THE GIRL SCOUTS SAVED MY LIFE


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“Would you like to buy some cookies, Mister?”

I turned to see the girl scout. She was about eleven years old, her auburn hair pulled back in a ponytail. She wore a dark green shirt and khaki pants. A light green sash decorated with pins and medals was draped across her chest. She smiled up at me, showing braces. She stood behind a table loaded with boxes of Girl Scout cookies. I stopped at the table and examined the boxes.

“Do you like cookies?” I said.

Her smile broadened.

“Everybody likes Girl Scout cookies,” she said. “Want to buy some?”

“What’s your favorite kind of cookie?” I said.

She looked down at the boxes of cookies on the table.

“I like thin mints the best. But they’re all really good. My mom likes the Samoans.”

“Samoans?” I said.

“Yeah,” the girl scout answered, “the kind with chocolate and coconut in them.”

I pulled a twenty-dollar bill from my wallet.

“A box of thin mints, then,” I said, handing her the money, “and a box of Samoans.”

The girl scout took the twenty-dollar bill, picked up a box of thin mints and a box of Samoas, which are delicious, unlike Samoans, the natives of the Samoan islands, who are delightful people, but do not taste very good. She held them out to me. I shook my head.

“They’re not for me,” I said. “They’re for you. And you can keep the change.”

She stared down at the twenty-dollar bill and the boxes of cookies in her hands. Her eyes grew wide.

“Really, Mister?” She said. “But why?”

“Really,” I said, smiling down at her. “And if you must know the reason, it’s because I never did say thank you.”

“Thank you to me?” She said. She looked confused. “Thanks for what?”

“I owe all the Girl Scouts a thank you,” I said. “You don’t know it, but a long time ago, long before you were even born, the Girl Scouts saved my life.”

I was seventeen years old when it happened. The church I attended had an annual campout, and my friend, Sean, a petty officer in the navy, a young man with a light complexion and a military regulation haircut, talked me into going. I threw the only camping gear I had, an old green army sleeping bag with a broken zipper, into the back seat of Sean’s little blue car.

“Is that all you’re bringing?” Sean said, looking at my sleeping bag. “You don’t have a tent?”

“No,” I said, “who needs a tent?”

“You’re going to need one, knucklehead” he said. “It’s cold in the mountains. You should at least bring a jacket.”

“I’ll manage,” I said. “It’s like eighty degrees outside.”

“Okay,” Sean said. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

We headed to the campground located in the mountains east of San Diego. The church had reserved about half of the campsites, and we were greeted by familiar faces. The campground was surrounded by hundreds of tall oak trees. Sean drove slowly, following the small asphalt road winding through the campground, passing church members near recreational vehicles and tents. Some rode bicycles, others busied their selves cooking over barbecue grills or putting up tents. They waved at us as we drove by, and we waved back. We passed the campsite of a group of girl scouts, all in matching green uniforms, scurrying in every direction, erecting tents, preparing a fire ring, setting up lawn chairs, all under the supervision of a brunette woman in her early thirties. I paid them little attention.

Sean parked at a campsite and began setting up his tent. He worked meticulously, paying attention to every detail, carefully hammering the tent stakes, evenly spaced, into the rich, dark earth, inserting the tent poles, raising the small, green tent to a perfectly formed A-frame. He unrolled his sleeping bag and laid it neatly out on the tent floor. He gathered stones and built a fire ring, digging a hole in the center of the ring to contain the fire. He removed firewood from the trunk of his car and stacked it in neat rows next to the fire ring. Finally, he hung an electric lantern on a small pole near the entrance to his tent.

I grabbed my sleeping bag with the broken zipper from Sean’s car, and threw it on the ground next to the fire ring. Done. Sean grinned at me, shaking his head. I guess you could say we were opposites.

The day was warm and pleasant, lulling me into a false sense of security. Who needed a tent in San Diego, after all? But as night fell, so did the temperatures. Sean built a fire, and I huddled next to it. Campers from the church group roasted hot dogs and marshmallows over the fire and were generous enough to share with me. But, as the night grew colder, they retreated to the comfort of their tents and recreational vehicles. Near midnight, Sean also turned in, climbing into his tiny tent, leaving me alone by the fire, which by that time was little more than dying embers. I moved as close to the warmth of the fire as I could, lying down on half of the sleeping bag, covering myself with the other half. Somehow, despite the cold, I managed to fall asleep.

I awoke just after dawn to near freezing temperatures. The sun was coming up over the tops of the mountains, but it provided very little warmth. My muscles ached from sleeping on the cold, hard ground. My body shook, my teeth were chattering. My breath came out like steam in the freezing air. There was nothing left of the fire, but a few hot embers buried under gray ashes. No firewood remained. Wrapping my sleeping bag around me, I scoured the nearby area for anything that would burn; cardboard, soda boxes, paper towels, dry twigs, anything I could find. I blew on the hot coals until my small collection of flammable materials ignited. The warmth from the fire was wonderful, but fleeting, as the paper, cardboard and twigs ignited, flashing hot, then burning out. I searched for more items to burn, desperate to get warm, but soon ran out of flammable materials. The fire died.

I needed to burn something bigger.

Wrapped in my sleeping bag, I broadened my search, passing several campsites, including the site belonging to the Girl Scouts, to a nearby meadow, finding bits of wood, parts of fallen branches and more twigs. I brought them back, placing them in the fire ring, blowing on the coals until the fire sprang back to life. The bits of wood burned longer than the cardboard and twigs, but they, too, burned out, leaving me cold and miserable.

I needed to burn something much bigger.

I headed back to the meadow, my sleeping bag draped over my shoulders. I looked passed the small pieces of wood. Something bigger, I thought, something much bigger. That’s when I saw it. An old, round log, two feet long and a foot and a half wide, lay on its side near one of the large oak trees. Surely that much wood would burn for hours. Gleefully, thoughts of a warm, roaring campfire in my head, I picked the log up. It was heavy and cumbersome. I struggled under its weight, carrying it in both arms, stumbling as I went, tripping over the sleeping bag, which was draped over my shoulders. I passed the campsite of the Girl Scouts. A large flip chart rested on a stand. The brunette scout leader flipped through the pages of the chart, preparing for a class, I supposed. I noticed the words Stop, Drop and Roll on the front page of the chart. A fire extinguisher sat on the ground next to the flip chart.  A couple of girl scouts watched me as I passed by, stumbling under the weight of the log, tripping occasionally on the edge of my sleeping bag.

I made it back to the fire ring and dropped the log directly in the middle of the hot coals and waited for it to ignite. Smoke rose up from the log, and the part touching the coals turned black, but it did not catch on fire. I blew on the coals, and they turned red for a time, but still the log did not burn. I grew desperate, my hopes of a warm fire dissolving before my eyes. I remembered one of the church members at the campsite next to ours had a bottle of lighter fluid near his barbecue grill. I went to the campsite and “borrowed” the lighter fluid. The bottle was about half empty. I sprayed the log with lighter fluid and, bending over, blew on the hot coals. The log ignited in a blaze of blessedly warm fire. I stood as close to the fire as I could, soaking in the warmth. But, to my chagrin, the fire was consuming the lighter fluid, and not the log. As the fuel burned out, the fire died.

“That log will never catch fire,” Sean said. I turned to see him standing up from the entrance to his tent. He stretched and yawned, wiping sleep from his eyes.

I poured the rest of the “borrowed” lighter fluid onto the log. The fire sprang up again, lapping up the fluid. I exulted once again in the warmth. Then, just as before, the fire died. The log was smoking, but it wasn’t burning. Sean stepped up beside me, looking down at the log.

“It’s too big, Knucklehead. You have to split it into firewood before you can burn it.”

“Do you have an axe?” I said. He shook his head no.

I shook the empty bottle of lighter fluid and headed over to the other campsite looking for more. There, sitting on a folding table next to the church member’s recreational vehicle, was the answer. Of course. A two gallon can of Kerosene. Now that would light anything. I “borrowed” the can of kerosene and headed back to the fire ring, feeling triumphant. Sean was on his knees, straightening the inside of his tent. The campground was coming to life, and a few church members were sitting in chairs not far from the fire. I unscrewed the lid from the top of the kerosene can and poured it eagerly over the smoking log. Nothing happened. I bent down and blew on the coals. They grew redder, but the kerosene did not catch fire. I examined the can. It was kerosene. The warning “highly flammable liquid” was written on the front of the can. So why wasn’t it lighting? Frustrated, I tried once more. I poured the kerosene over the log.

PHUMP!

The kerosene lit with a small explosion, rippling the air around the fire ring and scorching my eyebrows. Everything seemed to slow. I watched, frozen in place, as the fire climbed from the log and up the stream of kerosene, entering the can. The can grew hot in my hands. Fire spewed from the opening. Someone once told me a can of gasoline would explode if it caught fire. I figured that was also true for kerosene. I saw the church members sitting nearby and worried the can would explode, injuring them. I had to get it away from people. Turning away from the church members, I tossed the can, using both hands, but stumbled just before tossing it. The can left my hands, spinning in the air, end over end, the fiery liquid pouring from the can as it revolved in the air, covering and igniting the ground, the nearby bushes and my right leg. It landed about five feet away from me. My right leg was on fire. The ground was on fire. The bushes and leaves around me were on fire. Thinking the can might still explode, I made the brilliant decision to kick it further away. I ran toward the can and kicked it hard with my right foot. It flew, spewing more fire, landing upside down in the top of the nearby bushes. The rest of the kerosene poured from the can, setting the bushes on fire. I stood, watching the fire as it grew, consuming the bushes and dry leaves. I felt no pain, but I smelled burning flesh. Acrid smoke enveloped me. Everything burned around me, and I was growing dizzy from the fumes. The world was on fire, spinning before me. My knees were going limp, and I felt myself falling. I was going down in flames.

“Stop! Drop! Roll!” A girl shouted.

Someone grabbed me from behind. I felt small arms around my waist, pulling me to the ground. I fell, landing on my left side. The girl behind me was covering my right leg with a wet blanket. Someone in front of me was using a fire extinguisher, putting out the fire.

“Stay down,” the girl behind me said. “You will be okay.”

Moments later, the fire was out. A girl of about twelve years old came into view, seeming to appear from the smoke and the misty white residue of the fire retardant. She had long, dark hair and wore glasses. A light green sash was draped across her chest, over her dark green uniform. Her pins and medals glistened in the morning sunlight. She carried a red fire extinguisher in her right hand. I craned my neck to see the girl who had pulled me down. She was a heavyset blonde girl, wearing a sash and uniform like the girl in front of me.

“We need to get him out of the smoke,” the girl scout with the fire extinguisher said. She joined the girl behind me. Taking me by the arms, they pulled, dragging me away from the smoke. I heard clapping and cheers. Dozens of campers, drawn to the commotion, were applauding the brave actions of my two young rescuers. It must have been quite a sight; me, covered in soot, sitting in the dirt, my right pant leg, black and charred, the two girl scouts looking down at me with concern. And in the middle of all the commotion, my lungs still filled with poisonous smoke, I forgot to say thank you.

Sean drove me to the closest clinic. He was my friend, which meant, of course, he laughed at me the entire ride, and would, for many years, tell the story of the brave and stalwart actions of the Girl Scouts to everyone we knew.

At the clinic, the physician, a man in his early forties, removed my pantleg with a pair of shears. The skin on the inner part of my ankle had melted down to the underlying facia and came off with the pantleg. He removed the dead skin around the burn with surgical scissors and dressed the wound. Sean sat in the treatment room, watching the procedure. I winked at him.

“Doctor,” I said, looking down at the dressing on my leg, “do you think I will be able to kick a field goal in a couple of weeks?”

Sean shook his head and smiled. The doctor thought about it for a few moments. He nodded.

“As long as you change the dressing as ordered, and keep the wound covered during the game, I’m sure you will be able to kick a field goal in a couple of weeks,” he said.

I grinned at Sean.

“That’s amazing, Doctor,” I said. “I’ve never been able to kick a field goal before.”

–Dedicated to the memory of Sean Mescher, my faithful friend–

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?

THE GIRL IN THE RED POLYESTER PANTS


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I don’t remember her name.  I see her in my mind’s eye. She’s maybe twelve years old, the same age I was at the time. Her too round face, her pudgy body, long black hair held back in an Indian braid, her faded red polyester pants, the same pants she wore every day. She changed her blouse on occasion, but her clothing was a variation on a theme; not simply poor, but reservation poor. This was a time before the Indian casinos populated California and the tribes whose ancestors were forced onto reservations remained in poverty. She was a member of one of those tribes. We were in the same class at a small elementary school in Boulevard, California.

My family was poor, and I knew what it was like to be teased and bullied. My clothes were second-hand, never as nice as the other kids’ clothes. I remember wearing shoes a couple of sizes too big, because my parents could not afford a new pair. I had endured the laughter from the other kids when my mother, unable or unwilling to pay a barber, gave me a bad haircut. I knew how the girl in the red polyester pants felt. Before I finally graduated from an adult school, I would attend a total of twenty-six schools in my lifetime. I was always the new student. At some schools, I was bullied, other times I fit in. In that school, I was accepted. And it felt good.

For a while, we simply ignored the girl in the red polyester pants. We ate lunch together in the cafeteria at our table, while she sat at a table by herself. I heard some kids teasing her one day about her pink free lunch card. Pink cards were for poor kids. A green card meant your parents paid for your lunch. My own card was pink. I was embarrassed for her, but I did not defend her.

Then there was the girl who had everything. She had long, blonde hair, feathered in the way many girls wore their hair in the early eighties. The loveliness of her face was marred only by a perpetual, petulant frown. Her parents were well-known and respected. She wore the nicest clothes and lived in the nicest house in the area. But for some reason I never understood, she hated the girl in the red polyester pants. She began teasing her every day. She made her miserable. I remember a day at lunchtime when the girl in the red polyester pants remained in class, sitting alone at her desk to escape the daily taunts. She had looked so sad. I should have joined her, included her. I chose, instead, to be popular.

One day, I was on my way to lunch, walking with a friend, when the girl who had everything stopped us.

“Come on,” she said. “We’re gonna play a little trick.” The look of malice on her face made me hesitate, but my friend and I followed her anyway. She led us back to the empty classroom.

“What are we doing?” I asked.

She opened the top of her desk and pulled out a stack of play money. They were her lucky bucks, bill-sized pieces of lime green paper. We earned lucky bucks by doing well in class, answering questions correctly, or scoring high marks on tests. We could spend these on candy and other small prizes kept in a cupboard behind the teacher’s desk.

“Give me your lucky bucks,” she told us.

My friend obeyed, getting the fake money from his desk. I hesitated, feeling a tight sense of dread.

“What for?” I asked.

She walked over to the desk belonging to the girl in the red polyester pants. She opened the top of the desk and placed the lucky bucks inside. I felt my heart sink.

“Why are we doing this?” I asked.

The girl who had everything looked at me.

“Because she’s stupid. That’s why.”

I wish I had been brave enough to stand up to her, but I wasn’t. Reluctantly, I got my lucky bucks from my desk and gave them to her. She put them in the desk of the girl in the red polyester pants and closed the top.

We left the classroom and ate lunch together at our table. The girl who had everything talked and laughed with her friends as though nothing had happened. I looked over at the girl in the red polyester pants who ate alone at her table, ignorant of the cruel plot brewing against her. I did not join in the conversation around me. I considered sneaking back into the classroom and removing the lucky bucks from her desk. But, instead, I did nothing.

Finally, the bell rang, announcing the end of lunch. We returned our lunch trays and filed back into the classroom. I sat at my desk, feeling awful. The girl in the red polyester pants sat quietly, unaware of the “stolen” lucky bucks in her desk. Our teacher was a cranky, older man who did not seem to like children.  He was in his late fifties, a hard man with a leathery, unsmiling face.  He sat at his desk while we did our schoolwork on our own. The girl who had everything got his attention.

“Someone took my lucky bucks,” She said. If anything, she was a good liar. Her face was a portrait of innocence. The teacher looked up at her, scowling.

“Huh? What’s that you say, girl?” He said.

“My lucky bucks. Someone took them. They were in my desk before we went to lunch. Now they’re gone.” She stole a quick glance at the girl in the red polyester pants. A cruel smile touched the corner of her mouth. My friend opened the top of his desk and looked inside.

“Someone took mine, too,” he said. He turned and looked expectantly at me. I opened my desk. My ears felt hot. I pretended to search through my desk, keeping my head down, mainly because of the shame I felt. When I spoke, my voice came out low and hoarse. I was not a good liar.

“Someone stole my lucky bucks, too,” I said.

Our teacher stood up, surveying the classroom, his hard eyes scanning the faces of the students, who, under his intense glare could not help but look guilty.

“Alright, everyone,” he commanded, “open your desks.”

We all opened our desks and he stepped forward, walking between the rows of students, scanning the contents of each desk like a drill sergeant inspecting recruits. Finally, he looked down into the desk of the girl in the red polyester pants. I held my breath. I felt like I might faint. But he moved on, apparently thinking the pile of lucky bucks in the middle of her desk belonged to her. The girl in the red polyester pants stared fearfully down at her desk. She saw the lucky bucks and knew they were not hers. Maybe she wouldn’t get in trouble, I hoped. Then the girl who had everything spoke up. She pointed at the lucky bucks in the desk of the girl in the red polyester pants.

“Those aren’t hers! She never gets lucky bucks. She’s too stupid. She stole them!”

I thought for sure she had gone too far, calling her stupid. I thought the teacher would turn on her, but he did not. He looked down at the lucky bucks in the desk of the girl in the red polyester pants. Her round face looked confused. She was staring down at the lucky bucks. She gripped the sides of her desk with both hands. Our teacher examined her with a look of distaste.

“Are these yours?” He said.

The girl in the red polyester pants shook her head. Tears were welling up in her eyes. She looked afraid.

“No,” she said, “they aren’t mine.”

“Did you steal them?” Our teacher said. His voice was cold and accusatory, a hanging judge speaking to a condemned murderer. “Did they just happen to appear in your desk?”

She shook her head.

“No, Sir,” she said, looking down at the lucky bucks.

“Yes, she did,” said the girl who had everything, “she stole them!”

Tears of frustration and fear trickled down the face of the girl in the red polyester pants.

“I didn’t steal them,” she said. Her voice was low and quiet, “I don’t know how they got there.”

“Yes, you did!” The girl who had everything said. “You’re a thief!”

Our teacher looked down at the girl in the red polyester pants.

“Come with me,” he said, grabbing her roughly by the arm. He led her out of the classroom. She was sobbing. I saw a look of triumph on the face of the girl who had everything. I felt sick inside.

The girl in the red polyester pants never returned to our classroom. I heard rumors that her parents removed her from the school after the incident. I have never forgotten her. Her memory has haunted me over the years. I wish I had been stronger. I wish I had told the truth, regardless of the consequences. I want to apologize for what we did to her. I still remember with shame the look of confusion, fear and anguish in the face of the girl in the red polyester pants.

Wherever you are, I am sorry for the way we treated you. I wish I could go back and be your friend, rather than your tormentor. I wish I had joined you at your table where you sat alone, day in and day out. I wish I had the courage to stand up for you, to tell the truth that day, to defend you.

I wish.

THE MAD HATTER


MAD

My first experience with Doctor Teitelbaum was at the Hub in the Correctional Treatment Center of the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, California. I stood in front of the wrap-around desk that contained the daily sign-in sheets for the MTAs, chatting with the officer on duty, when I heard a voice behind me. The voice was a warbled mix of falsetto and feminine baritone.

“I wish to be escorted to the Facility One Clinic. I was told to meet MTA Taylor here.”

I turned to get a view of the speaker. She was a heavyset woman in her early fifties with a shocking amount of frizzy, dyed red hair, sticking crazily out from under a wide-brimmed, magenta hat. She was wearing what might have been a workout suit of a shiny material in two different shades of purple. Her shoes were yellow sneakers and she carried a large, red leather bag. Small, beady eyes peered back and forth between the officer on duty and me, through large glasses on her pale, moon-shaped face. Taken aback by the sharp disparity of her appearance among the uniformed officers and scrub-wearing medical staff, I would not have been entirely surprised if she had told me she was there to don a bright red nose and make balloon animals for the inmates.  I was the MTA assigned to Facility one clinic. An MTA, or Medical Technical Assistant, was a position unique to the California Department of Corrections. It was both a medical position and a peace officer position. MTAs responded to all medical emergencies and ran the day to day of the clinics on the yard. The department would soon do away with the position, and we would be given the choice of being either nurses or correctional officers. I would later choose to become a correctional officer.

“I’m MTA Taylor,” I said, “I don’t believe we’ve met before. Can I ask what your business is at the clinic?”

She made a dramatic flourish with her left hand and raised her odd warble of a voice, affecting the style of a Shakespearean actor.

“I am Doctor Teitelbaum,” she announced not only to me, but to every person in the nearby area, “I am the new Psychiatrist.”

Five minutes later, I was escorting Dr. Teitelbaum across the plaza to the Facility One Clinic. We reached the Facility One gate, and the gate officer checked our identification.

“Are you new to the prison system, Dr. Teitelbaum?” I asked. I knew entering a prison yard for the first time could be an overwhelming and frightening experience.

“I am new to the prison system, Mr. Taylor, but not new to those imprisoned by mental illness.” Her eyes took on a fevered, dreamy, faraway look. “I am here to help men escape their prison.”

The gate officer, a black man in his late forties, looked at her, then looked questioningly at me. Talk of helping inmates escape was not something taken lightly. I assured the officer that Dr. Teitelbaum was using a euphemism.

“It’s Just talk,” I said. “Dr. Teitelbaum doesn’t mean escape from the actual prison, but the prison of mental illness.”

Dr. Teitelbaum looked wordlessly up at the officer through her large glasses. The gate officer frowned but opened the gate. He looked Dr. Teitelbaum up and down, taking in the full oddity of her attire. He grimaced and rolled his eyes.

“It’s on you, Taylor,” he said. “It’s all on you.”

We stepped onto Facility One Yard. The prison yard was a large, oval strip of land surrounded by a track a third of a mile long. Inmates wearing blue CDC uniforms walked around the track, returning to their housing units from morning chow. They walked counter clockwise in the same direction, with occasional reminders over the loudspeaker to “Keep moving on the track.” Prison is nothing if not redundant.  Inmates see the same colors every day; blue and gray inmate uniforms, green and khaki officer uniforms, gray prison walls. You can imagine, then, the reaction among the inmates when they saw Dr. Teitelbaum entering the yard in her purple ensemble, magenta hat, red hair, yellow sneakers and a large red bag. Inmates stopped on the track, pointing.  Inmates standing in the pill line in front of the clinic stared. Some appeared hopeful, no doubt thinking, as I had earlier, that she might be some form of entertainment. Others laughed, and I heard a few jeers.

Inmates were lining up in front of the clinic for pill line. They were allowed medicine in their cells, but psychiatric medicine had to be administered at the clinic. Much of what occurs inside a prison is in reaction to lawsuits filed by inmates. The California Department of Corrections had settled or lost several lawsuits filed by inmates who suffered due to poor medical standards and nonexistent or inadequate psychiatric treatment. The courts ordered the department to remedy the problem, and the department struggled to hire physicians, psychiatrists and other medical personnel. Because of this, hiring was the priority. Anyone with a medical license could obtain a contract position working in the prison. The standards were quite low. Over the years, I have worked with fine psychiatrists and physicians. I have known and respected dedicated psychologists. I have also known the ones who, in the departments rush to fill positions, fell through the cracks of the screening process. To meet the requirements ordered by the courts, Inmates were screened for mental health related issues. This was appropriate and necessary, but it also had a tremendous impact on prisons. Suddenly, inmates were being diagnosed with bipolar, schizophrenia, psychosis and antisocial behaviors. They were placed on psychiatric medications, which required follow-up appointments with the psychiatrists. Soon, thousands of inmates were on medication, and more psychiatrists were required to meet the need for follow-up appointments. The increased numbers of psychiatrists resulted in even more inmates being placed on medication, which required even more psychiatrists and psychologists. The day Dr. Teitelbaum first walked into Facility One Clinic, the cost of psychiatric medication at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility had exploded to well over one and a half million dollars per month. This did not include regular, physician-prescribed medication.

Psychiatric medication can be divided into three categories: Anti-seizure medication, uppers and downers. If you pull back the curtain of psychiatric and psychological jargon, you soon realize that psychiatric medications are drugs, plain and simple. I remember a conversation with one of the contract psychiatrists. He was a in his late forties, an agreeable man without the typical airs psychiatrists are known to have. We were having lunch in the MTA office in the clinic. The inmates were locked up in their cells for count, and we were alone.

“Do you know what I do for a living, Taylor?” He asked.

I smiled at him across the desk over my lunch.

“As far as I can tell,” I said, “you’re a psychiatrist.”

“Well, of course I’m a psychiatrist,” he said,” but I’m not talking about my title or license. I’m talking about what I actually do.”

“Well, Doc,” I said, swallowing a bite of a tuna sandwich, “I may be crazy, and you’re better suited than I am to make that determination, but it seems to me you talk to inmates about their issues, then come up with a diagnosis and a treatment plan. Does that about cover it?”

“Well, that’s certainly how we phrase it, but that’s not the heart of it,” he said. “What I really am is a licensed drug dealer.”

“Do I need to get my handcuffs out?” I said. “Is this a confession?”

He grinned.

“I did say licensed, Taylor. But licensed or not, that’s what I am. Have you ever really thought about what psychiatric medication is? Drugs, Taylor. That’s what they are. They’re uppers and downers, and I prescribe them to drug addicts in a correctional facility. If I wasn’t licensed to do it, I would be sitting in a cell instead of sitting here having lunch with you.”

“Now, Doc,” I said. “I think you might be selling yourself short.  I’m sure you’re doing a lot of good. There’s a big difference between what you do and what drug dealers do.”

“A difference in motivation, I agree. But not in what I do. When I first started, I opened an office in the city, and advertised for clients. I wanted to help people, I really did. But you know what kind of clients I got?” I shook my head and motioned for him to continue. “People started coming into my office with memorized symptoms. I knew they were just telling me symptoms, so I would prescribe them specific medications. It was obvious. But I had a lease and bills to pay. You know what I did, Taylor? I prescribed the medications they wanted. After that, word spread, and clients kept making appointments. Over half were drug addicts wanting legal drugs.” He pointed to the nearby medication cart. “That’s what they are. Drugs, man, drugs.”

I had experienced the effects of the medication myself about a year before, when someone handed me a bottle of liquid risperidone, a medication prescribed to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Some of the liquid had spilled and was on the side of the bottle. I touched the liquid with my bare hand. The medicine seeped through my skin and entered my bloodstream. For a good hour, I was euphoric, laughing and extremely talkative. My voice seemed to reverberate back to me in stereo. Though the medication never touched my lips, part of my upper lip went numb. Even today, whenever I recall the incident, that part of my lip turns numb. Like the good doctor said, “Drugs, man, drugs.”

The pill line was very long, reaching from the pill line window to the track about fifty yards away. Close to a thousand inmates were incarcerated on Facility One Yard, and half of them were on psychiatric medication. An MTA stood inside the medication room window, handing inmates their medication through a rectangular slot. The MTA, a balding pale-skinned man by the name of Ford, looked at Doctor Teitelbaum as she passed by. He smiled at me and shook his head. Several inmates looked at the new psychiatrist, then looked questioningly at me. I ignored the questioning looks and made my way to the clinic. I opened the clinic door and led Dr. Teitelbaum to an office in the back.

“This is your office, Dr. Teitelbaum,” I said, opening the door and switching on the lights, illuminating a small office with two chairs facing each other across a wooden desk. Dr. Teitelbaum entered the office and sat heavily in the desk chair, plopping her large red bag down on the desktop. “I will bring a schedule of inmates and inmate medical charts in a little bit.”

“Patients, Mr. Taylor,” Dr. Teitelbaum said. “They are not just inmates. They are my patients, and I cannot wait to see them.” She looked up at me through her large glasses, the faraway gleam returning to her eyes. “I assure you they have never seen the likes of me.”

“Yes, Doctor. I believe that may be the case,” I said. Despite her decidedly odd appearance, I fully intended to give the new psychiatrist the benefit of any doubt. Part of my philosophy was, and still is, not to judge a book by its cover. “Would you like the door closed or open?”

“Please close it,” Dr. Teitelbaum said. “It is time for my calming ritual.”

I nodded and exited the office, closing the door behind me. I had a busy day in front of me and had to prepare for it. Leaving Dr. Teitelbaum alone in her office, I grabbed a cup of coffee from the already brewed pot in the treatment room, sat down at the desk, and began organizing the inmate medical charts, dividing them between medical and psychiatric patients, making sure each chart had fresh doctor’s notes to write new prescriptions on. I was absorbed in the ritual, when I heard Dr. Teitelbaum singing opera in what I thought might be Italian, as loud as she possibly could. I stepped out of the treatment room. MTA Ford was coming out of the medication room.

“What the heck is going on, Taylor?” He asked. I stood outside Dr. Teitelbaum’s office door. The opera continued in her warbled voice. Inmates peered through the clinic windows, wondering why the pill line had stopped, hearing the Italian opera coming from inside the clinic. I shook my head and knocked softly on the office door. The Italian opera continued inside. I knocked louder.

“Dr. Teitelbaum?” I called. The opera persisted. I shrugged at MTA Ford and opened the door. Dr. Teitelbaum was sitting behind her desk. Her eyes were closed, her hands lifted above her head, moving dramatically back and forth, conducting an orchestra which only she could hear. Seeming unaware of my presence, she continued her performance, her voice straining to reach soprano levels, then falling to baritone lows, all at the top of her lungs. All I could do was wait for her to stop. For several minutes, the opera continued. Then, with one final crescendo of screeching soprano and faltering baritone, the performance came to an abrupt end. Slowly, she lowered her hands and opened her eyes, blinking in the light of the office. She stared up at me through her large glasses, acknowledging me for the first time since I entered.

“Is there something I can help you with, Mr. Taylor?” She asked.

“Well…” I said, “Uhm…What I mean is…”

“My singing, Mr. Taylor. Is that why you are here?”

“Well, yes, Doctor,” I said. “It was a little surprising.”

“I find opera to be calming, Mr. Taylor. It is part of my morning ritual. It lowers my stress level and prepares me for the rest of the day. Now, if you will excuse me, my routine is not yet complete.”

“Will you be singing again?” I asked.

“No, Mr. Taylor,” she said, “I will be meditating. Close the door, please. Let me know when the first patient arrives.”

I left Dr. Teitelbaum alone in her office. MTA Ford had overheard the conversation.

“She’s crazy, man,” he said.

“What can we do about it?” I said.

“We need to tell somebody. I mean, she’s a real mad hatter.”

“I’m not in for telling,” I said, a phrase used by both inmates and officers.  It meant you were not a snitch. Snitches were equally hated by inmates and officers.

“This is different, Taylor. Somebody has to know.”

“Let’s just see how it plays out,” I said. “What’s it going to hurt?”

Ford agreed reluctantly and returned to the pill line. I continued to get ready for the medical and psychiatric appointments. Dr. Wong, the physician, a diminutive Asian man with thinning hair, wearing a doctor’s smock over slacks and a dress shirt, arrived. He knocked on the clinic door and I opened it. He entered the clinic.

“Good morning, MTA Taylor,” he said.

“Good morning, Doctor,” I said.

“Is it a good morning?” He said. I opened the door to his office, letting him in. He asked me the same questions every day.

“A fine morning, Doc.” I said.

“A fine American morning?”

“Yes, Doctor,” I said, “It’s a fine American morning. There’s coffee in the back. Want a cup?”

The doctor smiled, nodding.

“Is it American coffee?”

“It was purchased in America,” I said.

“Then yes,” he said. “I want an American cup of coffee.”

This routine had played out five days a week for nearly a year. Doctor Wong, a transplant from Asia, who had lived much of his childhood struggling to feed himself, who somehow not only made it to the United States, but became a medical doctor, loved America with a fervency bordering on insanity. It wasn’t a fine day unless it was an “American” day. He had a headache once, and I brought him a Motrin. He asked if it was “American” Motrin, taking it only after I assured him that it was.

“Good, Doc,” I said. “I will bring it to you.”

I returned to the treatment room to get the doctor a cup of coffee. I heard low humming coming from underneath Dr. Teitelbaum’s office door. I ignored it. She said she would be meditating, which was fine with me if she did it quietly. I poured Dr. Wong a cup of coffee and brought it to him, placing a schedule of inmate patients on his desk. He took the cup of coffee from me and sipped it.

“Thank you, MTA Taylor,” he said. “That is a good American cup of coffee.”

“You’re welcome, Doc,” I said.

The pill line ended about half an hour later. Inmates began arriving for their medical and psychiatric appointments. I let them in, checking their identification and medical ducats to the schedule, patting them down for weapons and contraband. I checked their blood pressures and told them to stand on a scale to check their weight. Afterwards, they waited together on a long, wooden bench in the clinic area. I opened Dr. Wong’s desk and placed the first inmate’s medical file on his desk. I opened Dr. Teitelbaum’s office door to hand her the file of her first patient. She was still humming lowly to herself, her eyes closed.

“Your patients are arriving,” I said, placing the file on her desk.

“Five minutes more, Mr. Taylor. I am not quite done with my calming ritual.”

“Fine,” I said, “let me know when you’re ready.”

She closed her eyes again and began humming to herself. I left her there, closing the door behind me. Ten minutes later, her office door opened. She was holding the file I had given her. She looked at the inmates who were waiting on the bench.

“Mr. Williams?” She called. A black inmate in his mid-thirties stood up. He looked at the psychiatrist, then looked at me. He raised an eyebrow.

“For real, Taylor?” He said.

“This way, Mr. Williams,” Dr. Teitelbaum said.

The inmate shrugged and entered the office. Dr. Teitelbaum closed the door. I opened it again.

“Doctor” I said, “the door has to be open at least enough for me to hear what’s going on. For your protection.”

“That is unacceptable,” Dr. Teitelbaum said. “There is a such thing as patient confidentiality.”

“This is a prison,” I said. I motioned toward Inmate Williams. “He is an inmate, and I can’t leave you alone with him.”

Her face turned a bright shade of pink, but she took her seat behind the desk.

“Very well, then,” she said. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Let us continue.”

I exited the office, leaving the door open about a quarter of the way. More inmates were arriving for the medical and psychiatric lines, and some already seen by Dr. Wong were wanting to leave. I patted down a couple inmates to make sure they left with only what they had arrived with, and let a couple more inmates in. I entered the treatment room where MTA Ford was busy transcribing new orders from the medical charts.

“How’s the Mad Hatter doing?” He asked.

“Just seeing the first inmate now. I guess we have to wait and see,” I said.

It did not take long to learn how Dr. Teitelbaum was faring with the inmate. I heard Inmate Williams cussing loudly and Dr. Teitelbaum shouting in her unmistakable voice. The inmate shouted back. Dr. Teitelbaum released a hysterical scream. MTA Ford and I ran from the room, ordering the inmates in the clinic to get down. They lowered their selves to the floor. I pulled a canister of pepper spray from my duty belt and entered the office, shouting for Inmate Williams to get down. He complied, immediately leaving his chair and sitting on the office floor. Dr. Teitelbaum was standing behind her desk. Her face was red and glistening with perspiration. Her magenta hat was in her hand, and her red hair was in disarray.

“Are you alright, Doctor?” I asked.

Dr. Teitelbaum stared up at me. Her lips trembled. Her round face quivered with indignation.

“What is the meaning of this, Mr. Taylor?” She shouted. “I will not be interrupted during a therapy session!”

“You were screaming at each other,” I said.

“This is therapy, Mr. Taylor,” she said. Her entire body was shaking. “Do you not understand? This is therapy!”

Inmate Williams held up his hands.

“I didn’t do anything to her, Taylor. I swear it, man. She’s a crazy lady.”

Dr. Teitelbaum twisted her hat in her hands, staring angrily down at the inmate.

“I am not a crazy lady,” she shouted. “I am the psychiatrist!”

Leaving his office, Dr. Wong walked up behind me. He looked at Dr. Teitelbaum. He saw the inmate on the office floor and examined the psychiatrist, who stood, shaking visibly, clutching the magenta hat in both hands. Dr. Wong shook his head.

“This,” he announced gravely, “is simply unamerican.” He turned from us, entered his office and closed the door behind him.

Dr. Teitelbaum lasted a month or so longer, the need of the department to fill medical positions outweighing the need for competent providers. She never got any better, though her shouting “therapy” was ended by order of the chief psychiatrist. I was in the clinic on her last day. She was wearing her now infamous magenta hat and was attired in yellow and orange, rather than purple. We made it to the end of the shift without major incident, and I was sitting in the MTAs office. She stuck her head into my office.

“Mr. Taylor,” she said, “as you probably already know, today is my last day. The establishment was just not ready for my special brand of treatment.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Doctor Teitelbaum,” I said, not meaning it in the least.

“Yes, well,” she said, “I am going into business for myself.” She handed me a purple business card. The card read, DR. Teitelbaum, Psychiatrist extraordinaire, and included her phone number. “If you are ever in need of psychiatric care, call me.” She looked at me through her glasses, that dreamy, faraway look in her beady eyes. “I am not cheap,” she said, “but I am the best…”

CONGRESSMAN FOR A DAY


I 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.”