A TIME TO DIE


Typhoon Omar hit the island of Guam in August of 1992. Winds reaching speeds of up to one-hundred-fifty miles per hour blew the roofs off buildings, toppled houses and devastated the Chamorro population, the natives of the island. I was twenty-one years old, a navy corpsman, flown out as part of a medical relief party. Our mission was to assist U.S. Naval Hospital Guam, which had received a huge influx of patients due to the typhoon. Naval hospitals were built for the medical needs of active and retired military personnel and their immediate families. On the island of Guam, the idea of immediate family was stretched to include aunts, uncles, cousins, and even more distant relatives. Few seeking medical treatment were turned away, regardless of their military affiliation, and the hospital was heavily populated with the island natives.

Typhoon Omar was brutal, but the island had recovered quickly. When I arrived, the worst part of the crisis was over. The winds had subsided, and our presence was no longer needed. Instead of being part of a relief crew, I ended up spending much of my time exploring the island alone. I visited Two Lovers Point, a cliff situated high above treacherous ocean waters, where, according to legend, a lovely maiden and her one true love, forbidden to marry, leapt to their deaths in the waters below. I hiked the densely forested Boonies and swam in the clear, warm waters of the white, coral beaches.

I quickly developed an admiration for the Chamorro people, their history and culture; intrigued by their resolute belief in the Taotaomona, the spirit of the island. If one respected the island, the Taotaomona was thought to help and bless them. If one disrespected the island, the spirit became angry and worked against them, hindering them in every way imaginable. The Chamorro people were as much a part of Guam as the land and the surrounding ocean, believing they would become part of the Taotaomona when they died, their spirits forever entwined with spirit of the island, as were their ancestors before them.

“You must ask permission of the Taotaomona before entering the forest,” an elderly Chamorro man told me. I was getting ready to enter the Boonies for a short hike. “You must ask permission before cutting down a tree or hunting an animal. If you do not, you will anger the spirit of the island.” He shook his head sadly. His ancient eyes scanned the horizon. “That is why there was a typhoon. So many do not believe, and their actions have angered the Taotaomona.”

My time on Guam was not all fun and games, however. It was a paid vacation, interrupted by spurts of work on a few of the hospital wards. It was on one of the hospital wards where I would learn a valuable lesson. A lesson about life, and a lesson about death.

I happened, one morning, to walk by one of the hospital rooms. A young doctor, a navy lieutenant in his early thirties, wearing a white doctor’s smock over his khaki officer’s uniform, saw me passing by and motioned for me to join him.

“Corpsman,” he said, “Could you help me in here, please?”

“Sure, Doc,” I said, stepping into the room. A diminutive Chamorro woman in her late seventies sat on the edge of the bed, wearing a hospital gown. She looked up at the doctor, a deep frown wrinkling her dark, determined face.  I sensed I had entered the room in the middle of an argument.

“Mrs. Khalida,” The young doctor said, “I assure you, you are not dying.” He ran his fingers through his brown hair and looked at the patient in frustration. “Please,” he said, “we ran every test we could, and they all came back normal. You’re in perfect health.”

“No, Doctor. It is my time to die,” Mrs. Khalida said. Her small hands gripped the front of her gray hospital gown. “I will not be going home. I will not be going home, ever. I will be joining my husband today.”

The young doctor glanced at my uniform name tag and motioned to me.

“Mr. Taylor will help you get dressed and pack your things,” he said, sliding the phone on the bedside table closer to her. “Please call your family. Have them pick you up.”

Mrs. Khalida ignored the phone. She rubbed her hands together and looked pleadingly up at me.

“Make him understand,” she said. “I will die today. I know that it is time. Please do not send me home.”

The doctor shook his head.

“Mr. Taylor,” he said, “help Mrs. Khalida get dressed and pack her things. She has been discharged and needs to leave.”

“Yes, Sir,” I said. The doctor turned to Mrs. Khalida as if to say something, decided against it, nodded at me and left the room, leaving me alone with the patient.

“Ma’am,” I said, “can I help you get dressed?”

“I can dress myself, young man,” she said. “I may be dying, but I am not sick.”

“Please,” I said, “will you get dressed for me? I can help get your things together.”

She sighed resignedly.

“If I must, then I must. Will you bring me my clothes? They’re in the closet.”

I got her clothes, a pair of white pants and a cool, light blue shirt, from the closet and brought them to her. I pulled the curtain around her bed to give her privacy and began putting her other items into a hospital bag.

“The doctor is wrong,” she said through the curtain. “He does not understand my people. He does not understand it is my time to die.”

“He said you’re healthy, Ma’am. He can only go by the test results. Would you like me to call your family?”

Mrs. Khalida pulled the curtain back. She was wearing her street clothes and hospital socks.

“Where are your shoes, Ma’am?” I said.

“I will not need my shoes,” she said.  “The dead do not need shoes.” She sat down on the bed and picked up the phone. “I will call my family now.”

While Mrs. Khalida called her family, I continued putting her items into a bag. I heard the faint sound of ringing through the receiver she held to her ear. A muffled voice answered.

“I am in the hospital,” Mrs. Khalida said. “I am dying. I want you to come. Tell the others. My time has come, and I want to say goodbye.” She told the person on the other line the room number and hung up the phone. The doctor stepped into the room. He saw Mrs. Khalida dressed in her street clothes, sitting on the edge of the bed. He smiled at me.

“Ah, good. I see you got her dressed,” he said. “Did she notify her family?”

“Yes, Sir,” I said. “She just called them.”

He turned to Mrs. Khalida.

“You will see this is for the best. You have a lot of years ahead of you. You’re a very healthy woman.”

Mrs. Khalida did not answer. Her eyes studied the white linoleum tiled floor. The doctor grinned at me, nodded and left the room, closing the door behind him. Mrs. Khalida looked up at me.

“Healthy,” she said, a disgusted look on her face. “Healthy has nothing to do with it. Healthy people die every day. It is not about health or about sickness. It is about time. There is a time to die, and it is now my time.”

I placed the bag containing her personal items at the foot of the bed and sat down in one of the chairs, facing her.

“Why now?” I said. “The doctor said you’re healthy, but you believe it’s your time to die. Why?”

“You would not believe me, even if I told you,” she said.

“Try me,” I said. “I really want to know. You seem to be very sure about it.”

She turned from me and looked out the window.

“My husband let me know it is my time,” she said, “my husband and the Taotaomona.”

Mrs. Khalida said it happened when Typhoon Omar first hit the island. The small home she had lived in with her husband, and where she had lived alone after his death a few years earlier, was hit hard by the typhoon. Half the roof was blown off and one of the walls had fallen in. The powerful gales of wind had shattered the windows and the power was out. She hid under the relative safety of her bed while the storm raged against her house. Her home was near a cusp of woods at the edge of the Boonies. When the storm passed, she climbed out from underneath her bed, and entered her living room. She looked out through the glassless windows at the cusp of woods where her property ended, and the Boonies began. There was a creature standing there. He was extremely tall, above eight feet. He looked human, but she knew he was not a human being.

“It was the Taotaomona,” she said. “And standing next to the Taotaomona was a young man, a Chamorro. He was wearing a marine corps uniform. His dress uniform; the one he was buried in. He waved for me to come to him.” Her eyes glistened with tears. She turned away from me to stare out the window. “He was my husband, not old, but young, like he was when we married. But I was afraid. I did not go to him, though I knew my time had come. He was there, standing next to the Taotaomona. He kept waving for me, beckoning me, but I would not go. He was sad. He turned away from me and walked into the Boonies with the Taotaomona. It was my time, but I did not go.”

“But you’re still alive,” I said. “Maybe it wasn’t your time.”

“It was my time, and I did not go. I must go today. I must, or terrible things will happen. The spirit of the island is about balance. If I am alive when I should be dead, then everything is out of balance. No. I must go with the Taotaomona. I must join my husband.”

About half an hour later, someone knocked on the door. I opened it to find several people, all Chamorros. Mrs. Khalida called to them in her native language. They entered the room and surrounded her as she spoke, her eyes brimming with tears. Though I could not understand the language, I knew she was saying her goodbyes. They began to weep, hugging her and speaking with her, one by one. More family members began arriving, and soon the hospital room was filled with people, men, women and children. More arrived, squeezing into the room and spilling out into the hallway. I did not count them, but I am sure there were above fifty people. Many were weeping, and the sounds of their grief carried out to the rest of the hospital ward. I stood by the window, trying to make room for the family.

The doctor entered the room, making his way through the throng. He stood at the side of the bed, turning to the weeping family members.

“Please, please,” he said, gesturing with his hands to calm them, “Mrs. Khalida is not dying. She has been discharged from the hospital. She’s very healthy, let me assure you. You can take her home now.”

Mrs. Khalida said something in her language, and the weeping grew louder. A woman sitting next to her on the bed let out a great, mournful wail. The doctor looked at me, questioning. I shrugged my shoulders. There was nothing I could do but watch. The doctor turned to Mrs. Khalida.

“Ma’am, you really must leave. You’re upsetting your family.”

Mrs. Khalida spoke to the woman sitting next to her. The woman stood up and Mrs. Khalida lifted her legs onto the bed, lying down.

“I told you, Doctor,” she said. “It is my time to die.”

The weeping intensified. The woman standing nearby began wailing again. The family members in the hallway also began weeping. The doctor looked helplessly around him, and imploringly at me. I shook my head. I could not help him. Mrs. Khalida reached out and held the hand of the wailing woman. She smiled up at her family and said a few words in her native tongue. Then she simply closed her eyes.

I watched as her steady, rhythmic breathing became more and more shallow, becoming erratic as minutes passed by, the muscles of her diaphragm moving in and out, her lungs barely drawing in air. This was Cheyne Stokes breathing, almost always present at the natural end of life. The heart would continue to beat, pumping air from the lungs to the body for as long as it could, but the oxygen in her lungs was not enough to sustain life.  I pulled her socks off and saw the tell-tale signs of mottling, purple and edematous ankles, a pooling of blood and body fluids; another sign that death was near. I looked up at the doctor. He stared down at the tiny Chamorro woman who was in the middle of Cheyne Stokes breathing. His face was pale. He looked up at me with wide eyes. I pointed to her ankles. He looked down at the mottling in her ankles and shook his head in bewilderment. He took out his stethoscope and listened to her heart, looking up at me as he did.

“Is she DNR?” I said. DNR or Do Not Resuscitate was an order to not perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation in the event of death.

The doctor nodded.

“She signed one when she was admitted. I tried to talk her out of it.”

We watched, the family weeping around us, the doctor, a man of science, baffled by what he was seeing, until Mrs. Khalida took one final gasp of air and relinquished it, a rattling sound coming from deep within her lungs. The doctor placed the end of his stethoscope above Mrs. Khalida’s heart and listened to her apical pulse, his eyes on his wrist watch to mark the exact time of death. Moments later, he nodded. Mrs. Khalida’s time had come.

I visited the Boonies once more before leaving the island. I placed a hand on one of the trees at the edge of the forest, and asked permission to enter from the Taotaomona. There was no answer, save the rustling of leaves in the tree above me.

“Thank you,” I said, taking the rustling of leaves as permission.

I stepped out into the forest, feeling much safer, having asked and received permission from the spirit of the island. After all, if I had learned anything, it was that science did not have all the answers. Perhaps much could be learned from the natives of the island of Guam, whose ancestors had lived there from time before recorded history. Perhaps there are some things about life that science does not have an answer for. Things about life, and, as Mrs. Khalida had proved to me and the young doctor, things about death.

WHEN THE CLERK CAME TO WORK


Inmateghost22

A PRISON GHOST STORY

“It really happened, Taylor,” Kellogg said. He sat behind his desk in the Facility Three Yard program office of the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility. He wore the bravo class uniform of a correctional sergeant, khaki shirt with three stripes on each arm, depicting his rank, and a black uniform ball cap to cover his brown, thinning hair. I sat across from him, leaning back in a chair, one booted foot on the desk. “I don’t expect you to believe me, but I was there. I saw him with my own eyes.”

It was first watch, the graveyard shift. The inmates were locked up for the night, and the prison was staffed by a skeleton crew. What better time was there to tell ghost stories?

Prisons are replete with tales of supernatural apparitions, purported to be the spirits of murdered inmates, or officers who spend their lives after death eternally haunting the halls of their former places of employment. During my academy training as a correctional officer cadet, I worked a short time at Old Folsom, the second oldest prison in the state. The stories there revolved around the spirits of inmates hanged for murder. A warehouse stands now where the gallows used to be. Officers on first watch were required to conduct security checks of the facility. New officers often reported they heard men weeping and wailing in the old warehouse. Experienced officers either stopped reporting the sounds or stopped entering the warehouse altogether. Another tale at Old Folsom prison had to do with a certain housing unit. Officers routinely counted inmates and grew accustomed to the idea that, in that housing unit, they were never alone during count. They felt the presence of an unseen officer walking the tiers with them, and even heard the jingling of his keys.

“I don’t know, Kellogg,” I said. “I’m not calling you a liar, but this place can do funny things to a man’s senses. And you did say you were sleeping.”

“Yeah, I was sleeping, “Kellogg said, “but I was awake when I saw him. He was there, as real as you are, standing on the second tier, looking down at the dayroom floor.”

“What did he look like?”

“He looked like an inmate. He was a white guy, covered in tattoos. Even on his face. He was wearing his blues. I thought he had gotten out of his cell somehow. I’m just glad I didn’t think to notify central control. They would’ve thought I was crazy.”

As the story went, it happened when Kellogg was still an officer, working overtime in the control booth of housing unit seventeen on Facility Four. The control booth was a large room in the second story of the housing unit, with thick, unbreakable windows. The control booth officer provided gun coverage for the yard from his back window, and coverage for the officers inside the housing unit through slots in his front windows. He also controlled the opening and closing of the housing unit and cell doors from a panel on his desk. During the day, it was a busy job, but at night, when the inmates were locked in their cells, it was one of the easiest jobs in the prison. And an officer, especially an officer on overtime, could find himself struggling to stay awake. Kellogg had succumbed to the struggle that night, and was fast asleep.

“Something woke me up,” Kellogg said, “I felt like someone was up in the control booth with me. I didn’t see anyone, but I felt it. I got up and looked around, but no one was there. I looked out at the dayroom, and there he was, clear as day, leaning against the second tier railing, just staring down at the dayroom floor. I shouted at him, but he ignored me. I called down to the officers, but they were sleeping in their office. They wouldn’t wake up. The inmate started walking toward cell 217, and I started shouting at him again. He never even looked at me. He got to the cell door, but didn’t stop walking. Taylor, man, I’m telling you, he walked right through the cell door like it wasn’t even there. I don’t know what to think of it, but I know it happened.”

“And you don’t think it was a dream?” I said.

“No dream,” Kellogg said. “When my shift was over in the morning, I left the control booth and went to cell 217. There were two inmates locked up in there. I talked to them.”

“What did they say?”

“That’s the thing,” Kellogg said. “At first they didn’t want to talk to me. They thought I would think they were crazy. When they did talk, they told me they woke up and saw an inmate, the same inmate, standing in their cell, staring out their back window. And, just like that, he was gone. He was there one second, and gone the next.”

I took Sergeant Kellogg’s story with the proverbial grain of salt. I did not dismiss it outright. Who am I, after all, to judge another man’s ghost story? But to say I believed it would not be entirely true. I had witnessed many unexplainable events in my life, and tried to keep my mind open to possibilities, but I also nurtured a healthy cynicism.

Another strange event happened in the prison infirmary. I wasn’t a witness to it, but I talked to the doctor and nurses involved, who swore to me that it happened. Inmates with severe medical issues were kept in cells that were basically hospital rooms, equipped with medical beds and televisions. A man convicted of serial rape was dying. He was a belligerent old inmate, rude and caustic, especially to the female staff members. He was in the last few minutes of life, and was still conscious. He looked up at the television from where he was lying in bed, and cried out in fear. Scrolling on the bottom of the screen were the words, YOU ARE GOING TO HELL. The Doctor was in the room with two nurses. They changed the channel, but the words remained on the bottom of the screen. YOU ARE GOING TO HELL. The inmate took his final breath, staring up at the television screen. Perhaps the story was true. Perhaps not. I kept an open mind.

It wasn’t until I had an experience of my own that I decided Sergeant Kellogg may have really seen a ghost. It happened to me. It happened when the clerk came to work.

There were many jobs in prison for inmates. Inmates were cooks, they worked in the laundry, as porters in the housing units and a variety of other positions. Being an inmate clerk required intelligence. To be the lieutenant’s clerk required even greater intelligence. The lieutenant’s clerk had to be knowledgeable of yard procedures, and had to be able to read and write well. When a yard discovered an inmate with these capabilities they held on to them. Most lieutenant’s clerks had long sentences, and many held the same job for ten years or more. The Facility One lieutenant’s clerk, Inmate Jensen, had been the clerk for at least fifteen years. He was an older man with gray hair, a pale complexion and bifocals. He was quiet and unobtrusive, never out of line with the officers, but was always professional and courteous. He became part of the furniture, so to speak, his presence so common in the program office that he often went unnoticed. He had been convicted at the age of thirty for murdering his wife’s lover after catching them together in his bed. He was in his sixties, and had spent more time in prison than he had lived outside prison. His life inside the wall was routine. He got up every morning, put on a clean, pressed inmate uniform, waited for the control booth officer to open his cell, then headed to the program office. Five days a week, every week for more than fifteen years. He never talked about paroling. Like many lifers, I am sure he hoped to one day be free. But Inmate Jenkins would spend the rest of his life in prison.

The rest of his life. And one more day.

It was early on a Monday morning. I entered the Facility One Program office. I was scheduled to work as one of the yard officers, and grabbed my equipment, baton, pepper spray, radio, keys, from the equipment locker. I barely noticed when Inmate Jenkins entered. He looked around, and seemed a bit confused. I was too busy donning my equipment to pay much attention. He headed back to his work station, an alcove just down the hallway with an electric typewriter on a large wooden desk. I finished cinching up my duty belt and keying the microphone on my radio to make sure the battery was charged. Inmate Jenkins left his work area, the same look of vague confusion on his pale face. He walked to the front door of the program, which was propped open for the officers to come and go, and stepped out onto the yard. I checked the schedule of duties, which was posted to the wall, to see what extra duties I had to perform.

I heard shouting from one of the first watch officers at the back of the program.

“No freaking way!” he yelled.

I stepped out into the hallway to see what was going on. The officer, a middle-aged Hispanic man, was staring from where he stood at the end of the hallway, out through the open door. His eyes were wide with surprise, and not a little fear. I followed his gaze to the empty yard.

“What’s happening?” I said.

“Jenkins, man. I just saw Jenkins!”

“Doing what?” I said. I looked out at the yard, but did not see inmate Jenkins.

“You don’t get it! He’s not supposed to be doing anything.”

I scanned the yard again. No inmate Jenkins. Where could he have gone?

“I don’t see him at all,” I said.

“Taylor,” the officer said, exasperated, “Jenkins is dead. He died at the infirmary last night!”

I looked at the officer, sure he was messing with me. I grinned.

“Okay,” I said, “Jenkins is dead. Go on. I just saw him a minute ago.”

The officer stepped out onto the yard, looking around. He shook his head.

“I don’t get it, man,” he said. “They told me he was dead.”

“Well,” I said, “they told you wrong. Maybe it was another Jenkins.”

He thought about it, looking at the empty yard. He nodded to himself.

“Yeah. I guess so. That has to be it…”

“Here,” I said, “come with me.”

I entered the program office and he followed. Sitting down at the computer, I put in my password and logged onto SOMS, the information system for officers. I searched for Inmate Jenkins on Facility One. His information flashed on my screen, his housing unit and photo identification. I checked his status. It showed he had discharged from prison the day before. I looked up at the officer, who stared over my shoulder at the computer screen. His mouth was open. His eyes were wide. There, directly under Inmate Jenkin’s photo were the following words: Status- Discharged. Cause- Death. Location- Office of the Coroner, San Diego County. Inmate Jenkins was not only dead, he was discharged to the San Diego County Coroner’s Office.

His body was in the morgue.

Occasionally, I read articles in the newspaper or watch news stories about people convicted of heinous crimes. Some are sentenced to life, some to life plus fifty years. I worked with inmates who were sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. We all assumed they would leave the prison when their first life sentence was over. After all, a man has only one life to give. But now I wonder whether that is entirely true. How many inmates served their sentences of life, only to find they had a lot more time to do?

CONGRESSMAN FOR A DAY


Capitol-DramaticSmallI sat in relative darkness in a compartment located within the sides of the hovercraft, surrounded by marines, some in olive drab green uniforms, others in casual civilian clothes. My own attire, a black suit, white dress shirt and blue tie, was incongruous even in the dim light. No one spoke. Marines were accustomed to odd ways of travel and most were already settling down for the short ride in the dim light to the USS Essex, a United States Navy ship anchored in the Pacific Ocean a few miles out from Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California. We waited expectantly for the large engines of the hovercraft to come to life, lifting the large craft on currents of air, above the sand and ocean water, to the waiting ship. The hovercraft was very large, capable of carrying full size, five-ton trucks parked in several rows, plus tanks and other heavy military gear. A knock sounded on the metal hatch and a marine corps staff sergeant opened it from the outside. Sunlight flooded the compartment.

“Is there a United States congressman down here?” The staff sergeant asked. He looked at me, taking in my suit and tie. “Sir, are you a United States congressman?”

“That would be me,” I said.

“Your presence is requested by the commodore, Sir. Will you please come with me?”

I exited the compartment, blinking in the bright sunlight, and followed the staff sergeant along the gray metal deck of the craft, up a short flight of stairs to the cockpit of the hovercraft. The staff sergeant opened the hatch and motioned for me to enter. A navy captain sat in one of two seats behind the two pilots. A marine corps captain sat next to him. Now, a navy captain and a marine corps captain are not the same rank. For some reason known to military historians, but which I never fully grasped, navy and coast guard officers have a different rank structure than the other armed services. A lieutenant in the navy is equal to a captain in the marine corps and share the same silver double-bar rank insignia. A colonel in the marine corps is equal in rank to a captain in the navy, and they share the same silver eagle insignia. In this case, the grizzled, white-haired navy captain in his khaki uniform, with the silver eagles on his collars and cover, outranked the young marine corps captain by three ranks. At the time, a navy captain with the responsibilities of an admiral was called a commodore. The commodore was the commander, or flag officer, of not only the USS Essex, but of all the ships in the area. I entered the cockpit. The staff sergeant announced my presence.

“Commodore, the United States congressman, as you ordered, Sir.” His duty performed, the staff sergeant turned and headed down to join his marines. The Commodore turned in his seat and looked me over. He motioned to the marine corps captain sitting next to him.

“Captain, there is a United States congressman on board. Give him your seat, please.”

The marine corps captain was also looking at me. I was a young man, just shy of twenty-four years old. My brown hair was longer than the marines wore it. Truth be told, it was longer than even navy regulations allowed for. I was wearing a civilian suit, as I had been ordered to. The marine corps captain frowned.

“But he’s not a real congressman, Commodore. This is just an exercise,” he said.

The commodore turned hard eyes on the marine corps captain.

“That’s true, Captain. He is not a real congressman.”  He spoke slowly, punctuating every word. “But…I…am…a…real…commodore.”

The marine corps captain turned from me, hearing the sudden coolness in the commodore’s voice. He looked at the commodore, dropping his eyes immediately when he saw his intense stare. He stood up from his seat and came to the position of attention, arms at his side.

“Yes, Commodore,” he said. He turned and exited the cockpit through the hatch without another word, making his way to the compartments below. The commodore watched him as he went, before turning his attention back to me. He nodded toward the vacant seat.

“Please join me, if you will, Mister Congressman,” he said. I sat down next to him, looking out the window of the cockpit at the beach, and the silhouette of the USS Essex on the ocean’s horizon. “You’re not a marine, I think,” he said, “not with that haircut, anyway. Navy, I take it?”

“Yes, Sir. I’m a corpsman, attached to the marines.”

“Ah, a field medic. Great group of folks. Well, Doc,” he said, breaking into a grin, “today you’re not a corpsman. You’re a congressman.”

Moments later, the great engines sprang to life, throwing sand in every direction, lifting the hovercraft on powerful currents of air. The pilots turned the vehicle toward the USS Essex, and it glided forward, off the beach, large fans at the rear of the craft propelling it forward and out into the ocean. It hovered several feet above the water, headed toward the ship. The commodore turned to me again, raising his voice to be heard above the cacophony of the engines and ocean spray.

“I’ll bet you’ve had a heck of a day, young man.”

“Yes, Commodore,” I said, “I certainly have.”

“It’s about to get even more interesting.” He called up to the pilots. “Radio the USS Essex. Inform them the flag officer is boarding with a United States congressman.”

I listened as one of the pilots obediently radioed the USS Essex, informing them the flag officer would soon be boarding with a United States congressman. I knew from experience the message would be relayed over speakers to every part of the ship. They would be ready for the flag officer to board with a United States congressman; the real flag officer and, they would presume, a real congressman. Either event, the arrival of the flag officer, or the arrival of a high ranking political figure, was important. Both events would send much of the ship into a flurry of preparation and expectation. As the silhouette of the ship grew nearer, I thought over the events that had led me to where I was, sitting next to the commodore, being hailed as a United States congressman. It certainly had been a heck of a day.

It all started the day before. I had returned from Somalia in July of 1994 with the USS Peleliu and the Eleventh Marine Expeditionary Unit a week earlier. A hundred or more marines were pulled from my command to help train the unit which would be headed to Somalia in about five months.  A marine corps first lieutenant, the name R. Bramble stitched in black on the name-strip above the right pocket of his uniform, handpicked several marines from my unit. He wore the typical camouflage uniform of a marine, but a band of white tape encircled the border of his cover. He was much older than his rank suggested. He was tan, in his late thirties, with a small beer belly, something rarely seen on marines. He was what we called a “mustang,” an officer who began his career as an enlisted man, rising through the ranks to become an officer. He held a clipboard with a list in front of him and made marks on the list with a pen. He pointed to several marines.

“You will be American civilians,” he said. He looked down at the clipboard. “I need members of the press.” He studied the marines, pointing to two of them standing nearby. “You and you,” he said. “Make sure to come looking like members of the press.” He looked down at the clipboard again. “Okay. I need a United States congressman.” He scanned the marines around me, then looked me over. “Doc,” he said, “you have the hair for it. You got a suit and tie?”

“Yes, Sir,” I said.

“Good. Then you’ve just been elected. Congratulations, Mr. Congressman.” He raised his voice and spoke to the gathered marines. “Remember, zero-seven-hundred tomorrow. Come dressed to fit your parts.” He pointed to the white band of tape encircling his cover. “The monitors will be wearing white bands. They’re in charge. What they say goes. Remember, we train as true to real life as we possibly can. With that said, you’re dismissed until tomorrow morning.”

He turned to me as the others started leaving.

“Hold on a minute, Doc.”

“Yes, Sir?”

“You won the lottery, Doc,” he said. “You have the most important part to play. You up to it?”

“Yes, Sir,” I said. “I believe so.”

“Good.” He said. “I’ll tell you more tomorrow, but for now just know you’re in the role of an arrogant, military hating United States congressman with a diva complex. You understand? I want you to be demanding, and I want you to be rude to pretty much everyone, regardless of rank. You think you can pull that off?”

“Yes, Sir,” I said, grinning at the thought of how fun that might be. “I will give it my best.”

I spent much of that evening ironing my shirt, polishing my dress shoes, and getting the wrinkles out of my only suit. I have to admit, though, when I arrived early the following morning at the headquarters of the Fifteenth Marine Expeditionary Unit, an older white building left over from around the days of World War Two, as hard as I had tried, I simply looked too young to be a congressman. Lieutenant Bramble saw me getting out of my car. He waved to me from a large group of marines, most in civilian dress. The two marines he had designated to be members of the press wore dress shirts, slacks and ties. One held a microphone and the other carried a large television camera. Several other monitors, most officers, the white strips of tape encircling their covers, were busy giving instructions to the other pretend civilians.

“Over here, Mr. Congressman,” the lieutenant called, already falling into the pretense of the training. He examined my suit and tie and smiled. “You really look the part, Doc. A regular member of the Kennedy family. You ready to go?”

“Yes, Sir,” I said.

“Let’s go, then.” He stepped onto a small platform near the headquarters entrance and raised his voice. “Listen up!” He waited for the chatter around us to die down. “Alright, marines,” he said once he had their attention, “you should all know your roles by now. If you do not, get with one of the monitors. The scenario is simple. You are American civilians in a war-torn foreign country. The United States has deemed that all Americans are in danger and are providing transportation out of the area. This is an evacuation of civilians. The rules are simple. Do whatever the monitors tell you to do. If they tell you a bomb went off next to you, then lie down and die. If they tell you you’re a secret terrorist, then terrorize. Are there any questions?”

A few murmurs of “no, Sir,” and “no, Lieutenant” answered him.

“Good,” he said, nodding to one of the other monitors, “then let the war games begin.”

The exercise started. Marines from the Fifteenth Marine Expeditionary Unit exited the building, accompanied by a gaggle of monitors. The Executive officer, the officer second in position to the commanding officer, a dignified looking major, stood on the small platform and gave a short speech and instructions, informing the “civilians” of the danger of staying in a war-torn country, and the process by which they would be evacuated. The plan, he said, was to transport the civilians by buses to hovercrafts, which would then carry them to the USS Essex. He explained that, for the protection of everyone, all persons were subject to search, and would be guarded until they were deemed safe.  Until that time, they would be kept in a holding area. Lieutenant Bramble, who was standing behind the major, whispered something in his ear. The major looked at me.

“We have a United States congressman with us,” he said. “Sir, would you care to say a few words?”

I looked up at Lieutenant Bramble, who grinned widely at me, motioning to the platform. I joined the major on the platform and smiled my best politician smile at the “civilians” and the “news team,” who aimed their camera up at me. I gave a short impromptu speech, encouraging the “civilians,” who were going through such a difficult and frightening experience, and thanking the American Embassy and the United States Marine Corps for their service and help. I ended my speech as I had seen politicians end speeches on television,

“Thank you,” I said. “May God bless you, and may God bless America.” The “civilians” clapped after my speech, and I heard a couple of whistles, no doubt from marines who knew me personally. The major gave instructions to his marines, who began rounding up the “civilians.” He turned to me.

“Mr. Congressman, please come with me, Sir. The colonel is waiting to meet you.” I followed him, along with marines armed with M-16 rifles, the “news team,” and the monitors, into the headquarters building. Lieutenant Bramble put his hand on my shoulder and spoke conspiratorially in my ear.

“Good job so far, Doc. But remember, you’re rude and you hate the military.”

“Got it, Sir,” I said.

The major led me into a foyer and asked me to wait while he notified the colonel I was there. Moments later, the colonel exited his office with the major, and joined me in the foyer. The colonel was a stately man, near retirement age. His close-cropped hair was more gray than brown. His green, bravo class uniform was impeccably pressed and the silver eagles on his collars and shoulders were brightly polished. The left side of his chest was covered with ribbons, depicting the campaigns and accomplishments of his long career. He was a “full bird” colonel, a term used because of the existence of the lieutenant colonel rank, a rank lower than colonel, depicted by silver maple leaves instead of silver eagles, or “birds.” This was a man whose very presence, not to mention military discipline, commanded respect. One discipline ingrained in me at the time was to never turn my back on a “full bird” colonel. Never. The major motioned to me and, by way of introduction, said,

“Colonel Blackman, this is Congressman Taylor.” He turned toward me. “Mr. Congressman, please meet Colonel Blackman, the commanding officer of the Fifteenth Marine Expeditionary Unit.” The colonel held out his hand for me to shake. I turned my back to him. I felt him grow tense behind me. A marine corps sergeant was standing nearby. His name-tape identified him as Sergeant Barnes. He was a stocky marine in his late twenties. I learned later his men called him Tex. He was dressed in his camouflage uniform.

“Corporal Barnes,” I said, purposely demoting him in rank, “I need a cup of coffee.”

The sergeant turned red in the face.

“I am a sergeant of marines,” he said. His voice was deep and somnolent. He spoke with a southern accent. “I’m not a corporal.”

“I am not interested in your rank,” I said. “I don’t know anything about the army.” Being associated with the army seemed to agitate him more than being called a corporal. “And I don’t care to learn,” I said.  I looked menacingly at the sergeant, speaking through clinched teeth. “What I do want is a cup…of…coffee.”

The sergeant looked like he was preparing to have a seizure. His hands clenched in fists at his sides. He shook visibly, struggling to maintain military discipline. Perhaps to protect me from being assaulted, one of the monitors stepped forward.

“Do it, Sergeant,” he said. “Get the congressman a cup of coffee.”

The sergeant nodded curtly. He collected what remained of his bearing and turned stiffly on his heels, walking away. I heard him tell a junior marine to brew a pot of coffee. I turned back to the colonel whose hand was still waiting to shake mine. I looked down at his outstretched hand, and, ignoring it, decided to push my luck.

“Colonel,” I said, “I require an office and a phone that can reach Washington. Your office will do just fine.”

The colonel was a study in composure. He simply nodded his head in acquiescence.

“Absolutely, Mr. Congressman. Please make yourself welcome.” Beckoning me to follow him, he led me to his office, and opened the door. His office was large, decorated with photos and memorials of his long career in the marines. Photos of his family stood atop his wooden desk. “There’s the telephone,” he said, pointing to the phone. “Dial nine to call out.” I sat down in his chair, leaning back as far as it would recline, and placed a foot on the colonel’s desk. “My office is your office,” the colonel continued, unruffled, “I’m sure the sergeant will have coffee for you soon, and if there is anything else you need, please notify any member of my staff. My senior staff and I are preparing for your evacuation, and I will inform you of the details as soon as possible.”

I picked up the phone.

“Thank you, Colonel,” I said, nodding toward the door, “you’re dismissed. Close the door on your way out. I have an important call to make.”

The colonel turned and left, joining the monitors and marines in the hallway. He closed the door, leaving me alone in the office. I placed my other foot on the desk and looked around me, thinking about how one could get used to this kind of treatment. I put the phone down, having no one to actually call. The door opened, and Lieutenant Bramble stuck his head in. He grinned at me.

“You enjoying yourself yet, Doc?”

“Yes, Sir,” I said. “I hope I didn’t overdo it with the colonel.”

Lieutenant Bramble shook his head.

“Don’t you worry about that. You’re doing fine, just fine.” He entered the office and closed the door behind him. “I think it’s time to ramp it up a bit. The colonel’s going to meet with you in the conference room. He’ll tell you his plan to get you out of the country. But, Doc, whatever he tells you, you’re going to disagree with. Got it?’ I nodded. “Good,” he said. “Now what you’re going to do is demand a van to transport you.  You will also demand two light armored infantry vehicles to accompany you as escorts. Tell the colonel you don’t want to wait in traffic, and he has to close down all the roads from here to Del Mar. Understood?”

“Yes, Sir,” I said.

“And add to it if you want. Don’t make it easy for him.”

“Got it, Sir,” I said.

He opened the door to leave. Sergeant Barnes entered carrying a Styrofoam cup of black coffee. He placed it on the desk and turned to leave without saying a word. “Corporal,” I said, stopping him, “I take my coffee with cream and sugar.”

The sergeant grew red in the face. He looked at Lieutenant Bramble, who simply nodded at him.

“Yes, Sir,” the sergeant said. He picked up the cup of coffee and left. Lieutenant Bramble gave me a wink and followed him out, closing the door behind him. I sat alone in the office for a few minutes before the door opened again. A private entered, carrying a Styrofoam cup with my coffee, now made with cream and sugar. He placed it on the desk and turned to leave.

“And where is Corporal Barnes? He was supposed to bring my coffee,” I said.

“He ordered me to bring it to you, Sir,” the young marine said, “and he’s a sergeant, Sir, not a corporal.” The private, a tall lanky young man with a “high and tight” haircut, kept his eyes down to the ground. I wondered if he realized I was only playing at being a congressman.

“Is that right? Well, do me a favor and let the sergeant know I’m displeased.”

“Yes, Sir,” he said, leaving.

I dipped a finger in the cup.

“And this coffee is lukewarm, Marine. I will need another one.”

“Yes, Sir,” he said, “right away.”

Before the private could return with the coffee, the major entered the office with two monitors.

“Mr. Congressman,” the major said, “Colonel Blackman is ready to meet with you in the conference room.” Ignoring the major, I leaned back in the colonel’s desk chair and placed both of my feet on the wooden desk. I picked up the phone and pretended to make a call, my fingers hitting random numbers. “Mr. Congressman…” the major started again. I held up a hand to silence him, pretending to reach someone on the phone.

“Yes, this is Senator Taylor (if I were a pretend congressman, I may as well be a senator). I need to speak directly to the Joint Chief of Staff. What’s it about? Well, it’s about certain army personnel under his command who don’t seem to understand that I am a very important person. Yes. I will wait.”

I sat for around thirty seconds, my ear pressed to the phone. The major stood quietly, looking intermittently between me and the monitors. To his credit, he kept his cool admirably.

“Yes, hello, General,” I said into the phone, addressing the imaginary Joint Chief of Staff, “this is Senator Taylor. I want to talk to you about some of your personnel. Yes, General, Oh, doing fine, just fine…and how are you? Are the wife and kids well? Good. Good to hear. Yes, well, I’m at the US Embassy in this God forsaken country. I’m surrounded by members of the army. Well, okay, marines then…”

I looked up at the marines standing patiently in the office.

“I can’t tell the difference, General. But my issue is they seem to think I’m just a common person. I haven’t even been able to get a cup of coffee without them complaining. Yes… complaining about giving a United States congressman a cup of coffee. Can you believe that? And it’s not only that…it’s just that…well…they’re just so militant…uh huh…yes…I know they are military…yes, General…you will talk to them? Okay. I appreciate your help. I will see you in a month at the gala…Bye now…”

I hung up the phone and turned to the major.

“Major,” I said. “I am ready to meet the colonel in the conference room.”

I followed the major and the monitors out of the colonel’s office to the conference room. Colonel Blackman sat at the middle of the long, wooden conference table, with several officers to each side of him. The monitors hovered nearby, as I entered. The “news team” stood to one side of the room, their camera aimed at the conference table. The seat at the head of the table was empty, and I took it without waiting to be invited. The colonel nodded at me,

“Mr. Congressman…” he began. I held up my hand, and he stopped talking.

“A cup of coffee, Colonel,” I said. “I’ve been here all morning and have not been able to get a decent cup of coffee. Just what kind of Mickey Mouse operation are you running here?”

The colonel turned to one of his officers.

“Get the congressman a cup of coffee,” he said. The officer he spoke to stood up and headed out the door.

“Cream and two sugars,” I called to the officer.

“Mr. Congressman,” the colonel said, “if I may go over the evacuation plans with you…”

I looked at the colonel.

“Certainly, you may, Colonel,” I said, “just as soon as I have my cup of coffee.” I waited, looking at the door. The colonel looked up at the monitors, as if asking for help. One of the monitors shrugged his shoulders. After a couple minutes, the officer returned and placed a Styrofoam cup of coffee on the table in front of me.

“Mr. Congressman… if we can now…” the colonel began.

I held up a finger, focusing on the cup in front of me. With all the bravado I could muster, I held my finger above the coffee. The colonel looked befuddled. The officer who had delivered my coffee waited in pregnant silence. Slowly, dramatically, I dipped my forefinger in the coffee. Satisfied with the temperature, I lifted the cup to my lips and took a sip.

“This,” I announced to the waiting officer and everyone else in the room, “is a spectacular cup of coffee.” The officer looked relieved. The colonel shook his head.

“Then perhaps we can get down to business, Mr. Congressman?” The colonel said.

“Absolutely, Colonel,” I said. “Let’s get down to business.”

The colonel laid a map of Camp Pendleton and the surrounding areas in front of me.

“As you know, Sir, we are in a dangerous area, and we need to evacuate you.” He placed a finger on the map near our location. “We have a bus leaving in about an hour or so. The bus will take you and other evacuees from here,” his finger trailed along the map from our location to the beach, “to a waiting hovercraft. You will board the hovercraft, which will transport you to the USS Essex.”

I took a sip of coffee.

“A bus?” I said. “Let me get this straight, Colonel. Your plan is to put a United States congressman on a bus with…” I sniffed as if smelling something bad, “with common people?”

“Well, yes, Mr. Congressman,” the Colonel said.

“Well, no, Colonel,” I said. The colonel stared at me. For the first time his unflappable facade began to crack. His face turned a light shade of pink. “That is unless you want to come to Washington with me to explain why you treated a very important person, such as myself, like any other evacuee.”

“Now you listen to me…” he said.

“No, Colonel,” I said, “you listen to me. This is what you’re going to do. I want my own private vehicle. A van will do. I want American flags on the front of the vehicle and I want it to be nice and cool inside. Oh, and I want refreshments.”

“But…” the colonel sputtered.

“I’m not finished, Colonel,” I said, overriding his protests. “I will need security befitting someone of my political status. What do you call the armored vehicles that look like tanks? Light armored infantry something or another…”

“Light armored infantry vehicles?” The colonel said, staring at me in disbelief.

“That’s it,” I said. “I want two of those, one to guard my front and the other to guard my back.” I pointed to the map. “You will also have to close down the roads all the way to the beach,” I said. “That, Colonel, is what you’re going to do.”

The colonel stared at me, speechless. I stared back. He turned to the monitors with a questioning look.  Lieutenant Bramble whispered something to the colonel. The colonel looked back at me.

“Yes, Mr. Congressman,” he said, suddenly resigned to my demands, “but this will take more than an hour.”

I stood up.

“Then I’ll be in your office, Colonel,” I said. I took a last long sip of coffee and placed the cup on the table. “And I will need another cup of coffee.”

I returned to the colonel’s office and waited. Every fifteen minutes or so, I stuck my head out the door and asked whatever marine happened to be close by to bring me a cup of coffee. Soon, several cups of coffee, many untouched, littered the colonel’s desk. Finally, after a couple hours passed, Sergeant Barnes opened the office door and stuck his head in.

“Mr. Congressman,” he said, “your transportation will be here in fifteen minutes.”

I propped a foot on the colonel’s desk, and leaned back, clasping my fingers behind my head.

“Good, Barnes,” I said, “that means you have time to get me another cup of coffee.”

The sergeant’s face turned red again.

“Yes, Sir,” he said, reluctantly. He turned and closed the door just a bit too hard.  I heard him cursing to himself through the wooden door.

Ten minutes later, the door opened again. Sergeant Barnes entered first, proffering a Styrofoam cup of coffee. He was followed immediately by the colonel, a couple of his officers, Lieutenant Bramble and a few other monitors. I motioned to the coffee cups littering the colonel’s desk and addressed Sergeant Barnes,

“Put it with the others,” I said. Barnes placed the coffee cup on the desk.

“Mr. Congressman,” the colonel said, “your transportation is here, Sir.”

I stood up from his desk chair.

“Good,” I said. “You will probably want your office back, then.”

“Yes, Mr. Congressman,” he said, “if you wouldn’t mind.”

I waved a hand toward his desk.

“You should probably get someone in here to clean up this mess,” I said.

I followed the colonel and his entourage to the front of the headquarters building. Around fifty or so marines, some in uniform, others pretending to be civilians, were standing nearby, watching as we exited the building. A white van waited outside, flags mounted to each side of the hood. A marine sat in the driver’s seat, the engine still running. Two green light armored infantry vehicles accompanied the van, one in front of the van and one behind. They were large, green tank-like vehicles with mounted fifty caliber machine guns. The van driver exited the van when he saw us. He opened the sliding side door. Cool air escaped the inside of the van. He must have dropped by a convenience store, because the rear of the vehicle was loaded with snacks, bags of chips, and cool drinks. Soft jazz was playing through the speakers. The news crew aimed a camera at me, and I decided to give a speech. I stood at the side of the van, facing the camera, the colonel and his entourage of marines. I raised my voice to be heard by the entire throng of marines, trying my best to sound like a typical pontificating politician.

“I want to take a moment to thank the colonel for the use of his office,” I said. “I will be sure to mention his hospitality to the Joint Chief of Staff when I return to Washington. I want to thank you all for making me feel at home. You are a fine group of marines.” I looked at Sergeant Barnes, “Even Corporal Barnes,” I said, “who finally learned to make a good cup of coffee. Thank you all for your service to this country.” I gave them my best slick politician smile. “God bless you,” I said, “and may God bless America.” Several marines clapped. The colonel smiled, looking decidedly pleased I was leaving.

Turning from the applause, I entered the back seat of the van. The driver was a marine from the base motor pool who recognized me from my many interactions with different groups of marines. He was Hispanic, in a Charlie class uniform.

“I hope you know where were going,” I said.

“I got you, Doc. We’re headed to Del Mar. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.” He shook his head.  “They even shut down all the roads for us. Crazy.”

The light armored infantry vehicle in front of us pulled out. My driver followed. The second light armored infantry vehicle followed behind us. The procession was slow going, the tank-like vehicles not being built for speed. I opened a soda and a bag of chips. Del Mar, a part of the base close to the beach, was about twelve miles away. We entered Rattle Snake Canyon Road. Military police vehicles were parked at the entrance to the road. A military policeman was standing outside, holding up traffic for us. The sight of my small procession of light armored infantry vehicles and a white van, flying American flags, was a real spectacle. Drivers, stopped in their vehicles, were staring, trying to catch a glimpse of whoever was so important he needed such protection even on a military base. Not wanting to let anyone down, I began waving my best politician wave and smiling as we passed by. The drivers craned their necks trying to see who I was. A few returned my wave. Some honked their horns. We turned off Rattlesnake Canyon Road to Vandegrift Boulevard, which led several miles toward the main gate and Del Mar area. Vandegrift Boulevard was also shut completely down. Military police vehicles blocked traffic in both directions. I smiled and waved at the halted vehicles which numbered in the hundreds, Vandegrift Boulevard being an extremely busy street. Finally, we reached Del Mar area. Field Medical Service School, one of the two schools for training corpsman to serve with the marines, was located at Del Mar. Being a graduate of the school, I was very familiar with the area. One of the buses the colonel had originally planned to put me on was parked near the entrance to Del Mar. Still playing the game, the civilian-dressed marines were walking. I learned later that their part of the story involved the bus running over a landmine, and they had to walk the last mile and a half or so to the hovercraft. I smiled and waved at the walking marines. None returned my wave.  Following the light armored infantry vehicle in front of us, we passed Field Medical Service School and pulled of the paved street to a dirt road, leading down to the beach. Several gray metal hovercrafts waited for us near the beach, their engines shut down. Navy personnel were searching the arriving “civilians” for weapons and guiding them to one of the several hovercrafts. The light armored infantry vehicle pulled up to one of the hovercrafts. My driver parked, exited the vehicle and opened my door to let me out.

“Mr. Congressman,” he said.

“Not anymore,” I said. “I think the games pretty well over, don’t you?”

I walked toward the waiting hovercraft. My driver walked with me. One of the navy men, a low ranking, young enlisted man in blue coveralls, guided me to an area where others were being searched for weapons. He started the procedure to search me for weapons. My driver stopped him.

“You can’t search a United States Congressman,” he said. “Don’t you know who this is?”

The young sailor looked up at me. He appeared confused, unsure of the procedure for dealing with someone of my purported, pretend political stature. I made it easy for him.

“If you lay one hand on me,” I said, “you will have to give an answer why. And it might be difficult to explain why you chose to manhandle a member of the United States congress.”

“I guess…” he said.

“You guess right,” my driver answered.

“Okay then,” the young sailor said, “follow me.” He led me to the rear of the hovercraft, and to the lower compartment half-filled with marines. “Take a seat in there. We should be leaving soon.”

Pretty well done with playing a congressman, I acquiesced and took a seat in the compartment with the marines. I settled down for the ride. Over the next half an hour, the hatch opened several times, and marines entered, most from the Fifteenth Expeditionary Unit. One of them was Sergeant Barnes, who took a seat. He did not seem to notice my presence in the darkness. A few minutes after Barnes entered, the staff sergeant opened the hatch, looking for a United States Congressman.

I never did learn how the commodore knew I was playing the part of a congressman, or why he chose to play along. But I am glad he did. Life is a series of events, some good, others not so good. It is a book filled with chapters, plots, twists and turns, highs and lows. I would have enjoyed the memory of that day had it ended in the dim light of the hovercraft compartment below, and would have eagerly regaled my friends with the tale, but I will never forget the reception I received from the navy personnel on board the USS Essex.

It was thrilling to be in the cockpit of the hovercraft, next to the commodore, watching the USS Essex grow closer as we sped along, slowing as we neared the ship. It was not my first time in a hovercraft, but the few times I had been a passenger in one I had sat in one of the dim compartments. This was nothing short of exhilarating. We drew close to the Essex. The rear of the ship was open, ready to receive us. Docking the hovercraft aboard the ship was an exercise of skill and patience on the part of the pilots. The ship was designed to receive the hovercraft, but there was little room for error. The pilots expertly guided the large craft aboard the ship. Though they slowed the engines, it felt and sounded like we were in the midst of a hurricane, the engines grumbling and grinding in lower gear, the wind generated by the engines causing a vortex inside the metal cocoon of the ship. Slowly, we pulled into position, the hovercraft settling on the metal deck, inside the cargo area. The pilots stopped the engines.  All grew quiet. A few minutes later, the marines were being let out of the compartments. The commodore and I disembarked first, exiting at the rear of the hovercraft. The commodore carried a sea bag. Navy personnel stood in formation, standing at the position of attention.

“Come with me, Mr. Congressman,” the commodore said.

“Yes, Sir,” I said.

We headed toward the formation of sailors. A master chief stood in front of the formation. He was a tall man with a neatly trimmed mustache. He wore the khaki working uniform of navy chiefs and officers. The gold colored badge of a command master chief, the highest ranking enlisted man on board the ship, was pinned to the left side of his shirt below his ribbons. He saluted when we approached. The Commodore returned the salute.

“Welcome aboard, Commodore,” the master chief said. “I’m Master Chief Azevedo, the master chief of the command, Sir. The commanding officer is waiting for you and the congressman in his stateroom.” He motioned to a third-class petty officer in the front of the formation. “Take the commodore’s bag, petty officer.”

“I can carry my own bag,” the commodore said to the petty officer. “Just show me the way.” He turned to me and the master chief. “Give the congressman a tour of the ship, and then bring him to the commanding officer’s stateroom.” He held his hand out to me, and I shook it. “Enjoy yourself, Mr. Congressman,” he said with a wink. He turned and followed the petty officer.

“Please come with me, Mr. Congressman,” the master chief said.

I followed the master chief up a flight of stairs. We entered a long passageway filled with sailors, most in blue denim dungarees and light blue shirts. They stood in line, waiting to enter the large chow hall. The master chief raised his voice, announcing my presence.

“Attention on deck! United States congressman!”

The sailors in the passageway looked around and saw me in my black suit, standing next to their command master chief. They moved quickly to the position of attention, standing erect, arms at their sides, feet together, pointing out at forty-five-degree angles. The master chief motioned to the chow hall entrance. I walked toward the chow hall, inadvertently brushing up against a second-class petty officer. He cringed away from me, as though afraid to touch me. Although I was the one who brushed up against him, he apologized to me, his voice cracking as he did.

“I’m sorry, Sir,” he said.

Relax, Sailor,” I said, “it was my fault.”

“Thank you, Sir,” he said.

I entered the chow hall. The master chief called out,

“Attention on deck! United States congressman!”

More than two hundred sailors, most who had been seated at tables in the middle of their meals, jumped to attention. The murmur of conversations came to a sudden stop. Though the position of attention required one to look forward, eyes turned toward me and the master chief. I felt awkward, especially since I was only a pretend congressman. Of course, the sailors believed I was a congressman. I am not entirely sure why I did it, but it seemed natural to me that I should give some sort of speech, rather than stand there, the wordless center of attention.

“Please, relax,” I said, “at ease, sailors.” Released from the position of attention, they relaxed. “Take a seat if you want.” Several returned to their tables. Their eyes remained on me. “On behalf of congress,” I said in my pretend politician voice, “I want to tell you what a fine job you are doing. I am scheduled to meet with the Joint Chief of Staff in Washington next week, and I will be sure to tell him what a tight ship you all run.” I noticed movement at the entrance to the chow hall. Marines from the Fifteenth Expeditionary Unit were entering. Sergeant Barnes was among them, no doubt intending to grab a quick bite before heading back to Camp Pendleton on a hovercraft. They stopped when they saw me in the middle of giving a speech. “You are part of the greatest volunteer military in the world,” I continued, “and I, on behalf of the country, am grateful for your service. I am personally honored to be in the presence of the finest navy the world has ever known.” I ended my speech with my now perfunctory, “May God bless you, and may God bless America!”

The sailors stood and clapped for me. Sergeant Barnes looked at me, frowning thoughtfully to himself. I turned to the master chief.

“Heck of a speech, Mr. Congressman,” he said. “Shall we continue?”

“Lead on, Master Chief,” I said.

We exited the chow hall, to the master chief’s departing announcement of “Attention on deck! United States Congressman!” Once again, the men in the chow hall jumped to attention at my departure. I looked at Sergeant Barnes on the way out. He was at attention, his eyes on me as I exited.

For the next hour, I followed the master chief, entering every room and passageway to the announcement,

“Attention on deck! United States congressman!”

We entered the medical bay, where I gave a short speech to the medical staff. I was shown the quarterdeck, walked countless passageways and ladders. I toured the flight deck and the aircraft, finally ending up at the commanding officer’s stateroom. The master chief knocked on the door of the stateroom and entered without waiting for an answer. The stateroom was basically a shipboard condominium with a bedroom, sitting room and office.  The captain exited his office when we entered. He was a dignified man in his late forties, wearing the khaki uniform with silver eagles on his collars. The name tag on his uniform read J. Cassidy.

“Captain,” the master chief said, “this is Congressman Taylor.” He turned to me. “Mr. Congressman, this is Captain Cassidy, the commanding officer of the USS Essex.”

The captain held out his hand. I shook it.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Congressman,” the commanding officer said. “Is there anything I can get you? I have diet coke.”

“Yes, Sir,” I said. “Diet Coke is fine.” He reached into a small refrigerator and handed me a diet coke. “Master Chief, please excuse us.”

“Yes, Captain,” the master chief said. He turned and exited the door, leaving me alone with the captain. The captain gave me a tour of his small, but comfortable stateroom. He pointed to a red telephone and told me if he picked up the receiver someone at the Pentagon would answer within seconds. Finally, after several minutes, he turned to me.

“Young man,” the captain smiled. “I know you’re actually a corpsman. I had a chat with the commodore. I bet it’s been a pretty crazy day for you.”

“Yes, Sir.” I said.

“I also heard you did an excellent job playing a congressman. Maybe one day you will enter politics. Who knows?”

“Maybe, Sir,” I said. “I never thought about it before.”

“Tell me something,” he said. “Now that you know how a United States congressman is treated, did you learn anything?”

“Learn anything, Sir?”

“Yes. Think about it. If you were treated the way you were treated today, what would you do or say to hold onto that kind of power? What would you do to not lose that special status?”

I thought about.

“I suppose,” I said, “I might be tempted to say or do anything to keep that kind of power.”

The captain grinned.

“Now you know everything you will ever need to know about politicians,” he said.

Forty-five minutes later, I stood, leaning against a bulkhead in the cargo area, waiting to board one of the hovercrafts which would transport me back to Camp Pendleton. Marines from the Fifteenth Expeditionary Unit began to gather, also waiting to board. Sergeant Barnes entered the storage area alone. When he saw me, he stopped walking and appeared to be thinking hard about something. Finally, he walked over to me.

“Can I talk to you?’ He said.

“Sure, Sergeant,” I said, calling him by his actual rank.

He bit his lip, and looked down at the deck as he spoke.

“Well, Sir. You know, today was a big training day for us, you see. I kind of got caught up in the training. That’s how we marines are.”

“I noticed,” I said.

“Yes, Sir.” Barnes said. “But…well, I guess I just want you to know that I didn’t mean any disrespect.”

“Disrespect?” I said.

“Yes, Sir. It looks to me like I made a very grave mistake. You see, everyone else was pretending to be someone else, you know?”

“Yes,” I said, trying to understand exactly what Barnes was trying to say.

Barnes looked up at me.

“What I mean to say is, I’m sorry, Sir. I thought you were just pretending. I didn’t realize until we got on board the ship that you were a real United States congressman.”