When I received my commission from Officer Candidate School in the spring of ’65 Dad gave me a $5,000 graduation present. Big, big bucks back then.
Needed a car. Pete – my OCS roommate – and I had had long conversation about cars. He was of a mind that Mercedes Benz sport cars were the best for the money for young 2nd Lieutenants like us. Sort went with shiny new gold bars.
In the SL series there were only two models. The 300 SL gullwing that were rare and very pricey and the more reasonable, and available, 190SL. That was the best for us, Pete said. The 190SL.
So back home in North Carolina after OCS I started looking for the smaller model Mercedes sports car, and got a tip from a Mercedes salesman in Raleigh that some farmer had one to sell in South Carolina. I called the farmer and found that yea, he did have one out in his used car lot pasture that he’d sell.
Drove one of Dad’s truck’s down the next day and first laid eyes on that slick beauty sitting incongruously out in a South Carolina pasture as I came around a curve on the small two lane country road that led by the farm/car lot.
Within an hour, I had it bought and chained to the back of Dad’s truck – with the chain running through a metal pipe to keep it a safe distant from the truck and drove back to Southern Pines, NC going maybe 25 miles an hour. Looking back every 15 minutes at that leopard looking car machine that seemed to be following me home.
Paid less than $4,000 for it. Didn’t like the red paint, so with the rest of my graduation money I got it repainted white, had the seats dyed black, and put on 4 new tires. And within the week we were out running roads around my home town, top down, a Budweiser beer between my thighs, country and western songs playing on the radio. Big, big smile on my face. Tooted that horn a hundred times that first few days as I passed people and waved. Just over the top obnoxious… 190SL will have that effect on you.
The farmer who sold me the car had said it worked perfect, all except the cigarette lighter. And that used to be my story about buying the little roaster. I got it cheap because the cigarette lighter didn’t work.
I named it Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse, though to be honest that was lost on most of the big haired women that I dated during those Army years.
But I loved that car. I loved my Springfield ’02 rifle from military school – and the beautiful red haired girl that lived near our house in Southern Pines – but that 1957 Mercedes Benz 190SL was an extension of who I thought I was. And it was mine. All mine. And I loved it. Made me feel good every morning I came out and saw it sitting there, as if waiting to go for a run.
Only the cigarette lighter didn’t work.
It was a chick magnetic. There were a couple of times I went to get in my car after spending time in nearby bars to find strange girls sitting in the passenger seat… both times, bold, unashamed welcoming smile on their faces…
With the top down and the music loud, I drove down to jump training at Ft Benning and then up to join my first unit, the 1st Division at Ft Riley, Kansas. There I only drove it for a couple months before my unit was shipped out to Vietnam, but Pete’s father kept it in a garage the year I was away.
After Vietnam he had it tuned up and polished for me when I came through Lincoln, Nebraska enroute Fort Ord, California… where I would be assigned my last year in the Army as the Office in Charge of the 6th Army Area Drill Sergeant School.
It was early fall and the magic was still there, driving that car on the open highway, streaking across the Nebraska prairie heading to the Fort Ord/Big Sur region of California to join Pete… and as incredible as it sounds, also Bob Dunn, another Vietnam buddy. The three of us “being together again…” after a year in the jungles of SEA.
The car purred as if it was happy to be out in the sunshine from a year in a garage. I remember thinking that I had circled the earth since last riding in that beauty. Life was powerfully good.
Reunited with Pete, he and I and another office named Javits, rented a house high in Carmel Highlands. Kim Novak lived two houses down from us by the ocean. Everyone I knew had seen her in Picnic with William Holden. Almost every day, we stood on the terrace of our rented house, looked down toward her house, and quoted William Holden’s lines to her. Sometimes at night before going to bed, we went outside and said, “Good night, Kim.”
Me, Bob Dunn, George McCoy and Larry Peterson
Our mailbox was near the cutoff by a bishop’s house. The mailbox for the house across the street hung on the same board. The woman who lived in that house often worked in her garden and she would wave at me. Occasionally, we met at the mailbox or in the local supermarket. She was in her late forties or early fifties and looked bookish, like a New Englander, I thought.
As Office in Charge of the Fort Ord Drill Sergeant School, I often had to dress to the nines in my best uniform with all my combat ribbon plumage to do inspections and make occasional comments to the student body. Coming back on those looking “as-military-sharp-as-I-can” days I’ll usually put my hat on the passenger seat and light a cigar.
Most often I was in Winston-Churchill-cigar-clinched-in-jaw mode by the time I got to the left turn in Monterrey that shot me south along the Pacific highway, pass Carmel to our house in the Highlands.
One day when I was wearing my finest, with that day’s cigar on the dash, I started home…and after I left the main gate put my hat in the passenger’s seat and took the wrapping off the cigar and put it in my mouth.
No lighter. Not in my pockets, not on the dash, not in the glove department. No lighter, no matches. Just a new cigar in my clinched jaw.
Pissed, ‘cause I like this time, I idly pushed in the cigarette lighter on the dash, which just shows how futile all this was, ‘cause that lighter didn’t work, never had, not since I owned the car.
Or that’s what the guy said. But you know what, after a while it popped back out, from where I had pushed it in.
I was right at the turn south in Monterrey at the time. So I had to stop, shift to 1st gear and then when the light changed, turn the wheel in lane to keep us goin’, while shifting into 2nd before getting through the intersection.
I had, almost unconsciously, pulled the lighter out of it place in the dash as I started all this shifting gears and turning the wheel and keeping in my lane… I had put my thumb at the end because I knew the lighter didn’t work.
I was shifting gears with the heel of that hand….that hand… that held the thumb that was on the business end of the cigarette lighter that had never worked.
I smelled my finger burning before I actually felt it. I know that’s hard to believe. But it is the truth. That red hot coil at the end of lighter had branded the end of my thumb in the “Many Circle” stupid brand. And then like an explosion it started to hurt.
Hurt bad, because I had burnt the shit out of my thumb. 1st degree or 3rd degree whichever is worst.
My thumb glowed where the lighter had tried to light it. And the hurt just kept on coming.
I stopped the car – in the middle of the intersection – and got out and held my right hand and jumped around and yelled. YELLED…
Damn that hurt.
Pretty soon cars that were backed up started blowing their horns and I got back in and drove through the intersection to park along the side of the road and wave my thumb as if the wind would cool it off.
That some major league hurt. And you know what? Found the lighter later under the passenger seat. Never found my hat. Haven’t a clue how it got out of the car or where it wen
Sometime later, I was coming in from the Drill Sergeant School in my dress uniform – my thumb almost healed – and the lady across the street hailed me from her yard as I checked the mail. Obviously, she had been working in her garden for some time that day; she was dirty and rumpled.
She walked across the road and asked after the plumage on my uniform and I explained it briefly. She said she was having a garden party that weekend and wondered if I would be able to come. Possibly, the other men in my house would also attend. I said I couldn’t speak for them, but I’d be there. She asked if I would wear my uniform because, she said, I looked so handsome in it.
My house mates no interest in garden parties so I went by myself, still dressed immaculately from Saturday morning inspection at the Drill Sergeant School. About thirty people were gathered in the side garden. A bar stood under a small tent in the rear.
The Episcopal bishop was standing near the lattice entrance portal, and we spoke. He did not seem as warm and engaging as the ministers I remembered from my small town home in North Carolina, but rather of the arty sort. Beyond him, I saw several people moving in our direction, drawn, I was sure, by my uniform.
“These medals,” one woman said to me, “what do they mean? What did you do to receive them?”
I began explaining the campaign medals, and the bishop asked to be excused. As he was breaking through the crowd around me, he looked back in my direction and nodded, smiling sweetly.
“Tell me about this ribbon,” said a woman. “What did you do, personally?” She wasn’t friendly. Her tone was hard, her gaze steady and accusing. I looked around, surprised to see that the other people were glaring at me.
“Did you kill any women and children for that?” someone asked.
“Be quiet, Helen,” said the first woman, turning quickly to the new questioner. “I have him first. He answers to me first. What did you do that got you that medal?”
I scanned the crowd again for one friendly face. Finally, I looked at a man standing behind some women on my right. He had a round, happy face and looked a little drunk. I continued to look at him until he spoke.
“Did you carry a bayonet?” he asked with a slight lisp.
I talked about some of the personalities I knew — Pete, Dunn, Woolley, Bratcher, Spencer. It wasn’t what they wanted to hear. One woman told me that she had heard we gassed whole villages, the Air Force bombed populated areas with napalm and we had body count quotas on operations.
Smiling at her, I said the public perception of the war in Vietnam was distorted because it had been sensationalized by the media. They had an attitude when it came to coverage — get as much blood in the frame as possible — and they always ended with the message that it’s a bad war. It seemed to me that they never ever had a feel for the G.I. One reason, I guessed, was the men doing the reporting could not relate to the poor and the black from our society who were doing the fighting and the dying over there. I also guessed that no one here knew anyone fighting on the ground in Vietnam. No one they knew knew my war.
“War,” a scrawny little man said, “corrupts the human experience. Failures in statesmanship lead to war. It is an enormous waste.”
“It is disconcerting,” a woman close to me said, “your contention there is a separation between us and the soldiers over there. That’s what happened with the Nazis. No one knew what the soldiers were doing in Treblinka. It’s a government gone mad. Leads to things like the Holocaust where mass murder was sanctioned. Body-count murder in Vietnam is very similar, it seems to me.”
I looked around. My way out of the gate was blocked. Perhaps they sensed that I might try to make a break for it. I stood there, like a bear in a bear baiting, nodding to the people who were talking, but it was hard to focus on one person. So many were talking in a breathless frenzy.
Finally noticing a path open toward the bar, I excused myself and made my way to the rear of the garden.
“Very mean scene, man,” said the smiling young bartender. “They were on you like a mob. Like they were waiting for you. Why did you wear your uniform, for Christ sake? This is the liberal’s Mecca here, pal.”
She asked me,” I said, looking at the guy with eyes wide, “the hostess asked me to wear my fucking uniform. Jesus, I didn’t know that she was an antiwar piranha.”
I took a deep breath and asked the boy for a beer. Someone walked up beside me. A woman. I could smell her. She placed her arms on the counter. I looked at her wrist to see if there was anything I recognized about her jewelry to tie her to the women behind me. Nothing was familiar, but I decided not to make eye contact anyway to avoid any further confrontation. The woman asked for wine. She had a soft, cultured voice, not harsh and raspy like the voices in the crowd by the gate. I fingered the rings of water on the bar and debated whether to look at her. Acting on a sudden impulse, I turned my head at the same time that the woman turned hers. We were no more than ten inches apart.
Honest to God, Kim Novak. I looked at her eyelids, at the pores of her cheek, at her full lips. She smiled, warm and friendly, and said softly,
My mind froze. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I didn’t even think about thinking about something to say.
We were so close that I couldn’t even tell if she was beautiful. I looked at the forehead and the eyes and the nose and the lips, but I didn’t know what the whole face looked like.
Except for my eyes, my body was rock still. Saliva collected in my mouth, and a little drained out and ran down my chin. Kim lowered her gaze but continued to smile. She looked up at the bartender when he handed her the glass of wine, thanked him, turned to look back at me quickly, and then walked away.
I stood there in shock, my head still turned to where she had been. First the screaming liberals and then Kim Novak. Get me outa here, I said to myself. I turned, walked through the house, passed the hostess without comment, and went out the front door and down the road to my house.
That night, I told my house mates about the liberal crazies at the party and meeting Kim Novak but I did not tell them that I had been frozen speechless. What I said was that we had a little chat, and she was nice, very soft, and very different from the other hard cases there. I told them that I thought I had made an impression. She knew where we lived; I wouldn’t doubt that she might someday just pop in for a drink. Or invite us down. Whatever.
Several nights later, a friend and I were at the Matador Bar in Carmel. We were sitting at a table for two against the wall, near the front. My buddy looked up and said that Kim Novak had just walked in.
I said, “Yeah, sure. I bet she’ll come over and hug my neck when she sees I’m here.” Shortly afterward I was walking near the row of bar stools on the way to the men’s room. A woman swung around as if to leave. I was close, and she looked at me.
Veering off to the left away from her, I walked right into a table and spilled all of the drinks on it. Fortunately, apologizing and righting people’s drinks gave me something to do, so that I didn’t have to turn back to Kim. No one at the table understood how I could have “accidentally” walked into their table — it wasn’t like they were in the middle of the aisle.
Like I expected Rocinante had nothing to say to me one way or other on the way home. Things like this happen out tilting windmills.