Upon leaving the mess hall, we found a pay phone nearby. Handing him a quarter, I waited expectantly as he dialed Uncle Ralph’s number. A man on duty answered the phone and explained that Ralph would be on liberty until Tuesday. With a quivering lip Bernie told me the news. Tears welled up in his eyes. This time I almost bawled myself.
“Oh, that’s just great, Bernie,” I shouted at him. “We have to be back in school Tuesday!”
“I’m sorry,” he blubbered. “I thought surely he’d be on base.”
Several enlisted men leaving the mess hall glanced at Bernie. A few snickered or gave him a curious look. Many of them frowned with disapproval. At this point I didn’t care. All I could think of was that I wouldn’t get a perfect attendance award upon graduation. If only the principle hadn’t told me about my attendance record, I wouldn’t care. It seemed so illogical for a slacker like me, but I was furious at Bernie for robbing me of this. For those moments, as we stood there by the pay phone, I glared at him. My blue eyes had turned into smoldering coals, and yet I could think of nothing fitting to call him now. Slowly my rage cooled, as I listened to Bernie simpering and began feeling conspicuous where we stood. Even in my state of mind, I knew it wasn’t his fault Ralph wasn’t on the base, but I blamed him for not anticipating this possibility. Bernie had taken too much on faith. This entire episode had been dreamed up by a lunatic, and yet I had no one to blame but myself. I was, I realized, also mad at myself for letting him talk me into this caper. After listening to a few catcalls and hearing one seasoned first classman call Bernie a pussy (another word to add to my list), a notion, driven by desperation, filled me.
“Bernie!” I shook him. “Stop bawling. Give me that phone number. I have an idea.”
Without protest he handed me a slip of paper. I took the phone, slipped in a quarter, and hastily dialed the number. When a nasally voiced man on duty answered the phone, I immediately barked, “This is the base Captain. It’s an emergency. Is Ralph there?”
“No sir,” his voice quivered, “he’s on the beach.”
“What’s your name lad?” I shot back.
“Tom Watkins, sir,” his tone changed to alarm.
“Well, Mister Watkins, that answer’s not good enough. Once again, where’s Ralph?”
“Well, it’s kind’ve sensitive,” Watkins replied hesitantly. “I don’t want him to get into trouble.”
“What kind’ve trouble?” I snapped. “You want me to put your on report?”
“No sir,” Watkins sighed. “…He’s at Mama Sally’s. Please don’t tell him I told you.”
I had no idea what this meant, but my heart leaped in my chest. “I want a number lad.” I shouted. “Stop stalling!”
After a delay, in which Tom Watkins fetched Mama’s Sally’s number, the man on duty read the number into the phone. I wrote it down carefully, and then to make sure I had it right, repeated it back to him to make sure it was correct. After that I thanked the man profusely, promising to put a commendation in his record. Back then there was no caller ID. I would never have dared to do such a thing today. When I told Bernie about my achievement, however, I got a mixed reaction. I had just impersonated the base Captain, whoever that was, another offense added to our list of crimes. Bernie stopped sniveling, smiling yet speechless. A furrow twitched on his brow as he contemplated what I did.
After dialing the second number, a voice blared into the phone, “Hello, Mama Sally’s. You play, you pay.” I giggled with realization. I had heard about houses of ill repute. The last words from the woman answering the phone convinced me of this.
“This is an emergency!” I yelled into the phone. “I’m Ralph’s commanding officer; I have to talk to him at once!”
“What Ralph you speak of,” she responded, “we have many Ralphs.”
“Please hold,” I replied. “Let me check.” “Psst Bernie.” I held my hand over the receiver. “What’s his last name?”
“I dunno.” He shrugged.
I looked at him in disbelief. “You don’t know your uncle’s last name?”
“Uh uh,” He shook his head. “I just know the first.”
“Bernie.” I frowned with great irritation. “Have you even met this man?”
“No.” He sighed. “My mother told me about him.”
It was all I could to keep from exploding at this point. “All right.” I gathered my thoughts. “Was there any pictures of him at your house. What does he look like? What is his rank?”
“Oh, I know some things,” Bernie hopped up and down. “Ralph is a chief. He has red hair.” “Ma’am,” I turned back to the phone, “Ralph is bald-headed—”
Before I could finish the description Bernie gave me, the woman, whom I suspected was Mama Sally, herself, exclaimed, “Only one bald-headed Ralph: a fellah with tattoo of mermaid on his chest.”
“Great!” I exclaimed. “Do you know where he might be—a bar he frequents, perhaps.”
“I don’t know,” she replied thoughtfully. “Ralph mebbe go home to wife
“Excellent!” I chimed. “Do you have that telephone number?”
“You silly boy.” She tittered. “I have no such thing. Sailor boy, you hang up now. I busy woman. You come visit Mama Sally sometime.”
“Maybe I’ll do that,” I said warmly. “Thank you; you’ve been a big help.”
After hanging up, I placed another quarter into the slot, mumbling, “I should’ve done this in the first place!” That uncle of yours is a piece of work!” As the petty-officer barracks’ phone rang, Bernie squirmed nervously outside the telephone booth, so I shut the door. The fact is I had gained nothing from Mama Sally, except the fact he visited her place. The fact that he had visited a whorehouse I would keep to myself. I was worried about calling the same duty officer back. This time I would disguise my voice and use a different tact. By now Bernie was beside himself with worry. Rapping on the glass door, he kept asking, “What’s going on? What’s going on?”
“Shut-the-hell-up Bernie!” I screamed. When the phone was picked up on the other end, I heard a different voice. “Non-commissioned Barracks, Chief Warton speaking.
“Hello,” I said in a deep, gravelly voice I once used in my Drama class. “I’m trying to locate my son Ralph. His mother is ill and he must return stateside immediately.”
“We have two Ralph’s here in the barracks,” replied the chief, “Ralph Mercer and Ralph Kapinsky—which one do you want?”
“Ho-ho,” I tried being casual, “the bald-headed chap, of course!”
“Kapinsky’s not here,” he answered, a suspicious edge to his voice.
“Oh dear me,” I faked a groan. “Do you happen to have his phone number?”
“Humph, let me look in the directory.” He left the phone a moment.
To quieten Bernie, I told him of my progress. He clapped his hands with delight. It was at this point, however, after the chief returned, that I forgot my accent.
“Whom am I speaking to?” a second, deep-based voice returned to the phone.
“My name is Reginald Kapinsky,” I answered in my adolescent voice. “Whoops!” I muttered, shaking my head.
“This is Captain Vogel, the base commander!” he bellowed into the phone. “Are you that clown, whose been impersonating me? You know that’s a federal offense!”
Clunk! The receiver slammed into its cradle. I looked out of the booth at Bernie, a stunned look on my face.
“What’re you going to do now?” His bottom lip quivered.
I tried to sound upbeat. “Well, I have his last name, at least. How many Ralph Kapinsky’s can there be?”
“Yeah.” Bernie’s face brightened. “That should be a cinch!”
“Listen Bernie,” I said, as I thumbed through the directory, “he’s your uncle. I’m a total stranger to him. Here it is: Ralph B. Kapinsky—a Honolulu number and address. I think you better take the phone.”
“Uh uh,” he shook his head vigorously. “You’re good at this, Noel. I’ll freeze up.”
“What!” I shot back. “You want us to be stranded here? What happened to that ice-water-in-the-veins liar I once knew? You who got us into this mess, Bernie, not me? Now you’re letting me clean it up. Don’t argue with me. I’m dialing the number, but you’re taking the phone!”
After only a few rings, a woman answered, but when I handed the phone to Bernie, he backed away and turned his back, shouting, “I can’t do it! I can’t do it!”
“Is this a prank call?” she shrilled into the phone.
“No ma’am.” I tried gathering my wits. “…. I need to talk to Ralph. Is he there?”
“Ralph!” she hollered, not bothering to shield the phone.
My ear was ringing now. In the background, her husband shouted, “Who is it? I’m not coming in again, Darla. I got fours off. They pulled this on me last time.”
“What’s your name?” she grumbled.
“Bernie Suarez,” I blurted. “I mean a friend of Bernie Suarez.” “…Oh shit,” I groaned as she hollered out my reply.
A stream of invectives echoed in the distance, growing louder as Ralph approached the phone.
“Bernie or friend of Bernie—which is it joker?” he roared into the receiver. “I got a call earlier from my barracks. You’re the one impersonating the base Captain, aren’t you? Are you the police? My ex-wife?” “Why did you call Mama Sally?” he whispered angrily into the phone.
With desperation in my voice, I pleaded. “Wait, let me explain. I’m sorry I bothered you, but you’re our last hope. My friend Bernie has gotten us stranded here in Hawaii. He said you could help us.” “Please,” my voice broke. “I thought he knew what he was doing, but he got us into a real pickle! Oh please sir, you’re our last hope!”
“Hold on sport,” his voice softened. “I hear what your saying. That last name sounds familiar, but I don’t know a Bernie Suarez.”
I remembered Bernie admitting as much about him, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. I had the presence of mind not to refer to Ralph as Bernie’s uncle, for that might be fiction too. Bernie was weeping again. A sinking feeling overwhelmed me. I was close to bawling myself.
“I was hoping…,” I said hesitantly, “that maybe you at least knew his name. He said you knew his father.”
After a pause he muttered aloud, “…I’ll be damned.… I know a fellow named Armand Suarez. I see the connection.”
“Yes,” I suddenly felt light-headed again. “…You knew him?”
“Yeah, we used to be friends.” There was a bitterness in his voice. “Say,” he spoke discreetly, “is he with you there, this Bernie?”
“Yes,” I nodded into the receiver, “you wanna talk to him?”
“No, I don’t,” his tone sharpened. “I have a wife and three grown children. Please don’t complicate my life. Let him think what he will. Just don’t introduce him to Armand Suarez. That man’s changed in the past few years. I scarcely recognized him.”
A revelation filled me beyond my years. It sounded like something that happened in a movie I once saw. Shutting the door of the booth again so Bernie wouldn’t hear, I murmured into the phone, “You’re his father, not Armand. You were married when you met his mother. Armand gave Bernie his name, but their marriage didn’t work.”
His silence was answer enough. I was thankful he didn’t hang up. Bernie gave me a strange look. I was convinced more than ever to keep him in the dark about all this. I remembered the questions I asked myself earlier. Bernie had a lot of uncles. The implications for his lovely, good-natured mother were staggering. What I heard Ralph say now was so faint I almost didn’t hear him.”
“I have all daughters….What’s he look like?”
“Well, he’s got dark hair and brown eyes—” I began.
“Ah, he looks like his mother,” he muttered wistfully, “she was some looker that woman!”
I started to protest. “Really…. You think they look alike? I don’t know…. I guess so.”
“Listen.” He exhaled deeply. “…. If you promise not to repeat any of this, I’ll help you. I didn’t want to come in Monday, but you and Bernie be in front of the terminal at 1 o’clock. I’ll introduce you to a crewman. You can standby for a hop. We should get you both on a plane by the evening, okay.”
“Yes sir,” I cried jubilantly, “eight sharp!”
“And don’t call me sir,” he barked into the phone. “I’m a chief; I work for a living. How old are you lad?”
“Eighteen,” I piped, “I’m in the naval air reserve program at Los Alamitos. So’s Bernie”
He laughed softly. “You’re still in high school,
aren’t you? That’s why you gotta go
home. I’ll be damned!”
“Yes Ralph,” I replied, feeling giddy with relief. “I look forward to meeting you.”
When I heard his phone hang up, I staggered from the telephone booth, stunned by my revelations. To Bernie, however, I said simply, “It’s settled. He’ll get us a hop tomorrow.”
“Yippee!” Bernie squealed. “What time? Where?”
“At 1 pm we’ll meet him in front of the terminal for a standby flight.”
“This is great!” He grinned happily. “Wait a minute.” He did a double take. “Why so late? That’s cutting it kind’ve short, isn’t it, especially if we’re on standby.”
I looked at him with irritation. “He’s coming in off a four-day liberty, Bernie. I’m sure he knows what he’s doing. We’re lucky to get this.”
His grin had vanished completely. Rubbing his hands together nervously, he gave me a worried look. “You think we can get a hop when we land in Alameda too?”
“Excuse me?” I said, watching him squirm. “Did I hear you correctly? You’re asking me if we can get a hop?” “Listen hotshot.” I poked a finger into his chest. “You said you had this all planned. What do we do when we’re back in Alameda? It’s hundreds of miles from Orange County? That wasn’t part of your plan too?”
“I had it all planned.” His lip began quivering again. “Most of it,... just not that far.”
I shook my head and waved him off as if dispelling a bad dream. “I can’t deal with this right now. I’m going to be positive and try not worry about that right now. We’ll be landing at Alameda in the evening, if we’re lucky, which might be the worst time for a hop. If worse comes to worst, we’ll just have to hitch hike home.”
“I told you,” he replied petulantly, “I’m not a hitch hiker. I won’t do that!”
“Damn it to hell, Bernie,” I slapped my forehead. “You won’t hitch hike, you didn’t bring money from home, you’ve done nothing but whine and complain. So help me I’ll go it alone if I have to. You can have your mother wire you bus fare. I’m not missing school Tuesday.” “That’s final!” I folded my arms and began walking back to the barracks.
Bernie was weeping again. This time I didn’t care. Over my shoulder, I called back wearily, “I’m going back and rest up until lunch. I’d like to explore Barber’s Point today. Maybe we can go to Pearl Harbor and look at the ships. After the evening meal, we can take the bus into Honolulu. You can do what you want, Bernie. I’m through babysitting you. I’m gonna have some fun!”
After only a few moments, Bernie caught up with me and, in moody silence, followed me into the barracks, where I found the bunk assigned to me and, still in my uniform, lie down for a short nap.
“You’re going to get lent on you,” commented Bernie.
“Don’t worry,” I reassured him, “I have masking tape in my duffle bag. I don’t want to make my bed yet. I just need forty winks.”
My forty winks turned into a two-hour nap. I assumed Bernie napped during that interval. I awakened with him shaking me violently, hollering, “Wake up! Wake up!” I almost hit him this time. Once again he appeared bereft of his senses.
“What’s the matter with you?” I roared, rising shakily to my feet. “Is there an emergency? Why did you shake me like that?”
Out of breathe, he exclaimed, “The guy on duty said it’s lunch time. We have thirty minutes before the mess hall closes.”
“You dumb shit,” I scolded him. “You could’ve tapped my shoulder. Why do you panic like that?”
Hastily, I found my masking tape. After sharing the tape, we took turns removing lent from the back of our uniforms. Splashing water on my face, I led Bernie to the chow line. I was gratified to find that they had one of my favorites: cheese burgers and fries. In place of coffee, I had punch. Bernie, who always marched to a different drummer, had a hot dog, coleslaw, and his old standby milk. Rested up, our energies restored, we set out to explore Barber’s Point. It was a huge naval air base—much bigger than Los Alamitos or Alameda, but its only attraction was a large airfield filled with planes. We had seen the same kind of planes at Los Alamitos and Alameda. I had planned on going to Pearl Harbor to visit the naval shipyard, but, as we approached the gate to take the bus, Bernie grabbed my arm. There were several sailors and a few Marines leaving that moment, all of them being stopped one-by-one by the guards.
“Look at them.” He pointed fearfully. “There’s two
guards today. I see them checking
ID’s. Maybe Ralph informed on us. We better wait until the night.”
I nodded in agreement. “You’re right to be worried. Those guards are suspicious. But trust me, Bernie. Ralph wouldn’t do that. If we were in trouble, they’d have nabbed us by now. We’ll slip out this evening in our civvies when the watch changes.”
Until that time, we whiled away the hours at the base movie theatre watching Jailhouse Rock (an appropriate title for our predicament), preceded by and two Disney cartoons. Bernie fell asleep during the feature film and awakened in a bad mood. At the recreation hall, I tried plying him with a cup of coffee. One would have thought it was medicine by the way he acted. In almost every way he behaved like a spoiled child. As we got spruced up for our adventure in town, however, he was silent. It was obvious that he was afraid to go into town. We had both heard about Honolulu from our instructor, who painted it as a wild, carefree territorial town. It had been obvious to me that Chief Crump stretched the truth. It was 1960 and Hawaii was now a state. His tall tales were a deliberate effort to spice up our class. Half of me hoped Honolulu was as he painted it. The other half hoped he had made most of it up. If Mama Sally’s place was any indication, however, there might be some truth to Chief Crump’s tales. As we set forth that evening, we would soon find out.