That night, through a drunken fog, I managed to find our barracks with Bernie in tow, moving like the walking dead. I don’t remember greeting the man on duty or even climbing into my rack. I should have made my bed. The sheets, pillowcases, and blanket lie untouched on both our mattresses. We crashed heavily on our faces onto our unmade beds, remaining in that position until the morning. With sunlight streaming in from a window, my memory became solid. I heard the sound of floor-waxers and men chattering back and forth. Looking up to one of the men, who worked the waxer, I protested weakly—my tongue rolling thickly in my mouth. I don’t remember what I said, but the two men laughed at my predicament. So, I swore at them for disturbing my peace. One of them gave me a kick and told me to get out of the barracks if I didn’t like it. That really made me angry, but then, seeing the third class stripe on one of them, I simmered down quickly, lie back a moment to gain my bearings, and, with great effort, rose sluggishly from my rack.
“Tied one on did ya’?” the third classman taunted. “You’re lucky you got through the gate. The base Captain’s cracking down now. There’s been too much hell raising in Honolulu. Is that where you boys were? SP’s had a field day last night.”
The third classman was a fount of information. I was hung over, but it wasn’t as bad as the night before. The purge I had at Harry’s place appeared to have helped. Nevertheless, I felt as if I had emerged from a blender. Even in my groggy, queasy state, I listened intently, realizing how very lucky Bernie and I were. I thanked him for his information and introduced myself. He didn’t reciprocate, but I saw a nametag on him that read, “Louis Suarez.” In my delicate state, upon seeing that name, I almost passed out. The coincidences Bernie and I had experienced continued to mount, this one topping them all.
“I don’t believe it!” I said, slack-jawed, bracing myself against the bunk bed frame. “… Are you by any chance related to Armand Suarez?”
“Yeah.” His eyebrows plunged downward. “Don’t remind me.”
Looking over at the unconscious Bernie, I lowered my voice. “Is he your father?”
“Hell no,” Louis snarled. “My father was killed in Tarawa. Armand’s my uncle. I haven’t seen that bastard in years.”
“Is he still alive?” I asked hesitantly.
“Why do you ask…. What’s he to you?”
“Please.” I said, looking over at my sleeping friend. “It’s important to us.”
“Us?” He followed my gaze. “You including him—that kid?”
His words had literally sobered me up. I nodded faintly, stunned by his revelation. With an intuitive gaze, he searched my face, and then, glancing back and forth between Bernie and me, nodded his head. Slowly, a smile of comprehension fell over his face, and yet there was no punch line yet. I studied Louis a moment. He looked nothing like Bernie or his mother.
“Armand Suarez,” he exhaled the words, the great Armand Suarez. Since I arrived here, I’ve tried to avoid him, but I don’t have to worry anymore. He’s in the VA Hospital in Honolulu. He was working on a P2V, and he had a heart attack…. That’s all I know.”
“Why do you hate him?” I asked indelicately.
“You ever meet Armand?” he asked with great bitterness. “You either love him or hate him; there’s no in between. To most guys, he’s good ol’ Armand, a hard drinking, back slapping friend—a bull-shitting story-teller about the war. To his family—my mother and my poor Aunt Celia, he was Armando, a two-timing son-of-a-bitch. When they transferred me from the Enterprise for processing, I freaked out when I found out he was here. Luckily, while waiting for my discharge, I was assigned housekeeping to keep me busy. Since then, like Brer Rabbit, I laid low.”
“How long you been here?” I inclined my head.
“Not long,” he shrugged. “I’ll be discharged this month. I don’t have to worry about running into my uncle anymore. If he doesn’t croak first, they’ll give him a medical discharge.” “All right,” he said, stepping away from the waxer. “I told you my story. Now you give me yours” “…or his.” He pointed to Bernie.
“It’s complicated…. He’s a complicated person.” I said, watching him stir.
After motioning for me to move to the far side of the barracks, he listened to my account of our adventure so far, from the moment Bernie talked me into this madcap caper, through our two hops, trip to Honolulu and Waikiki, and the party at Harry’s, including the details that have led me to believe that Bernie is unbalanced and too delicate to serve Uncle Sam.
“So, he thought Armand was his father, eh?” Louis concluded, when I lapsed into silence. “You think your story is complicated, wait till you hear mine. My mother told me about him after Aunt Celia died. Celia got pregnant by that bastard. He never married her. Aunt Celia had a good heart, but like Mama she was plain. It almost killed her when he took up with that whore—”
“What was her name?” My heart leaped in my chest.
“Started with a C,” he began. “She was a looker, that one.”
“Constance!” I exclaimed.
“Uh huh,” he grinned. “…Oh shit, that must be her son.” He looked back at Bernie. “No wonder you want to keep that hush-hush.”
The words flew out of my mouth. “Yes, it’s true. He thinks he’s Armand’s son, but Bernie’s father was already married. It seems Armand married her to keep her good name.”
“Or to get in her pants.” Louis snickered. “She dumped him, and took her kid to the states. Crying in his beer, as drunks do, he told this story to my dad’s friends on the base. When Celia heard it, she blew her brains out with her father’s revolver…. How’s that for a storybook romance?”
“Holy shit.” I clasped my forehead. “Bernie must never hear about this. He’ll lose it. I swear, he’s not right in the head. This might push him over the edge!”
“Mums the word!” Louis reached out to shake my hand.
I thanked Louis for telling his story. While he went back to work, I shook Bernie awake, coaxed him into the shower to clean himself up, and while rinsing myself off, tried sorting out everything I knew. It was, in deed, complicated. Though Louis now knew Bernie had been illegitimate, he didn’t mention Ralph, and yet Ralph was Bernie’s father. It had been a tangled web for Armand and Constance. Armand dumped his wife for her and she dumped Armand for Bernie’s stepfather. I wondered then if Ralph, who appeared to resent their relationship (in spite the fact he was married), knew the dark side of this man. If so, he hadn’t mentioned it to me. Of course, I reasoned, Ralph, who got Constance pregnant, already had a wife, so he was a villain too. Nevertheless, from the vantage point of Constance, Armand galloped in like a knight in shining armor to save her good name (or just to get into her pants as Louis claimed). The only innocent party in this whole tangled web was Bernie…and he was nuts. I laughed hysterically. What am I doing here? I asked myself repeatedly, as I dried myself off, dressed in my blues, and coaxed Bernie to do the same. The beer and lack of sleep had taken their toll on us, especially Bernie, who followed me like a sleepwalker to the mess hall, muttering incoherently on the way.
Fortunately for us, the mess hall was still open. Sailors in both informal blues and formal dress blue uniforms as well as work clothes stood in line with us. Once again, I had a hangover, which grew worse in the bright morning sun. It was as if a drum was being beaten inside my skull. I could imagine how Bernie felt. I had to tell the servers what to put on his tray. To simplify matters, I told them to give him the same courses they gave me. More conservatively this time, I left out the pancakes and sausages. We had scrambled eggs, hash browns, toast, and oatmeal. I got us both cups of coffee and made sure Bernie had his ration of milk.
When we found a spot at a table amidst cheerful and talkative men, Bernie finally spoke.
“I will never forgive you for getting me into this,” he uttered, chewing lazily on a piece of toast.
I was, as I had been many times before in his company, speechless. After talking me into this madcap enterprise and placing us in jeopardy with his lies, it was my fault for trying to make the best of it. It was my fault that I wanted us to have some fun. Though I wanted to knock him out and stomp on his face, I considered the source. This was Bernie; he was, through his uncle Ralph, my ticket home. I could at least verbally state what was reeling in my mind, but I was afraid I might explode. So, like a volcano, my anger smoldered for a while. Not wanting to make another scene, especially in the mess hall, I leaned over and in my most menacing voice and whispered, “Eat shit and die!”
“That was vile,” Bernie jumped to his feet. “Right when I’m eating, you talk about shit!”
That had been the wrong thing to say to Bernie. Several diners reacted angrily to his outburst. I sat there mortified, as several of them reacted to his outburst. The man across the table, scolded him severely. I heard another sailor threaten to punch out his lights. Among the diners, however, the worst reaction came from a tall, muscular black mess steward, who came over grabbed the back of Bernie’s collar and shook him violently, muttering, “I gotta good mind to toss your ass out!”
“Sorry,” he whimpered, “please don’t do that!”
“Oh dear God!” I covered my face with my hands.
Bernie sat down and began sniveling. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he looked around the room. Dropping my hands, I glanced light-headedly at his detractors. As if it was guilt by association, many of them were also glaring at me. A first classman next to me poked me in the ribs. When I didn’t react quickly enough, he poked me again.
“Hey, what’s wrong with that kid?” he asked discreetly. “I saw him carrying on like in front of the visitor’s barracks. He’s a real crybaby. That ain’t no kind’ve behavior for a man.”
I giggled hysterically. Regaining some of my composure, I briefly summarized Bernie’s predicament. “He’s not cut out for military life,” I explained audibly. “He’s too immature. His moods change constantly. If he stays in the navy, they’ll eat him alive!”
Though the men within earshot listened in, Bernie’s sobs prevented him from hearing my words. I was glad he didn’t know my true feelings, at least until we were out of harm’s way and I could give him a piece of my mind. For now, until Ralph got us a hop back to Alameda, I couldn’t tongue lash him as I wanted. Judging by the last sailor’s comment in the mess hall, Bernie’s antics had circulated on the base. I had eaten only a portion of my breakfast and drank half of my coffee, but I decided it was time for us to leave. Hopefully, there would be a different crowd here at lunch. Otherwise, it might be a good idea to forgo lunch and eat k-rations on the plane. My mind was in turmoil. I wasn’t sure what to do with Bernie, as he walked behind me muttering under his breath. Our adventure had been too much for him. I could scarcely imagine what his mental state would be if I told him the truth about his father, which would incriminate his mother as a liar and onetime woman of ill repute.
The view I had in 1960, I realize now, was unfair. After all, Constance had raised Bernie and his sister the best way she could. Compared to current morals, her behavior might be seen as tame. At least she didn’t have an abortion or turn him over to social services. Everyone, after all, deserved a second chance. But Constance should have told Bernie the truth about his father when he was a child. It was too late now. He would never hear the truth from my lips. Given his erratic behavior so far, I was certain it would drive him over the edge.
After returning to the barracks to shed our uncomfortable blue uniforms and use the restroom, we sat at each end the table provided for letter writing, in verbal silence. The housekeeping team had already finished. Outside we could hear the sound of lawn mowers mowing the grass. In the foreground there were friendly shouts of sailors to each other, of all things a dog barking, and then the roar of a distant plane taking off from Barber’s Point. I was lulled by these sounds. I had big plans to go to Pearl Harbor and see the ships, but that was out of the question now. After Bernie’s last outburst, we were more vulnerable than ever. The word was out on him. If one man remembered Bernie, others had seen his antics too. I was afraid he would incriminate us. Sooner or later, I was certain, it would catch up with us. It was a miracle we hadn’t been caught so far. Much later in my long, checkered life, I would visit the Pearl Harbor National Monument, Hickham Field, and all the other memorials and landmarks in Hawaii of the Second World War, but my main concern that day was getting us to Alameda and, after that, sneaking off that base, and hitch-hiking home. There would be no more hops after today, I decided. It would be foolhardy to try and get flight from Alameda to Los Alamitos. For that matter, if we got caught finally at Los Alamitos, our home base, it would go especially hard on us. That’s where we signed up and attended our airman recruit classes. We were lucky that no one, who might recognize us after attending our meetings at Los Alamitos, was there the day we embarked on this ill-conceived trip.
I liked to think that God had been watching over us, but I remembered my minister quoting Jesus’ rebuke to Satan, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord.” We had, if nothing else, tempted fate. Sensing that Bernie was a liar, I had tossed caution to wind. I had no one to blame but myself. So, perhaps, all things considered, religion had no part in this. We had been guided by chance. Our good fortune was being driven by pure, blind luck.
With these grim thoughts in mind, I stood up, yawned, stretched in exaggerated motions, and, without a backward glance, sauntered out of the barracks into the late morning sun. “I’m going to take a stroll,” I called back. “You can do want you want.”
“Wait!” Bernie shouted frantically. “Maybe we better hide out until lunch.”
“ Keep a low profile perhaps,” I shook my head, “not hide. All you have to do Bernie is control yourself—at least until we’re hitch-hiking home.”
“I’m not hitch-hiking home,” came his refrain. “It’s dangerous. We’ll get another hop.”
“No, Bernie,” I said with resolution, “we’ve been fortunate so far, but that’s pushing our luck. After our last hop, if we can sneak out of Alameda undetected, and we’re home free. That’s what we should do. If you don’t join me and get caught in Alameda or Los Alamitos, you’ll probably rat me out. We might both wind up in Leavenworth—all because you’re afraid to hitchhike and take a chance. At least I’m going to try.”
“Hitchhiking’s dangerous!” He repeated stubbornly
I stopped and looked at him in utter disbelief. “Bernie—you dumb shit!” I cried, clasping my forehead. “You call that dangerous. I’ll tell what’s dangerous. Pretending to be airman recruits and illegally using military transports is dangerous. Lying to naval officers is dangerous. Don’t tell me about danger Bernie. Everyone hitchhikes nowadays. Sailors do it all the time. What we’ve been doing on naval bases can get us arrested. We can go to federal prison!”
“Oh pooh!” Bernie made a face. “You’re exaggerating. I got us this far, didn’t I? Alameda was a cinch before. I’m sure we can do it again.”
I felt light-headed again, as if I was walking in a dream world. Barber’s Point wasn’t real. Bernie wasn’t real. This had to be a nightmare, I told myself giddily. No one human being could be so thick-headed; it defied reason.
“Where you even listening to me?” I asked him hoarsely. “Did you hear a word I said…. This is the last hop for me. You can do what you damn well please!”
Bernie started humming to himself. As we walked aimlessly through Barber’s Point, I saw one more personality shift for Bernie. He was, I thought with great irritation, in his ‘stupid mood.’ How else could I define that type of stubbornness? As he continued to hum off-key, though, I reeled around and said aloud, “No, that’s not right. I’ve been right along: you’re nuts Bernie. I’m dealing with a madman!”
“Oh!” He recoiled. “You scared me!”
Seeing my disdain, he burst into tears.
“You’re also a crybaby,” I added maliciously after seeing his response. “Look at you—tearing up, lips quivering, ready to bawl at the drop of a pin. Take my word for it, Bernie, you’re not cut out for the navy. You haven’t the spirit or courage for it. You’ll be keelhauled or tossed overboard if you assigned to an aircraft carrier! You won’t last a week!”
There I said it. It was for his own good, but that wasn’t why I said it. I was fed up with this nincompoop. Bernie was visibly shaken by what he heard. Instead of breaking down this time, however, he doubled up his little fists and came after me, his face dark with rage.
“Whoa,” I laughed in panic, “you wanna play, eh. Okay, you little turd. One more swing like that, and I’ll deck you!”
Through his teeth, bereft of his senses, he listed my sins. I interpreted his ramblings as, “You took me to wild parties, made me drunk, and introduced me to nasty girls.” He went on to blame me for everything that had gone wrong on our trip. He also cursed me, using my dad’s favorite swear words, and, at one point, let out an inhuman shriek: “Eeeeeeeeeowww!” Upon hearing that unearthly sound, I took to my heels. In spite of my anger, I didn’t want to hurt Bernie, at least not physically. He was much smaller than me, and it would look bad if someone saw me knock him out. Unfortunately, though I could easily outrun him, Bernie continued to scream at me, calling me a coward now and threatening to beat me to a pulp. Sailors walking up and down the main street on the base cast alarmed looks at us. One naval officer shouted, “Stop! Stop! I’m calling the MPs!”
Turning around that moment, I tried doing the least damage I could to him. I slapped him silly. My fist might have broken his jaw or nose. As it was, I left a handprint on his baby face. Staggering around in a daze, he gave me a surprised look and then broke into sobs. Meanwhile, as I stood there stunned by what happened, the officer began running toward us.
“Listen to me, you stupid son-of-a-bitch,” I shouted, “we can’t let that man catch up with us. Follow me!”
All I could think of doing was circle around somehow and head back to the barracks. I was thankful that Bernie had the presence of mind to take to his heels too. I don’t believe I ever ran that fast. I was impressed that Bernie could keep up with me. In the receding distance, the officer yelled, “You men stop skylarking on base. So help me I’ll call the MPs.” His original threat had been watered down considerably. We weren’t felons; we were skylarkers—a term I heard Chief Crump use. A great weight lifted from my mind that moment. I doubted that the man would pursue us further. Despite this impression, we continued our circuitous route around the row of enlisted and non-com barracks onto the nearby field and then back to the visitors barracks close to the gate.
“We’ll wait here awhile,” I informed Bernie, plopping on a chair to gain my breath. “At noon we’ll eat chow, and then meet Ralph in front of the terminal at one. Hopefully, we won’t run into that officer again. If we do, we’ll just admit we were skylarking. I think I heard the chief call it grab-assin’ too.” “The thing is Bernie,” I paused to scold him, “you caused that. You’re not right in the head. When we get back home, you’d better think about a section 8. Our instructor told us about this.”
For a few seconds, Bernie’s cheeks puffed up in anger again. I gave him a warning stare, doubling up my fist. “So help me, Bernie,” I wrung my fist. “This time no one’s around. I’ll knock you out!”
“Oh why do you make me lose my temper?” He shook his finger. “You make me so-o-o mad!”
“You’re too little to have a temper.” I frowned. “You better not act like this around a regular sailor. He’ll put you in the hospital!”
“Oh yeah. ” He gave me a fierce look. “I have a gun. No one’s going to beat me up!”
“Is that another threat, Bernie?” My eyes narrowed to slits. “Do you really have a gun?”
“Well, I think my mom has a gun,” he equivocated. “She said she did. It belonged to my stepfather.”
I watched him squirm under my scrutiny. “Why would your mom need a gun? Have you seen it?”
“No, but my stepfather bought one…. I think…. He wasn’t a very nice man.” He looked up with dry, unblinking eyes.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked, as he sank into himself. “Did he hurt you?”
“Yes.” Bernie nodded. “He didn’t like me. My sister didn’t like me either…. Only my Mom.” “I don’t want to talk about this!” He blinked and looked self-consciously around the room. “My stepfather’s dead…. My father’ dead….”
“Let sleeping dogs lie,” I finished his train of thought.
I wanted to tell him the truth about his parents—his mother, Armand, and his real father, but it would have been too cruel. I was still convinced it would be the last straw, and yet he had a right to know. Perhaps, I thought, watching him rise up slowly, and begin pacing around the room, his mother might tell him someday…. I wasn’t going to be the straw. Bernie was already exhibiting what I didn’t understand back then: a bipolar disorder. During that hour, however, all the fancy words I use to recount this episode in my life are written in retrospect. All I knew then was that Bernie wasn’t normal: he wasn’t right in the head and I had placed my fate in the hands of crazy person. What I didn’t need to do that moment was to make him any crazier, so I let the subject drop. After laying low in the barracks for the next two hours, I nearly went nuts myself. When the dials on my watch stood straight up, I jumped up and announced cheerily, “It’s noon—the lunch hour. Let’s go the mess hall, Bernie. Afterwards, we’ll come back, grab our gear, and meet Ralph in front of terminal at 1 o’clock.
For a few moment, as we proceeded to the mess hall, Bernie followed me, wrapped in this thoughts.
“Ralph won’t like me either,” he suddenly announced. “No one likes me…except my Mom.”
“Ralph doesn’t even know you.” I sighed. “Why would you say such a thing?” “...Bernie,” I looked back with concern, “do you have any friends?”
“No, not anymore,” he replied faintly. “Not since that time,” he said, biting his lip. “It all changed then.”
“What?” I reeled around to face him. “What happened? Out with it Bernie? What made you such a dork?”
I immediately regretted saying such a thing, and yet it had no effect on him. He continued murmuring to himself inaudibly. I snapped my fingers in front of his face, as if to wake him up, fearful that he had slipped over the edge. I remembered seeing a movie about a man who disappeared into himself. Today, I know the word as catatonic, but that moment it was like watching someone go to sleep with their eyes open.
Clapping vigorously, I shouted, “Wake up, Bernie! Tell me what’s wrong!”
“Leave me alone!” He placed his hands on his ears. “I don’t want to talk about it!”
What I saw then was an improvement; he hadn’t slipped over the edge. Heaving a sigh of relief, I patted his shoulder. “Okay, Bernie, keep your dark secrets to yourself. It’s none of my business, but you need help. You really do!”
“You think so?” he asked in a small voice, “You think I’m nuts, and I should really take a section 8?”
“Yes, I do,” I replied emphatically. “The military is no place for you!”
I thought he might start weeping once more, but he exhaled deeply this time, shrugged in resignation, and once more began humming an off-key tune. In navy parlance again, ‘the wind had gone out of his sails.’ As we stood in the noon chow line, the humming began to get on my nerves. I was worried that there might be another episode like the one this morning. When portions of baked beans and coleslaw were slopped onto my tray, I opted for a hamburger as before, as did Bernie, with the exception that, like Bernie, I dispensed with the coffee (I was already jittery enough) and drank punch. I wasn’t very hungry this time; neither was Bernie, but it might be a long time before we ate again, so I shoveled it in and tried getting Bernie to eat. For a few moments, he pecked at his food, still humming and looking vacantly around the room.
“Damn it, Bernie,” I whispered, “people are watching. Why are you making that noise?”
“… It’s Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony,” he informed me finally. “It sort’ve stuck in my head.”
“Yeah,” I nodded, “I heard it. My dad plays that stuff, but we’re in the mess hall, Bernie. It sounds weird. Stow it until we get outside.”
“‘Stow it’ is another navy word,” he observed dully, “I heard the instructor use it…. You know a lot of navy words, Noel. I barely know any.”
“Because you daydream in class,” I censured him. “If you paid more attention, you’d understand a lot more about how sailors act.” “You’ve got to talk the talk and walk the walk,” I reminded him. “I’m sorry, but you’re just not cut out for this kind of life!”
“You’re very cruel!” A shadow came over his face. “My mom used to say, ‘the truth shall set you free.”
“Bernie,” I said wryly, “I go to church and attend Sunday school. I remember that saying. You’re mom was quoting Jesus. Jesus said that to Pilate. It’s from the New Testament. After that Jesus was nailed on the cross.”
Bernie looked over at me with a deadpan expression. “Whose Pilate?… Did he fly planes?”
Giggling at his play on words, Bernie grinned foolishly. I was certain he knew who Pilate was. He had lapsed into a silly mood. I stood up that moment and motioned for him to do the same. After dumping our trays in the receptacle, we quickly exited the mess hall. We had, I explained to Bernie, a half-hour to fetch our duffle bags from our lockers, do our business, and arrive at the terminal before 1 o’clock. We talked very little during this time. What more I could say to this troubled youth? I wasn’t a psychiatrist. I scarcely understood what was wrong. I really felt sorry for him. I had the nagging feeling that his mother was much to blame. I had thought that she was nice person. She certainly was a looker!... But that had been the problem, I realized, as we strolled to the terminal to meet Ralph. Louis Suarez had implied that Constance was just another Hawaiian whore. I wondered if Ralph had picked her up in a Honolulu bar, like Harry and his friends had done. Would he still give way and acknowledge his long lost son. Upon reflection, to use a term from Greek mythology, that would be like opening Pandora’s Box.