“Two most important skills in life are making friends . . . and keeping them”
Marion “Gus” Baldwin was the kid your mama didn’t want you to play with. Mothers could tell this right away from the sideways serpent grin he conjured just before the trouble started. Gus did have a certain “glint in his eye,” but was adept at the All-American Kid routine, which he performed to perfection. When you got to know him, you quickly learned that devils really do walk the face of the earth.
Gus was more mature than I about women and sex. He had a girlfriend with whom he had slept—all night long! I was envious and deeply impressed with his savoir faire. In this regard, I acknowledged him as the alpha wolf in our little pack. I had my own areas of expertise, and I think Gus was respectful of my prowess in dramatic arts and outdoor sports. All in all, we balanced each other. That's why we clicked from our first meeting on the train to Marine Corps boot camp.
Those of you who followed my YELLOW WOOD series met Gus Baldwin in PART NINE--Battle of the Hinky Dink. You may remember how he instigated the legendary food fight, and how I instantly joined the fray as his wingman. Many of our subsequent misadventures followed that pattern: wicked idea, serpent smile, and then hellzapoppin’ mischief--with Bob left holding the bag.
“What a dumb-ass,” grinned Gus, “Why are you always getting caught?”
Together we survived the surreal tortures of Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island. I remember one episode when the Drill instructors publicly announced our IQ scores and then cruelly mocked us. If you had one of the lower IQ scores, you were mocked as an idiot, but their special scorn was reserved for those unfortunates with high scores. One recruit, whose name I can’t remember, had a ridiculous score around 165. I believe he was spirited away in the night by the CIA and hooked up to a computer. Oh yes, I think his name was Houser, Doogie Houser. Gus and I had the next two highest scores. His IQ was three points higher than mine.
“Oh my God,” quoth the Senior Drill Instructor, “What have we here in the Three Three Eight? Two bona fidey geniuses. Isn’t that wonderful? ISN'T THAT WONDERFUL?"
“Sir, yes sir!”
“Baldwin and Jenkins. Are we surprised?”
“Sir, no sir!”
“I always knew Miss Baldwin was the biggest wise ass in the platoon, but where has Miss Jenkins been hiding her light? Under a bucket I’m sure, so that we won’t be blinded by her brilliance. Oh, it hurts my eyes just to look at her. Does it hurt your eyes to look at Miss Jenkins?”
“Sir, yes sir!”
“Jenkins would you mind terribly putting a bucket on you head so that we are not blinded by the light of your superior intellect?”
Gus just smirked. He was really, really good at smirking. Olympic class smirker.
But the fantastic result of those matching I. Q. scores was not revealed until a few days later when the MOS (Military Occupation Specialties) were allotted, also publicly. Gus and I were both assigned 6742, HAWK missile operators. We had orders to report to the same outfit. We were going to be stationed together!
(Insert Infantry Training theme song “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” by the Stones)
After boot camp, Marines go directly to the Infantry Training Regiment at Camp Geiger, North Carolina. For several weeks new Marines play war in the woods, shooting things, and blowing stuff up. I have to tell you the truth. We had a lot of fun. Boom!
Infantry training complete, Gus and I arrived together at Cherry Point, North Carolina, the founding members of Delta Battery, Third LAAM (Light Anti Aircraft Missile) Battalion, a training unit whose mission was to get replacements ready for the First and Second LAAMs recently deployed in Viet Nam. There to welcome us to Delta Battery was Gunnery Sergeant Cunningham, the third member of our little ménage a leatherneck. Cunningham was a craggy-faced, mean Marine fighting machine, and he didn’t much like Baldwin and Jenkins. “I think I’ll keep you Devil Pups busy with a month of mess duty. Welcome to Delta Battery.”
We spent about eight months at Cherry Point. We grew to loathe that base and Marine Corps garrison duty which we called the Mickey Mouse Marines, a grueling, tedious cycle of marching, inspections, field maneuvers, testing, and physical training. Until our HAWK missile system finally arrived, the first months were especially mind-numbing. My dislike for stateside assignments would play large in several career decisions, but they were still a long way off, and the material for later stories.
Lieutenant Mike Stevens eventually arrived as the first CO (Commanding Officer) of Delta Battery, and immediately Gus and I knew the new Old Man was cool. Stevens would bust your ass, but he was fair, he listened to us, and you could tell he was Marine Corps to the marrow. When he assumed command, things quickly improved, by which I mean he started issuing 96 hour passes, beginning with me and Gus as the battery men with the most longevity in Delta. Gunny Cunningham was not pleased.
We were off on our first swoop, a term used by servicemen to describe a breakneck dash to a party spot as far away from base as a 4 day pass could take you, give you the most time to play, and then get you back by deadline. For us, swoop meant getting out butts to the Washington D.C. suburb of Silver Springs, Maryland, Marion’s home town where he could bed down with his girlfriend, I could pursue the girls he tossed in my direction, and we could operate inexpensively out of his father’s house. We were PFCs by that time (Private First Class) and making the ridiculous salary of $125 a month.
Our Swoopmobile was my suspension-sagging, heavy-assed Plymouth station wagon. We had blazed a route through backwoods roads to avoid the state troupers who probably would have pulled us over for averaging 100+ miles an hour. Remarkably that grey behemoth handled beautifully and could hug the road, the faster the better. Gus would sit next to me drinking a beer; completely relaxed and unconcerned with the Carolina piney woods streaking by in a blur. “Think you could drive a little faster?” I tried to oblige and put my foot to floor.
Here’s a strange morsel to chew on. That Plymouth wagon was the same car my mother shot herself in. My step father, Lu Smith, pushed it off on me because he couldn’t stand to be in it. I wasn’t happy about it myself, so I really didn’t care if I destroyed it. Or me? Now there’s an interesting thought.
Marion’s father, also named Marion, or Big Marion as I called him, was a D.C. Beltway operative of some kind, I don’t remember what he did exactly, and he was much more urbane than me or my small town Southern hick-folk. Overlooking the obvious distinctions in class, Big Marion treated me kindly and introduced me to such sophisticated wonders as avocados and spicy food. Noblesse Oblige. At that time he was attempting to secure $1,000,000 in underwriting from the World Bank to mount an expedition to Peru. There, among the Quechua Indians, he was hoping to discover and return with the world’s first foolproof aphrodisiac. I thought this project was quite the most remarkable and exotic thing I had ever heard.
Gus and I wheeled through Silver Springs on our periodic romantic quests, and had some luck at it, more Gus than Bob, to tell the truth. Our efforts yielded unexpected results. Twice, women followed us back to North Carolina and involved us in escapades I’m not going to discuss here, mainly because the sordid stories are embarrassing, pornographic, and expose yours truly as the pathetically inept dumb fuck I was at the time.
You can insert one of Marion’s trademark smirks.
Here’s one more odd coincidence. The Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point is just 17 miles from New Bern, North Carolina, place of my birth, and the small town where most of the Jenkins clan still lived. Gus and I had a second home off base, and my family came to love him, even if they didn’t know what to make of him, being a Yankee and a city boy and all. We would scoot back in forth between my beloved grandmother’s house and my “real” father’s house, depending upon which one of them could put up with us on any given weekend.
Bob, my grandmother Carlie "Coggie Dear" and Gus BaldwinAt Big Bob’s house, Gus was the shiny object of attention from my two step sisters, Alice and Phyllis. Alice was a thin, rather tightly-wound, and reserved brunette. Phyllis was a hefty, carnal redhead. Both of them harbored fantasies about Marion Baldwin.
One night, Phyllis, who was “stacked,” leaned over and rested her watermelon-sized boobs on the dining room table. Marion, yeah, grinning that grin, reached over and rested both hands on the top of her . . . ah . . . offerings. Phyllis looked down at his hands, and then up at him. An exquisitely timed pause, then Gus dribbled both of her breasts like twin basketballs. Badda badda badda badda. Phyllis let it go on for a few shocked seconds, and then launched a right-handed roundhouse right at Marion’s head. He ducked, knocking over the chair, and falling to the floor. Alice and I followed suit, falling to the floor in hysterical laughter. Phyllis was on her feet, yelling, and they were off though the house and outside. I don’t know if she caught him, and I suspect if she did, she had her way with him, but I don’t know that for sure, and to this day, Phyllis just blushes when reminded of the event.
Nor did my other step-sister, Alice, escape Marion’s wickedness. Gus and I were slightly inebriated, no, drunk as skunks. Alice had baked a cake and was about to ice it when Gus announced that we were going to take over the cake decorating. Alice made the mistake of saying something like “cold day in hell” or “over my dead body” and they were off. Gus yelled, “I’m gonna get you!” He chased Alice around the house, tackled her in one of the bedrooms, tied her up, and stuffed her in her Mama’s closet. Later, Alice would accuse me of helping him, but I vehemently proclaim my innocence. Stuff my own step sister in a closet? Never.
Alice out of the picture, we attempted to ice the cake, making a total botch of the job, of course. A while later, Big Bob’s wife, Agnes, came home to discover the cake disaster in the kitchen. She demanded, “Where’s Alice?” Gus and I looked at each other. “Run!” As we fled for our lives out the back door, I yelled over my shoulder, “In the closet, in the bedroom closet!” None of the women in that house spoke to us for weeks. Alice said she would never, ever forgive him, but she always had a little smile when she made that announcement. In fact, I think that Alice would have flopped to the floor on her back if Gus had given her the slightest encouragement. And maybe he did. And maybe she did. What the hell do I know, anyway?
The event that shattered our friendship was so wrenching, that most of you would probably repress the memory. I’ve lost a lot of bad mental baggage over the years, but for some reason I remember that moment clearly.
We had been out in the swamps on one of those nightmare field exercises when it rained round the clock for four days. We were wet, cold, and pissed off. Gus and I were tense with each other because I had received orders to ship out to Southeast Asia. We were going in different directions for the first time in our Marine tour of duty. I felt betrayed because he wasn’t going to Viet Nam. He felt betrayed because I was.
We were standing in line to wash our metal trays and eating utensils in garbage cans filled with hot wash and rinse water. Gus was in front of me. He looked back over his shoulder with that smirk and said something I didn’t like. I snapped back at him. A couple of verbal barbs were exchanged, each one nastier that the previous. Gus swung around and threw a punch at me that I took in the side of the face. It rocked me back for a second, and then I came after him with both fists. We stood there, toe to toe, throwing punches. Somehow we ended up on the ground, grappling, and trying to get in more shots as other Marines rushed in to pull us apart. You don’t want two well-matched Marines fighting each other like that. They’re strong, aggressive, and they can injure each other. That’s what they’re trained to do. So our brother Marines got us untangled before either of us got seriously hurt. I turned around and walked away.
That was the end of our friendship. Not very pretty, is it? I shipped out in a few days and Gus went off to wherever he went.
The angry words that sparked the fight were the last we spoke to each other.
I served my tour in Nam, got out of the Marines and went on with my life, marriage, couple of college degrees, theatre gigs, and a move to the west coast to take up my career position at San Jose State University.
While teaching and directing shows at State, I began to develop an alternative career as a professional storyteller. As that enterprise gained momentum, I started touring and taking engagements all over the country.
Early on I got the idea of trying to locate Gus. Every time I got to a new city I’d take a few moments in my hotel room, open the phone book and look for Marion Baldwin. If that didn’t yield any results, I’d call information.
City after City. New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Atlanta, Miami, Oklahoma City, Los Angeles, Pittsburg. Lots of smaller venues, but no luck.
Marion Baldwin is not a common name, but there are some, and I found them, and called them. “Were you the Marion Baldwin who joined the Marines in 1965 and knew a guy named Bob Jenkins? No? Sorry to disturb you.”
I was especially excited when I landed a storytelling gig in Washington, D.C., adjacent to Marion’s hometown, Silver Springs. Perhaps his father still lived there? I found the Silver Springs section of the phone book . . . and there it was . . . the entry I had been seeking for a decade . . . Marion Baldwin. I dialed.
A sweet little voice answered, an elderly-lady voice, “Yes?”
“Good evening, mam, my name is Bob Jenkins and I’m looking for an old Marine Corps buddy named Marion Baldwin. Does he, perhaps, live there?”
“No. But I do.”
“Ah. But no Marion Baldwin?”
“Yes, Marion Baldwin lives here.”
“But you said . . . .?”
She laughed, “I’m Marion Baldwin!”
Of course, “Marion” can be either a man’s name or a woman’s name. I apologized for bothering her, but she didn’t want me to hang up. I could tell she was lonely. For the next half hour we chatted. She told me about her husband, now deceased, and I told her about Marion Baldwin and a cleaned-up version of our adventures together in the Marines. I don’t suspect Lady Baldwin is still with us on this side of the Veil, but I liked her, and she liked me, and I still remember her. Tip o’ the hat to you, Mrs. Marion.
City after city.
In the late Nineties toward the end of my teaching career at San Jose State, I was running a technically-oriented university department with its own computer lab. I became acquainted with Al Gore’s new invention, the internet (a joke that some of you may remember) and with “people search” software. The first person I looked for was Marion Baldwin. Within fifteen minutes I located him. He was living in
San Jose, California.
Gus Baldwin and I lived in the same city! We had both been living in San Jose for two decades and had never run into each other. I was especially flabbergasted because as a director, actor, and storyteller, my name and photo had many, many times been in the San Jose Mercury News as well as the college newspaper. And to top it off, Gus had been a student at San Jose State where I was chairman of the Television, Film, and Drama Department! I thought, “How could he not know I was in San Jose?”
My next thought was that he very well knew where I was, and he had been deliberately avoiding me all these years. But what the hell, I fired off an email, and within ten minutes, he responded, equally flabbergasted.
We arranged a lunch meeting at a downtown bistro. We were both nervous. You can imagine the thoughts: “What will we remember about each other? Will the light of friendship still glow? What if he’s a snotty asshole? Flamed out bum? Registered sex-offender? Fully enlightened Buddha?”
But no . . . it was just Bob and Gus. Gus and Bob. And his IQ was still 3 points higher than mine!
In the ten years since then, we have drawn closer together, not the way it was in those intense months following the Battle of the Hinky Dink, but nice. Genteel. When we can, we spend time together. He knows he could call on me to cover his flank, and I’d be there.