Included here are some preview stories to be included in a collection to be published soon. They are inspired by my career, if you want to call it that, in the United States Navy of 1967-1971. They are obviously fictional, but, as John Steinbeck once observed, “… a thing isn’t necessarily a lie even if it didn’t necessarily happen.”
Of Times and Tides
By Jimmie von Tungeln
The man awoke before daylight entered the barracks. He had been dreaming, and his first task was to remember where he was. In the dream, he had been trying to walk, but couldn’t because his feet didn’t touch the ground. Nor could he crawl. Staring into the dark, he recalled that, in the dream, neither could flapping his arms enable him to move. He was only human. In the stillness, it came clear to him. He was still in this place.
He sat upright in his bunk and swung his feet around to touch the floor. The linoleum was cold and he reached to his left for the socks stashed under the head of his mattress. Cursing the cold, he put the socks on his feet as continued to gain focus. Outside, the false dawn would soon come and daylight would follow. As he turned his head toward an open window, a morning breeze carried in the first smell of the ocean like a playful puppy bringing a toy. He took a deep breath and smiled.
It would be a cool morning marked by overcast skies until the sun dissolved the clouds to reveal a deep blue sky. The sky would end in a teasing horizon, a simple straight line between the sky and an ocean that had drawn humans to it since first they had begun recording time. Then the wind moving inland from the cold waters of Monterey Bay would circle the deserted streets of the forgotten parts of the city and maintain a pleasant nip in the air, washing the city with the smell of rotting fish and drying vegetation. It would be a good day for walking, maybe a great day for walking—without doubt a good day for thinking. Would it be a good day for making decisions? He would see.
The barracks was a nondescript block building seemingly dropped at random among the historic masterpieces that once housed the Del Monte Hotel. Now those old structures, and newer ones, served as the United States Naval Postgraduate School, a learning center for promising officers. For most of the enlisted personnel, it was a temporary berth, offering easy duty before a permanent assignment. He had found no cause for complaint there. Now he had orders to leave.
He moved to a bank of lockers. As quietly as possible, he removed a chain from around his neck and found a key between two dog tags. He opened his locker, took out his travel kit, and replaced the lock, making little noise as he turned toward the lighted “head.” Inside, he completed his morning ritual of shaving, brushing his teeth, and running a wet hand over the short stubble that protruded like tiny rays of golden light from his head. When he had finished, he placed his belongings in the kit and moved quietly back toward his bunk. The barracks hummed with the sounds of men breathing, snoring, and turning restlessly in their sleep. A pair of eyes opened in an upper bunk and stared at him as he passed. They were dark and wide, receiving, but not comprehending, the figure moving before them. For a brief second, the man could see the darkness of humanity lurking behind those eyes and he felt fear. Then their owner broke wind, closed his eyes and returned to that warm place where men linger and feel safe in the false dawn of life. The man moved on.
Soon, he had dressed in civilian clothes, including a handsome and serviceable corduroy coat, and was ready to leave. He walked from the sleeping area into a dimly lighted hallway and then through a day room. Stopping before a bulletin board, he checked the orders of the day for August 12, 1967. After affirming that he was not listed for duty, he left the building and greeted the day. A faint rim of red sky emerged from the eastern horizon and the air was heavy with a morning chill. He walked toward a soaring flagpole, stark and bare in the morning sky. He stopped and studied it. There was something proud about a naked flagpole, ready to serve, standing its singular vigil in the night, loyal but not needed. He saluted the spire and walked on past the majestic buildings of the campus.
He was surprised to find a sentry at the main gate. Normally, it was manned only during working hours, primarily for the purpose of furnishing information to visitors. This morning, he found a young Seaman Apprentice named Wells, from somewhere in South Texas on watch. As the man approached, Wells came from the guardhouse and greeted him with a smile. “Man,” he said, “am I glad to see you. You got a cigarette?”
“Don’t tell me you came on the mid-watch without cigarettes,” the man said. He fished into his coat pocket the produced a partial pack of Marlboros. “Will these do?”
“Hell yes,” Wells said, taking one from the pack. He lit it, inhaled deeply, exhaled, and said, “I had some, but goddam this has been a long watch.”
“Why do they have a guard tonight?”
“A cruiser docked in the harbor and some of its crew came over to the EM Club. Some of their officers came over too, to hobnob with the brass I guess. They got into a big fight with some of our guys, the enlisted men did. Didn’t you hear about it?”
“No, they gave me a couple of days off and I got back from San Francisco last night and went to bed real early. Why were they fighting?”
“Hell, nobody knows. Just wanted to fight I reckon. Ain’t that the way it usually is?”
“They were all too drunk to hurt anybody.”
“So what happened?”
“They sent a vehicle from the Presidio and took them back, the ones that was fighting. I was on duty so they put me out here to make sure they didn’t come back.”
“No, but I’ve been worried about what I’d do if they did.” He patted his pistol. “They gave me this, but they didn’t give me no bullets. It ain’t hardly right to put somebody in danger without any foresight is it?”
The man ignored him. “Any trouble?”
“One of them cruiser boys nearly puked on me when they left, some of those who weren’t involved in the fight and stayed around. Not an officer but some Bosun’s Mate striker. His buddies got him going again. I guess they made it back. I don’t give a shit one way or another.”
“Here,” the man said, handing Wells the cigarettes. “You keep them.”
“All of them? What’re you gonna do?”
“I can buy some more,” the man said. “I’m stopping for something to eat, anyway.”
“What the hell are you doing up this time of morning?”
“Just out for a walk,” the man said.
Wells started to say something but stopped. He drew from his cigarette and exhaled. He adjusted the pistol holster he was wearing and then said, “Don’t guess I blame you.”
“You keep our base safe,” the man said. “America is depending on you.”
“Anchors aweigh,” Wells said. As the man began to walk away, Wells yelled after him, “Hey Hinson.”
The man stopped and turned around. Wells said, “That’s some goddam shitty deal they gave you.”
Hinson nodded and said, “Yeah, a real goddam shitty deal.” He gave Wells a mock salute, then turned and disappeared into the morning fog.
He reached Del Monte Avenue and turned to the west. There were few cars out and they made a muffled roar as they sped by in the fog. A pair of gulls flew overhead, teasing and taunting one another with fierce, happy squeals. During a quiet moment, he heard the sounds of seals from the direction of the bay. It was a still, lonely time, and he wished he had kept a cigarette for himself. As the sky began to light, he felt a chill. Thrusting his hands into his coat pockets, he walked on.
He stopped at a service station and purchased a fried pie and a Coca-Cola. He sat in a small park and ate his breakfast. Finishing, he leaned back and watched as the sky continued to grow lighter in the east. The east … somewhere out there, his family was up and tending to the farm. Closing his eyes, he conjured the smell of bacon drifting and felt the hot summer breeze announcing another day in the Delta, the Arkansas Delta. Then he shook his head, opened his eyes, and kicked the grass in front of him. He stood and took a deep breath, turned sharply, and continued west.
Daylight had come as he drew near Alvarado Street. Before he reached its sad desolation, he heard the sound of equipment roaring to life. It was an odd sound, so early in the day. He hurried do the dusty street, lined with empty buildings, and turned in the direction of The Keg.
Then he saw it. A giant construction crane was moving in a swivel, swinging a massive wrecking ball toward the building that housed The Keg, a favorite place of his. In horror, he saw the ball tear into brick and wood and a huge portion of the building stood no more. He could only stare as the crane swung the ball around and the steel tracks move the apparatus a few feet forward. The next swivel took out another portion of the wall. He couldn’t watch anymore. When he turned his head, something caught his eyes in the grass to his right. He walked over and looked. A case of liquor had been dropped and left alongside the walk. What was left was a pile of broken bottles, the glass glistening in the morning light with the sharp smell of whiskey floating upward like siren’s call. He kicked at the glass and saw one unbroken bottle of bourbon whiskey amid the ruble. He bent over and lifted. It was an expensive brand that he had rarely tasted and he carefully brushed away the shards of glass still clinging to its surface. He wedged the bottle into the pocket of his coat and turned back to what was left of the building.
At the edge of the scene, a man wearing a construction hat watched silently, smoking a cigarette and holding a clipboard. He leaned against a truck and nodded as Hinson approached and said, “What in the world is going on?”
“Progress,” the man said with an air of disgust, “they say.”
“Why are you tearing down The Keg? I was the only business left on the street.”
“I’m just following orders,” the man said. “It ain’t my idea.”
“Did someone buy it?”
“The city bought it,” the man said. He turned and reached in the truck and produced a cardboard poster 11 by 14 inches in size. “Welcome To a New Monterey,” was emblazoned across the top. Smaller letters read, “Watch as we build Monterey’s historic past into a new future.” Below it was an artist’s rendering of a modern hotel complex.
The man took the poster from Hinson and pitched it back into the truck. “Urban renewal,” he said. The then spit and flipped his cigarette butt toward the wreckage.
“I was just in there last week. The place was full of soldiers from Fort Ord,” Hinson said.
“Gone,” the man said.
“The soldiers were having a great time shooting pool with some hookers.”
“Gone,” the man said.
“What happened to the old guy who ran the shoeshine stand across the street during the day? The one who came over and played the piano at night?”
“Gone,” the man said. “Gone, gone, gone.” He looked at Hinson and studied his face. “You from around here?”
“No,” said Hinson. “Navy. I’m from Arkansas.”
“John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts used to drink together in there,” the man said. “All gone.”
“Why are you here so early?”
The man laughed. “City fathers got worried that someone might remember how great this place was and start protesting to stop progress.”
“Oh,” said Hinson, “I see.” But it was apparent to the other that he didn’t.
“So they called ‘Daybreak Demolition’ to make sure the building was gone before the people woke up. It just fell my lot.” He looked at the remains of the building and saluted.
The two stood in silence as another portion of the building disappeared into a pile of rubble. As the last walls began to fall, the man said, “I was born in this town.” When Hinson didn’t reply, he said. “It’s gonna be a sad night for me, but what the hell. I’ve already almost lost my job over it.”
Hinson nodded and reached for the bottle protruding from his pocket. He handed it to the man. “Here,” he said, “I found this. Have a drink tonight for all of us who have had to watch things we love disappear.”
The man looked at the bottle, then took it and said, “Thanks.” He raised it toward Hinson. “Here’s to fair winds and following sea.” Hinson nodded in understanding as the two watched the crane move forward a few more feet for the sake of progress.
When the demolition was complete, Hinson used the opposite sidewalk to walk past what had once been a happy place where friends met, drinks were shared, music was enjoyed, and business transacted, now all gone. He walked away and didn’t look back.
He continued along Alvarado, passing the empty buildings now coated with the dust from demolitions. He came to the Drake Avenue intersection where the Del Monte Express hit and caused the death of Ed Ricketts in 1948. He descended on to Cannery Row, a desolated forgotten street covered in patches and lined with the metal buildings in which a major fishing industry had once thrived.
He walked along the street, studying the overhead walks that spanned it. At a low, wooden building, he stopped and contemplated “Doc’s Lab” of literary fame. He sat on the curb in front of its redwood walls and long row of windows. He closed his eyes and imagined the street full of activity, with people entering and leaving functioning businesses. His mind drifted in and out of reality and fantasy seeing “Doc” in his mind crossing the street for a quart of beer.
A voice startled him from his reveries. “Hey mister,” it said.
He opened his eyes and saw a shabbily-dressed man standing in front of him. He was of indeterminate age, with a week-old stubble of gray beard and stringy, unkempt hair. Though he was standing three feet or so in front of Hinson, the man’s foul odor defeated all the other smells of tide and land. Hinson stared.
“You got a dollar for an old bum?” the man said. “Just a dollar for something to eat?”
Hinson continued to stare. The man stared back and neither spoke for a full minute. Then Hinson said, “You live around here?”
The man nodded. “You ever read that book, ‘Cannery Row’ before?” he said. He pronounced it “Can-ree.”
Hinson nodded. “Several times. Have you?” he said.
“Hell, Mister, I was in it.”
Hinson made a face. The man nodded gravely. “At book was all about me and my pals,” he said. “I was called ‘Mack’ in it. That’s me, Andy, but in the book they called me Mack.” When Hinson didn’t respond, the man continued. “We didn’t make a penny off it, the book I mean. But it was all about us and some whores. Of course we was all younger then and and the whores left a long time ago.”
Finally Hinson gained his voice. “You mean you were the person that the character ‘Mack’ was based on?”
“At’s what I’m tryin’ to tell you,” the man said. “Now ain’t meetin’ somebody that famous worth a dollar?”
“You knew the author?”
“Oh,” the man said, “I knew Mr. John Steinway real good. Me and him was close.”
“You and John ‘Steinway’ were close?”
“I even helped him think up some of the names,” the man said. “Now ain’t that sumpthin’?”
By god, that’s something all right. How much did you say you wanted?” Hinson reached for his wallet.
“A do…,” the man said before he stopped himself. “At least a dollar. For somebody that knows John Steinway personally, it might even be worth more.”
“You’re goddam right it might be,” Hinson said. “Let me see how much I have here Mack—or Andy—whoever the hell you are.”
“All them other boys are gone,” the man said quickly. “Dead, in jail, moved on, lost with no forwarding … I’m the only one left.” He peered hopefully as Hinson opened his wallet.
“Let’s see,” Hinson said, pulling out several bills. “Looks like I’ve a ten, one five, and three ones. Is that enough for such a famous person?”
“I reckon it would be,” the man said. He cast a suspicious look at Hinson. “You mean all of it?”
“Every goddam bit,” Hinson said, handing the bills over to the man. “No, wait,” He said. The man drew the bills to his pocket quickly. Hinson stood and the man stepped back. “I’ve some change, too. He reached into his pocket and produced a handful of coins, much to the relief of the other, who took and crammed the change into the pocket with the bills.
“Bless you mister,” the man said. “People ain’t as good to us old bums as they used to be.”
“You’ll use it wisely, I presume,” Hinson said.
“I would never do otherwise,” the man said. He took two more steps back in case Hinson experienced a sudden change of heart.
“Tell you what I’ll do,” Hinson said.
“If I ever happened to meet Mister …uh… Steinway, I’ll tell him we met and you said say ‘hello.’”
“Oh,” the man said, his eyes suddenly darting from side to side, “now it’s been a while ago.”
“Oh,” Hinson said, “He’d never forget a friend like you. I’ll tell him I met his ‘Mack’ and that he was doing well.”
“You do that,” the man said and turned to hurry off. After a few steps, he turned his face back toward Hinson. “You do that,” he yelled, and soon disappeared behind a building. Hinson laughed and walked away to his right and underneath a lattice-covered walkway.
The northwestern end of Cannery Row was blocked by a large, deserted, building announcing itself as property of the Portola Company. Hinson continued around the end of the row and past Monterey Boat Works, its large white building flanked by boats raised on elevated frames and supported by leaning timbers. Hinson stopped, studied an elevated boat, and considered how something looking so frail and ungainly on land could be so graceful in its true element, the bright blue ocean that was visible in background.
He was soon walking along Ocean View Boulevard. He stopped once to rest and watch the fishing boats moving through the bay. They danced over the waves like ducks in a shooting gallery, joyful in the eternal optimism of those who set forth to fish. The sight warmed him as did the morning sun that was beginning to chase away the chill. He took off his coat and continued with it draped across one shoulder. He began to round the northern end of the headlands and sank into deep thought. As he rounded the point, Ocean View Boulevard became Sunset Drive. When he looked around, the Point Pinos Lighthouse soared above him on his left. He knew he was almost to the place where his life would change.
In a few minutes, he was there. The Great Tide Pool stretched before him. Being at full flood tide, the water stood with only the tops of the larger rocks showing. He knew that soon the waters would recede, capturing the rich life of the Pacific in the small pools of water left between the rocks. It was an ideal place to observe life and make decisions. He threaded his way among the dry rocks until he came to an outcropping near the water’s edge. He stopped and reached into the inner portion of his coat. He produced a fat, white envelope and held it away from the water as he folded his coat into a cushion and placed in on the smooth surface of a rock. Then he sat and opened the envelope.
Inside were several pages of folded pages. As the ocean lapped around his feet, he viewed the topmost sheet. He scanned the now familiar words: “Naval Security Forces … weapons training …Naval Support Activity … Da Nang … Vietnam.” He raised his eyes and stared across the Tide Pool, toward the open sea and to the west. For several minutes, he didn’t move. Then he took that sheet and placed it under the rest.
Next were several pages of small, lined, paper covered in a finely executed hand. It began, “Dear Son.” He skipped the opening paragraphs filled with family news that a mother would deem important. He turned to the next page, skipped down to where he read, “I know you don’t want to be like your Uncle Harold and make such a fool of yourself that they would let you out. There is always a life to live after the navy. And we want to be able to live it proud with you and not have to explain ever time we seen somebody. Our family has always had the respect of others. We ain’t had no money but we had respect. Ha ha. I don’t like them orders at all but you just have to trust in yourself and believe that it will be alright in the end. I’ll close. He says he’s writing something so I’ll put it in with mine. Son, take care. It was signed simply “Mother.”
Underneath these sheets was a single page of yellow paper, taken from a Big Chief tablet. In pencil were these words:
Son, jist a note to let you know I am fine. That cow that wus jist a heffer when you were here had her first calf this week. Big bull calf. Both are fine. You remember Bob Ashcraft dont you? His grandbaby got kilt. She was playing in Bob’s garage and a can of lawn moer gas got knocked over beside the hot water heeter. He’s not doin well atall. If you wus here you could take him fishing like you used to and git his mind off it maybe. He’s not in good shape atall. I reckon I’ll try to rite more when you git where your going. Your mama bawls a lot.”
It was signed by his father using his full formal name. Hinson smiled and placed both letters in the back of the stack.
Single-spaced typing filled the last sheet. He studied it carefully, stopping often to view the ocean. Words floated in and out of his thoughts. “Will complete your route to Canada… proceed from San Francisco … your decision will be final … duty to avoid this immoral and illegal war … we cannot be held responsible for your decision … free will … unlikely that you would ever be allowed to return.”
He folded the pages and held them as he studied the Tide Pool. The flood tide had peaked and the waters had begun to recede. The ebb tide was beginning to form life-teeming pools that would sing the endless songs of the sea. He watched the foam ringed pool near his feet and he searched for an activity that might untangle his thoughts. He locked on a tiny octopus fighting for its life. With its tentacles flashing, it sought escape from the confinement of the pool. One tentacle caught hold and pulled the rest, along with the body, over the ring of rocks forming the pool and the creature scudded free into the great ocean. Hinson smiled.
He continued to watch. Some creatures fled confinement before the sea moved away. Others lay captured. Some would die in the sun. Others would survive until the next flood tide. Hinson nodded and said audibly, to himself, the organisms around him, to the Great Tide Pool, and to the Pacific Ocean itself, “It’s just a great big goddam dance after all, isn’t it though?”
He pulled one sheet from the stack of papers and began to shred it into squares. When he had made the squares as small as he could, he tossed them into the receding tide. He watched the typewritten lines disappear as the paper turned a dark gray from the waters of the tide pool. He placed his orders and his letters from home back into the envelope and stood. He reached for his coat—his prized piece of civilian attire. As his hand touched it, he suddenly drew it back.
“No,” he said, thrusting the envelope into his pants pocket. He turned, leaving the coat on the rock where it had cushioned him, and walked away from the Great Tide Pool toward whatever the future promised.