Thomas Calabrese

Chosen Pace: Water For My Dogs

posted May 18, 2020, 3:01 PM by Bruce Rowe

Numerous stories tell the story of the legendary gunfighter and vigilante, Pace Thunderhill. One said his father was a famous Texas Ranger and his mother was the daughter of a Comanche chief. Another rumor was that he was the descendant of a powerful Kiowa warrior and a woman who was kidnapped from her land-baron father’s sprawling ranch in West Texas. There was even a tall tale that Pace ran away from his family’s farm as young boy and lived in the wilderness alone for almost five years before returning one day as if nothing happened. The following account is the truth about the western warrior patriarch Slag Thunderhill. 

Slag was an imposing figure, standing six-foot-four and weighing 260 pounds. He headed west from Chicago with his wife, two daughters, and son and bought a 200-acre farm outside Dodge City, Kansas.

Slag was no stranger to hard work and it was not unusual for him to be in the fields from sunup to sundown, digging up tree roots or carrying boulders that would strain a mule. Once he set his mind to something, Slag would not be deterred from accomplishing his goal. He was a man of indomitable spirit and honorable character. Pace inherited those qualities from his father as well as his size. At 14 years of age, the younger Thunderhill was already six feet tall and 200 pounds, but he was gangly, awkward, and kind of clumsy, tripping over his big feet several times a day.

One morning, the father and son went to town to pick up supplies. After loading up, Slag told his son, “Watch the wagon. I’m going to the blacksmith to pick up the plow handle. I need to make sure he made it strong enough this time.”

“Yes sir. I’ll be right here.” Pace replied.

A group of trail-hardened Texas drovers who had just driven a herd of longhorns up from the Texas Panhandle two days earlier, staggered out of Long Branch Saloon after a night of hard drinking and carousing. When they passed the Thunderhill wagon, one of them reached into it, grabbed a bag of flour, cut it open, and threw it in the air. The cowboys hooped and hollered as the white powder covered everything in sight.

 Even though he was outnumbered six to one, Pace didn’t hesitate to jump down and confront the men, “What the hell do you varmints think you’re doing?”

One of the drovers responded, “You talking to us, boy?”

“Those are my family’s supplies. You’re going to have to pay for that bag of flour,” Pace said.

One of the drovers reached for his pistol, but his friend grabbed his hand, noticing he wasn’t armed. “He ain’t heeled. They’ll hang you for sure if you kill him.”

“Reckon so.” The drover pulled out a five-dollar gold piece from his pocket, “Here’s the money, boy. Come and get it.”

His father had entrusted Pace to protect the supplies and he wasn’t going to disappoint him. When he walked over and reached for the gold piece, the drover pulled his hand away.

“You’re a little slow, sodbuster.”

Pace grabbed the drover by the shirt, pulled him toward him, and grabbed the gold piece, “I’m fast enough.”

The drover became angry and took a wild swing at Pace who, with a leg sweep, sent the cowboy down on his butt. The other five drovers interceded and began punching and kicking Pace who did his best to defend himself as he fell to the ground.

Slag came walking down the street to see his son being attacked and rushed to help him. Picking up one drover, Slag threw him five feet through the air. He hit the side of the wagon and crumpled to the ground. Slag punched another cowboy so hard that he was unconscious before he hit the dirt. Pace got to his feet and fought alongside his father until all the drovers were lying on the ground.

Marshal Wyatt Earp and Deputy Bat Masterson walked up moments after the skirmish. Surveying the scene, Earp asked, “Having any trouble?”

“No Marshal. Just a little disagreement,” Slag answered.

Masterson walked over to Pace. “You alright boy?”

Pace spit out a mouthful of blood. “I’m fine.”

“You might want to see Doc Adamson before you leave town.”

Bat whispered to Wyatt, “This guy is pretty good with his fists. You thinking what I’m thinking?”

As he listened, a sly grin came to Earp’s face. He answered, “I wasn’t until now.” Then he turned to Slag. “I’ve got a business proposition for you. Come and see me later.”

Earp had many interests besides being a lawman, including being a professional gambler, teamster, and buffalo hunter. He also owned several saloons, mined for silver and gold, and refereed boxing matches. He saw a great opportunity with the tough farmer. Before long, Slag Thunderhill was a bareknuckle prizefighter with over 20 winning fights. Earp and Masterson earned a percentage of the winnings from his victories.

Dodge City had been a frontier cow town for several years but began to lose its allure to men of reckless blood when it civilized itself. Virgil Earp was the town constable in Prescott, Arizona and wrote his brother about the opportunities in the silver-mining boomtown of Tombstone. Wyatt relayed the information to Slag.

“We got a chance to make us some big money out west. You’re starting to get a reputation around these parts and we’re having to give odds to get you a fight. In Tombstone, we can start fresh.”

Slag was hesitant about uprooting his family. “I don’t know, Wyatt. I’ve got used to being in Kansas. My kids have taken a liking to it too.”

“You got maybe two, three years of fighting left before your body will start breaking down on you. If you care about your family, this is your chance to save up some money for them. My brother Virgil knows I’ve got a good deal here and he wouldn’t ask me to hit the trail if he wasn’t dang sure that it was better out there.”

“Let me think on it a spell,” Slag said.

“I’ll sweeten the pot for you. I’ll give twice what you paid for your piece of land. If you like it out there, you’ve made a profit. If you don’t, I’ll give you back the ranch and you can keep the money too. You can’t lose either way”

“That’s not much of a deal for you,” Slag said.

Wyatt grinned. “I’m a gambler at heart and I like playing my hunches. You ain’t never let me down yet.”

Slag made an equally generous offer to the struggling Rabb family. “You take care of my place and anything you make is yours to keep.” He handed Jethro Rabb 300 dollars. “This will help until you get back on your feet.”

The bank had foreclosed on the Rabb farm two months earlier and Slag had been helping Josh Rabb out since then. Pace knew how softhearted his dad was and commented, “There’s no way that, if we come back, you’re going to tell Mr. Rabb he has to move out.”

“You know it and I know it, but he don’t need to know it,” Slag said. He put his arm around his son’s shoulder. “You’re getting too smart for your own good.”

Wyatt Earp and Masterson were already in Tombstone and setting things up before Slag and his family set out for the Arizona Territory. It was an 850-mile journey so the Thunderhill family took two wagons filled with personal belongings they didn’t want to leave behind. Slag drove the lead wagon with his wife Susannah and Pace followed with his two sisters, Rosalie and Abigail. They camped at Parker Canyon Lake.

“We’re about a day and a half out of Tombstone,” said Slag. “We’ll rest up here and leave the day after tomorrow. Pace, why don’t you and your sisters go see if you can catch some catfish for dinner.”

“Yes sir,” Pace replied.

The three Thunderhill children were about a quarter mile from their campsite when they heard a series of gunshots. As they ran back to the wagons, they saw 15 or 20 riders leaving the area. They couldn’t see their faces, but saw red sashes tied around their waists, waving in the wind. Slag and Susannah were shot multiple times, the wagons were ransacked, and the horses were missing.

Pace knew he had to protect his sisters. While he was heartbroken and just wanted to sit down and cry, he knew that was not an option. “I’ll bury Ma and Pa. You find something to carry water. We’ll leave at sunset when it’s cooler.”

When they arrived in Tombstone, Pace asked the first man he saw, “I’m looking for Wyatt Earp.”

“Try the Oriental Saloon.”

Pace found Wyatt Earp playing cards with Masterson and Doc Holliday. He explained what happened to his mother and father and mentioned the red sashes.

Holliday grumbled, “The Cowboys.”

“What?” Pace asked.

“The men wearing those red sashes work for Ike Clanton. They operate along the Mexican border, stealing cattle, robbing stagecoaches, and ambushing settlers and teamsters. They call themselves The Cowboys,” Wyatt explained.

When Masterson saw the look in Pace’s eyes, he warned, “Don’t be thinking about going after them, they’re too many of them. They’ll shoot you down.”

Pace vowed, “Right now, I need to take care of my sisters. I’ll deal with those responsible for my parents’ deaths when I get that done.”

“How you going to do that?” Holliday inquired.

“We got kin who live in Vista, California. I reckon I’ll take my sisters there, then come back and carry out the deal that Pa had with Mr. Earp.”  

“I ain’t holding you to that. I’d be obliged to pay for you and your sisters to go back to Kansas,” Earp said.

“We won’t be doing that, I’ll do what Pa came out here to do.”

“I know better than to argue with a Thunderhill.”

*  *  *

After safely getting his sisters to Vista, California, Pace returned to Tombstone. Even though he was only a 17 year-old boy, Pace now stood six-foot-six and weighed 225. He wasn’t quite as strong as his father, but he was considerably quicker. He also saw every one of his father’s fights and helped him train. So, while Pace did not have any actual ring experience, he was still very prepared to take up where his father left off. He also had an extra motivation that burned red hot in his soul.

Against regular cowboys who thought they could fight, Pace ended the bouts quickly, usually with a series of powerful body punches, bringing his opponents to their knees, gasping for breath and unable to continue. On those rare occasions when one of the Clanton gang wanted to challenge him, Pace inflicted the greatest amount of pain and suffering, while keeping the murderous bushwhacking buscadero (gunfighter) upright for the longest possible time.

There was nobody tougher than Slag Thunderhill when it came to fighting, but like Masterson reminded Pace, “Bareknuckles got no chance against hot lead.”

If he was going to get justice and revenge, Pace was going to have to become as proficient with guns as he was with his fists. Under Earp and Holliday’s tutelage, along with his own natural athletic skills, it didn’t take long for Pace to be able to skin a smokewagon (pistol) in the blink of an eye.

Pace paid Tully O’Brien, the town gunsmith, to custom fit and balance several Colt .45s to his big hands. The young man practiced fast drawing a thousand times a day in his room then would go out of town to improve his accuracy with his pistols and rifles, a Sharps 50 and a Winchester 73. Pace wanted desperately to put a bullet between Ike Clanton’s eyes, but Earp discouraged him from being too hasty.

“Pull in your horns, we’ll get Ike. You go after him now and they’ll hang you for dang sure. He’s done bought the local law. I’m working on getting appointed United Marshal for the territory, then he’s all yours.”

“Reckon so,” Pace grumbled.

“In the meantime, let’s take his money,” Holliday coughed up a mouthful of blood as he took a long swig of whiskey from his personalized flask.

Ike Clanton hated the Earps, Holliday, Masterson and everybody associated with them. It stuck in his craw that nobody could defeat Pace in a fight. When Ike heard about a brutal fighter from St. Louis, he sent a telegram to Big Jim Haverty, offering him ten thousand dollars to fight Pace. Big Jim looked like he was part grizzly bear. He was extremely hairy, including a full thick beard. The only place on him that didn’t have hair was the top of his head, which was shaved. He weighed 350 pounds, his legs were the size of small tree stumps, and his arms were pile driver strong. Clanton wasted little time showing him around town and boasting, “This is the toughest, fightiest hombre there ever was. I’m taking all bets for anybody who wants to put their money on Pace Thunderhill!”

Holliday warned Pace. “I’ve heard a lot about this Haverty fella’. Many a fighter has busted a knuckle or even a hand hitting that rock-hard head of his.”

There were thousands of dollars being wagered on the fight. Earp offered Pace a chance to back out. “I could tell everybody that you’re hurt and can’t fight.”

“Obliged, but I reckon I’ll go through with it.” Pace handed Wyatt a stack of money. “This is every cent I got.”

Wyatt, Bat and Doc went to see Ike Clanton. “We’ve got twenty thousand…all on Thunderhill,” said Earp.

Clanton laughed when he saw the stack. “I’m going to look forward to taking your money. You’ve been on a winning streak for too long.”

*  *  *

Big Jim kept his fists alongside his face then hunched over, exposing only that big bald head as an inviting target. Pace had his own strategy. He snapped out his right arm and the heel of his hand thudded the bald head with such force that Big Jim didn’t know what hit him. After being hit a dozen times, he raised his hands higher to protect his head, leaving his ribs exposed. Pace crushed his fists into both sides of the larger man. The crowd could hear the rush of air escape his lungs. When Big Jim dropped his elbows to protect his ribs, Pace hit him a dozen times in the face.

The routine repeated over and over: heel of the hand to the top of the head, crushing body blows , then brutal right crosses and left hooks to the face. No matter what Big Jim did, he couldn’t protect himself from all three areas at the same time. Finally, Pace saw the opening he was looking for and unleashed a barrage of punches that did not stop until Big Jim fell to the ground. He laid there motionless.

Clanton couldn’t believe he had lost everything and reluctantly paid off Wyatt, Bat, and Doc. Returning to his ranch, he screamed at his brother Deke, “I want everybody out on the trails. Nothing gets through this territory without us getting our piece of it!”

Pace bought three wolf-hybrid puppies from a Tucson animal breeder and had been training them. He knew how desperate Clanton had become since the big fight. He’d be looking for easy prey on the trail. This would be Pace’s chance to really put the pressure on the murderous outlaw. He loaded up his two pack horses with ammunition and grub. He was headed out of town when he passed Earp and Holliday.

“Where you going?” Earp asked.

“Hunting,” Pace answered.

“How long?”

“A week or so.”

Earp smiled. “Good hunting.”

When Pace was out of earshot, Holliday asked, “You know what he’s hunting?”

“Cowboys.”

*  *  *

Pace traveled along the ridgeline that ran parallel to the main stage trail for two days before he saw a dust cloud in the distance. Pulling out his binoculars, he saw a dozen riders wearing red sashes. He followed them from a distance, then when they attacked a small wagon train, Pace moved in and killed them all. He sent the wagon train on its way, then unsaddled the horses of the dead men and took them to a nearby ranch.

He told Henry Hudkins, a friend of the Earps, “I thought you might want some horses. If you want guns and saddles, they’re down by the old oak tree at Camino Gulch. You can bury the bodies or leave them for the vultures. Right now I need some water for my horses and dogs.”

“Help yourself,” Hudkins said. “Thanks for the horses. I’ll send a couple of hands over there, I reckon.”

Pace always made sure to take care of his animals before he thought about himself.

He ambushed two more groups of marauding outlaws before heading back to Tombstone. It was only after he returned that he found out about the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Pace rode with Earp and Holliday until they had gotten rid of most of the Cowboys, but not all of them.

Holliday’s health continued to deteriorate. He went to Glenwood Springs in Colorado for medical treatment where he eventually died of tuberculosis. Wyatt Earp left for San Francisco with Josephine Marcus, but before he left, he deputized Pace and gave him some arrest warrants. Clanton, Lee Renfro, G.W. Swingle, Longhair Sprague, and Billy Evans had moved their illegal operations to a ranch near Springerville, Arizona. Two other Cowboys, The Calico Kid and Broken Nose Cassidy went to California to start their own gang.

Pace figured to deal with Clanton before heading west and was about 200 yards away from their ranch when he spotted the outlaws coming down the trail. Pace took out his Winchester 73 and hid behind a boulder. When Ike and his cohorts got within 25 yards of his position, Pace called out, “I’ve got warrants. Drop your guns or I’ll drop you.”

Ike and the others weren’t about to surrender, no matter what the situation. They drew their pistols and began shooting in the direction of Pace, who calmly returned fire, killing Renfro, Sprague and Evans. Pace walked into the open and set his Winchester down. He moved toward Clanton and Swingle who dismounted from their horses to face him. They reached for their pistols, but Pace’s aim was as true as his draw was quick. Clanton felt the bullet go deep into his chest and fell backward. His last words to Pace were, “I finally win, you won’t be able to hang me.”

*  *  *

When he got back to Tombstone, Pace paid the freight charges for an entire boxcar to the west coast. Two days later, he boarded a train with his horses, dogs, weapons, and ammunition and bid farewell to the town. After arriving in San Diego, he geared up and headed north.

The Calico Kid and Broken Nose Cassidy’s hideout was in Deer Springs, north of Escondido. It was well fortified and the law knew to stay out of there. There was a sign along the trail that read:” Trespassers Will Be Shot Dead and Deader.”

The sign was more of an invitation than a deterrent to Pace who kept riding. Several armed men saw him stop in front of a water trough by the livery stable. One asked, “Didn’t you see the sign?”

“I saw it,” Pace responded.

The men pulled out their pistols and began shooting into the dirt, just inches from the horses’ hoofs. The animals spooked and Pace raced off as the men laughed. Thirty minutes later, he returned and approached the seven men inside the saloon.

“As I was riding out of town, my horses and dogs heard you laughing and got kind of upset. They thought you were laughing at them. I tried to tell ‘em that you were idiots and laughed for no reason at all. Now if you come outside and tell them how sorry you are, I’m sure they’ll feel a whole heap better.”

One grizzled-looking outlaw responded, “You want us to do what? You’re plum loco, mister.”

The men started laughing again and Pace’s voice was a warning of impending doom. “There you go laughing again. I know a way to stop that.”

When the first man made the slightest move toward his holster, Pace drew his pistols, quickly killing all seven men. When he walked out of the saloon, The Calico Kid and Broken Nose Cassidy were waiting for him in the street.

Cassidy called out, “We heard you killed Ike and were headed our way. We’ve been a waitin.”

“No need to wait no more,” Pace said.

“You afraid of dying, Thunderhill?” The Kid asked. “Cause it’s riding fast for you!”

“Any man who’s afraid of dying is too afraid of living,” Pace said. “Men like us aren’t supposed to be on this earth too long anyway. Let’s get to it. I’m either going to hell or back to town for dinner.”

The Calico Kid was mighty fast and his shot was only a microsecond slower than Pace’s. The two outlaws were hit, but Pace also took a round to his shoulder. He continued firing until the hammers on his pistols were hitting spent cartridges and the Kid and Broken Nose were both lying dead in the dirt.

Pace went to visit his sisters and recovered from his wound at their place. When he was well enough to travel, he got back on the trail. Even though the Cowboys were finished, there was still a lot of work for Pace Thunderhill.

Many an outlaw is pushing up daisies on boot hills throughout the Wild West because when they ran across the tall stranger with the fists of steel and a lightning fast draw, they failed to remember two things. Don’t deny him water for his dogs and never ask him to leave before he’s ready. He’ll leave at his own Chosen Pace.

The Anointed: Retribution Has a Pretty Face

posted May 11, 2020, 3:05 PM by Bruce Rowe   [ updated May 11, 2020, 3:07 PM ]

Douglas Miller Oswalt was a charismatic individual who developed an interest in the occult as a young boy growing up in San Diego. In high school he was apprehended with other teenagers vandalizing churches and graveyards. Two members of his group who were slightly older, Stanley Baker and Steven Hurd, went on to kill three people and consume parts of the corpses in Big Sur. When they were captured, they proudly proclaimed that cannibalism was part of the ritual sacrifice to the Prince of Darkness.

Oswalt joined the Knights of the Black Circle, a satanic cult that supported itself with drug dealing and loan sharking. When member, Gary Lauter was suspected of being a police informer, Oswalt burned him at the stake. American serial killer Richard Ramirez, the infamous “Night Stalker” was part of the Black Circle and a fervent Satanist. Oswalt attended the well-publicized trial of the serial killer and when Ramirez saw him in the courtroom, he called out, “Hail Satan!”

Oswalt craved power and to have the kind he wanted, he needed to have his own organization. That is when he decided to start “The Anointed” in 2010 in Oceanside. Created to combat conservatism and organized religion, it quickly shifted to an extreme, more apocalyptic view of the world.

Oswalt convinced his followers that he was the prophet of Satan, the rightful ruler of existence. He told them that the election of Donald Trump in 2016 was an abomination. It signaled the beginning of the end of the current world order and that the day of reckoning was upon us. He promised that if they pledged their allegiance and gave all their earthly possessions to him, they would be rewarded beyond their wildest dreams with wealth and power. Oswalt interpreted historical and political events through the lens of his antiestablishment bias and became more radical and violent with each passing day

He told his followers that Abraham Lincoln was a religious fanatic and his policies helped build the “Babylonian” nation that led the entire world astray. He saw patriotism as an insult to his beliefs.

Oswalt also studied Adolph Hitler’s mannerisms and how the demonic dictator could manipulate an audience into believing what he was saying, no matter how insane it might seem to an impartial listener. One of Hitler’s tricks to ingratiate himself to the German masses was to create a persona that he was beloved by dogs and children. Oswalt was a calculating sociopath who developed his own techniques of disarming naïve and vulnerable people by using social media to express his love for children and animals. He became a regular at Palisades Park in Oceanside where people brought their children and dogs to play. Oswalt told everyone he was a widower and that his family and dogs had been killed in a raging wildfire in Northern California. He was working through the grief, he told them, and looking to make a fresh start in the area. His charade was convincing, and park-goers willingly extended their friendship.

*  *  *

Marine Corps Major James Penny married Elle when he was a young second lieutenant. They had a baby daughter two years later and named her Angela, after Elle’s mother. Eleven years later, Elle suffered cardiac arrest from an undiagnosed heart arrhythmia and passed-away in her sleep. Penny was grief-stricken and now a single father with a young daughter to raise. At the suggestion of his commanding officer, James began attending grief counseling meetings on Camp Pendleton. It was there that he met Karen Blake whose husband had been killed in the line of duty while serving in Afghanistan. Karen was living in base housing, but had been given 90 days to move out. James helped her find a one-bedroom apartment in his neighborhood.

The last thing that the single father was looking to do was get married again, but he fell hopelessly in love with the widow. They were married two years after meeting. He would have never proposed if he didn’t check with his daughter to see how she felt about it and Angela responded, “I was wondering how long you were going to wait. She’s a good woman and if I was in your position, I’d propose before somebody else does.”

“So you like her?” James asked

“Of course I do!”

It was a small ceremony at Grand Tradition Estate and Gardens in Fallbrook. The only attendees were a dozen Marine officers that James served with and six friends from Karen’s place of employment, a small plumbing company where she worked in accounts receivable. Angela was the maid of honor.

Over the next six months, it was a happy time for the Penny family, but Major Penny was in the Marine Corps and he had to heed the call of duty. When his unit was deployed, he left his new bride and daughter behind. Karen and Angela got along great, often going to the Palisades dog park before and after school to walk Sammy and Bumper, their two mixed breed rescue dogs. Every time he saw them, Oswalt would smile and say, “Good morning, ladies, how are you today?”

Angela wasn’t sure what it was about the personable man who seemed to know everybody at the park. Maybe it was his greeting that was a little too rehearsed and insincere. She casually brought up the subject to her stepmother one evening, “What do you think about that guy at the dog park?”

“Which guy?” Karen asked.

“The one that doesn’t have any dogs and talks to everybody.”

“I don’t know. HHHe seems nice enough.”

When Angela began going to El Camino High School, school started an hour earlier, preventing her from going to the park with her stepmother in the mornings. Over the next few months, Angela saw a gradual change in her stepmother’s behavior. She couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it was until Angela started expressing her empathy for Oswalt.

“He’s gone through so much in his life. I really feel sorry for him,” she said. “He said he would have never made it this far if it wasn’t for the support of a group that he belongs to. He says they do a lot of good work to help people in trouble.”

“What kind of group?” Angela asked.

“They’re having a picnic and fundraiser this Saturday. He invited us to attend.”

Headed to the picnic in the car, Angela said, “We’re not going to stay long, are we?”

“It’s always nice to help people that do good work. Let’s play it by ear.”

Karen drove to an area outside the small town of Julian, 67 miles from Oceanside. A banner was stretched across the dirt road: “Welcome Anointed.” A man stood at the entrance to an open field and gestured to where drivers should park their vehicles.

“What’s the Anointed?” Angela inquired.

“I think that’s the name of his group.”

After they parked, Karen and Angela were directed to a grassy area where others had laid out blankets and set up lawn chairs. There was a makeshift stage and everyone was facing in that direction. Several men came walking through the crowd with clipboards.

One man stopped next to Karen and Angela, “How many in your party ma’am?”

“Two,” Karen replied.

“You didn’t come with any male companions did you?”

“Why?” Angela asked.

“We have different gift baskets for the men and women.” The man smiled. “We need to make sure we have an accurate count.”

“Two females,” Karen answered.

Oswalt took the stage and went through his well-rehearsed speech about how history had mistreated the masses and his group was formed to help balance the scales. Some people were visibly moved, but Angela didn’t buy any of it.

“Let’s get the hell out of here!”

Karen took one look at the stage and agreed, “Definitely not for us.”

As they walked back to their car, they were directed down a different path than the one they came in on. They were stopped behind a stand of tall trees where another man asked their names.

“What’s going on?” Karen asked.

“Your gift baskets,” the man replied. “They’re preparing them for you right now.”

Fifteen minutes passed and several other women had been led to the same spot. Karen saw Oswalt approaching and impatiently walked over to him to inquire about the delay. Before she could get within arm’s reach, a bodyguard threw her to the ground and pointed a pistol in her face. Oswalt casually reached down and helped Angela to her feet as if this was a common occurrence.

“It’s good to see you Karen, I’m glad you and Angela could make it.” He then addressed the dozen other women standing nearby in a calm, but threatening voice. “Please hand your purses, car keys, and cellphones to my assistants.”

The women were obviously confused and hesitated to comply. Oswalt pulled a pistol from his waistband and shot the nearest women to him in the head. “There will be severe consequences for lack of compliance.”

The women went from confused to terror-stricken in a split second. Some broke into tears and others trembled, but they did exactly as they were told. Afterward they were loaded into the back of a truck, with the metal doors closed behind them. Driving to an isolated location in the Mojave Desert, the Oswald and his men unloaded the women and placed them inside a fenced compound with one large metal building. Inside the structure were cots and a small bathroom.

Oswalt told the women, “Welcome to your new home, don’t get too comfortable, you won’t be here long.” His plan was to take the submissive women and indoctrinate them into the Anointed. The others would either be sold to human trafficking rings or killed if they had no market value.

On their second night at the desert compound, Karen and Angela sat next to the fence. “I messed up big time, sorry.”

“How were you to know,” Angela responded.

“We need to do something.”

“Like what?”

“Look over there.” Karen pointed to the left. In the distance it was more illuminated than the other directions. “It could be a highway or a town.”

“Like dad would probably say, that’s a hell of a hump. Ten or 15 miles away,” Angela guessed.

“When we get out of here, that’s the direction we’re headed,” Karen said.

“You mean if we get out of here.”

Karen emphasized the word “When” and held up a three-foot length of metal pipe. “This was probably left from when they built this place.”

A few minutes later, Karen called to one of the guards, “I need your help, my daughter has a medical condition,” and pointed to a motionless Angela lying on the ground.

“What’s wrong with her?” the guard asked.

“Hypervascular neurosis.” Karen fictionalized the ailment.

“We don’t have any medicine here.”

“I need to balance her blood sugar. Bring me a carbonated beverage and four aspirins.”

A few minutes later, the guard returned, opened the gate and entered. He bent over to take a closer look at Angela. He handed the canned beverage and aspirins to Karen who lifted her stepdaughter’s head to let her sip on the drink. While the guard was looking at Angela, Karen reached behind her, grabbed the pipe and hit the guard over the head. The blow killed him instantly. Karen took his weapon and said, “Let’s go.”

“What about the others?” Angela asked.

“They’ll only slow us down…we’ll come back for them later.”

Karen and Angela escaped out the gate and were heading into the darkness. Suddenly a spotlight went on and illuminated the area. Karen was shot in the right leg and went down. Angela stopped to help her and Karen handed her the weapon, “Go! Go!”

There was no time to argue. Angela ran off and when she looked back, she saw two guards beating Karen as she laid helpless on the ground. Oswalt sent several off-road vehicles to search for Angela, but she was able to avoid capture by hiding in a deep ravine.

When she stopped hearing engines, she started moving again. She was bruised, exhausted, and dehydrated when she reached the interstate by early afternoon the next day. Flagging down a passing motorist, Angela told them to call the California Highway Patrol. By the time authorities located the compound, the place was deserted. The only thing left was some trash scattered about the area, but nothing that would lead the police to Oswalt, his followers, and the captive women.

*  *  *

When word reached Major Penny about what happened, the Marine Corps sent him home from deployment immediately to be with his daughter. Angela was a strong girl and she recovered from her physical ordeal very quickly, but the emotional toll took a little longer. For the next four years, there was no word of Oswalt, Karen or the any member of the Anointed. It was as if they disappeared into thin air. Major Penny applied and was granted a hardship discharge to be home with his daughter. While focusing his attention on finding Karen, he came in contact with Ron Weaver, a wealthy hedge fund manager whose daughter also disappeared after showing an interest in the Anointed.

As part of her therapy, Angela began taking self-defense classes and her father began taking her to the pistol range to improve her self-confidence. She soon became proficient in hand to hand combat and weapons.

Then one evening, Weaver stopped by the Penny house with a proposition.

“You’re looking for your wife and I’m looking for my daughter, but there’s other people that are in similar situations.”

“You’re right about that. All kind of stories out there,” James said.

“I’ll hire you to go after these cults and religious extremist groups. I’ve got the money and I can’t think of a better use for it.”

“That’s an interesting offer, let me think about it and get back to you.”

When James brought the subject up to Angela, her first comment was, “Ask him if he wants to hire both of us.”

James knew that it would a waste of time to try to convince his daughter to stay out of it. If anything, she was even more emotionally invested in finding Karen and bringing Oswalt to justice than he was. Over the next six months, Angela vowed to be ready when the time came, so she increased her training. Their Oceanside home was turned into their base of operations and they began contacting families who lost loved ones to Satanic and radical organizations. Their primary focus was finding Karen and Weaver’s daughter, but they helped other families bring home their loved ones as well.

Former Marine James Penny did not look like an impressionable person by any stretch of the imagination. He was lean and muscular and would never be able to convince these deviants that he was a helpless victim. They were much too astute and had too much experience separating the sheep from the wolves to buy any charade he would attempt. Angela on the other hand could easily portray a vulnerable young girl. This allowed her to join the group without arousing undue suspicion. Once inside, Angela relayed information to her father who developed a plan to capture the leaders and rescue those being brainwashed or held against their will.

In one incident, James used his sharpshooting abilities to kill four guards and free a family being held in Puerto Rico. Three months later, James and Angela heard that the Israelis were going to deport several members of the Anointed for their anti-government rhetoric. They boarded a plane in San Diego but were a day too late arriving in Tel Aviv and the Anointed were gone. The next lead took them to Greece where James and Angela killed five guards and freed three captives, but Karen, Julie Weaver, and Oswalt were not among them.

It was almost six months before they received a credible tip that Oswalt was now in Mexico and under the protection of the Sinaloa Cartel. It would have been best to wait until the cult leader and his group left Mexico before attempting an operation against him. That was not an option because Ron Weaver saw his daughter among the crowd in the news footage about a drug cartel gunfight. He strongly requested—almost to the point of demanding—that James and Angela react quickly.

James told his daughter, “This one is way too dangerous, you need to hang back. I’ll handle it on my own.”

“Since when do we mitigate our duty by how dangerous it is?” Angela asked. “We took this job to find Karen and Julie, and help other families. I’m part of this to the very end.”

“Okay, but I make the call to pull out. No argument, no discussion…agreed?”

“Agreed.”

James contacted retired General Michael Flynn, now head of an international security company, and explained the situation. His response was simple and to the point: “Whatever you need.”

In the small Mexican town of Loreto, Angela was able to merge with a group of the Anointed who were shopping for fish and vegetables for the residents of their compound. When she returned to the area, she waited until nightfall to mark weak areas in the defensive perimeter with a laser that could only be detected by her father and the insertion team’s special eye wear.

The mission went according to plan and Julie Weaver was rescued. The cartel soldiers and Anointed guards were either killed or captured. Oswalt was found hiding in a safe room. Blowing the door open with a potent shape charge, Penny dragged him out as he ranted about being the chosen one and how this was not allowed to happen. When he reached for a weapon in his ankle holster, Angela did not hesitate to empty the entire magazine of her pistol into him.

James Penny rubbed his chin. “I guess that’s one way to tell him he has the right to remain silent.”

As the captives were being led away, Angie recognized her stepmother standing with the kitchen staff and being held under guard. She yelled out, “Dad!” and rushed to her with James right behind her.

Karen was overcome with emotion when she saw her husband and stepdaughter. She collapsed into their comforting arms.

“Oswalt told me that he would kill both of you if I tried to escape. I didn’t know what was going on in your lives, but I couldn’t take that chance.”

“His reign of terror is over. You’re safe now.” James reassured his wife and wiped the tears from her face.

The Anointed ceased to exist on that fateful night in Mexico. It was hard to know exactly what last thoughts flashed through Oswalt’s mind when he saw Angela standing before him. Penny liked to think one of them was, retribution has a pretty face.


Read this story and more from Thomas Calabrese at The Vista Press.

Dock: The Healing Hound

posted Apr 14, 2020, 2:29 PM by Bruce Rowe   [ updated Apr 14, 2020, 2:30 PM ]

Catherine Brand graduated from the University of California, Davis with a bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology. Her plan was to take a year off from her studies then apply for the master’s program. She was the only child of James Brand, a multi-millionaire financial manager. Her mother Christine passed away unexpectedly five years earlier from complications during a routine surgical procedure at Scripps La Jolla hospital. The death devastated the close-knit family and after a year of grieving, Catherine and James slowly began to see a light in the darkness. Seeking solace from each other, it also strengthened their father-daughter bond.

They lived in a costal mansion on the bluffs in Carlsbad, California where James conducted his international business dealings from an ocean view office. He had to resist the constant temptation to be overprotective, which would have been difficult enough under the best of circumstances. Let alone having a daughter who was independent and adventurous. Catherine was grateful for the opportunities that wealth afforded her but was also extremely careful never to feel entitled. Maybe it was God’s way of balancing the scales by giving her a boundless love for animals as her way of giving something back to the world. Catherine’s long-term plan was to work in a zoo or a wildlife preserve. Her father fully supported her aspirations. When she told him she wanted to visit Kenya’s animal parks, he quickly agreed but added, “On one condition.”

“Which is?” Catherine asked.

“I send somebody with you.”

“I’m not going to be there alone. There will be other people.”

“I’ve supported you in almost everything you’ve wanted to do. You know that, right?”

“That’s a fact. I hope you know how grateful I am.”

“You’re going to be in a foreign land and there are going to be inherent risks. In Africa there are poachers, kidnappers, traffickers, and terrorists among others, as well as everyday criminals. I have dealings in East Africa and while you might be there with people of mutual interests, they are not experts in security. I’d feel a whole lot better having a professional with you whose main purpose is your safety. Look at the bright side, if somebody is protecting you, then you can focus on what you’re there for.”

“For the record, I can take care of myself.”

“I’ve got clients who are expert marksman, martial arts artists, and other highly qualified and dangerous individuals. Even they travel with personal protection. It’s not a sign of weakness, it’s just another layer of protection.”

“Okay, you made your point.” Catherine kissed her father on the cheek in gratitude.

The following morning, John made a call to Mission Excalibur, a global security company, and talked to CEO Charles Rutiger. “My daughter wants to go Kenya, so I’ll need your best man to look after her while she’s there.”

“I have somebody in mind. I’ll give him a call and see if he’s available,” said Rutiger.

Ron Yankton was the son of an American mining engineer, Frank Yankton, who worked in Kenya, searching and excavating for Niobium. The mineral is used as an alloy in pipeline construction, jet engines and heat resistant equipment. It’s a very valuable asset to the country of Kenya.

The young boy spent his pre-teen years in the East Africa nation before returning to the United States to attend high school in Oceanside, California. Frank Yankton was popular with the Kenyan government because the mining operations that he supervised brought in so much revenue to the impoverished country. The local workers were deeply appreciative because the American demanded that his company implement safety procedures, provide health care, and pay excellent wages.

The Yanktons loved Kenya—especially Mombasa—so even after Frank retired, the family kept their spacious villa in the most sought-after residential area of Kizingo. It’s home to the Mombasa Golf Club, a 36-hole course, tennis courts, and five-star dining. The area is surrounded by white sandy shores and coral reefs, with a great view of the Mombasa harbor. The Yanktons would vacation there from July to September during the country’s dry season when sun was abundant and the skies were clear blue. The government maintained and provided security for the residence as a token of gratitude for his years of service. Frank continued to donate his expertise as a consulting engineer on the country’s future projects. The family’s longtime friendships included Arabs, Asians, Europeans, and the Banta and Nilotic people.

Ron spoke Swahili fluently, the other official language of Kenya besides English. After high school, he joined the Army and became a Ranger, then a Green Beret. He would try to schedule his annual leave from the military at the same time his parents were in Mombasa.

Ron spent 15 years in the Army and was planning to retire at 20, but a mission he was leading in Afghanistan went south due to faulty intel. Sergeant First Class Yankton was falsely accused of dereliction of duty and court-martialed. The less than honorable discharge included a demotion to corporal and 60 days in the brig. Frank Yankton hired the best legal firm he could find to defend his son. It cost the family nearly one million dollars, but two years later the truth came out and Ron was fully exonerated. He was restored to full rank, given back pay, and an upgrade to honorable discharge.

However, he was not given back his military career. Ron swore to repay the million dollars, even though his father never asked for a cent. He had a certain set of skills he learned in the Army and decided to use them in the civilian world. Ron let it be known to friends and his father’s business acquaintances that he was available for highly sensitive work. He didn’t need to elaborate; they knew what he meant.

Ron looked at his cellphone and answered, “Hey Charlie.”

“How are you?” Charles Rutiger inquired.

“Good”

“Are you available?”

“What do you have?”

“Africa?”

“I was just there six months ago.”

“This is in Kenya, your old stomping grounds,” Rutiger said. “It pays well for a short-term assignment.”

“It doesn’t matter where I go, it depends on the money. I’ve almost got my dad halfway paid back.”

“I’ve got a client whose daughter wants to go to some of the wild animal parks.”

“I’ll pass.”

“I thought you’d jumped at this opportunity. You take everything else I send your way.”

“I don’t have very good luck with rich spoiled kids. They don’t like to listen and think I’m there as a valet instead of their protection. I don’t have the patience to deal with them. Find somebody else.”

“Catherine Brand is not like that,” Rutiger said. “She’s studying wildlife biology. I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I’ll e-mail you some intel on her. Look it over and if you still think she’s an entitled millennial, I won’t push the issue. I promised her father I would try to get the best… and that’s you.”

Ron laughed. “The best. What do you think the former Navy SEALs and Marines who work for you would say if they knew you told me that?”

“Let me rephrase that, you’re the best that I have in East Africa…I’ll swear to that.”

“Send me the intel and I’ll get back to you. That’s all I’m promising.”

*  *  *

Catherine landed at Moi International Airport in Mombasa. When she reached for her large nylon travel bag at baggage claim, another hand reached out. “I’ll get that for you, Catherine Brand.”

The young American woman turned around to see a handsome man in his mid-thirties. “Are you?”

“I’m Ron Yankton, your personal escort.”

Ron and Catherine walked to the front of the terminal where a Land Rover was parked. Ron opened the passenger door. “I can open my own door,” said Catherine.

“Humor me,” Ron replied.

As they drove, Catherine said, “I have a reservation at the Funzi Keys Resort.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Ron drove to his parents’ home instead. “This doesn’t look like a hotel.”

“I thought you might like this place better,” said Yankton.

Catherine was visibly angry. “I don’t like it when people change my plans, especially when I don’t know what their motive is.”

Ron replied, “No motive. Just take a look. If you don’t like it, I’ll take you directly to the hotel.”

When Ron and Catherine entered through the front door, a staff of four Kenyans, two men and two women were there to greet them. They conversed in Swahili.

“I didn’t know you spoke Swahili,” Catherine said.

“Fluently.Let me show around.” Ron led Catherine through the spacious villa until they came to the beautiful guest suite with a panoramic view of the city. “This would be your accommodations. It has everything that the hotel provides, but the most important thing is that I can provide better security here.”

“Absolutely beautiful. Whose place is this?”

“My family’s.”

“I’m surprised and impressed, I seldom use those words in the same sentence.” Catherine smiled.

“Well, are we staying or going?”

“Staying.”

“I’ll send Dorothy to show you to how to operate everything,” Ron said. “Are you an early riser or a late sleeper?”

“My dad says if the sun rises before you do then you’ve overslept.”

“One of the most beautiful sights you’ll ever see is the sunrise over the harbor. Breakfast at zero six thirty,” Ron said.

Catherine never slept better as the scent of vanilla and jasmine filled the air. The king-sized bed was plush and the sheets were extremely soft. When she walked out of her room the next morning, she followed the scent of food down the marble hallway to the large patio. Ron was waiting for her. There was a large bowl of fruits and several types of juices to choose from. She sat down across from her host and protector and marveled at the view. “You weren’t lying about the scenery.”

“How’d you sleep?” Ron asked.

“Great. I don’t think I’ve ever felt sheets like that.”

“My mother knows a master linen maker in Cairo who takes the best Egyptian cotton and uses a special technique of weaving to make them softer and stronger than regular cotton.”

Robert, the family cook approached. “May I get you something to eat, Miss Brand?”

Catherine looked at Ron. “What do you recommend?”

“Everything Robert makes is delicious, but for you, I’d highly recommend the vegetarian omelet.”

When Catherine finished her breakfast, she turned to Robert. “That was exceptionally delicious.”

Robert smiled. “Thank you, Miss Brand. I am pleased that you enjoyed it.”

*  *  *

While driving into town, Catherine said, “I don’t think I’ve ever had a bodyguard who provided these kinds of services.”

“When I agreed to accept this assignment, I contacted your father to discuss a few things,” Ron said. “It makes it easier for me if I know what you like and how to anticipate your needs.”

“Really? I hope my dad didn’t tell you all my secrets.”

“He went into reasonable and appropriate detail about your preferences and strongly emphasized that he wanted you to be safe, but also to have a good time. Like I told him, a happy client is usually a cooperative one.”

Ron drove to Old Town Mombasa, an area that reflected the history of the town with Asian, Portuguese, and Arab shops abounding. It seemed that almost everyone in the area knew Ron by name and extended a cheerful greeting when they saw him.

“You’re a very popular person.”

“My dad is the popular one. Most of these people just know me through him.” Ron noticed a family of European tourists walking down the street and not far behind them was a gang of young Kenyan thugs. He turned to Catherine. “You don’t mind if we make a slight detour?”

“I don’t know where we’re at or where we’re going, so I wouldn’t know a detour from a direct route,” Catherine said. “You lead and I’ll follow.”

“Appreciate your cooperation.”

The European family had several bags of expensive souvenirs and were flashing their money to local vendors. When they turned down a narrow street, the thugs confronted them with their knives drawn. Ron turned to Catherine. “Wait here. I’ll be right back.”

Catherine voiced her concern, “There’s four of them. Shouldn’t you call the police?”

“I’ll call them later.”

Ron called out to the thugs in Swahili and walked toward them. The European family was cowering in fear. The first man came at Ron brandishing his large-bladed knife. Ron feigned a punch, when the thug instinctively moved in that direction, he kicked him in the knee and the man fell to the ground. Ron grabbed the thug by the wrist and twisted it until it snapped and took the knife. Ron punched him in the face and knocked him unconscious. He approached the other three men who also had their knives drawn. Ron looked back at Catherine and realized he was still on duty and her protection was his first priority.

“I don’t really have time to play,” he said to the approaching thugs.

Pulling out his Glock 19, he fired three shots into the ground, missing the men’s feet by inches. They dropped their knives and raised their hands to surrender. Ron called the police and they arrived in less than three minutes to make the arrest. Ron explained what happened to the officers then warned the European family. “You need to be more aware of your surroundings.”

When he got back to Catherine, she sighed. “You’re very good.”

“They were just amateurs looking for targets of opportunity,” Ron responded calmly.

Ron and Catherine walked along the beach boardwalk. It was a clear day except for one singular cloud. There was a crack of thunder and a flash of lightning. Some local fishermen were knocked from their boats into the water. When the smoke cleared, there was a dog sitting calmly on the dock. Some of the locals nervously approached the animal with clubs and grappling hooks. Ron rushed over, said a few words and pulled up his shirt to expose his holstered weapon and they backed off. Ron bent down on one knee. “Come here boy.”

The dog rushed over and began licking his face. Catherine approached. “What was that all about?”

“The fishermen are Cushitic—highly superstitious individuals. Their first instinct was to look at the dog as some kind of bad omen. I can’t remember a lightning strike during the dry season. They probably thought the same thing. You can’t reason with fear, so I found something more fearful for them to deal with.”

Catherine bent down and the dog affectionately nuzzled up against her. “We can’t leave him behind.”

“C’mon Dock,” Ron said.

“You already named him?” Catherine smiled.

“We found him on a dock…seems appropriate.”

Dock fell in step with Ron and Catherine as they continued down the boardwalk. “I don’t think you’re as tough as you make out to be,” Catherine commented. “You’re just a big softie.”

“Only when it comes to animals.”

*  *  *

Ron and Catherine were having dinner at the villa and Dock was sitting in a chair just like a human. He intently listened to their conversation. “I’ve rescued a couple of dogs in my lifetime and there’s usually a period of time before the animal adapts to his surroundings. Look at Dock, it’s like this is his house and he rescued us,” said Catherine.

“Strange things are happening, that’s for sure. This may be one of those rare situations in life where it’s wiser to just be ‘in the moment’ and worry about explanations later.”

“I’ll go for that.”

“Bark! Bark! Bark!” Dock verbalized his agreement.

“It’s unanimous.” Ron reached over and petted Dock’s head.

Ron, Catherine and Dock left early the next morning for the Masai Mara National Reserve, They spent two days there, then drove to Lake Nakuru National Park. Ron knew officials from both places and was able to obtain some special tours for Catherine.

“Thank you so much,” she said at the end of the day.

“No problem. I do some volunteer work whenever I’m in country, so they don’t mind doing me a favor now and then.”

“What do you do for them?”

Ron humbly shrugged off his efforts. “Anti-poaching patrols. I like protecting the animals and I’m pretty good at tracking people so it seemed liked a natural thing for me to do.”

Their next stop was Mount Kenya National Park and the trio decided to climb the peak. Upon their return to the Safari Club, Chief Park Ranger Adamu Otieno approached Ron and Catherine in the lobby, “I know you are on assignment, but we have a report of poachers. We can use your help.”

It was obvious that Ron wanted to go, but declined because of his responsibility to Catherine, “I’m going to have to pass this time.”

Catherine interjected, “I’m here to learn about wildlife protection. Stopping poachers is part of that education.”

Ron, Catherine, and Dock joined two park rangers and were in the truck heading down the trail when they arrived at the entrance to a canyon. Dock started barking and Ron tapped the driver on the shoulder. “Stop here.”

“What’s wrong?” Catherine asked.

“This is a perfect place for an ambush. Ron opened the door and stepped out with his high-powered sniper rifle. He scanned the area with the scope. He let Dock out. The dog stood there quietly and sniffed the air. “I’ll be back…I need you to stay right here,” he said to Catherine.

Catherine didn’t answer.

“I need your word.”

“You got it. Where are you going?”

“On a scouting patrol. Let’s go Dock.” The man and dog disappeared into the tall savannah grass.

Fifteen minutes passed and Catherine was so nervous she couldn’t sit still in the truck any longer. She got out and began pacing while looking out in the distance. A dozen shots echoed from inside the canyon. A few minutes later, Ron and Dock appeared. Catherine and two park rangers ran up to them.

A Black Mamba is the largest venomous snake in Africa. A huge one was hidden from view in the tall grass. Catherine didn’t see it and stepped on its tail. The Mamba can strike his prey 12 times in less than a half second and deliver enough neuro and cardio- toxic venom to kill a dozen men within an hour. The six foot-long snake only had a chance to bite Catherine twice in the calf before Dock grabbed it in his teeth and flung it six feet away. Ron shot the head off the snake with a shot from his rifle. The park ranger ran over and grabbed the snake for its anti-venom properties. It would help in treating the bite.

Ron performed emergency first-aid then carried Catherine back to the truck. The ranger notified the station to be prepared for a snakebite victim. The mortality rate for a Black Mamba bite is 100 percent without quick and proper treatment. Ron sat in the back seat with Catherine’s head on his lap, “Slow your breathing.”

Catherine was lapsing into unconsciousness. Her breathing was shallow and she was perspiring heavily. Ron was bitten once by a Black Mamba and he barely survived even though he was much closer to medical treatment. The prospects for Catherine’s survival were slim at best considering how far away they were from the ranger station. Dock laid across Catherine’s injured leg and she rested her right hand on his back. The ranger drove as fast as he could while Ron prayed for the young woman’s survival.

*  *  *

The doctor came out of the room where he’d treated Catherine, shaking his head in amazement. “I don’t know what to tell you.”

“Try,” Ron said.

“I saw the bite marks on her leg with my own eyes and the snake that you shot. I was ready to administer the anti-venom, hoping I was in time. All of sudden she wakes up with no symptoms. I took a sample of her blood and examined it under the microscope.”

“And?”

“There is no trace of venom in her body. I’ve treated dozens of victims with snakebites and I’ve never seen this kind of reaction before. Whatever you did out there, I wish you’d tell me what it was.”

“If I find out, you’ll be the first to know. Can I see her?” Ron asked.

“I don’t see why not.”

When Ron entered the room, Catherine was wide awake and lying on the examining table. “Did the doctor tell you anything?”

“Just that you’re alright and he doesn’t know how.”

Ron and Catherine both looked over at the dog sitting quietly in the corner of the room. “Did you bring Dock in with you?” Catherine asked.

“No.”

At that moment, they both realized this was a very special dog. 

After returning to Southern California, Ron and Catherine couldn’t agree on who should have custody of Dock.

Catherine joked. “I guess we don’t any other choice, but to move in together.“

“We gotta’ do what we gotta’ do.” Ron kissed Catherine to seal the deal.

Catherine obtained her master’s degree by taking classes online instead of going back to U.C. Davis. Ron accepted occasional security assignments although he declined all long-term commitments. Dock was certified as a therapy dog and the couple made it a point to visit local hospitals several times a week. Many of the patients that Dock came in contact with made full recoveries.

Ron and Catherine spent several months a year in Kenya too, working at the animal parks and visiting hospitals there. Whether Ron and Catherine were in America or East Africa, Dock the healing hound was right by their side.


Read this story and many more from Thomas Calabrese at The Vista Press.

The Trillion-Dollar Cure

posted Mar 29, 2020, 3:40 PM by Bruce Rowe

Benjamin Westman was born on August 10, 1960 in the small California town of Oceanside, California. His father was a career Marine and a World War II combat veteran. Ben was the youngest of three boys and even as a child, he was a voracious reader with an insatiable curiosity about how things worked and the men who created the technology. His role models were Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, George Washington Carver, and Nicholas Tesla. The inventions of these creative and innovative thinkers helped changed the world.

After graduating from Oceanside High School, Ben attended Stanford University with a double major in electrical and chemical engineering. After graduation, he worked during the early days of the computer age and was a major contributor to the development of Silicon Valley. After working for Lockheed Aircraft for three years on avionic systems, Ben decided to venture out on his own and become a consulting engineer.

His reputation as a problem solver spread throughout the technology and aircraft sectors of the economy. Ben was often called upon when salaried engineers reached an impasse. By the time he was 60 years old, he had 47 patents and was a very wealthy man. He purchased a 50-acre parcel of land along Sleeping Indian Road between Oceanside and Fallbrook where he built a three-bedroom, ranch-style home with a detached workshop.

Ben began to focus his energy on one particular goal and used his considerable knowledge and skills in the pursuit of global environmental sustainability. His definition of sustainability was simple; the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance. He developed powerful photovoltaic cells from a combination of monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and crystalline silicon to absorb sunlight and convert it to electricity, then constructed his own powerful version of a lithium-ion battery. Lithium is the lightest of all metals with the greatest electrochemical potential and energy density per weight.

*  *  *

The dozen cage-free hens had a large fenced compound to roam. They were fed a high protein diet consisting of organic sunflower seeds, bananas, apple cores, carrots, broccoli, corn, and wheat. The diet was so effective that the eggs they laid were the size of apples. Three goats had their own special diet and provided Ben with milk, which he used to make ice cream, pudding, milkshakes, and other sweet treats.

Ben constructed four fast-moving streams and waterfalls on the property to filter water and irrigate the fruit trees, vegetable plants, and animals, including his six dogs. A truck came every month to fill a 25,000-gallon water tank at the highest point of the property with non-potable water. When it was needed, untreated water was released from the tank and flowed down over a special combination of various-sized sandstone boulders, pebbles, silica sand, activated charcoal and coconut. The flow emptied into a large pond that was six feet deep, thirty feet wide, fifty feet long. Golden cannas, bulrushes, water lilies, Canadian pondweed, and American wild celery grew there.

Three solar-powered pumps continuously circulated the water then pumped it back to the top where it flowed down again. The elaborate invention was a vibrant, living ecosystem that supplied everything on the property, including the water for his residence. Ben also developed a computerized alkaline water system using his own recipe of Himalayan salt and organic lemon juice, with the ability to adjust the level of the alkalinity with the touch of a dial. Alkaline water has magnesium and calcium, which is important for maintaining healthy bones.

He also worked on developing meat and fish substitutes from black beans, chickpeas, tofu, tempeh, lupin protein, and green spelt. Two large green houses grew flowers and plants in a controlled environment. In cooperation with a beekeeper, Ben grew a garden filled with crocus, hyacinth, borage, calendula, and wild lilac, providing a constant source of food for the bees. Irrigated by Ben’s special water system, the flowers grew to ten times their normal size. In turn, the bees produced a massive amount of high-quality honey.

It was never about the money with Ben. As long as he had enough to live on and conduct his experiments, he was relatively content. His disposable income went to help his family or to various charities. He paid for his two nieces’ tuition during their college years because he liked the fact that one was studying to be a veterinarian and the other wanted to a lawyer. He bought his oldest brother, Tim and his wife a home in a Del Webb retirement community and paid off the mortgage for his other brother Seth. Ben also offered to help his nephew Brock after he graduated high school, but Brock told him, “I appreciate the offer, but I’m going to join the military.”

“Are you sure?” Ben asked.

“I’m sure. Maybe someday I’ll be able to help you.”

Ten years passed and Brock, now a Navy SEAL, was an experienced top-tier operator. Ben was extremely proud of his nephew’s dedication, selfless devotion, and willingness to go into harm’s way to protect the country. Although they didn’t see each other more than once or twice a year, the uncle and nephew made it a point to stay in touch by e-mail, phone, or text.

Ben never married, but was seeing Melissa Denning, a biomedical engineer, employed at Gilead Sciences. Ben accepted the fact that his personal life suffered because of his dedication to his work. Not many women wanted to be around a man who was often preoccupied with ideas or working in his laboratory. He considered himself lucky to have found Melissa. The fact that she was very independent and equally dedicated to her work had a lot to do with why they got along so well. They never took it personally when either of their minds drifted off.

Melissa was having dinner at Ben’s house. “This tastes just like lobster.”

“That was my intent, I’ve been working on that recipe for a while.” Ben smiled.

Afterward the couple sat on the deck and ate goat’s milk ice cream with a honey chocolate topping. “You should open up a restaurant. This is great!” said Mellissa.

“What project are you working on right now?” Ben asked.

“Have you heard about coronavirus?”

“I have. They range in severity from the common cold to more severe diseases. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) are part of the coronavirus family. They can sometimes be transmitted between animals and humans.”

“The new strain is called COVID-19 and is the seventh known to affect humans. They think it originated in a seafood market in China where wildlife was sold illegally. My company is concerned that it might become a pandemic and spread throughout the world. A dozen research teams at my company are working to find a vaccine. I imagine that biomedical companies all over the world are doing the same thing.”

“How far have you gotten?”

“We’re down at the level of the atoms that interact at the binding interface.”

“I’ve got some free time, why don’t you send me some of your research. I might be able to help. It’s not like I got anything urgent going on right now.”

“Appreciate it, we need all the help we can get.”

Ben examined Melissa’s work with his keen analytical mind and did not believe that COVID-19 was the natural anomaly of a virus. It just didn’t make sense to him how quickly it could progress while also having the ability to remain dormant for weeks. He also did not believe that it could mutate without a man-made amplifier incorporated into its molecular structure. When Ben looked at the history of other pandemics, he became even more convinced that this virus was a biological weapon. He decided to not share his suspicions with Melissa, since he was a scientist and did not have any hard evidence to support his feelings. Over the next week, Ben spent every waking hour looking at COVID-19. The key had to be somewhere in the atoms, so he approached it from that direction.

Brock Westman called one evening while Ben was in his laboratory. Ben looked at the phone and, though it showed no caller I.D., he was pretty sure he knew who it was. He took a chance and answered, “Hey Brock.”

“I’m calling from a secure line so I’m not even going to ask how you knew it was me,” Brock said. “You doing alright? Staying healthy, and maintaining your safe distance?”

“Most people don’t want to be around me anyway,” Ben joked. “I’d asked where you are and what you’re doing, but I know that you can’t tell me.”

“Yeah, sorry.”

Ben decided to toss something out to see what kind of response he received from his nephew. “Any luck on finding that biological weapon?”

There was a long silence before Brock stammered, “I…I don’t know what you mean?”

“Right.”

“I have to get back to work. I’ll call the next time I get a chance.”

When Brock hung up, one of his fellow SEALs saw the confused look on his face. “Everything alright?”

Brock sighed. “I’ve got this uncle who always to seem to know things that there is no way that he should know. It drives me crazy!”

“Get your head in the game, we’re going out tonight.”

“I’ll be ready.”

SEAL Team five did an insertion into North Korea and raided a secret facility located ten miles from the DMZ. They pumped sleeping gas into the ventilation system of the building, waiting 90 seconds for it to take effect. They breeched the front entrance. Systemically searching the area, they took computer hard drives and other pertinent information. They were gone in under seven minutes.

By this time every country in the world had cases of COVID-19. Italy, Spain, France, and Germany were in total lockdown. The global economy was in a downward spiral and the United States was having to change protocols to deal with the expanding virus.

Ben was doing a battery of tests in his laboratory, but not coming up with any solutions. He dozed off in his chair and had a dream that was so real that when he awakened, he felt compelled to try something. He had no expectations that it would work, but he thought it was worth the risks. Thomas Edison once said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” Ben already did the perspiration part and he was due for a little inspiration.

He injected himself with the COVID-19 virus, then took a sample of his blood and placed it under his high-powered microscope. The virus quickly died, so Ben realized that something in his body must be a powerful antioxidant. What could it be? After 35 different tests, Ben exposed the virus to water. It died instantaneously. Repeating the process a dozen more times, the results were always the same. Ben had to tell Melissa. “I’d like to show you something. Could you stop by tonight?”

 “I’ve been working non-stop. I can hardly keep my eyes open. I was planning on going home and getting some sleep.”

“I know how tough this has been on you, but I wouldn’t ask unless I thought it was important.”

“I’ll be there by seven.”

When Melissa arrived, Ben had a tall glass of water and a tuna melt sandwich waiting for her. “Have a seat. I’ll tell you why I wanted you to come by.” He proceeded to explain his findings and when he was finished asked, “So what do you think?”

“I’ve learned never to underestimate you, but do you mind if I see it for myself?”

“I would expect no less from a scientist like you. I’ve got everything ready for your examination.”

Despite her exhaustion, Melissa and Ben worked through the night doing experiments. When the sun came up the next morning, Melissa commented, “You know what you’ve accomplished…this discovery of yours is literally world changing.”

“What we’ve accomplished.”

“I had nothing to do with this.”

“Your research set me on the right path.”

“I was only in the preliminary stages. There was nothing in it that would lead you to this epic discovery.”

“We’ll have to agree to disagree on that.” Ben smiled. “I don’t want to proceed on this without you. That point is not open to dispute.”

*  *  *

One week later, President Trump arrived at Miramar Air Station in Air Force One with the entire coronavirus task force. Ben set up a demonstration in one of the airplane hangars. When it was over, President Trump asked Vice President Pence, “How fast can we get FDA approval?”

“Excuse me, Mr. President,” Ben interrupted. “You don’t need FDA approval. This isn’t medicine, it is H2O. You can drink it, cook with it, even shower with it. The only real side effect is if you drown in it.”

He then proceeded to pour a glass of water from one of a dozen pitchers on the table and drink it down. “Help yourself, ladies and gentlemen. Once the water enters your system, you are immune.”

“How do we get this out to the people in need?” President Trump asked.

“I can set up a temporary processing system and get you 15,000 gallons a day immediately. For increased production, I have a much bolder plan. A private and public venture to reconfigure the decommissioned San Onofre Power Plant into a desalinization and manufacturing plant.”

One of the men in the room interjected, “That is a contaminated site.”

“I’ve developed a formula to turn uranium into thorium. That is a radioactive ore whose natural decay is responsible for half of the world’s geothermal energy,” Ben said. “I offered this formula to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but they said they weren’t interested.”

“They are interested now!” said President Trump. “What else do you need?”

“I need a good and reliable construction company. DPR is my first choice. I also would like help from the Army Corps of Engineers.”

“You’ve got it. There will be no red tape on this project. Delays are unacceptable, understood?” President Trump ordered to those in attendance.

*  *  *

Dozens of construction trailers began arriving at the former nuclear power plant. Ben explained his formula about expedited decontamination to NRC officials then met with civil engineers from DPR. While building several temporary water purification stations, major construction started on the permanent systems while the Army Corps of Engineers commenced work on a deep-water pier. Melissa assumed the position of project manager and Ben became the consulting engineer. A triple-sized modular trailer with a large fenced compound became the offices and living quarters for Ben and Melissa who often stayed overnight to oversee around-the-clock activities.

Ben’s dogs were with him when he was on site. He said their presence helped keep him grounded. Nobody was going to argue the point. Since there was no risk of catching COVID-19, the crews did not need to maintain their safe distance and could work in close quarters without protective equipment. Signs were posted all over the site with the reminder, “Stay Hydrated.”

While sitting outside their trailer one evening, Ben and Melissa looked out over the Pacific Ocean. The sounds of construction were in the background. Melissa asked, “Have you thought of a name for the water yet? Of course, you could go with Ben’s Water.”

“Your daughter is in medical school. Why don’t we name it after her? How does Amber-19 sound?”

Melissa leaned over and gave Ben a big kiss. “I’m sure she’d like that. Always trying to divert attention away from yourself.”

Two things usually slow a major construction project, budget restraints and the bureaucratic permit process. Those did not exist on the Amber-19 site. Getting the job done quickly and correctly was the one and only priority. Dome one became the desalinization chamber for the ocean water and dome two housed Ben’s purification process. The water would be transferred by two 48-inch pipes.

Ben became interested in Bill Gates’ safe nuclear project several years earlier so when the plant was almost fully operational, Terra Power was contacted to install several traveling wave reactors. These reactors would make use of the remaining depleted uranium and safely operate the energy system for decades. At full capacity the plant was making five million gallons a day. It wasn’t enough though!

The worldwide demand for the healing elixir was so intense that construction on five more systems was required. Production eventually reached 30 million gallons per day. Seagoing tankers lined up offshore and waited for their turn to pull up to the pier and load up with the water. Tanker trucks moved up and down Interstate 5 all day and all night on their way to and from the site. They transported the water to facilities where it was bottled and distributed around the country.

Ben had two goals; defeat the virus and make the plant sustainable. He succeeded with both endeavors. There was an unlimited supply of ocean water and enough natural energy from the wave reactors to keep the plant operating indefinitely. The profits from the water were so immense that Ben and Melissa started the Amber-19 charity. Its sole purpose was to help those most deeply affected by the pandemic.

Once things were completed and going smoothly, Ben focused his attention on tracking down the origin of COVID-19. He was relentless in this pursuit and it took him over a year before he had the answer. He contacted President Trump. “I know who is behind this.”

The Commander-in-Chief was extremely cautious with Ben’s information and only shared it with a small circle of his most trusted advisors. Not knowing who was involved, he had to make sure there were no security breaches.

*  *  *

Brock Westman and other Navy SEALs, Force Reconnaissance Marines, and Delta Force operatives took off in 40 CH-53 helicopters in the predawn hours from the deck of the Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier. They landed on a man-made island in the South China Sea, where they proceeded to engage and prevail in a hard-fought battle with a group of highly paid mercenaries. Once they secured the compound, Ben arrived with his team. In the laboratory, they found more viruses in various stages of development.

The lab was operated by an international criminal syndicate with the intent to destroy the global economy. They would then use huge sums of capital to buy both shares of publicly held corporations and private businesses at hugely discounted prices to increase their power and control in the world. When things were at the brink of total collapse, they would release the vaccine and reap the profits when the economy recovered.

Members of this cabal originated from every country, including politicians and powerful businessmen who believed in a new world order. Identifying these individuals would be the next order of business. Brock and his SEAL Team were indefinitely assigned to work with Ben to bring all the conspirators to justice…dead or alive.

Months later, Brock turned to his uncle and smiled. “It’s about time I can finally do something for you.”

“Every time you went out on a mission to defend our county, you were doing something for me.” Ben extended his hand and his nephew extended his. Bound by blood, bound by honor.

Ben Westman was not the kind of man who did anything for glory or accolades. But if he wanted to, he would have every right to add flattening the curve and the trillion-dollar cure to his list of impressive accomplishments.

Heaven's Personal Artist: Not of this world

posted Mar 16, 2020, 2:28 PM by Bruce Rowe

Costa Tile & Stone was a third-generation, family-owned business specializing in the installation of tile, stone, marble and granite. Located in Vista, California, it was well known for intricate and artful designs.

Angelo Costa was a true craftsman who learned his skills from his father, who had learned them from his father, an Italian immigrant. Angelo could create just about anything the customer wanted, sometimes just from a rough sketch or an idea. John Costa, his oldest son did not have quite the touch of his father but was only a notch or two below him in ability. Carl, the second son wasn’t the skilled journeyman that his father and brother were, but he had a good rapport with the installation crews, so he handled many of the exterior landscaping projects. Angelo’s wife, Sophia was in charge of customer service and his daughter, Jennifer was in charge of billing and receiving.

Michael, the youngest son, worked in the business from the time he was a little boy. He had artistic ability but was more creative than practical, with a tendency to see things differently than other people. School counselors and medical professionals misdiagnosed him with a minor case of attention deficit disorder (ADD) because of his inability to stay focused on one particular task for any length of time. In reality, Mike had a serious case of wanderlust down deep in his soul.

The family gave Mike a wide variety of jobs to keep him from getting bored, from working in the warehouse to making deliveries and working on the crews. Gifted with natural athletic abilities, Mike excelled at sports, although he struggled to stay focused and motivated during practices. His baseball and football coaches would catch him daydreaming and yell out, “Pay attention, Costa!”

The doctors prescribed the drug Adderall for Mike, but the side effects of weight loss, nausea and insomnia were too severe for Mike to function as a student and athlete. He never had a great passion for drawing—it was more of a natural instinct. Sometimes he would find himself doodling without realizing it. When he looked down, there would be an image of somebody or something. Once Mike realized drawing had a calming effect, he used it as his method of self–therapy whenever he felt restless or distracted. When there were times that it was inappropriate or not feasible to pull out a sketch pad, Mike would memorize every detail and file it away for further reference. Combining that with deep breathing exercises and meditation enabled Mike to get a handle on his problem. His grades improved and his family slowly began to notice a difference in his behavior. Mike’s drawings became his refuge, a sanctuary and secret place he could always go to feel safe.

Sophia approached her son as he sat in the backyard drawing. Mike quickly closed the cover and looked up, “Hi mom.”

 “Are you ever going show us what’s in your sketch book?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Have you ever had something in your life that you didn’t want anybody else’s opinion about? You didn’t want to know whether they liked it, didn’t like it or had no opinion at all. You just wanted it to be yours and yours alone. Does that sound selfish?”

“Not to me, we all have something that we feel that way about,” Sophia kissed her son on the cheek, “Drawing is something that comes from your heart, and it doesn’t matter what I think or anybody else does, it only matters what you feel.”

Mike finished his senior year at Vista High School and came to his parents with his plan, “I’d like to join the military.”

Angelo said, “The military has a lot of rules. You won’t be able to stop whenever you feel like it and go off by yourself until you feel better.”

“I thought about that and I think I’m up to the challenge. I need to know for sure.”

“What branch of service are you thinking about?” Sophia asked.

“The Marines,” Mike replied.

Angelo looked at his wife and the concern on their faces was evident.

*  *  *

Three months later, Mike was scheduled to leave for boot camp in San Diego. Before he left, he gave a sealed box to his mother, “Don’t open this until after I’m gone.”

Opening the box the next morning, Sophia found a dozen of Mike’s sketch books with his drawings on 11 by 17 sheets of paper. The drawings were powerful, emotional, and eerily realistic. Sophia spent the rest of the day looking at them, with more than a few bringing tears to her eyes. Especially the ones pertaining to the family.

It took a lot of willpower and determination, but Mike made it through boot camp because he was so busy. He didn’t have time to be restless and, by the end of the day, was too exhausted to be depressed. When he did get a chance to sleep, his imagination created pictures in his mind that were too vivid to be ordinary dreams.

*  *  *

Finished with Advanced Infantry Training, he received 20 days leave and went home to spend it with his family. He was shocked to see that his mother had framed each one of his sketches and prominently hung them side by side on the long entry hall in the company office.

“I hope you don’t mind. They are too beautiful and wonderful to keep hidden in a book.”

“Really, you like them?”

 “I love them, so does everybody else!”

“They’re yours to do with what you want.”

Mike shrugged and when he thought about it, they didn’t seem that important anymore. Those drawings were created in the past and his mind was focused on the here and now. Over the next three weeks, Mike drew 14 more sketches, most of which were of his time in training. He was an art creator, not an art collector and once Mike satisfied his urge to put something on paper, he was ready to move on.

He didn’t mind discussing what he was thinking at the time he did a particular drawing, but quickly lost interest when people told him how talented he was. The last thing Mike wanted to do was talk about himself. What really bored him though, was the technical discussions of his drawings. About three minutes into the conversation his mind would be drifting off and he would be evading questions with vague answers like, “I guess”, “I don’t know for sure” or “At the time it seemed like the right thing to do.”

*  *  *

His next duty station in the Marine Corps was in Afghanistan where his infantry company was sent to an isolated outpost in the Helmand Province. Two days after Bravo Company’s arrival they began receiving incoming fire from Taliban fighters in the area. Rocket propelled grenades and mortars routinely launched into the base from the surrounding mountains.

Angry with the situation, Sergeant Sean Bishop said, “Just in case anybody wants my opinion, never put an outpost in a place surrounded by mountains full of enemy fighters!”

“You have to look at it from command’s perspective,” Corporal Porter Hudson interjected. “If you don’t know where the enemy is hiding, what’s the best way to find out where they are?”

Mike replied, “Put a bunch of grunts in the line of fire and watch where the bullets are coming from.”

“Bingo! Give the ‘California Kid’ a prize for the correct answer,” Corporal Hudson smiled and continued filling sandbags.

A small contingent of Navy Seabees arrived to reinforce the infrastructure of Operating Base Panther. Over the next few weeks, Marines helped the Seabees do most of the manual labor on the construction projects at the outpost. Chief Petty Officer Logan Mallard ordered Mike to retrieve some metal construction stakes from one of five metal conex boxes (storage/shipping containers) onsite. Opening the wrong one, he saw stacks of five-gallon paint cans and boxes of brushes, then went to the correct one.

When he returned, he asked, “What’s all the paint for?”

“They sent the wrong materials for the job, but one thing I learned quickly being in the military is that once I started sending things back, the knuckleheads in supply stop sending me the stuff I need. I think it’s their way of telling me how much they hate restocking and being reminded they made a mistake.”

“Since you guys aren’t going to use it, can I have some of it?”

“Help yourself, what are you going to paint… sandbags?” Chief Petty Officer Mallard laughed.

“I’ve got a few other ideas.”

Mike’s use the construction grade material to create life-like action pictures on plywood sheets was miraculous. He used the faces of his fellow Marines and the Navy personnel as characters in his elaborate artwork. Before long, there were a dozen pictures posted around the outpost,  emitting a powerful aura.

There were times the Marines and Seabees imagined they saw the eyes of the characters in the pictures looking back at them when they walked past. The pictures brightened the dismal brown surroundings as well as the morale of those aboard the barren outpost. Lt. Colonel Weaver, commanding officer, saw no downside to Mike continuing with this endeavor. In fact, he even had a painting inside the command bunker with him as one of the subjects. It seemed to give him strength and guidance.

*  *  *

On a routine patrol, the Marine squad came under attack from a large enemy force. Three Americans were killed and four were wounded in the lengthy firefight.

Returning to base, Mike paused to look at one of paintings. He knew them well, so he quickly noticed that faces of the three dead Marines were no longer visible in a painting where they had been before. It was as if their deaths erased their images. Faces of the wounded Marines were fading as well. If this wasn’t strange enough, in the right corner of the paintings were the images of three angels entering a hole in the clouds. Mike knew something truly special was happening. He couldn’t define it with words or logic but felt it inside his heart. A force was changing his paintings and doing it exactly in his style. He also knew it was impossible for any human to change a painting without leaving the slightest trace of the corrections.

Two weeks later, word passed down that the wounded Marines survived and were medevac’d to Germany. Looking at the painting again, Mike could see the faces again, now clear and distinguishable.

Soon after, Military Intelligence intercepted radio communications that the enemy was planning a major offensive in the province. With Camp Panther on high alert, the Marines and Seabees fortified their positions. Mike was inspired to paint four pictures of Marines manning 50caliber machine guns on large sheets of plywood. He placed one on each side of the outpost, facing outward, just inside the concertina wire.

Heavily armed, the Taliban force outnumbered the Marines five to one. They attacked Camp Panther on a starless night, but never made it inside the wire. When daylight crept over the mountain tops, the Marines saw dozens of dead Taliban fighters lying on the ground. Mike saw empty shell casings were knee high to the Marine gunners in the paintings and smiled. He didn’t draw that part!

Luckily, he had lots of practice keeping secrets and this was just one more.

During his absence from California, a customer came into the Costa tile and stone business and noticed the drawings on the wall.

“Who drew these?” Walter Milburn inquired with great interest.

“My son,” Sophia replied.

“He’s very, very good. I would love to meet with him to discuss his work”

“He’s serving with the Marines.”

Pulling out a business card and handing it to Sophia, Milburn said, “I’m an international art dealer. Tell your son to contact me anytime. I’m sure I can help him sell his work.”

*  *  *

With his deployment finished and four-year enlistment completed, Mike headed back to the states. He knew there was a different calling for him, and that it had to do with his painting. Back home in Vista, his mother gave him Milburn’s business card, “This man liked your artwork. He said he could help you sell it.”

Mike felt compelled to make the call. He met with Walter Milburn at his palatial home in Rancho Santa Fe. The exterior was meticulously maintained with multi-colored flowerbeds and bushes shaped into animals. The interior could have been a museum with paintings on the walls and works of art throughout the home.

Mike commented, “You must really love art.”

“I don’t have a bit of artistic ability, but at the risk of sounding immodest, there is no one who is a better judge of talent or how to make money from that talent,” Walter Milburn said matter of factly.

“You think I have talent?”

“You know you do, otherwise you wouldn’t have called me.”

“I never thought about selling my paintings and sketches.”

“Very few artists do. They have no concept of the value of their work, that’s where I come in.”

“How does this work?”

“You bring something for me to sell and we’ll go from there.”

“What’s your commission?”

“Nothing…at first.”

“What does that mean?”

“Look around, I don’t need to make a few thousand dollars. I’ve been known to spend that on a good dinner or a custom suit. With my high overhead, I want to make several millions or tens of millions. Until you’re making good money, then you might as well keep whatever your art sells for. It will give you some working capital to get established. Your mom told me you were in the military.”

“I was until a couple of weeks ago.”

“Thank you for your service. Are you ready to become a wealthy man?” Walter smiled.

It wasn’t about the money as much as it was about making a living. Over the next week, Mike painted five pictures; three were landscapes and the other two depicting Marines in combat.

Walter was pleasantly surprised when he received a call from the former Marine a week later saying he had something. Mike drove up in one of the family’s work trucks and stepped out as Walter exited his front door, “Did you bring me a good one?”

“I brought you five.”

“You sketched five things?”

“I’ve kind of moved on from sketches to painting.”

When Walter looked at the paintings, he was amazed at how truly special and unique they were. When he composed himself, he told Mike, “Wait here,” and went inside. When he returned, he handed Mike a check for a hundred thousand dollars.”

“What’s this for?”

“I don’t need to find a buyer, I want these for myself.”

Mike leased a warehouse near his family business and stocked it with painting supplies. He also turned one section of it into his living quarters. It wasn’t usual for him to get up in the middle of the night and paint for several hours. When he got sleepy, he would rest for a few hours. Waking, he’d go to the gym or a long run to clear his head, then get something to eat and repeat the process.

Many of Mike’s painting were inspired by current events. Walter showed up at Mike’s studio one afternoon with the inevitable question and visibly shaken, “What the hell is going on?”

“What do you mean?”

“I told you that I’ve got keen eyes and a photographic memory for art. I come into my den where your painting about a forest fire approaching a neighborhood is hanging on the wall. When I look at it again, there’s a super tanker dropping water on the blaze that wasn’t there before. Don’t tell me I overlooked it. How is it possible for a picture to change?”

“I don’t have answers that your mind can comprehend. I was chosen or destined to draw these pictures. Why me, I don’t know. I do know why they change. They change to help and save people. If God is adding things then I can’t think of a better editor, contributor, and partner. He’s the one who gives me the inspirations in the first place, so basically they belong to him. I’m just a hand with a brush.

“You can walk away if this freaks you out too much. I won’t blame you. He must have reasons for me coming to you. Maybe someday we’ll both find out. You now know what I know. I’m all in; you make your own decision,” Mike said.

Walter’s eyes turned upward as he pondered what to do, then smiled broadly, “So in a roundabout way, God would be my client too. I can live with that arrangement.”

Walking to where one of Mike’s paintings on a stand, he was surprised to see a young girl held hostage in an underground bunker. He turned to look back at Mike with a questioning look on his face.

*  *  *

Later that night, with an assault rifle nestled on his shoulder and his finger curled around the trigger, Mike walked through dense brush in the hills between Fallbrook and Rainbow, California. When he came to an isolated area, Mike felt it was the place to stop. He bent down and pushed leaves and branches away to expose a trapdoor. Opening it, he went down a ladder into a tunnel. He followed the tunnel for 30 feet to an underground bunker where he shot three armed kidnappers and freed a girl from her restraints.

At that precise moment, the painting at his Vista studio now showed two images climbing up the ladder to safety. Michael Angelo Costa was Heaven’s personal artist and his paintings were not of this world.

Names On The Wall

posted Mar 1, 2020, 12:24 PM by Bruce Rowe

One of every ten Americans who served in the Vietnam War was a casualty. Out of 2.7 million serving, 58,220 were killed and 304,000 were wounded. Although the percentage dying is similar to other wars, amputations or crippling wounds were 300 percent higher than in World War II, with 75,000 Vietnam veterans severely disabled.

There were 9,107 accidents, 5,299 dying of wounds, 938 from illnesses, 40,394 killed in action, and 382 suicides. There were other designations like declared dead, presumed dead, remains recovered or not recovered, and homicides.

It’s easier to stay emotionally detached from the sorrow and tragedy of war if you don’t know the men behind the statistics; they’re just names on a wall and numbers on a page. Unless you were one of the men who served with those immortalized on the memorial.

Duke Tatumaku was born in Honolulu, Hawaii on May 10, 1950. His father Sam was a native Hawaiian who served in combat with the Marines in the South Pacific, surviving several island campaigns including Iwo Jima. In 1948, Sam married Leilani who was of Tahitian descent. Afterward, Sam worked as a deputy for Duke Kahanamoku, Olympic swimmer and surfing pioneer who served as Sheriff of Honolulu from 1932 to 1961. He named their son Duke after the legendary Hawaiian.

Growing up on Oahu, “Little Duke” spoke English, Hawaiian, and Chinese as well as some Vietnamese he learned from Dominque Pare, a baker in the neighborhood. An intelligence officer with the French government, she was forced to leave Vietnam in July 1954 after the French were defeated by General Vo Nguyen Giap at the remote outpost of Dien Bien Phu. Besides having a knack for languages, Duke was also a natural athlete. He was much stronger than his five-foot, seven-inch, 165-pound stature might suggest, with lightning-quick reflexes. A three-time local Golden Gloves winner in his boxing weight class three years in a row, he also was one of the better big wave surfers and swimmers on the Islands.

When Duke turned 18, he joined the Marine Corps. Sometime during boot camp, a careless administrative clerk shortened his last name to Tatum, but the young Hawaiian boy saw no reason to dispute the change. After a battery of tests to determine his abilities, the Marine Corps assigned Duke Tatum the MOS (military occupational specialty) of 0251, sending him to Interrogator and Translator School. After his arrival in Danang, South Vietnam, Duke was assigned to the Kit Carson Scouts (also known as Tiger Scouts’ or Lực Lượng 66). This special program was created by the U.S. Marine Corps to train Viet Cong defectors, then assign them to U.S. infantry units as scouts. Duke’s first assignment was as part of an intelligence team investigating the background and motivation of each potential recruit. At the beginning of 1970 over 2,300 scouts served with U.S. forces.

After three months, he was assigned to interrogate Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers captured during Operation Oklahoma Hills. Next, Duke moved on to the Combined Action Program, an operational counterinsurgency unit. It comprised a 13-member Marine rifle squad, augmented by a U.S. Navy Corpsman and strengthened by a Vietnamese militia platoon comprised of older boys and elderly men. Their primary purpose was to patrol the area by the village where the Vietnamese militia lived, then engage and kill or capture and interrogate enemy combatants.

While on a routine patrol one afternoon, Duke and his CAP unit were ambushed by a company of North Vietnamese regulars. Outnumbered and outgunned, they were eventually captured after a firefight that lasted several hours. The NVA quickly executed the South Vietnamese men as traitors then began the long trek back to North Vietnam with the captured Marines. The seasoned, enemy combat troops knew how to travel through the jungle without detection by American and South Vietnamese forces.

Eight North Vietnamese prisoner of war camps were known to American captives as: Alcatraz, Briarpatch, Camp Faith, Camp Hope, Dirty Bird, Dogpatch, Farnsworth, and the infamous Hanoi Hilton. Duke never let on that he spoke and understood the Vietnamese language, enabling him to listen in on the guards’ conversations. He spent one year at Briarpatch then was moved to Dirty Bird for six months and eventually Alcatraz.

It was at this last camp where Duke concluded it was his best chance for escape, with the Song Con River only a few hundred yards away. Conditions at the camp were brutal. Many of the prisoners had been tortured. They were malnourished and too weak to deal with the physical demands of an escape. In fact, Duke wasn’t sure he was up to it, but every day that passed, his chances of success diminished.

As he grew weaker, he decided to not share his plan with any of the other POWs. He just figured the less they knew, the better for him and them, though he couldn’t help feeling guilty about leaving them behind. After several months of watching the guards’ routines and listening, he determined when they would be at their least attentive. That time would be five minutes before sunrise, just before they were relieved of duty.

*  *  *

On the morning of his escape, he crawled through the wire surrounding the camp, moving inch by inch, not making a sound. Making his way to the riverbank, he slowly entered the water and began swimming downstream, barely keeping his head above water. By mid-morning he had managed to go four miles.

During the afternoon, he hid in the brush and waited for nightfall. He stole a sampan (a small flat-bottomed boat found all over Southeast Asia) and paddled his way to the Gulf Of Tonkin. Not designed for ocean travel, his boat quickly broke apart in the surf. Luckily, Duke’s skill as a swimmer and some scraps of the boat enabled him to stay afloat. A Navy reconnaissance plane observed him three days later, dispatching a rescue helicopter. On the hospital ship U.S.S. Sanctuary Duke received medical treatment.

He had been aboard ship ten days when legendary Colonel Arthur “Bull” Simmons of the Green Berets paid a visit.

“Sergeant Tatum, I’m going to lead a mission to rescue the POWs at Alcatraz and I need your help,” he said.

Simmons had taken part in a prisoner rescue during World War II. The 6th Ranger Battalion rescued 500 POWs who had survived the Bataan Death March by raiding the Japanese POW camp at Cabanatuan in the Philippines.

Duke didn’t think twice about going back. “When do you want to go, Colonel?”

Three weeks later, Sergeant Duke Tatum was part of a team that included 56 Army Raiders. Heavily armed, they carried 48 CAR-15 carbines, two M16 rifles, four M79 grenade launchers, two shotguns, and four M60 machine guns. Fifteen Claymore mines, 11 demolition charges, and 213 hand grenades added to the arsenal, along with a mix of other equipment, including wire cutters, bolt cutters, axes, chainsaws, crowbars, ropes, bullhorns, and lights. Ground force voice communications would be via 58 UHF-AM and 34 VHF-FM radios, plus a survival radio for each individual man.

What the Americans did not know was that after Duke’s escape, the rest of the prisoners were transferred to other camps. Despite Duke’s accurate intel, the pilots landed in a compound containing 150 Chinese soldiers in Vietnam to train NVA anti-aircraft gunners in a new missile defense system. The Americans engaged in an intense firefight, eliminating the Chinese, then moved to the adjacent compound. Duke used a bullhorn to tell them, “We’re Americans and we’re coming for you!”

Blowing out the guard towers, they killed those reacting to the raid. As the fighting raged around him, Duke jumped into a trench, finding himself face to face with an enemy soldier. He punched him in the face then fired a blast from his shotgun to kill him.

*  *  *

Nobody was more disappointed than Duke that there were no Americans at the camp. Even after returning to Hawaii and separating from the Marine Corps, the memories of those he left behind continued to haunt him.

While working as a truck-driver at Kaneohe Marine Corps Air Station, command held a lottery for all Vietnam War veterans working on base. Three names were selected to attend the dedication of the Vietnam War Memorial on November 13, 1982 in Washington D.C.: Jack Dylan,a former Navy SEAL, former Corpsman Guy Warden, and Duke.

Notified by General McGraw, Duke responded, “I’m trying to forget things, I don’t need to go anywhere that reminds me.”

“I know how you feel. I’ve got three wars of flashbacks and nightmares that still shadow me. I could pick up somebody else, but you’ll regret it if you don’t go. Maybe not in the foreseeable future, but somewhere down the line.

“I’ve seen your military record, You’re a warrior and you’ll rise to the challenge. Speaking from my own personal experiences, you can run as fast and far as you want, but as soon as you stop to catch your breath, the memories are always going to be right there with you.”

*  *  *

The veterans flew from Honolulu to San Diego where a connecting flight headed to Washington D.C. The three men all had their own issues to deal with and they barely made small talk during the trip. Each man was lost in thought, apprehensive about how they would react to seeing the Wall.

As the customary speeches by a long list of dignitaries and politicians carried on, it was white noise to Duke who just stared into the distance. When the speaking had concluded the attendees slowly moved down the two identical walls containing more than 58,000 names, each stretching 246 feet, 9 inches. Finding several names of those he’d served with, Duke flashed back to when they died. But seeing the names of several men who were in the POW camp with him, he had more than a flashback, he had a calling. Duke reached up and touched the names with his fingertips and a chorus of voices echoed through his mind. “We’re still alive…come get us.”

At midnight, Duke returned to the memorial, sitting by the wall until sunrise before going back to his hotel room. Making a phone call, Duke heard the desk clerk answer, “Phoenix Park Hotel.”

“Please connect me with Arthur Simmons’ room.”

After a few seconds lapse, Duke was ready to hang up when the desk clerk responded, “I’m connecting you right now.”

The phone rang only once. “Simmons here.”

“I don’t know if you remember me, Colonel, this is Duke Tatum.”

“Damn right I remember you, you’re the Marine that went with me to North Vietnam. How the hell are you doing?” Colonel Simmons boomed out.

“I think I’m going crazy. I’m here in Washington for the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial.”

“I was there,” Colonel Simmons said.

“I know.”

“Did you see me?”

“No.”

“What’s the problem, Marine?”

“It’s kind of difficult to explain over the phone. Is there a chance we could meet?”

“Affirmative. Name the time and place.”

“I can meet you in the lobby of your hotel,” Duke said.

“Thirty mikes, roger that,” Colonel Simmons answered. “If you didn’t see me at the ceremony, how did you know where I was staying?”

“I wish I knew. I barely remember which number I dialed.”

Thirty minutes later, Duke met retired Colonel Simmons in the lobby of the hotel. They exchanged a couple of short pleasantries before Simmons finally said, “I can see something is on your mind.”

“This is going to sound crazy,” Duke said.

“If anybody is an expert on crazy, it’s me.”

“I touched some names on the wall and I saw in my mind that they weren’t dead. They’re still in North Vietnam being held in a prisoner camp.”

Simmons rubbed his chin as he contemplated what Duke just told him. “Did they tell you anything?”

“Come get us.”

“That makes sense. Why would they contact you if they didn’t want something?”

“You messin’ with my head?” Duke asked.

Ignoring the question, Simmons asked one of his own. “Do you think you could find the place where they are?”

“I’d definitely recognized the place if I saw it again.”

“I still have some friends in Special Ops. I’ll see if they can lend me some photos. I’ll meet you in Hawaii as soon as I have something.”

“How did you know I was in Hawaii?”

“I run a background check on everybody I go on a mission with.”

*  *  *

After returning to Hawaii, the visions became more vivid and even if his mind couldn’t totally accept what was happening to him, his heart and soul could. When Simmons arrived at Kaneohe Air Station two weeks later, Duke knew it was part of a larger destiny. Simmons pulled out a stack of aerial photographs and spread them out on the table at Duke’s apartment. The former Marine immediately knew which one to pick out.

“They’re here.”

Simmons flipped the photo over where “Dogpatch” was written. “Good enough.”

Duke asked the inevitable question. “Are we going to tell the government?”

“The war is over. Getting permission to go into North Vietnam now could take months, years, if at all. If we’re going to do this, it has to be on our own.”

“Are you really willing take this kind of risk based strictly on my hallucinations?”

“Not strictly on yours alone. I’ve been getting them too.”

“The wall must be more powerful than we thought.”

Special Operators from all over the country began arriving in Hawaii over the next ten days. Duke took a leave of absence from work and when everybody was there, they flew to Bangkok, Thailand.

After pulling out of South Vietnam in 1975, Air America kept a company presence in Thailand and continued working with CIA operatives. Most of the men were familiar with former Colonel Bull Simmons and his reputation. The failed POW rescue attempt still bothered them and they were looking forward to doing it right this time.

In many ways this mission went more smoothly than the previous one because there was no bureaucracy to deal with this time. There was no shortage of weapons left over from the war and the 26 men were even more heavily armed than the last time they were in enemy territory.

The team took off from Thailand in two Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina seaplanes and landed off the North Vietnam shoreline at 0100 hours. Getting into motorized watercraft, they made their way to land. Duke took point and as he walked inland, he began to recognize the environment from his visions. The camp was loosely guarded because the North Vietnamese had no fear of attack. Several special operatives silently took out the guards with knives while Duke, Simmons, and the others entered through the gate.

The prisoners were sleeping in a thatched hut instead of their cells since there was nowhere to run after the American withdrawal. Nine American servicemen were rescued, with the insertion part of the mission taking less than 17 minutes to complete. The seaplanes were airborne and on their way back to Thailand before sunrise.

Back in Hawaii, the team and hostages disappeared into their civilian lives, never to speak about this unauthorized mission. That didn’t mean Duke and the other men would not be forever bound by their love of country and loyalty to each other.

Colonel Arthur “Bull” Simmons extended his hand as he prepared to board his flight back to the mainland. “Until we meet again.”

“I’ll look forward to it, Colonel.” Duke snapped to attention and responded with a crisp salute.

To most people it was just a black granite war memorial. But to those who served and lost comrades, it would always be an unbroken spiritual connection between survivors and those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Much, much more than just Names On The Wall.


Read this story and many more from Thomas Calabrese at The Vista Press

Aviator in the Attic: I know that sound

posted Feb 10, 2020, 3:42 PM by Bruce Rowe

Between 1961 and 1975, tens of thousands of U.S. military helicopter pilots, crew chiefs, gunners, and medics spearheaded U.S. efforts to secure the 67,000 square miles of South Vietnam. This Southeast Asian war has long been known as the “Helicopter War.” The distinctive “thump-thump” sound of choppers is seared deeply into the memories of Vietnam veterans, especially combat troops. About 12,000 U.S. military helicopters spent 7.5 million hours flying 2 million missions. A total of 5,086 choppers were destroyed by enemy fire, bad weather, and mechanical malfunctions.

Many of these brave men made the ultimate sacrifice, rescuing more than 90,000 wounded. The terrible toll among those who flew was 2,002 pilots and 2,704 crew chiefs and gunners killed. That is about 7% of the 58,000 American troops killed in Vietnam.

Captain Charlie Mason arrived in country on May 10, 1967 and over the next seven months he flew hundreds of sorties over densely foliated jungle terrain and open rice paddies as a UH-34D helicopter pilot. Along with logistics missions, he ferried troops and medevac patients from base to base and went into “hot LZs” (landing zones under fire) to extract combat troops. He acquired the nickname “Guts” for his actions while attached to Helicopter Marine Medium Squadron 363 during the Tet Offensive that began in January 1968. Picking up wounded Marines all day from Hue City, he was returning to base when he received a distress call. A rifle platoon surrounded by NVA soldiers had a badly-wounded Marine needing medical attention. With the LZ hot and Charlie low on fuel, he should have denied their request.

“This guy really needs to get out of here,” the radioman pleaded.

“Coming in,” Charlie said.

Wanting to reduce the chance of having his aircraft raked with enemy gunfire, he headed straight for the trees away from the enemy and chopped the tops off with his rotor blades so he could land and load the Marine. The damaged blades made a loud whishing sound all the way back to Marble Mountain.

One of the mechanics walked over and shook his head, “What did you do this time…try to fly through a tunnel?”

“Just doing a little tree trimming,” Charlie smiled.

Helicopter missions were usually conducted in groups called packages: two Sea Knight transport helicopters and two Huey or Cobra gunships. On one particular sortie, Charlie was piloting one of the Hueys with his crew of three, a co-pilot and two gunners. While coming into a hot LZ, the helicopters took heavy fire. The gunners on all four aircraft shredded the area with machine gun fire, allowing the Marines to disembark and run for cover.

Charlie knew his Huey had taken many rounds, but the gauges were all reading normal. Little did he know, an important electrical component had been damaged leaving the gauges frozen in place.

Once airborne, Charlie saw that his copilot was wounded. One bullet had come up through the floorboard and lodged in his thigh. From the size of the bloodstain on his flight suit, Charlie guessed it might have struck an artery. He headed to the nearest medical facility at Dong Ha.

Crew Chief Sergeant Tim Benson stuck his head in the cockpit and held up his left hand. It was covered with a red fluid, “We’ve lost one hydraulic system and the other one is probably damaged too.”

 Charlie knew that flying a helicopter leaking hydraulic fluid is like driving a truck without power steering. And once the hydraulic fluid is gone, it’s like driving with the steering wheel completely detached. If he landed, his co-pilot would certainly die before medical assistance could arrive, so he decided to take the risk.

“We’re going to try to make Dong Ha.”

By the time Charlie saw Dong Ha in the distance, he was using all his strength and skill to keep his chopper in the air. It landed with a thud and medical personnel rushed to the assistance of the wounded co-pilot. Charlie and the other two members of the crew caught a ride back to Marble Mountain. They rested for only a day before they were back in the air in a different chopper.

Charlie had become keenly aware of the sights and sounds of war especially the distinctions between the ping of small arms fire and the rip of a .50 caliber round. It could be the difference between life and death. If he heard AK-47s he might take the chance and go in alone, but a 50 cal could rip a helicopter to shreds. At night the tracer rounds of this large caliber weapon looked like flaming soda pop cans flying by. Going up against them was never a wise maneuver without air support, even though Charlie had been known to do it when ground troops were in danger.

Charlie completed about 700 missions and earned 34 air medals during his first ten months in Vietnam. He also earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFCs), two single mission Air Medals, a Purple Heart, and the Gallantry Cross of Vietnam.

But while on a simple resupply mission to a Marine outpost on Hill 327, his helicopter came under intense fire and was hit a dozen times. Wounded in the lower stomach and right shoulder, Charlie immediately knew it was dire. Instead of pulling off, he fearlessly hovered overhead and directed fire at the enemy forces who were about to overrun the outpost. Only when the North Vietnamese soldiers retreated, did Captain Mason return to home base.

When they landed, his co-pilot, Lt. Langham sighed in relief, “That was too damn close…beers are on me at the club.”

When Charlie didn’t move, looked closer and saw that his brave comrade was dead. But who landed the helicopter? Lt. Langham knew he didn’t!

*  *  *

Alexis Mason received word of her husband’s death after returning home from teaching her second grade class at Palmquist School in Oceanside. Charlie and Alexis had four sons; Mike the oldest was twelve, Bill was eleven, Bob was nine, and Matthew was seven. The family grieved, but took solace in knowing that Captain Charles Mason, beloved husband and father, made the ultimate sacrifice doing his duty and saving his fellow Marines.

Alexis Mason placed her husband’s military gear, mementos, and flight suits in plastic containers and carefully stored them in the attic of the family home. She wanted her boys to respect and honor the memory of their father, but she also didn’t want to surround them with sadness and loss. If they wanted to see any of their father’s belongings, all they had to do was pull down the foldable stairs and go up into the attic. It was out of sight, but never forgotten.

The boys grew up in a hurry and became good men. All four served in the military, two in the Marines and two in the Air Force, then became successful in their chosen fields.

Alexis had every right to be proud of her boys. Mike moved to Texas and was working in the petroleum industry. Bill was a casino executive in Reno. Bob was a restaurant manager in Newport Beach and Matthew was an Oceanside firefighter.

Mike’s oldest child, Charlene, graduated from Baylor University with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and joined the Marines with the intent of a becoming an aviator. After finishing basic and intermediate flight training and graduating at the top of her class, Charlene was given the option of choosing jets, helicopter or turboprops. It was kind of unusual—although not unheard of—that the top student in flight training would choose helicopters over jets, but Charlene was not like anybody else. She grew up hearing about the exploits of her grandfather and wanted to follow in his footsteps. Her family, including her grandmother, attended her graduation. After the ceremony, Alexis Mason handed her granddaughter a gift, “Your grandfather would want you to have this.”

Opening the small box, Charlene saw his gold flight wings. “Thank you so much, Grandma!”

Charlene took the gold wings to a jeweler and had them mounted on a chain that she always wore around her neck when she flew. After three years and one deployment to the Middle East, Charlene requested a transfer to United States Special Operations Command (MARSOC), a component unit of the United States Special Operations Command, authorized to conduct counter-terrorism missions. It was while she was on this assignment that she met Captain Tyler McLane an officer assigned to Force Reconnaissance Battalion. After flying a successful mission where she ferried a group of Navy SEALs to and from their mission in Serbia, she received her orders for her next duty assignment.

Colonel Ted Donaldson faced her across his desk. “How do you feel about going to California?”

“Are you asking me or telling me, sir?” Charlene smiled.

“Probably a little of both,” Colonel Donaldson said. “If you really don’t want to go, I could send somebody else.”

“Where in California?” Charlene asked.

“Pendleton; training with Force Recon. From the scuttlebutt I hear, the President wants to hit the cartels hard in Mexico and South America.”

“Couldn’t ask for a better assignment,” Charlene beamed. “I’ve got family living in Oceanside.”

She thought about calling her grandmother but decided to surprise her instead. After arriving at Camp Pendleton and checking in with the squadron, she borrowed a vehicle from one of the pilots and drove to the Henie Hills area of Oceanside.

Opening the door, Alexis was totally shocked to see her granddaughter. “What are you doing here?”

“I just checked into my squadron on Pendleton,” Charlene answered.

“You should have called me. I would have picked you up.”

“I wanted to surprise you.”

“Mission accomplished, Captain.” Alexis smiled.

Charlene reached for the chain around her neck to show her grandmother that she was wearing her grandfather’s flight wings. “…don’t go anywhere without them.”

Alexis embraced her granddaughter. They discussed the family and what little Charlene could share about her previous assignments before Alexis asked, “Are you going to be staying on base?”

“I could, but I don’t have to.”

“Would you like to stay here?”

“You don’t mind?”

“I’d like nothing better!”

“I need to get a car to drive while I’m here. I’ll ask around when I get back on base,” Charlene said.

“I keep an extra vehicle for when your dad and Uncle Bill visit. You’re welcome to use it for as long as you want.”

“Dad always says that he’s never known anybody more prepared than you.”

“I was a military wife for a lot of years and that was just one of the many things I learned. It served me well in my life. Hopefully I passed it on to my sons.”

“You definitely did,” Charlene smiled. “My dad is one squared away dude.”

Alexis placed freshly washed sheets on the king-sized bed, dusted all the furniture and opened the windows to air out the guest room. She placed fresh towels of different sizes and a plush terry cloth robe in the bathroom and made sure various amenities were at her granddaughter’s disposal. She double-checked to make sure that she had not overlooked anything.

After, she felt the urge to be among her husband’s mementos. Up into the attic she went, sitting down on the large overstuffed chair. “You’d be proud of her, Charlie,” she said as she rested her hand on one of the storage containers.

The next few weeks were filled with Charlene flying missions on Camp Pendleton with special operations personnel. When she wasn’t on duty, she went back to her grandmother’s home. One evening during dinner, Charlene asked, “Do you think it would be alright if I looked through grandfather’s military things?”

“Your grandfather’s possessions are part of the family’s legacy, which means that they are as much yours as they are mine,” Alexis said.

Charlene had flown several morning sorties along the coastline of Camp Pendleton and was off duty by 1400 hours. When she got back to the house, her grandmother was gone, so Charlene went into the attic and opened the plastic container holding Captain Charles Mason’s flight journals. She turned on the reading lamp, leaned back in the chair, and began to read. The style of writing was clear, concise, blunt, and not overly descriptive. Charlene read several entries then closed her eyes. She thought about her grandfather’s combat experiences and was transported to a different time and place.

She was flying with her grandfather in the skies above Vietnam when the radio distress call came. “Let’s go,” Charlene said and took control of the Huey. The bullets were so thick outside the chopper that it almost seemed she was flying through a metal rainstorm. Charlene landed and the Marines ran aboard, with more enemy rounds nipping at their heels. Piloting the chopper back into the air, Charlene awakened once they were out of harm’s way. Looking around, she realized she was in the attic and not in combat, then sighed in relief. “That was way too real.”

*  *  *

Charlene couldn’t resist the temptation to go back to the attic the next day and read some more. When she closed her eyes, the same thing happened. Back into the helicopter with her grandfather. Third day, fourth day, it was the same thing. She’d read an entry then flash back to the event in her mind.

While sleeping one evening, Charlene awoke to what she thought were the distinctive thump-thump of helicopter blades. Rising from bed, she walked into the backyard. It was a partly cloudy night and the moon was full and bright. When Charlene looked up, she was amazed at the shape of one of the clouds. It looked exactly like a helicopter.

Then Alexis was behind her granddaughter. “Couldn’t sleep?”

Charlene was momentarily startled. “I thought I heard something.”

“Sounded like helicopter blades spinning?”

“Yeah, did you hear it too?”

“Not tonight, but I have heard it in the past. The roofer told me that when a strong wind blows from a certain direction it makes that sound when it enters the vent and swirls around through the attic.”

“And you bought that explanation?”

“What’s the alternative?”

As the two women walked inside, Charlene noticed that the treetops were barely moving in the gentle breeze.

“Not very windy tonight.”

“No it isn’t, is it?” Alexis smiled knowingly.

*  *  *

Charlene was in the flight readiness room of the squadron doing paperwork when her cellphone rang. She didn’t recognize the number.

“Hello.”

“Hey Charlie,” Captain Tyler McLane said.

“Tyler! Where are you?”

“Bagram. I’m about ready to board my flight.”

“Where are you going?”

“California.”

“Pendleton?”

“Affirmative, it seems that things are escalating in Mexico. They want my team to be available if we have to go in.”

“They’ve got us on Threat Condition Delta,” Charlene said.

“Staying on base?”

“My grandmother has a house in Oceanside. I’ve been there.”

Charlene could hear an announcement to board the aircraft, then Tyler’s voice again, “I’ll give you a call when I get stateside.”

“Talk to you soon…take care,” Charlene signed off.

*  *  *

The DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) had been conducting raids on the Jalisco Cartel. With the arrests of his sister and brother in Ensenada, the criminal organization’s leader, Ruben Osegura, vowed revenge against the United States. He began a series of attacks on American interests in Mexico but went too far when his soldiers kidnapped a family from Carlsbad who were vacationing in Acapulco.

Word of the abduction reached Captain McLane while he was still airborne. He was to be ready to go within 48 hours of touching down in California. With preparation for the mission immediate, Charlene and Tyler had little time for a reunion.

Colonel Ron Huddleston was conducting the briefing.

“The good news is we’ve pinpointed where the Lockwood family is being held.”

“Whenever anyone starts off with ‘the good news is…” you know that bad news is about to follow,” Tyler guessed.

“Your cynicism is warranted, Captain. The Jalisco Cartel has possession of Stinger missiles. What do you think, Captain Mason?”

The Stinger is a single-operator, shoulder-fired, passive surface-to-air missile.

“We have defense systems for missiles. Once I know the exact location, I’ll have a better idea of the entry and extraction vectors.”

Captain McLane interjected, “There’s nobody I’d rather have at the controls than Captain Mason.”

“You’re happy, I’m happy…now all we have to do is complete the mission and everybody will be happy,” Colonel Huddleston joked. “Wheels up in three hours. We got a ship off the coast of Mexico waiting for us.”

Charlene called her grandmother. “I won’t be home for dinner, working late tonight.”

Alexis could tell from Charlene’s tone of voice that something serious was going on but knew better than to ask.

“Be careful…love you.”

Charlene, her flight crew, along with Tyler and his special ops team boarded a jet with no military identification or markings for a flight to Mazatlán International Airport. Met by several vehicles, they headed to the harbor for a boat ride to the USS Tarawa, a landing assault helicopter ship.

Aboard the ship was the “Silent Hawk,” the military’s newest version of the stealth helicopter. Charlene asked Navy Captain Haas, “I’d like to take the Hawk up for a test flight. Every helicopter flies slightly different. I want to make sure I’ve got a good feel for it before we go in.”

“Make it short, the mission is on for 1900 hours.”

Charlene and her crew geared up for a 30-minute flight and performed a series of flight maneuvers. When she returned, Captain McLane was waiting on deck, “How is it?”

“No problem,” Charlene smiled. “She’ll do the job.”

The Silent Hawk took off precisely at 1900 hours, heading for the warehouse where the hostages were held. The helicopter barely made a sound as it approached. Two snipers inside the aircraft took out the three guards on the roof with deadly headshots, then the team fast-roped to the ground.

Breaching the outside, they took out the interior guards, with special ops bringing the hostages to the roof for extraction. Through her night vision goggles, Charlene saw a man on another roof holding a stinger missile. He fired it and Charlene instinctively dived behind a building, the missile hitting the structure. Rising back to her position over the warehouse, the team and hostages scrambled aboard.

By this time the Cartel was alerted to the rescue. Rushing into the open with Stinger missiles, they began firing at the Silent Hawk. Charlene expertly maneuvered the aircraft down to an altitude where she was flying so low she could almost reach out and touch the cars parked along the street. Three of the missiles hit the cars, with the explosions rocking the helicopter. But the fourth missile was right on the tail of the Silent Hawk, only feet away and ready to strike.

Charlene looked over and saw a vision of her grandfather in the co-pilot seat. “You got this,” he said.

The female pilot maximized air speed, applying forward pressure on the cyclic, and increasing vertical thrust to clear the building before her by only inches. The last missile did not clear the building.

Charlene turned for the USS Tarawa. The vision of her grandfather was slowly fading. His last words were, “You make me proud. Semper Fi, Marine.” And then he was gone.

*  *  *

On Valentine’s Day, Charlene brought Tyler to meet her grandmother. During dinner, Tyler heard the distinctive thump-thump.

“I know that sound,” he said, looking up to the ceiling.

Charlene and Alexis looked at each other and said simultaneously, “That’s the Aviator In The Attic.”


Read this story and many more from Thomas Calabrese at The Vista Press

Kicks on Route 66: A great traveling companion

posted Jan 14, 2020, 2:40 PM by Bruce Rowe   [ updated Jan 14, 2020, 2:56 PM ]

Mason Sheridan met Katie Matheson when they were both cadets at the Naval Academy. It wasn’t as if they were romantically involved or even close friends, more like casual acquaintances. Mason was a linebacker on the Navy football team and Katie ran cross-country. They would see each other in the fitness center or in class and exchange a “how you doing?” or just nod and smile.

After graduation they went their separate ways and didn’t see one other for ten years until their paths crossed again at Bagram Air Base in Kabul, Afghanistan. Mason was with SEAL Team 4, a component of Naval Special Warfare Command, and Katie was with Naval Intelligence. Mason and Katie worked together during the initial stages of an operation then communicated in real time during the mission and during the debriefings. Mason deeply respected Katie’s expertise and knew that, while his SEALs might be the point of the spear, Katie and her fellow intel specialists were the handle.

On one particular mission in the Helmand Province, the Navy SEALs were engaged in a vicious firefight with the Taliban after capturing an HVT (high value target). Lt. Commander Sheridan was in command of the mission and turned to Chief Petty Officer Oland. “You take Alpha and Bravo team and get to the extraction point with the HVT. I’ll take Charlie and Delta and lead the Tangos (Taliban) away from you, then do a 180.”

Lt Commander Sheridan looked at his watch. “1335 now. If we’re not there by 1400, then get out.”

“Roger that,” Chief Petty Officer Oland answered. “Alpha and Bravo with me.”

Lt. Commander Sheridan ran off and his SEALs were right on his heels. About one click away (one thousand meters) he looked back and saw a large group of enemy combatants getting out of a dozen trucks and spreading over the open terrain. The Taliban began moving in their direction and Sheridan determined that, to get to the primary extraction point, the SEALs would have to run miles to the left or right to get around them. Sheridan saw ominous dark clouds coming in from the north and lightning flashing across the sky. He turned to Senior Chief Harmon, “We’re not going to make it back.”

“It looks that way,” Senior Chief Harmon agreed. “What’s our plan now?”

“Radio Alpha and Bravo and tell them that we are into escape and evade mode. We need to find a place to make a stand before moving to the secondary extraction point.”

While Lt. Commander Sheridan surveyed the terrain with his high-powered binoculars, Senior Chief Harmon came back a minute later.

“We’ve got no com.”

“Did you try the alternate frequencies?”

“Affirmative.”

Back at Central Command, the support team was closely monitoring a fluid situation. One member called out, “We’re losing satellite surveillance, heavy cloud cover is moving in.”

Admiral Stiles ordered, “Let’s get a surveillance drone in the air.”

“Sir, the weather is getting worse. By the time we get a drone over the site, it would be dealing with gale force winds.”

A radio transmission came in from Chief Petty Officer Oland. It was garbled and barely audible, “Moving toward extraction point with HVT.”

Lt. Matheson replied, “Confirmed.”

“We split with Mike Charlie (Mission Commander) and Alpha and Bravo teams. They led a large enemy force away from our position, haven’t been able to contact them.”

Admiral Stiles ordered, “Somebody get Sheridan on the horn!”

Communications Officer Commander Barton Leighton tried in vain to contact Lt. Commander Sheridan, “Can’t reach him, sir.”

“What the hell!” Admiral Stiles grumbled. “We’ve got all this high-tech equipment and we can’t reach our men. Somebody please tell me how this can happen.”

“Copper,“ Lt. Commander Matheson volunteered.

“Copper, what the hell does that have to do with it?”

Lt. Matheson used her laser pointer to highlight a mountain range. “This area has a high concentration of copper and copper blocks radio waves. Sheridan and his men are in this area.”

“You seem very certain of that fact, Lt. Commander.”

“Sheridan is a top tier operative and he knows that if he can’t get back to the primary extraction point or has enough time to make it to the secondary one, he’s going to head for high ground and hold it as long as he can.”

“Weather report?”

“Storm moving in quickly…window is closing, sir,” said Leighton.

“I want two birds in the air, one to the primary extraction point and the other to the mountain range,” Admiral Stiles ordered. “Let’s hope that we make it in time. I hope you’re right about Sheridan’s location, Lt. Commander. We’ve only got one shot at this.”

“Yes sir,” she said.

Two armed helicopters from Special Operations Aviation Command took off from their base and were quickly buffeted by high winds. The pilot said, “This weather is going to get a lot worse.”

Sheridan and his comrades were making their way up the steep mountain trail with the Taliban fighters closing in quickly. “Spence! Eddie! Set up claymores then meet us on top.”

The two SEALs stayed behind to place anti-personnel mines along the trail. Once the other SEALs reached the ridgeline, they found defensive positions and pointed their weapons down the mountain. Two miles away, the first helicopter landed. Chief Petty Oland and his men boarded, then were gone in an instant.

The second chopper continued to the mountain range where the SEALs were involved in a firefight with the enemy. When the Taliban fighters reached the location of the mines on the trail, one of the SEALs detonated them and took out several fighters.

Lt. Commander Sheridan knew they couldn’t hold off the larger force indefinitely. Add to that the worsening weather and the lack of radio communications and the situation was dire, desperate, and approaching hopeless at warp speed. The Taliban fighters started firing rocket-propelled grenades and when the projectiles struck the boulders, rock fragments filled the air with piercing needles of stone.

Lt. Commander Sheridan cautioned his men, “Conserve your ammo. One shot, one kill!”

The SEALs were the ultimate professionals, but it didn’t hurt to remind them to keep their weapons on semi- instead of fully-automatic.

The wind was howling through the canyons and it made it impossible for the Americans to hear the stealth helicopter. They saw it when it was only a hundred feet away from their position. Sheridan sighed in relief and fired a flare into the air to let the pilots know their exact position. A crewman lowered several ropes that dragged across the rocky terrain while the gunners on the chopper fired at the enemy fighters to keep them pinned down. The pilots hovered just long enough for the Navy SEALs to attach their harnesses to the rope. Sheridan provided cover fire for his men then hooked up, but took a bullet in the upper left thigh just as he was lifted off the ground. As the helicopter headed home, blood poured from his open wound. As soon as the aircraft touched down, medical personnel rushed to Lt. Commander Sheridan’s aid.

*  *  *

The Navy SEAL was lying in his hospital bed with his leg elevated when Kate Matheson appeared at the door, “Want some company?”

“Absolutely!” Sheridan replied.

“How’s the leg?”

“They’re going to medivac me back to the States for another surgery, but considering how things could have gone down, I got no complaints.”

“I wish you a full and speedy recovery,” Matheson said.

“They tell me you’re responsible for saving me and my men’s lives.”

“I made a suggestion, that’s all,” Matheson shrugged modestly. “The admiral gave the order…thank him.”

“I already did and you know what he told me?”

“What?”

“There was no doubt in your mind that we were on that mountain. Am I really that predictable?”

“I don’t know about your personal life, but professionally I can read you like an open book.” Matheson’s tone of voice had a trace of playfulness to it.

“Want to find out?”

“Find out what?”

“If I’m this predictable in my personal life.”

“You’re going back to the States and I still have two months left on my tour. How about a raincheck?”

“Don’t say it if you don’t mean it.”

“Stay safe, Sheridan,” Matheson said as she turned to leave.

“You as well, Matheson.”

After successful surgery on his leg at Walter Reed Military Hospital, Lt. Commander Sheridan was sent to Navy SEAL East Coast Headquarters in Little Creek, Virginia. He had almost fully recovered when orders arrived for Coronado, California. Senior Chief Harmon had returned from his deployment and approached him in the mess hall, “I heard you’re leaving for the West Coast.”

“Yeah,” Sheridan replied.

“I wanted to ask you a favor.”

“I got a great deal on a Jeep Grand Cherokee that only has about 30,000 miles. I bought it for seven thousand below blue book from some Corpsman who’s going through a divorce. I told my younger brother who’s a Marine at Camp Pendleton about it and we made arrangements through Navy Federal for him to buy it from me. I’ll pay you to drive it to California.”

“Why don’t you ship it by truck?”

“I checked that already. It’s about 1500 dollars. I can give you 700 for gas and food.”

“Why don’t you have your brother take a cheap flight and drive it back himself.”

“That was the plan, he had his reservation booked and then his wife caught a virus. She’s in the base hospital and he doesn’t want to leave her. I’m heading overseas in a couple weeks and I don’t to leave the car parked here while I’m gone. My brother has this old car that keeps breaking down and this would be a really nice reliable vehicle for him and his family.”

Sheridan sighed, “I’d really like to help you out, but I don’t like driving even short distances, let alone cross country by myself. Did you know I’ve never owned a vehicle since I’ve been in the Navy? I usually get a short-term lease and turn it back in when I deploy. A little tip: with a decent down payment, the dealer will take it back if you show them your orders.”

“How about if I can find you a traveling companion?”

“That’s a hell of an incentive…like a stick in the eye. Two, three days in a car with somebody I don’t know and probably won’t like. I get enough close quarters when I’m on a mission with your guys.”

Two days later, Lt. Commander Sheridan was doing pull-ups in the outside exercise area when Senior Chief Harmon walked up behind him, “I found you a traveling companion.”

Sheridan continued doing pull-ups. “I told you I wasn’t interested.”

“What about my rain check?”

Sheridan immediately recognized the voice. He dropped from the bar and spun around to see Lt. Commander Kate Matheson standing before him.

“Anybody going to California?” she said.

Senior Chief Harmon sensed the connection between the two Naval Officers and decided to make his exit. “I’ll let you two discuss the details.”

“Life is as much about timing as anything else,” Matheson commented.

“Amen to that. I thought you wouldn’t be back until next month.”

“I had six weeks to go. Thanks for keeping track of my schedule. I thought that you might have forgotten me.”

“Not likely.”

“My dad’s a retired Marine living in Oceanside. He’s always pushing the envelope and this time he pushed it a little too hard. He had a heart attack while he was surfing at Del Mar Beach on Camp Pendleton.”

“Is he alright?” Sheridan asked.

“He’s recovering nicely. Thanks for asking. I requested emergency leave and a humanitarian transfer. I’d like to be close by until he’s fully recovered. Admiral Stiles got me orders for North Island. When I saw the Senior Chief and asked him about you, he briefed me on what he was trying to do, so I volunteered. Here we are…the ball is in your court.”

“Yeah, here we are,” Sheridan smiled.

*  *  *

As an elite, top-tier operative, Lt. Commander Sheridan was authorized by Department of Defense directives and federal law to keep his tactical equipment and weapons with him at all times. He had a special lockbox for his Sig Sauer P226R 9mm pistol and M4a1 45mm carbine.

It was no surprise that both Naval officers got along well on the road trip. They had a lot in common, not the least being that they were both overachievers with a deep sense of patriotism who took their job—but not themselves—seriously. It was 877 miles to their first stop at Jefferson City, Missouri. Even though there was an obvious physical attraction between the two, neither one acted on their feelings beyond some playful flirtatious behavior. They shared a motel room with two double beds and watched television until they fell asleep before awakening at 0500 hours. After a shower they hit the road with Matheson in the driver’s seat. Sheridan pulled out the map, “Albuquerque is 837 miles, we should be able to make that with no problem.”

“Roger that,” Matheson said. “Westward bound.”

*  *  *

Reaching the outskirts of Albuquerque, Sheridan commented, “Mission accomplished.”

“Let’s get something to eat,” Matheson suggested.

Sheridan was driving at the time and exited the interstate. Driving parallel to the highway for about a mile he looked for an interesting spot. “How about that place?”

“Looks good to me.”

Sheridan pulled into the parking lot of the Route 66 Diner. Entering the retro eatery, they found a corner booth, picked up the menus, and examined their choices.

“I’ll have the chicken salad sandwich, a slice of carrot cake, and iced tea,” said Sheridan.

“That’s not much to eat,” Matheson said.

“I’d rather go to bed a little hungry than on a full stomach. Would you be kind enough to order for me while I use the men’s room?”

“My pleasure.”

No sooner did Sheridan leave than the waitress walked over, “Are you ready to order?”

“Give me a few seconds,” Matheson answered and quickly scanned the menu. “I’ll have the tuna melt, carrot cake, and iced tea. My companion will have the chicken salad sandwich, carrot cake, and iced tea.”

*  *  *

Four hardcore criminal thugs from the Sisto crime family, based out of Chicago, had just finished making an exchange of two million dollars with the Sinaloa Cartel for a load of Fentanyl and were feeling pretty good about themselves. They were driving from an isolated area ten miles down the highway on their way back to the Windy City when one of them commented, “Let’s get something to eat.”

“I think we should keep driving,” said another.

“It’s almost 1,400 miles back to Chicago. What do you want us to do, go hungry until we get home? If it makes you happy, we can order to go.”

Pulling into the parking lot of the roadside diner, one suggested, “One of us should stay with the car.”

“Good idea. You stay since it was your idea. We’ll go in and order and I’ll call you and let you know what’s on the menu. Three men walked into the diner and took a menu off a table. After ordering, the waitress said, “It will probably be about 15 or 20 minutes to get that ready.”

“Hurry the hell up!” one man growled. His comrade slapped him upside his head, “Never yell at the people preparing your food!”

He walked over to the waitress and gave her a $20 bill, “Excuse my friend. We’ve been on the road for a while and he doesn’t travel well. All forgiven?”

“I understand. I give the same service to everyone.”

Sheridan was about to leave the men’s room when an elderly gentleman stumbled in and almost fell flat on his face before Sheridan caught him and leaned him against the wall. “Are you alright?”

“I just got back from visiting my daughter in Tucson. I‘ve got a bad knee and when I sit for too long in the car, it has a tendency to give out on me.” The old man shook his leg and made sure he could stand on it. “I’m fine now, thanks for your help.”

“No problem,” Sheridan replied.

Back at the table, Matheson was wondering what was taking Sheridan so long to return. The three men saw her, walked over, and sat down. Matheson immediately noticed their forearms, all similarly tattooed. Seeing the bulge under their jackets, she surmised they were armed as well.

“Are you lost?” she asked.

“We’re exactly where we want to be,” one man answered.

“Are you alone?” the second man asked.

“No.”

“You look alone to me,” the third man smiled.

Sheridan walked up. “Sorry it took me so long. Who are these guys?”

Matheson made a slight movement with her right index finger and thumb to simulate a gun and Sheridan nodded in acknowledgement. “They didn’t introduce themselves.”

“Please leave us alone,” Sheridan stated in a calm voice, “I am emphasizing the word pleeease.”

The three men looked at each other and one of them taunted, “We’re not ready to go just yet. Of course if you think you’re man enough, you can make us leave.”

One of the men stroked Matheson hair and attempted to kiss her neck. She quickly pushed him away.

Sheridan commented, “There’s a movie called Roadhouse with Patrick Swayze. To paraphrase dialogue in that film, ‘Be nice until it’s time to not be nice.’ I’ve already asked you nicely to go away. I won’t be so nice next time.”

Just as the situation looked like it was ready to escalate into a physical confrontation, the waitress called out, “Your order is ready.”

One of the men turned to his angry comrade. “This is the not time for this.”

The man who tried to kiss Matheson was hesitant to let it go, his ego was bruised. He thought the disrespect was worthy of revenge. When he stood up from the booth, he roughly bumped into Sheridan and stormed out of the diner, followed by his friends.

“Thanks for coming to my defense,” Matheson said.

“I was honored to be of service, but I don’t perceive you as a woman who needs rescuing. You would have handled it.”

“No matter how good we are or think we are, it’s still nice to have back-up…right?”

Sheridan smiled. “Affirmative.”

In the parking lot, the four men ate while keeping their eyes focused on the front of the diner. Their automatic pistols sat next to them. One of the men commented as he chomped down on his cheeseburger, “I still think that we should get the hell out of here.”

The man who’d made the advance on Matheson lashed out, “Then start walking! Nobody talks to me that way and gets away with it, understand!”

The other man responded meekly, “Okay, we’ll kill them then we’ll go back to Chicago. I get it.”

The third man looked at his watch and then at the front entrance of the diner, “It sure is taking them a long time to finish eating.”

Just then, there was a loud noise as if something heavy hit the top of their car, startling the occupants. The four men instinctively jumped out to see a ten-pound rock sitting on the vehicle’s roof.

One of the men looked around. “Where the hell did that come from?”

Sheridan and Matheson stepped into view from their concealed position behind a tractor-trailer truck.

“You weren’t waiting for us, were you?” Matheson said.

“It almost looks like an ambush. We don’t like ambushes. If you gentleman are willing to drop your weapons and sincerely apologize, we might let you drive off,” Sheridan offered.

“Yeah, I agree…we don’t like killing people on a full stomach.”

The man, angry before, was enraged now. “That’s never going to happen. I don’t apologize to nobody! Just who in the hell do you think you’re talking to?”

The four men felt even more emboldened, thinking the couple had no weapons. They were hired guns and had killed a lot of people in their nefarious careers. Who were these people standing up to them? Were they crazy or just suicidal?

When the first man started to raise his weapon, the other three followed his lead. Matheson, with the Sig Sauer P226R pistol and Sheridan, with the M4a1 carbine, swung their weapons from behind their backs and the four men didn’t even get a shot off.

Matheson reached into the car and popped the trunk latch, finding the boxes of Fentanyl. Sheridan called 911.

“There’s been a shooting in the parking lot of the Route 66 Diner. Four men are lying on the ground. Looks like a drug deal gone bad.”

He disconnected the call, having no intention of waiting for the authorities. Hopping into the Grand Cherokee, Sheridan and Matheson continued on their way to California.

Finally reaching Oceanside, Lt Commander Matheson introduced Lt. Commander Sheridan to her father at the front door of the family home.

Retired Sergeant Major Ben Matheson inquired, “How was the trip?”

Lt Commander Sheridan responded without hesitation, “We made good time and I had a great traveling companion!”

With a sly grin Lt. Commander Matheson added, “We even got some Kicks on Route 66.”


Read this story and many more from Thomas Calabrese at The Vista Press

Jingle Dog Rock: My Christmas Hero

posted Dec 24, 2019, 10:33 AM by Bruce Rowe   [ updated Dec 24, 2019, 10:35 AM ]

It’s strange how things work out in life. Sergeant Roy Hammond couldn’t help but dwell on that thought as he drove along Vandergrift Boulevard on Camp Pendleton on the way to his barracks. The news from Navy Doctor Wallace Jensen was disturbing to say the least and caught him completely by surprise: “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but you have, Lamington Syndrome.”

Roy had been feeling weak and with occasional bouts of nausea for the past two weeks, and when he didn’t get any better, he reluctantly went to see the company corpsman. He was referred to the battalion aid station for a physical then sent to the base hospital for a series of tests.

“I’m sorry sir, I don’t know what that is,” Roy replied.

“It is a fast-acting disease that viciously attacks the respiratory system.”

“What’s the course of treatment?”

“There isn’t any,” Doctor Jensen responded as he kept his eyes focused on the medical report, while avoiding eye contact with the young Marine.

“Sounds like bad news? Two questions: how fast and what should I expect?”

“There are a lot a variables in a prognosis like this, so it’s hard to be precise. It could be several weeks or a few months. As time progresses it will get increasingly more difficult to breathe and at the very end, you’ll suffocate to death.”

“Thanks Doc.”

“For what?”

“For telling it to me straight.”

“I read your record. I figured that a Marine like you could handle the truth. Once again, I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault. Will it a problem getting on a plane? I was going with my girlfriend to visit her family over the holidays.”

“No flying, the air pressure could be dangerous.”

“Could I get a doctor’s note? I don’t want her to know just how serious it is and I’m going to need a good excuse for not going.”

“I’ll write down that you have a respiratory infection.”

*  *  *

Roy had served three combat tours in Afghanistan, first as a rifleman, then as a squad leader, and finally as a platoon sergeant with the Marine Corps infantry. He escaped death on numerous occasions while being stationed in the most dangerous areas of the country. Eight years had passed since he arrived at the San Diego Recruit Depot and looking back, it didn’t even seem possible that he was the baby-faced, naïve kid from Sedalia, Missouri. He made the transition from a wide-eyed, innocent, and clueless youth to an American warrior that served his country with honor and integrity. He received two Purple Hearts for wounds suffered in combat and a Silver Star for running into enemy fire to bring back a wounded Marine.

At one time Roy seriously thought about re-enlisting, especially after the Corps offered him a generous incentive to stay in, but decided it was time to move on. He wasn’t sure what path he wanted to take, but a career in law enforcement was on his list to consider. He had already signed up for classes at MiraCosta junior college and would start with getting his prerequisites out of the way. Roy submitted the appropriate paperwork through the Veterans Center on campus for educational benefits and everything was on schedule for when he got out of the Corps on the 7th of January.

 

Roy still couldn’t believe how lucky he was to have his girlfriend, Christy Devlin in his life. He met her before his last deployment and after he left Camp Pendleton with his unit, she continued to stay in touch with emails and letters. At any given time, Roy expected this beautiful, intelligent woman to wise up and notify him that it was over, but that didn’t happen. After his return to the states, things were even better than ever, and he fell in love for the first time in his life.

The Grim Reaper must have a twisted sense of humor to let him survive through his combat deployments, then give him a taste of true happiness and contentment, only to take it away. Roy could cry and whine about his bad break, but that wasn’t his style. He needed to do the right thing for those he cared about. His parents, younger brother, and sister had enough going on in their lives right now and he didn’t want them worrying about him or having to plan his funeral. After the holidays, Roy decided to break up with Christy. That would probably be the hardest thing he ever had to do in his life, but it had to be done. In fact, he’d rather be outnumbered by the Taliban a hundred to one on the battlefield, than look Christy in those beautiful eyes of hers and recite a well-rehearsed lie.

When Roy told Christy that he would not be able to travel, her first reaction was deep disappointment, but she offered an alternative, “If you can’t go then I’ll stay here.”

Christy was in her second year of the nursing program at Cal State San Marcos and also working part-time at a local chiropractor’s office. It had been a busy year and she desperately needed some time off. She had been planning this trip for months, but she was the type of woman that would cancel it in an instant to be with Roy.

One of the reasons Roy loved Christy so much was her kind heart and how she always placed the welfare of others above her own. Roy couldn’t let her cancel, so he did his best to convince her to go.

“Your family is expecting you. I’ll stay and watch the dogs. That way you won’t have to board them. I’ve already got the time off. This is the best option.”

It was breaking his heart, not to tell Christy why he couldn’t go or ask her to stay.

Roy did his best to keep the mood lighthearted as he drove Christy to the San Diego Airport with her two dogs, Bo and Benji in the back seat.

“I looked at the weather report. It looks like it will be clear and calm all the way to Dallas.”

Christy was staring out the window, “I really don’t want to go without you.”

“I know you don’t and I’m grateful that you want to stay, but sometimes at Christmas, it’s about doing for others. There is no better gift you can give your parents than you being there. You would regret it if you didn’t go.”

“I wanted them to meet you.”

“Tell them how sorry I am that I couldn’t make it. I’m sure they’ll understand when you tell them it’s a medical issue.”

“Maybe over the spring break, you can come down?”

“Sure thing, we can do that,” Roy lied.

After dropping Christy off at the airport, he started driving back to Oceanside and began talking to the dogs.

“I know what you’re thinking, I should have told her, but what would have been the point? Think about it, it ruins her holiday and her family’s because she feels bad and they feel bad for her. I feel worse than I already do and it becomes a big vicious cycle of depression and sadness. We need some yuletide cheer.”

Bo and Benji began barking.

“I knew you’d agree once I explained it in those terms. We both love her and that’s not in dispute, so if it’s alright with you we won’t bring this subject up again. Now let’s enjoy the holidays because it’s going be our last one together.”

*  *  *

Two other Marines came into the Naval Hospital with the same symptoms as Roy and went through the same tests and received the same results. This would have alerted Doctor Jensen’s attention since he was head of Internal Medicine, but he had taken a few days off to be with his family for the holidays and was not notified.

*  *  *

Once Roy arrived back in Oceanside, he went directly to the dog park instead of Christy’s apartment. He found a bench on the backside of the property and sat by himself while the dogs played in the grass. How could he have so much on his mind? He should be downsizing in frivolous thoughts and enjoying what little time he had left, but he couldn’t do it. He was a fighter and surrendering to anything, including death, wasn’t in his DNA. 

After returning to Christy’s apartment, Roy fed Bo and Benji when all of a sudden he got sick to his stomach and went in the bathroom to throw up. Afterward he lay down on the couch and waited for the room to stop spinning. When he awakened several hours later, after his dreams mixing with cherished memories, he had a complete change of heart. Roy looked down at the two dogs, who were staring up at him from the floor.

“If I’m leaving this world then I’m going out on my terms and with a smile on my face.”

It was Christmas Eve and Christy called from her parents’ home in Texas, “I just called to tell you that I was thinking about you. What are you doing?”

“Not much, just sitting here with the dogs.”

“What are your plans for today?”

“I’m still not feeling well, so I’ll probably just take it easy.”

“I wish I could do something for you.”

“You can…have a good time and don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”

“Love you.”

“Love you too.”

Roy knew that most places would be closing early on Christmas Eve so he decided to do some shopping and get gas before it got too late. He stopped off at Trader Joe’s on West Vista Way and purchased some chips and snacks. It was getting dark so Roy stopped off at the Circle K gas station and food mart on College Avenue to get 20 dollars in gas. Bo and Benji were sitting patiently in the backseat, “Hang in there, we’re still going to the park, I haven’t forgotten.”

There were several cars parked at the other pumps, but nobody was around. Roy thought to himself that there must be a long line inside. When he entered the building, Roy didn’t see anybody at first until an unshaven man in a hoodie walked out of the back room.

“What do you need?”

“How about 20 dollars on pump five.”

Roy saw the reflection of a man approaching from the rear of the store in the mirror on the wall before him. He was also wearing a hoodie and had his right hand behind his back. Roy caught a brief glimpse of a gun the man behind the counter had hidden behind a candy display. Roy hesitated for a second.

“Anything else?” The man grumbled.

Even though he didn’t smoke, Roy needed to buy himself some valuable time.

“I almost forgot, how about a pack of Marlboro lights.”

When the man turned around to get the cigarettes, Roy noticed a third man watching him from the direction of the soda and beer cooler. The man walking up the aisle was now directly behind him. Roy could sense the pistol being aimed at his back and smell of the man’s bad breath. As soon as the man behind the counter walked over with the pack of cigarettes, Roy kicked backward with all his strength and his boot caught the man in the knee and he screamed out in pain. A microsecond later, he grabbed the man standing before him by his long hair and slammed his head down against the metal counter so hard that he was knocked unconscious. The man on the floor moaned in pain while holding his broken leg.

Roy picked up his gun and crouched down. The man by the cooler fired two rounds that shattered the glass door next to him. Roy dropped to his stomach, crawling toward the back of the store. When he looked under the product shelves, Roy could only see the shooter’s lower legs, so he took careful aim and put a round through the man’s right ankle. When he fell to the floor, Roy shot him in the forehead.

*  *  *

Later, the Oceanside Police were on site. Captain Gibbs walked over to where Roy was standing next to his car and petting Bo and Benji.

“How you doing, do the paramedics need to look at you?

“I’m fine.”

“Those three men have been on a crime spree throughout the state, starting at the Oregon border,” Captain Gibbs sighed in disgust as he watched the robbers being rolled out on stretchers. “There was a good probability that if you hadn’t come along, those hostages would not be spending Christmas with their families. These were bloodthirsty killers who have never left anybody alive at their other crime sites.”

“I was glad to help out.”

Two of the women hostages, still emotionally distraught from their harrowing experience, rushed over to Roy and embraced him in an expression of heartfelt gratitude.

“Thank you…thank you …thank you so much,” they repeated as tears of relief rolled down their faces. Roy shrugged.

“No problem, I didn’t do anything that any other man wouldn have done in the same situation.”

Captain Gibbs quickly disagreed.

“One unarmed man against three killers? I don’t think too many men would do what you did. One Marine against three killers, now that is entirely easier for me to believe.”

It took about 30 minutes of interviewing before Detective Chad Helton told Roy, “I guess that’s all I need for right now. Where can I reach you if I have any other questions?”

 “I’m staying at my girlfriend’s place, watching her dogs. I can give you the address and my cellphone number.”

After returning to Christy’s apartment, Roy watched movies on the Hallmark Channel until about 11:30 pm when he got restless and turned to Bo and Benji, “Let’s go the park.”

After arriving at Palisades Dog Park, Roy took out the illuminating dog collars and put them on Bo and Benji. He put a large bottle of water and bowl, dog snacks, a small lantern, and two more illuminating collars into a gym bag and walked to the table on the west side of the park.

In the background were a row of houses that were decorated with Christmas lights shining brightly into the park. Roy took out his cellphone and began to play holiday songs.

It was a clear, star-filled sky that night. The dogs chased a laser that Roy moved along the ground. At midnight Roy took two more illuminating dog collars and held them in each hand. He played with the dogs in the grass while singing along with the songs playing on his phone.

A young boy from the adjoining neighborhood who had received a drone with a camera for Christmas couldn’t wait to try it out, so with his brother and father, they rushed over to the dog park. When they saw Roy and the dogs playing on the other side of the grassy area, they guided the drone to fly above them with the video and audio recorder on. It was definitely a memorable sight to behold with Christmas decorations in the background, lighted collars spinning and twirling in the dark, dogs barking and Roy doing his own dance routine while substituting the word dog for bell in the classic song Jingle Bell Rock. “Jingle dog, jingle dog, jingle dog rock. Dancin’ and prancin’ in Jingle Dog Square. Giddy-up jingle dogs. Jingle around the clock. 

Roy was caught up in the moment and definitely would not have behaved in such a free –spirited and joyful manner if he knew he was being recorded for prosperity.

*  *  *

Christy’s niece was using her tablet to access the internet on Christmas morning.

“Aunt Christy, take a look at this video. They just posted it and it’s already got 600,000 views.”

As soon as Christy saw it, she quickly recognized the park, her dogs and Roy. Tears came to her eyes each of the dozen times she watched throughout Christmas Day.

*  *  *

Doctor Jensen was watching the news when he saw the story about Sergeant Roy Hammond’s heroism and told his family that he knew the Marine. On December 26, he returned to work at the Camp Pendleton base hospital. When he saw the report that two other Marines had been diagnosed with the same rare ailment as Roy, Doctor Jensen suspected something was not right. He called his secretary in the outer office.

“Bridgett, I need something done immediately. Call the lab, I need to talk with them.”

*  *  *

Landing right on time in San Diego, Christy called Roy as the plane taxied to the terminal.

“I’m here.”

“We’re on our way,” Roy responded and pulled out of the cellphone parking lot. While driving to Terminal One, he looked back at Bo and Benji. “You have my word I’ll tell her.”

The two dogs jumped back and forth from the front seat to the back seat in uncontrolled excitement when they saw their owner exit the baggage claim area. Entering the car, Christy gave her three favorite males a nice big kiss and hug.

Back at Christy’s and after a nice home-cooked meal, the two were sitting on the couch. Roy thought this was as good a time as any to tell Christy about his medical condition. But before he could begin, there was a knock at the door. Christy got up to look out the window and saw two law enforcement officers.

“It’s the police.”

Opening the door, she asked, “May I help you?”

 “We’re looking for Sergeant Roy Hammond.”

Getting up from the couch and walking to the door, Roy said, “I’m Roy Hammond.”

The police officer handed Roy a large gift basket filled with fruits, nuts, and imported cheeses.

“The people at the Circle K chipped in to get you this. They asked us to deliver it.”

Christy took the card from the basket and read it aloud, “Thank you for saving our lives, we are eternally grateful.” Christy looked at Roy, “What’s this all about?”

Before Roy could answer, Navy Doctor Wallace Jensen walked up.

“I hope I’m not intruding, but I have some information that couldn’t wait. The Oceanside Police told me where I could find you. Can we talk in private?”

“Yes sir,” Roy answered without hesitation. He turned to Christy, “I’ll be right back.”

Walking out to the sidewalk, Roy and Doctor Jensen found a spot where they could not be overheard.

“There was an error with your test results. We had just received a new computerized blood analysis machine and apparently it had some software issues. You do not have Lamington Syndrome, you have Lippington’s virus, an inflammation of the intestines caused by contaminated vegetables. It is completely curable. The problem was tracked down to the mess hall where you’ve been eating and a defective thermostat in the cooler.”

Doctor Jensen reached into his pocket and pulled out a small bottle.

“These are antibiotics, take one in the morning and one at dinnertime with food. I want to see you in my office after the first of the year to re-check your blood.”

“Yes sir, thank you for coming out to give me the good news. Your timing could not have been better, sir.”

Doctor Jensen started to walk back to his car then turned back around, “Good job at that gas station on Christmas Eve, Marine.”

When Roy got back to the front door, Christy had a devious smile on her face, “I guess a lot happened while I was away?”

“I was just getting ready to tell you all about it.”

“I’m a ready and willing audience.”

 Roy explained everything in detail then sighed in relief, “That’s it.”

“Really? Are you absolutely positive you didn’t leave anything out?

“Affirmative.”

Christy got up from the couch, “I’ll get us some hot apple cider.”

A couple of minutes passed.

“Do you need some help?” asked Roy.

The lights went off, leaving the apartment pitch black. Christy came walking out of the kitchen with an illuminating dog collar around her neck and a computer tablet in her hand. Bo and Benji had their flashing collars on as well.

“There is one other minor incident you forgot to mention. You’ve got seven million hits so far, my Christmas hero.”

Christy turned on the video and began dancing to the tune. Jingle dog, jingle dog, jingle dog rock. Dancin’ and prancin’ in Jingle Dog Square. Giddy-up jingle dogs. Jingle Dog Rock.


Read this story and many more from Thomas Calabrese at The Vista Press

Whiskey: War Dog

posted Dec 4, 2019, 4:20 PM by Bruce Rowe

Sergeant Mason Walker was a Marine Corps dog handler during the Battle of Khe Sanh from January 21 to July 9, 1968. With his dog Whiskey, he was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines during this brutal and deadly time in the Vietnam War. A lot more Americans would have died during this conflict if it wasn’t for the courageous efforts of these two warriors.

To prevent North Vietnamese gunners from establishing entrenched positions around the firebase, the Marines had to continuously patrol the hills. The duty of leading many of these patrols usually fell upon Mason and his dog. Whiskey’s reputation for detecting the enemy became legendary throughout the firebase and every scared Marine who thought he’d never make it to the next day felt a glimmer of hope if Sergeant Walker was with them. This unusual canine had the ability to detect explosives and booby traps and pick up the scent of the enemy from long distances as they waited in ambush.

General Westmoreland’s much-publicized relief effort infuriated the Marines, who had not wanted to hold the firebase in the first place. One hundred fifty-five men were killed and 425 were wounded in the Battle of Khe Sanh, and then to add insult to death and injury, they were roundly criticized for not defending their base properly. Nobody really cared how the Marines felt, so on April 1, 1968, Operation Pegasus proceeded as planned and the relief force began moving toward Khe Sanh.

Lt. Rackley approached a haggard looking Sergeant Walker.

“You look like crap.”

“Really? I thought I looked my best. It must be the light in my bunker.”

“We’re pulling out; reinforcements are on the way.”

“Roger that,” Mason replied without emotion.

“They want us to extend our areas of search until they get here,” Lt. Rackley said.

Sergeant Walker laughed, “We’re getting bombarded every day by NVA (People’s Army of Vietnam) gunners who’ve locked in on our positions. We make contact with them every time we go on patrol and the good news is that some knucklehead general wants us to extend our sectors of search. Somebody needs to tell those guys what the definition of a rescue is; they come to get us!”

“Consider this another chapter in the exciting world of Vietnam War military strategy,” Lt. Rackley sighed. “How’s Whiskey holding up?”

“Better than most of the grunts (infantrymen) here at the infamous Khe Sanh Resort.”

When Mason got back to his underground bunker, he collapsed on a broken-down canvas cot as Whiskey looked at him. He put his hand on his animal partner’s head and said, “Don’t ask.” Before Mason could close his eyes, enemy gunners began shelling the base. The ground shook and the dirt from above fell on him and Whiskey like a steady brown rain from the bowels of hell. The seasoned combat veteran was so used to the bombardment that he dozed off to the rumbling.

*  *  *

The next morning, Sergeant Walker and Whiskey were ready to lead another patrol into hostile territory. Lt. Rackley walked up and Mason quipped, “More good news?”

“2nd Battalion 1st Marines is two days out.”

“So the patrol has been cancelled?” Mason said.

Lt. Rackley shrugged, “Not that much good news.”

Mason turned to his fellow war weary Marines, “Move out!”

The patrol headed into the hills and had traveled two clicks (one click = one thousand meters) when Whiskey stopped. Mason bent down and saw a tripwire stretched across the trail then signaled to the Marines behind him to hold their positions. He reached into pocket and pulled out some fishing line that was wrapped around a stick. Mason tied one end around the tripwire and slowly backed away. Mason looked around the area then asked Whiskey, “Where are they?”

Whiskey sniffed at the jungle air then pointed southwest toward a small hill. “That’s what I think too.” Mason said.

The machine gun team set up the M-60 and Mason told the Blooperman—the Marine operating the M-79 grenade launcher— to fire five H.E. (high explosive) rounds at a tall tree on the hill when he heard the explosion.

PFC Hewitt nodded, “Got it.”

Mason gave the customary warning “Fire in the hole!” and pulled the fishing line. The NVA had planted a 152mm artillery shell as a booby trap and the detonation shook the earth, putting a five-foot crater in the earth. Hearing the explosion, the NVA soldiers started running to finish off the Marines and ran right into the M-79 rounds. Those not killed or wounded continued toward the trail and the M-60 fired several long bursts that cut their numbers in half. Mason opened fire with his M-16 as Whiskey stayed right by his side.

An NVA soldier sneaked up from behind the Marines and was ready to open fire, when out of nowhere Whiskey came racing though the tall elephant grass and snapped down on his right forearm. Two seconds later, Mason was there to shoot the enemy soldier. “Good job,” he told Whiskey.

The NVA disengaged and ran back into the hills.

*  *  *

Now back to Camp Pendleton, Mason and Whiskey were both in bad shape. Mason was physically and emotionally spent, experiencing flashbacks and nightmares. Needing rest as well, Whiskey was 15 pounds underweight. Sergeant Walker mistakenly assumed he would be allowed to finish his enlistment stateside with his trusty companion. With his combat experience, he thought he would be a valuable asset to the training of young Marines headed for war, maybe getting an assignment as an instructor.

When Sergeant Walker got the word that the Marine Corps was going to euthanize Whiskey, he rushed down to the 17 area of the base where dogs returning from the war were kept. Sergeant Mason approached Corporal Kittrick, a Marine he knew as an M.P/ dog handler. He knew that it wasn’t going to do any good to be indignant, so he did his best to act calmly, though he was raging on the inside.

“Hey Kittrick, I’m here to check on the dogs,” Mason lied.

“It’s a damn shame,” Kittrick replied.

“What is?”

“The base veterinarian is going to put them down, too dangerous to be adopted they say.”

“Any idea when that’s going to happen?”

“Friday.”

Mason walked over to the penned-up animals. His heart broke a little more as he made eye contact with the dogs that had served so honorably and were now being discarded like so much trash. When he saw Whiskey, he fell to his knees and cried as his faithful companion licked his face through the bars.

As he drove his Ford pickup back to 41 area, Mason’s mind was racing. He had to do something to save Whiskey and those other dogs. “What the hell” he thought, changing directions and driving off base to the rural community of Fallbrook. As he drove, he pondered how he ended up in this position. How many battles did he have to fight before he could find some peace in his life? Mason was driving down Mission Road when he saw a “Puppies for Sale” sign in front of the Fallbrook Grain and Feed Store. Pulling into the lot, he parked and walked inside.

“How can I help you?” A middle-aged woman called out from behind a counter.

Mason sighed, “I was trying to find a home for some dogs.”

“I don’t know of anybody but let me ask my son. Patrick, come out here.”

A young man about the same age as Mason limped out. The woman explained, “This young man is trying to find a home for some dogs.”

Mason and Patrick looked at each other and instinctively sensed something.

“You a Marine?” Patrick asked.

“Yeah, 2/26th” Mason answered, “You?”

“One nine,” Patrick said.

“The Walking Dead.

“I got a problem,” Mason started to explain. When he finished, he asked. “What do you think?”

“Dogs were always saving our butts in ‘Nam. I’ll do whatever I can to repay the favor,” Patrick started. “I live with my family on a few acres, so we got the room. I think I can talk them into it but taking care of six dogs could be a little expensive.”

“I saved some money while I was overseas. You’re welcome to all of it.”

Patrick held his emotions in check and swallowed hard, “I was on patrol and stepped on a mine.” He raised his pants just high enough to show that his right leg was a prosthetic. “Charlie was ready to put a bullet in my head when Chato our scout dog killed him, then stayed by my side until I was medevac’d. Hell yeah! You want my help saving war dogs, you got it. How are you going to get them off base?”

“I’ll figure it out,” Mason said. “I have no choice.”

“Fighting that war never really ends for men like us,” Patrick held his hand out in friendship and loyalty.

Next morning, Mason arrived at the kennels at 0400 hours when he knew the facility would be staffed with only one Marine. He knocked on the door and a baby-faced Lance Corporal opened the door.

“How can I help you, Sergeant?”

“S-1 wants to see you about some paperwork,” Mason said.

“Right now?”

“I thought I would relieve you early so you can get some chow. If you get there by 0800 hours, you’ll be fine.”

“Thanks Sergeant.”

The young Marine was gone in less than a minute.

Mason unlocked the cages and let the dogs out. Whiskey led the trained canines to the truck and when Mason lowered the tailgate, they jumped in. Mason put the tailgate up and, putting a tarp over them, told the dogs, “Not a sound.”

Mason drove through the Naval Weapons station and off base and met with Patrick at his family’s property in Fallbrook. The dogs jumped out and started roaming their new home.

“I plan on fencing in a large area and building a big doghouse.” Patrick said

Mason handed Patrick an envelope, “Here’s a thousand dollars, I’ll get some more in a few days. Whatever you need, I’ll find a way to get it.”

He bent down and hugged Whiskey, “I don’t know when we’ll meet again, but you’re out of harm’s way and that’s the most important thing. Semper Fi.”

He got in his truck and watched Whiskey in his rearview mirror until he couldn’t see him anymore. Mason cried all the way back to Camp Pendleton.

*  *  *

It didn’t take long before Camp Pendleton found out what happened. Mason was called to the office of the XO (executive officer) of his unit.

Major Barrett yelled, “Just what the hell were you thinking? You stole government property. That’s a court martial offense!”

“Did you serve in combat, Major?” Mason asked.

“No, I haven’t,” Major Barrett replied. “What the hell does that have to do with this?”

“If you had, you would never call a war dog government property.”

“I’m filing charges against you. I might be inclined to be lenient if you tell me where the dogs are,” Major Barrett offered.

“I’ve been having a lot of trouble with my memory since I got back,” Mason answered. “It must be all those explosions I got caught in.”

Major Barrett called out, “Sergeant Major LaSalle!”

Sergeant Major LaSalle was a combat veteran of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. He was rawhide tough and had a great affection for warriors like Mason, “You called me, Major?”

“Get the paperwork ready to send this Marine to the brig.”

“I’ll talk care of it,” Sergeant Major grumbled.

After Major Barrett left, Sergeant Major LaSalle ordered Mason, “Come into my office.”

Mason followed the senior enlisted officer and stood before the desk as LaSalle sat down, “Relax Sergeant, take a seat.”

Mason complied as Sergeant Major LaSalle looked through his record book.

“For the record, Major Barrett is a pencil pusher and a by-the-book bonehead.”

“It is what it is,” Mason answered.

“You’ve got a Silver Star, Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. What the hell were you thinking taking those dogs?”

Mason saw the battle ribbons on LaSalle’s uniform, “Would you leave one of your Marines to die if you could save him?”

“Dogs aren’t Marines,” Sergeant Major LaSalle snapped back.

“You don’t serve in the Corps as long as you and not realize how important those animals are to grunts in the field,” Mason replied. “They deserve to be treated with appreciation and respect.”

“It isn’t important what I realize or what even you think, it’s regulations…dogs are government property. You need to follow orders and leave your sentiments stowed in your footlocker.”

“Cemeteries are full of dead Marines who followed stupid orders given by idiots. You want to bust me; then go for it. If you want to put me in Leavenworth, then do it. You follow your code and I’ll follow mine. What the hell, why not save us all a lot of trouble and put me out of my misery. I’m damaged government property so just put your .45 to the base of my skull and squeeze the trigger. My best friend saved my life more times than I can count. He’s safe and that’s all that matters to me. I lost buddies in ‘Nam…maybe it’s about time I joined them. You always can say I attacked you and you had to defend yourself. Hell, maybe they’ll even give you a medal for it.”

“Lighten up Sergeant, I’m not the enemy,” Sergeant Major LaSalle smiled. “Just between you and me, I agree with you.”

Sergeant Major LaSalle would use his extensive and considerable influence in the chain of command to get Sergeant Walker another option besides a court martial.

“Which is it, Devil Dog, the frying pan or the fire?”

“What do you think?” Mason smiled.

The Marine Corps was desperately short of qualified dog handlers. If Sergeant Mason Walker signed up for a second tour in Vietnam, the Corps would drop all charges against him, and he would be reunited with Whiskey. As for the other dogs, the official report would state they were lost.

*  *  *

As much as he hated returning to Vietnam, Mason felt some weird sense of serenity returning to war. Waiting at the Danang Airport for the ride to his unit, Mason heard the words “WHISKEY DELTA!” echo across the terminal. When he looked to his left, Mason saw his Khe Sanh platoon commander, Lt. Rackley walking toward him, but now he was wearing captain’s insignia on his collar.

“You’re the last guy I expected to see back here,” Captain Rackley smiled, then bent down to nuzzle Whiskey.

“You’re the last guy I expected to still be here, Captain.”

“After what we went through at Khe Sanh, they must have felt sorry for me, so they promoted me and gave me a transfer to a ‘skate job,’ supply at China Beach,” Captain Rackley beamed. “Now there’s the place to spend the war; clean sheets, hot chow, booze. It was like being on non-stop R&R. It was so fine I almost signed up for another tour, but I haven’t been home in two years and my family is on my case to return to the ‘world.’ What’s your excuse for being back?”

“Wishing and thinking about going back to the ‘world’ was a whole lot better than actually being there,” Mason answered.

The two Marines reminisced for a few minutes about the few good times while expertly avoiding the numerous bad ones. They said their goodbyes and went their separate ways, knowing they would probably never see each other again. Mason had requested a return to his old unit, Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines before he left California, but ended up with Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines because they were short a dog handler. He had only two days to acclimate to being back “in country” before catching a chopper out to the bush on March 3, 1969.

Operations Oklahoma Hills was a clear and search operation during the Vietnam War, conducted by the 1st Marine Division and the Army of the Republic (ARVN) 51st Regiment. It began on March 1 and officially ended on May 29, 1969. Clearing the NVA and Viet Cong from their base camps and infiltration routes in the hills and valleys of Quang Nam Province was the mission. The area was southwest of Danang and designated by allied commanders as Happy Valley and Charlie Ridge.

The Marines had previously scoured the area in Operations Mameluke Thrust, Maui Peak and Taylor Common, but the American forces received intelligence from a defector that NVA were rebuilding and strengthening their forces.

The main infiltration route was Ai Yeng along Route 614 and into Happy Valley, while another branch followed the Song Con River south to An Dien. The terrain was a major challenge because Charlie Ridge was a steep and narrow mountain range with numerous gullies and ravines. Thick undergrowth and a dense canopy overhead greatly diminished the effectiveness of air support, including low-flying helicopters.

Mason and Whiskey had been in the jungle for 11 weeks and were on patrol near the western edge of Charlie Ridge. Someone casually mentioned it was May 30, Memorial Day, but like any other holiday in combat, that was quickly forgotten.

Whiskey stopped and pointed in several different directions which was his signal that the Marines were surrounded. The Americans quickly found as much cover as they could and got ready. They didn’t have long to wait, the NVA soldiers came at them from every direction. It was a relentless onslaught and at times the Marines were fighting hand to hand with the enemy. Mason and Whiskey fought valiantly while encouraging the men in the patrol to hold their positions.

When the Marines of the machine gun squad were seriously injured by a Chicom (Chinese communist grenade), Mason grabbed the M-60 and attacked the entrenched positions of the North Vietnamese fighters. Catching an AK-47 round in the lower left thigh, he tied a tourniquet above the wound. Even though he was bleeding badly, it barely slowed him down. Then a bullet went through his right forearm, luckily without hitting the bone.

Mason was so lightheaded from loss of blood he didn’t even remember holding off the last two attacks. By the time reinforcements arrived, Mason was lying on the ground and barely conscious with Whiskey lying across his body to protect him.

*  *  *

His bravery, gallantry, and intrepidness at the risk of his own life, going above and beyond the call of duty, earned Sergeant Mason Walker a Congressional Medal of Honor. During the award ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, President Nixon asked him, “Is there anything your country can do for you?”

“There is one thing, sir. It’s about my dog.”

*  *  *

After returning to Camp Pendleton, Sergeant Mason Walker learned that Sergeant Major LaSalle had retired and was now living in Fallbrook. He was even more surprised when he learned that the tough leatherneck and Patrick, the disabled veteran, were jointly operating an animal sanctuary.

When Mason arrived at the tree-lined, tranquil property, Whiskey jumped out of the truck and rushed to join his fellow war dogs. His combat days were behind him now and he’d earned the right to act like a playful puppy. It took three long years of lobbying and meeting with politicians, but due to the persistent efforts of the three Marines who refused to accept defeat, Congress passed what is commonly called “Mason’s Law” Sec 2582. The legislation states that the Secretary of Defense has the authority to make a military working canine available for adoption at the end of the dog’s useful working life.

Let us never forget the sacrifices of Sergeant Mason Walker, Whiskey, and all the other courageous war dogs.


Read this story and many more from Thomas Calabrese at The Vista Press

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