For a while there I used to commute, weekly, from Los Angeles
to Whidbey Island, Washington
. My wife and I wanted to escape from Babylon
, the Land of Smokes and Shadows
, as the Chumash
tribe used to call it, and find a Better Place
to raise the boys.
Whidbey Island, and Seattle in general, fit the bill. We liked the rain, and the green-all-around that is its issue, and the fact that people actually read in the Pacific Northwest--all the way from Portland to Vancouver and beyond--was certainly a plus.
The honeymoon was short-lived. In the first place, the media--specifically mediocre television shows and egregiously ill-inspired music--were more insidiously pervasive in Seattle than they were in L.A., the operative factor being that my fourteen-year-old knows that it's all a money-making game cause he knows the players personally, while his peers in paradise actually think that stuff is Real. Important. Worth spending too much time and money on. The young citizens of paradise were graduate students in consumerism, and they didn't even know it. So there was the matter of the kid fitting in. He did, but it was hard, expensive, and time-consuming.
The real deal-breaker however was the god-awful commute. Come friday afternoon I'd be tensing up around lunch, fully aware that I'd have to fight the freeways from Burbank to LAX, the inevitable traffic at the airport itself, and the hoards of home-bound vacationers from Mazatlan and Cozumel who all flew Alaska Air too. My friday-night flights were soaked in too much tequila and triple sec and post-holiday malaise. I was a gold card-carrying Very Important Passenger good for a free roundtrip every month who knew all the attendants and pilots too, but it wasn't enough by any means.
And how about getting up at 3:45 A.M. on monday to make the four-thirty ferry to Mukilteo with the guys who work for Boeing, catch the shuttle (which was often late), and play the whole airport-game in reverse? To get to work by nine? No, possible though it may have been, commuting up and down the West Coast like a rat in a cage was not the lifestyle for which I'd been looking.
But one morning something happened that made me glad I'd tried:
I was living in a garage in Manhattan Beach and my usual driver hadn't shown. I was starting to feel that tension in my belly that might best be termed commuter's remorse when I called the cab company a second time. As the dispatcher was double-checking, I heard the car pull up outside.
The driver was tired, just coming off his shift. He was a heavy smoker and it looked like the first thing he'd do when he got home was bust open a Coors, and who could blame him? It's not easy hacking in the South Bay. Mostly you're ferrying short-haul--blue-haired old ladies, lawyers, proctologists, and Airport Fares. Like me, but less disposed to tip. The area's infamous for cheap rich people; you could look it up.
My driver, in fact, is a commuter himself, he tells me. In order to get to his first/last beer of the day he's gotta drive another hundred miles home. He lives two counties away in the desert on the way to Vegas. He shrugs:
"I like to drive."
There's something about the resignation, the acceptance of his life as it is that gets me curious. As he threads his way easily onto Sepulveda Boulevard, I notice that my driver has a look about him. It's a familiar look and dawn's a good time of day to ask:
"So were you in Nam?"
I nod. This sort of thing doesn't happen as much as it used to. We drive on a little ways. Nothing much else to say. You could talk about the turquoise and copper sunrise that promised a storm if you wanted to; the sharp clean ocean smell this time of day. The silvery-cobwebby dew on the Golden Bear three-par just past Rosecrans might remind a kid of Narnia. But we just spin down the boulevard, two old guys. Any sunrise will do, to tell the truth.
As he changes lanes in the tunnel that runs under the east-west runway at LAX, the driver looks at me sharply:
"So what'd you do over there?"
There was a time when I'd answer this question warily. Back when guys were younger and more pissed off about the way things turn out sometimes. Nowadays, Fuckit. Don't mean nothin'. Drive on.
"I managed a rock n roll band. The Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"In Chu Lai?!" he asked incredulously.
"I saw you guys!"
"No. I saw you guys in Tien Phuc. We were on standdown and I was really fucked up. I'll never forget it. You played Inna Gadda Da Vida."
Yes. We played Inna Gadda Da Vida three times a day for a year. Eighteen minutes a pop. And we played the firebase at Tien Phouc exactly once, and I have the pictures to prove it. Kodachromes, with those nice bright colors, the greens of summer.
"Man oh man, I'll never forget the Joint Chiefs! You guys ROCKED!
And so we did. We rocked and rocked and rocked. I'm pretty much lost in my thoughts, very pleased about this whole turn of events, actually. Very pleased indeed. It's never happened before or since.
And we roll up to the Alaska baggage area. My driver is pumped. He flies out of the cab, pops the trunk, and has my bags on the sidewalk before I can even close my door. I'm fumbling with my carry-on, money, his tip. When I finally pull it together and offer the cash, he steps back, hands spread wide, palms to me:
"No no no, man. No way."
I insist, stupidly, I know.
"No fucking way, G.I."
We stand there for a beat, a pretty long beat for two guys on a mission, and finally, tired gray eyes brimmed with tears, he says:
"I just want you to know, this means as much to me as seeing you guys did back then."
We struggle with stuff for a little while here. You can imagine. A half a little-bit later he amends himself:
And that's pretty much when I lost it, cause what he didn't say was what he really meant; what I wanted to say was what neither of us could. The fact is we were both really glad to be alive.
We hugged awkwardly and I made him take the money.
"Thank you," he said
And we turned to finish our long commute.
- I was a prisoner in a Mexican Whorehouse
- A long time gone
- How to brush your teeth in a combat zone
- Libber and I go to war
- Fate takes a piss
- Thanks For the Memory
- Back in the Shit
- LZ Waterloo
- Saturday Night, Numbah Ten
a long commute
Andy X Kirby True
a tale of two Woodstocks
Buy a Gun
Dawn at The Wall
Feat of Clay
I was a free man once, in Saigon
The Joint Chiefs of Staff
the shit we ate
Combat Infantryman Badge
Firebase Mary Ann
the 1st Cav
The Highest Traditions
Those Who Forget
Under the Southern Cross
Whither the Phoenix?
A Bright Shining Lie
Apocalypse Now Redux
Hearts and Minds
We Were Soldiers