Someone must have informed on us, I thought grimly, as the men led us away. All I could think of as a possible suspect was one of the men on duty in the visitor’s barracks at Barber’s Point. What I soon discovered, though, was a much simpler explanation.
I was taken into one room and Bernie into another by the two men, who introduced themselves as Agent Connors and Agent Phelps of the FBI. I was terrified when we were separated. I knew it would be much worse for Bernie. When Agent Connors sat me down across from him at a table, I felt like a criminal (which I was in the eyes of the law). I decided straightaway to tell the truth. This fellow would get the truth out of me one-way or the other. I was surprise there wasn’t a lie detector in the room. Without delay, Connors asked me for my wallet. I passed it to him quickly. He rifled through it carefully, finally extracting my military identification.
“It’s true,” he muttered. “You’re not on active duty. You’re just a recruit!” “So tell me young man,” he said, handing back my wallet, “how’d you pull this off?”
“Well sir,” I began nervously, “it’s a long story…. Bernie, a classmate at Los Alamitos, assured me it was a good plan.”
“The plan being impersonating an airman apprentice on active duty and flying illegally on military transports,” summarized the agent. “Was that your plan?”
“I sensed it was wrong,” I tried to explain. “I almost didn’t do it, but he made it sound so reasonable.”
“He being Bernard Suarez,” Agent Connors clarified. “In other words, he talked you into breaking the law. This wasn’t your idea?”
“Right,” I nodded. “I thought it was crazy at first.”
At that moment, I gave the agent a rundown of our caper, from the first hop at Los Alamitos, including Bernie’s airsickness, through our hop from Alamitos to Alameda, including Bernie’s disgraceful behavior, to our experience at Barber’s Point where Bernie’s Uncle Ralph helped us get a hop back to Alameda, where we were arrested by the FBI.
“You’re not under arrest,” he stopped me there. “This is an inquiry.”
“Are we in trouble?” I asked with bated breath.
“What do you think?” He cocked an eyebrow.
I hated it when I asked a question and was asked a question in return. My mom did that a lot. I screwed up my face, thinking deeply on this a moment. I couldn’t squirm out of this. They caught us dead to rights.
“Yes.” I nodded grimly.
“You’re not the only one in trouble young man.” He frowned severely. “You and your cohort incriminated more than a dozen men. If this becomes an issue, your friend’s uncle, those crewmen involved, and anyone else knowing about your subterfuge might be court-marshaled, probably reduced in rank. When you began this insanity, did you even think about this?”
“No,” I relied, my eyes tearing up.
“Are you sorry you broke the law?” he inquired sternly. “Would you consider doing this again?”
“Absolutely not!” I piped, wiping my eyes. “If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t do it at all!”
“Well,” he sighed with resolution, “I have no more questions. The base Captain wants to talk to you. So hold tight. Let’s hope your cohort gives us the same story.”
With a sinking feeling, I considered Bernie’s history. He was, what I would later define as a pathological liar. He had stretched the truth and told outright lies before. I was almost certain he had lied to Agent Phelps. Those moments that I sat in the interrogation room, I reminisced about my short life. All things considered, in spite of my parents and sister, I had a good life, I told myself, much better than poor Bernie, who had been lied to all his life.
Looking through the open door at an officer with captain’s bars on his shoulder, I assumed he was the base Captain. I had half suspected to see Marine guards appear to escort me to the brig. Would they arrive later after he interrogated me? I wondered. He looked really upset. If Bernie stuck to his previous story, it would have only made matters worse. Walking slowly into the room, the captain shut the door behind him and sat across from me as had the agent, folding his arms in the manner of adults in serious discussion
“You know who I am?” he asked, pursing his lips.
“No sir,” I croaked.
“I’m captain William Hayden, Commander of Alameda Naval Air Station. Do you know why the FBI gave you the third degree?”
“Yes sir,” I answered solemnly, “Bernie and I pretended we were airman apprentices who had to meet our squadrons in Hawaii. It was a lie.”
“Tell me the truth young man,” he studied me. “The wasn’t your idea, was it?”
“No sir.” I shrank in my seat.
“It was his lie then,” he concluded. “He talked you into this foolishness, didn’t he?” “Well yes—” I began.
“The story he gave his interrogator was quite fanciful. When the agent asked him where
his ID card was, he was trapped in his lie. It turns out he dropped his card in the barracks. The man on duty reported it missing. He informed me that your friend Bernard Suarez is an airman recruit—a reservists currently on inactive duty.”
“Ohmygawd” I gasped. “How did he not know his card was missing? I keep mine in my wallet unless I’m challenged.”
“I don’t know. That’s not the point.” Captain Hayden’s voice rose angrily. “What amazes us—the United States Navy and Federal Bureau of Investigator—is that two wet-behind-the-ears airman recruits could pull this off without being challenged. Not one person at Los Alamitos, Alameda, and Barber’s Point caught on—not even the crew that brought you here. You are an embarrassment to the navy and federal government.
To my surprise, the captain laughed sourly. “Question is,” he muttered, “what do we do with you? You know how many heads would roll if we court-martialed you now.”
“Lots!” I perked up eagerly.
“You’re one lucky son-of-a-bitch!” He slammed the table with his fist. “Listen to me carefully. For the record you were never here. You were never at Barber’s Point or Los Alamitos either. You never fraudulently flew in naval aircraft—a federal as well as a military offense. You never impersonated a higher grade, also a federal and military offense. Do you understand what I mean?”
“Oh yes sir,” I tried shaking his hand.
Recoiling as if I was a foul thing, he stood up, and in an acid tone, said, “It’s good that you have your civvies on. According to sources, your uniforms indicate that your airman apprentices. You must remedy that when you return home. Now grab your duffle bag and go! If someone asks you why your hitchhiking, tell them that you’re a college student or something—I don’t care. If this leaks back to your home base, Los Alamitos, they’ll be hell to pay. We at Alameda don’t know you!”
“What about Bernie Suarez?” I asked almost as a second thought.
“Don’t worry about that young man,” he said dismissively. “He’s going home too. I heard his uncle is picking him up. His mother will arrange things from there. Take my advice, Mister Bridger, stay away from him. Bernard Suarez is not your friend. When they cornered him in his lie, he blamed you for everything. He even ratted on his uncle and the other men who facilitated your hops. You didn’t incriminate anyone. You just told the truth. Now go home and finish high school.”
“What’s going to happen to Bernie?”
“After his breakdown in front of the agents and myself, he will be given a psychological examination. It’s better than going to Levenworth. That young man is a lit fuse. Because he’s a reservist still in school, though, I’m recommending that he be released from the service with a general discharge. He’s damn lucky that he doesn’t go to prison or get a BCD.”
“You were merciful to me kind sir,” I said with a bow.
“No son,” his voice softened, “I’m being logical. You haven’t been logical, have you? You let an unbalanced, immature teenager talk you into breaking the law. Alas, though, you’re a teenager too—same age as my daughter and a high school student to boot.” “Go home,” he repeated, pointing to the door. “You can play sailor in a couple of years. Finish being a kid!”
I thanked him profusely again. He waved me off as a trifling nuisance, brushed ahead of me and vanished forever from my life. I would never see Bernie again either. I was satisfied that we had escaped prosecution. Despite everything that happened, I could continue being a recruit until making airman apprentice. Apparently no record would be kept of my part of the crime. It was enough that Bernie, whom the authorities considered a worse felon, would be given a general release from the service rather than a bad conduct discharge. I’m still not certain whether his release was a section eight discharge or simply one of those ‘swept under the rug’ affairs. When I exited the room, under guard by two burly Marines, still in my civvies, with my duffle bag slung over my shoulder, I was led straight out to the main gate and unceremoniously deposited at the bus stop. Knowing that my twelve dollars wouldn’t get my back to Whittier, California, I found it strange that they expected me to take a bus all the way home. I was aware of the fact, from the lectures at Los Alamitos that the navy officially frowned on hitchhiking because of the potential dangers, but I had seen sailors and soldiers, as well as civilians, hitchhiking many times. Servicemen, Chief Crump had admitted, were particularly susceptible to being mugged, but tonight, as I slinked passed the gate to a likely spot and stuck out my thumb, I would try hitchhiking as a civilian. Motorists might very well assume that I was a college student or rover too poor to ride public transportation…. Once again, however, I had guessed wrong.