I was returning from a two-day visit with Bill Ward, an old army buddy of mine across the Puget Sound in Kingston, Washington, a city not far from Seattle. I got to Bill’s place about once a year. We spent the time drinking too much, fishing too little, and telling too many war stories we both knew were bullshit. I knew him in Iraq and, when I retired from the army and moved to Edmonds, he was one of the first people I stumbled into. He was sitting at a bar not far from the public fishing pier in town, lamenting about the lack of activity, when I felt his laugh tear loose a memory I thought had been buried for years. His was a laugh you never forget. The last time I heard it, we were in a club in a rear area in Baghdad, trying to out-drink a group of air force pilots who had just arrived and were new to the war zone. I returned to my unit, and he departed a few days later for a life of retirement.
Two years later, I followed his lead and left twenty-plus years in the army behind. Time would show that neither of us could handle retirement very well.
I stood on the forward end of the ferry and watched two emergency response vehicles clear a path to the Edmonds Underwater Park. The water was much too cold for most normal people to use for swimming. It had to be another diving accident.
There was a fine mist of spray coming from the front of the ferry. It was something you got used to if you rode it enough. Another thing you had to get used to was people you did not know starting conversations with you as you stood by the rail.
“Whadda ya think happened?” an old man asked, holding a large paper cup containing one of his probably numerous daily lattes.
“Could be just about anything, I guess. Heart attack maybe.” I tried to make it short so he would move on.
“Friend of mine who lives here says the water’ll freeze you, even if you’re wearing a protective suit.” He paused, took a sip of the hot latte, and spoke again with a thin white mustache of milk foam on his upper lip. “You think that’s so?”
“I don’t think it’s quite that bad, but it can get cold in the water.”
A crowd had already formed at the rear of the aid vehicles. From the deck of the ferry, I watched the rescue divers enter the water. Down the rail from where I stood a tourist with a pair of binoculars gave us a play-by-play.
“Looks like three, no, two divers going in. One is still on the beach. He’s taking off his tanks. There are a couple of cops standing with him.”
I learned to dive, compliments of Uncle Sam, during a tour of duty with Special Forces. I liked it and continued to dive, even after leaving the Forces and retiring from the army. The Underwater Park provided an excellent place to dive and to send friends who occasionally dropped in on me.
When the ferry docked, I returned to my SUV, got in, and waited till it was my turn to leave. As I joined the line of almost two hundred cars leaving the ferry, I instinctively turned left and drove slowly by the activity to see what was happening with the divers.
There were more rubber-neckers per capita in the Seattle area than any place in America. A car with a flat tire on the side of I-5 would slow traffic for miles. I couldn’t complain too much as I added to the congestion around the emergency vehicles.
As I passed, I saw a gurney with a sheet-covered body on it being loaded into the back of the ambulance. It was another victim of too little training, or too much confidence, or just plain bad luck. Either way, dead was dead. A second diver sat with a blanket around him, or perhaps her. At least the victim had been diving with a buddy and hadn’t died alone.
I drove up the hill and passed through the center of town, all three blocks of it. It was small but it suited my purposes.
Several years earlier, I spent twenty-four months in the area on recruiting duty with the army. I liked it and, when it came time to retire, Edmonds was in the top five cities on my list of places to live. The final decision was one I left to my daughters. My oldest had already started college, so her choice was staying in North Carolina or moving with the family. She chose door number two, and transferred to the University of Washington. The youngest one completed high school once we arrived and got accepted at Tulane in New Orleans. The next year my wife told me how she felt about some of my bad habits, got half my retirement pay in the divorce settlement, and I found myself alone in Puget Sound with the rest of my life ahead of me.
A couple of times in the army, the bad guys used me to qualify for their marksmanship badges. The VA was somewhat benevolent, so I received a monthly disability check. Since it was for a disability and not considered income, it was not a part of the divorce settlement, and I got to keep all of it. Because of the disability, my daughters qualified for student grants and all sorts of financial aid, so I could just about make it on what my wife left me. It’s the “just about” part that caused me to look for something to do when I retired. That something to do turned out to be hanging a shingle out as a private investigator. I spent seven years in the army’s Military Police Corps, so I met the state requirements for a license. I didn’t get the glamorous cases. I’d been offered a few but, unlike most other people in the business and all of the ones on television, I knew how it felt to get shot. It was no fun, so I stuck to divorces, missing and unfaithful husbands, and equally unfaithful wives. I occasionally did some background investigations on a contract basis for the government.
My office was nothing to write home about. It was in an old building that was once a pharmacy. I used the main space for my office and the upstairs for an occasional place to sleep. I had everything but a shower on the second floor. I solved that little inconvenience when I met Leigh Hayes. She worked as a hostess at one of Edmond’s better restaurants. She had a condo downtown, compliments of her divorce settlement, and it had a very nice shower.
The first ambulance passed me just as I rolled off the end of the ferry and crossed over the dock and onto the city street. I could see in my rearview mirror two more EMT vehicles that were still by the waterfront park. Several police cruisers lined the street and one pumper from the fire station was on the scene. Before I got to my office, I heard the wail of the siren as the second one took off on its way to either the local trauma center or the dive chamber. If a diver came out of the Sound with the bends, he or she would be quickly rushed to the decompression chamber at the University Hospital. I had been in the underwater park several times, and the depth there was not great enough to cause any real damage. If it was the bends, the divers had been farther out in the Sound or done something stupid. After a couple of dives in the park, I failed to see the fascination of diving in what amounted to a pool of murky, dark, extremely cold water. When I got my certification, I found out I really liked diving so I spent a lot of my leisure time underwater. I’d even been in some areas as bad as in the Sound, but it was required training in the army. For pleasure, I’d dive in Hawaii or Key West or some of the smaller Pacific Islands where you could still see wrecks of Japanese Zeros and army tanks that didn’t make it ashore. Diving was a lot of fun but it also required a lot of work. I was finding as I passed each new birthday, I paid much more attention to my pain/gain equations.
I pulled into my parking space, walked to the front of my building, and unlocked the door. Across the street, two women were picking up a drink from one of the many latte carts that were as abundant in the Pacific Northwest as fire hydrants in a normal city. I once worked for a lady who was trying to find out how much her husband was making on two carts. It was for a divorce, so he low-balled her. After watching him for two weeks, my conservative estimate was eighty thousand a year from each one. Latte as a business was second only to Microsoft and Boeing in Seattle.
There was a stack of mail on the floor under the mail drop in my front door. Some of it folded under the door as I pushed it open. My answering machine was blinking. I didn’t count the blinks but I had several messages. I turned on the light by my desk, took off my windbreaker, and sat down.
I kept meaning to upgrade to the internal system offered by my phone company but I never seem to get around to it. Leigh said I lived so far in the past I still looked for eight-tracks and Beta movies at the rental store.
I opened the first piece of mail and pushed the button on the machine. After a few seconds of rewinding, the first message came out. I must have hit the volume switch by mistake because the sound was so loud I could even hear it in my deaf ear. I quickly turned it down and listened to a message from someone selling tickets to a charity circus. The next message was much better. It was Leigh.
“Are we alone?” She had a way of lowering her voice so it snaked its way up from deep within her libido and completely bypassed the voice box. She did this most effectively late at night on the phone. “I just got off work. It’s nearly three a.m. If you were here, do you know what I’d do to you?”
It was instinct that made me look around the empty office to make certain I was alone as she told me the things she had in mind. When she finished, I looked to see if the machine was smoking a cigarette.
The remainder of my messages were an assortment ranging from two more tele-marketing calls to a family looking for a daughter they thought might be working as a prostitute on Aurora Avenue, the main street for hookers in Seattle. My mail was no less fulfilling, so fifteen minutes after I arrived, I was open for business.
I could see outside my office through a large plate glass window. It overlooked nothing more than a city street. If I went to the corner of the room, I could see the ferry dock, the Sound, and the snow-covered mountains of the peninsula standing guard over the far western final bit of land in the state. Not only could I see all this, but I could also keep an eye on Crazy George.
In earlier less politically correct times, Crazy George would have been referred to as the Village Idiot. Today he was regarded by those who didn’t know him as simply an emotionally and residentially challenged citizen of the city. He spent a lot of time walking around the statue at the town square and talking to the pigeons. He also came by on occasion and talked to me.
I was standing by the window when he came up the sidewalk toward my office.
He opened the door, stuck his head cautiously inside, looked around, then entered. “Afternoon, Colonel. You been gone a couple of days this time, huh?”
“Come on in, George.” I knew it was useless to try to keep him out. Once he saw the office was empty, he knew I was good for a little conversation and a few bucks. “I don’t have any coffee yet, but if you’ll fly, I’ll buy.” I handed him a five-dollar bill with the intent of having him go across the street and get two cups of coffee.
“I’ll do just that, Colonel. In just a minute.” George carefully folded the money and put it in the pocket of the old army field jacket he always wore. Once the bill was tucked away, I knew I’d never see the coffee or the change. “Was you down by the ferry dock this afternoon?” he asked.
He picked up a newspaper, folded it, and placed it on the edge of the windowsill. George took a seat on the folded paper and looked around the office as if he’d never been in it before.
“I came in on the ferry about thirty minutes ago. I saw the activity and I drove by it. I couldn’t tell much, though.”
George nodded toward a calendar I had placed over the table where I had my coffee pot. “That a new picture, Colonel? Looks like one of them pictures I seen in the library down in Seattle.” He stared at the large photograph of a herd of buffalo in the snow of Yellowstone Park.
I formally met George at the Veterans Hospital one day about a year ago. As a veteran, I had to go in once a year for a check up to determine if anything I lost in the army has grown back or healed itself. In my case, it was my hearing. I spent too many nights on a firebase with a 105 Howitzer nestled next to my pillow. I was sitting in a waiting room when a Black man settled into the chair beside me. As soon as he sat down, he began a conversation with me as if we had been friends for years. If memory served me, he started in the middle of a dissertation about the Mariners and how they were one of the worst teams in the major leagues.
“Yes, sir, Colonel, them Mariners ought to be playin’ against some little league team somewhere. Only I don’t think no little fellers want to embarrass the Mariners by beatin’ ’em.”
The next time I saw him, he was breaking down cardboard boxes behind the building next to mine. He recognized me, and since then, he’d been dropping by on occasion.
George had been a draftee during the Viet Nam war. After a quick couple of months training, he, like so many other young men, were sent to Viet Nam to grow up overnight. I had seen hundreds of men just like George during my time in the army. I came in after Viet Nam, but there were many draftees who lived through their tour of duty in the jungle and found a home in the army. I felt from day one that we had done many of them a disservice by training them and then returning them to the world after twelve months in Hell.
We still heard about people, like George, who didn’t adjust to civilian life when they got on the six o’clock news with a rifle in their hand and a massacre at their feet.
Since George made no effort to leave for our coffee, I stepped over to the table where I kept my coffee maker and began to make a pot. The bottom of the glass pot in my coffee maker had been burned so many times it was as black as the coffee that flowed into it from the machine.
George reached into his jacket pocket, and pulled out a bottle with about two inches of God-knows-what in the bottom. “I got just about enough for a touch for both of us, lessen’ you got a big thirst, Colonel”
I eyed the liquid. The label was missing from the bottle. Not a good sign. I hated to turn down a drink, but even I had a few standards. Drinking with George from a bottle without a label could only mean one of two things. George was keeping his favorite bottle and filling it with whatever he could find, or he was making his own. I was already partially deaf. I couldn’t take a chance on adding blind to my list.
“It’s a little early for me, George, but you go ahead.”
Without waiting, he poured the contents of the bottle into a large mug, filled it half way with coffee and began to sip slowly.
“Looked real bad down to the park. I seen the amb’lances coming so I walked over to see what they was doing. By the time I got up there, they was pulling a man out of the water. He was already dead. They was trying to do that breathin’ thang for him, but I seen enough people who done give up the ghost to know a dead man when I see one.” George took a long pull from the mug and slipped away to revisit some of the ghosts he had tucked away. For a minute, he just stared straight ahead. Someone once called it a two-thousand-yard stare. For George, the stare probed for miles, not yards.
“I seen him and that other young feller that was with him before. I don’t think the boy was hurt too bad. They had him on a stretcher, but he was fightin’ them men trying to put him in that amb’lance.”
“You know who they were?”
George spent most of his time walking around town, so it was quite possible he did know the victims.
“I worked over at the high school a couple of times. I used to watch ’em play football. The dead one was the coach. The boy looked like the quarterback from a couple of years ago. I could be wrong, though. They both had on them black frogman suits.”
I looked beyond George and watched the traffic on Main Street. My thoughts drifted back to a man I met when my daughter was a senior in the high school. Jeff Payton had been her counselor. He seemed to take a real interest in the kids. He was also the man who led the football team to the state championship game. He and I went diving several times. I first saw him at the dive shop. We took a Saturday afternoon and went over to Whidbey Island. After that, we went to the Underwater Park on occasion and spent a weekend in the San Juan Islands last year. Coach Jeff Payton.
And now Crazy George was sitting in my office, drinking my coffee and telling me an old friend was dead.
© 2017 by Paul Sinor