By Bruce Colbert
It was one of those routine inspections you get in the Marines, usually with a grizzled field grade officer like a major or a light colonel looking over the green troops, but this time with the less-disciplined Navy Seabees standing at attention in the closed formation of men. A battalion, five hundred men, average age: nineteen.
True, there was plenty of spit and polish, and most of the uniformed men had at least taken the time to spit shine their newly government issued combat boots and polish brass belt buckles as they stood at rigid attention with blank young faces on the steamy black asphalt at the Guantanamo Bay parade ground, a football field size square dug out of the corral beds of Windmill Beach, on the southwestern tip of Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
It was part of the unwelcome American presence in communist Cuba, a ninety-nine year long lease that that had been forced out of the newly independent island after the Spanish American War victory, and the bombing of the warship Maine in Havana Harbor. Part of the American watchdog presence, along with the role of being protector of The Philippines, when the bedraggled Spanish left in 1898, it made less sense somehow, but it was ninety miles from Miami, and well, there was, “The Bay of Pigs,’ fiasco, to consider. The Kennedy mistake.
That was what Sullivan, one of the older guys in the Seabee battalion told me over drinks, you got a dozen frozen margaritas for only five bucks, at the enlisted men’s club, an ugly bunker of a building that was disguised as restaurant when it wasn’t used to house large machine guns pointed seaward.
The idea was that Fidel might surprise the American troops with an amphibious invasion led by his miniscule Navy, so the bulky machine guns were stored in the basement, just in case. Ammunition hidden next to them in sealed metal cases in neatly folded belts.
“Look at these animals,” Sullivan said, finishing a frozen margarita, “last night old fat animal Johnson got beat up!”
“Some grunt came in, looked at him, laughing and broke his jaw, blood everywhere,” he went on. They should be shootin’ Cubans, keep ‘em busy.
“Somebody’s gonna bring in a gun one night, and then, bang, bang!.”
“IQs like a goddamn plant,” he lamented, staring at his hands, and then scanning the anonymous drunken faces in the bar.
“Wish they’d come over the fence! Then I could get out, shoot myself in the foot!”
“When do you get out?” I asked.
“Three years, can’t wait that long, I’m already over the edge,” he added, and reached for another frozen margarita which he drank in a steady swallow.
“Working on being a drunk?”
You could go up to the bar, they had an ice cream, or frozen yogurt machine filled up with shaved ice churning round and round, and every so often the bartender would reach over and pour a bottle of tequila into the greenish lava, keeping the colorless liquor floating above the surface, and then he’d fill a tray of margaritas for you, so you wouldn’t have to make a lot of unnecessary trips back.
Most sailors drank margaritas, or a few beers if they got some rice and beans, or a burger, and the bar stayed open every night until 11 pm, last call.
There was a pool table to one side, and a few of the fights started there, since there was always some money bet on a game, and losers.
I didn’t see Sullivan for the rest of the week, and then spotted him in a corner with a tray of margaritas on Friday night, sitting alone in a sort of small alcove with warm cases of beer and sodas piled high around him, half hidden from the raucous loud music, drunks and fist fights. Earlier that evening a black marine had his arm shattered with a chair with the broken bone sticking out of his hanging limp arm. It was a nightly occurrence, the violent disagreements brought on partly by the boredom of the place. The fracas with another black marine was over one of soul singer James Brown’s songs.
On Saturday afternoons a bar was set up at the beach a mile from the camp where beer was sold for a dime a can, you might as well give it way, free, and most sailors usually drank a case by sundown. Sometimes you’d see a handful of Marines, coming down from their small detachment on one of the hillsides.
The weekend came, and I went swimming along the reef at Windmill Beach around noon, and noticed a small crowd milling around the metal roofed pavilion that had been thrown up for shelter from the sun as I stepped out of the water.
Two men were trading insults, nothing new, a marine and a burly Seabee, just the usual personal, inane drunken banter, pointing out to each other the comic differences in each one’s services. It was typical of men with too much time on their hands.
With his fists clenched, the young marine said, “Put down the beer, asshole!” in his final taunt, motioning with his arms to start a fight with the sailor, his two friends encouraging him.
In an instant, the barrel chested sailor whom I knew from around camp, turned and laid his half drunk beer can on a brick barbecue fire pit under construction, where with the same hand he picked up a loose brick and in a single turning motion opened up the marine’s head with a crushing blow. These men weren’t playing at hurting one another, they were deadly serious, that blow could’ve easily killed the marine, but that didn’t seem to matter.
The other two marines immediately jumped him, and were pounced on by three more sailors, and the brawl continued for another few bone crunching minutes, until the military police arrived, with a reluctant medic in tow, and broke up the fight, with a few swings of their night sticks.
No one was arrested, what was the point? it was going to happen again, and the two marines carefully wedged their half unconscious moaning comrade into the back of the open jeep, and they drove away.
You built these concrete bunkers during the day to buttress an attack from massed Cuban troops on the other side of the fence which formed the base perimeter, though they were usually hidden in their own bunkers, and then spent the night patrolling the barbwire, or the deserted beach, or joined in the drunkenness and fights. It was too hot to stay in the wooden barracks, roasting all day in the unrelenting tropical heat.
After riding a dirt moving shovel all day, I got a cold beer from the Cuban bartender who had came across the wire every afternoon to work at the club, and went back after cleaning up at midnight. For some reason, the military brass didn’t think any of these Cuban workers capable of spying on troop movements, or drawing a quick of sketch of the base fortifications itself.
Sullivan was older than most of the other sailors by a decade, perhaps even older, it was hard to tell, but he was generally well liked because his attitude was so ‘anti-military,” and that played well with the youngsters, mostly first-termers anyway, ready to return to the small towns, the farms, and the crowded city streets after their hitch.
The first troops were gradually leaving Cuba to go to Southeast Asia, combinations of armed Marines and Seabees to build bunkers in the countryside of the fledgling Republic of South Vietnam, for the rest it was still a waiting game.
“I want to tell you a story,” Sullivan told me one night, finishing a margarita and reaching for one of the three already sitting in front of him on the narrow formica table. They served margaritas in thin paper cups wet to the touch, sweating moisture from the unrelenting Caribbean sun, so a pool of water sat on every table, and the place smelled like stale tequila.
“This goddamn yacht club,” he murmured, looking at me through bloodshot eyes.
He told me he had lived in Spain where he had been stationed at the submarine base off Gibraltar in the Bay of Cadiz, and had learned Spanish. He had met his wife Elena there, and then settled down for good when he got discharged. This was almost a year ago.
For his livelihood he had developed a business selling souvenirs to the base post exchange, and being an American who understood Spain, he was popular with the NCOs who ran the place, and his business prospered.
But he wanted more, so he found himself involved in the import-export trade with two Spanish partners in Sanlucar de Barrameda on the Atlantic side where he lived, selling fresh seafood across the border in France first, then in Germany where demand was high for any welcome change in the otherwise boring German sausage diet, and money was plentiful.
He found that the French didn’t export their shellfish into Spain, and there was a market for fresh oysters which were scarce on the Spanish coast, and also weren’t available in the larger cities like Barcelona and Madrid. The problem was that the Franco government made it almost impossible to bring in outside foodstuffs, believing instead, that Spain was the breadbasket for Europe, something you heard all the time in Franco’s political speeches.
So he got some tough truck drivers to smuggle loads of fresh oysters across the Spanish border half a dozen times a month, and then a couple times a week, and he started making big money. He found out he could bribe the Spanish Guardia Civil police at the border, and for six months his trucks supplied the huge Barcelona market, and restaurants and resorts all along the Spanish mediterranean coast to Cadiz. His payoff for a month was fifty thousand dollars.
Then a disgruntled border guard turned him into the civil authorities, probably over some petty grievance, and the oyster empire collapsed around him, with both of his Spanish partners jailed who then under police interrogation tried to dump all the blame on Sullivan as mastermind of the scheme, the real criminal, some Chicago gangster, although he was from a small Mormon town in Utah.
Word that his former partners were jailed reached him, and he knew the Spanish authorities were on their way to arrest him, so he grabbed his American passport, and took a taxi to the nearby naval base. He found an old chief boatswain’s mate he knew and convinced him to get the lieutenant who was the duty officer that night to swear him in for enlistment, cut some fast paperwork, and then later that night put him on a flight back to states for reassignment. And that’s what happened. The Guardia Civil had a warrant for his arrest, but they didn’t go to the American base looking for him for some reason, though it may have occurred to them later, when he was long gone.
Sullivan had enlisted for four years, and he desperately wanted to find some way to get out of the Navy contract, and he was prepared to do anything.
He told me all about his wife Elena, showed me her photo, and a snapshot of his two lovely children, a boy and a girl.
It seemed like he was stuck, I didn’t see any way out for him, he did his Navy service, got a discharge and then maybe he brought Elena and the children later to the States, away from the long arm of the Spanish law, that seemed like the only workable solution to me.
“We lived in the States, she didn’t like it,” he remembered. “I need to go back there, to Spain!”
“How? they’ll lock you up!” I answered.
“I don’t know,” he mumbled, and quickly downed another margarita.
Then it started to become clear, his plan.
The inspection started as they all did with the company commander saluting the inspecting officer and standing alongside him as he moved down the line of troops, weapons held at the ‘present arms’ position, bolts open showing a empty breech without rounds, and then reengaging the bolt after the officer walked past, and dropping it to their side. It generally went quickly in a single swinging motion..
Sullivan stood in the row in front of me when the inspecting officer approached him, and he pulled back the bolt of his semiautomatic weapon.
I heard, “What the hell!” come from the Marine colonel as Sullivan displayed the opening only to have it filled with dirt and pebbles.
“You Goddamn idiot!” the Marine colonel bellowed, his voice bubbling with anger, and he raised his hand to almost strike Sullivan, but somehow restrained that urge, though barely, and still shaking with anger, walked to the next man in line, glancing back out of the corner of his eye at Sullivan as walked down the line of men.
That’s how it began.
Sullivan was called out in no uncertain terms about dirty rifle by Lieutenant Leap, the headquarters company commander, but this was the beginning of his one man rebellion, and nobody knew why he’d done it. He was restricted to his quarters for a week as punishment.
I saw him the next week, tucked in the same small alcove with his cases of beer companions, six or eight margaritas in front of him.
‘I’m going to get a psycho discharge, that’s the only way out,” he whispered.
“They’re wise to that, seen it before,” I warned.
“No, not what I’m gonna do!” he said. “Watch me!”
He up got from the table, and walked over to the long wooden bar, and called over the Cuban bartender, a new one that evening, and motioned for him to lean across the bar and listen. When the young bartender got closer Sullivan grabbed his face with both hands and gave him a passionate wet kiss on the lips, holding on tightly as the bartender fought to get loose, knocking over glasses on the bar in an attempt to free himself from the stronger man’s grip. Finally Sullivan let go, and the bartender grabbed a small board from behind the bar, and yelled in Spanish for Sullivan to get away, or he’d kill him.
As everyone in the bar looked at him, Sullivan blew the seething bartender a kiss in the air, and then rejoined me at the table to finish his margaritas.
“That’s what I mean, they ain’t seen shit,” he noted, and finished a drink in a single gulp.
As the nighttime Navy watch marched with flashlight through the rickety barracks on his regular rounds, Sullivan would be standing in the middle of the barracks floor masturbating, or he would bang his head against a wall, moaning, all this written in the Master at Arms’ log for that night, suggesting some kind of insanity in this man.
He visited the very jumpy battalion doctor Chacon who was just out of medical school, and who would rather listen to classical music in his quarters than treat patients.
Sullivan grabbed him during an examination for flu, or some other virus, held him tightly in an embrace until forcibly separated by the medics in the clinic, and then he loudly professed his undying love for Chacon, suggesting they marry clandestinely as soon as possible, or he would die of a broken heart, scaring the already timid doctor half to death who thereafter became even more reclusive.
One Sunday he had gone to the morning chapel service, and during Communion had started speaking in tongues, rolling all over the floor, shouting and jerking his body violently. The Chaplain became wary of him, and often had someone turn him away at the church door, suspicious of his behavior, and the disruptions that followed.
One time, he stopped the Chaplain as he was walking around the compound. “Father,” he said, “I’m Jesus Christ!”
“How are you, Terrence?” the Chaplain inquired, trying to make the conversation pleasant.
“You don’t think I’m Jesus Christ, huh? Sullivan said to him, “OK, then look at this,” and he opened his hands to show him two circular wounds in his palms, “see, the stigmata, Father, the stigmata!”
The Chaplain wanted to take him to the clinic at that moment to have what appeared to be serious wounds treated, but Sullivan waved him away, and ran down one of the small trails that wove their way throughout the military compound of one story barracks and Quonset huts.
At dinner, he would also stand up occasionally in the mess hall and hold his bread in the air, and say, “This is my body, the body of Christ! Eat it for everlasting life!” The mess chief had him put on notice, but that only caused him to do it more often, and it got to be a joke with the other men who would also hold up a slice of white Wonder bread, and shout, “Amen, brother! Praise the Lord!” and sometimes sling the bread across the room at each other.
At some point doing this time he had been assigned night guard duty on Windmill Beach, patrolling the vacant sand for a four hour watch, and had gotten on the two-way radio, and tried to call in air strikes from the offshore aircraft carrier to thwart an invading Cuban force. He also had emptied the magazine of live rounds given him, telling the listening post that he killed yet another Cuban soldier with each rifle discharge. Then he was yelling into the radio, “It’s hand-to-hand now, I’m using my knife,” After that, he was relieved of all normal daily duties.
The next monthly inspection saw Sullivan with a clean rifle but exposing his genitals to a different Marine bird colonel, who this time pulled him out of ranks, and threw him to the ground, which supposedly went unseen by the five hundred men standing on the parade ground that morning. Someone said later that he saw the Colonel kick him when he was lying on the ground.
Soon to be locked up in the Marine brig, but now deemed a full-blown psychotic, he was restricted to the barracks before being accompanied under guard on a flight to the naval psychiatric hospital in Oakland, where he would be treated, and either retained, or discharged as an undesirable.
I had a few minutes to talk to him, and he smiled and said to me, “The next time you see me, will be in a suit, in Spain,” where we were moving next as a battalion.
“Sure,” I said, a little doubtful, though I liked the man anyway.
“You don’t think so, huh?” he answered. “I don’t blame you, I’m half crazy.”
“You’re OK,” I reassured him, giving him a tap on the arm.
“You know, maybe this whole thing did make me nuts,” he offered, and then started laughing in an totally unnatural way, not really a laugh at all, almost some kind of plea, really.
I saw some madness reflected in his sad eyes, and I wondered if he had indeed gone over the edge into mental illness, or if he’d already been insane, and it just came to the surface, but he remained an enigma to me.
Six months passed slowly there, the boredom, the heat, the drunkenness and fights, and then one weekend we were all loaded on three C-150 cargo planes and flown to the submarine base at the tip of the Spanish coast, where we’d spend the next few months, and after that Vietnam.
Spain was a breath of fresh air after Cuba. You could wear casual clothes on a weekend afternoon, eat at a quaint outdoor bodega, maybe hear a flamingo concert, or just act like a normal human being, particularly if you jumped into a taxi and drove for a half hour to one of the small cities like Jerez, the sherry capitol.
Jerez was my favorite Spanish city, it had wonderful hidden bistros on side streets where I would eat tapas and sip magnificent sherry from old wooden casks, and in the evening watch the paseo, that ritual of leisurely strolling popular with most Spanish families.
I became an aficionado of the bullfight, though I hadn’t grown up hunting any animals, particularly larger ones like deer, and always had a profound respect for wildlife, but still, the rich medieval spectacle of bullfighting and the corrida itself captured some part of me. I traveled weekends throughout southern Spain as far as Seville, and once or twice to Madrid, to see the best bullfighters of the day.
In Jerez, one Sunday afternoon the most famous matador after Manolete who had died in the ring was fighting, Antonio Ordonez, who somehow made classical ballet part of the violence. His Veronica movement was said to take your breath away with fear, the bull’s horns inches away from ripping open his midsection on each pass.
The stands were packed with as many women as men, and for a few dollars more I found myself in the shady section above two rows of boxes with patrons and girlfriends of the bullfighters, close to the wooden fence encircling the sandy ring, yet far enough above, perhaps ten rows, to give me a full view of the bullring and its bloody action.
The first two bullfights were fought well, by novice matadors, decent kills with some panache, but the bulls seemed smaller than others I’d seen in Madrid, or even Seville, less fierce.
Then the bull Ordonez was to fight charged into the ring, huge, fierce and muscled, far larger than the others I had seen slaughtered a half hour earlier.
It ran in maddening circles, crashing into the planked walls several times, and then charged the first horse coming into the ring, pinning it and the picador rider atop with barbed pole, against the fence, butting it repeatedly, and would have brought the animal down except for the movement of a second horse in the ring which diverted its attention.
Next bandilleros with red capes appeared in the ring, and with a bravado of deadly dance steps in front of the horns, managed to implant two or three ceremonial barbs with their flowing ribbons in the wounded bull’s bloody neck.
By now, the bull was enraged, and ready to battle man or fellow beast to the death, and then Ordonez walked nonchalantly into the bullring carrying his cape loosely draped over his right arm.
The crowd went wild with cheering, and he removed his hat and held it aloft to acknowledge its tribute.
Ordonez was all they said he was, my heart was in my throat at each of his Veronicas with the raging bull, and during the last pass I thought he would surely be gored, his cape was so close to the horns. At the end, he was awarded two ears and a tail, the signature of only the greatest matadors.
Leaving the bullring drained, I had planned on enjoying a quiet paella dinner and then get a taxi back. As I walked out of the narrow tunnel into orange light of the cobblestoned street I noticed a tall dark haired man in a grey sharkskin suit standing in front of me with a lovely woman, talking to another couple, everybody jolly and chattering away.
And my God, there he was! Sullivan! just as he had told me he would be. I was astonished. We shook hands, laughing, and then embraced each other with huge bear hugs, and I said, “True to your word!”
He introduced me to his wife Elena, and the other couple, and suggested we walk a block down the same street to a bodega he liked, which we did.
Then as his wife pulled the couple closer to talk to her, he turned to me.
“It wasn’t easy!” he told me. “Thought I had gone nuts, the place made me insane, everybody was a lunatic!”
He had spent six months at the Oakland psychiatric hospital, and had gone through hours and hours of psychotherapy with four or five different psychiatrists, until they all finally agreed that he was mentally unfit to complete the balance of his military service, and discharged him.
“One of the shrinks thought I was faking it, but I was one step ahead of him. They eventually certified me as wacko!
“I was the sanest person in the whole loony bin, and toward the end, they had me drive a few of the other psychos to the racetrack, a little treat for the nuts!”
“I bought them sodas, hot dogs, and made sure they didn’t try to screw the horses, or the jockeys!”
I didn’t know how to say it, so I just said it to him, anyway. “You faked this then, from the start to finish, right?”
He looked at me, and then he glanced over at Elena who was laughing with their close friends, and he picked up his half filled sherry glass.
“Of course, you did,” I said to him.
“One of those mysteries!”
“But the Spanish police?” I said.
Paid them off, he told me, and then turned to Elena and said something to her in rapid Spanish.
Elena beamed at me, and said in careful, halting English, “Sullivano says we see you next weekend!” and proud of what she had just said, kissed me on the cheek.
Bruce Colbert is an actor, filmmaker, and writer in New York City. His new collection of stories, A Tree on the Rift, will be released this summer by Lummox Press. His work has appeared in Bicycle Review,Bangalore Review, O-Dark-Thirty, Charlottesville Winter, Hamilton Stone Review, Awakenings Review, The Blotter, Criterion, The Gambler, Dark Matter Anthology, Transportation Almanac, Lost Coast Review, Breaking Waves Anthology, Puffin Review, Argosy,Authors United Anthology, Dos Passos Review, On The Rusk, and elsewhere.
(Updated Aug. 2014)