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Chapter OneCopyright 2002 by Pat Conroy
In the Cordova Hotel, near the docks of Barcelona, fourteen Marine Corps fighter pilots from the aircraft carrier Forrestal were throwing an obstreperously spirited going away party for Lieutenant Colonel Bull Meecham, the executive officer of their carrier based squadron. The pilots had been drinking most of the day and the party was taking a swift descent toward mayhem. It was a sign to Bull Meecham that he was about to have a fine and memorable turbulent time.
The commanding officer of the squadron, Ty Mullinax, had passed out in the early part of the afternoon and was resting in a beatific position on the table in the center of the room, his hands folded across his chest and a bouquet of lilies carefully placed in his zipper, rising out of his groin.
The noise from the party had risen in geometrically spiraling quantities in irregular intervals since the affair had begun shortly after noon. In the beginning it had been a sensible, often moving affair, a coming together of soldiers and gentlemen to toast and praise a warrior departing their ranks. But slowly, the alcohol established its primacy over the last half of the party and as darkness approached and the outline of warships along the harbor became accented with light, the maitre d' of the Cordova Hotel walked into the room to put an end to the going away party that had begun to have the sound effects of a small war.
He would like to have had the Marines thrown out by calling the Guardia Civil but too much of his business depended on the American officers who had made his hotel and restaurant their headquarters whenever the fleet came to Barcelona. The guests in his restaurant hadbegun to complain vigorously about the noise and obscenity coming from the room that was directly off the restaurant. Even the music of a flamenco band did not overpower or even cancel out the clamor and tumult that spilled out of the room. The maitre d' was waiting for Captain Weber, a naval captain who commanded a cruiser attached to the fleet, to bring his lady in for dinner, but his reservation was not until 9 o'clock. He took a deep breath, opened the door, and walked toward the man who looked as if he was in charge.
"Hey, Pedro, what can I do for you?" Bull Meecham asked.
The maitre d' was a small, elegant man who looked up toward a massive, red-faced man who stood six feet four inches tall and weighed over two hundred and twenty pounds.
Before the maitre d' could speak he noticed the prone body of Colonel Mullinax lying on the long dining table in the center of the room.
"What is wrong with this man?" the maitre d' demanded.
"He's dead, Pedro," Bull answered.
"You joke with me, no."
"He still breathe."
"Muscle spasms. Involuntary," Bull said as the other pilots whooped and laughed behind him. "He's dead all right and we got to leave him here, Pedro. The fleet's pulling out any time now and we won't have time for a funeral. But we'll be back to pick him up in about six months. And that's a promise. I just don't want you to move him from this table."
"No, senor," the maitre d' said, staring with rising discomfort at the unconscious aviator, "you joke with me. I no mind the joke. I come to ask you to keep down the noise and please not break up any more furniture or throw your glasses. Some naval officers have complained very much."
"Oh, dearie me," said Bull. "You mean the naval officers don't like to hear us throwing glasses?"
Bull turned toward the far wall and, giving a signal to the other pilots in the room, all thirteen of them hurled their glasses into the fireplace already littered with bright shards of glass.
"It will be charged to your bill, senor," the maitre d' said.
"Beat it, Pedro," Bull said. "When I want a tortilla I'll give you a call."
"But, senor, I have other guests. Many of the officers in the Navy and their ladies. They ask me what the noise is. What am I to do?"
"I'll handle them, Pedro," Bull said. "You run along now and chew on a couple of tacos while the boys and I finish up here. We should be done partying about a week from now."
"No, senor. Please, senor. My other guests."
When the maitre d' closed the door behind him, Bull walked over and made himself another drink. The other pilots crowded around him and did likewise.
With a strong Texas accent, Major Sammy Funderburk said, "I did a little recon job early this here morning here. And I saw me some strange and willing nookie walking around the lobby of this here hotel here."
"You know me better than that," Bull said. "I'm saving my body for my wife."
"Since when, Colonel?" one of the young lieutenants shouted over the laughter.
"Since very early this morning," Bull replied.
"This here squadron here is the toughest bunch of Marine aviators ever assembled on this here God's green earth here," Sammy bellowed.
"Hear ye! Hear ye!" the others agreed.
"I'd like to offer a toast," Bull shouted above the din, and the room quieted. "I'd like to toast the greatest Marine fighter pilot that ever shit between two shoes." He lifted his drink high in the air and continued his toast as the other pilots elevated their glasses. "This man has lived without fear, has done things with an airplane that other men have never done, has spit in death's eye a thousand times, and despite all this has managed to retain his Christ-like humility. Gentlemen, I ask you to lift your glasses and join me in toasting Colonel Bull Meecham."
Amid the hisses and jeers that followed this toast, Captain Ronald Bookout whispered to Bull, "Sir, I think we might get into a little trouble if we don't hold it down a little. I just peeked out toward the restaurant and there are a lot of Navy types in there. I'd hate for you to get in trouble on your last night in Europe."
"Captain," Bull said loudly so the other Marines would hear his reply, "there's something you don't understand about the Navy. The Navy expects us to be wild. That's so they can feel superior to us. They think we're something out of the ice age and it is entirely fittin' that we maintain this image. They expect us to be primitive, son, and it is a sin, a mortal sin, for a Marine ever to let a goddam squid think we are related to them in any way. Hell, if I found out that Naval Academy grads liked to screw women, I'd give serious consideration to becoming a pansy. As a Marine, and especially as a Marine fighter pilot, you've got to constantly keep 'em on their toes. I can see them out there now mincing around like they've got icicles stuck up their butts. They think the Corps is some kind of anal fungus they got to put up with."
"Hell, I'd rather go to war against the Navy than the Russians," Ace Norbett declared.
"Ace, that's always been one of my dreams that the Navy and the Marine Corps go to war. I figure it would take at least fifteen minutes for Marine aviators to make Navy aviators an extinct form of animal life," Bull said.
"They'd have supremacy on the sea, though," Captain Bookout said.
"Let 'em have it. The thing I want to see is those swabbies storming a beach. I bet three Marines could secure a beach against the whole U.S. Navy. Hell, I could hold off half the Navy with just a slingshot and six pissed-off, well-trained oysters on the half shell."
A long whoop and clamor with whistling and foot-stomping arose in the room. It took an extended moment for the room to fall silent when the maitre d' appeared in the doorway accompanied by an aroused Navy captain. The maitre d' smiled triumphantly as he watched the captain stare with majestic disapproval at the assembled Marines, some of whom had snapped to attention as soon as the Navy captain had materialized in the doorway. The power of rank to silence military men survived even into the pixilated frontiers and distant boundaries of drunkenness.
"Who is the senior officer in this group?" the captain snapped.
"He is, sir," Lieutenant Colonel Meecham said, pointing to Ty Mullinax.
"Identify yourself, Colonel."
"Lieutenant Colonel W.P. Meecham, sir," Bull answered.
"What's wrong with that man, Colonel?" the captain said, pointing to Colonel Mullinax.
"He's had the flu, sir. It's weakened him."
"Don't be smart with me, Colonel, unless you wish to subsist on major's pay the rest of your time in the military. Now I was trying to have a pleasant dinner tonight with my wife who flew over from Villa France to join me. There are at least ten other naval officers dining with their ladies and we would appreciate your cooperation in clearing out of this hotel and taking your ungentlemanly conduct elsewhere."
"Sir, this is a going away party for me, sir," Bull explained.
"Your departure should improve the image of the fleet considerably, Colonel. Now I strongly suggest you drink up and get back to the ship."
"Could we take one last drink at the bar, Captain? If we promise to behave like gentlemen?"
"One. And then I don't want to see you anywhere near the area," the captain said as he left the room.
The maitre d' lingered after the captain departed. "Do you wish to have the bill now, senor?" he said to Bull. "It will include the broken glasses and damaged furniture."
"Sure, Pedro," Bull answered. "Better add a doctor bill that you'll have when I punch your taco-lovin' eyes out."
"You Marines are nothing but trouble," the maitre d' said, easing toward the door.
"I'd sure like to take me a dead maitre d' home from this here party here," Major Funderburk said.
"We'll be at the bar, Pedro," Bull called to the retreating maitre d'. Then he turned to the Texan and asked, "Hey, Sammy, did you bring that can of mushroom soup?"
"Got it right here, Colonel."
"You bring something to open it with?"
"Ace," Bull called across the room, "you got the spoons?"
"Aye, aye, sir."
"Now, young pilots," Bull said, gathering the whole squadron around him, "yes, young pilots, innocent as the wind driven snow, us old flyboys are going to show you how to take care of the pompous Navy types when the occasion arises. Now that used jock strap of a captain that was just in here thinks he just taught the caveman a lesson in etiquette and good breeding. He's bragging to his wife right now about how he had us trembling and scared shitless he was going to write us up. Now I want all of you to go to the bar, listen to the music, and act like perfect gentlemen. Then watch Bull, Ace, and Sammy, three of the wildest goddam fighter pilots, steal the floorshow from those cute little flamingo dancers."
The band was playing loudly when the Marines entered the restaurant and headed as decorously as their condition permitted for seats at the bar. Their appearance was greeted with hostile stares that shimmered almost visibly throughout the room. The captain's wife leaned over to say something to her husband, something that made both of them smile.
When the band took a break, Bull slipped the opened can of mushroom soup into his uniform shirt pocket. He winked at Ace and Sammy, drained his martini, then rose from his bar stool unsteadily and staggered toward the stage the band had just left. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the captain and the other naval officers shaking their heads condescendingly. Their wives watched Bull in fascination, expecting him to fall to the floor at any moment, enjoying the spectacle of a Marine wobbling toward some uncertain and humiliating rendezvous near the band platform more than they had the music itself.
When Bull reached the lights of the stage, he fell to one knee, contorted his face in the pre-agony of nausea, then threw his head forward violently, pretending to vomit. The sound effects brought every fork in the restaurant down. As he retched, Bull spilled the mushroom soup out of the pocket, letting it roll off his chin and mouth before it dripped onto the stage. Bull heard Weber's wife say, "My Lord." She left the captain's table running but threw up before she passed three tables. Two other Navy wives passed her without so much as a glance as they sprinted toward the ladies' room. On stage, Bull was still retching and puking and burping, lost completely in the virtuosity of his performance. Bull rose up on shivery legs, and staggered back to the bar, his eyes uncomprehending and dulled with alcohol.
Ace and Sammy, taking their cue, pulled out their spoons and in a desperate foot race with each other dove onto the stage as soon as Bull ceased to throw up. Their faces were twisted hideously as they grunted their way to the stage and began spooning the mushroom soup into their mouths. Ace and Sammy began to fight each other over the soup. Sammy jumped on Ace's back as Ace tried to spoon more of it into his mouth. Finally, Sammy pushed Ace off the platform and screamed at him, "Goddammit, it just ain't fair, Ace. You're gettin' all the meat."
The next morning Bull Meecham was ordered to report to the office of Colonel Luther Windham, the commanding officer of the Marine group attached to the Forrestal. Colonel Windham was hunched over a report when Bull peeked through the door and said, "Yes, sir, Luther?"
Luther Windham looked up with a stern, proconsular gaze that began to come apart around his eyes and mouth when he saw Bull's bright and guiltless smile. "As you may have guessed, Bull, this is a serious meeting. Captain Weber called me up last night, woke me up, and read me the riot act for fifteen minutes. He wants to write you up. He wants me to write you up. And he wants to get Congress to pass a law to make it a capital offense for you to cross the border of an American ally."
"Did he tell you his wife blew her lunch all over the Cordova?"
"Yes, Bull, and he still thinks that Ace and Sammy chowed down on your vomit. He said that he had never seen such a spectacle performed by officers and gentlemen in his entire life."
"Shit, Luth. Ace and Punchy were just a little hungry. God, I love having fun with those high ranked, tight-assed squids."
From the Audio Cassette edition.