some classic car on display at a fair. Finally, seemingly satisfied, the tall men had climbed into their Mercury-Maurader Black and White and driven away. I smiled to myself when I noted that the Marine on duty at the gate made them show their wallet identification cards before he would let them out.
“You know what they really wanted?” Williams said, as we stood looking at the back of their patrol car, as it sat waiting to be let out. I shook my head, glancing at the man’s profile. He reminded me, uncomfortably, of ‘Howling Jack Taylor’ on the Marine Base. I said nothing, however.
“They wanted a chance to see the operations here so they could tell all of their buddies that they were on the inside of the compound command center.” He walked back through the door of the Coast Guard station, but stopped and turned before actually entering. “You tell them nothing. Not a damn thing, or I’ll have your ass. And that goes for Murray and the locals, your new long lost friends, as well.” I stood looking at him, making sure I wore no expression. I was not about to give him the benefit of any answer at all, unless I was ordered to. But I wasn’t. He simply turned, closed the door, and was gone.
I drove down, through San Clemente, to the base of the long pier. The drive was uneventful. It was Sunday afternoon, so there were plenty of people about, particularly at “T” Street, an area of sand that stuck out into the ocean about a quarter mile South of the pier. A high overpass ran from the cliff edge above the railroad tracks, and then directly down to the beautiful beach. Not only was it a great beach area, but there was ample parking along the side streets of the neighborhood atop the cliff. I drove the Bronco to “T” Street, through the crowds of beach goers, all moving out of the way of my vehicle. I had learned to have the radio on ‘outside speaker’ for such work. I could reach over, click the handset of the Motorola, and make a squawk come from the speaker. It was sufficient to get people to notice, and then move out of the way. The driving was fun, although watching for little children was a challenge. My tires were so big and soft though, I wondered if they would actually hurt a child if I did run over one. I didn’t want to find out the answer to that question, however.
I drove back to the pier. Ever so slowly, I worked the front tires of the Bronco over the edge of asphalt that separated the sand from the pier pad. First gear was really low so the small truck could move inches at a time, but with great power. I stopped, once I got up on the flat pad. People surged about, parting like moving water around the Bronco. They ignored it, and me, as if we were merely fixtures of the pier structure itself. I looked over at a low flat building built out onto the sand. It had a large clock tower sticking out of the top of it. I checked my watch. The clock was accurate. The building was brown, with the clock tower sticking up out of it. That was made of natural rock. The only bright color visible was yellow. Huge yellow letters were painted across the beach side of the building. They read ‘SCLG,’ which I knew stood for San Clement Life Guards.
I eased the Bronco onto the big flat parking area located behind the Headquarters building. The lifeguards had upward thrusting watch towers, unevenly spaced, up and down all the beaches I patrolled, with the exception of the area in front of the Western White House Compound. I thought I might just as well get acquainted with the lifeguard organization responsible for Marine Safetyin the areas I patrolled.
I shut my vehicle down, but left the ignition key on, with the public address speaker engaged, so the radios could be heard if I got a call. I had tried, at first, reporting my position to Scruggs all the time, like the other ‘regular’ units, but soon gave up. Scruggs didn’t care. I never got a call and he never responded to my position or activity reports. The Secret Service radio was even stranger. There was never any sound from it. I assumed the frequency to be totally private.
I stepped through the back door of the big building and entered a different world. The building was mostly a shed for huge pieces of beach equipment. I had seen the sand cleaning machines but had not known where they were stored. I squatted down to examine one of them, to see how it worked. A rough mesh lined the bottom of the thing, I saw, but then was interrupted.
“Can I help you?” a voice right behind me said, flatly.
I jumped up and around.
“Just looking,” I replied, a bit embarrassed. The man in front of me was tall, I noted, much taller than my mere five foot nine inches. He was well built and had a thin mustache, like Errol Flynn. An unkempt shock of black hair ran across the top of his forehead, thinning slightly. I guessed him to be about forty years old. He wore a short sleeve khaki uniform not dissimilar from the one I had designed for myself. It was adorned with sliver lieutenant’s bars on each collar. A pang of regret went through me. I would never wear those bars, which I had so secretly coveted, while I was still in the Corps.
“Those screens shouldn’t be on those machines. The city crew screwed them on in order to recover change from the sand. I’ll bet they clear three or four hundred dollars a day that way.” He said the words with derision, as if culling the lost change from city sands was some sort of evil felony. I shook my head, not knowing what else to do in reply.
I had caught the inflection of his voice right away. There was something not right about it. By the time he finished talking about the beach machines I had fully pinpointed the oddness. The man had a lisp. A lisp so notable that homosexuality was instantly called into the social equation, at least to a former Marine like me.
“Morrison Myers,” he said, with a great infectious smile. He held out his huge right hand. I took it. We shook. There was no limpness in his grip, I noted,
to my relief.
“I was wondering when you’d stop by to visit. I’m second in command to the Chief here. He said we’d have to share the beach with you, although nobody seems to know exactly what you’re doing here.” He stopped talking, the smile remaining on his face, however, at least for a few seconds. We stared at one another for a few moments, until it became obvious that I wasn’t going to say anything.
“Let me guess,” he said. I tried not to allow any expression to come to my face when the word ‘guess’ came out ‘geth.’ I just waited. “You’re part of that new contingent out there,” he waved toward the South, and San Onofre Beach, with his left hand, although his eyes never left my face. “You have that Bronco everyone’s talking about, a new uniform and….nothing whatever to do.” The last four words had been delayed a good five seconds before he delivered them.
I laughed out loud.
“Who the hell are you, anyway?” I asked, but did not wait for an answer.
“Nobody knows what I’m supposed to do, although everyone I run into seems to feel that I shouldn’t do anything that has anything to do with them or their operations. Not that they’ll say that, or much else.”
I had been surprised by the man’s penetrating intellect and the directness of his presentation. Gay or not gay, the man was the first person in uniform who seemed to have caught on to the fact that my role was more than just unusual.
No one had spoken to me so directly, except maybe Ehrlichman or Amy, since I had been appointed to be the San Clemente Beach Patrol.
We walked together slowly through the building, with Myers giving out information about all manner of Marine Safety equipment and space. I just listened, and tried to take it all in. We ended up in his office, he behind his desk, his back to the breaking waves visible through huge picture windows, and I sat in a chair facing him, enjoying the view.
Three men burst through the open office door. I turned to look at them. They were actually little more than very large boys, I noted. They wore red lifeguard swimsuits and matching “T” shirts, with the yellow SCLG initials emblazoned on their chests. ‘Rowdy’ was a word I would later use to describe them to Amy. Their immediate injection of loud boisterous laughter brought me out of my chair, to stand facing them. They ignored me completely, instead walking right up to the front of Myer’s desk and leaning forward. They laughed again. Myers stared at them with a deadpan expression, but did nothing about their noisy incursion. Two of the boys sat in the available chairs, one of which I had just vacated. They sprawled there.
“What’s the haps, Morri?” one of them said, then they all laughed again. Myer’s face grew red.
“It’s Lieutenant, to you,” he said, his voice menacing, but his lisp taking away any macho effect he attempted to transmit.
“Yeth thir, Lieutenant thir,” the largest boy, the one standing, said. His hand snapped up to perform a crooked salute when he said the words. He then stood at mock attention, his eyes staring straight out into the incoming waves.
I almost choked. I didn’t know whether to say something supporting the Lieutenant or laugh. It was a tragically funny scene. I recalled my own recent stint as a lieutenant in the Marine Corps. If three of my men had pulled such a stunt they would have first been humbled by a fifty mile forced march, and then led off to court martial.
The big lfeguard fell from a position of attention to one of relaxed indolence, half sitting on the front edge of the lieutenant’s desk. He turned to me.
“Who’s the Gestapo agent?” he asked, to no one in particular, then brought his attention back to Myers. He flicked his right thumb toward me.
I remained still, watching Myers. And then I was surprised. His anger somehow had turned off like a spigot of water. Instead of exploding physically at the guards, he became meek, to the point of smiling at them, as if they were merely children acting up.
“This is the officer attached to the Western White House Detail, out at Cotton’s Point.” Myers extended one hand out toward me, then left it hanging in the air, as if some fellowship or partnership existed between us. The gesture made me uncomfortable, but the outrageous behavior of the three guards held me to silence. The two sitting guards arose from their seats to stand by the larger of them. All of them were larger than me. I felt like I had fallen in among some association of lifeguard giants.
The three men stared at me, their expressions satirical, their smiles insincere.
No one said anything for a moment, until Myers spoke.
“These are some of my guards,” he said, gesturing toward the boys. “Billy Morrel, Charley Mac, and Joe Marion.” He pointed from one to the other as he spoke their names. I reached out my right hand toward the middle one, Charlie Mac. He took my hand. He pressed hard, but I had been half-prepared for such a move. I squeezed back, to hold my own, which I did. I had not worked out every day for three years for nothing. The hospital surgeries, and time, had effected my walk, not my grip. We stood there for thirty seconds before Charley
gave up. We both stepped back, our faces smiling but not our eyes.
“Well, well, well, what do we have here?” Charley’s eyes flicked down to my badge, then back and forth to the shoulder patches on my short sleeve shirt.
“Looks like another of those little San Clemente cops to me….” he said, his voice trailing away, but his sinuous challenging tone was unmistakable. I did not know how to answer. It was like being cast way back to a school ground confrontation, except we were all grown men. My mind raced for a response.
Vietnam flashed into my mind. The images reared up, then raced before me. The dead. The dying. My responsibility. My lack of action. My over-reaction.
I shook my head, ever so slightly, to clear my head. Without being aware of it, I adjusted my body, drawing my right shoulder back, exposing only the left, less injured side of my torso toward them. I was unaware that my right hand had languidly moved up to gently clasp the handle of my .44 Magnum. My expression had gone totally blank. I had no message to transmit. I merely waited.
One of the guards read something into my lack of expression, and the unrevealing slight adjustments I had made. His aggressive expression changed to an open smile. He stepped between the other two boys.
“Ah, I’m Billy,” he said, then went on. “We’re just messing with you. Welcome to the lifeguard Headquarters.” I took his hand in mine, guardedly, but the handshake was real this time.
“Don’t mind Charlie here, he’s the smartest one of us all, and Joe here, well, he drinks too much, but he’s funny as hell and his dog makes up for all the rest.”
I looked around for a dog, but didn’t see one. The three guards then left as they had come in, laughing, punching one another, and bouncing off the walls.
I nodded at Myers, who nodded back. He turned away to look over at the base of the pier out of his side window. I knew I had been dismissed.
I sat outside in the Bronco with the engine running. I thought about what I had just experienced. What would I tell Amy? That the lifeguards were run by some strange giant of a lisping faggot, while the men he commanded might better be named Huey, Duey, and Luey? I drove back to the base of the pier, so as to be among more normal humans.