By summers end in 1967 we had trained three more groups of snipers. I had been promoted to sergeant in April, and the extra stripe helped my credibility with the Force Recon Marines. They were a salty bunch.
Our First Sergeant was retiring and three of our marksmanship coaches’ enlistments were up so we planned a party. It was a Friday afternoon, and we arranged the party in the Pitts (impact area). The menu included hamburgers, hot dogs, various pot luck dishes and of course beer. Captain Flowers gave a good speech and praised us for all our hard work. Then he announced his transfer to Quantico. I was a little downcast. He and his wife had attended our wedding, and we had formed a bond through all the matches and training. I had gone from PFC to Sergeant under his command. He had earned a Silver Star in Vietnam as a Platoon Leader, and I looked up to him and his leadership style. I would miss him.
Sergeant Del Rio played a 12-string guitar and he started strumming and singing “Flowers on the Wall” by the Statler Brothers. We all sang the chorus, substituting “Captain” for Counting. It was hilarious.
Captain Flowers on the wall, that don’t bother me at all
Playing solitaire till dawn with a deck of fifty one
Smoking cigarettes and watching Captain Kangaroo
Now don’t tell me I’ve nothing to do
Sudden realization . . . I had served 28 of my 40 months in the Marines on the El Toro rifle range. With the First Sergeants retirement, I would have the longest tenure on the range. I was promoted to “NCO in charge” of the pistol range.
Next edition: A ghost from the past.
The pistol range was about a half mile from the range office. Sometimes I would check-in and walk to work rather than drive my car on the gravel road. One afternoon I was alone, and a military sedan drove up. A Master Gunnery Sergeant got out of the car and and approached me. I immediately recognized him . . . A ghost from the past. Bradbury was my recruiter in San Jose. He was wearing a distinguished marksman pistol badge (rare) and asked me for a tour of the facility. I showed him around, hoping he wouldn’t remember me.
I had been disrespectful to him on my first visit to the recruiting office. He asked me if I was interested in joining the Marines and I answered sarcastically, “Yeah I could use a vacation.” In the process of getting my initial contact information, he commented that he was a PFC on Red Beach, Okinawa the day I was born. I remember looking at the ribbons on his chest and shrugging. The old guy never flinched; he was good at his job and played me well. I was off to boot camp in just a few days.
Marine Corps history classes were held twice a week in boot camp. Vintage black and white footage of various battles with narration were shown. One day we were watching the Red Beach landing on Okinawa, and I became so flushed with embarrassment that I started sweating. My drill instructor noticed and took me outside for fresh air. He thought I was queasy about the dead Marines being washed up in the surf. After confiding on how poorly I had treated my recruiter, he said I should go back and make it right. I did go back, but Bradbury had been transferred. I explained to the new recruiter what I had done and he laughed, “Happens all the time.”
Bradbury did remember me. When the tour of the pistol range was over, he smiled and asked, “How has the vacation been?” I was mortified and tried to explain . . . he just waved me off. Then came the surprise, “I’m the new First Sergeant of the range detachment. I want you to introduce me to everyone.” We drove to the range office and started the introductions. Lieutenant Tarry (our executive officer) managed to take his feet off the desk before I introduced Bradbury as our new First Sergeant. I’d never seen the Lieutenant stand at attention. It was refreshing.
Soon after, Bradbury initiated familiarization (FAM) firing on the pistol range. Staff grade officers would fire different weapons, the new M-16, M-60 machine gun, etc. It was an effective way for them to experience firing the weapons used by the troops they would later lead. He personally oversaw the program and was backed by the Chief of Staff. Bradbury entrusted me with the demonstration of each weapon. It was no dog and pony show . . . live fire from different positions with pop-up targets. After the demo, the officers would get their turn to fire. Finally, PFC Acardo (range armorer) would end the session with a quick breakdown of the weapon, then he would clean it, put it back together and present it for inspection. It was good stuff and gave us a feeling of accomplishment.
Next edition: Charlie
Charlie was the best man in our wedding. He and I first met in 1965. We were stewards in the officers Mess, and we hit it off from the beginning. Charlie was easy to be with and had a good sense of humor. He was there the night in Laguna Beach when Jenny and I met.
Charlies career took a turn when he was interviewed and accepted as Major General Frank Tharin’s personal steward. He worked in the Generals office along with the Chief of Staff, Adjutant, and the Aide-de-camp. It was a big deal, and he was very humble about his work.
General Tharin was a war hero. He earned a Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, two Air Medals and a Purple Heart. He had a big role in the sinking of a Japanese Cruiser and downed several fighter planes in the 17 day fight for Wake Island. The tiny Atoll fell on December 23, 1941. He was captured and held as a prisoner of war in Hokkaido, Japan, until the war ended four years later. After the war he returned to active duty and graduated from the National War College. He was always a pilot.
One night Charlie called to give me a heads up . . . General Tharin was coming to the range to FAM-fire the new M-16 the next day. I had never met the General but knew of him through Charlie.
On Friday the staff officers arrived for the FAM-fire and listened to Bradbury describe the characteristics of the M-16 (muzzle velocity, effective firing range, rate of fire, etc.). After my demo the officers took their places on the line, and I managed to be the Generals coach. After firing a couple rounds he asked me if it would empty the full 20 round magazine on automatic. I answered, “Yes Sir, but short bursts are more effective.” He smiled, “Same as firing from a fighter plane.” He emptied the magazine in three short bursts, and I offered him another. He declined and looked at my name tag and said, You must be Charlie’s friend,” and I answered, “Yes Sir.” He offered, “Charlie’s a good Marine.” and walked off the line.
Every World War II veteran I met was low key and humble. The acronym PTSD hadn’t been coined, and now I wonder if they were silently feeling the effects of it. I think the mentality at the time was to just suck it up.
Charlie got out of the Marines in 1968 and moved home to Idaho. General Tharin retired in 1970 and lived in Laguna Beach until he passed away in 1990 at the age of 79.
Next editon: A Thanksgiving to remember.
Everyone connected with food service in the Marines was working on Thanksgiving day. It is the most important meal of the year, and every Mess Hall or Officers Mess would go all out to prepare the classic meal.
In 1965 I was off duty at the rifle range and free for four days of liberty. All of the stewards were working except my friend Ed McCann. He was a baker and had worked all night making dinner rolls and pumpkin pies. Neither of us wanted to stay on base over Thanksgiving so we hitched a ride to Laguna Beach.
“Mac” (as we called him) was depressed because his girlfriend had dumped him. They had been sweethearts in Jersey City and she found another boyfriend in his absence. I witnessed him ripping the receiver out of the phone booth when he got the news. It was really bad and ended with him getting very drunk and being restricted to the barracks for a week.
We arrived in Laguna in the afternoon on Thanksgiving, and the town was shut down. Nothing was open, and there was little traffic. We made it down to the boardwalk and sat around just watching the surf. Mac was still depressed and finally he said, “I wonder if Goldies is open.”
Goldies was a lunch counter in the back of a drug store on Main Beach. It was like a 10-seat Johnny Rockets with a black and white tiled floor. It was open but empty, and Goldie was busy cooking for a crowd that would never show up. She was old enough to be my mother and had frizzy golden hair and gold fillings in her teeth. We didn’t have much money so we ordered coffee. While we were sipping our coffees, Goldie was dishing up two big Thanksgiving platters. She set us up and served the dinner. We couldn’t pay, and she wouldn’t have accepted our money even if we could. We thanked her and finished our plates, only to have the meal topped off with pumpkin pie. It was a Thanksgiving to remember.
Mac announced that we would help her clean up and close the place. She said, “No, no,” but Mac was insistent. He took the inside, and I took the outside. We scrubbed the floors and polished the stool bases. The place was cleaner when we finished than it had been in a while.
Goldie had a radio, and the Beach Boys song “Help Me Rhonda” came on. Mac took Goldie in his arms and started dancing with her from behind the counter. The two of them danced through the song. They were both good dancers, and it ended with them in a big embrace. Goldie was blushing, and Mac was cured from the blues of losing his sweetheart.
We frequented Goldies for two years after that Thanksgiving. It was the only place to have a sit-down meal in a bathing suit and bare feet. I think she worked at least twelve hours a day (every day). Jenny and I ate lunch there during the summer we met, sharing a burger, fries and a milkshake. Goldie’s diner was within earshot of Eiler Larsen, “The Greeter” of Laguna Beach. “Halloo-oo-oo!”
In 1968 the city of Laguna purchased 1000 feet of property on the Main Beach to make a new park, “Window to the Sea.” The diner was closed in the process, and we never heard from Goldie again.
Next edition: The Turkey Carcass
In Steward School at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, we were introduced to cooking. The “Demonstration Cooking” was done in a building divided into a galley and a dining room. We learned to cook different meats, vegetables, sauces, etc. The instructors varied, and each was an expert in his subject.
During Thanksgiving week our instructor was Master Gunnery Sergeant Washington. He argued that the turkey should be roasted the day before Thanksgiving, cooled and then stripped of all the meat. The meat would be refrigerated and brought up to temperature prior to serving. Also he believed gravy was the most important part of the meal. Turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing were dull without being topped with the dark rich gravy.
The most important issue in making gravy was the stock. After chopping all the onions and celery for the stuffing, the scraps were put into a stock pot with some bay leaves. The turkey neck and giblets were also added to the simmering pot. After the turkey was cooked and stripped of meat, the carcass, leg and wing bones were added to the stock. It was allowed to simmer for hours. We deglazed the roasting pans with the stock and strained it into containers.
On Thanksgiving we added stock to the stuffing (cooked separately) and also used some in reheating the turkey. The deglazed liquid was enriched with the remaining stock and thickened into the best gravy I ever tasted. Someone asked if chicken broth could be substituted, and Washington cried, “Blasphemy.” The gravy did make the meal.
Jenny and I had house guests for dinner on our first Thanksgiving in 1967. We cooked a small turkey but didn’t make our own stock. The carcass was stripped of meat and put into the trash. We took a lot of shortcuts, but it was a good Thanksgiving dinner for us. We stayed up late playing Tripoley (a type of poker). Finally we said goodnight to our guests who slept on our new Lazy Boy roll-out sofa.
Around 3:00 a.m. we heard a growl coming from the hall. Something was being dragged along the carpet outside our room. I turned on the light, and Gus (our Siamese cat) had retrieved the carcass from the trash and was going to stash it for a future snack. We took the carcass from Gus, put it in the dumpster and tried to get back to sleep.
I didn’t sleep well that night. The day before was my last day at the range detachment. I took the remaining leave I had on the books and said goodbye to everyone. Bradbury and I wished each other luck; it was likely we wouldn’t see each other again . . . he was retiring soon. I asked him if he had any advice and he said, “Use your leadership skills. Make things happen.” He squeezed my shoulder, “you’ll be fine.”
Next edition: I am the Walrus