Sunday, September 27, 2009




“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 Baldwin

At 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.

I’d still trust Gus to do the same.

Semper Fi.

Friday, September 25, 2009


This is a work in progress. The two brief scenes that follow are from a full-length play titled COME AND SLEEP based on a chap book of seventeen little poems by Steve Sanfield. In the middle of the two scenes is another scene titled The Coverlet of Tears that I have removed for this blog post. Let me know what you think.
Scene 3
The Fox Eye

(KITSUNE and POET enter a hotel room)

We do a thing to keep safe.

Safe from what?

Bad foxes.

(In an exaggerated Japanese accent) Ah so. Foxes.

Ah so? Funny man. You have pencils?

Not very sharp.

No sweat. Now you give me two pencils.

No sweat.

(POET rummages through his bag. KITSUNE goes to the closet and gets a coat hanger. POET gives her two pencils.)

You have string?

No, I don’t think so.

Rubber bands.


Paper clips.


No bingo. Paper clips.

(Laughs) How many?


Here’s a handful. Knock yourself out.

Why I want knock myself out?

Just an expression. It means, take all you want.

OK. I knock myself out. You take shower. You go in there. I make Fox eye.

I take shower? You make Fox eye?

Yes, go now. Get pretty clean. Smell better.

Yes, mam.

(POET exits to bath room. KITSUNE begins to make the “Fox eye” from the clothes hanger, two pencils, and four paper clips. As KITSUNE works, Noh Drama music begins and KOHARU, as masked Tsure, enters from the hashigakari. The following scene is enacted in Noh Drama style.)

Scene 3
Shigure no Kotatsu
(the coverlet drenched with tears)

City of Osaka, once proud, is become decadent and cynical. In a poor section near the entertainment district, lives a woman of noble birth . . . Kitsune.

(KITSUNE’s work assembling the “Fox eye” becomes her house keeping chore.)

(in this space resides the deleted scene)

I hear about the double suicide. I have sacrificed everything to prevent this horror. I strip off my holy robes, and wrap myself in my only possession, my tear-drenched coverlet, long hidden in the wall of my cell. I abandon the nunnery:

Two years
a nun
--useless exercise

I spit on Bushido code of honor. I defy my own karma. I make my way back to Osaka where I take employment in a second-hand bookstore. There I find this little book of anom . . . anum . . .

Scene 4
Now Sex Time

(POET sticks his head in from the bathroom where he has been listening.)


Yes, anonymous, poems.

(POET returns from bathroom, naked, takes the coverlet and wraps it around his waist like a towel.)

Smell better?

(KITSUNE smells the POET, not a little sniff from a distance, but all over, the way an animal smells another animal. She pulls his towel off and smells his crotch, his ass, his feet. It is quite matter of fact.)

Yes, smell better. Smell like sex. Good sex.

I’ve heard Japanese women don’t like to kiss on the mouth. Is that true?

This Japanese woman kiss on mouth very much, but first we hang Fox eye. Bring chair over here.

(KITSUNE points to the center of the room. POET moves the chair to the center of the room as instructed. KITSUNE climbs on to the chair.)

Hold this.

(KITSUNE hands POET the “Fox eye.” She unties the ribbon that holds her pony tail and shakes her hair loose, then indicating the “Fox eye.”)

Give me.

(She ties the ribbon to the hook of the coat hanger and stretches up toward the ceiling.)

Hold me.
(POET puts his hands on her waist.)

(POET steps closer and wraps his arms around her).


(POET squeezes her very hard).

(KITSUNE ties the ribbon to something on the ceiling, then gives the “Fox eye” a little spin. As it spins, the lights dim, and gigantic, distorted shadows of the “Fox eye” revolve around the room. She looks down at him.)

Now sex time.

(What happens is hard to see, and hard to understand. In a blur of incredible speed KITSUNE breaks free of the POET’s embrace and violently takes him to the ground. With yips, barks, and growls, they roll in a tangled frenzy across the floor until she subdues him and mounts him with her teeth on his throat. Growling low in her throat, KITSUNE begins to hump him.)

Thursday, September 24, 2009



Yesterday I forgot to wear my ball cap to the job site and paid for my lapse. I was trimming large cedar branches with the chain saw when a quarter-size dollop of cedar resin fell on top of my head. I didn’t notice it until later when I reached up to ruffle the sawdust of my scalp and managed to squish the sticky substance into my hair, creating a wad of sawdust, resin, hair, and grossness. Yuck.

In the hours before I could get home, the mass of unspeakable putrescence expanded in volume and nastiness. It seemed to be attracting additional dirt, dust, lint, small insects, and airborne detritus of all kinds. Firmly affixed to my head, it had adhesion power that rivaled superglue. I figured turpentine or mineral spirits on a rag, carefully and patiently applied over several hours, was my first option in attacking the lump, now twice it’s original size. I think I could feel it move, I’m pretty sure about this, like a jungle parasite or alien larva. I wanted it off! Get it off me!

On all the shelves and cabinets of my garage, there was not one drop of solvent.

Desperately I looked around for something. There, flaunting its cheerful blue and white logo, was a modest little can of WD-40, peeking out from behind a can of motor oil, as if to whisper, “Psssst! Over here!” I remembered reading an article called “Facts and Myths about WD-40, Versatile Product of 2000 Uses” or something like that. WD-40?

Oh, what the hell.

I sprayed some of the Versatile Product on my fingertips and went to work. Working completely by feel, I rubbed the secret formula into the hairy wad. Within ten seconds the repulsive mess had completely disappeared. I mean, vanished, vamoosed, kaput. I couldn’t believe it. I kept searching through my hair to find where the thing had hidden. It was gone!

My next thought was, “What have I done?” I envisioned scalp burns, blisters, a large and growing bald spot, maybe melanoma. At the least, I figured I had burned my hair follicles into brittle, straw-like stubs. Quick, to the shower! I washed my hair twice. Hmmmmm? Seemed OK. As I dried and then brushed my hair, I noted something peculiar. My hair looked and felt great. I don’t use conditioner when I wash my hair, so I don’t have much experience in these things, being a manly man and all, but this must be what conditioner is like. My hair felt silky and healthy and . . . well . . . nice. A day later, it still does.

So, WD-40 marketeers, you should immediately do two things. First, (1) add Versatile Use number Two Thousand and ONE, Hair Conditioner, to your ad campaign, and second, (2) pay me some big moolah for my discovery and the free advertising I’ve just given you on my blog. Phone lines are open to receive your proposal, perhaps monetizing my website, though I would also consider a one-time buy-out if it were of sufficient size.

But I’m keeping my eye on the really big payoff. You see, I don’t have a whole lot of hair up there anymore. If I notice a new crop coming in, WD-40 and I are going to make a killing in the hair restoration racket. I really should keep my mouth shut about this, don’t you think? Shhh.


Sunday, September 20, 2009



This is it. The final episode in the YELLOW WOOD series. It completes the expedition I wanted to attempt. Thank you, my friends, and my dear sisters, for being sturdy companions as I hiked strange paths, taking such odd forks and twists through the forest of memory.

There will be an epilogue in a few days that I am very confident you will enjoy. “Guaranteed to raise a smile,” as the song lyric promises. The epilogue covers events that occur within the chronology of YELLOW WOOD, but also go far beyond the limits of this series. That’s why it’s not included here.

So let’s get on with it, and wrap it up.

Gung Ho

PFC Jenkins, Robert, U.S.M.C.

“The Old Man wants to see you.”

Out of the corner of his mouth Gus Baldwin asks , “What have you done now?”
I gave him my most innocent shrug.
He warned me, “Do not mention my name.”

The Old Man was still First Lieutenant Mike Stevens, and he was still shy of his twenty-sixth birthday. I stood at attention in his office at Cherry Point, North Carolina. The Old Man kept me standing there for what seemed like several minutes.

“Jenkins, what the hell are you doing in my command?”

“Sir, I was given orders to report to this . . . .”

“Shut up.”

I shut.

“You have the top tech rating in the battalion. Your IQ and aptitude scores are off the charts. Why are you a PFC in Delta Battery?”

“I . . . ah . . . got promoted from Private?”

“Do not mess with me, Jenkins.”

“No sir, messing with you, sir, would be a mistake of classic pro . . . .”

“SHUT . . . YOUR . . . HOLE.”

Hole. Shut. Mine. Completely.

Lieutenant Stevens swiveled around in his desk chair and stared out the window as a launcher loaded with HAWK missiles was pulled along by a loader. Too fast. Tank driver fantasies. Gunny Cunningham catches him shit will fly all over base. Wouldn’t want to miss that. Where’s Gunny when you need him?

The Lieutenant didn’t seem to notice. The wall clock ticked. I waited. Marines are pretty good at waiting, even standing at attention.

“At ease, Marine.”

I relaxed, but not too much. What was this about?

“I’m going to recommend you for Officer Candidate School.”


“We’ll send you to college, on our ticket. You graduate as fast as you can, you malingering fuck, we commission you, you give us five more years, six if you want to go to flight school. You want to go to flight school like your stepfather?”

How did he know about my stepfather, Lu Smith, the “former” Marine fighter pilot? Smith wasn’t even my last name. Well, Stevens was, after all, the Old Man and thereby semi-divine, but his knowledge of my background was, in a word, disconcerting.

He repeated, “You want to go to flight school?”

“No, sir.”

“Okay, no flight school.”

“I mean, no sir, I don’t want to go to OCS or get a commission.”

The Lieutenant stared at me like I had spit in his face. Then he spoke, very, very softly. It is not a good thing when Marine officers speak very, very softly.

“Please, if it’s not too terribly much trouble . . . .”

Oh shit, I am screwed.

“Please tell me why you are declining a free college education and a commission in my United States Marine Corps after I have hung my ass out in the wind to provide you with this singular honor?”

Really, really, really screwed.

“I want to go to Viet Nam, sir?”

“You. Want. To. Go. To. Viet. Nam. (Every word was its own sentence.) What the fuck are you talking about?”

“It’s the only war we’re fighting, sir, and I want my piece of it.”

“Oh my God, do not, do NOT, quote me that Gung Ho bullshit! Viet Nam is not a war! It’s a stinking dog turd and good Marines are being killed for that stinking dog turd.”

“It’s the only dog turd I’ve got sir, and I’m afraid it will be over before I get into it.”

Contemporary readers will appreciate the irony of that statement.

“Let me tell you how it’s going to be, smart ass. You are going to accept my offer. We are going to help you clean up your cluster-fucked academic record from Florida State, then we are going to put you somewhere else, and that somewhere else just might be the Naval Academy at Annapolis. In four years you are going to graduate with honors and you are going accept your commission in the Marine Corps. You are going to Basic School. And then, and then, you are going lead Marines in the real fight, the fight against the goddamn Soviet Union because that’s where the real war is. Do you read me, Jenkins?”

“No, sir.”

“What part did you have trouble understanding?”

“I understood it all, sir, but I must respectfully decline your offer.”

“Respectfully . . . decline.”

“Yes, sir, and I petition you to grant my current request for immediate deployment to Viet Nam. I have been submitting those requests every week.”
He ignored me.

“Do you even know where Viet Nam is?”

“It’s somewhere in Asia, sir, swampy, I believe.”

“Swampy. Oh my Jesus U.S.M.C. Christ. I have got Chesty Puller’s little fight’n devil dog right here in my own unworthy office. Jenkins, you may be some kind of test-taking genius, but you are the dumbest motherfucker I have had the misfortune, the miserable bad luck, of having in my command. Why is God in heaven punishing me?”

He sat there rapping his knuckles against the desk. Not a good sign. Maybe he wanted an answer to his question.

“I don’t know, sir, why God in heaven is punishing you.”

Sometimes I wish I could just keep my mouth shut. But he didn’t come after me for my wise-crackery. His mood changed.

“Is that your final decision?” Fuck the commission. Fuck Lieutenant Stevens. Send me to Viet Nam?”

Deep breath.

“Sir, yes, sir.”

“Caiazzo, get your lazy ass in here.”

Sergeant Caiazzo sauntered in to the Old Man’s office. Disheveled, overweight, Caiazzo was a caricature of the typical admin puke, but he was a pretty decent guy. Just wouldn’t want him on night patrol.

“Cut orders to get this dumbfuck PFC transferred to Bravo Battery, Second LAAM. That’s in Chu Lai, Jenkins. Viet Nam, Jenkins.”

“Yes, sir.”

Caiazzo, get him out on my battery before I have to see his sorry ass ever again.”


Caiazzo slouched out of the office.

“What are you waiting for, a brass band to play the Marine Corps Hymn?”

“No sir, thank you, sir.”

“Do not fucking thank me. Dismissed.”

I snapped to attention and executed a snappy about face.

“Jenkins. Stop. Caiazzo!”

Caiazzo stuck his head back in the door.


“While you’re typing up his orders, get his promotion papers together.”


“We still have one Lance Corporal allocation?”

“Yessir, but you were going to give it to . . .”

Stevens cut him off.

“Give it to this . . . warfighter.”


Caiazzo winked at me and disappeared.

“Why are you still cluttering up my office?”

“Sorry, sir, I’m gone with the wind, sir, gone with the wind.”

“Fuck you, Jenkins.”

I was trying not to grin.

Well. We’re done. You’re done. I’m done. The YELLOW ROAD is done. It feels kind of incomplete doesn’t it? Unfinished. Of course, there will be another expedition, a journey to that most bizarre of all American wars, Viet Nam. For those who have been making a certain request, yes, there will be romance. Romance, and weirdness enough for an entire season of The Twilight Zone.

So, let’s get off this Road with homage to the poem that framed it, from Robert Frost,

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a road, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


Saturday, September 19, 2009


This episode is also the second scene in a three-part series about hunting, and why I stopped hunting. It fits chronologically in the Yellow Wood series, so here it resides for now. I am not proud of this story, but the karma I incurred eventually contributed to a good cause.

Semper Fool

We ran through all our missiles and all our beer in two days. Lieutenant Stevens was pulling in all his favors to get more beer, but the Navy was not inclined to help us out after the Big Drone Turkey Shoot. With almost a week to go on our Puerto Rican deployment, we looked around for other ways to get into trouble.


Viegas is a desolate postage stamp floating on the immense Caribbean Ocean. White sand, a tiny off-limits camp, fleas, and that’s about it. So we took to the clear aquamarine waters, inventing every sport or game that bored, reckless, and irresponsible Marines could devise, drunk or sober.

Having actually paid attention to the stateside briefing, I came prepared with a free-diving rig: snorkel, mask, fins and . . . coup de grace . . . a sparkling new spear gun! Yes, go ahead and shudder. Spear gun wielded by 18 year old hungover Marine.

The water was so transparent it was like swimming through air. The bottom was mostly sugary sand, so it was difficult to judge the depth. Warm, soft, calm, quiet.

I went hunting for dinner.

As it turned out, the big game I sought (anything I could shoot at and hit) was actually stalking me. I turned around in fifteen feet of water to come face to face with a barracuda, about six feet of barracuda, just hovering motionless a few feet away, slightly above me, slowly opening and closing its mouth to show off its many, many sharp white teeth, as if in warning, or, perhaps, anticipation. I resisted the urge to fire a spear at it; a rare moment of good judgment, or terror.

We looked at each other for a while until it dawned on me that I was out of air and needed to breathe. I didn’t want to surface, dangling my legs like plump sausages, and exposing myself to attack from below. The best plan I could formulate was to hoot something that sounded like “blubba blubba blubba” and wave my arms menacingly. This plan I commenced with ferocious energy.

The big-toothed monster didn’t move. I realized my failed “blubba” tactic had cost me my remaining air. I had to breathe, now!

“So, ‘cuda, my brother, I am going for air and I’m going right through you to get it.”

I pushed off straight at the barracuda. In a silent, but violent swirling detonation, it disappeared. I mean, vanished! It was there, then it was gone. I never saw it swim away. I saw nothing. Nada. Zilch.

I surfaced, cleared my snorkel, breathed, and looked back down to make sure it wasn’t coming for me. All quiet on the Viegas front. So, I continued the hunt, embarrassed by my fear of the barracuda. Hey, it snuck up behind me and surprised me! A sneak attack. You’d be scared, too, don’t think you wouldn’t. I was not in a good mood.

That’s when I saw the manta ray.

I was now in about thirty feet of water, and the ray was quartering below me, a perfect shot. No, I don’t know why anyone would want to shoot a manta ray. Maybe it was a different time, before PETA, before awareness. Maybe I just wanted to scare something. Without thinking about it, I leaned back with the spear gun pointing down between by fins, and, as it passed under me, put a spear into it. The spear poinked into the right wing. The ray, about twelve feet across, wing tip to wing tip, didn’t seem to notice, didn’t turn, didn’t slow down, didn’t speed up. It just kept gliding. The spear was attached to twenty feet of line, maybe less, and for a couple of seconds I thought:

“This is really cool. I’m going for a ride on a manta ray!”

Then, as all the line reeled out, and I started moving much faster than I anticipated, these thoughts came quickly:

“It’s going deeper it’s going really fast it doesn’t even know I’m here I’m not going to stop it it’s really really strong I’m running out of air what the fuck have I done?”

Well, nobody has ever pointed to young Marines as examples of good judgment. I had stupidly gotten myself into this fix and I had to make a choice.

I let go of the gun.

For a few seconds I watched the huge creature swim off over the white sand and into the blue beyond, towing my spear gun behind. Damn. I really liked that spear gun. I only shot it one time. Damn.

By the time I got back to the beach, a sad and shameful realization had begun to creep into my mind.

“Why did I shoot that animal? I wasn’t going to eat it. I just like shooting things. What’s that about? What if the wound gets infected and it dies? I’m sorry, manta ray, for shooting you. Oh, fuck. Oh, goddamn.”

Like that.





Sweet Birds of Our Youth

Fly fast and true, you bitch.

We birthed the Hawks at Cherry Point, nested them aboard a LST (Landing Ship Tank) at Atlantic Beach, babied them down the eastern seaboard (shadowed by Soviet subs), cradled them ashore on Viegas, Puerto Rico in the dead of night. Our deadly little fledglings.

You want some extreme bad boy fun? Go on an amphibious landing with the Marines! I’m not being sarcastic; this is the real deal in manly men entertainment. As the first sunrise warmed the Caribbean , we were already moving forward toward our first objective: the four palettes of beer thoughtfully provided by the Old Man, Lieutenant Mike Stevens, commanding Delta Battery, 3rd Light Anti-Aircraft Missile Battalion, all of 26 years old.


Figures. We decanted the missiles from their tubes, locked them down on their launchers, ran through all the assembly and ready protocols, calibrated the radars, armed the warheads, and (shhhhhhh) continued our fire-and-maneuver assault on the beer palettes.


We laughed. Making fun of the Navy once a day is a Marine obligation.

You need to know this about the drones, jet-propelled targets for our Hawks. Drones are owned and flown by the Navy. They are expensive and the Squids (Navy) don’t like to lose them, especially to Marine Hawks. So the drones tow a highly irradiated sleeve behind them on a very long cable. This target sleeve reads sizzling hot on the Hawk radar system. Looking at the acquisition scope, the actual drone reads as a soft, fuzzy speck ahead of the bright sleeve bogie. Our missiles and the Navy have this in common: they both want the Hawk to lock on and destroy the sleeve instead of the drone itself. The drone has a parachute and is retrieved later and re-used.

“Do NOT,” threatens the Navy, “Do NOT shoot down our drones!”

So, we’re in formation and the Old Man gives us the word:

“Every swinging dick in this goddamn battery wanted to be an infantry Marine, including me, especially me. But the Marine Corps in its infinite green wisdom wanted us here in the goddamn Air Wing, and I’m pissed about it. Any of you pissed about it?”

“Aye, aye, sir!” (This was the Old Corps before “Ooo Rah” came into fashion—whatever the hell that means.)

The Old Man continued:

“I may not be an infantry commander. You may not be grunts. But I will tell you this, I am a fucking warfighter and I am fucking pissed off. You warfighters pissed off?”

“Aye, aye, sir!”

“The mission of Third LAAM is to get you ready to replace your brothers in the First and Second LAAMs already in Viet Nam. When you get over there, you are going to be in the weeds, sooner or later, rifle man or missile man, you are going to catch the flying shit. My job is to get you ready to fight. To fight, goddammit, like a Marine fights. I don’t care if your MOS (Military Occupation Specialty) is 0311 (infantry) or 6742 (missile), you are going to have the same warrior spirit. You are going to take the war to our enemy and you are going to rain destruction on his fucking head. You are going to kill the enemies of the United States of America. You understand me?”

“Aye, aye, sir!”

“So, the first thing we’re going to do to get that warrior spirit is shoot down every fucking drone the Navy puts in the air. We are going to blow those fucking drones out of the fucking sky. You understand me, Marines?”

“AYE, AYE, L.T.!” (L. T. is an affectionate, but respectful, honorific for Lieutenant.)

“The we drink beer until our eyeballs explode. Sound the alert.”

The battle sirens began to wail.

And that’s what we did, all day long. Killed drones. The Navy launched, and we shot them down. One after the other. Let me tell you, it takes a dedicated team to keep the bird locked on the soft drone signature when it’s straining against the leash to go after the yummy hot sleeve. You have to “ride it all the way in.” All the way in.

After we secured for the afternoon and were just getting started on the party, Lt. Stevens was paid a visit by the brass, Navy and Marine. First the Navy Commander chewed Stevens a new asshole and stormed off. Then the Marine Colonel started in . . . until the Navy was out of earshot. The Colonel shut it down and stood there laughing with our Old Man. The Colonel was practically doing a jig.

Next day, bleary eyed, we warmed up the birds, locked on the Navy drones, and shot them out of the sky. Every one of them.

We wouldn’t want to disappoint the Old Man.

OooRah! (whatever the hell that means.)



Wednesday, September 16, 2009



Yellow Wood is an image from a Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken.”

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth

The Yellow Wood series is about choices and consequences. There are many paths in this Wood, some safe, some unknown, and the poem glorifies choosing mystery above security. Sometimes I chose to go one way, sometimes another, tripping, stumbling, getting into this jam, or that situation, and then getting out of trouble, mostly.

Now I have to change this theme to accomodate, as we say in the theatre, an "obligatory scene," something you need to witness in order to understand the climax.

I didn’t know I was being hunted.

Back in the shadows, following my every twist and turn, a beast was silently padding along, waiting for just the right moment. Did I sense the beast? I don’t think so. It was a long time ago, but I’m pretty sure I never saw it coming. How could I know it had flanked me and found undergrowth up ahead in which to crouch and wait?

Parris Island, South Carolina. Marine Corps Recruit Depot. Boot camp.

I’m not going to tell the story of boot camp. Go rent a movie if you want the Technicolor version. My thirteen-week sojourn in Gung Ho Hell was no different from that of a million other Marines. Except for one event. The ambush by the beast.

Somebody was shaking me awake.

“Who? What?”

It was the “Firewatch,” another recruit who had the duty of constantly patrolling the squad bay to make sure no one was jerking off or trying to escape. We didn’t have the energy for the first or the balls for the second.

“What’s happening?”

“Senior Drill Instructor wants you in his office right now. Boots and utes (utility uniform with a T-shirt). One minute. Get your ass in gear and move.”

“What time is it?”

“Almost zero one (one o’clock a.m.)”

In a panic I fumbled with my boots and trousers. “Oh God, what have I done?” In the semi-dark I could see other recruits silently watching. I raced up the squad bay. As I passed Marion’s rack, he whispered, “What the fuck?”

“I don’t know, man, but it must be bad.”

I pounded on the jamb of the Drill Instructor’s door.


I entered the inner sanctum and snapped to attention.

Staff Sergeant Vernon E. Barker, my senior Drill Instructor was fully dressed in Alpha Uniform and squared away so much he almost sparkled. At this time of night, that was not a good sign. Then I noticed that the other two Drill Instructors, Sergeant Ross and Corporal Costello (who hated my guts) were also in full uniform. This was going to be bad, really, really, bad. What the fuck could I have done to warrant this reception?”

Barker took a deep breath.

“Private Jenkins . . . “

Not Shitbag or Fuckface. Oh sweet Jesus.

“I have the regrettable duty to inform you . . . that your mother has shot herself.”

Frozen. Paralyzed. Out of time. Mother. Shot. Herself. Mother. Herself. Shot. Mother.

“We don’t know much except that she is still alive in a hospital in Tallahassee.”

Herself. Mother. Shot.

“Sit down, Jenkins.” This from Costello (who hated my guts).

Ross brought over a folding chair and a glass of water. “Drink it.”

Barker took over.

“I’m going to take you over to the chapel. The Chaplain is waiting for you. You’re going to stay there until reveille, then you’re going to report back here and pack your gear, all of it. Do you want someone to help you?”

“Sir, yes sir, Private Baldwin.”

“We’re going to put you on the first available bus and send you to Tallahassee. You’re going to get a week’s leave plus travel time. Sergeant Ross, give him travel funds.”

Ross handed me a wad of currency.

“I know you’re not going to like this next part, but there’s nothing we can do about it. You won’t be coming back to the Three Three Eight. We’re going to set you back two weeks in another platoon.”


“Sorry, Jenkins, bad break.” This from Costello (who hated my guts).

“Sir. Isn’t there something you can do to keep me in the platoon? We have mess duty next week. Couldn’t I miss mess duty and do it later?”

“Mess duty is not the problem. I don’t give a fuck about mess duty. But you would be missing the first three or four days of rifle range. That’s not negotiable.”

“But, Sir, I’m already a crack shot, I know I can catch up.”

“How’s that?”

“My great grandpa, Papa Keel, taught me to shoot when I was a little boy. My Uncle Albert taught me to hunt the backwoods. In high school I was a member of the Junior National Rifle Association and got my expert badge. Please don’t send me back, Sir, I want to graduate with my buddies, I mean, the platoon. I know I can do it”

Barker looked at the other two Drill Instructors.

“What do you think?”

Ross opined, “Well, he was in the NRA. The CO might buy that.”

Barker said, “He would need extra instruction. Someone would have to volunteer”

“I’ll do it.” This from Costello (who hated my guts).

“Sergeant Ross, Corporal Costello, you have a lot of ground to cover. Make it happen.”

Ross and Costello came over and, in turn, put out their hands, which I shook.

“Semper Fi.”

"Semper Fi."

Ross and Costello left. Barker came over and actually put his hand on my shoulder.

“Son (son?), we’ll do what we can to take care of you here. Now, you go home and do what you need to do. You got that?"


"Come on, I’ll walk you over to the chapel.”

I don’t remember much about the rest of the night, the Chaplain, what bullshit he said, the travel arrangements. Gus helped me pack, helped me get uniforms ready, and stow my gear. (When you go to the rifle range, you change barracks and have to take everything with you.) The other recruits, whenever possible, sent me sympathetic looks, or a smile, or found an opportunity to brush against me, or touch my shoulder. The Drill Instructors pretended not to notice.

Nor do I remember much about the long bus ride south to Tallahassee. I don’t remember getting there, or who I saw, or what I did. Fragmented images, memory flashes of my stepfather crying and trying to cope, friends offering support and food. Where were my sisters? I just can’t remember.

But I do remember my mother. She had been moved from Intensive Care. They had already determined that she was never, ever going to wake up again. The bullet had shattered into several pieces and had tunneled deep into her brain. She was already gone, except for the heart pumping and the breathing. I held her hand, so skinny and cold, and talked to her.

You know what you think to yourself in a moment like this? You think, maybe just maybe, way down there she can hear you. It’s dark and she’s scared. Your touch is a rescue line and she’s holding on to it. Your voice is a little flickering candle light that she crawls into, away from the blackness. You say all the things that can be said that might bring her comfort if she can just hear you a little bit, and, yes you use every platitude you know about heaven and Jesus and a better life because you are desperate for something to say and if platitudes are all you got, then that’s what you use.

Hours passed, then days. Her body wouldn’t die. And I hope most of you will forgive me when I say, I wanted it to. Die. Even after all the abuse she had inflicted on herself for many years, her lungs kept pumping and her heart kept beating. There really wasn’t much of her to keep alive, was there? She couldn’t have weighed more than 90 pounds.

There’s one final memory I want to tell you about because it always gets to me. The first couple of weeks in boot camp, before the shooting, my high school sweetheart, Judy Vance, had sent me a “Dear John” letter. What a cliché! I didn’t mention it earlier, because the event was so trite and predictable, that it’s not in any way remarkable. Judy and Bob. Kaput. Fini. Over and Out. Stick a fork in it. But, at the hospital, some church had provided a guestbook for friends to record their goodbye visits to my mother. There, on the first page, among the earliest to arrive and give their condolences, were Judy Vance, and her mother, Pat, my arch-nemesis. I can’t express to you how much that small kindness meant to me, and still does.

The day came when I had to catch the bus back to Parris Island. Mother still alive.

Back at boot camp, it all worked out. Costello (who maybe didn’t really hate my guts) helped me catch up with the “snapping in” phase of rifle training. On the range I delivered on my promise and fired Expert, second in the platoon, in fact. Top marksman was a skinny little coot from Kentucky with no teeth. That boy was dumb as dirt, but, oh Bubba, could he shoot! Rifle range was good for me. Simple. Focused. Just do it. Don't think about anything else.

But we’re not quite done, are we? The day after rifle qualification, I got the news that my mother had finally died. Her body was being transported to New Bern so that she could be put to rest next to her father, Frank, who had, ironically, also killed himself.

There was simply no way I could take another leave and still graduate with my platoon, and it was impossible to arrange transportation for me to attend the funeral on a weekend pass.

Or was it impossible?

My stepfather, Lu, who never quite got around to adopting me, the ex-Marine fighter pilot, called in a favor from an old comrade. I may be the only recruit in the history of Parris Island to be escorted to a funeral and back in the rear seat of a Marine Corps fighter bomber.

I’m not going to detail the funeral, one of the saddest you can imagine. Small town girl runs away with the dashing Marine pilot, fails at life, dies, and comes home to be buried. Not much grace in that. There’s more to say, but I think I’ll leave that to my sisters, Linda and Lezlie, who were nine and ten years old at the time, if they want to color in my hasty sketch.

Back at the Island for the final weeks of boot camp, the fun part when we were almost Marines, and went out in the weeds to learn war. We all wanted to be infantry Marines, devil dogs, leathernecks, but the Corps had other ideas for a few of us. Gus and I scored very high on certain tests, almost identical scores, and when they announced each Marine’s MOS (Military Occupation Specialty) there were two assignments to the 6742 MOS. You guessed it, me and Gus.

Hawk missiles.

Costello smirked, “Jenkins and Baldwin. Fucking Air Wing pukes. Just what I expected.”

But Gus and I grinned at each other. We were going to our first duty station together! Together! I swear I saw Staff Sergeant Barker wink at me.

So we graduated, two days before my eighteenth birthday. They gave us the sacred Eagle, Globe, and Anchor insignia, and baby, there’s only one way to get one of those. The CO gave the order and the Senior Drill Instructor dismissed us with those cherished words,

“Congratulations . . . Marines.”

We were all standing around feeling twelve feet tall and patting each others’ backs when Corporal Costello walked up to me and said, “Jenkins, you know I hate your guts, don’t you.”

“Yeah, Corporal, I know you do.”

Costello grinned like a demon from hell, stuck out his hand, shook my own, laughed like a crazy man, and walked away.

So let’s wrap it up and move on. Thanks so much for sticking with me through this. The beast you could call grief and remorse and guilt and regret had ambushed me and mauled me. It didn’t kill me. Hey, beast, bite me again.

I promise the concluding episodes will be jolly good fun, and, God knows, you deserve it.

Marion Baldwin, third row from the bottom, second from the left.

Robert Jenkins, fourth row from the bottom, at the end of the row on the right.

Also, Staff Sergeant Vernon E. Barker, Sergeant Ross, and, of course, Corporal Costello


Tuesday, September 15, 2009



The Battle of the Hinky Dink

A Comic Interlude

The compartment was stuffed with keyed-up recruits on their way to boot camp at Parris Island. As the train jerked out of the Raleigh station, I found an empty seat up front and collapsed. It had been a rough few days getting my under-age enlistment papers signed, enduring the physical exams, and thumbing the tedious hundred-mile hitch hike from New Bern.

Our Marine babysitter, a corporal, slid the door open and stuck his head in, and roared:

“Shut your fucking cakeholes! OK . . . listen up. It’s going to take this train about eight hours to crawl down to Beaufort where we get off and take a bus to the Island. Get all the sleep you can. It’s the last decent sleep you’re gonna get for a week. In a little while we’re gonna bring you boxed suppers. Eat it all. It’s the last civilian food you’re gonna eat until you graduate from Boot. Oh Jesus H. Christ and Chesty Puller who sits on the right hand of God! What am I saying? I am looking at this sorry cluster fuck recruit shit pile, and I am thinking, most of them will get kicked out anyway, so why bother telling them anything? Can any of you dickless wonders tell me why I am wasting my breath giving you this valuable information?”

The guy next to me who appeared to be napping through the corporal's tirade, opened his eyes, and offered:

“Because underneath your false bravado, you’re really a swell guy with a heart of gold?”

The coach car went dead silent.

“What’s your name, recruit?”


“What’s your first name, Bald . . . win?”


“Marion. Mar . . . i . . .on. Marion. Mary . . . un. Well . . . Mary, let me give you a piece of advice . . . if that’s OK with you?”

“Go right ahead.”

“Thank you so much.”

Marion Baldwin and the corporal were trying to out-sarcasm each other. The rest of us were watching with dread fascination.

“You’re very welcome.”

“The first time you use that smart mouth of yours on a Marine Corps Drill Instructor, he is going to rip out your tongue and eat it in front of you. That’s going to be the last thing you see before he kills you.”

“I’m afraid. Very, very afraid.”

The corporal just smiled and, with a sigh, shook his head as if in sorrow.

“The rest of you ass pimples need to make a decision here and now. You can keep your mouths shut, do what you’re told, and behave yourself like the sweet little pussies that you are, or you can follow the example of . . . what’s your name? Mary? The example of smart-mouth Mary over here and fall into the deep, deep shit. Your choice. Don’t leave this car until I come back for you.”

He slid the door shut. The conversation buzzed alive. I looked over at my companion who was grinning at me. He stuck out his hand.

“But you can call me Gus.”

We shook hands.

“Why Gus?”

“My full name is, get ready, Marion Augustus Egbert Linnet Baldwin the Third, but, like I said, you can call me Gus, short for Augustus.”

“Gus it is.”

“And your parents burdened you with what unfortunate nom de plume?”

“Bob Smith, I mean, Bob . . . Jenkins.”

“Interesting. Don’t know your own name. Either you are in disguise, a spy perhaps? Or just stupid?”

“Probably the latter. I joined the Marines, didn’t I?”

He liked that and laughed appreciatively. For the next couple of hours we talked, as young men do, about ourselves, and why we had ended up on this train, clattering through the night toward a rendezvous with thirteen weeks of torment in the South Carolina swamps.

Marion “Gus” Baldwin was about my height and size. Where I was dark, he was fair, and exemplified his Scandinavian ancestry. He was handsome in a picaresque sort of way and had a glint in his eye that could best be described as ‘wicked.’ I liked him immensely.

The boxed meals arrived and were passed out among the Marines-to-be. I don’t remember what was in each box except for one item, a sugary rolled-up pastry in cellophane. Something like a Ding Dong, this culinary masterwork was labeled “Hinky Dink.” I was taking a cautious bite of mine when, behind me, a recruit began to complain.

“Where’s my Hinky Dink? I didn’t get no Hinky Dink. I WANT MY GODDAMN HINKY DINK!”

As he whined, Gus looked over at me with an evil smirk (I would soon learn to recognize this particular smirk as the prelude to disaster).

“He wants a Hinky Dink.”

“Yes he does.”

“Shall we sit here like sweet little pussies . . . or shall we go to war like United States Marines?”

I made my decision.

“Semper Fi.”

“Gung Ho”

Like a well-trained fire team, we rose in one smooth motion, whirled, and fired our twin Hinky Dinks right into the whiner’s face. Splat! Splat!

In shock, the Dinked complainer sputtered, “Who did that? Who hit me with a Hinky Dink?”

“That guy up front, Mary.”

With an innocent shrug, Gus explained, “You said you wanted a Hinky Dink.”

“You son of a bitch.”

The victim of our assault grabbed a half sandwich from his companion’s box and hurled it at us. We ducked. It hit the guy in front of us right in the back of the head. After a short pause, the injured party picked up the half-sandwich, slowly rose from his seat, and turned around. It was my first look at Lawrence Covington, black as night in the jungle, muscled like a Zulu war chief, little stub of a cigar sticking out of the corner of his mouth. From the streets of Chicago. Oops.

“You hit me wid yo sammich.”

Covington was surrounded by a quartet of other guys from the Chicago streets. They got to their feet.

“Get that crackuh!” Covington hurled the sandwich back toward the big-eyed whiner.

And it was on.

The Battle of the Hinky Dink.
Our first Marine Corps combat.

Covington’s gang started throwing every piece of uneaten food in their boxes, indiscriminately hitting anyone seated in the rear of the compartment. Gus and I decided that our best move was to enlist with Covington, and we joined his squad, now swelling to brigade size with new volunteers. But there were more “crackuhs” in the rear of the train. We were outnumbered! Soon the rear guard had emptied their boxes by launching all the contents at us. We were re-supplying with ammunition! Now it was our turn to bombard the unarmed defenders with pieces of food that were getting noticeably smaller and harder to lob with each artillery exchange.

Back and forth the battle raged. The air was thick with flying debris. After a while there was nothing big enough to effectively throw at the enemy. We calmed down, out of breath, and looked around at the greasy chaos that covered the floor, the seats, and each other. Covington started laughing and we all joined in. Someone started chanting:

“Hinky Dink! Hinky Dink! I want my Goddamn Hinky Dink.”

Pretty soon we were all chanting at the top of our lungs. Later we would learn the traditional Corps cadence calls, songs, and routines. But none of those ever surpassed the exultant hymn of our first Marine victory.

“Hinky Dink! Hinky Dink! I want my Goddamn Hinky Dink.”

Monday, September 14, 2009


Into the Black, Red, and Gold Wood

I got the job.

Assistant manager of the Kinston, North Carolina Hardees hamburger joint. I was a seventeen year old whiz bang cock a doodle doo!

Since hitchhiking up from Florida five weeks earlier, I had hunkered down in New Bern, North Carolina, humid cradle of my Tarheel birth. I was home, just a bubbling little dumpling in the collard pot of my ancestral DNA. Recovered from the bone-deep fatigue of the escape from Tallahassee, I had taken a promising position as burger and fries assembly technician at the Hardees Hamburgers of New Bern. After one week, I was promoted to cashier; another week, shift manager. The burger joint talent pool was thin in my home town. Just shy of a month in my burgeoning burger business, I was invited to Kinston, thirty-five miles away, to interview as assistant manager. Whooooeee!

The interview was a stunning conquest. I knew every word the manager said, even those with two syllables, and I was able to respond to every question in complete sentences. Spitting a delicate line of tobacco juice into a milkshake cup, he expressed his admiration for my education and every confidence in my leadership potential.

I was hired on the spot.

Congratulating myself, I strolled down the streets of Kinston, heading for the bus station, when I saw something me that jerked me to a halt. On a sandwich board in front of the Post Office, in square-jawed splendor, A United States Marine was starring at me, warrior to warrior. On that sign were the words “Ready” and “Join U.S. Marines.”

I stood frozen, deliberating upon the glamour and excitement of my newly acquired position as a Hardees Hamburger captain. I compared that glory to the pain and suffering guaranteed by the Marines mythos. These things I mulled over for, say, three seconds, then executed a snappy . . .

“By the right flank . . . Har!”

(Just a note of clarification here. When calling close order drill commands, Marines don’t actually say, “March!” The call is more like “Huh” or “Haw” or “Hoo” and it’s kind of grunted with a forceful expulsion of air. Each drill instructor does it differently. It’s a personal thing. But it’s never “March.”)

The Marine recruiting sergeant (who looked just like the one outside on the poster ) delivered the obligatory admonitions. “The Marines are not . . . boot camp is the toughest . . .you may not . . . many fail . . . .are you sure about this?” Growing up as a military brat, a Marine brat in fact, I had heard all this stuff before. But was I sure? Was I?

Suddenly I was. I really was. I was dead certain that this was the right choice for me at this empty time in my life.

“Yes, sir.”

“Don’t call me ‘sir,’ I’m a sergeant. I work for a living.”

(Walked into that one.)

“Yes, sergeant.”

There was, of course, the issue of my age, seventeen. The recruiter assured me there was no problem . . . as long as I could obtain parental consent. He was, in fact, eager to help me overcome this minor obstacle. Recruiters have quotas to fill, and I was prime beef stumbling in off the street to the slaughter. No way was I busting out of his corral. He would telephone his counterpart in Tallahassee who would, in turn, pay a personal visit to my parents and persuade them to sign the papers. No problem, my dad was a former Marine, right?

Well that part was fine, but there was a . . . hitch. A mind-blowing, ground shaking, soul rattling, thermonuclear hitch. Dad was not. Was not my dad. Not. My. Dad. Luther S. Smith Jr., Major, USMC (ret.) was not my father.

I had always known that Lu Smith was my stepfather, but he told me that he had adopted me as his son. The truth was . . . he had never quite gotten around to it. I had grown up as Bob Smith, “Smitty,” to my friends, gone to school as Bob Smith, but I was really Bob . . . Jenkins. What? Chew on that, Bubba, at seventeen, with one phone call, you change into somebody else.

My mother signed her half of the permissions, but I had to locate my bio-dad to get his signature on the Semper Fi line. Locating my “real” father, Robert W. Jenkins, wasn’t difficult. I had been sleeping on his couch in New Bern for several weeks.

Let’s stop for a moment. Imagine the joy that washed through the remnants of the Jenkins family when they heard the news that I was still Bob Jenkins. Not only had the prodigal son returned, but he had brought home the family name itself. As the only son of an only son, my alleged adoption had ended the Jenkins lineage. Now the line was back in business!

I once was lost, but now I’m found,
Was Smith, but now I’m Jenkins!


So Big Bob Jenkins signed the permissions for Little Bob Jenkins. Dear Old Bio-Dad even drove me back to Kinston and stood behind me as I stepped up to the gold line and faced the flag.

“Raise your right hand.”

I raised my hand.

“Do you solemnly swear that you will preserve and defend the Constitution of the United States of America from all enemies, foreign and domestic?”


Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Kind of Woman She Is

Far across the Phoenix terminal CJ spots the blind woman. The woman is trying to get a place in line at the airport Burger King. She's about 45 degrees off course, thwacking her cane into a railing.

"I'll be back in time to board" says CJ

Always quick with a retort, I cleverly respond, "Huh?"
CJ swerves and dodges her way over to the woman and introduces herself. Within seconds they are laughing. CJ assertively secures the woman a place in the line. Together they creep along toward the grill. CJ reads the menu to her.
(Later CJ tells me the woman ordered veggie burgers. Did you know BK has veggie burgers? I didn't. Did you know blind ladies eat veggie burgers? Me either. Anyway, the veggie burger order endeared the woman to me.)
CJ loads the tray, helps her check out, and takes her to the condiment table.

"No ketchup, dear, I'd just get it all over me."

CJ assembles two greasy bags, walks the woman down the terminal corridor to her companion, also blind. The three of them chat a while and share another laugh.

Tiny beads of kindness on CJ's long necklace.

Me? I didn't even notice the blind woman until CJ took off to the rescue. I'm too involved in my own thoughts, worries, plans, the very important stuff I do. Even if I did notice the blind woman across the terminal, I probably wouldn't have thrashed across the the river of travelers to help her.

That's the difference between me and CJ.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


Urban Warfare

August 30, 2009

Fighting this fire was urban warfare at its most vicious. The firefighters were clearing the flames, house to house, some saved, some destroyed. A couple of days after the battleground stopped smoking, I drove through to look at the remains of my friends' home. Joe and Faye had a small ranch house on Creekside Way, the "heat center" of the fire.

My own home in Los gatos burned down in 1992, and we lost pretty much everything. It didn't bother me much as I had been possession-less on three other occasions in my life. But there was a difference with these friends. Faye is an artist, a painter, and she lost it all, her life's work, all of it. I am having trouble getting my mind around that.

One of Faye's paintings

Today Joe came in to the office. He needed some info and wanted to say thanks because I had located a house full of furniture for him. (This is a side benefit of being a realtor; I know where everything is; sort of like being a supply sergeant in the Corps.) I hardly recognized Joe, so destroyed in spirit and emotion. He is so worred about Faye. Me, too. But I have a surprise for her. Last year I bought one of her large pieces. At the right time, I'm going to sneak into her house and install it on her wall. I'm thinking, it was just on loan, to keep it safe. You can bet I'm looking forward to that bit of sneakery.

Back to the fire. It started right on the edge of Highway 49 in Auburn and swept due north, propelled by strong winds from the south. Where did they come from, these winds? We haven't had a breeze in weeks. Along this stretch of 49 are commercial buildings, a nursery, tire store, gas station, building supply store with a large lumber yard, things like that. To the east is the Auburn airport. The firefighters attacked along a battle line behind the commercial zone and saved most of those buildings, but the fire squeezed through and raced north into a residential area.

At the corner where Dry Creek road makes it's sharp jog north, adjacent to 84 Lumber, the fighters established a salient, a defensive angle, to keep the fire pinned behind the road. They worked up behind the lumber yard to keep it a bay from all that fuel.

But the fire was channeled right into the Creekside Way neighborhood, a small subdivision of about 50 homes. Here's where the real urban warfare was waged. Driving through the neighborhood, I could see the aftermath of dozens of distinct fire fights. One house saved, the next utterly destroyed. In many places I could see the exact FEBA (forward edge of the battle area in military parlance), a precise line of demarkation between devastation and salvation, sometimes a driveway, sometimes just a singed line in the lawn.

The main battle was along Dry Creek Road itself, after it makes it's big turn back toward the east. On the south side, the Creekside inferno; on the northside, Saddleback subdivision and then, desert-dry woods, fields, grass and houses for miles and miles, all the way to my house.

With the hard wind pushing the fire right at Dry Creek Road, the firefighters knew this was their only chance at containment. It had to be stopped right here. Those of us behind the line held by our guys were evacuated or preparing to evacuate.

What are we going to take? Whos driving what vehicle? Where's Mom? Does the ATM still work? How much gas? What if we get separated? What's plan B? Did we pack dog food? What's an alternate route if the fire gets to Higgins Corner before we do? Should I stay behind and try to defend the house with the hose?

But the line held. At one spot the fire jumped Dry Creek and burned about an acre. The fighters threw it back. Over and over the fire pushed against the defense. The line held. The fire wheeled east. The fighters chased it down an stopped it right at the edgs of home after home. At times they must have been liiterally pressed with their backs agaist a garage wall saving someone's home.

Folks, when you see those brave, skilled men and women out on the corner, fill up their fire boots with your cash. There may come a day when they pull your ass out of the fire, when all that stands between you and hell are your firefighters. Love 'em up.



Sunday, September 6, 2009



Thus, he entered Samaria

I had to pee. Forcing my gummy eyelids open I learned it was daytime. The sun was shining through the jalousie windows in the bathroom and onto the bed. Motel room. Still sick. Still alive. Still had to pee.

Gathered myself, got to my feet. Whoa, too fast. What’s that smell? Oh. Me. Turned on the shower. Scrubbed myself with the bar of motel soap. No little bottles of shampoo in those days. Washed my hair with the soap in the hard, limey water. Bet my hair is going to look swell. Scrubbed my tongue and teeth with the wash cloth. Better than nothing.

Clothes. Wet clothes. At least she let me sleep through the night. Shit, what did she do with my clothes?

My clothes, washed, pressed, were hanging on the back of the door. She had thrown my one disreputable sock away and substituted in its place a pair of used, but clean men’s socks. My boots and belt were dry. How? I got dressed in the clean, warm clothes and ventured out into the new day.

The storm had passed. From the feel of the air I could tell it was early morning. I went into the office and found the inn keeper behind the counter . She gave me a sardonic greeting, probably along the lines of “Well, look who finally woke up.” I thanked her for letting me stay through the night and for cleaning my clothes. She waved it off. I asked how she was able to dry my boots and belt in just a few hours. She laughed.

“This is the morning of the second day. You’ve been asleep for two nights and a day. I kept checking on you to make sure you hadn’t died. You didn't. Just left you alone.”

Have you ever had one of those moments when you grace just washes over you? Tears welled up in my eyes and I couldn’t swallow. I tried to speak.

“Aw, zip it. Your trousers, too, while you’re at it. Get on across the street to Dottie’s. She’s still serving breakfast. Tell her to put it on your tab.”

“My tab?”

“Breakfast comes with the room. All you can eat.”

I tried to express my gratitude, but like most seventeen-year olds, I wasn’t very good at it.

She asked where I was going.

Good question. I hadn’t made a plan. The family of a high school friend, Lanny Brady, had a house somewhere down in Bradenton, south of Clearwater. Or I could head up north where I had some family in the Carolinas, a much longer trip with no money, but I was pretty sure they would let me stay for a while. Pick one.

“North, I guess. I got some folks up north.”

Then you better get going. It’s a long way up north.

I tried to give her hug, but she was on the other side of the counter. Awkward, heartfelt, seventeen. She shooed me out of the office. I didn’t even think to ask her name. Damn.

I ate as much of Dottie’s southern-style breakfast as I could stuff into my mouth without getting sick. Three helpings of grits with red-eye gravy. I thanked the waitress, embarrassed that I didn’t have as much as a penny for a tip, and walked out on to the street.

Stuck out my thumb.

It was pretty easy for a teenager to hitchhike in 1965. I worked my way across central Florida without further mis-adventures.

Somewhere around Daytona Beach a man picked me up and said he was heading to St Augustine. He was nice, maybe too nice. Uh oh. I was instantly on guard. Just before we got to St. Augustine, as it was getting dark, he said he had to make a short "side trip" to see some friends. Maybe they would invite us to dinner.

OK, friends, stop worrying. This is going to turn out fine.

He bought some beverages and then drove us back several miles into the pine woods until we came to a house . . . well, a shack. I had yet to see the movie Deliverance, but if you want to imagine a banjo playing, you can set the appropriate mood. A backwoods family of about ten people lived there. We were, indeed, invited to supper.

One fellow asked me if I knew how to skin a snake? I thought it was something sexual, but, no, he meant exactly that, taking the skin off a rattler. So you can eat it. He was just being polite, so I helped. By the way, nail the rattler’s head to a tree, cut around the neck, and jerk the skin off with a pair of pliers. In case you’re interested.

Dinner was wild meat. Wild meat! One of the most memorable meals I ever had. Along with the ubiquitous hushpuppies, collard greens, and, yep, grits with red eye gravy, the women served anything and everything the men had managed to shoot or trap. The rattler was deep fried with deep fried squirrel, deep fried possum, deep fried dove, and other delectables I didn’t recognize, also deep fried. In lard. Scrumptious!

Dinner over, we took our leave and finished the drive to St. Augustine. My Good Samaritan, whose name I have also forgotten, damn, begin to talk seriously about the rest of my trip. He said he didn’t like the idea of me trying to hitch through Jacksonville at night, a rough town then, just as it is today, but he especially didn’t like the idea of me trying to tackle to stretch between Jacksonville and Brunswick, Georgia where I was going to pick up Highway 17, the coastal route north. That piece of road cautiously creeps through some of the worst swamps and marshes in the south Georgia.

He decided he was going to drive me all the way to Brunswick, a trip of about 3 hours. I protested, but feebly, because I really wanted the ride. Matters settled, we continued north through J’ville, our conversation getting deeper and more profound. We talked about a lot of good stuff. After a while I dozed off while he drove. When I woke up, he was pulling up to the bus station in downtown Brunswick, Georgia. It was the middle of the night.

We got out of his car. He came around to my side and pulled out a twenty dollar bill, a lot more money in those days, maybe enough for a bus ticket all the way to North Carolina. Again I protested, making noises about repaying him somehow. This is what he said to me, an exact quote, I never forgot:

“Someday, when you get all this behind you, and get your feet on the ground, you’re going to meet someone who needs a hand. Help that fellow out, and that’s all you ever need to do to repay me. Just pass it along. You understand? Just pass it along.”

I told him I did understand, and promised repay him many times over. He drove away.

Twenty bucks. Wait for the bus station to open in the morning, and ride as far as twenty bucks would take me, but hungry? Use the money for food and keep taking my chances on the road?

I headed for a truck stop down the road.

Shook out my hand.

Got my thumb ready.



Saturday, September 5, 2009


You are going to get hurt in a knife fight.

You are going to get hurt in a knife fight. Unless you are incredibly lucky, which I must have been that night. Wasn’t skill or fancy choreography like a martial arts movie. I came up off that floor like a wild animal, exploding in panic, and thrashing. He must have dropped the knife, or it got knocked out of his hand, because I don’t remember ever seeing it again. In fact, I don’t remember anything except stroboscopic images, individual frames, bungled together in the editing room. I certainly don’t remember anything Sailor Martin said, or yelled, or my replies, if anything coherent. Screaming.

Scrambling across the floor, my legs still tangled in the blanket. Grabbing the lawn chair and whirling to swing it at him. Yelling. Battering him with the chair over and over. Spitting.

Sailor Martin naked, jumping up and down on the bed, with his hands out in from of him trying to push me away, the top half of his body brown as coffee, the bottom half white as fish belly, a two-toned harlequin, with a tiny penis bouncing up and down. Cursing.

Grabbing my clothes off the radiator and my boots off the floor. Fumbling with the door knob, ramming my shoulder into the door until it burst open. The cold, rain-laden wind hitting me. Spinning the wrong way, slamming into a rail, stumbling down slippery stairs in the driving rain, naked and clutching my clothes.

Huddling in a doorway, pulling on my clothes, heavy, wet, and cold. Missing one sock and my skivvies, casualties of the escape. The sickness falling on me like sandbags. Skin scalded with fever and joints throbbing in agony. Shaking. Dizzy. Vision blurred.

Pushing myself out of the doorway, dropping my head against the gale, I staggered back toward a lighted boulevard I could see a few blocks away. A few people were still about, though I had no idea what time it was. Nightclubs were belching forth their last-call losers. I hunkered down in the doorway of a bar, closing my eyes, as if that might relieve my misery.

I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked up. Again, I don’t remember exactly what was said, but a well-dressed gentleman with an umbrella was asking me what was wrong and could he help. Next, I remember being in his car, the heater on, wearing a coat he had wrapped around me. He told me he was going to take me to his house where I could warm up and get some sleep. Those were the most wonderful words I had ever heard. We turned off the boulevard and into an industrial area.

That’s when he put his hand between my legs and squeezed. My first reaction was not fear or revulsion, it just hurt. I was sick and aching anyway, wearing a pair of icy cold slacks with no underwear, and some stranger was fondling my balls. I jerked away from him into the passenger door and kicked him in the ribs, over and over. The car screech to a stop. I flung myself out onto the road, panting and shaking. I hurled every curse word I knew. Realizing I was wearing his coat, which now felt like a thing most foul, I ripped it off and threw it into the puddle at my feet and stomped around on it. More cursing. I turned away and staggered off into the downpour. For a second time.

After a near-death march that seemed to last hours, I arrived at a lighted intersection and stood under a street light. A car stopped and a man asked if I was lost. I told him I was looking for a dry place to wait out the storm. He said that his church would take me in for the night. I got in his car and we drove off toward holy sanctuary. Whatever creed it espoused, I promised myself to convert in the morning.

After a few minutes, he turned to me, gave me a certain look, and asked me “Wouldn’t I rather go to his apartment where he could take care of me?” I screamed at him, “Isn’t there anybody but goddamned queers in fucking Clearwater Beach?” He yelled back, “If you didn’t want to be picked up, why were you hanging around this part of town at night like a streetwalker? I shouted at him, “Let me out of the car!” He pulled over to the curb, and I got out. Into the rain. Again. He drove away.

At that moment it occurred to me, that I might really die, die, dead, right there on the street, in the rain, and it would probably be easier if I just sat down right where I was and got it over with. I turned around looking for a pole to rest my back against as I waited for the end. Fuck it.

On the pole was a sign. “Sunset Motel.

Peering in the office window, I saw no lights, but I rang the buzzer anyway. After a while, a heavy-set woman in a bathrobe opened the door. Her hair had that slept-in, matted-down look. Gruffly, she asked what I wanted. I told her I needed a room for the rest of the night. She said to come on in out of the rain and added that she would have to charge me for an entire night.

I sat down on a chair, and struggled to get my boot off. By this time I had created a noticeable puddle around me. With numb fingers, I opened the secret compartment in my boot heel and extracted Larry Casseaux’s five dollar bill, now almost as soggy as I was.

“This is all I have, mam. How long can I sleep on this?” She took the fiver and unfolded it. Looked at it, and me. “Son, I’m going to put you in the room next door to the office, and I’ll wake you up when your money runs out.”

She showed me into the room and left. I got out of my wet clothes. With my last strength, I dried myself with a towel. Teeth chattering and skin burning, I climbed into the bed, pulled the blankets over me, and passed out.