Chuck sits in the Michigan Avenue train station trying to get used to his stiff uniform. Twelve weeks of Army boot camp starts in four days. The hernia that prevented Ford's from hiring Chuck straight out of high school didn't prevent the Army from drafting him a few years later.
Whose brilliant idea, Chuck thinks, to pull a couple dozen drunken mongrels off the streets of Detroit and plop 'em into a single Army unit? The beer money should hold out until Utah at least, Chuck assures himself. How bad can boot camp be? Twelve weeks until the free sea cruise. Pacific theater or Europe? Anybody's guess, thinks Chuck as he boards the train. He stows his duffel and heads straight for the bar car.
Ten weeks later, Chuck is sitting on a bench beside U.S. 101 outside Paso Robles. He's thinking about his last beer on that westbound train. Chuck wonders how hot it has to get for his U.S. Army-issued hat to melt. Beside Chuck sits Pawlecki, a skinny kid from Detroit's east side. In Chuck's shirt pocket, now sticky from sweat, is a folded sheet of paper containing the addresses of a dozen San Francisco nightclubs.
Chuck intends to spend the next 48 hours slowly emptying the contents of his wallet in many of those bars. Once he shakes Pawlecki, that is. The bus north is only 15 minutes behind schedule, but Chuck is fidgeting, standing, sitting, standing again, staring up the empty highway.
Chuck watches a Ford Roadster whistle by. It brakes hard, makes a squealing u-turn, and pulls up next to Chuck. The passenger door opens. Out of the car pops Gianni Bartoli. He rushes past Chuck saying, "I gotta take a wicked leak," which he does into a nearby manzanita bush.
Chuck says to Gianni's back, "How many years I don't see you and all you got is 'I gotta take a wicked leak'?" Gianni appears to ignore him.
When he finishes, Gianni walks back to the Roadster and flips up the rumble seat. "You soldier boys want a ride to the City?", he asks them.
"Heck yeah," says Pawlecki and makes for the seat.
Chuck just stares at Gianni. "I promise I won't drive," Gianni says with a straight face. As Chuck squeezes into the rumble seat next to Pawlecki, the driver turns to give him the once-over. Her long, dark hair is pulled back. Dark complexion, light green eyes, lower lip pouting slightly. Chuck feels naked under her cool, easy gaze.
"You're Chuck?", she asks him. She sounds disappointed, thinks Chuck.
Before he can manage a reply, Gianni tells her, "Can you believe it?" He shakes his head and laughs.
"You're not the uniform type, paly," Gianni says.
Chuck addresses the driver. "You know you can't believe a thing this guy says, right?"
"Hold onto your hat, Chuck," she says as she puts the Roadster in gear, makes a wide U-turn, and floors it. Chuck's cap flies into the road. The Ford's engine is so loud no one in the car bothers speaking. Chuck wants a cigarette but knows he'd never strike a match in that breeze.
The two-lane highway crosses and recrosses the Salinas River. Chuck watches the brown water roil just inches below road level in some spots. The hills rising on either side of the river are green like Chuck has never seen before, and dotted with wild flowers from bottom to top.
Halfway between Salinas and Gilroy, the driver turns the Roadster into narrow two-track path and heads for a small, steep-roofed cottage. Gianni leans toward Chuck in the rumble seat and says, "Gotta make a stop." The driver pulls the car right next to the cottage's front door.
Gianni jumps out before the car has stopped. Two strides and he's at the door. He enters the cottage like he owns it, exits almost as fast. The car is moving before Gianni is all the way inside. Chuck and Pawlecki nearly bounce out as the Roadster roars back down the rutted path.
Chuck feels the bullet whistle over his head before he hears the shot behind him. A second later the car is fishtailing through the brush. And like that the Roadster is back on the highway heading north. In a hurry. The driver is punching Gianni in the shoulder. He's laughing. The driver punctuates her blows with adjectives: "Dirty... stinking... lying... worthless...."
Gianni says,"You made your point."
The driver says through a clenched jaw, "No guns I said." She slaps Gianni's ear.
"Enough," he says, waving a finger. She slaps at that too.
Chuck shouts to Gianni over the Roadster's engine, "What was that about?"
"Artichokes," Gianni replies. That explains it, thinks Chuck.
Pawlecki asks Chuck, "Is this guy in the service?"
"You might call him a member of the auxiliary," Chuck replies. "Support staff," he adds.
Gianni in California, thinks Chuck. A hundred thousand servicemen, gambling, guns, girls. Where else would he be? Chuck regards the driver. She hasn't turned her head since the tussle with Gianni following the quick detour. Chuck is aching for another glimpse of those green eyes.
As the Roadster nears San Francisco, Chuck realizes he's freezing. Pawlecki leans forward and asks Gianni, "You got any blankets up there?"
Gianni laughs. Without turning around, he says, "Big, tough G.I.'s."
Chuck is ready to trade the rumble seat for a bar stool. Right on cue, the driver pulls the Roadster onto the gravel outside the Seven Mile House. "You're buying," Gianni says, pointing at Chuck.
As soon as Gianni, Chuck, and Pawlecki exit the Roadster, the driver says, "I'm gone," and takes off, showering them in dust and gravel.
Chuck watches the Roadster fly down Bayshore Boulevard and disappear. "Nice car," he says to Gianni.
Pawlecki says, "Anybody else thirsty?"
Inside the Seven Mile House, the afternoon crowd is half service men and half rail yard workers. Gianni nods at the bartender, who nods back. Gianni leads Chuck and Pawlecki into a room at the back of the bar. A large, round table and six wooden chairs nearly fill the small space. The barman comes in and places a pitcher of beer, three glasses, and a plate of sandwiches on the table. Gianni pours, the soldiers dig in.
Two ham-and-cheese-on-sourdough sandwiches later, Chuck asks Gianni, "Who is she?"
"The driver?", Gianni replies."Uh-uh. Not your type."
"Believe me," Chuck tells Gianni, "she's exactly my type. Where did she go?" Gianni shrugs. "When is she coming back?" Gianni shrugs again.
Chuck tries an end-around. "How you been making your money these days?"
Gianni drains his beer glass and refills it. "The usual," he says.
"Booze, gambling, and girls?", Chuck guesses.
"Vegetables, mostly," Gianni answers. "Lotta soldiers, lotta farmers, me smack in the middle."
"I never took you for the grocery type," Chuck tells Gianni.
"The lettuce doesn't get to the mess line all by itself," Gianni explains.
Chuck nods. Gio and his trucks.
"I make more on black market gasoline than I do on hootch and gambling," Gianni says. "Opportunity knocks."
Chuck stands. "Speaking of opportunity," he says, "I got some California women to charm out of their panties. Which way to Market Street?"
Gianni slides a nickel across the table. "Streetcar runs every 10 minutes," he tells Chuck. "The California women can't wait to meet you."
Chuck hits Pawlecki's chair. "Drop your kielbasa and zip up," he says. As he buttons his jacket, he tells Gianni, "Don't fire that driver."
Gianni tips back his chair. "We got plenty of trucks need drivers," he says to Chuck. "If the Army thing doesn't work out for you," he adds.
"Work for your brother. Hmm. Tempting," Chuck says. They both start cackling. "I'll take my chances with the Axis." They both stop laughing.
"I'll know where to find you," Gianni says to Chuck as he and Pawlecki scuffle toward the door. "For the next couple of weeks, anyway."
Chuck and Pawlecki watch the tram turn left from Geneva onto Bayshore. As they board, the driver says, "G.I.'s ride free."
They take a seat near the back of the car. Pawlecki says, "I like this town."
"We've only seen two blocks and one bar," Chuck replies.
"Yeah," says Pawlecki, "I drank a pitcher of beer, ate four sandwiches, rode all the way, and ain't cracked my wallet once. My kinda place."
Chuck watches the traffic heading south as the streetcar makes it's way north toward downtown. He hopes for a glimpse of that Ford Roadster.
Pawlecki lasts three bars. Then Chuck decides to check him into a $2-a-night hotel room in the Tenderloin before he spews on his uniform. After he puts Pawlecki to bed (fully dressed, on his side in case he "burps" in his sleep), Chuck takes a cab to Jillie's on Market Street.
Chuck is happy to see the place is jumping at the early hour of 10 p.m. He's even happier to see almost as many women as men in attendance. Standing at the bar waiting for his gin and tonic, Chuck spots Lt. Bedders attempting to make time with a young woman. She's ignoring him.
The lieutenant has been the source of unending grief for Chuck and his unit of Detroit misfits since the day they arrived at Camp Roberts. Halfway through his gin and tonic, Chuck decides even hard-ass junior officers deserve a good time. He wends his way to the woman at the bar.
"Good evening, Lieutenant," Chuck says. "I hope I'm not interrupting anything." Chuck smiles at the woman, who gives him a sideways glance.
"As a matter of fact, private," Lt. Bedders begins, but Chuck cuts him off. "I didn't get a chance to congratulate you at camp," Chuck says. The lieutenant stammers, the woman at the bar looks bored, Chuck forges ahead. "The Colonel's Citation," he says. "Well done, sir."
Chuck holds out his hand. Lt. Bedders shakes it blandly, still stuttering. Chuck turns to the woman. "This officer's going places," he says. Chuck turns back to the confused second lieutenant. "You'll make captain by fall, sir," he tells him. "Then, well, the sky's the limit, eh?"
The woman turns on her barstool and gives the lieutenant a smile. "Thank you, private," says Lt. Bedders. "But you men deserve the credit."
My work is done, thinks Chuck as he salutes the lieutenant, tips his hat to the woman on the stool, and returns slowly to his gin and tonic.
By the time Chuck signals the bartender for another, the barstool woman's open-toed, high-heel shoe is massaging the lieutenant's pant leg.
Lots of women here prettier than Lt. Bedders' pickup, thinks Chuck. He even catches a few smiles aimed his way through the bar's smoky haze. Chuck finishes his drink and considers buying a third, and one for the short, busty blonde who's been flirting with him from across the bar.
Chuck wonders, How many Roadsters could there be in San Francisco? He straightens his tie and heads for the door. So long, cute li'l blonde!
After walking two blocks toward the Ferry Building, Chuck loses interest in Market St. He spots Coit Tower far to his left and heads for it.
This must be North Beach, thinks Chuck as he turns left onto Broadway from Montgomery. Four drunken sailors nearly knock him into traffic. Chuck steadies himself and follows the sound of a swing band coming from an open cafe door a block away. Another pack of navy men approaches.
Peering inside, Chuck sees everyone in the room is moving. Fast. This is the place, he thinks, and wedges his way past the knot at the door. Chuck finds himself dancing with two different women before he can make his way to the bar. There's too much music for the room, he thinks.
The six-piece band is crowded on a low riser that takes up most of one wall. Opposite the band is a bar where the patrons stand three deep. Between the band and the bar is a whirl of jumping, bouncing skirts and uniforms. Chuck's thirst pushes him into the throng lining the bar.
Chuck finds a gap between two women standing at the short bar. The bartender walks up and silently puts a drink on the bar in front of him. Chuck takes a sip. Gin and tonic. I like this bartender, he thinks. The bartender walks by again and says as he passes, "On the house."
I really like this bartender, Chuck thinks. The woman to his left eyes Chuck over her shoulder. Chuck smiles and raises his glass to her. "What are you drinking?" Chuck asks the woman. She's wearing a tight wool skirt and flower-print blouse. She turns around without a word.
Chuck turns to the woman on his right, who also has her back to him. "Care to dance?" he asks her loudly. He doesn't see the punch coming.
Chuck happens to be turning his head when the blow lands, so it glances off his right ear. He spins and nails the puncher on the temple. The sailor drops like he's wearing a concrete vest. Two more tars rush Chuck from the dance floor, but one trips on a dancer and face flops. The third sailor lowers his head and rushes Chuck like a bull. Chuck steps aside and the sailor roars head first into the wooden bar rail.
Good thing these guys do their fighting from a boat, thinks Chuck. They're worthless on land. Chuck downs his drink and heads for the door. Two M.P.s are standing in the entry. Chuck turns back to the bar. The bartender waves him through a gap in the back wall.
The narrow hall leads down, turns left, passes two low doorways, and ends at a narrower stairway. Chuck descends and winds up in an alley. To the left Chuck sees cars passing on a dimly lit street. To the right is darkness. Chuck turns right and finds two more alleys just as dark.
Chuck meanders through the alleys of the city, half looking for another bar, half thinking about walking all night, surprised by the quiet. Walking feels right to Chuck, even after weeks of drills on Camp Roberts' endless parade ground. He breathes in the night like an elixir.
Chuck tops a hill. The bay lays flat as a tarp. Ships line nearly every pier. Driving slowly up the street toward him is a Ford Roadster. The car passes Chuck, turns around, and stops beside him. The passenger door opens. Chuck just stares. A woman's voice says, "No hurry."
"Nice night for a walk," Chuck says through the open door. "Why not park this heap and join me?" Chuck fights the urge to jump in the car.
"I'd rather drive, if it's all the same to you," says the woman behind the wheel.
Chuck asks, "What's your name?" The driver leans sideways.
"Get in the car, Chuck," she says, looking him square in the eye. Chuck obliges her. The driver turns the car around and heads into town.
Chuck asks her, "Any particular reason why I shouldn't know your name?"
"No," she replies. "I just prefer you find out from someone else."
Chuck settles in as the car heads west on Howard St. "Wherever we're going," he says to the driver, "just tell me Gianni won't be there."
"Don't know where you're going," the driver replies, "don't know where Gianni is." She hasn't taken her eyes off the road. "I'm going home."
"Alone," she adds. They drive in silence for ten minutes. Chuck is ready to start walking again. The driver stops in front of an apartment.
"Where are we?", Chuck asks.
"Doesn't matter," the driver replies. "Ring number 206."
"Who shall I say sent me?"
"They won't ask," she says.
Chuck turns around after he exits the car, but the driver pulls away from the curb without saying another word. Chuck heads up the stairs. A dozen mailboxes, a dozen bells. Chuck rings 206 and is buzzed in a second later. Maybe they're expecting me, thinks Chuck with a smile.
Apartment 206 is at the back of the two-story building's top floor. Before Chuck can knock on the door, it opens a crack. Chuck hears music. A slow, bluesy Benny Goodman song is playing. Chuck pushes the door open part way and sees the Victrola against the wall. No one's in sight.
From inside the apartment, Chuck hears a woman ask, "What are you, shy?"
Chuck enters and shuts the door. The woman is sitting on a sofa. She's wearing a pale-green robe and gray silk slippers. She puts down the magazine she was reading, stands, and approaches Chuck slowly.
Chuck meets her half way, takes her in his arms, and kisses her. The song ends, the kiss goes on. Much later, she sighs and says, "Not shy."
"What's your name?", Chuck asks her.
"Nora," she answers.
"Chuck," she interrupts. "I thought you'd never get here."
"I gotta go," Chuck tells Nora, but he stays snuggled against her under the bedcovers.
"Go," Nora says without loosening her embrace a bit.
"It's noon," Chuck whispers. "I'm due back at camp by 1600."
"Go, go, go," Nora replies as she rolls on top of him. "Who's stopping you?"
"Nobody," Chuck replies as the love-making recommences. They haven't left the apartment since Chuck was dropped off early Saturday morning.
"I've got three hours to make a four-hour trip," says Chuck as he sits on the edge of the bed tying his shoes. "And to find a goddamn hat."
"I wouldn't worry so much if I were you," Nora says. She sits up in the bed and lets the sheet sag down to her lap. "You'll get gray hair."
Chuck drinks in the image of Nora sitting up in the bed. I want to remember how she looks right now, he thinks. Burn it deep in my memory. As he stands and grabs his coat off the back of a chair, Chuck asks Nora, "You wouldn't happen to know the name of the driver, would you?"
"What driver?", Nora asks sleepily.
"Never mind," Chuck says. He sits on the edge of the bed and gives her a long kiss. "See ya," he says.
"Maybe," Nora replies, looking Chuck in the eye. Chuck nods solemnly and leaves without another word.
Parked at the curb is the Roadster. Chuck isn't surprised to see Gio at the wheel. He does his best to hide his disappointment. "Where's your Cadillac?", he asks from the curb.
"Let's go, soldier boy," Gio says through the passenger window. "You're not the only one's gotta be someplace." Chuck thinks, this'll hurt.
"Ok, how much is this ride gonna cost me?", Chuck says as gets in.
Gio pulls away from the curb. "You see a meter?", he asks with a growl.
"Gio, you never gave a free ride in your life," Chuck says as the Ford two-seater zips west on Geary toward Playland and the Sutro Baths.
"All the favors I do for you," Gio mumbles as he makes a hard left on the Great Highway. "All the money I put in your pocket. Damn ingrate."
"All the frozen water you put in my lungs," Chuck replies. "All the whiskey you left me at the bottom of the Detroit River. Damn sucker."
"You got paid," Gio tells Chuck, almost apologetically. "You're still getting paid, if you didn't know." He smiles. "Have a nice weekend?"
The whole thing's a set-up, thinks Chuck. I should've known as soon as Gianni popped out of the Roadster. As soon as Nora kissed me. Nora.
"Right now the only one paying me is Uncle Sam," Chuck tells Gio. "Let's keep it that way."
"Okay, fine," Gio says. "Just trying to help."
An hour later the Roadster is zipping past prune orchards south of San Jose. "There goes one," Gio says, pointing to a tarp-covered truck.
"One of yours?", Chuck asks Gio, though he knows the answer.
Gio says, "I got more trucks and freight than I got drivers." Chuck stays mum.
The Ford is rolling through Hollister when Chuck breaks the long silence: "You know I'm shipping out in a few weeks."
"Maybe," Gio says.
"No maybe about it," Chuck tells Gio.
"If you say so," says Gio. "You were thinking about it, weren't you?" Chuck has to admit it: he was. The devil you know, thinks Chuck. Freighting who-knows-what for Gio here is as likely to get me killed as shipping out in a rifle company.
Green hills speckled with wild flowers roll by the Roadster's window. An hour later a sign announces: Camp Roberts 5 Miles. Chuck reconsiders Gio's offer. I'm just not the AWOL type, he thinks. And Gio's too tight to make it worth the jail time if I get hauled in. War can't be all that bad.
Gio pulls to the side of the road fifty yards from the camp's front gate. "I'll be in touch," he tells Chuck. "You'll come around, I know."
"You're gonna come out of this war smelling like clover," Chuck says as he exits the Roadster. "Your brother -- him I'm not so sure about."
"Gianni's a big boy," says Gio.
"Yeah," Chuck answers, "but he doesn't have sense enough not to listen to his brother." Chuck walks away.
Gio pulls the car next to Chuck just before he reaches the camp gate. "Stop by the Seven Mile next time you're in town. That's an order." Chuck bends down to mock-salute Gio through the car's passenger window. He enters the gate thinking, Next time I'm in town could be awhile.
As soon as he reaches his company's barracks, Chuck is met by Pawlecki, who looks at his watch and says, "Five minutes to spare, Mr. Lucky."
"How'd you get back so fast?", Chuck asks.
Pawlecki looks at his scuffed boots. "Took the bus yesterday," he says. "Didn't feel so good."
Suddenly Pawlecki turns pale. Chuck asks, "Are you gonna get sick again?"
Pawlecki points behind Chuck, who turns around to see Lt. Bedders. "Private, my office," the lieutenant says.
Chuck follows Lt. Bedders out the barracks, across the parade ground, and into the regimental HQ. The lieutenant occupies the smallest office in the largest building on the base, after the bowling alley. He takes a seat at a tiny desk.
Chuck stands in front of the lieutenant's desk, wondering whether he should speak. He decides to wait for Lt. Bedders to break the silence.
After a minute of shuffling papers, Lt. Bedders says without looking up, "Your unit is an embarrassment, Private." Not to me, thinks Chuck.
Chuck waits another minute for Lt. Bedders to continue. "Slothful, indolent, baleful, insolent..." Chuck thinks, now he's a poet.
The lieutenant looks up for the first time. "You showed me something last Friday, Laffingstock. Ingenuity, teamwork, loyalty, potential." Chuck squirms silently. Lt. Bedders continues: "I'm giving your boys one last chance. It's up to you. You're officer of the day tomorrow."
Great, thinks Chuck. The whole company will be hung over, and it's our last crack at the obstacle course. Looks like another 10 weeks here.
A plan starts to form in Chuck's mind. Step one: get his hands on some whiskey. In our bunkhouse, that shouldn't be difficult (for a price). Step two: get the rowdies some sleep. No all-night card games in the darkness of the latrine. Step three: a little breakfast-mess sabotage. Step four: get Sgt. York into the infirmary. Half the company would sandbag just to see that pompous ass get a stripe ripped off his sleeve.
Oh-eight-hundred hours: the Detroit misfits are lined up, relatively alert, ready to run/crawl under, over, and through various obstacles. Chuck thinks, the front lines of the European and Pacific theaters are littered with rope ladders and mud pits? Sure, right. Army geniuses.
At least Chuck's plan clicked. Sgt. York's in the infirmary, the company got some real sleep, and they all avoided the eggs at breakfast. I should feel bad about all the laxative in Sgt. York's whiskey-laced tea, thinks Chuck, but I don't. Ditto the sleeping pills in the eggs.
The company bought Chuck's plan when he spelled it out for them in the barracks last night before lights out: Get the sergeant shipped out. Do it by breaking the camp obstacle-course record with Sgt. York on the sidelines. The Detroit recruits had been sandbagging since day one. They knew they could smoke those farm boys and college stiffs half in the bag. But the harder York pushed them, the harder they pushed back.
Chuck knew the boys were champing at the bit to show what they could do. They just needed a reason, and screwing York was reason aplenty.
As Sgt. Joule approaches, the company stands in groups of three and four at the course start, smoking, mumbling, snickering. He's ticked.
"Who's in charge here?" the sergeant shouts. The soldiers just look at him. "Who the hell's in charge?" he repeats.
Chuck says,"Uh, me."
Sgt. Joule addresses Chuck. "Laffingstock, you've got 30 seconds to get these humps out of my yard and onto those obstacles."
Chuck shrugs. "We've been waiting on you, sergeant," Chuck says. "Guess you got caught in the crowd at the latrine this morning." Sgt. Joule just scowls.
Chuck decides to put some space between himself and the fuming sergeant. He approaches Andy Deluca, who's the best athlete in the company. "Say Andy," Chuck says, "we gotta break that record as a group."
"No sweat," says Andy. "Just feed the slugs some of them eggs you made."
"Nah," Chuck replies. "Let's let Rollo be the rabbit. He's the only one near your speed. You go last and kick the trailers in the behind." Chuck leans in and whispers, "I'll stay in the pack with my motivator." He shows Andy a 10-penny nail up his sleeve. "That's our record."
From a platform 10 feet above the course start and finish lines, Sgt. Joule yells "Set!"
Chuck forms the platoon into two scraggly rows. At the last minute, Chuck moves Essenmacher next to Rollo in the first pair, replacing Big Mo Pete, who he places next to himself amidpack. Chuck takes a last quick look back at Andy Deluca, who's standing nonchalant in the rear. Andy flips him off just as Sgt. Joule yells "Go!"
Rollo and Essenmacher shoot through the first obstacle, followed in five-second intervals by the next 19 pairs of soldiers in the platoon.
Chuck nears the halfway point of the obstacle course without seeing any inert bodies or hearing anguished screams. Good signs, he thinks. Big Mo has managed to keep pace, but the 20-foot wall is only two obstacles away. Chuck positions the 10-penny nail in his balled-up fist. Chuck knows Big Mo hasn't yet made it over the wall in four previous course runs. Chuck'll be damned if he'll let that happen a fifth time.
Big Mo slows when he spots the wall ahead. "Pick it up, Mo," says Chuck. "Top speed, grab the rope, walk the wall, hands 'n feet together."
Chuck's advice holds for Big Mo's first four steps, but then he loses momentum. His feet slip instead of step. His grip on the rope falters. From his spot halfway up the climbing wall next to Mo's, Chuck senses the big guy's about to drop to the ground. He swings to Mo's side.
Using the rope's momentum, Chuck punches Mo in the bottom with the nail poking two inches out of his fist. The big man howls and scampers. Mo tumbles over the top of the wall in a few giant steps. Chuck hears him land with a thud and a groan. Chuck swings over his wall smiling.
Chuck tries to help Big Mo get back on his feet, but the guy takes a swing at him from the ground. "You wanna do basic twice?" Chuck asks.
Mo answers Chuck by taking another swing at him. Chuck grabs Mo's arm and pulls him to his feet. "Kill me at the finish," Chuck tells him.
Big Mo isn't finishing the obstacle course so much as he's chasing Chuck, who hears him panting and cursing a few steps behind all the way. After he completes the rope swing over the water hazard, Chuck sees the finish line 50 yards and two obstacles ahead. He hears a splash.
Chuck takes a quick glance over his shoulder and sees that Big Mo came up a few yards short on the rope swing. Now he's cussing even louder. After the penultimate obstacle Chuck realizes Mo is gaining on him and may catch him going under the 30 feet of barbed wire at course end.
Sure enough, Chuck feels Big Mo grabbing at his boots as they wiggle under the wire, which is now sagging nearly to the ground in places. Chuck spends as much effort kicking back at Mo as he does crawling to the end of the wire, but he finally makes it out and onto his feet.
The platoon members who have finished the course are resting in the shade of the tall start-finish platform. Sgt. Joule frowns down at them. Chuck turns to head off Big Mo, who rips through the last bit of wire and stammers to his feet. They face each other, huffing and puffing.
"Mo--", says Chuck before Big Mo lunges at him with a growl. Chuck side-steps him, but Mo catches Chuck's hip with one hand and twirls him. Chuck keeps his feet, but Mo's back on him before he's steady. Chuck falls backward and uses Mo's own momentum to send the big guy flying.
Most of the platoon members have finished the course. They form a ring around the fighters. "Mo, Goddam--", says Chuck as Mo lunges at him.
Big Mo goes for Chuck's knees and would've gotten them if only Chuck hadn't knocked him out with a left to the temple first. A cheer goes up. On the platform, Sgt. Joule checks with the timer, shakes his head, and turns toward the platoon pairing up at the start. Andy Deluca grins.
"We got it," Andy tells Chuck, who is bent over, hands on knees. It takes Chuck a second to realize Andy means they broke the course record.
Big Mo starts to moan. "Get this bum on his feet," says Chuck as he catches his breath. "We're due at the rifle range at ten hundred hours."
Chuck gets the platoon through the day's training without anyone getting thrown in the brig. The Detroiters are quieter than usual at mess, and they're downright peaceful while lying in their bunks before lights out. Chuck's half asleep when he sees Sgt. Joule at the end of the barracks.
The sergeant motions to Chuck and walks into Sgt. York's office. Chuck cusses under his breath, gets up. Almost got away with it, he thinks.
"Sgt. York has been reassigned," says Sgt. Joule before Chuck's through the office door. "You're OD for the duration. Any questions? Good."
"Dismissed," says the sergeant. He hasn't looked up from the papers he's shuffling since Chuck entered the office.
"I'm... Me?", Chuck asks. "Wait, what... Who?", Chuck stammers. "What happened to Sgt. York?"
"Reassigned, Private," he replies. "Someone has to answer for the eggs. It seems Lt. Bedders had a double helping. Indisposed all morning. The lieutenant thinks you'll keep the mutts in line."
"In a week you're all shipping out," Sgt. Joule continues. "Just keep them bums on the base and out of the brig. They're your problem now." Sgt. Joule looks up from the papers he's shuffling. "I said dismissed, Private!"
"Yes, sergeant," Chuck says and walks out of the office.
Chuck thinks as he walks to his cot: A week as OD then a long boat ride. Hmm. I gotta get off this base, without getting myself locked up. Chuck sits on his bunk, takes a box of matches out his jacket pocket, and regards the number printed on the box under "Seven Mile House."
Over the next two days of marches and drills, the platoon of Detroit misfits outperforms nearly the entire base, with no artificial edges. By Wednesday night, Chuck's plan is set. All it took was a call to the Seven Mile House, a two-word message for Gianni, and a bribed guard.
Standing behind a clump of manzanita, Chuck sees headlights approach the camp bus stop. The car rolls to a stop. Chuck comes out to meet it.
"Where is she?", Chuck asks as he gets in the Roadster.
"Where's who?", Gianni replies.
"Maybe I should drive," says Chuck. "Keep us dry."
Gianni hands Chuck a flask as he speeds south down the middle of the two-lane highway. "I figure," Gianni says, "you got four hours, tops. To the Inn and back to camp, that's one hour."
Chuck takes a pull on the flask and hands it back to Gianni uncapped. Gianni caps the flask without drinking. "Two hours with Nora," Gianni says with a straight face, "and an hour for us to talk some business."
"What business do we have?" Chuck asks as he grabs the flask back and takes another drink.
"That's what we have to talk about," Gianni says.
"How is it possible?", Chuck asks when Nora opens her door at the Paso Robles Inn.
"What kind of welcome is that?", Nora says with a smile.
Chuck takes Nora in his arms and kisses her a good long time. "Better," Nora says finally. They kiss again and slowly shed their clothes.
"How is what possible?", Nora asks Chuck as they lie still in each other's arms. An hour has passed since Chuck first posed the question.
"How is it possible," Chuck repeats, "for you to look better now than you did when I last saw you?"
Nora sighs."Knock it off," she says.
Chuck pours a tall glass of water from the pitcher on the nightstand. He hands it to Nora, who drinks half and hands the glass back to him. "Ta," says Nora and rests her head on Chuck's shoulder.
Chuck drains the glass, puts it back on the nightstand, and says, "Don't sleep, dove."
"Mmmm," Nora replies. "Okay, gimme a reason to stay awake."
Chuck says, "I'll give you two: ETO and Pacific Theater." He slides into her.
"Mmmm," Nora moans, smiling. "You're not going anywhere, soldier boy. You're needed on the home front." Chuck doesn't hear a word she says.
"Slow down on the coffee," Gianni tells Chuck as he watches him pour his third cup. It's 4:00 a.m. and they're alone in the inn lobby. Gianni has laid out his plan to Chuck, who listened politely and answered with a single word: "No." As usual, Gianni hears "Yes."
"Shouldn't we be heading back?", Chuck asks. He's sitting on the edge of his seat.
"You'll be back in your bunk by reveille," Gianni says.
"You're not the one who's AWOL," Chuck says.
"Are you complaining now?", Gianni asks.
Chuck shakes his head. "I'll be shipping out smiling."
Gianni leans forward. "You're in a big hurry to get on that boat," he says. "Don't you like California?"
"Army says go," Chuck says, "I go."
Gianni turns off the Roadster's headlights as the car approaches the camp entrance. The sentry post is lit by a single yellow overhead lamp. "That's not Gus," Chuck says when the sentry comes into view. Gianni sets the car's brake and signals Chuck to wait as he exits quietly.
Gianni walks to the sentry post like he belongs there. A minute later he walks halfway back to the car and signals to Chuck to join him. Chuck follows Gianni back to the small sentry post. The sentry waves Chuck through the open gate. Chuck looks at Gianni, who just shrugs.
Chuck shakes Gianni's hand and says, "Be nice to Nora."
"That's your job," says Gianni. He heads back to the car, Chuck heads into the camp.
Chuck has only enough time to change out of his uniform before reveille. Sgt. Joule sees Chuck standing in the mess line and approaches him.
"Lt. Bedders' office," Sgt. Joule tells Chuck much too loudly, "Oh-seven-hundred." He exits the mess hall walking like John Wayne with bad blisters.
If I'd been spotted sneaking in or out, thinks Chuck, I'd be in the brig by now. He tries a half-forkful of Army eggs, sticks with coffee.
"Whoever made you OD should be promoted, private," Lt. Bedders says as he shuffles through the papers on his desk. Chuck just stands there.
A minute later, the lieutenant looks up and gives Chuck the once-over. "I see keeping those hoodlums in line has taken its toll," he says.
"A touch of the flu, sir," Chuck offers to explain being hung over and sleep-deprived. "I'll be fit to ship out with the boys next week."
Lt. Bedders seems to be considering this. "Yes, well," he says finally, "you've been reassigned to the training division. Congratulations. You report for NCO training at oh-nine-hundred hours," Lt. Bedders continues. "Pack your duffel, Corporal."
Chuck thinks, Me? A corporal?
"Dismissed," the lieutenant adds after a few seconds of Chuck standing silently, unsteadily.
"Yes, sir," Chuck says and exits the office.
NCO school, how'd that happen?, Chuck thinks as he stuffs his gear messily into his duffel. Then it hits him: Did Gianni...? Nah.
Chuck stands and announces to the barracks, "Gents, they're gonna make me an NCO, do you believe that? You're on your own, God help you."
Chuck's news is met with silence. A few of his former barracks mates casually exit. "Hey, it wasn't my idea," Chuck explains. No takers.
"Gotta hand it to you," Andy Deluca says from his bunk across the barracks. "Played your cards beautiful. Dealt a good hand, though, eh?"
"I didn't play a damn thing," Chuck answers, dropping his duffel. "I'm a draftee just like all of yuz."
"Friends in high places," says Andy.
Chuck tries not to sound apologetic. "What friends? York? Joule? Lt. Bedders? Sure, we're forever chumming around." Chuck starts to wobble.
Andy shakes his head and walks out of the barracks without another word. "Not my idea!", Chuck shouts after him as he picks up his duffel.
Chuck gets lost twice on his way to the NCO training office. He criss-crosses the camp's broad parade ground multiple times as he searches. The walking perks Chuck up. He has no idea what the Army has in mind for him. Not being shot at is a good start. Nora nearby, even better.
Chuck's good feeling dissipates quickly when he sees the look on Master Sgt. Tristram Gitzle's face as he enters the NCO training office. The sergeant's a big guy, Chuck can tell even as he sits behind a small, yellow-wood desk. He's fuming, though he's trying not to show it.
Play it cool, thinks Chuck. Without looking up from his desk, Master Sgt. Gitzle says, "To your barracks. Sit on your bunk at attention."
Chuck starts over. "Private Laffing--"
"I know who you are, Laffingstock," says the sergeant, now in full fume. "I know how you got here."
That puts you one up on me, thinks Chuck.
"It is now oh-nine-twenty," says Master Sgt. Gitzle. "You were to report here by oh-nine-hundred."
Chuck knows better than to attempt an explanation. He asks flatly, "Which barracks am I assigned to, sergeant?"
"Dismissed," he replies.
Chuck picks up his duffel and exits the office without another word to Master Sgt. Gitzle. The second barracks behind the office is his. Chuck plops into the first bunk and is asleep before the rusty springs have stopped squeaking. In his dream he stands atop a wooden tower.
The dream tower pitches over, throwing Chuck toward the ground far below. He wakes up in a heap on the floor. The bunk lies on top of him.
"I said sit at attention, Private!" yells Master Sgt. Gitzle. Chuck crawls from under the overturned bunk. He stands slowly and unsteadily. Chuck thinks, What'd I do to make this lunk want to kick my ass?
"Fix that bunk and follow me," the sergeant says. He turns and stomps out.
Sleepless, hung over, and freshly bruised, Chuck decides now is not the time to put Master Sgt. Gitzle aright. But aright he will be put.
Trailing the sergeant in a woozy, self-inflicted haze, Chuck marvels at the beautiful California spring day. He thinks, Sure beats Dogbone.
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