Every year, as mid February approaches, I have this dream. I’m back in uniform, jammed into a C130 with two dozen other GIs, a couple of gun jeeps, pallets of ammo and supplies, and I can’t get to sleep. And then, in my dream, I wake up and I’m somewhere west of Wake Island and the C-130’s engines are somehow singing a different tune. And the deck was not quite level. Then a wing dipped and the nose dropped and we dropped through a moonless night toward a vast, empty ocean.
Except it’s not really a dream. It’s me flashing back to August 1965, when I was part of the First Air Cavalry Division advance party, deploying for a still-secret patch of jungle in the Central Highlands. Our pilots complete the turn and level off and below I spy a single point of light against an irregular shape infinitely inkier than the darkness behind it. Why is Okinawa blacked out?
The hydraulics screech. Our descent slows. My ears pop as the engines growl and props change pitch to become speed brakes. Abruptly, we’re taxiing.
We stop near a hangar and as the engines whine into silence the Air Force crew chief huddles with one of our officers, a colonel. “Leave everything except headgear and weapons,” he says.
Something is very wrong. And that’s when, safe in my bed, I wake up.
But on that night in 1965 we jumped down to the runway. Instead of a flight-line bus and a ride to the terminal we marched single file, following a white line until we came to a hangar, atop which burned that lone light. I read the sign below it:
Welcome to Iwo Jima International Airfield.
Elevation: Dry season +1 Rainy season -1
The colonel gathered us into a semicircle and explained that an engine had caught fire and was shut down. The four-engine C-130 can fly on three, if necessary, but we were at maximum load; extended flight would push the remaining engines to their limits, inviting another fire or failure. Wake Island was five hours behind us, Okinawa more than two hours. The pilot made an emergency landing on Iwo Jima.
The runway we stood on had served as an emergency landing field for the giant B-29s of World War II. The fifty-some airmen manning this airfield were overjoyed at our arrival. It was months since anyone dropped in, months since they had reason to believe they served any purpose on their lonesome bit of volcanic rock in the middle of nowhere.
Tumbling from their beds to greet us, they asked, many times, if there were any women on our plane.
Nope, we explained, just us grunts.
Just us grunts.
Just 20 G.I.s with rifles.
Their disappointment was obvious: As a lonely airman explained, their Pacific paradise’s delights included a woman behind every tree.
Alas, no real trees on Iwo Jima.
Nevertheless our hosts gave us their bunks for naps and served us cold chicken, hamburgers, sandwiches and anything else they had, from milk and coffee to Scotch, vodka, bourbon or gin — and refused to take our money.
Then they screened two films: Combat footage shot by John Ford’s Navy cinematographers of the Marine conquest of Iwo Jima, and the John Wayne movie, “Sands of Iwo Jima.”
Seven thousand American Marines died taking this volcanic island; 22,000 Japanese gave their lives trying to stop them. America wanted it for emergency landings by shot-up planes returning from missions over Japan. By VJ DAY some 800 such air crews had landed safely on Iwo Jima; many, perhaps most, would have died had it not been for those 7,000 marines.
And now they had saved another plane and more Americans. I felt humbled. How many of us would have survived a water landing? How long would it have taken to even find us in those vast, shark-filled waters?
By the time both movies had screened, the sun was up; we went outside for a look around. I saw rocky beaches covered with volcanic ash and sharp-edged crushed coral. No sand. “John Wayne musta took all them ‘Sands of Iwo Jima’ back to Hollywood,” opined one of our hosts.
At mid-morning I visited the hangar to view the C130’s scorched wing above the burned engine. A half-dozen mechanics stayed busy fitting a new engine to its myriad connections. Later we lined up to board. As our crew chief, a man of about 35, passed me, I stepped out of line.
“Tell me the truth, Sarge,” I said. “How much danger were we actually in? Could we have made Okinawa?”
“We’ll never know,” he said. “But if there was no emergency field here, I’d have been on my knees praying the whole way. And if the skipper had bypassed Iwo Jima to try for Okinawa on three engines, I’d never fly with him again.”
Back in the air I kept thinking about Iwo Jima’s marines. I tried to imagine what it was like in one of their landing craft, tossed by waves, shells bursting all around, inexorably headed toward an entrenched, fanatical enemy. Were they seasick? Fearful? What were their thoughts on that long, scary ride to the beach? Did they know they might die?
So I think about them every year at this time. Seven thousand dead. Seven thousand mourning mothers. Seven thousand grieving fathers. Thousands upon thousands of orphaned children, shattered wives and sweethearts.
I was barely out of diapers when those men hit Iwo Jima’s bloody beaches, yet surely I am forever in their debt. Surely they fought and died for me as much as anyone.
© 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
I paused in the slender shade of a lamppost to go over my appointment list. Suddenly a kid appeared, a cherub of perhaps five or so, neatly dressed. He was adorable, yet carried himself with a serious, self-possessed demeanor most unusual in such a youngster. Minutes passed. I ignored him while he studied me.
"Are you a boy, or a man?" he asked, without preamble.
A dull pain coursed through my guts, but I said nothing to the lad, because I knew the source of his confusion. I wore a business suit, starched shirt, conservative tie, newly shined shoes. At my feet was a leather briefcase bulging with sales aids. But I was barely four inches over five feet, no taller than many adolescents, and my unlined face omitted mentioning several of my nearly 21 years.
"I am a man," I answered, forcing a smile.
"You don't look like a man," he retorted. "You look like a boy." He ran off down the sidewalk without another word, then disappeared around a corner.
It would be many years before I became comfortable with people deducting a substantial fraction from my apparent age. I was two months out of the Army, where many a military policeman had been certain that my years were too tender to have enlisted, let alone earned a sergeant's three chevrons. But when the boy had gone, I began to consider another meaning for his question.
Was I a man, or a boy?
It was a warm Saturday afternoon, my feet hurt, my pride was wounded, and I was on the verge of quitting my job. I had pounded the Southern California pavements for weeks without making a sale. I lived in a shabby hotel room, worked from ten in the morning to midnight, watched my hard-earned Army savings dwindle away on coffeeshop food, dry cleaning, rent.
As an Army noncom, even a junior one, I had been treated with respect by superiors and subordinates, even by most civilians. As a door-to-door salesman, however, I was regarded with disdain by nearly everyone. Housewives slammed the door in my face. Homeowners threatened me with watchdogs or shotguns for the crime of ringing their bell. Children taunted me in the street. Hoodlums asserting territorial rights demanded to know my business. Police stopped me to ascertain my identity, to warn me against bothering people after dark, to suggest that I work somewhere else. Even friends and relatives turned their noses up when I announced my new profession. Door-to-door sales? Why don't you get a real job?
There were few "real jobs" available for a high-school graduate whose military skills revolved around fire and maneuver, and handling various lethal weapons. If I wasn't selling books, I would be selling something else, or washing dishes.
And every night, when my field manager picked me up on some suburban street corner I had to tell him that I had blanked, that I had sold nothing. My guts curdled under his interrogation: How many houses had I entered? How many doors had I knocked on? How many presentations had I made? What was wrong with me?
Was I a boy, or a man?
I had money enough for one more month. Then I would have to sell my car, or crawl home to my parents in disgrace. I preferred to quit while I still had enough resources to find another job. After all, I had intended to work fulltime only until fall, when I could start college. And I could salve my pride a little knowing that of the seven who joined the company with me, I was the only man still with the company.
But was I a boy, or a man?
Even though most people didn't want to talk to me, I had no difficulty getting into several houses every evening, probably because I looked young and innocent.
My problem was closing the sale. I sold a quality product, but I was less and less comfortable with my sales pitch. I had used this carefully rehearsed presentation, complete with canned ad libs, to sell two sets of encyclopedias on my first night in the field. Afterward, however, I discerned that much of my pitch was only partly true. I continued to say the words, but people could see that even I didn't believe them.
I asked my manager about using another approach, and he explained that the pitch that I had memorized had been developed over many years, and was known to be successful about a third of the time -- a very good percentage. "Stick to the pitch, give it three times a night," he said, and I would average one sale every night.
I no longer believed that. By the time that kid asked his question, I had made up my mind to finish the day, give it my best shot, and quit. I'd buy the Sunday paper and start going through the classifieds. I would accept that I was not equipped to be a salesman, and swallow the bitter shame of failure. I would get on with my life.
But was I a man, or a boy?
A man doesn't quit because he didn't do his job. I had learned that in the Army. A man quits his job because he wants to do something else. And so right there, leaning on that lamppost, I decided that I would quit -- but not until I made another sale. I walked down the street, checking each lawn and porch for the bicycles and toys that suggest that children live in a house. I came to a neatly-kept bungalow with two bikes in the yard. The front door was wide open, and I banged on it.
"Come on in," came a voice.
Inside a trim Latino of perhaps 30 knelt on the living-room floor, unpacking a box that contained a set of encyclopedias. I recognized the brand at once.
"Hello," he said. "I'm Tito. What's in your briefcase?"
"Books," I said, throwing out the canned pitch. "Encyclopedias. The best set on the market. And at the best price."
"These are a gift from my brother-in-law," Tito said. "For my kids."
"That's a pretty good set," I replied. "Your kids will find them very useful for a few years."
"Only a few years?"
"Yeah, by junior high, they'll need to use the ones in the library." I said this with conviction, because it was true. Tito's gift set was for younger children.
"Show me your books," he said. I took out my samples, compared my product with his, talked about some of my favorite things -- and after twenty minutes he said that he wanted to buy. "I'll pack these up and send them back," he said. He offered coffee, and went to the kitchen to make it. When he brought our cups, I took out the contract, and he paused. A thought marched through his face. "Would you do me a favor?" he asked.
"Would you sit here a minute, let me go get my next-door neighbors?"
"Of course," I said, and my heart sank. It was obvious that he'd changed his mind, that he was going to back out of the deal and wanted support. Buy a $400 set of encyclopedias, when he had a brand-new, perfectly adequate set that cost him nothing? Get real, neighbor. When Tito left, I started to pack up my kit.
He was back in minutes with Doris and Herman, an attractive couple in their forties. "This is Marvin," he said. "He's the first door-to-door salesman that I've ever met who didn't lie to me. He's got a terrific product, and I think your kids would get a lot of use out of books like this."
About ten minutes into my improvised presentation, Doris held up her hand. "We're going to buy," she said, looking at her husband, who nodded. "Could I ask you to call my sister in Montebello and show her these books?"
I made another sale on Monday. On Tuesday I handed my manager two orders. Within a month I was a field manager with five salesmen working for me. I bought a new car, rented a nice apartment. Five months after I came to work for P.F. Collier, I opened a branch office in Long Beach, recruited and trained a dozen salesmen.
Not long after that, my mother stopped taking her medicines, the psychotropic drugs that helped her remain in touch with reality. When I went to visit her in the hospital, she did not seem to know me. "I had a son who looked like you," she said, fumbling in her purse. "Would you like to see his picture?" she said, and held it out.
I looked at a photo that I had never seen. In it I was a tow-headed five-year-old, a dead ringer for the precocious boy who had appeared on a suburban street corner to deliver a message, a reality check, at precisely the moment that I needed it. "Are you a boy, or a man?" that little angel had inquired, and I wish now that I had thought to inquire who it was that asked this question.
© 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
Westward we drove, Arthur and I spelling each other at the wheel of my '55 Ford convertible. We were both new civilians, just discharged from the infantry at Fort Benning, GA. Arthur was headed for a good job in Alaska, via San Francisco, and had agreed to split expenses for the trip. We chose the route across the Great Plains and through the Rockies, a thousand miles out of my way, because we wanted to see this part of the country. At 20 I was not anxious to return to Los Angeles, where I would have to find a job before trying to get into college in the fall.
In 1962 the Interstate Highway system had yet to compress and homogenize the vastness of the West. We drove narrow National Highways that were well maintained but built to a different scale than the mighty concrete ribbons that would link the coasts by the end of the decade.
Somewhere in western Nebraska, three or four hours before an April dawn, Arthur pulled off the road and woke me up. He snored in the backseat while I breathed in the cool night air and watched bugs splatter on the windscreen. The Ford ate asphalt until, far ahead in the darkness a flashing red light appeared. I took my foot off the gas pedal, watched the speedometer needle drop. A good thing; a speed zone sign, partially obstructed by a tree, announced a town. I braked to 15, the limit, and drove carefully past fields of corn and wheat. I stopped at the light, noticing the two-story red brick courthouse on the corner.
Past the intersection I crawled down the unlit blacktop until the darkened houses dropped away, and the rising moon illuminated pastures dotted with livestock. I eased down on the accelerator. Instantly a siren wailed. I glanced in my mirror and caught the patrol car's headlamps and flashing red light as they came to life.
"You were speeding," said the cop through my window. "It's 15 mph in town."
"I thought the town ended about a mile back," I replied, flustered.
"Naw. You'll see the 'resume speed' sign a ways up ahead," he said. "I've got to cite you, but I'll give you two choices. You can plead guilty and pay the fine now, or you can appear before the magistrate and plead not guilty."
I opened my mouth to say that I would take my chances with the magistrate, but before any sound came out the officer continued. "If you plead guilty, the fine is $50, plus a dollar a mile over the speed limit. That would be, oh, $63," he said.
I drew in a breath. The Army had screwed up my mustering-out pay, and the fine represented nearly half the cash I carried. "What if I plead not guilty?" I asked.
"Well, that would be your privilege, and it would then be my duty to impound your vehicle and take you into custody until the judge is available to hear your case," he said, a touch too smoothly for my taste.
"Put me in jail and Impound my car for a traffic offense?"
"I have that authority. You can ask the judge, if you decide to go that route."
"And when might I ask him?" I asked.
"Probably not much over a week, soon as he gets back from his hunting trip," said the officer. "Assuming that he isn't delayed."
"And what happens if I'm found guilty? Is it the same fine?"
"Same fine. Plus court costs, including the expense of your confinement. You're looking at several hundred dollars, I 'spect."
"I don't have that kind of money with me," I said.
"Then you'd have to work it out. Dollar a day in the county workhouse."
Pretty nifty setup, I told myself, steaming mad but maintaining my composure. The cop probably worked nights only, protecting citizens from dangerous speeders like me. But he had me dead to rights; I followed him back to the courthouse. "Put cash in this envelope, sign the form, then put it through the mail slit in the door," he said, and watched me do it. I simmered until Nebraska lay far behind.
Approaching Cheyenne, Wyoming, the land became rough and wrinkled and rose toward the Continental Divide. Long before we crossed the summit of the Lincoln Highway in an April snowstorm, the Ford's pneumatic wipers, vainly trying to compress the thin air of that rarefied altitude, fell comatose. Every few minutes I had to stop and scrape the windshield.
We descended from the Divide as snow faded to rain, then mist. At Green River the sun broke through, and for half an hour I enjoyed spectacular views of snow-capped mountains. Speeding down a long stretch between worn-down, mile-high buttes, the Ford crept up toward 80 mph; gently I pressed on the brake pedal.
My foot went to the floor. Our speed increased. The front end began to shake, and I fought the wheel to stay on my side of the road, grateful that there was little traffic. I struggled against the panic welling in my chest as we bounced across a dry wash at the bottom of the butte, the speedometer pegged at 110. Arthur chose that moment to sit up in the back seat. "What are you doing?" he said, grumpy with sleep.
"No brakes!" I shouted, sweaty-palmed but exhilarated, sure now that I had things under control. Gravity slowed us as we rolled up toward the far summit. Near the mesa the speedometer dropped below 20, and I was tempted to stop. We were miles from nowhere, however, and there were no cars in my rear view mirror. Somewhere ahead, I knew, was a service station. I shifted into second and used the engine as a brake down the next slope, hoping that it wouldn't blow the head gasket.
After roller-coastering up and down a half-dozen buttes we rolled into Little America. On billboards for a thousand miles in every direction it advertised itself as the world's biggest truck stop. A kindly mechanic hoisted the Ford on a rack and examined the underside with a flashlight. "Brake line's burst," he announced. "You boys are lucky to be alive."
They stocked truck parts, he said, but none for cars. It was early on Friday evening; the best that the mechanic thought we could do was to wait until Monday, call the Ford dealership in Salt Lake City, about 125 miles ahead, and get them to put a part on the next eastward-bound Greyhound. "There's probably a bus Monday afternoon," said the mechanic. "If they don't have the part in Salt Lake, you might could try Cheyenne. Or they'd have one in Denver, for sure," he added.
Arthur and I exchanged glances. His ship sailed from early Wednesday morning. If we didn't get back on the road until late Monday, there was little chance that we could reach San Francisco in time.
The mechanic must have seen something in my face. "Or maybe I can fix the line good enough to get you to Salt Lake," he said.
He wrapped the line with thick silvery duct tape, sealed it in epoxy, suggested that we get some dinner while it hardened. "That ought to hold," he said. Should last you to Salt Lake, even if you have stop a few times to add brake fluid." He gave us a gallon can, almost full. I offered to pay him, but he shook his head. "Can't take your money, boys," he said. "Good luck."
We ate dinner. The line burst the first time I touched the brakes.
For twenty more miles we slowly climbed uphill at the head of a line of honking motorists, then plunged into a frantic race to the bottom as I prayed over the Ford's head gasket and its transmission. Half an hour before sunset we limped into Granger, Wyoming, on the rim of a worn-down mesa. Years later I learned that we were not the first Ford to seek mechanical solace in Granger. Fords competing in the first transcontinental auto race stopped here in 1909 for repairs. They carried spare parts.
We knew none of this as we rolled into the lone service station. When the attendant had put the car up on the rack for a look, he repeated the wisdom of Little America: call Salt Lake Monday, hope that the dealership has a brake line and would ship it up on a Greyhound.
Arthur and I conferred. If he missed his ship, he'd lose his new job. But he had money enough for a bus ticket to San Francisco, and undoubtedly a westbound Greyhound went through Salt Lake daily. In the morning, he said, we would have to decide whether to risk driving a hundred miles in weekend traffic without brakes, or split up. That was easy: I would drive no further without brakes. "Then I'll hitchhike down to Salt Lake," he said. "Even if the next bus is Sunday, I'll make San Francisco in time."
That would leave me with under fifty dollars for gas, food and the brake repair. "Maybe my dad could wire some money to Salt Lake," I said. But I had sent part of my paycheck home every month that I was in the Army; another reason that I had so little now. I thought about pawning my camera, or finding some kind of temporary job in Salt Lake. Maybe I was not meant to go to college this year, I thought.
Granger's only lodging was at the other end of its main drag. Arthur and I grabbed a few essentials from the trunk and hoofed it, three-quarters of a mile or so, watching the coppery sun sink below the mesa, turning rocky outcroppings, trees, brush and more than a few unidentifiable objects into silhouettes.
The hotel was squeaky clean and dirt cheap. We shared a one-bed room, toilet down the hall, bath downstairs, on our chest-of-drawers two thin towels and a basin of water that by morning would grow a thin layer of ice. But we were warm under flannel sheets and a buffalo robe with an embroidered label claiming that it had been sewn in 1888. The bed was wide, and I hardly knew that Arthur was in it.
We went to sleep at 8:00. Drifting off, my mind's eye returned to the last moments of sunset. Among the myriad mesa silhouettes, one shouted for my attention. There was something familiar about it, but I could not discern what it was.
I awoke about midnight. The silhouetted object that I had seen as the sun went down was an auto laying on its side — a '55 Ford. I lay half awake until daybreak, then gazed shivering out the window as detail slowly emerged from the twilight. A mile out, give or take, was the rusting carcass of a '55 Ford!
After breakfast, I borrowed a crescent wrench from the café and with Arthur hiked across the prairie through a riot of wild flowers. Grouse scattered before us, prairie dogs whistled, a hawk wheeled overhead. I was too anxious to enjoy the show.
At 50 yards I saw that I was mistaken. The hulk was a '55 Mercury. Made by Ford, I recalled. Many of its parts would fit my Ford. Scavengers had taken all four wheels, as well as many other small parts, but three brake lines remained.
At the station, the owner scratched his head in wonder when I handed him the parts. He installed a line, filled the brake reservoir, watched amber fluid drip through a crack. The second line's test yielded the same result. The last one held, held again when I pumped the brakes on a full reservoir, and was still working when I sold the Ford in Los Angeles nearly a year later.
"Where'd you get them lines again?" asked the station owner, and when I pointed out the hulk near the horizon, he shook his head. "Lived here since I was in short pants, and we don't take kindly to people using our mesa as a dump. But I don't recall seeing that car out there before. Must have been dropped off recently."
I thought about the tall weeds growing through the Mercury's rusted chassis, the bird nests in its headlamp wells, but held my tongue. "What do I owe you?" I asked, anxious to get back on the road.
"Seems to me, something like this happens, you must be living right—the good Lord looks after you," he replied. "No charge for my labor, but if you ever decide to go to Las Vegas, give a holler. I'll come down and bet along with you, dollar for dollar."
For the next thousand miles, until I dropped Arthur at a San Francisco wharf, I reflected on life's improbabilities. Even when Justice sleeps, I decided, one can hope that Mercy will appear in her place. Or that she will dispatch a message via Mercury.
© 2000 by Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, and short fiction, each offering a glimpse of my life and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.