Oceanside, California during the War was one of a whole slew of towns across the country that prospered by being up close and personal with a military base. The town was unabashed in its efforts to sell sleaze, honky tonk and cars to teenage GIs fresh off the farm. Its streets teemed with half-assed hawkers who specialized in dragooning recent graduates of Advanced Infantry Training into topless bars with big cover charges serving watered down drinks. Its shops were operated by unscrupulous merchants who got rich selling low quality goods to naive recruits. Stuff they couldn’t afford and would have no possible use for during the year they’d be over in the Nam. “The credit is easy.” could have been the town’s motto. Like the preachers at a skid row mission, that’s where MOP, the Marines Organizing Project, set up shop.
Our destination was on Ditmar Street, a prairie straight road where junior five bungalows lolled at parade rest behind lush lawns, neatly kept and as trimmed as a Drill Instructor’s scalp. Ranks of palm trees formed up for inspection at each curb, gently rocking in the July heat. All was in order… except for a single sore thumb structure, out of uniform, unfit for duty and irreverent. An insult to propriety and discipline, it slouched among the ranks of the righteous like a pockfaced delinquent. Rebellious. Taunting . Provoking to be arrested.Once a similarly modest, conforming cottage, this house now mocked the neighborhood from behind clumps of hearty, dull brown weeds that burst helter-skelter out of dusty soil. It suffered from a pathetic, slap-dash splashing of pilfered GI paint, in drab military monochrome, devoid of trim. Large spotlights pointed outward to the street from the corners of the two front eves like a San Quentin guardhouse. Strands of razor wire serpentined along the roof gutters. This wasn’t a house, it was a bunker.
A zig zag pattern of the automatic weapons fire prominently embellished its facade. Great chunks of stucco had been dislodged revealing open wounds of splintery lath. This, I realized, must have been the handiwork of the right-wing Minutemen attack that had been reported in the papers. A message from those right-wing nuts who historically have been attracted to this part of Southern California, like ants to a Sunday picnic. Word was that they were holed up in a compound somewhere out in the eastern reaches of the county, disguised in mild occupations such as TV repairmen. From time to time they and their minions oozed down from the high desert to visit acts of cowardly ambush upon their political adversaries. Indeed, there was abundant evidence that Pendleton’s environs were swarming with such thugs.
Camp Pendleton, the largest Marine Corps base in the country, stretched all the way from Richard Nixon’s vacation home at San Clemente to Oceanside and back from the beach to Fallbrook in the high desert. It sprawled over 120,000 acres of undeveloped terrain, from beaches to mountains, from desert to woodland, making it suitable for realistic mock-up tank battles, amphibious assaults and live ammo artillery practice. It was the only thing that kept LA out of San Diego, ironically preserving our native habitat while dedicated to destroying foreign environments. Home to the First Marine Division, parts of the Third and Fifth Marine Expeditionary Brigade, it was governed by a feudal lord known as a three star general, the “CO.”
“How the fuck did you get into the Marines anyway?” I wanted to know. “I can’t understand why they took a gangster like you.””Yuh can’t huh?” he snickered. “Well you gots a lotta learnin’ to do then. Yuh know why they calls me Deputy Dawg?” he asked, and decided he was going to tell me whether or not I wanted to know. “‘Cause I drives like them wild-ass deputies yuh see in them car chases on TV and ’cause people think I got this kinduh way ’bout me like that cartoon character. Anyways, I can drive an’ I can walk into a store doin’ this ‘aw shucks’ thing an’ no one’ll think nuthin’ of it ’til it’s too late. I was the fuckin’ best wheel man in East St. Louis,” he boasted. “An’ I ain’t never did no job where anyone got caught with me behind the wheel.”
“But for me, after a while, surviving didn’t seem all that fuckin’ important any more, after I added up the stuff I’d been doin’ to reach that objective. Maybe some guys can forget, or think they can forget. I ain’t about to speak for them, but I can’t believe that a whole lotta them are ever going to forget and in the end, down the road, they’re gonna feel sold out one way or another. I just hit that place maybe sooner than some. We stick up for each other under fire and that’s the best of it. We’re all brothers on that score. I’ll remember that too, the good stuff. But how we got there in the first place and the shit we did while we was there, well, good luck to the guys who can forget that. Good fuckin’ luck.”
“Behind all male politics and lots of their intellectual argument is a whole lot of testosterone,” Emma countered. “It’s pretty clear that you feel threatened by the women in this collective.”
“I suppose you want to separate estrogen from women’s politics, like the two don’t go hand in hand,” I responded. ” It’s just the men who have that hormone problem, is it? If a man complains that a woman is acting the way she is because it’s ‘that time of the month’ he’s a male chauvinist. But women can get away clean when they accuse a guy of acting on his testosterone.”
“There’s somethin’ I gotta tell you,” he said, looking sincere for the first time ever. “They gave me this ammo case with a belt of .30 cal. machine gun ammo in it,” he confessed. “I was ‘sposed to give it over to Donnie Woods. For him to bring up to LA to the Panther meeting this weekend. So’s they could bust him on it just befo’ the trial. Once the bust goes down, they’ll kill the trial and I cop to a Captain’s Mast.”
“Two nights ago,” he told me, ” in fact the night after our discussions about ‘you know what’ someone broke into the battalion armory and ripped off a dozen M-16s, a grenade launcher and a BAR along with some ammo. Word was out all over Las Pulgas but the brass wanted to keep a lid on it, so they put the whole camp on restriction. The next night they found a howitzer zeroed in on the San Clemente White House.”
Captain Eaton laid out the government’s case. He would show that while in Canada, Jack had made disloyal statements criticizing the Marine Corps, the President and the United States Government for engaging in an allegedly illegal and immoral war. (t)hat we had committed war crimes like the Nazis who had been found guilty in Nuremberg. And that Jack had made these accusations in the company of known agents of the Viet Cong with whom we were at war.
“I went to see the chaplain and talked to him about it. He said that I shouldn’t worry. That I had been doing my job and I saved a whole lot of lives, a whole lot of my friends’ lives, by getting that North Vietnamese soldier to talk. He said that God understood that in wars people didn’t behave the same as regular and that God would forgive me, because I had done something that saved our mens’ lives. My motives were good.”
One of the beefy guardians of our borders directed us past a battered ’50’s Ford pickup with its torn out seat lying alongside as if it were the victim of South Bronx scavengers. Clothing was strewn around its perimeter like the petals of a wilted flower a week past prime. Nearby , a forlorn, ageless woman, squat and waistless, clutched her squirming brown infant to exposed breasts. Her broad face, engraved with worry lines of oppression, impassive yet sad, followed the privileged travelers accelerating past to cruising speed in the fast lane of life. With a free hand she was picking up the pieces of a broken clay pot. Something of value to her that La Migra had delighted in smashing.