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.”
“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.”