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History 1-A

It was the fall of ’72.  I was living in a ’51 Chevy pick-up truck, on the bed of which I had built a wooden, cab-over camper with an A-frame roof to which a crooked, faux stovepipe was attached.  My roommate, Atom, was a dog.  Literally, a 60 pound, two-year-old mutt—part shepherd, part lab—I had gotten as a pup.  Curled up next to me in my sleeping bag in the camper, we kept each other warm while parked overnight on the streets of Monterey, where after dark it was already colder than any winter either one of us Southern California transplants had ever experienced.

That morning, the signature fog lifted early.  The sun shined brightly.  Atom and I decided to take a ride down the coast to look for some surf.  We stopped off for donuts and coffee (and because I needed to use the restroom), then headed south on Pacific Coast Highway past towering redwoods and gated domiciles, around the extreme curvatures of the coastline as it approached Big Sur with its sheer drop-offs and profound chasms connected by concrete bridges. 

My 1-A draft classification had finally been rescinded and for the first time in three-and-a-half years (I’d gotten a lousy Lottery number.), Uncle Sam wasn’t trying to draft me into the Army.  So I kissed my mom and girlfriend goodbye (separately, of course) and went on the road.  I just needed some time to think, to re-adjust, to mellow-out.  I wasn’t going to die (For what?) in some remote rice paddy in Vietnam, as had been the fate of two of my classmates from my high school graduating Class of ’69.  And then there was Ray Stevens, the goofy kid who lived across the street from me growing up, who at 18 had enlisted, and by 19, returned home with a steel plate in his skull and a daily heroine habit.  No one came back the same as they’d left.  Rules of War.       

I drove over the long bridge that transcended the mouth of the Little Sur River and pulled over behind the only other car parked on the side of the road—a blue-and-white ’57 Ford station wagon with rusty surfboard racks and a red, white, and black POW/MIA bumper sticker.

Atom and I got out on the sandy roadside.  I unlocked the back door to the camper, pulled out the six-foot, five-inch double-finned surfboard that I’d shaped and glassed myself and my O’Neill wetsuit and booties.  Regardless of how warm it was on shore, I knew the water would be cold.  Suddenly, a car horn honked.  A Datsun crammed full of jarheads in civies—GIs on their way back to Fort Ord—sped past me. 

“Goddamn hippie!” the guy in the back seat yelled and held his arm out the open, side window, flipping me the bone. 

I figured they didn’t like my long hair and bell-bottom over-alls.  Or maybe it was the large, white letters painted on that side of my windowless, plywood camper: “DROP NIXON, NOT BOMBS!”  He was their Commander-and-Chief.  For at least two more weeks anyway, when we the people would go to the polls to cast our ballots for a new president.  On the passenger side of my camper was painted: “McGOVERN & PEACE.”  Those irate GIs in the Datsun had probably been drafted, like my best friend in Monterey.  All I had was freedom.  And they hated me for it.

I changed into my canvas trunks, grabbed a towel and a bar of wax, and locked up the truck.  Atom and I headed down the steep hillside.  When we hit the sand, Atom raced towards the shoreline, roused the grubbing seagulls, “Woof, woof, woof!” and chased them down the beach as they flew away from him. 

The only surfer in the water—black in his wetsuit, floating on a small, blue board out near the point—dropped-in late on an overhead left and pitched over-the-falls in a gnarly wipe-out.  His board washed in towards shore.  The surfer’s head, like a seal’s, popped up from under water and he began the long swim for shore.  I hated to swim in after a wipe-out.  Especially up north, where the water was colder and deeper, lush with kelp beds, and populated with sea lions and steelheads and other large, shadowy shapes swimming just below the surface.  When he trudged towards his blue board on the shore, I called over:

“How is it out there?”

“Brutal, man.”

Peeling off his wetsuit, he looked a little older and more experienced than my 21 years, with a grown-out crew cut and tattooed bicep—maybe a Marine insignia—but I was too far away to see it clearly.

Paddling-out was a chore when the waves were overhead and consistent.  The icy water froze my brain and snuck in the neck of my wetsuit, sending a chill down my spine, as I paddled through the inside waves towards the point, where an underwater reef caused the swells to peak and break uniformly and the kelp beds smoothed the surface.  Eventually, I worked my way out, then just lay there for a while, sucking air, face down on my board with my feet dangling underneath me in the tentacles of kelp that reached up from the deep.

When I looked up again, a six-foot-plus swell rose as it approached the reef from outside.  I turned, leaned forward and thrust my legs.  With one, quick paddle of my arms, I pulled into the wave’s steep face.  Jumping to my bootied-feet, I crouched low and dropped-in to the right as the peak broke behind me.  At the bottom of the wave, I swiveled my hips and knees, turning hard to gain more speed under and away from the breaking curl—then tempted Fate—by cutting-back into it, bounced off the lip, and cranked another hard bottom-turn.  When the wave closed-out on the inside, I kicked my board through its breaking lip and belly-flopped back down on the smooth surface behind it. 

The wave and drift from the swell had carried me over to the other side of the point now.  As I paddled back out, a momentary lull brought an eerie silence to the surface.  It was suddenly calm in the deep water, which made me feel as if I were paddling in the middle of the ocean. I put my head down again and pulled hard to finish my paddle back over to the point. 

But as I dug deeply underwater, my open palm suddenly reached down upon a smooth, cold surface—like naugahyde—the outsides of which my fingers couldn’t reach.  It moved below me.  With a gasp, I yanked my hand back out of the ocean, which rose momentarily like a belch under my surfboard, then subsided just as quickly.

Parts of words spat out as I hyperventilated and jerked my head around in all directions to see where it was, what it was I had touched?  And although I saw nothing unusual, I knew I had to get the hell out of there.  Fast!  But I was afraid to put my hands or feet back into the water because of whatever was below me. 

Outside, a set started to roll in.  In an effort to turn my board back towards the shore, I leaned to the side and barely scratched the surface with my hands, keeping my feet up in the air and out of the water, as I negotiated a wide half-turn, all the while praying—“Oh, God . . . oh, God . . . oh, God . . .”—that I wouldn’t get eaten alive.

As the first wave in the set broke and boomed like a mortar, I grabbed the rails of my board as tightly as I could hold and waited for the whitewater, which enveloped me in its churn like a sock in a washing machine, bouncing me, prying me from my board that I wouldn’t relinquish for fear I would surely die.  Finally, my head broke the surface of the whitewater that continued to propel my board shoreward.  But I didn’t dare stand.  This was no longer a ride—it was survival!  So I belly-boarded the soup all the way inside until my skags dragged in the sand, where I abandoned my board, ran out of the shore break, and tripped face down onto the dry sand, out of the ocean’s reach.

I heard myself breathing deeply, rapidly.  But I was too freaked to move, until something suddenly warm and wet licked the side of my face.  I started to scream and jumped away—but it was only Atom.

I looked out at the ocean where there were only waves and my abandoned surfboard on the shoreline.  On the beach, the only other surfer had vanished with his blue board.  Atom sat down next to me.  I put my arm around his neck and leaned against him.

“What the hell was that?”

But he didn’t answer.  Instead, he spotted another seagull as it landed on the shoreline—daring him—and with his usual explanation, “Woof, woof, woof!” took off running after the gull, leaving me alone to contemplate my demons.

On the hike back to the truck, I tried to rationalize what had happened to me, what I had touched, what had moved the ocean below my surfboard?

After dark, I parked my truck at the curb outside the mobile home park in Monterey where my friend Dick lived off-base with another GI.  Atom and I walked into the park with its two dozen rental units and RVs parked amongst the giant redwoods.  From his aluminum porch, the manager—balding, middle-aged, and pot-bellied under his flannel shirt—recognized me from my previous visits and yelled over:

“I told you to put that damn dog on a leash when you come in here!”

But Atom had never been on a leash.  He’d always walked at my side without one and I didn’t think he’d appreciate the tethering, so I pretended not to hear and continued across the grounds to my friend’s one-bedroom, mobile home, where I knocked on the aluminum front door.  Jethro Tull’s “Fatman” reverberated from inside through the aluminum walls. 

A moment later, Dick, already out of his Army fatigues, barefoot, wearing Levis and a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, let us inside the rental unit.  His hair was short, but longer than most GIs’.  He, too, had had a lousy Lottery number.  The inside of their place was already filled with the aroma of beans and chilies.  Dick’s roommate Dave—a crew-cut, red-headed, red-neck enlistee from Arkansas—was in the kitchenette, dicing with a butcher’s knife more chilies and onions, which he scraped from the chopping block into the big pot that was simmering on the two-burner stove.  A bottle of Tabasco and a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels rested on the counter next to a shot glass filled nearly to the top with the 80-proof liquor. 

Dave was a cook at Fort Ord.  He cooked daily for 600 GIs.  He was making another pot of his killer chili, which was way too hot for human (or canine) consumption, but because it was free and because I was on a tight budget and because Dick never had any money because the Army was always deducting fines from his monthly paycheck for his insubordination and bouts of AWOL, we ate it.  And Dave knew we would eat it—none of which he ate himself—and relished watching us suffer through each bowlful.  So each batch was a little hotter, a little spicier, a little more killer.

“What’s happenin’,” Dick said.  It was more of a greeting than a question.

I answered anyway: “Freaky stuff, man.”

But before I could explain, Dave said: “Git your goddamn dawg outta ma’ kitchen.” He held the butcher’s knife blade up on the chopping block, like an exclamation point.

Atom had wandered from my side over to sniff what was cooking on the stove above him.  He wasn’t actually in the kitchen.  But Dave didn’t like Atom.  I didn’t know Dave well enough to know if it was something in particular about my dog or me or dogs in general that he didn’t like.  But it was his pad, so I called Atom back over to me. 

I sat on the lawn chair next to the slumping couch with its green sleeping bag on which Dick slept every night.  The bedroom was Dave’s, who paid most of the rent.  Atom sat next to me.  The black & white TV was on but there was no voice coming out of Walter Cronkite’s moving lips as he reported the “CBS Evening News.”  The sound was turned off in deference to the rock music playing on the stereo.  Dick’s empty Army boots slumped on the floor by the TV.

There was a ritual to surviving a bowl of Dave’s killer chili.  Each demanded a six-pack of cheap, commissary beer—which was exempt from federal taxes and most of the alcohol content—and a half-loaf of white bread.  I reimbursed Dick a buck-and-a-half for my six-pack and my half of the bread.  He took two, icy-wet cans from the ice chest on the floor—the bachelor-sized refrigerator in the kitchenette was strictly for Dave’s food supplies—and set them down with a loaf of Wonderbread on the coffee table between us.  At the stove, Dave ladled out two, large bowlfuls of chili, which he set on the counter, steam rising from each like twin volcanoes. 

“Come an’ git it, boys.”  Tilting back his head, he shot down the whiskey, then pretended to smile at us. 

Each delicious spoonful of kidney beans, ground beef, and tomato sauce was accompanied by spicy onions and fiery chilies that set every taste bud in my mouth ablaze, made my throat and ears burn, my eyes water, and my brow sweat.  I tried to douse the fire with long draws of cold beer and smother it with slice after slice of the dry white bread from the open loaf.  I gulped in air to cool my lips and tongue, while explaining in detail what had happened to me earlier out at the point in the mouth of the Little Sur River.

Dick, a fellow surfer, whose dinged-up board leaned in the corner of the room, surmised: “Probably just a big rock under water with some kelp.”

In between gulps of beer, I replied: “No way, man.  I know what a rock feels like.  I’m telling you, this thing was alive.”  I wiped the sweat from my brow with my shirtsleeve.

“Boy, you been smokin’ too much a’ that loco weed,” Dave conjectured, while sitting on the lone stool at the counter.  He poured himself another drink from the bottle—and from his perch—looked down on us.

“I wasn’t stoned, man.” It was the usual assumption about hippies.  Why else would we look, act as we did?  “Something was out there.  I touched it and the ocean rose below me.”

I gave Atom a slice of white bread.  Dave looked on disapprovingly.

“A blow-hole at high tide’ll do that sometimes,” Dick offered.  His brow was sweating, too.  He chugged down his beer, got us two more, and put a Van Morrison album on the turntable.  The speakers crackled from the scratches on the black vinyl under the needle.

“A submerged blow-hole sucks down,” I countered about the possibility of a hole in the rock reef.  “This lifted me up.  Something breached below my board before diving deeper.”

“Yeah, Ahab.  Like you went surfin’ with a whale.” Dick shook his head.  “You’re flippin’-out, man.” He took another spoonful of chili and likewise sucked air to cool his insides.

“Maybe it was a shark?”

We both looked over at Dave, who at the counter was already staring back at us through narrowed eyes, like slits of dim light.  “Ya’ know, like one a’ them giant, man-eatin’, white kine.”

Of course, that had crossed my mind earlier.  But I had eliminated its likelihood.  “I would’ve seen the dorsal fin on the surface.  Same thing with a dolphin.”

“Not always.” Dave stared at the shot glass he had already raised from the counter, as if looking for the answer to my conundrum in its dark, liquid contents.  “I hear tell, sharks sometimes strike from below, thinkin’ you surfer boys in your black wetsuits is seals.” He smiled again and posed in rhyme: “An’ ain’t seal—their fav’rite meal?”

On TV, the scene switched from the CBS studio to a battlefield in ’Nam, where an Army helicopter with its blades rotating waited on a make-shift landing pad, as soldiers in combat fatigues and helmets loaded stretchers with wounded GIs with IV bottles attached.  As Van Morrison irreverently sang about a marvelous night for a moon dance, the three of us in the aluminum room stared at the silent, black and white images next to Dick’s empty Army boots.

Dave shot down his Jack Daniels.

The fiery chili made my eyes water.

“Goddamn war,” Dick said for us all.

After dinner, I felt bloated from all the yeast and my head was still flushed from the spices and I just needed some fresh air, so I excused myself:

“I have to feed my dog.”

But when I closed the front door and stepped outside with Atom, a cop car was already parked in front of the manager’s mobile home and he was outside talking to the cop, who sat behind the steering wheel.  I hoped the conversation wasn’t about me.  But apparently, it was.  Because as we tried to nonchalantly pass by, the cop waved me over to him.  We approached the patrol car.

“That your dog?” he asked.

I glanced down at Atom by my side, who was already staring up at me, as if waiting to be claimed.  I had to laugh. 

“Yeah, he’s mine.”

“It’s a fifty-dollar fine for not having him on a leash.”

“We forgot it in the truck.” I glanced over at the pot-bellied manager, who was standing nearby, and pretended to smile.  “We were just going back to get it.”

I started to walk away.  But the cop called me back:

“Hold it a minute.”

The car door opened and the cop got out.  He was a lot bigger and whiter than I.  And he didn’t look friendly when he ordered: “Put your hands on the car and spread your legs.”

I sighed and complied.  It wasn’t the first time I’d been hassled by The Man.  Once again, the long hair and bell-bottoms.  But as he patted me down, Atom growled. 

“Cool it,” I said, before the cop shot him. 

After the cop found nothing for which to arrest me, he wrote me a ticket for an unleashed dog.  I had 30 days to pay or go to court to fight it.  A warrant would be issued for my arrest if I ignored it.  I tucked the ticket into the pocket of my overalls, and he let us leave.

The next morning, we were awakened by someone pounding on the camper door.  Next to me in my sleeping bag, Atom barked: “Woof!” I heard a car engine idling outside my plywood walls and immediately suspected it might be The Man back to roust us again.  Maybe search the truck this time?  So I shushed Atom and didn’t answer until I heard Dick’s familiar voice:

“Wake up in there.”

In my long underwear, I opened the back door.  Dick was dressed in civies, standing next to his car—a little two-seater, foreign job with the temporary registration taped to the windshield—parked at the curb, driver’s door opened, engine running.  Gray fog darkened the sky and suspended a dewy mist.  I had no idea what time it was, but it really didn’t matter.  Atom jumped down from the truck and sniffed the closest redwood tree.  As he lifted his leg, I felt the urge to do likewise.

“I called in sick.” Dick treated his inscription in the Armed Forces like a job he didn’t want.  He wasn’t exactly Government Issue.  “Wanna get some breakfast?”

I yawned and nodded.

Like anybody else, I needed to use a bathroom first thing in the morning.  Especially after all the watery, commissary beer which had washed down last night’s dinner.  Unfortunately, my homemade unit wasn’t equipped with a commode.  So I dressed quickly and locked up the camper.  Atom was already sitting in the space behind the seats when I got in the passenger side of Dick’s Sunbeam Alpine.  He floored it almost before I could close the door.  He liked driving fast, shifting through the gears.  Considering the state of my bladder, I didn’t discourage him.

“Did you ever find that damn snake in your car?” I asked. 

We had caught a gopher snake—maybe three feet long—while hiking in a field at a State Park about a week ago.  Dick wanted it for a pet and had put the snake in the glove compartment for safe keeping on the drive home.  Unfortunately, there was a small hole in the back corner of the glove compartment and the snake had escaped and now lived somewhere inside the car’s dashboard.

“No.  But I locked a feeder mouse in here the other night and he was gone the next morning.” He downshifted, turned at the corner as if on a course, and explained: “They only eat live food.”

I already knew that.

On the outskirts of downtown Monterey, he turned the Sunbeam into the lot of a donut shop, screeched to a stop, and yanked on the emergency brake.  I was sick of donuts.  But through the front wall of glass, I could see the restroom door inside and by now it was one of those any-port-in-a-storm situations.  Dick and I got out.  I told Atom:

“Hang out.”

He jumped over the seat and sat in Dick’s place with his head out the opened window, watching us.  Behind the counter in the donut shop, a guy about my age in a hairnet was serving the customer ahead of us.  I gave Dick a buck and said:

“Get me a large coffee and two crumb.”

But when I reached for the knob of the restroom door, it was locked and a gravelly voice, as if in a cave, called from inside:

“Occupied.” 

Public restrooms—I hated them!  I sat down at an empty table.  Dick sat across from me with our breakfasts.  I didn’t dare take the top off my Styrofoam cup of coffee.  I crossed my legs tightly and tried not to stare at the door which remained silently closed.

Dick sipped his large coffee and began to pull apart his cinnamon roll. 

“Dave says you can’t bring your dog in the house anymore.”

“What?”

Just then, the restroom door opened from inside and out stepped a wino with a scraggly beard and burrs in his uncombed hair.  He wore a stained, torn Army jacket—in which he had obviously slept—and holey shoes which exposed parts of his filthy feet.  He shuffled over to the corner booth, where a Styrofoam coffee cup waited alone on the table.

Dick couldn’t help grinning between bites of his cinnamon roll. 

“Good luck in there.”

I didn’t even want to touch the doorknob now.  But I held my breath, stepped inside my only respite, and emptied my bladder as quickly as I could.  My lungs began to complain for air, but there was no way.  And sitting down was totally out of the question.  Light-headed from the lack of oxygen, I flushed the toilet with the sole of my Converse All-Star—the white canvas of which I had adorned with blue stars and red stripes like an American flag—and thought I would pass out while hurriedly washing my hands.  I used a paper towel to turn the doorknob, stepped out, and sucked in lungfuls of breathable air.  But when I sat down at the table across from Dick and appraised my junk food breakfast, I knew it was over.

“I’m going home, man.”

He stopped in mid-bite.  “Home?  Why?”

So I told him I had had it with bad meals and filthy, public restrooms.  With love-it-or-leave-it cops hassling me and invisible monsters under icy-cold water.  With rowdy jarheads in Datsuns, snakes in dashboards, and assholes in mobile homes, to which he diagnosed:

“You’re flippin’-out, man.”

Maybe.  I gazed out the glass wall.  In the driver’s seat of Dick’s car, Atom looked as if he were about to back out onto a highway where canines ruled the street.  I thought to myself, it might be a better world.  But to be perfectly frank, I was tired of sleeping with a dog.

Instead of the scenic Highway One route down the coast, I opted to drive inland to Highway Five and got on the freeway south.  I turned on the AM radio in the dash and searched for some human companionship to keep myself awake on the long drive.  The sun had already set and I was driving with my headlights on, listening to a news-broadcast, when I heard the report of a surfer who had been attacked by a killer whale at the same beach I had surfed the day before him.

“I knew it!”

I looked over at Atom, but he was curled up asleep in the passenger seat and wouldn’t have appreciated it anyway.  The newscaster went on to explain that the surfer’s board had been bitten in half and his leg nearly severed.  Brutal, man.  But he was saved by a fellow surfer, who had bravely paddled to his rescue and brought him ashore on his own surfboard.  I wondered if either was blue?  If he were tattooed victim or hero?  You couldn’t know everything from a story.  But I could see the wounded surfer on a gurney in my mind—IV bottle attached.  I was tempted to stop and phone Dick.  But I didn’t.  I figured he’d hear about it.  His diagnosis had been colored by the same green-eyed grudge as the jarheads who had cursed me from the Datsun.  So I was suddenly secure in the knowledge that I hadn’t actually ‘flipped-out.’  That what I felt—in the mouth of the Little Sur River—was real.  That I just wanted to go home again.  To my mom’s cooking.  And my girlfriend’s bed.  (Not necessarily in that order.)

A couple weeks later, Walter Cronkite announced that the American people had re-elected Richard Nixon to the White House, even though he didn’t get my vote.  I repainted my camper. 

And not too long after that, I got a summons informing me there was a warrant out for my arrest in Monterey.  I sent their municipal court 135 dollars to clear my good name.  Atom’s, too.  

In the ensuing whale attack investigation up north, it was discovered that the Navy had been breeding killer whales at their private base on a point a few miles south of the Little Sur River, intent on using them offshore in Vietnam, as radar-equipped, kamikaze torpedoes.  It created quite a stink from a public relations standpoint for a war that was already unpopular.  The project was abandoned.

Oh yeah, and that snake finally fell out of the dashboard of Dick’s car about a month after he sold it to his Staff Sergeant, whose unwary wife drove the Sunbeam over a speed bump too fast, which jarred loose the serpent from his roost down onto her nyloned ankle, causing her to freak-out and crash, coincidentally, through the window of the same donut shop we had visited on my last day in Monterey.  No one died, but there was collateral damage. 

Dick went AWOL again and upon his return spent 30 days in the brig.  But they never did send him to Nam.  He finished his tour at Fort Ord, and unlike my unlucky classmates, didn’t die in combat.  Eventually, the war ended.  And two newspaper reporters brought down the Nixon White House.  But that’s history now. 

From a personal standpoint, I was never the same again.  Post-Whale Syndrome.  Always paddled with my feet up now.  Always wary of unseen danger.  Like a killer whale.  A snake in the dashboard.  Or a god damn unlucky Lottery number.


Previously published in: www.flatmanCROOKED.com, Feature story, 3/’09; www.farmhousemagazine.com; Spring Issue, Fiction Section, ’08; Sport Literate, Vol. 5, Issue 2, Pint Size Pub., Inc., Chicago, IL, ’08; www.broowaha.com, L.A. Edition, Politics Section, 11/7/’06; www.thirstforfire.com, Premiere Issue, Fiction Section, 9/’05; WOOF: A Collection of Dog Tales, Woof Books, San Marino, CA, ’02.