My trip to Hawaii would have been impossible today. In 1960 there was no Homeland Security and the rules of travel for naval personnel had been lax and ill defined. Even now, when I reflect upon my escapade, I’m amazed that we got away with it. Many people, who hear my tale, find it hard to believe. When I consider the facts, I do too. The most basic reason why I did such a foolish thing—the desire for adventure—was fueled by my naivety. One reason why it was successful had much to do with my wily travel companion: Bernie Suarez. Upon my eighteenth birthday with a few months left before graduation, I joined the naval air reserve in Los Alamitos, California. I had learned about this division of the navy when I was a sea scout. Already my appetite for the sea had been wetted by my voyages on the Sea Scout post’s dinghy, ‘The Barracuda.’ Because I also found the notion of being on a flight crew in a Navy plane intriguing, the combination of air and sea travel offered by of the Naval Air Reserve convinced me that this was the branch of service for a slacker like myself, which brings me to the second reason why I decided to join up: I had nothing better to do.
Unlike my older brother, I wasn’t college material. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t begrudge my brother Aaron for getting a scholarship and attending a big university. He worked hard to become a model citizen. He was athletic, got good grades, and a seldom rubbed my parents wrong. In a negative sense, I was everything he wasn’t. My life was unfocused: a blur of undisciplined activity. Though I liked to play baseball for the church team, I wasn’t particularly athletic. I didn’t get good grades; in fact, I don’t remember studying very much. I didn’t get along with my parents and had no thought of higher education. Then one day, after talking to a recruiter, the blur suddenly cleared. The recruiter was quite a salesman. He extolled the benefits of the naval air reserve program: the education it provided (during and after discharge) and the life experience as a reservist at air bases and then active duty on an aircraft carrier at sea. That all sounded very promising to me, and, though I didn’t know it at that point in my life, it gave me a purpose. It also gave me a status I could not obtain by going to college. I was going to be a sailor and see the world. The very notion of continuing my education, after four years of high school, made me shudder. What better way to fritter away time than the life of a sailor on the sea or a member of an aircrew?
After joining up as a reservist, I thought I had done a fine thing. The future looked bright. I was going to get to ride in planes and, on active duty, be stationed on an aircraft carrier and see the world. Though I was impatient for the adventure, I was still a high school student and had to graduate and receive the rank of airman apprentice before active duty. There were no shortcuts at this point; the road ahead had been set when I took the oath and signed my name. First it was important, in fact one of the requirements for being in the navy, to get my high school diploma. So I settled down during my last days as a student and kept a clear head—the first time in my life that I had such a goal. Most everyone else I knew seemed set on going to college. What I was doing sounded like foolish to many of my friends. Yet we were all, in our own ways, impatient for the next chapter in our lives. For me it was not merely the thought of strutting around in my uniform, it was the adventure ahead: flying, sailing, and traveling the world. Then I met Bernie Suarez. Bernie, a high school senior like myself, put us on the fast track to adventure, a course that almost landed us in jail.
Unlike myself, who had nothing better to do, Bernie had a solid inspiration for joining the navy. His father and three of his uncles had joined up. Though he didn’t seem like navy material to me, he looked upon it as a family tradition. He thought he might learn to be an aviation mechanic like them. I had no such ambition. It was all an adventure to me, nothing more. At our first meeting at Los Alamitos Naval Air Station, Chief Arnold Crump, our instructor, asked us to introduce ourselves. That began quickly enough. As we stood up and gave our names, he made a check on his roll sheet. When he asked us if we had any veterans in our families, however, there were a few groans, including my own. I imagine it was a sort of icebreaker for everyone, but I thought it was a meddlesome question. I dreaded the point when it was my turn. Because my dad had worked at the Rail Road in an occupation essential for the war effort, he had been given a deferment. When I explained this to my classmates I got blank stares and a few snickers. I avoided the instructor’s probing stare. In the minds of many students, whose fathers had been in the army, navy, air force, and marines, my dad’s circumstances made him a draft dodger. The chief told them that without men and women working in the war industry there would be no ships, trains, trucks, or planes to fight the war or transport men and materials. I appreciated his effort to help me save face, but I couldn’t blame my classmates. A few of them had fathers that had been crippled in the war and one student’s father had been killed in action. They, like myself, bristled at the prospect of dredging up such information. To prove that there was warrior blood among my relatives, I could have told them about my Uncles Roy and Sherman, who landed in Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima, respectively, my cousin Billy, who won a silver star in Korea, and my grandfather who served in World War I. Unlike Bernie, however, I wasn’t a braggart. When the chief, who was calling names from the roll sheet, saw Bernie raising his hand and bouncing down up and down in his seat, he frowned with irritation but finally gave him a nod. The other recruits had given short and concise accounts, but Bernie had gone, in naval parlance, overboard. His story outshone everyone else’s account and helped distract attention from my own. For that fact, I was grateful to him.
According to Bernie, Armand Suarez, his father, was not only a World War II veteran, he was a hero. His ship, the USS Hornet was attacked by Kamikazes in Guadalcanal (a name he could barely pronounce). During the attacks, Armand single-handedly saved a pilot from a burning plane and dived into the ocean to rescue crewmen who had fallen overboard. Leading the fire brigades, he also saved several aircraft from destruction and, during the raids, shot down several planes with an anti-aircraft gun. The instructor, who had been aboard the Enterprise during the same war, said he would like to shake his father’s hand. There was a twinkle in his eye, though, as if he might have thought Bernie might have been exaggerating or stretching the truth. Bernie replied, with a straight face, he would be shaking hands with a ghost. Silence filled the room, as everyone expected a punch line. We thought he might claim that Armand was riddled with machine fire, burned up in a fire, or drowned. Instead he told us that his father was killed in an automobile crash after the war. It was the only part of his story that had the ring of truth. How could one man have done all those things Bernie claimed in one battle? Had Bernie been talking about more than one battle at sea? That he dived into the ocean to save his fellow shipmates also seemed hard to believe.
Nevertheless, I understood then why he joined the navy. The history he recounted about his father, which gave him so much inspiration, was a nobler reason than my own. Already, however, after hearing the story about of his father, I sensed deception in him. He was, from the beginning of our association, a pathological liar. I just didn’t have a name for it then. From the beginning, though I was amused by his spirit, I didn’t like him. Because of my candor at times, I don’t think he liked me. He laughed a lot in class about silly things, and yet had no sense of humor. I realized, after listening to him carry on about Hawaii, that he needed a cohort for his trip. Perhaps, none of the other recruits, would have been interested. He was, in fact, very secretive about his plan. When the instructor dismissed us that night, Bernie took me aside and presented me with his idea: because we were in the navy now, we could visit Hawaii by using naval air transportation. At that time, I didn’t know that you were supposed to have orders to use military planes. I would learn that from the instructor at our next meeting when he discussed navy protocol. Even then, the idea struck me as absurd. It was fortunate for us that the chief had left the room. He would probably have reported Bernie’s scheme. Bernie spoke to me in a clandestine voice, looking this way and that, as if fearful that someone might overhear.
“Are you insane?” I looked at him in disbelief. “We haven’t graduated yet. We’re still in high school!”
“So,” he said, giggling madly, “we’re in the navy, right? We have uniforms and duffle bags. My mother will sew airman apprentice patches onto our uniforms, and no one will be the wiser!”
I continued to stare at him in amazement. “Our ID cards show we’re recruits. I’m not good at deceit, Bernie. I could never fool my mom and dad. How can we justify our trip to Hawaii? Don’t we need an official reason to climb on a naval plane?”
“Listen, it’s so simple,” he explained, fluttering his hands. “It’s been done before. You don’t need anything but proof you’re in the service to travel within US territory. Hawaii’s a state now, so that’s even better. Plenty of people have done it. We’ll say we’re going to meet our squadron at Barber’s Point Naval Air Station. Leave that up to me. I’m not afraid.”
Though Hawaii had been made a state in 1959, it was, in my untutored mind, a remote and exotic place to visit. I was immediately intrigued but also frightened by the thought. Bernie had a baby face and had an effeminate voice. When he said that he wasn’t afraid it prickled my masculinity. I was acting like a frightened lamb. To keep from losing face, I scratched my chin, as if I might be thinking it over, which I wasn’t. The very idea was ridiculous. If I hadn’t been caught off guard, I would be on a bus and heading home, instead of being cornered in the classroom. With less conviction, I tried to reason with him.
“I’ve never heard of anything so crazy.” I shook my head. “You make it sound easy—too easy. That’s what worries me, Bernie. Have you really thought this out?”
“Yes.” He nodded excitedly. “It’s all planned, to the last detail.”
That was a lie, of course. Unfortunately, I didn’t know it then. At that point, however, I listened impatiently, with my arms folded, tapping my foot, as he explained the details of his plan.
“Don’t worry, Noel,” he reassured, patting my arm. “I have it all mapped out. We start at Los Alamitos where we’re at now, take a naval transport to Alameda Naval Air Base where my Uncle Dominick lives, then to Barber’s Point in Hawaii where my Uncle Ralph is stationed.” “It’s so easy.” He snapped his fingers. “At our next meeting, bring your duffle bag. My mom will sew or iron on the airman apprentice stripes. The Friday after next is Lincoln’s birthday, but the navy still has flights. I heard that Monday is Parent Teacher’s Conference day, too. That gives us an two extra days. That Friday morning, we’ll pick you up at your house at eight, so set your alarm clock. Tell your parents your going on a weekend naval cruise or something. Be vague, though. Bring civilian clothes in your duffle and your toothbrush and stuff. Don’t worry about food. If we have time, we can eat breakfast on the base. My Uncle Dominic will feed us in Alameda. From that point on, we’ll eat navy chow.”
Bernie said nothing about bringing money. I had sixteen dollars left from my lawn mowing job, which didn’t seem like enough money for a place like Hawaii, but I remembered the tour the navy instructor took us recruits on. The food was good at the base, much better than my Mom’s. It seemed reasonable that it would be even better at Barber’s Point.
“…. You have it all figured out, don’t you?” I drawled. After studying him a few seconds, more questions surfaced in my mind. “What about sleeping arrangements? Will they let us sleep on their base? How do we travel into town? I won’t miss school, Bernie. We gotta be back on time!”
“Yes, of course,” he reassured me, “it’s all set. We’ll sleep Friday night at my Uncle Dominick’s house and Saturday night at Barber’s Point in the enlisted men’s barracks. That evening we’ll go into town, like you wanted. We can also go Sunday, if you like. Monday my Uncle Ralph will arrange for our flight home. We’ll be back by Tuesday morning. You have my word!”
“So I don’t have to do anything,” I muttered, “but place my life in your hands. I don’t even know you, Bernie. Why should I trust you? You just met me. You appear to know some of these recruits. Why didn’t you ask one of them?”
“… Because,” he said after a moment of deliberation, “they’re cowards. They’re not my friends. I’m very picky about my friends, Noel. I heard you talking to the instructor. You’re an adventurer like me. You joined the navy to see the world….Well, I don’t want to wait until my active duty begins. I don’t think you do either.” “Trust me.” His brown eyes locked onto mine. “I want you to be my friend.”
The way he stared at me gave me the creeps. Though I was naïve back then and had listened with interest, I was suddenly suspicious. He had an ulterior motive: he wanted a cohort or traveling companion, not a friend. Looking away and shuddering, I felt trapped. If I walked away that moment, I would make an enemy. It was one reason why I decided to hear him out. I was stuck in his class, at least until we made airman apprentice. After that point, it would be just my luck when we went on active duty, that we would be given the same orders. I made a mental note then to make sure I signed up for active duty on a different date. I glanced at my watch, hoping I didn’t miss my bus home. For the time being I found myself drawn into his plan like a bug into a spider’s web—a characterization I make after the fact. At the time, I wasn’t conscious of a trap, only irritated that I couldn’t break away and tell him to bug off. Part of me felt sorry for Bernie. He must have been very desperate to ask a total stranger. At first, the plan was so outrageous, I couldn’t take him seriously, and yet, in a strange and devious way, he was convincing. Now I was filled with uncertainty. As we walked to the parking lot, where he promised his mom would give me a ride home, he painted a mental picture for me: riding on personnel transports to our destinations at Alameda and Barber’s Point, checking out Barber’s Point and Pearl Harbor, and then exploring the tropical paradise waiting for us when we left the base. Playing on my adolescent hormones, he promised me that Hawaii had the most beautiful girls in the world—all of them oversexed, and that it was legal to drink alcohol in Hawaii, which meant that we could buy a six pack and get drunk on the beach. (Years later, in 1986, Hawaii would raise the drinking age to 21.) Transcending the plane flights and experience on base, was the notion of carousing in town and searching for girls. Suddenly, I was trapped in Bernie’s web.
As we waited for his mom to arrive, I asked him several more questions about Hawaii that he couldn’t answer. It appeared, now that I think about it, that he knew just enough to bait me. He didn’t know the name of the major city close to Barber’s Point (Honolulu). Nor did he tell me about the history behind nearby Pearl Harbor or the fact that Japanese attacked it in 1941. I had been ignorant of Hawaii’s geography, myself, but picked these facts up at our next meeting at the base. What should have raised a red flag in my mind as we stood in the parking lot was his attitude on sex. Despite his boast about Hawaiian girls, he didn’t like me to talk nasty. To tell the truth, I was inexperienced about these matters myself, but Bernie’s description of Hawaiian girls had excited me.
“Say Bernie.” I nudged him. “Maybe your Uncle Ralph can set us up with a couple of Hawaiian chicks?”
“My Uncle’s a married man,” he replied indignantly. “He’ll do no such thing!”
“All right.” I nodded. “That’s okay. We’ll pick our chicks up in town.”
“Are you serious?” He wrinkled his noise.
“Yes, Bernie. After we pick them up, we’ll buy some beer and party on the beach.”
“Ick!” He made a face. “I don’t think so! Why’re you talking like that? I’m a Christian, Noel. I don’t like loose girls.”
“Didn’t you just brag about how beautiful Hawaiian girls are?” I frowned. “You said they’re oversexed. You said we can drink at eighteen there. Now you’re telling me you’re a Christian and don’t like loose girls. I don’t understand!”
“Ha-ha, I was just kidding.” He forced a laugh. “I like girls, just nice ones. Maybe we can find some nice Hawaiian girls too. I drank some of my Uncle Raul’s tequila once. He was on an aircraft carrier too. We can buy beer if you want. Please, Noel, we’re going to have a good time—I promise.”
“Humph…I dunno.” I studied him in the lamplight. “I can’t hunt girls alone. I need a guide. You like girls, don’t you Bernie? Being a Christian has nothing to do with it. I want to have a good time!”
“Sure-sure,” he slapped my shoulder, “we’re going to find us plenty of chicks. My Uncle Dominick has three teenage daughters—all beauties—”
“What?” My eyes popped wide. “You’re uncle has daughters. You say they’re beauties?”
Bernie almost choked on his words. As he clasped his mouth, I thought I heard him say, “Oops!” “….Yeah,” he murmured regretfully, “wild things…. Me and my big mouth!”
That cinched it for me. Tipping the balance were thoughts of the Hawaiian girls and those ‘wild things’ at Uncle Dominick’s house. Bernie’s web of deception had trapped me. Had I an ounce of common sense I would have gone with my first impression of him. He was a schemer and, I already sensed, a liar to boot. Looking back with the working knowledge I have of psychology, I’m certain he was also bipolar. How else could I explain his sudden changes of attitude and different moods, traits he would exhibit again and again?
While I sat between him and his mother, I was surprised at the encouragement she gave him. He introduced me to her as soon as I climbed into the car and then immediately launched into his plan. I was surprised she didn’t protest. My mom would have her Girl Scout troop camped out in our backyard Friday morning and my dad was going through a mid-life crisis and barely knew I was there. I was sure I would get a green light by my parents, but Bernie’s mother had no such distraction. Almost instantly, she praised him for such a brilliant plan. Very quickly, however, to avoid the details, Bernie steered her off the subject as he gave her directions to my house, and then explained what we had learned at our first meeting at Los Alamitos Naval Air Station. Unlike myself, who didn’t have a clue about his future, Bernie said he wanted to be an aviation mechanic like his Uncle Ralph. I would never have taken this fragile youth for such a rating, but, according to his mother, he was always curious and displayed a scientific bent. According to her, Bernie got straight A’s in high school. In the seventh grade, he made a life-like dinosaur, whose eyes blinked as it bobbed his head, and he once made a volcano that appeared to glow with lava as it spewed dry ice. How these projects related to what he wanted to do in the navy I couldn’t imagine. She was so happy that he finally had a friend she chattered incessantly about his achievements. From Boy Scout merit badges to a senior project in which he was building a mobile of the solar system, Bernie had kept himself busy. A normal person would have been embarrassed by such flattery, but Bernie added details to her account. He enumerated all of his merit badges, which were just shy of the twenty-one necessary for Eagle Scout, bragged about the train layout he was building, and boasted about all sorts of things that had nothing to do with aviation mechanics. I didn’t get one word in wise. Considering my C- average in high school and lack of achievements, I might have developed a complex listening to them talk. Instead I felt sorry for Bernie. In spite of my own checkered past, I had many friends and enjoyed the simple pastimes of youth. I had this feeling, as I listened to them carry on, that Bernie had been a lonely kid. All that stuff he did couldn’t replace romping with friends, chasing girls, and those normal pursuits of youth.