“Plumbing the depths
of some emotional seas can
bring breath and balance.”
“Catharsis, he calls it.”
“Like some sort of transition or transformation?”
“More like some kind of ritual…”
“A cleansing then…”
“Says here they clean their clocks, alright.”
Nothing more to see there, concentric circles of halo light and spreading, saturating blood, Eric crouched over Bruno in the middle of them like the bulls-eye of a target by Jasper Johns. Clifford and I had slogged back to our little motor pool, Crabber Don emerging from behind the metrocedros trees to rag us from the shadows, as if he’d actually manned up to draw near the carnage. Gary had retreated into his bread truck to stew over his Tokarev 51 and salve his embittered war horse pride. The aroma of warmed over Mulligan led us to the open doors of Sherry’s Econoline, where she happened to be reading from this rolled-up magazine she’d lifted from a Quick Wash the other side of Funston Playground. Its story cited accounts that had been dribbling out in baity media drabs, but this lurid thread of it all was news to me.
“You mean in the metaphorical sense, right,” I asked, having rejoined the compound, still in stunned denial over the dog maiming.
“No, not according to this,” Sherry replied, leafing through the newsmag. “They’re just about running a concentration camp down there…”
“Where the hell is that place, anyway?” Basically feigning attention, I had nothing more of any consequence to add.
“Says here it’s the other side of hell…”
She went on about how Guyana escapees described Reverend Jim Jones’ drinking and sedating himself to the point of hypochondria, hallucinations and paranoid delusions. That he was ordering spy patrols and member censorship, not to mention genital/body cavity searches—his druggy mood swings leading to sexual coercion, blackmail frame-ups and gun-waving rants. Worse were humiliating all- night encounter sessions called ‘Catharsis’, in which Temple members harshly criticized and castigated one another, wooden paddling those who resisted surrendering their money and personal property to the Church. The article claimed even Jones’ kin were beginning to turn against him.
Sherry seemed thoroughly caught up in the Jonestown expose, as though nothing of consequence had occurred virtually outside her van doors, that dogmania never happened, that Eric wasn’t melting down over by the seawall in a pool of blood, sweat and tears, or that Clifford hadn’t returned to the Econoline in a state of half-shelled shock. He’d once described upon returning to Aquatic Park how she always triggered their road trips, how whenever things got hairy, she could wrap herself in a cloak of denial, her mind wandering in the flightiest of directions. Here, she zoned out, took highlighter to magazine page like a law student, year two—only pausing to hand Clifford his daily dosage of Lithium, which he furtively palmed and pocketed before addling off across the lot without saying a word, kicking at random car tires as he went.
“Still and all, he skunked your ass good,” Crabber Don wobbled up between our wheels to break an eerie compound silent spell only pecked at by fat, territorial gulls and crows.
“Back off,” Gary grumbled, from the door of his bread truck. “You don’t know shit about it.”
“I know you let that spic kick your commie gun into the drink…”
“Drink’s the only thing you know anything about, so shut your damn mug,” Gary shouted, over the sudden low, lone winding of a Ferrari 308 GTB around Marina Boulevard, as if Laguna Street was Laguna Seca.“Want some more? Just try me!”
“If it was me, I’d have pulled some forearm slide, snap crack the elbow action on him,” Sherry fist pounded her magazine. “This girl’s got some moves…”
“Sheeit, that lame kick-ass move’s why the dog’s bleedin’ to death over there…”
“Listen up, asshole, I was just trying to help. And you have no idea what Jezebel meant to me,” Gary detonated, rubbing his flat-top like clipping a hedgerow, face full of hypertension. Then he thrust his stump arm forward. “This, see it? Take a good look, morons—that’s the pay-off, while you were having your little Hanoi pep rallies. That Tokarev cost me this!”
“Hey, come on,” I muttered, wondering why he had me in his sights, too. “I did my hitch, maybe not in the ‘Nam, but…”
“At ease, troop, was I talking to you?” Gary slammed his steering wheel with his better hand. “I’m talking about dickhead here, and that squirrelly little cowboy ms. fat-ass is wet nursing around.”
Tough and feverish as Halloween Week had been, Marina Green since turned Diamondhead docile. The residue of Polk Street’s mayhem seemed but muffled sirens in the distance. San Francisco Bay was now a dark, freshly drawn bath, so perfectly still, Marin’s jeweled lights glistening like a long orange-onyx bracelet, threading Alcatraz to Angel Island. Against this moony backdrop, Marina lot irregulars had begun regrouping to call it a night and/or morning, or simply to air things out. In the blink of an eye, my 122S was a P1800ES sport wagon, and I was riding just as high. Yet I wasn’t prepared to entirely bail out on Eric over there, or appear to be running out on Bruno’s collective vigil.
A lipstick red Ferrari must have been a pace car for a pack of fiercely Marin-bound speedsters negotiated Marina Boulevard’s corners, powershifting past the parking lot through flashing yellow traffic lights toward Ross, San Anselmo, perhaps over the Tamalpais hump to Stinson Beach. Straggler party boats drifted aimlessly into Gashouse Cove, listing heavily with shameless giggles and raucous sounds. They gave me something else to fix on besides Gary taunting Crabber Don by field stripping his half-smoked Chesterfield, then proceeding to compare battle scars.
“But that’s life in the combat arms, grab ’em where it hurts,” Gary added, puffing his hardware and olive drab chest. “The military got me a silver star, two bronzes and a Purple Heart. They say at the VA I’ve got some sort of aggressive problem. They even took X-rays, came up negative. Hell, X-rays are always negative, that’s what they are, negatives. But at least I ain’t got no bad paper…”
“Just don’t go messin’ with me,” Crabber Don spouted, chain smoking between slipping plates.
“I’ll be on you like shit on a Huggie—yah, this cat’s stone dangerous. Went to this clinic once? Doc told me I got a psych’logical d’sturbance. What I got is these ear rings. Got ’em from some bastards one morning in Manteca. Was good and wasted, and they jumped me, blasted an airhorn in my ears, ’bouttwenty times, goin’ half deeef.”
“Shit, some people are livin’ to live, some smokers dyin’ to die.” Gary fatalistically flicked his next short butt past Crabber’s ear. “They say if you can’t see yourself at a certain age, you won’t get there. I don’t know where I’ll be in five years, don’t even know where I’ll be in one, so you best back off.”
“Whoa, at ease,” I found it increasingly difficult to remain cool and clinical here, while trying to avoid catching some shadowy figure bent over between walkway lights on the harbor slope, amid the ice plants and purple Echium Vulgare. He was shit marking his territory like a timber wolf—a little something for the flies to feast on besides the Pride of Madeira.
“Huh? I’m just thankful God’s givin’ me this day,” Crabber scooped the smoke and lit up, coughing on the exhale.“Been a muntha Sunday’s since they cut my ‘Done dosage. Been tough, but I ain’t no fuckin’ maniac ’bout it. Just these damn carbunkles crawlin’ all over my neck, rubbin’ it raw, gotta pour warm coffee on ’em sometimes, that helps. Whatever works, right?”
Better to look away than to explore this more closely, but I was soon going cross-eyed with the convergence of shimmering lights on and above the bay. An outbound freighter and Chevron tanker formed a skimming trail of amber deck lights between Angel Island and the north shore seemingly above sea level, while a Alitalia-tailed stratoliner soared eastward over the Golden Gate, vaporizing into the starry night sky. Nearer in, parking lot dwellers futzed with vehicle racks and nozzles, a mash-up of disco and country honk, Skynyrd to Dickie Betts, narrowcasting lane to lane, dubbed with the high-frequency timbre of boat rigging and chimes.
Couldn’t spot the monsignor or General Ripcord anywhere along the walkway, although I did make out a laid-back, soul-patched sail lubber who had long kept a berth for his 27-foot work in progress, living aboard in the process. Tailing him was this mixed Asian breed he heralded as the ‘world’s smartest dog’, but keeping safe distance, for the mellow swabby was suddenly screaming to the heavens that the harbormaster had booted his boat for rent overdue, intending to tow it to the open bay by morning. He nearly bowled over a slow-shuffling crippled pensioner out for some fresh marine air, got so I couldn’t bear to gaze at that any longer, particularly once he turned the corner along the reverse P-shaped harbor, stomping Eric’s way—mister neighborhood smiley face not far behind.
“That rag you’re wearin’, it’s a women’s coat,” Gary dressed Crabber Don down, as though this were a close quarters inspection. “It buttons to the left, dickhead. Men’s button to the right, like Ike’s.”
“Naw, goes either way,” Crabber looked it over, unbuttoning to double check. “What say, advance me a cleaner smoke…”
“Hah, that’s because you probably go either way.”
“Hey funstermucker, that’s your scene, I ain’t no homesesual,” Crabber spouted, jumpy as a lounge lizard in early withdrawal. “You the one be rockin’ out with your cock out,. But if’n I had a boiler like yours, I’d be wearin’ sweats, real baggy ones.”
“And If I looked like you,, I’d be wearin’ a coffin suit…”
“Not fuckin’ yet. I’m still hangin’ in here, mindin’ the dude’s boat, hittin’ the john real regular, checkin’ my butt crack, cleanin’ my damn crevices, man. Yah, already shat twice, took a screamin’ reamer. Even that nut, squattin’ like a Chinaman, pissing all over his crusty britches, couldn’t wait no more. Well, not me, I can still hold my own…”
“Bet that ain’t all your holdin’,” Gary smirked, toasting with half-tanked Old Style.“Swingin’ your shanks and shivs, cruisin’ for an SBC.”
“Hey, I had my 5150s, done my 72 hours,” Crabber said forcibly, hackles up, back against the small parking island’s bushy cypress tree. “But I ain’t doin’ no Gen’l Sistance ’cause it comes with strings, man, then the city starts trackin’ you. Like they ask what you do for spendin’ money—hey, I don’t spend me no money, I just be…”
“From the looks of you, three hots and a cot could be a real step up.”
“Hey, I told ya, don’t be talkin’ that shit to me,” Crabber fumed, all but tossing his bottle at Gary’s windshield, instead staggering toward the cinderblock john. “But I’ll be back, sucka—first gotta check back in at the dude’s boat. He justa a twit with money, but got some righteous stash in the hold there somewhere. Yah, I been an underdog ’round here too long, wanna be an overdog for a change. Comes down to who’s jukin’ who, you know? Shave a squirrel’s tail, and you got a sewer rat…”
“Uh, don’t you think you should be careful,” I said to Gary, although I had other things on my mind, most having to do with saner distance from the nicotine, the liquor, but mainly the prospect of mixing all that over water, marooned with these mallet heads, setting sail for nowhere. “That guy is certifiable…”
For I felt no safe buffer my own self, feeling jammed in the middle of a downtown subway car, heading the wrong way when the blackout hit. These two were mugging, bad-mouthing one another like wrung out warlords. The wet rubber against rubber squeaking of East Harbor floats began drowning out their mindless muttering some, but it also ripped through me worse than gritty dental floss. Something had to give, had to go—instead, it was Lionel Thomlinson, aka L.T., homing back in, riding solo in his paint van, having dismounted in the dim Marina lot light like Fred ‘the Hammer’ Williamson in that new Italian flick, ‘Inglorious Bastards’. But not before clicking off some Herbie Hancock fusion funk on auto-reverse.
“Yah, c’mon, man,” L.T. smiled toward Gary. “Ease up on the brother…”
“Spin on it. That dickhead ain’t my brother,” Gary spit, siege mentality apparently setting in, along with another smoke, which he ignited with a single hand flip of a matchbook. “You neither—you and your makin’ with the white meat…”
“Hey, what it is—everything’s copacetic, all the way around,” L.T. chided, fixing to dip a little Skoal. “You’re the one with the problem.”
“Shit, you don’t care about her,” Gary said, as if loath to mention Kathy by name.“You just care about how we react to you and her.”
“If you got it…if not, you can take it away from somebody else. That’s what’s great about the whole women’s lib thing,” goaded L.T., red cape to a bullock. “Dig, can’t beat the free and easy sex. And if they really want my job, I say let ’em do all the work.”
Even in this dimness, I could see that L.T.’s tightly curled beard had picked up a little gray, all the better to camouflage his PFB, along with his pulled-down purple rasta cap. He’d knotted an orange-brown bandanna around his neck, overhanging a high-collar charcoal disco shirt, V-necked to frame a slender gold chain, all covered with his embroidered denim jacket. Kathy had done a similar filigree needle job on his hip-hugger bells, flopping over those black leather boots with belted, brass looped ankle bands when he boogied foot to foot, his collar heating up word by word.
“Well, if you ask me, the clock is runnin’ on you Jody parasites,” Gary sniped, as though still a Mekong marksman.“Yep, Bakke, baby. The window’s closin’ on all that civil rights crap, just you watch.”
“Your ship has sailed, red neck,” L.T. volleyed, with a mitigating au de sensimilla. “And we’re manning the destroyer—starting with Jethros like you.”
“Better than being a bleedin’ heart chump like most of ’em around here,” Gary slugged, somewhat off-kilter by now. “Ain’t no payoff to bein’ nice to youse, only in bein’ a bastard.”
“Don’t ask me,” L.T. backed off, hands to the sky where we could see them. “That’s white folks’ business.”
“Whoa, it’s none of my business…” Sosh, objective observation, vigil, the hell: I’d about had my fill of this bilge, fishing about in the darkness for any redemptive rays of light, noting the low-watt glow of Alcatraz, projecting a degenerate prison here of our own making.
“Like look at them a-holes ridin’ their fancy-shmancy bikes on the sidewalk there,” Gary rattled in flag-waving mode. “This is America, fools, I fought for this country, we got rules here! It’s a sidewalk, not a side ride. Trouble here is there are too too many idiots with too much moola. Or you got these bums scummin’ around—filthy, stinkin’ turds like dickhead here, getting’ wasted, smokin’ the ol’ roparoma. Well, I ain’t givin’ ’em no handouts, ‘specially the ones dressed better’n I am…”
“Whew, on that note, time to go pick up my meal ticket over on Beach Street before she sells me down the river,” L.T. grinned.
“Uh, maybe you could take me with you,” I said, more earnest request than jest, a kid waving out to big brother through the screen door.
“Sorry, Charlie, we got some serious business to conduct, we’s planning on starting a custom jeans line,” L.T. winked. “But cool it, man, keep a grip on yourself. And don’t forget—the women, they be wearin’ their horns and wet dreamin’ just like we do. Only guys want the process, they want the end product, no matter what they say. Why you think they pull that little squeeze-your-dick snatch? Simple reminder that they got your ass now. It’s like with those young newlywed couples, posing for their wedding pix with Alcatraz as a backdrop. So pay attention out there—catch you later…”
With that, L.T. spun Teddy Pendergrass style on his cleated boot heels. He climbed back into his double-parked paint van, cranking up some Peter Tosh and ‘Bush Doctor’ on his eight-track stereo. He smiled, popped some raisons into his mouth and shot us a solidarity peace sign like Richie Havens at Yasgur’s farm. He wheeled up one lane, around down the other toward Gashouse Cove, but not before pit stopping at the head, then that phone booth to dial up a what looked to be a heated spade-a-spade call. But that was black man’s business…
“Know what he meant by ‘be cool out there’, don’t you?” Gary asked me, tossing a dead soldier back into the truck, pulling another beer can from the plastic sixer.
“Oh, that was for something he and I got into over on Muni Pier,” I replied, edging away nearer my car.
“No, he meant he’s on to you—he’s on to all of you…”
“Just that he knows things,” Gary lit up, leaned back in his driver’s stool. “S’all over it, gets around for himself…”
“So he’s on to what?”
“To Operation Virgin Mary, for one thing…you know, the offings Halloween night…”
“At Polk Street?” Where else, I deflected, right?
“Naw, the dolled-up Mary Magdalene fruit wasted up in Lafayette Park.”
“How’m I supposed to know? Better yet, how do you know…”
“Oh, I see things, too—still do have my eyes,” Gary smiled, blowing a smoke ring. “Plus I have my sources, you’d be surprised.”
“Yeah, well, I’m out of here,” I glanced over toward the seawall as I locked up the Volvo. “Got to see a man about a dog…”
“’Fraid it’s too late for that, troop…”
“In any case, watch out for yourself,” I said, noting Crabber teetering over to Berth 35A.
“You too, us vets gotta stick together,” Gary reached to slide closed his driver’s door. “But no sweat here, got my moves, too. Yah, two quick knuckles to the Adam’s apple—singlehanded, gets ’em every time.”
“Don’t go doin’ it, Marlene, don’t go desertin’ me like this!”
“I’m tellin’ you, baby, that jerk-off’s poison!”
Was preparing to skirt over and console a shattered Eric and what remained of his Chesapeake Bay Retriever, but Sherry and Clifford beat me to it. So my move was to pivot 180 degrees toward the head for a face splash at its rusty wash basins, then its stained steel pots for some bodily relief. But I got nearly blindsided by twin camper-shell pick-ups and a contrail of beer cans and bottles. Truth be told, I was up to here with the Marina Triangle about then, this parking lot in particular. Here, where everybody who’s rejected everything everyplace else seemed to end up landing in dumping ground piles of toxic debris, painted into the personal little corners of their disintegrating lives. Where for every beautiful background scene and vista there’d be some joker in the foreground leaking against a twisted tree.
Forget case studying these migratory mongrel people, the scaley, dingy tinged transients, their mounds of scattered feces from multifarious species, where feral cats and coyotes hereabouts at least cleaned themselves by comparison. This was hitting too close to no home. I was beginning to feel like an overexposed Dorthea Lange, mind snapping depressing frames of day snoozers and nightshifters, fat inscrutable Indo-European globetrotting vanners, fat reptile retirees with twiggy-legged little dogs, metal detector dicks scanning for loose change. The dumpster divers in torn tank tops and droopy Dickies, fading tattoos and butt cracks galore, pausing to admire their puffy, fading images in road-tarred vehicle windows and mirrors. The everyday overclad outsiders trying to shake the shivvers in the afternoon sun, gap-toothed talking like Wavy Gravy under crooked, sweat-rent ballcaps, hacking up phlegm at 6 a.m. Clinging to their alienation, their God-given right to mind-rotting self incarceration—they were willing to fight to the death for their physical liberty and pursuit of higher happiness, no matter how it dragged them down.
More and more, these walking wounded lived under shrubs and stuffing their material worlds into ripped-off strollers and food store carts or dragging big black plastic bags around here. Late-Sixties ideals and liberation had decayed into chronic pathologies and disorders all over the lot—bordering on tribal encampments, shopping cart armies, panhandling and pilfering to keep their scruffy delusions afloat. This festering growth was watched over with derision and disdain by the mansioners across Marina Boulevard with the million dollar views. While I was waking up every morning to a windshield full of those dawning pastel digs looking down their landscaped noses, staring me smack in the face.
I scuttered along Gashouse Cove, past lovers and lechers hunched over scattered walkway benches, with scant idea what might come of all this, couldn’t home in on what to call it, much less where it would lead. But sosh or no sosh, I wanted no part of it any longer, time to yank the anchor, boost the roost, starting tonight—got to get out of this funk, got to get the hell out alive, with no clue as to how. More clanging sail rigging and creaking hulls, louder squeaking, scraping downramps, floating docks and piers, lent a haunting quality to the Small Craft Harbor, as did a braying Alcatraz foghorn. Flickering onboard lanterns lit up oily slicks between the crowded berths, as did the sweep of headlights from the Laguna Street turn—the entire waterfront phantom fetoring of gas plant factories that once dominated the Marina hereabouts.
A particularly piercing odor of seeping fuel and raw fish drew scores more of bickering seagulls, the feistier of which perched atop mildly cadenced boat masts—fishing boats to pleasure inboards to status sailers and futzin’ chum buckets. The bossy gulls perched on humming walkway lights for pole position on any crew discards around the Cove’s rocky inner channel bank. All these birds, dive bombing, flapping past my face, what is it keeping them from flying right into me, what do they see of me that keeps them from doing so? Away! An agitated, acidic appetite drove me instead across Marina Boulevard, through the motordrome hum of weekend warriors, behind some swilling stiff who pulled a crosswalk power play on brake slamming traffic, left and right. His show of pedestrian force greased my skids into Safeway’s parking lot, and a close call with this accelerating little drive-by drama.
“Stop, you rotten bitch!” POUND, POUND.“I really mean it, I swear!”
“I’ll kill you, I tell you!” POUND, POUND, POUND… “I ‘ll kill the both of you!!!”
Stopped near dead in my tracks, I bore witness to a crew of octopus-armed shoplifters making their getaway ahead of a yawning security guard. Only the trio was being pared to a duo, leaving the long-haired mastermind behind, having been pushed out of the front seat of a silver Chevy Blazer by a younger thug sliding over shotgun in this hefty hippie chick’s ride, doors locked, pedal to the floorboard. The middle-aged, David Crosby double mudderfuggered this, faggoted that furiously, hanging onto the doorhandle, pounding right-side windows as the Blazer sped out of the supermarket lot, turning onto Buchanan Street with peeling tires.
When they caught a green light and geared out to Marina Boulevard, he fell away like a dropped roll of carpeting, nearly run over by a swerving Land Rover and F-150 as the Chevy Blazer roared past Gashouse Cove toward the bridge, likely bound for a road rage shoot-’em-up between here and the Lombard merge. I was simply after a banana and pint of 2% milkfat. Yet by the time I emerged from the Safeway’s glowing glass facade, a squad car had already joined forces with the security guard, cornering the dazed, abandoned time bomb wielding a fifth of filched Wild Turkey on the Iranians’ self-serve apron, dangerously close to Eric’s blue 912. It was proving to be that kind of night.
I begged off and passed a Vedic chanter handing out Hindu tracts, making for whatever more corporeal succor Fort Mason could muster. Heading along the boulevard, I crossed against Laguna’s walk light, dodging downshifters and up revvers winding motorcycles and sports cars out Marina Boulevard, almost veering with morbid curiosity into that train tunnel to Aquatic Park. At least until hearing haunting screams in there, picturing assault and battery in the shadows, smack and crack, totally out of whack, deep and dark as it was, snuffing out any light at the other end.
Rather, I plowed uphill toward some wide-open mind space in the fort itself. But a Coast Guard helicopter chopping in over the bay sent me marching to a different horn and drummer. So there I paused halfway uphill between two peeling eucalyptus trees in huffing, woozy indecision, as if to just catch a breath…
“One, two, three four—one, two, three, four!”
Down they came, in closed-rank company formation; suddenly the flashback vision before me brightened to duotone sepia daylight. Fresh-faced from the Overseas Processing Depot on a ‘call to port’, they’d been herded into rank platoons mobilized from parts and provinces unknown. Bewildered, lost in military space and time, they were olive drab dogfaces, drafted or recruited to shape up in double time and ship out overnight. Small town teens and barely twenties, they were now G.I. jokers mugging as though they actually knew what they were in for. Christ, wasn’t that Uncle Early third row, fifth from the left ? No, wrong theatre, different peril altogether…
“…You’re not behind the plow…”
“You’ll never get rich by digging a ditch…”
“You’re in the army now.”
Dress right dress: Helmets chalked with number orders, they were drilled by buck sergeants to the Laguna Street switchback, departing this scenic coil through the sentry gate into lower Fort Mason’s Military Sea Transportation Service staging area, where State Belt Line tunnel trains Chattanooga Choo-Choo shunted bulging boxcars into corridors between two pair of three-story interconnected storehouses and a gridiron-size center supply depot right down there, left eyes left. That khaki tan and Mission red-roofed Port of Embarkation teemed with WW II cannon fodder and essential materiel stacked to the riveted steel rafters for the Pacific Campaign, from the Waipio Peninsula to Corregidor and Guadalcanal.
Hard striper NCOs filed their raw troops through the cargo and readiness area by the thousands, medics checking their vitals, malaria/dengue shots and dentals, chaplains prayed for them, SJA’s finalized their will and testaments. Piped over warehouse awning loudspeakers between call orders were ‘In The Mood’ and ‘Begin The Beguine’, plus a little Fletcher and Cab, setting the entire Fort Mason port to stomping and swinging in place with keyed-up anticipation, some happy and go lucky enough to buss and jitterbug the Nursing Corps one last time.
At least until the boys reached those three massive concrete-stilted pier sheds, each to the gills with wartime pallets and packing crates, boom winches and local stevedores frantically loading MSTS steamships with combat gear, provisions, medicinals and armaments. Those long dock fingers of logistical fate bore the eagle, sword, key and spoked-wheel Quartermaster Corps symbology, and over 20 million tons of supplies fed through them into the cargo holds of vessels anchored in wide slips between them.
Yet the principal payload trudged up their narrow gangplanks onto the transport ships: Hirohito- pissed poor sons of bitches weighted down with M-1 carbines or Garands, canvas field packs and fully stuffed A-bag duffels, to the brassy send off of uniformed marching bands. Having grabbed a final night’s sleep in Fort Mason’s MSTS billets, the giddy to grim-faced grunts were then crammed into stacked ‘troop quarters’ bunks like crewcut boat people for the weeks-long ocean voyage to Valhalla, armed with their mouth organs and Armed Services Editions.
Those by the grace-of-God fortunate to see this initial mainland port of call again were greeted by the same marching bands at sheds’ ends, along with the USO, waving welcome homers and readily worshipping womenfolk in satin and lace. Some VJ heroes disembarked with war brides and babies in tow, others minus extremities of more personal kind, crutches and wheelchairs laboring off hospital ships. Then there were the flag-draped coffins and enemy P.O.W.s. Still, the SFPE piers had never seen such star-spangled cheering and joy—where ‘…there’s going to be a certain party at the station. Track 29! Won’t you choo-choo me home, to my gal back in Kalamazoo…’
Tonight, however, they seemed just as dead and buried as my dear, departed Uncle Early. I imagined Lower Fort Mason must have been so big, vital and important back then; now it seemed so silent and inconsequentially small, the entire vista dimming back to dark. The whole replay reminded me of boot camp, KP grease traps, TDY and mustering out—particularly coming so close to Veteran’s Day, or Poppy Day, as the Brits called it…yeah, bloomin’ Poppy Day…what was there to do about that?
Come hilltop, huffs had degenerated into dry mouth heaves, to where I paused at a signpost to pan back down over the Green and beyond. Headlights of a two-way ‘S’ stream of Boulevard traffic drew my eye to the Palace of Fine Arts dome glowing out over the Safeway lot and compact, wending Marina side streets. A glittery Royal Pacific cruise ship passed an inbound frigate under the Golden Gate, the bridge’s broad span adorned with an elegant strand of amber pearls, its towers and harp strings atwinkle with red clearance lights, with a blazing flow of north-south traffic, Doyle Drive to the Waldo Grade, against the pitch ocean sky. KLM’s soaring Amsterdam-bound red-eye pulled me back in to the Marina Triangle below, where I still heard parking lot music and loaded laughter, the xylophonic refrain of boat bells and rigging, from way up here.
Scanning the bay and small craft harbor, I could still make out Eric and Sherry commiserating over Bruno’s carcass in that halo light—soon noticed two meandering figures staggering around Gashouse Cove near Gate Two, the pier nearest that oily inner channel. They somehow jimmied through the steel security door, staggering along a floating walk past waving nautical flags and flapping sail covers, pointing extant fingers in fractious fits and starts. Wait, I could make out Gary and Crabber Don, heading for a berth toward pier’s end, as though after something or other. What the hell were they doing, the two of them—and what the hell was I doing even knowing about it?! No way I could go back down there tonight…
The most immediate alternative lay before me: Alcatraz Island’s beacon sliced through MacDowell Road’s coastal cypress and Monterey pine, over remnants of Black Point gunnery fortifications, grand opening searchlights cross beamed over Fontana Towers and the glam hi-rises of Russian Hill against a moony, star-studded sky—there was no turning back now. I cut a trail across the fort’s darkened Great Meadow, yet another improbable green expanse up here on San Francisco’s pricey northern crown. Clumps of arching eucalyptus trees gave forth to more scattered formations of gnarled cypress and pine.
Approaching a shadowy row of five rustling palm trees in parade rest formation, I spotted dim figures wrapped in rags, muttering and moaning to me beneath their umbrella fronds, as though I’d a better plan for the night. What plan? The Volvo plan, plan B on the phone? Go ahead, ring her up, ring the other her up, piece of cake? Can’t you just see them when they answer the call. A sorry little melodrama, some penitent kissing up—ah, yes, sweet surrender, either one of them would be eating out of your grubbing hands. Now just figure out who’s going to board the Lucky Lady Limited to the prim and promised land…they’re likely waiting by the phone right this minute. Uh-huh, keep jukin‘ yourself…meanwhile, pass the Lithium…
When in reality, I could but picture brighter, busier days, wherein this ghostly reclaimed ground comprised main street, USArmy, a bustling MacArthur Avenue trolley line shuttling through Fort Mason’s quick-fab military post—and felt the starchy prickle of bloused fatigues. To either side stood wartime supply, processing depots, purser and procurement centers; barracks, library, gym, mess, mail and pre-screened motion pics—a self-contained Army-Air city on a hill, most all dilapidated and gone by now to make way for frisbee slingers and kite flyer peace freaks like nothing of consequence ever happened here.
I fled wheezing up a dark, grassy berm, past that frightfully larger-than-life new statue of the Burton Machine patriarch who filiblustered all this open-space business through Congress, onto what remained of the WWII era main MacArthur drag. Another renewal survivor, the Colonial Revival style hospital turned headquarters building gleamed in restoration, guiding me toward old fort regimen and solidity, not least its eminently illuminated, Betsy waving flagpole. I pulled madly at the HQ doors, plenty of light, but nothing doing. Just beyond that, and a tall Canary palm tree at Pope Street, I spotted a tidy white measure of salvation, that being the heavenly flood-lit post chapel.
So this was the actual plan, huh? Listen up, dust off those strack class-A’s and cunt cap for Sunday-go-to-meetin’, bible-hugging redemption. I skirted two resident raccoons raiding a corner trash can—their furious yellow eyes wide as mortar shells—darting across the Y intersection, up the tiny Spanish-tiled chapel’s modest stairs, ready to storm its oaken front doors, willing to lean in, kneel down and beg for divine deliverance. But their cast-iron handles were locked down just as tight—yanking as I might, with a snootful of burnt wax and fragrant waters. Until a patrolling park ranger shone his squad’s spotlight upon me, sweeping it back and forth, up and down the chapel’s modest, silent steeple. No problem, officer, movin’ right along—first morning service at 9 a.m., got it. Until then, a full-dress epiphany, a spiritual reawakening? Taps to that…
So as it happened, I broke ranks, digressed, or regressed, spun around, but back toward the Marina Triangle? What if those numbskulls had gone off the deep end; that blasted Viet vet said he packed more than a Tokarev 51 in his bread truck arsenal. And Eric, with his mangled dog, what about getting tangled up with any more of that? What the hell was going on down there by now, for crissake?! How did I get mixed up with those burn-outs in the first place? Syd would have a field day with that one, raking me about running off again; Moon wouldn’t ever begin to understand.
But my car, my stuff, couldn’t just leave…no, got to keep my distance somehow, maybe take a long walk, just not off one of those dead, dingy piers. Wait, Franklin Street, there’s another Fort Mason gate in the general direction of Bay and…Chestnut, sure, time to handle some business over that way and beyond—takin’ it to the limit, life in the fast lane of last resort, while this crazy ol’ night was still young. Yep, the ol’ lock and load—didn’t want to be late for one piparoo of a double date with my dear late Uncle Early…
Care for more?
Chapter 84. Come morning, an awakening
to opportunity. But nightfall triggers a
painful, rather ugly reckoning…