Leaving For Korea

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There was going to be nothing left of the Marine. He was still skidding, still sliding along the blacktop, a hundred yards, maybe two hundred from where he first went over. There wouldn’t be any flesh left on him when we got there, when he finally stopped. The sparks were still spraying out to both sides and behind him as bare metal scraped the road at speed.

Then he stopped. We pulled up alongside and jumped out. I turned away, as if looking for other traffic coming along, but the truth was I didn’t want to see him, didn’t want to see a man’s body flayed raw and bleeding.

But when the bike was lifted off him, the Marine stirred, trying to get up. At least he was conscious.

“You okay? You okay? Anything broke?”

“I don’t think so,” he said. “Jest gimme a hand here.”

We got him to his feet now, all of us lending a hand, even me.

“The roll bar saved my leg,” he said.

So had a leather jacket and the thick wool uniform and the helmet. We talked to him for a while.

“I thought you were doing stunts back there,” I said, “wobbling your wheel.”

“Nah, threw a bolt. Wheel jest went. Weren’t nawthin’ I could do, just try to slow it and go over easy.”

Someone asked how fast he was going.

“Oh, not more’n a hunnert, maybe one-oh-five or -ten. She’ll move better than that on the straight.”

You could hear pride in his voice when he talked about the bike.

“You fellas want to drive me back a bit so I can look for that bolt, sirs?” he said, throwing in the “sirs” at the end.

“Maybe we ought to drop you at Main Base, at the sick bay.”

On the portable radios you could hear the big football games back East, and the announcer would say it’s colder now and growing dark …

“Nah,” he said, “I’m okay. Sore is all.”

We found the bolt about half a mile back, and when we left him, the Marine had the bike back up and his sleeves rolled up and he was working on the rear axle where the bolt had come loose.

About halfway to Laguna someone said, and meaning it, “I don’t want to hear any more shit from these old-timers about the Raiders and how tough they were and how we ain’t. Understood?”

We all said, “Understood,” and meant that too.

Laguna Beach was our Riviera. It was thirty-five miles up the coast from Oceanside and the main gate to Pendleton, and it was where we went weekends, a small, sunny town on cliffs overlooking crescents of golden sand skirting the dark blue Pacific coves. We took rooms in cheap hotels and motels and boardinghouses along the coast strip, sleeping four or even six men to a room.

This was when I truly fell in love with California, on those weekends at Laguna Beach.

The highway comes up into Laguna from the south, rising slightly until, when you are in the town itself, you are maybe two hundred, three hundred feet high on cliffs that bulwark the narrow beaches. Down every side street and between the houses you could see the Pacific, dark and wonderful, slow and lazy, with kids out there surfing, local boys with sunbleached hair and baggy shorts on long, polished boards, measuring the big waves coming in, waves that came from Asia, more than six thousand miles away.

On Saturday they let us off at noon, and someone always had a car and we drove up the coast to Laguna Beach and checked into a beachfront hotel and got out of uniform and into shorts and sweatshirts and went down the rocky path to the sand to try to pick up girls and to swim and to play two-man Volleyball. We might have a beer or two, and there was a hole-inthe-wall restaurant called My Place where we got burgers. On the portable radios you could hear, the big football games back East or in the Midwest, and the announcer, Bill Stern maybe, would say it’s colder now and starting to snow and growing dark and …

And we were lounging there on beach blankets, chatting with pretty girls and working on our suntans, and the big rollers kept coming in, here and there dark with kelp and sometimes with the sleek, cannonball head of a seal, and it was only two o’clock in California, and the November sun was still high and night a long time off.

To an Easterner there was something almost magical about the time zones, the three-hour differences between here and home, something inexpressibly lovely about the dramatic fall of the sun into the late-afternoon ocean. There are magnificent beaches in the East, but nowhere on the Atlantic does the sun disappear into the ocean as it does in the Pacific.

It was of such things that we spoke with the girls we met, and not of Korea.

When we spoke of Doug Bradlee and Wild Horse Callan or others now dead or in the naval hospitals, men our age and until recently our shipmates, it was always in fun, the silly, inconsequential memories of days and nights at Quantico, not of death and war wounds. To dwell on losses was unhealthy. Nor was there guilt. They had gone to the division, and now our turn had come.

“Who’s this Wild Horse you’re always talking about?” a girl would say as we lay on an old blanket in the sun after a swim.

“A guy we know, a pal.”

“He sounds pretty funny.”

“He is.”

“Does he actually talk like that, a real cowboy?”

“Absolutely, a real old-fashioned cowboy.”

We spoke always in the present tense.