Early on, when the night began, I wasn’t planning to kill anyone. Sure, I was always reckless when I drank. A danger to myself and often to others. I expected that; getting drunk was an adventure, and danger was an integral part of that adventure. This night, however, was to be different. I was more than dangerous. I was homicidal.
My four friends and I, all of us Marines, were looking for a secluded spot to get drunk, trudging up a path along a cliff that overlooked the Pacific Ocean. The path ran up from the beach, and we climbed higher and higher, pausing occasionally at the edge of the cliff to look down and laugh as the waves crashed against the rocks, far below.
At one pause, I grabbed a friend’s arm and, holding tight, gave him a shove and immediately pulled him back.
“I saved your life,” I told him as he yelped and my friends laughed.
“Shit, man,” he said, visibly shaken. “Don’t do that.”
“You’re just a fuckin’ pussy,” I said.
In civilian clothes, we were all neatly dressed, the regimentation of the Marine Corps extending even to the clothes we wore on liberty. To get our liberty cards, we had had to wait in the usual long line outside D Company headquarters and then pass inspection. And in this, the Marine Corps of 1968, the rules for civilian clothes were rigid. No jeans. No trousers with patch pockets. No sneakers. No boots. Leather shoes with socks. A leather belt and a shirt with a collar. No “hippie-type clothing.” Failing inspection meant going back to the barracks to change and then starting all over at the back of the line. And if you needed a haircut, you could forget about liberty until the next day, when the barbershop opened. So it was better to be safe than sorry. As a result, in our civilian clothes, with our short haircuts, we looked like five frat boys from the late fifties, out for a night of fun.
And like frat boys, on this, a Friday night, we were ready to let loose after another week of school. This school, however, was something none of us, most of all me, had bargained for when we joined the Marines. Six months before, beaten and bloodied by the police, I had stood before an unforgiving judge, with an equally unforgiving father beside me. It was my third arrest and, since I was already on probation, I opted to drop out of high school and enlist. To go, I thought, to war.
Now, however, I was in school yet again, far from home, in San Diego, with a curriculum even more boring than the one I’d hated in high school. I was well into the first phase of training as a radio repairman, fifteen weeks in D Company’s Basic Electronics School. Along with thirty classmates, I was studying nothing but electronics—capacitors, resistors, current, ohms, watts, tubes, transistors—everything that went into making a radio work. I had never been interested in any kind of science, and now I had eight hours of it a day, Monday through Friday.
Our class had been tested that morning on the week’s work, just as we were tested every Friday morning. With the tests graded on a curve, at least one boy failed each week (“tubed,” as the slang had it), with the tubes announced in the afternoon, just as we were settling into a new classroom for the upcoming week. The tubes were punished with guard duty all weekend, four hours on and eight hours off, and then were set back, to start the week they failed all over, with another class. Three tubes and a student was out, shit-canned to B Company, to train as a “humper,” a radio operator who, in a few months, would be humping the hills and rice paddies of Vietnam with a twenty-five-pound radio strapped to his back. As our instructors, Vietnam veterans all, loved to tell us, the radio came with a ten-foot antenna that said, “Shoot me first!”
Not that, at seventeen, I was afraid of going to Vietnam, with or without a radio on my back. I feared only the immediate consequences of failure, first among them the humiliation. The tubes, walking guard duty all weekend, were easily identifiable; the orange day-glow vests they wore might as well have been dunce caps. And the second consequence of failure was in some ways worse. If I tubed, my classmates, the friends I’d made over the past three months, would leave me behind. Then, to my new classmates, I’d be just another tube, an outcast not worth getting to know, since, having once failed, I would most likely fail again. I knew this because my classmates and I had never accepted the boys who had tubed into our class, even those who had stayed with us.
Tonight, however, for another week at least, those worries were behind me. A cool autumn wind blew in from the Pacific. Walking up the path, I felt a chill, but shook it off. The paper bag I was lugging had two six-packs in it and I knew that soon, with a few beers in me, I wouldn’t feel anything but the beginnings of euphoria. I loved getting drunk. I loved being drunk. In San Diego, however, I’d had few opportunities to drink. I had assumed that as a serviceman, whatever my age, I’d be allowed to drink, if not in civilian bars, at least on base. When I’d discovered that the drinking age of twenty-one was strictly enforced, even at the Enlisted Men’s Club, I’d been crushed. Now, with the means of getting drunk actually in my hands, I was itching to let loose, to show my friends the other me, the crazy and reckless boy who, when drunk, feared nothing except sleep.
Near the top of the cliff, we found our spot, a hollow nook just off the path, with a rock shelf to sit on and a view of the ocean. I sat down on the shelf, took out a beer, and popped the top. The beer, shaken from the climb, spewed, foam gushing over the top of the can. I lifted the can to my mouth, tilted my head back and poured almost half the contents down my throat in a few deep gulps. The beer had warmed a little but I didn’t care. It was beer, it felt good going down, and, hot or cold, I had enough to get drunk. I looked around at my friends. Like me, they were taking long gulps, eager to feel the effects.
As friends go, we were close, but not intimate. In our three months as classmates, we’d acquired the easy camaraderie born of living together in a cramped squadbay and sitting side-by-side every day in boring classes. Now, as we drank, we took to bullshitting, talking the familiar talk of hometowns and girlfriends, of high schools and hot rods. And inevitably, we talked of boot camp, an experience all of us had shared and survived, an experience that would always be our common bond as Marines. As I sat on the rock ledge comfortably drinking my beer and watching the sun ease its way into the Pacific Ocean, I was happy, happy to be getting drunk and, more than that, happy to have these friends. With them, I had earned a level of acceptance and comfort that, thanks to the chaos of my adolescence, I hadn’t felt since grammar school.
Once we were drunk, the horseplay began. It started with a punch or two, thrown in jest, hardly more than a tap on the arm or the shoulder. Then came the wrestling, with boys rolling on the ground in twos and threes. At first, I just watched, content to drink my beer and get drunker. But when the beer ran out and the sun had set, I joined in. By then, the rowdiness had evolved into disorganized games of chase and hide-and-seek. We raced up and down the path along the cliff, pushing, shoving, and jostling. Some of us took to hiding just off the path, jumping out with a shout at a passing figure, tackling him and then running off into the darkness. We were shadowy forms; only up close could we make out the faces, and then just barely. Drunk, whooping and yelling, we were having fun.
Among my four companions, there was one boy I didn’t like, Price. I had no good reason for disliking him. We’d never argued. He’d never injured or insulted me. He’d never crossed me, nor had an angry word ever passed between us. He was, in fact, a friendly, if ordinary, guy. I just didn’t like him. More than anything, it was his manner I resented. He had average looks, he had no personality, no brains, and yet, and this was what offended me, he seemed happy with himself, unaware of his inadequacies. A big dope, I thought, who had no idea what a dope he was.
I decided to push him off the cliff. The fall, I knew, would kill him. For sure. I reasoned, coldly and clearly, even though I was drunk, that I would get away with it. And getting away with it was the bottom line of my upbringing. It didn’t matter what I did, who I hurt, what I stole, what taboos and laws I broke, as long as I didn’t get caught. All that counted was whether I could get away with it and, almost as importantly, get away with it without anyone even suspecting. And this night, I knew I could get away with murder. We were five drunken boys on a cliff, cavorting recklessly, far above the rocks and the surf, each of us an accident waiting to happen. If one of us went off the cliff, who could say it wasn’t just that, an accident? In the dark, amidst the drunkenness, there would be no witnesses.
I needed only to wait for the opportunity and give Price a push. I knew that in the darkness, I had to be up close, face-to-face with him, before I gave him that push, to be sure it was him that I was sending down to the rocks. And it had to be Price; none of the other boys, in my mind, deserved to die. I crouched in the darkness along the path. When I made out a shape, I’d run up to the boy, and seeing it wasn’t Price, yell in his face, laugh, and turn away. I had four or five such dry runs.
Finally, as I got close to a darkened figure, I recognized Price. He was at the edge of the cliff and I gave him a shove, both my hands thumping against his chest. He teetered but didn’t go over. Regaining his balance, he laughed, gave me a push in return, and ran off. He was as drunk as I was and hadn’t understood what I had just tried to do. Why would he? I waited for another chance, intending to make my next shot at him count, to put all my weight into the shove, throw a body block if I had to, and send him over the cliff. As shapes appeared along the path, I approached them, ready for action, but up close I saw that none of them were the victim I sought.
I didn’t get another shot at Price and, eventually, we tired of our games. Having finished our beer, we started back down the path. Not quite as drunk now, we picked our way carefully, the crash of the waves against the rocks reminding us that a false step could mean certain death. As we neared the foot of the cliff, I was disappointed that our night seemed to be over.
We stumbled onto the beach. A hundred yards from the cliff, we came upon six teenagers, three boys and three girls, sitting around a campfire, sharing a joint and a quart of whiskey. Out of beer and fearing that my buzz would soon fade, I plopped down in their circle, almost sitting on one of the boys, and motioned for my friends to join me. My friends hesitated, but the teenagers, intimidated, expanded their circle, and in a few seconds we were all of us sitting cross-legged, knee against knee, around the fire.
These kids weren’t much younger than me, but they looked completely different. They were all in ragged jeans. The boys wore tie-dyed tee shirts and the girls peasant blouses. The boys had the beginnings of scruffy beards and, like the girls, long hair. Some wore beads and bandanas. In the warmth of the fire, watching the boys adroitly roll and light joints, I settled in for what seemed to be the second, mellower, phase of the evening. I was pleased with myself, with the loose-cannon persona that came over me when I drank, and the entrée it had provided us into this group.
Across from me, Price sat beside one of the girls. He was smiling, his head turned toward her, blabbing away, even as she ignored him. He was a simpleton, a dope, and I regretted that my plan had failed.
Now, however, I had other plans. At ease with my new friends, I studied their faces. The girls were pretty, but it was one of the boys, sitting across the fire from me, who caught my eye. Each time a joint was passed to him, I studied his face as he took a toke. Eventually, the firelight flickering on his soft features sent me into a trance. Longing to be like him, to be one with him, I considered taking a drag from a joint as it came around to me, but opted instead to stick with the whiskey and its predictable effects.
Taking long pulls of whiskey, I turned my gaze back to the boy each time I lowered the bottle. Now and then, he seemed to return my stare, our eyes locking for a few seconds before he took a drag from a joint or a swig from the bottle. I was wondering if I could ditch my friends, to wander off with him, when the boy abruptly stood up. For a second, I thought he was coming to sit beside me.
Instead, he pointed down the beach and hollered, “Pigs! Pigs!”
I turned my head and saw three cops heading toward us, their flashlights beaming. The other two boys stood up, the cops broke into a run, and then all three boys took off. At this, my instinctive fear of the police, as well as my newfound devotion to the boy with soft features, kicked in. I stood up, hesitating for a second, and then leapt over the fire, two girls scrambling to get out of my way as I hit the ground running. Behind me as I sprinted, I could hear my friends calling my name, shouting at me to stop. Ignoring their shouts, as well as those of the police, I headed back toward the cliff, hoping to find the boy. In the darkness, however, I lost him, and at the base of the cliff I crawled behind a pile of rocks and lay face down in the sand, my hands over my head for protection I hoped I wouldn’t need. Trying not to breathe, I could hear the cops panting, their voices gruff, as they rounded up the boys. I thought I was safe until I heard a voice from the other side of the rocks.
“Come out of there. Now! With your hands up.”
I stood up with my hands in the air, the glare of a flashlight in my face.
The cop spoke. “What the fuck were you doing down there on the beach?”
“Nothing. Just drinking.”
“How old are you?”
The light was still in my eyes. I blinked. “Seventeen.”
“You know you’re not old enough to drink in California.”
“Were you smoking those funny cigarettes?”
“No sir.” I was grateful it was the truth.
“Then why did you run?”
“Because I got beat up by the police once.”
Despite the light in my eyes, I could see the cop’s head tilt back slightly.
“Where was that?”
“Well, this isn’t Georgia. Where do you live now?”
“On the base.”
“You’re a Marine?”
“Show me your ID.”
He meant my military ID. Lowering my hands, I took out my wallet and handed it to him. He shifted the beam of his flashlight from my face and studied the card. Touching me on the shoulder, the flashlight now pointed to the sand, he said, “Okay, Marine, follow me. And don’t run again. No one’s gonna beat you up.”
We walked back to the campfire where the other two cops were waiting with the teenagers and my friends. The boys were squatting bedside the fire, their heads down, their hands cuffed behind them. The girls sat beside them; their hands were free but they were obviously in custody. My friends stood on the other side of the fire. The cop pointed me in their direction and then turned to the other cops. They talked among themselves, all the time keeping an eye on the teenagers and shooting my friends and me a look now and then.
Finally, the cop who’d nabbed me approached us. He had our IDs and, by flashlight, read our names off and handed them to us one by one.
“You guys get out of here,” he said. “Go back to the base. And don’t ever drink on the beach again. You got that?”
“Yes sir,” we said, in unison.
We took off at a trot. As we were leaving the beach, two paddy wagons pulled up. One for the boys, I realized, and one for the girls. We had to laugh at our luck. The cops didn’t like hippies, or smoking joints on the beach, but they didn’t have anything against Marines.
I awoke the next morning in my bunk, fully clothed except for my shoes, hungover and still a little drunk. My head hurt, my mouth was dry, and I felt the scrape of sand against my skin. I had sand in my hair, inside my shirt, in my pants, in my underwear. Rising, I swung my feet to the floor.
As I sat on my bunk, the previous night’s adventure came back to me. I was exhilarated. As I put on my shoes, I relished the stories my friends and I would tell. How we all got drunk, how we had courted death with our antics on the cliff, how we had crashed a hippie party, how the cops had come and broken up the party, and most of all, how the cops had chased and caught me but then let us all go because we were Marines. It had the ingredients of a classic barracks story, worth telling and retelling, with me as one of the stars.
Quietly, I stepped past my friends, still sleeping in their bunks, on my way to the head. There, I emptied my bladder at a urinal and then turned toward the sinks, catching a glimpse of my face in a mirror.
It was the face, I knew, of a killer. And yet, I felt no guilt, no remorse, and certainly no horror at what I had attempted on the cliff. I gave myself a smile. No one else knew what I had tried to do, and that was all that counted.
Drunk, I’d committed other crimes, vandalism, theft, and burglary among them. Sober, I’d been just as bad in deed and worse in thought. What mattered then, and what mattered now, was whether I was caught. And this time, I hadn’t been.
If I felt any relief at all, it was relief at not having to lie, at not having to lie in the face of suspicions, or worse, disbelief. Not that I didn’t know that my lies would have prevailed. I had long ago learned how to stick with a lie and I understood that without a confession, suspicions and even disbelief would not have been enough to pin a homicide on me. The cold and almost sober light of Saturday morning confirmed that my instincts of the night before had been sound, that I would have gotten away with murder.
As it was, despite my intentions, nothing had happened and no explanations were necessary. Washing my face, slurping water from the faucet, I understood that this episode was merely another secret to be kept.
And I was good at secrets.
Still standing at the sink, I thought of my other, deeper, secrets. Secrets that, unlike attempted murder, aroused feelings of guilt. These were the ones that counted. For at least three years, I had wished my mother dead. She, deep in her miserable and hopeless depression, was warehoused, back in Georgia, in the state mental hospital. Nothing, not the shock treatments, not the medications, not all the tears and pleas from her children and siblings, had pierced the cloud of hopelessness that had hung about her since my father left her for his secretary. The hospital was a snake pit, an abyss, as I knew too well from the many painful visits I had paid her. My mother’s death would be a mercy, not just for her but also for me, the helpless witness to her misery. And for that thought, that secret wish that my mother would just die, I felt guilt.
Studying my reflection in the mirror, I considered the other secret, the biggest one of all. At this, the face of the boy from the night before came to me. Remembering his soft features, I felt a surge of excitement, a tingling in my stomach. Drunk, I had been on the verge of letting this secret slip, and with that thought the tingling subsided and my stomach sank. I had been lucky. My friends, themselves drunk, hadn’t noticed my interest in the boy. But what, I wondered, would have happened if the cops hadn’t broken up the party? Had I continued to guzzle the whiskey, I might have lost all judgment and made a clumsy, revealing pass at the boy. My body shook with a spasm of terror. The consequences of that were unthinkable.
I bent down, turned the handle on the sink, and splashed more water on my face. I took another drink from my cupped hands and then, looking once again at my reflection in the mirror, dried my hands by slapping them against my pants. I smiled. All was well. My secrets were safe. My friends knew no more than I wanted them to know. I wondered if they were awake. Still smiling, I turned, just in time to see one of them, clad only in his underwear, step into the head. His face was twisted in a sleepy grimace but when he saw me, the grimace faded. With one eye in a squint and the other opened wide, he shook his head, slowly. For a second, I froze.
Then he laughed and shouted my name, loud enough to wake the entire barracks. “Man,” he said. “You are one crazy motherfucker!”
It was going to be a good day.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Orin Zebest (banner image) and the author (inset personal photo of author.)