Not long after I began waiting for a ride, a car slowed down, stopping ahead of me on the side of the road. It seemed to good to believe. I had just left the base, and already I had a ride. At first, as I heard loud music and laughter from inside the vehicle, I filled with deja vu. Bernie and my experience with the native Hawaiians in Ewa flashed into my mind. I paused just long enough for one a young man to get out of the car and shout, “Are you coming or not?” Trotting toward a black late model Cadillac, I sized up my situation: these people weren’t angry Hawaiian men in a ramshackle car; they sounded like young people, like myself, out for the night in Daddy’s car, which, because it was a Monday, not the weekend, weren’t anymore serious about school than me. I had seen these types in my own high school. Many of them were spoiled rich kids with a devil-may-care attitude. Though they were my kindred spirits, I shied away from them at parties or when I saw then carousing in town, and yet I envied those carefree youths. The guys were wild and the girls were fast—too wild and fast for me. Sliding into the front seat, next to a drunken coed, I felt a thrill of excitement. Oddly enough, I also felt very stupid for getting into the car. As soon as the driver (also quite drunk) took off from the curb, my thrill quickly faded to fear.
“Here,” the girl said, handing me the bottle, “have a shwig!”
Against my better judgment I raised the bottle up and was startled by its familiar smell. It wasn’t Canadian Club Scotch, the liquor my dad drank. This was a brand called John Paul Jones, probably cheap stuff. As the night before I embarked upon my adventure, it had a nasty, burning flavor as it gushed down my throat. I made a face, shook my head, sticking out my tongue.
“Damn,” I lied, “that’s good scotch!”
The girl and her friends—the driver and two couples crammed in the back seat—giggled at my reaction. “Thas ride,” her voice slurred heavily, “bud I thod you shailors like beer!”
“How did you know I was a sailor?” I gave her a troubled look.
“Shimple,” explained the coed, “thad wuz Alameda bag there—a shailor base. You thing we’re stubid?”
I was, as in Ewa, in a car with drunken merrymakers. I also noted, as I had back in Oahu, a hostile tinge to her voice. The driver, as inebriated as the others, was speeding recklessly down the road, perhaps for my benefit. The Hawaiians had also tried to scare me. Unlike my experience with scotch before, the swig I took had hardly taken effect. The adrenaline was pumping too fast and furious in my system, I was scared out of my wits, and I had no intention of getting smashed. All I wanted to do was get home—in one piece. But already in my journey home I had made a dreadful mistake.
“You shouldn’t be driving?” I blurted as the car drifted over into the other lane.
“Yeah Carl, shtay on the road!” a voice from the back seat blared.
I remember him crossing a bridge, turning sharply right and speeding down a highway. As the occupants in the vehicle broke into two camps, I heard names shouted back and forth. Todd, Muriel, Rick, and Ellen, who sat crammed in the backseat, wanted Carl to slow down. In the front seat Anita (who sat next to me) and Carl, the maniac driver, didn’t. Most of us begged him to slow down, but Carl, who sat behind the wheel, had the deciding vote. Soon, it felt as though we were going hundred miles per hour down the road, and, after a few moments, even his girlfriend Anita was alarmed at his speed. He wanted to terrorize me. It seemed like pure insanity, but I could think of no other motive. Perhaps he had experiences with sailors in his community as had the residents of Ewa. If this was the case, it was totally unfair. I wasn’t even out of high school yet, and I was being blamed for sailors’ behavior. The only satisfaction I had was that everyone else had turned against Carl, too. The boys pounded on his back and the girls yanked his hair, but to no avail. Carl, now on a path of destruction, wasn’t listening. Turning sharply right again, the Cadillac careened around the corner. Everyone in the car screamed as he raced he car down a hill at breakneck speed.
“Let me out! Let me out!” I shrieked.
“Ohmagawd!” cried Muriel.
“We’re gonna crash!” shouted Todd.
I pause to remind the reader that there were no seat belts in 1960. Of course that would make no difference if the vehicle rolled over and burst into flames. At this point, as we plunged into the night, everyone lost it, especially Carl’s girl friend Anita, who appeared to have wet her pants. Slowing down to avoid hitting a dog crossing the road, Carl swerved around the beast and wound up plowing through a barbed wire fence. I looked ahead and, to my amazement, saw the faint sheen of waves ahead. Suddenly the Cadillac was crashing into the surf. If it had not been for the headlights, it would be almost pitch dark. Luckily it was low tide. Mired in the sand, the vehicle might be slammed with waves at any moment. Jumping out of the car with my duffle bag, which had sat on my lap for protection, I fled the vehicle, with only my shoes soaked with salt water.
“Now you did it!” Anita wailed, her slur almost gone. “You wrecked your dad’s car. He’ll kill you!”
The other youths, also sobered by the calamity, piled in on Carl, calling him all sorts of names. I could see a lonely street light up the hill on which we detoured, but it was down the road a ways. It wasn’t going to be easy. Huffing and puffing, as I charged up the slope, I prayed for deliverance again. I wasn’t even sure where I was now. How would I ever make it home in time if I had such delays? I almost ran into the barbed wire fence, and was saved by the merest glint of light. Lifting my leg gingerly over the wire, I emerged intact on the side of the fence where the Cadillac plowed through. The road ascending the hill was almost totally dark, except for two pinpoints of light at the top. The lights grew and grew and became headlights. A spotlight shot out from the driver’s side of the vehicle. I froze momentarily where I was, wondering what other horror would befall me now. I could hear voices behind me, echoing from the beach, and then I broke into a trot, opting for the strangers ahead.
When the headlights were blindingly close, I shielded my eyes, and stood my ground. A gruff, baritone voice shouted, “Hey kid, come here!” Walking cautiously to the source of the voice, which was on the passenger’s side, I looked in and discovered two men in uniform. This time, to my relief, they weren’t military. On the door it read ‘California Highway Patrol.’ I don’t remember ever being so happy to see the police.
“What’re you doing here kid?” the officer grumbled. “Didn’t you see the sign on the fence? That’s private property. You’re trespassing. Can I see some ID.”
I handed him my wallet and jingled my dog tags just for good measure. The first patrolman mumbled something to the driver, the beam of a flashlight gave my wallet a brief inspection, and then my wallet was quickly returned.
“All right,” the first patrolman grunted, “you’re in the navy. What’re you doing here? Are you lost?”
“Officer,” I began, glancing back into the dark, “I was hitchhiking, and I was picked up by drunken teenagers, who drove their car into the surf. Please give me a ride to the main highway? I gotta get back home for school.”
“Tell you what sport,” replied the patrolman behind the wheel, “that’s navy property down there. It’s probably those navy brats on a drunken spree. Climb in the back. We’ll call the station at Alameda. Let them handle this.”
Tossing my duffle bag in first, I slid in, heaving a sigh of relief. The Marine Lieutenant in Ewa and Harry’s wife in Honolulu had rescued me. Now two more good Samaritans had crossed my path. The officer behind the wheel made a call over his radio to the shore patrol headquarters at Alameda. Without further delay, he did a u-turn on the road and drove back up the hill to the highway, turning right, which I hoped was heading south. On the way, the two patrolmen said very little. Before they drove a ways down the road and dropped me off, however, I tried engaging them in conversation. The first officer I had talked to looked back at me and shook his head.
“What are navy brats?” I broke the silence. “Are they servicemen’s kids from Alameda Naval Air Station?”
“They’re the children of officers,” he clarified curtly, “high-ranking men. Most enlisted men’s kids don’t act like that!”
“That was awful.” I shuddered. “I thought we were going to crash.”
“You did crash,” he replied. “You’re lucky the car didn’t roll over and catch fire!”
“Yeah,” I said, I reflecting upon my close calls. “I’ve been lucky so far.”
“You’re damn lucky, boy,” he scolded. “You shouldn’t be hitch-hiking. You’re fortunate we picked you up. Next time you might get mugged, maybe killed.”
“Yeah,” I mentally shrugged, “but I have to hitchhike. It’s the only way I can get home.”
“We understand that,” the driver nodded with understanding, “I did it myself in the army, but it’s still dangerous. Rule number one: look at the car and see whose inside. If the car’s filled with people, it’s probably joy riders or hell-raisers. Rule number two: look in at the driver, himself: does he or she look sober, and is the driver acting strange. You don’t want to get picked up by a psycho or queer. Rule number three: When you’re picked up by someone you thought you could trust and they start acting weird, tell them you need to make a restroom stop. Don’t piss them off. Make sure it’s at a gas station or at least a well-lit area. Rule number four: Avoid hot rods and low-riders. There’s two reasons to avoid such cars. Hot rods drive too fast; you might get some smart aleck showing off to this girlfriend. Often a low rider is filled with Mexicans. During the war in Oakland, I remember the Zoot Suit riots. Servicemen hitchhiking were killed by gangs. This happened all over the country. It’s starting up again in these parts, only they have names, like the Desperados and the Vigilantes. Some folks hate servicemen, especially sailors. If you see a hot rod or low rider turn, pull in your thumb, and get off the road!”
“All right officer.” I rolled my eyes.
When they finally dropped me in a well-lit portion of Alameda County, I was even more nervous than before. I thanked the patrolmen and promised to be careful. I never really considered such factors as the number of people in a car, what they looked like, how they acted, or whether the vehicle pulling over was a low rider or hot rod. As the highway patrol drove away, I looked with greater dread at the road ahead. I would try to remember everything I was told, but what if someone picked me up that didn’t send up a red flag, as the officer suggested, and all of sudden they went berserk. We servicemen were at the mercy of drivers when picked up. I didn’t realize until my experiences at Ewa and then Alameda how much some people hated us. It dawned on me that the patrolmen could have added another rule: don’t hitchhike alone. I remember seeing servicemen, two or more, trying to hitch a ride. This, of course, might discourage some motorists, but I would take advantage of this situation whenever I could.
After the patrolman’s lecture, I felt vulnerable. Bernie and I had been careless that first night on the beach when we climbed into a car full of drunken Hawaiians. Tonight, as if I hadn’t learned a listen, I climbed into a car of drunken teens. But as far as I was concerned, I was a civilian again. No one had to know I was in the navy. Unfortunately, I carried one item of navy issue that might give me away. If it hadn’t been for my duffle bag, I could fool them. The letters USN were stenciled on the strap, a dead giveaway. Somehow I would try to hide this acronym.
Though I had been dropped off between a gas station and motel, there were only a few cars on the road and no other pedestrians about. It occurred to me, as I stood on this lonely stretch of road, that I might be waiting a long time for a ride. It was late at night. It was nearly four hundred miles from my hometown and I had to be in class at 8 am Monday morning. My perfect attendance award now seemed like a futile dream…. And then once again, after a semi truck, Greyhound bus, and two automobiles passed by, a small sports car pulled suddenly off the road. It seemed to come out of nowhere. My mind had been dulled by lack of sleep and the long wait by the highway, so I was startled out of my wits. The last time I saw an MG was in my high school parking lot, a sports car owned by one of the rich kids at my school. It was so tiny no more than two average sized teens could fit inside. I pondered how I might fit into such a small vehicle with my duffle bag, hesitating as I bent down and looked into the car. After a moment of deliberation, I realized it was a woman driving. At a glance she was an attractive blond in flashy clothes. A pungent perfume filled my nostrils, the kind of scent worn by fast girls at school. Judging by the patrolman’s rules, this seemed like a good sign. He hadn’t mentioned a female driver. She was alone in the car, she wasn’t driving a hot rod or low rider, and I didn’t smell alcohol when I shoved my duffle bag behind the cramped seats, and squeezed into the car. What I failed to note yet, however, was the voice. That gave me a jolt.
“I’m Noel Bridger,” I chimed, offering my hand.
“Steve Wade,” he replied, giving me a firm handshake.”
“Oh dear me,” I muttered in shock. “…. Masquerade party, right?” I was flabbergasted. Not knowing what else to say, I chattered nervously. “Halloween is my favorite holiday—I love to dress up. Last time I went as Zorro. Rusty, my best friend, went in drag.”
“No-no!” He chortled in a masculine voice. “Like sailors and soldiers, I wear a uniform. These are my work clothes. I’m a female impersonator at Finocchio’s in San Francisco.”
“Really?” I replied stupidly. ‘I saw the cartoon. Is this one is a musical? Is Geppetto in it too?”
Chattering in embarrassment a moment about how much I loved Pinocchio, it gradually dawned on me that was behaving like an ass.
“You don’t understand Noel,” he said patiently. “It’s Finocchio, not Pinocchio, and Finocchio isn’t a cartoon. I’m not in a musical. This is what I do for a living. Along with several other players, I perform in drag. Some of us are comedians, some dance, and others sing. I do magic and illusion. Instead of having a female assistant in a sexy dress, one of the players in a tuxedo assists me.”
This was utterly strange to me. I showed my ignorance again by giggling hysterically. The patrol had warned me of drivers exhibiting weird behavior. I wasn’t sure if that included female impersonators, but I had been caught off guard. Each time I opened my mouth, that proverbial foot filled it. I wanted to say something clever, but I was embarrassed. So, instead, I said something even more stupid than before.
“Wow!” I exclaimed, scratching my head. “That’s fantastic. Really it is. I’ve never known a female impersonator. You have great courage, Steve. There’s a boy at school who’s queer. His name’s Harland Biggs. His parents are the richest people in town. He gets straight A’s, but is always getting teased. Those guys are really mean. Once, on campus, they gave him a wedgie, and I saw him get pantsed during gym—”
“Hold on, young man,” Steve interrupted. “I’m not a homosexual. It’s my work. I have a wife and daughter. I like women just like you.”
“Whoa, that’s incredible.” I sighed with relief. “Your wife doesn’t mind? She must really be cool. You must get a lot of money doing that. I bet you’re good. Someday, when I’m in San Francisco, I’ll visit Finnochio’s.”
you twenty-one years old?” He looked over and smiled. “You have to be
twenty-one to enter a nightclub in California.”
“No, I’m eighteen,” I shrugged. “In Hawaii I could buy liquor. Here in California I’m just a kid.”
“What were you doing in Hawaii?” he asked with surprise. “Is that where you’ve been?”
“It’s a long story,” I began, stifling a yawn.
I was tempted to tell him what happened, but then, remembering Captain Hayden’s warning, bit my lip and gave him an ambiguous summary of my trip. I admitted that I was on navy business, but failed to mention I was a reservist and recruit, who, in league with Bernie Suarez, broke military and federal laws. I left out the most interesting elements of the story, such as our close call in Ewa and being chased by the shore patrol at Waikiki Beach, also downplaying our flights to Alameda and Barber’s Point. I didn’t want Steve to think I was a fool. And though I mentioned our visit to Honolulu, playing up its bright lights and swarm of sailors and tourists, most of my recollections were when it was night on the beach and Bernie and I were thoroughly drunk. Rather than admit I was so stupid, I played up the spectacular silhouette of Diamond Head in the moonlight and the sheen of lunar light on the surf. My favorite part, the ride in the nose cone of a P2V, would have complicated my story too much, but I did tell him about our harrowing experience with six drunken teenagers and my rescue by the highway patrol.
Soon after relating my abbreviated account, Steve lapsed into moody silence. After he turned on the car radio, we listened to classical music. He had a long drive home, he explained. I had no idea how far that might take me on my own journey; I was just thankful I was making progress. Each mile got me closer to my destination. I was so drowsy now the music and quiet lulled me into slumber. I awakened suddenly after being shaken gently awake. Steve announced that we were in Santa Cruz, where his family lived. I glanced at my watch and realized it was only midnight. I was disappointed he hadn’t taken me further, but I had eight hours to reach my goal. I thanked this good Samaritan and promised to visit Finnochio’s when I turned twenty-one.
Perhaps on purpose after seeing my sleepy face, Steve let me off beside a Denny’s restaurant in his town, where I bought a cup of coffee. It was nice to sit down in a booth and be served, even for a short time. The waitress, a plump, sour-faced, middle-age lady with graying hair and a gap between her two front teeth, was just the sort of person I would expect to be waiting on me this late at night. There seemed to be no one else in the restaurant, except an old man eating a piece of pie nearby and, across the room, a huge fat man chowing down on a plateful of food. Inspired by the old man, I ordered a slice of apple pie, devouring it within moments when it was set down. Though she was in a bad mood, I was cheerful to the waitress, and placed a quarter on the table before I left. Today that would be considered insulting to a waitress, but for a twenty-five-cent cup of coffee and fifty cent piece of pie in 1960 that wasn’t bad. I still had over eight dollars left from my original sum.
As I strolled down the highway, with my duffle bag slung over my shoulder, I felt rejuvenated. A simple cup of coffee and piece of pie had done the trick. I had been fortunate being picked up by a kindly female impersonator. After only a short while of strolling south and seeing vehicle after vehicle pass me by, I looked up from the sidewalk and saw another car pulling over. My luck seemed to have changed since Steve picked me up. Already, another good Samaritan had appeared.
Recalling the motorists the patrolman warned me to avoid, I looked into the Mercedes Benz and discovered an attractive woman behind the wheel. I wondered why someone like her would pick up a hitchhiker. She acted normal at first and didn’t appear to be drunk, and yet almost immediately, with me trapped in the car, her personality began to change.
“My name’s Noel Bridger,” I offered my hand.
“Dotty Simms,” she snorted, her hands still clutching the wheel.
“How far are you going?” I blurted, glancing again at my watch.
“A ways,” she replied evasively. “Where you headed?”
“Whittier.” I piped cheerily. “That’s my hometown.”
“Never heard of it.” She snarled. “What’s in your bag?”
“My uniform and gear.” I gave it a pat. “I was in Hawaii over the weekend. I gotta get back to school.”
“How old are you?” She frowned.
“…Eighteen.” I answered hesitantly.
Considering her looks, I might have told her I was twenty-one, but she wouldn’t have believed me. I couldn’t fool a wily female like her. In fact, everyone I had met so far thought Bernie and I were a couple of wet-behind-the-ears kids. For a few more moments we lapsed into silence. My head dropped lower and lower as I began to doze. She hadn’t answered my question on how far she was going. Until she began talking to herself, I had hoped it would be quite a ways.
“That no good son of a bitch!” Dotty muttered.
“Huh? Excuse me?” I jerked awake.
“Men are all the same!” she heaved a pent-up sigh
“Well,” I thought quickly, “technically, I’m still a teenager, so I don’t count.”
“You got the hardware, don’t ya?” she replied accusingly. “You eighteen year olds are in your prime. After that, it’s down hill. I know sonny; I got a kid like you. He got his girlfriend pregnant. He ain’t the only one either. My old man got his girlfriend pregnant too. Pow! I’m suddenly a grandma, aunt, and mother.” “Can you beat that?” she slammed the steering wheel.
“Hey, calm down!” I bolted in my seat.
Feeling the vehicle accelerate and the back of my neck bang the seat, I realized she had floored it. As I had before in Alameda with those drunken kids, I panicked, begging her to let me out of the car, but she continued to rant and rave about her no good husband and shiftless son.
“He never loved me,” she wailed. “He married me for my money, my knockers, and my ass. He’s no good. None of them are.”
Money, knockers, and ass might sound like good qualifications to many guys, but this woman had seen better days. She was, upon closer inspection, hard-looking. Her face was plastered with too much makeup and her fragrance was a pungent perfume I had smelled on loose girls as school. Far more important than these idle observations was her behavior and the fact she was driving too fast. When it appeared that she was set on a suicidal course of action, I could scarcely understand her ramblings because my heart was beating so fast. Then suddenly, when her Mercedes had reached its limit of speed, a siren sounded in the distance. I looked back hopefully through the back window. Once more the arm of the law I had feared in Hawaii was coming to my rescue. I realized, of course, that this discovery would mean nothing if we crashed and burned.
“Please stop!” I screamed. “You can’t outrun the police. Pull over and let me out!”
“Oh, why do I keep making the same mistakes?” She groaned, gnashing her teeth. “My life is one big pile of shit!”
This is it, I told myself. I would pay for my folly. I thought about my misspent youth, regretting I ever met Bernie Suarez. Closing my eyes tightly, I prayed feverishly. I remember uttering the Lord’s Prayer and my childhood prayer (Now I lay me down to sleep…) and then bawling loudly as we flew down the road. I was certain she would careen off one of the cliffs south of Santa Cruz and I would die a horrible death, until in gradual increments the car decelerated, the siren was right behind us, and the woman pulled finally off the road. Jumping out the Mercedes with my duffle bag, I shouted angrily, “That woman’s crazy! She’s out of her mind!”
Two officers emerged from the vehicle. One highway patrolman, with his gun drawn, ordered her to get out of her Mercedes. The other patrolman told me to calm down and move away from the car. Soon a second patrol car arrived on the scene. Quickly, as I stood by the first car, Dotty was handcuffed, and shoved in back. I moved nervously over to the second car, wondering if I would be arrested too.
“I’m US Navy,” I called out anxiously. “I just want to get home.”
One of the officers from the second group nodded and pointed to his vehicle. “Get in kid. We’ll take you to the next town.”
I looked up at heaven dramatically. “Oh, thank you! Thank you!” I cried deliriously.
Without a backward glance, clutching my duffle bag, I scrambled into the backseat. As the two highway patrolman slid into the front seat, my gratitude exploded in a flood of words. Both men glanced back with mirth, as the patrol car took off, and shook their heads.
“Got yourself a live one, eh kid?” the driver snickered, looking into his rearview mirror.
“She was nuts!” I shuddered. “You men saved my life. You’re not the first. It seems like somebody’s always there to save me!”
“Well, think of us as your guardian angels!” the second patrol exclaimed.
Once again, I was rescued by the highway patrol. It does seem, as I look back, that there was someone there at every turn to pull me out of a jam. When we reached Watsonville, I was ready for another stretch of road. Considering all my rescuers, it seemed that the Good Lord was watching over me, and yet my optimism began to wane as I waited by the road. There were even less vehicles on the highway at this late hour, most of them semi trucks with drivers who seemed to ignore hitchhikers. At first the area where I had been dropped off seemed to fit the criteria for a good place to hitch a ride. It was well lit with street lamps and hillside homes, and it was surrounded by trees I could run into in case I had to escape, but it was also quite dead. Though the street lamps provided ample light, the storefronts were dark. Not so much as a dog or cat was about. Glancing at my watch after a while, I discovered to my dismay that it was now 2 am, which meant I had six hours to get to school and save my perfect attendance. Fatigue, the long hours of travel, and apparent futility of it all swept over me suddenly.
“Why do I even care?” I shook my fist at the sky.
From the nearby hills echoes resounded: “Why do I even care? Why do I even care?”
“Because I’m stupid!” I shouted back angrily. “I’m an underachiever, a slacker. Why am I killing myself? I’m not going to make it. There’s not enough time!”
“Because I’m stupid!” came my echo “I’m an underachiever, a slacker. Why am I killing myself? I’m no going to make it. There’s not enough time!”
On and on the echoes boomed from hill to hill and through the sleeping town. In fitful distraction I began singing Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti at the top of my lungs. This time the echoes were louder as they bounced eerily through the landscape and town. Suddenly an old man appeared that moment in his pajamas and robe, shaking his cane and cursing fitfully under his breath.
“Young man! Are you drunk?” he exploded. “Do you know what time it is? It’s 2 am. Stop that racket at once or I’ll call the police!”
“I’m sorry,” I said glumly. “I lost it a moment. I just want to get home. Don’t call the police. I’m just so very tired.”
He squinted nearsightedly at me a moment, his rage softening to a scowl. Coming close enough to study the strap on my duffle bag, he shook his head. “A sailor, eh? You don’t look old enough to be in the navy. You’re just a kid. I was in the Great War, just a kid, myself—army though. I killed me a few Krauts!” “Well, I need my rest, sonny.” He smiled wearily, his voice fading in the night. “…. I hope you get a ride soon, but it don’t look likely in this neck of the woods. The only ones coming through here this late are truckers. Because it’s downhill, they’re usually driving pretty fast…”
On that note, the old man disappeared into the shadows whence he had come, still muttering to himself. Standing there in this barren town those moments made me feel as if I was the last soul on earth. In spite of my pie, I was still hungry. I wanted to lie down in some nook and sleep until dawn. But I was on a mission. “I gotta get a ride!” I muttered deliriously. “I gotta be on time!”
After an indeterminate period of time in which I seemed to be sleeping on my feet, I was rudely shaken awake. Upon hearing the roar of an engine and loud hiss of hydraulic brakes, I looked out to see a semi-truck looming on the road.
“Hop in kid!” a voice bellowed. “Make it quick!”
With my duffle bag in my grip, I ran happily to the truck, handed the bag up to the driver, and then climbed up the ladder into the cab. Usually large trucks with trailers traveled great distances, so I expected to gain time to meet my goal. In fact, however, he drove only to King City where he had to unload his trailer. Though he was a friendly fellow, he smoked constantly and played contemporary jazz on his radio. In spite of his cheerful banter, this combination wore on me after awhile. I opened my window a crack and pretended to like his music, but the truth was it was like a form of torture. I had experimented with smoking myself, but he smoked cigarillos, which were much stronger and smellier than cigarettes.
As a typical redneck, his subject was sex. He told me a few crude jokes and then related a series of one-night stands he had with women. I had never heard such nasty stories. His vocabulary was worse than the sailors I overheard at Alameda and Barber’s Point. When we reached the middle of King City, he turned left on a side street, let me off on the corner, and swung his truck and its cargo onto a ramp where a crew waited to unload his goods. Before dropping me off he gave me an apple he had been saving for a snack and wished me luck. I would need it. It was, I noted on my watch, 3:00 am. I had only five hours to meet my goal. After watching the men unload his trailer a moment, feeling detached and numb with exhaustion, I ambled down the highway until reaching the crest of a hill. Looking down at this sleepy town, I admired its inhabitants as they snuggled safely in their beds. Now, as I scanned up and down the highway, the road seemed totally barren of traffic. Who on earth would be awake and driving at this hour?
My pessimism was understandable. I had only five hours to reach my house and then run madly to class. There was no time to stop at an all night diner for a sandwich and cup of coffee. I had to keep moving even it meant I would walk some of the. When I was walking, I was doing all I could to make my deadline. I might not meet it, but at least I tried. That train of though gave me bitter comfort, as I trekked south. For just a moment as I reached the outskirts of this community, I stopped at a bus stop, hoping one ran this late. I had eight dollars and some change left. That should get me pretty far, I reasoned, as I sat down. With my duffle bag on my lap as a pillow, I lay my head down and fell asleep. I don’t know how long I had slept. A fleeting dream played in my head those moments. I was back at Alameda Naval Air Station, but this time I was being hauled off in chains. In the background Bernie was yelling, “It’s all his fault. He did it!” I found myself suddenly in a dark unfriendly jail cell. Bristly chinned men leered like jackals at me as if they had just been tossed fresh meat. Someone shouted into my dream, “Hey, you want a ride.” After hearing the other meaning of that expression at school, I screamed to my tormentors, “No, no, I want to go home!” I awakened on my duffle bag, hearing those same words, “Hey, you want a ride?” and looking up, saw a Ford Bel Air idling on the curb. I couldn’t see the diver yet, but the voice, though high pitched and lilting, sounded like a man’s. Instinctively now, I glanced at my watch. Relieved that I had only lost fifteen minutes, I tossed my gear in back and slid into the front seat.
“Where you going sailor?” he asked immediately. “I’m going as far as Santa Barbara. I could drop you off there.”
“Super!” I exclaimed. “I might just make it now.”
“Where you heading?” he became inquisitive. “Are you on leave?”
“I live in Whittier,” I explained wearily. “I must get home on time.”
“My-my,” he giggled, “you are in a hurry.”
A twinge of déjà vu fell over me suddenly as I studied the man. Was he on the patrolman’s list? I wondered. He’s certainly gave me the creeps. Though he was almost bald, his face reminded me of Bernie. Like Bernie, he grinned too much, and there was a girlish lilt to his voice. As there had been in Bernie’s uncle’s house, a red flag went up in my mind. I was certain I could defend myself if he turned out to be a predator, but I was still trapped if he went berserk like Carl, the teenage driver, or Dotty, the demented blond, who picked me up in Santa Cruz. Because I was desperate now, I decided to be as polite as possible until reaching the dropping off point. What could he do to me, I reasoned, as long as he was driving the car? I introduced myself as simply Noel. His name was Chuck. His limp handshake raised another flag in my mind. He asked far too many questions for my state of mind: Where was I from? What did I do in the navy? Did I play football or baseball? Why was I in such a hurry to get home? I answered all his questions vaguely, especially the last one. Remembering Captain Hayden’s warning again, I explained why I had traveled to Hawaii too. To satisfy his curiosity, I related Bernie’s original version of us having to meet our squadron, leaving the impression that I was, in fact, on leave now. I bragged about my life on the USS Hornet, which, ironically, would be my ship one day. At the time, I knew nothing about aircraft carriers and relied on information my instructor gave me at Los Alamitos Naval Air Station. The answer to his question why I was in a hurry to get home, however, I couldn’t explain very well. A sailor on leave wouldn’t be worried about perfect attendance. “I just have to!” I shrugged. It was an outright lie—all of it, but what did it matter, I thought, staring vacantly out the window. I would never see this man again.
“My goodness.” He clasped his hands. “You’re a busy fellow!”
“Yeah,” I murmured drowsily, “an old salt!”
“But you don’t look old enough to have done all that,” he eyed me slyly.
“Please,” I groaned, “I’m so tired. Can I take a little nap.”
“Of course,” he nodded amiably, “I’ll awaken you when w reach our destination.”
“Yes, yes,” I nodded impatiently, “in Santa Barbara. Thanks for the ride Chuck.”
I was relieved he hadn’t tried anything funny. I slept for over an hour, awakening with a jolt as the car stopped at a light. When I glanced at my watch, it read four fifteen. I looked up to see a cityscape, similar to Santa Cruz. I had made another milestone in my journey: Santa Barbara. Abruptly, though, as I awakened fully and remembered where I was at, I realized we were turning onto a side street. One more red flag shot up in my head when Chuck stopped and, while I was still half asleep, popped the question.
“Oh my god!” I recoiled, reaching to grab my duffle bag and scrambling out his car. “Get away from you foul thing!”
I remembered that line from a horror movie. It had been leveled at vampire then, but in my mind Chuck was worse. As I was waking up, he had taken advantage of me. As in the case of Bernie, I had suspected Chuck was strange, but wasn’t sure of his motives. I would never have made an issue of his peculiarities had he left me alone. Charging angrily toward the highway, I put distance between Chuck and myself. I was a short ways from the corner when I glanced back and saw the Chevrolet Bel Air racing toward me. Just in the knick of time, as he sped past, I dodged onto someone’s yard. Shouting obscenities at me, as he drove over the lawn and knocked down a picket fence, I saw lights appear in the resident’s windows and heard voices inside, but stood there trembling until the vehicle was out of sight. Quickly then, before they emerged from their house, I ran to the corner, looked both ways, and, so I would facing traffic instead of being ambushed from behind, ran back across the street. Fearful that Chuck would come back to terrorize me, I stood there a moment, keeping a vigil of both the north and south directions of the highway. From this point on, until I felt safe, I would be jumpy each time I saw a car in the distance.
Finally, when it seemed prudent, I crossed the street to begin hitchhiking again. I must have walked over a mile that hour before another vehicle appeared on the horizon. Darting into an alley and peeking around the corner, I waited until I could discern the make and model of the car. There were a lot of Bel Airs on the road, even white ones like Chuck’s. When it was close enough, I was greatly relief to see a blue Ford Fairlane. Had the driver seen me peeking around the corner? I wondered then, trotting out with duffle bag in tow. As I approached the Ford, three Marines in uniform emerged from the front and back seat. I remember thinking earlier how safe it would be to hitchhike with other sailors, but I hadn’t considered the prospects of thumbing a ride with Marines. The motorist, who must have lived in Santa Barbara, drove on, leaving the three Marines on the curb, only a few yards from where I stood.
“Hello, my names Noel Bridger.” I stuck out my hand.
There was no response.
“I live in Whittier, California.” I announced cheerily. “Where do you guys live?”
Again there was no response.
The three men walked passed me as if I wasn’t even there. They were in surly moods. I followed several feet behind them. After listening to them talk back and forth, I was able to attach the correct name to each Marine. The hefty fellow with dark piercing eyes was called Doug, the tall, buck-toothed, freckly-faced fellow was Dick, and the short guy with glasses was Bill. I gathered from their conversation, why I was so unwelcome. With me added to their group, there would now be four men for a motorist to pick up. It seemed logical to me to slow down and let them walk ahead of me for another mile, in order to grab the first good Samaritan. In fact, I reasoned, I had the advantage on the highway. I just hoped that Chuck wouldn’t return and attempt once more to run me down. I was light-headed with fatigue. Upon seeing another bench on the sidewalk, I sat down to wait. I tried to be positive now. Surely, in this larger town, there must be early risers. It occurred to me that I might even catch a bus at this hour. After looking back at the bus schedule posted by the bench, I discovered that the first bus didn’t arrive until 5:30 am. “What’s wrong with your people?” I shouted out loud. “Even in Whittier, that Quaker town, the buses run around the clock!” As I sat cursing my fate, I saw a vehicle emerge from a cross street and head south.
“Oh shit!” I yelped, jumping up and dashing up the street. Fearful that Chuck was coming back for another try, I ran into the alley I had hidden in before. Watching with wide unblinking eyes, as the vehicle approached, I waited until I could see it clearly. A pink Buick Century four door now drove slowly down the highway. Heaving a huge sigh, I emerged with my duffle bag, not sure what the motorist had in mind. Why was the car driving so slowly? Was he or she drunk? I wondered. I had learned by experience to be on guard when an automobile pulled over. I recalled the patrolman’s warning about suspicious behavior. Not everyone was a good Samaritan. During the wee hours, crazed, angry, or drunk motorists prowled the highway. This time, as I looked into the vehicle, I saw another woman—this one young, perhaps in her twenties. Wordlessly, with a mere smile, she beckoned me in. In the shadow of the vehicle the details were vague, but as I scooted in, I was greeted with an attractive girl with short, frosted hair, wearing casual slacks and blouse. Another red flag, that was perhaps of smaller size than the last, surfaced in my mind that moment. I was aware that servicemen were often picked up by loose women, and this is exactly what was happening now. I couldn’t help being tempted by this lady. Like Chuck, she was going to pop the question. I remember introducing myself, shaking her hand, and learning that her name was Candy Cane (obviously a fictitious name). I was so excited I could scarcely talk. Working against my adolescent hormones were the V.D. films shown to eighth graders at East Whittier Junior High and the warnings I heard from Chief Crump in my recruit class.
“Do you want to go to my place?” she finally asked.
“Huh?” My eyes popped wide. “Really?”
“Yes,” she purred. “It’s just up the street a ways. Afterwards, I’ll take you to the next town.”
Upon closer inspection, she wore far too much makeup, her perfume was a stinky musk scent, and there was a haunted look in her gaze. Despite her exterior and smell, her voice belied her appearance. If my eyes were closed, she would have reminded me of my first crush: Maryanne Benson. Unfortunately, however, my eyes weren’t closed—this woman was very likely a prostitute or nymphomaniac. I had to make up my mind very soon, before she took me home.
What changed everything and saved me from doing something foolish, was the appearance down the road of the three Marines. I would have mixed feelings about this for years to come, but that moment I was glad to see those men. Immediately, as I suspected, her green eyes lit up as she spotted the men. In civilian dress with a duffle bag with USN stenciled on the strap I was no match for men in uniforms, especially Marines. Pulling over ahead of them, she waited with bated breath, panting like my pet dog. Though delivered from foolishness, I felt diminished as the Marines piled in with their duffle bags. To allow room for all our gear, I was forced next to her thigh. My hand fell on her knee, as she invited the Marines over to her place. I would remember this as one of those ‘what-could-have-been’ episodes. There was hardly any discussion now, as she raced down the boulevard. She meant business. The Marines meant business. I wanted out of the car. As she began turning wheel, I called out in a croaking voice, “This is my stop. Please let me out!”
As I reached back to grab my duffle bag, she shook her head in surprise. “Do you live in this neighborhood? I don’t remember a Noel Bridger. Did you just move in?”
“Yes-yes,” I stammered. “I live across the street. We—my wife and I—just moved in. Thanks for the ride, Candy. You folks have a good time.”
Dick, the Marine sitting beside me, climbed out to facilitate my escape, muttering, “You’re loss sailor boy. This is a hot one!”
“Wear protection,” I replied artlessly. “You don’t want Gonorrhea!”
Frowning severely at me, he climbed back in the front seat and, without further delay, he and his friends were transported to Candy’s house down the street. Swiftly, I put distance between this temptation and myself. I should have felt relieved then, but I knew that time was running out. Even the short delay caused by Candy, had robbed me of valuable time. In order to arrive in time, I would need a good Samaritan to take me straight to my destination. Clutching my face and groaning, I moved sluggishly down the highway.
“Why Lord?” I shouted to the sky. “Am I a bad person? Why did I listen to that yo-yo? Look what it got me. Why do I care about perfect attendance? I’m an underachiever and slacker. My parents are always saying that. Why do I care about one stupid, insignificant award?”
But it was it wasn’t stupid and it wasn’t insignificant. It was the only thing I had to show for four years of high school. In spite of the blame I heaped on Bernie that hour, I knew much of it was my fault. In the first place, I didn’t have to go. No one twisted my arm. Bernie might have talked me into it, but I could have stopped in my tracks before ever climbing into a plane. It was me who got Bernie drunk at Ewa and Waikiki. In a way I corrupted him by plying him with booze. On the other hand, Bernie might have gotten us over there, but it was me who got us back. I told the truth to the FBI and Captain Hayden, and Bernie had lied, but these facts meant little in the end. We were an embarrassment to the government and navy. As I continued my trek through Santa Barbara, I began giggling uncontrollably. I was on a fool’s errand now. If my perfect attendance were really an issue, my escapade would prove costly. The absurdity and hopelessness of it swept over me like a large jolt of scotch. I couldn’t stop laughing, swaying like a drunk until I arrived at another bus stop bench. Collapsing momentarily in uncontrolled mirth, the light-headedness gradually wore off. I just sat there for a while staring into space, stifling the urge to bawl. In the east, I saw that dreaded first light, which signaled the advance of dawn. Burying my face in the duffle bag on my lap, I uttered a muffled scream, rose up shakily, and trudged on. I didn’t bother sticking out my thumb. I hadn’t seen a car for a half hour.
I must have presented a forlorn and dejected picture to the motorist approaching me that moment. A late model dodge station wagon now pulled off the road. I could scarcely believe it. The driver didn’t have to wait long for me to slide into the back seat. Greeting me with cheery smiles were a middle-aged man and woman, with a little Chihuahua yapping between them. “Hi, I’m Noel Bridger!” I piped happily. The man behind the wheel introduced himself as Horace Fairbanks. His wife Helen held her little dog tightly so he wouldn’t jump on me, but soon it had broken free and began running wildly inside the car. As the station wagon took off, Horace asked me where I was headed. When I told him I lived in Whittier, he informed me that we were next-door neighbors. I whooped with joy when I learned that they lived in nearby La Habra.
Because I was so young, Horace and Helen cautioned me about the dangers of hitchhiking, a warning I heard earlier from the highway patrol. When I explained to them that I couldn’t afford a bus ticket home, they found this unacceptable. I should never be hitchhiking in the first place, they both agreed. What would my parents say? Why would I travel without sufficient funds? What possible reason did a kid like me have for hitching rides, especially late at night? Didn’t I know there were all sorts of predators and deviants on the road? Though their criticism was irksome, I agreed wearily with them, yet avoided telling them my story. I just didn’t have the energy. What I did talk about was my high school. Perhaps it was because of my meeting with the principle, who told me I would get a perfect attendance award if I didn’t miss any school. Perhaps it was the sheer effort I made in getting home in time that drove me on. But it seemed, with this goal in mind, my four years of high school suddenly meant something. I bragged to them about my drama class and the plays I performed in at school. I also boasted about our football team, which had been almost undefeated this year, my tennis letter, my membership in the Thespians club, and I reminisced about the many school dances and events throughout my high school years.
Suddenly, I was once more a kid. Today I would be a high school student again, not a naval recruit or felon nor a footsore traveler of the world, just Noel Bridger—nothing more. The difficulties I had with my family and making it through the last months of school no longer mattered. I would be home, safe from trouble and the dangers of the road.
Horace Fairbanks turned out to be a pastor and his wife a professor of theology at Biola College. After chatting with me about his church in La Habra, he asked me if I was saved, and was pleased to hear I attended a Baptist church like himself. That was not completely true, of course; I had been attending, without success, Maryanne Benson’s Methodist Church to score points with her. But I had been baptized in the Baptist church near my house; so, all things considered, I must be saved. When they returned to the original discussion, I listened contritely to their admonitions about the dangers of hitchhiking for a teenager like me. The conflict of my still being in high school and the fact I was doing such a dangerous thing made it even more difficult for them to digest when I admitted finally that I was in the navy. My duffle bag had been a dead giveaway. When the subject of the stenciled letters on the strap was brought up I had as story ready. I simply told them that I was in a special program for high school seniors eighteen years old, and I had been on a weekend cruise with my squadron at Alameda. They nodded thoughtfully at my story. Though they still insisted that I take public transformation, they appeared to accept it at face valuable. I wondered, as we approached my house, whether they were just being polite. I wouldn’t have believed my story.
I was hungry and exhausted from my odyssey. During our long talks, the Fairbanks’ Chihuaha, Scooter, continued to frolick inside the car, becoming a great nuisance to me, but serving the important function of keeping me awake during our trip. He was constantly jumping on each of our laps and nipping playfully at our hands, and, at one point, as the pastor lectured me on the evils of drink and unprotected sex, peed on the floor. Reverend Fairbanks and his wife Helen seemed oblivious to his rowdy behavior. Though I was growing tired of the pastor and his wife’s inquisitiveness and unasked for advice, and their unruly dog, I felt indebted to them for their kindness. What did it matter what they said or the fact I had to smell dog urine during my ride; I was safe and secure in their car, and I was going to arrive at my first class on time.
Thanking Horace and Helen profusely as they dropped me off in front of my house, I promised to visit their church when I had a chance (a chance, I confess, that never came.) Giving Scooter a pat, before I grabbed my duffle bag, I dashed toward my house without a backward glance. There was no time to waste. It was seven fifteen, as I walked through the backyard gate, found the key under the porch, and unlocked the door. I had tried being quiet after opening the gate. Unfortunately, Toby, our dog, had been awakened by the commotion. Letting out a sleepy bark, he charged up to me, jumped up and down excitedly, and then scampered into the house. Roused from slumber, my mom called sleepily from her room, “Noel is that you? How was your weekend? Did you have a good time?” “It was great Mom!” I piped, dropping my duffle bag onto the floor. For untold miles I had carried that baggage. I was now free of it at last. My dad had already left for work. The kitchen was a mess, but I made myself a hasty breakfast of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, grabbing a coke from the refrigerator to wash it down. After throwing on some clean clothes as I wolfed down my sandwich, I sprinkled on some of dad’s cologne to camouflage the fact I hadn’t taken a shower, and then charged out the front door.
I would have to walk, even run to school, but I knew I would make it now. Here I was, I thought, on the road to perfect attendance and I still had eight dollars in my pocket. I was totally exhausted now, and yet I felt a burst of energy after my coke and sandwich. I ran, then walked a ways when I was spent, and, during the final lap, when I had reached the campus, dashed frantically down the hall. When I found my locker, I pulled out a textbook and notebook, slammed the door shut, and continued running down the hall. My first class, which happened to be English Literature, had what most students thought was a cranky teacher. Her name, Misses Crabtree was fitting enough, but Misses Crabtree looked in every way like a mean, ornery crone. This morning, however, she became one of those special people in my life. With barely a minute left until the tardy bell rang I sailed into class, sweating profusely, breathing like a rail pounder, and plopping down in my designated seat just in time for the bell. I remembered that moment that my term paper on Moby Dick would be due Thursday, and I had a math exam the following day. After my insane weekend, however, and amazing trek home I was light-headed with relief. While calling role, Misses Crabtree, paused to ask me if I was drunk or high on drugs. When I answered no, she asked me if I might be ill and did I want to see the school nurse. I stifled hysterical giggles that moment but insisted that I was merely tired, at which time she walked over, felt my forehead, and insisted I be excused from class. It was then, against my better judgement that I told the teacher and classes why I was sweating and acting strange: I ran all the way from home to be on time.
“You see Misses Crabtree,” I gathered my thoughts. “I found out from the principle I had a perfect attendance record—me of all people would be getting an award. The last award I got was the Order of the Arrow in Boy Scouts. I got home just in time to grab a sandwich, get dressed, and make it to my first class.”
“Got home from where?” She frowned. “You look like you’ve been partying all night.”
“No ma’am,” I shook my head, “that wasn’t it at all.”
At that point, it spelled out in a flow of words that mesmerized my teacher and the class. Doing exactly what the FBI and Captain Hayden had told me not to do, I told them the entire story, beginning with Bernie’s harebrained scheme, through the hops from Los Alamitos to Alameda and Alameda to Barber’s Point, to the point when we were arrested by the FBI and interrogated, and then, because we were an embarrassment to the navy and government, that moment when I was expelled from the base. I explained to them that there would be no record of my involvement but that Bernie, because he lied to the FBI, would be drummed out with a section 8. Adding the important episode when I was picked up several times while hitchhiking by drunken teens, a female impersonator, deranged women, and queer, until being driven home by a minister and his wife, I sat there out of breath, realizing I had taken up almost the entire hour.
“Now class,” Misses Crabtree announced, shifting to the podium, “that’s what I call a storyline. Like the authors of Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger and Adventures of a Young Man by Ernest Hemingway this young man has a vivid imagination, but he did it all in one weekend instead of years or months.” “In fact Mister Bridges,” she looked down at me sternly, “this will be your theme for your semester story. I want all of you to write a story about an important event in your life.”
The class groaned. I felt a spit ball bounce off my head. What have I done? I asked myself, gazing around the room. I had, to use a trite phrase, let the cat out of the bag. Now I had a roomful of resentful students to contend with for the remainder of the semester. Despite my misgivings, however, I was deeply moved. It would be the only time I heard her compliment a student in her class. Out of all her students, she had singled me ut. I felt honored by Miss Crabtree’s regard. For a moment my voice was caught in my throat.
“…So you believe me?” I grinned foolishly at her. “I scarcely believe it myself.”
“Mister Bridger, walk with me.” She crooked a finger and exited into the breezeway outside of her class.
As the class murmured angrily amongst themselves, she led me down a ways, turned to me slyly and looked me squarely in the eyes. “I don’t believe you young man, and it’s best that I and no one else believes you either. You’ve always struck me as an imaginative student. Would you prefer that I think you are a felon instead?”
“No ma’am!” I gasped.
“You may not know it Mister Bridger, but my husband is a navy man, himself. He’s a captain on an aircraft carrier—the USS Kearsarge. He’ll retire soon, but he’s very strict about regulations. You appeared to have broken them all.”
“Are you angry with me?” I asked in a stunned voice. “They let me go. It’s as if I had broken no laws.”
“But you did!” She smiled wryly. “The important matter is that they warned you not to tell. What would happen if they found out that you spelled the beans, eh? That J. Edgar Hoover is a sly fellow. You don’t want to upset him!”
“No, of course not,” I heaved a sigh. “Does this mean you don’t want me to write about my weekend?”
“Oh yes,” she nodded, “but skip over the controversial parts and use fake names. It must be condensed to twenty pages. In spite of your apparent exhaustion, you told your story well. Someday, after many years, when the principles in the story are dead and gone, this might make a fine novel, but as fiction…. You must use fictional characters in your story, of course. Your paper, which you might entitle, “My Weekend of Insanity,” will likewise be fiction. I will grade it, probably giving you an A if you do it properly, and return it after making a copy for myself. After that, keep this story to yourself. You and your crazy friend did something that most young men only dream of doing: you broke the law and got away with it, you went to an exotic island without paying a dime, and, most of all, you survived it no worse for wear. But you still broke the law!”
“I’m confused,” I wrinkled my nose. “You just said you don’t believe me. You sound like you believe me now.”
“No,” she corrected gently, “I meant for the record I don’t believe you. I don’t believe anyone, especially in your condition, can make up such a tale.” “Now go to the your second period class, try to stay awake, and don’t tell anyone that silly story again!”
“They probably won’t believe me anyhow.” I smiled sadly.
“Noel,” she patted my head, “you’re eighteen years old and a high school student. You flew on military transports and fooled the navy and all you got was a slap on the wrist. What it that old navy adage my husband might say? Don’t rock the boat!”
Bud, that old salt Bernie and I met on our hop to Barber’s Point, had said, “Let sleeping dogs lie,” which means the same thing. I had taken his advice and kept my secret about Bernie’s parents from him. That was easy enough. What Misses Crabtree was asking me to do, however, was much more difficult. Though I should feel foolish for stumbling through our misadventures, I was still proud of our achievement. After all I had gone through, including coping with Bernie Suarez, I felt that I had bragging rights. Misses Crabtree cloaked it as fiction for the class’s benefit, and yet it had inspired the old gal. I saw it in her eyes and heard it in her voice. Thanks to me, the entire class had to write an essay on an important event in their life, and yet mine would be labeled fiction. That gleam in her eye told me she was pleased with my spirit. I was being encouraged to use my imagination, which my teacher praised, to write a story about our caper in Hawaii. I knew she was right. I had been warned by the navy and FBI not to talk about our adventure…. Until one day in the future when I felt comfortable enough to expand my story into a novel, I decided to take her advice. I at least had the satisfaction to know that she believed me. The question was, ‘would anyone else?’
I had no idea that many of the important places in Bernie and my journey would no longer exist one day. Los Alamitos Naval Air Station is now called the Joint Forces Training Base. Except for USS Hornet Museum located in Alameda, its base was closed during President Clinton’s administration, as was the naval air base at Barber’s Point. In a special place tucked in the back of mind I let my paper about my caper sit, and then one day, while cleaning up my study, I found the story I had written in my English Literature class. Misses Crabtree, who would be in her hundreds today, was likely dead, as were Captain Hayden, the FBI agents who interrogated us, and anyone else who could point the finger at Bernie and me. We were safe now. The sailors and marines we encountered, including the kindly lieutenant, who rescued us in Ewa and the sailor’s wife who drove us back to the base, had vanished forever from our lives. Sadly enough, I don’t know what happened to Bernie either. Once, after my active duty from 1960 to 1962, I was at one of my weekly reserve meetings at Los Alamitos and learned from a high school classmate and neighbor of Bernie, who happened to be in our recruit class, that my onetime travel companion had moved away. From one other reservist, who was also a classmate, it was also rumored that he had a breakdown and was committed to an asylum. According to the first informant, who was a weekend warrior like myself, Bernie moved with Constance his mother back to Hawaii were she had spent her childhood. Reflecting upon my long ago adventure and the impact it must have had on Bernie’s life, I would rather believe he moved than lost his mind, but I would never know. I wrote a lot of stuff that is still buried in my filing cabinet and stored in my computer, but the story I wrote for Misses Crabtree inspired me to make one more try.
Call me a late bloomer if you wish. I’m an old man now, and this is an old story. Considering the threat of terrorism at home and abroad and the many conflicts in our world, I doubt very much if the FBI, navy, or Homeland Security care very much about my book. Even now, when I tell the story of how two high school teenagers managed such a caper, I get skeptical looks. Today, because of the rules and restrictions in military air travel and the general climate of suspicion after 9/11 and the years following which have seen conflict and war, such a feat would be impossible and unbelievable. Yet we managed to pull it off, as Bernie mischievously put it. From the moment we stepped on our first naval plane until the night I left Alameda Naval Air Station on my own, it had been an insane adventure. Later, during active duty, I would travel around the Pacific Ocean in my aircraft carrier, the USS Hornet. I would experience stormy seas and freewheeling exploits on land, and almost wind up in the brig…. But nothing can compare with that first, madcap adventure—my Hawaiian escapade.