by Philip Julian
0700 hours. I was ready. The early morning sun crept into our room. My window—always unshaded so I can experience the beautiful 380-plus acres. It’s the most expensive piece of coveted metropolitan real estate in the country. We live here.
I am a warrior, and as such, I always plan ahead and I’m always on time.
I am mission-oriented. U.S. Army 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne), B Company. I was twenty-two when I first began. It ended prematurely six years later due to a parachute injury.
My expertise is leadership. Green Beret. I excelled in land navigation. We were world experts. World soldiers. The world was our playground. We got invited to play with it.
Today, on the 11th day of the 11th month of this year, I was on a mission of discovery. The terrain was the National Soldiers Home in West Los Angeles, California. The prominent terrain feature from which I shot an azimuth is known as the Domiciliary, for homeless/jobless veterans—code named building 217. I am a resident. Temporary.
Mapped out mission coordinates a few days before.
Code word for today’s mission scrambled from a ubiquitous cell phone key pad: 3-7-3-3. That is, F-R-E-E.
I chose free Starbucks to start off our morning. Closest one was in Westwood. I was ready to roll with four other vets, three who lived in the Domiciliary—two were my roommates.
There was Colonel Billy, former Army Ranger chopper pilot, shot down by all the shots he has taken to erase his memory; Brodie, jarhead Marine Corporal, stuck in his corporal dreams; Stevie The Wonder, former E-4 passing himself off as a Navy Commander; Frankie—really a Francis—recently retired after more than twenty years in the Army as a sergeant—arms like Popeye, a trooper and bass jammer.
Let’s go, boyz, said I.
Where? asked Billy.
What time is it? echoed Brodie.
I was pissed. Fuck, maggots, we been talking about this all week.
Frankie, Brodie and Billy squeeze into the back of my car. Stevie the Wonder flipped the shotgun seat back. He watched my contortionist act and asked, How tall are you, man?
Dude, a team of midgets couldn’t fit into this car.
Unfolded topo’ map I created, scanned the order of our numbered mission targets: #1, Starbucks Coffee for free, non-VA issue; #2, Denny’s free build-your-own Grand Slam breakfast…
Eat slow. Drink mojo. Enjoy the morning glory.
We got in right before the UCLA crowd arrived. Our ages of enlightenment shone bright in a crowd of youthful inexperience. We showed our veteran IDs and ordered our free coffee. Billy ordered a bottle of fancy water. He had no money. He thought it was free. Stevie offered to buy it for him. We thanked our young cashier for his company’s generosity and he in turn thanked us for our service.
The long line of students behind us remained silent. We headed for Denny’s.
The mission continued.
It was immediately evident that Denny’s was a-jay squared away. The welcome mat was out, the greeting heartfelt. We chose to eat on the patio, al fresco. There were a lot of vets, kindred spirits with familiar faces and names we readily lobbed. We all ordered our own inspired Grand Slams and hit them outside the patio. Bam! We all involuntarily jumped at a bark—a pretty lady walking her Chihuahua, covered in pink frillies. An unwelcome trigger. Gave us the willies. We toasted ourselves and our fellow vets. I nodded. Yeah.
The chosen restaurants on the topo’ map were strewn along the I-405 corridor. We headed due south to Long Beach. Traffic was light. We listened to Stevie’s patriotic FM station play American-made country music. Good for digestion.
Most veterans smoke, not me. No smoking in my car. Brodie was exempt—he chawed gooey tobackey.
At last, Long Beach Harbor. Queen Mary prominent in the distance. The Aquarium became our new major terrain feature for base camp in the parking lot.
Is it free today? said Stevie, nervous.
Think so—or it should be. For us anyway, said I.
Ahhh, I don’t know, man. I need to be sure. I’m gonna put some money in the parking meter slot machine, just to be sure. I don’t want us to get a ticket. Off goes Stevie the Wonder to take care of his nerves. It was a wonderful day. Everyone agreed.
We gathered on a nearby pier for a group shot. Selfies, too. Air was crisp, somewhat humid, tinged with a scent of kelp, salty. We quietly nodded, like bobbleheads.
We collected ourselves and moved on, in step.
Pirate ship! Tall ship! Paddle wheel! Tug boat—my kinda float, hustle with muscle, said Popeye Frankie.
Man, I would love to go on a trip in that tall ship, chimed Brodie, who hailed from New Hampshire, home to many a historical wave-paver.
I chose the smaller pirate ship. It appealed to my sense of adventure.
Stevie had a keen interest in the paddle wheel boat. He said it reminded him of his childhood excursions. We went down the weathered planks for a closer look. A tall, portly, gray man busted out from the fat boat. He yelled, the docks were closed.
We recoiled, protested—even for vets? C’mon, our day today, man… have a heart.
You funny bunnies, vet men. I have two fucking hearts—one purple, one red. ‘Nam. Three kick-ass tours. SEALs. I captain this ol’ wheel. My day off, too, he said.
Aaah, I’m Navy, stuttered Stevie the Wonder.
I’m thirsty, said I. Watcha got for one who retired his Green Beret?
I’m Brad, boomed the stout wheel captain, limping toward ice chest between us. Beer?
No, dude. We’re dry as an old witch’s well, else we’ll catch hell. And I’m driving.
He cackled. He passed gas. He opened the lid, dipped in, held the ice-cold can and slammed hard on his dragging right leg—thonk! He smirked… courtesy of bouncing, fucking Betty.
I nodded my warrior approval. We allied.
He chucked me the dented soda. Brodie caught a pop. Billy got his ice-cold cola bottle delivered. Frankie bagged a soft drink. Stevie chose hard cider.
Spirits-free. That’s how we roll these days.
We rocked the closed dock with unbridled chatter and opened up C-ration cans of rusted stories as we meandered aimlessly down the old rabbit’s path. We made hurry our flurry and finished the serendipitous moment. We vetted our vets’ day.
Did a call up. I see Frankie. Stevie the Wonder wanders by. Brodie joins up. Billy catches on. I tell them we should rally over to #3, Chili’s; #4, Outback; #5, Hooters.
We arrived at Chili’s, seated for five.
We ordered free lunch. Got served.
We ate and made merriment.
We chit. We chatted.
We thanked and were thanked.
We righted and left.
We stretched outside, happily sated. Strangers came to us and thanked us for our service. ‘Welcome, we replied. We weren’t wearing any readily discernible clothing or insignias that pronounced us vets. However, older fellow Americans who saw us five somehow knew. It was a humbling. Nice.
Next door, #4: Outback Steakhouse with its Bloomin’ Onions. Went in, showed ID and ordered free gift to go. Carry out bag arrived. Only one. Guys forgot to order theirs. We’ll share, we decided. We thanked OS and sauntered on.
#5, Hooters, offered three free main dishes to choose from, with a Captain-sized hook: minimum $4 drink order, each. Tap water cannot be tapped for free.
Fronting maître d’, aghast about the money trap—we summoned manager, showed our IDs, enlightened him on their cost of freedom to charge us vets.
He stood ground—corporation rules, man. Overarching profit still prevails.
My green SF blood flowed. Hey, I have a plan, Mr. Manager. How about I buy one drink for us all to meet your minimum, then you let us celebrate the profit your company makes off our poor backs, on our day? We become like bosom buddies, eh? Apropos?
Crowd of patriotic Americans accumulated like proceeds behind us, anxious to be seated, they came to our defense—read manager the riot act. Intensity in vicinity. A scene. It helped sway the pendulum to our vet case.
We were decidedly seated and eagerly feasted on our freedom lunch.
I happily paid for my costly non-alcoholic drink and took in delight of my vet mates.
Our supporters bought us soft drinks in appreciation of our service. We thanked them.
Guys had their photos taken with gorgeous waitresses and they didn’t disappoint. We freely took it all in and had our fill—let’s go! And we did. Grateful.
We gathered round park table by the water’s edge next to our parking lot and sat on the circular seat. I took out the big Bloomin’ Onion appetizer/dip and started picking on it. Soon, others joined in until we were all acquainted with the Outback specialty. A knights’ gathering, appetizing feast for seasoned soldiers of the free order. Special occultus.
Time had expired. I didn’t want us to get a ticket. Said, I’ll be by the car.
One by one we peeled off, burdened our weight back towards car.
Aw, man, I knew this was gonna happen. Traffic backed up on the 405. Stressing out. Anxious. Anticipating. Cars. More Cars. Fuck!
Phil, chill out, man.
We just had a good time and lotsa good foods, emphasized Dave.
He was right.
Back row echoed Dave.
Yeah, man, that was the best I’ve had in a long time. Felt like a prisoner in that VA campus. Thanks a lot, said Billy.
That was the most Billy’d said in a long time. Glad he came along… a long way from where he was. For just a little while, we were his fam.
Frankie agreed, too.
Yeah, Phil, this trip was the best time I’ve had in quite some time. I needed that. All that delicious food and hot chicks, baby. Groovy. Dig. Thanks, SF.
No problem, trooper.
Yeah, Phil, this was a great idea, Brodie added. Food was great, weather nice and the babes looked awesome. Can’t complain too much. Glad to get out of those classes. Recovery gets to be tedious.
Stevie the Wonder agreed with everyone. He said he had a great time and thanked us all for the company.
I seconded his comment.
We all cheered. Yeah.
The moment was captivating and we were not captives. We were free and we enjoyed our freedom to indulge in free things. We were very grateful. Band of misfits. Veterans, on Veterans Day. Ironic twist of fates, faiths and purpose. Even for just one day, we came together. This is what I had hoped for, for us. This was the covert mission. A special one that overcomes. A special force—SF. Yeah.
Satisfaction abounded. Mission on-target.
De Oppresso Liber.
We liberated our oppressed appetites. Must have gained pounds that made us all ponder our free places of yonder. The big daddy’s comin’ last tonight—Golden Corral and all its finger lickin’ good all yer can eat dinner feast.
Yoos guys ready?
Woof! Indeed, the pack was barking loudly and were renewed—we. Capacity set.
I-10 east, we snailed.
I-5 south, we breathed… glue.
We were stuck. LA traffic. Two and one-half hours eastbound. Shit. This was worse than I thought. Oh, well. Breathe.
‘Twas a night for the records. Indeed, the biggest moon in the past fifty years rose to the east of us, lighting our path, dazzling us on. A historical religious event, three kings and then some.
Frankie took moon shots from the front seat—blurred. I opened the moon roof. Frankie slipped through the moon roof cavity, arms and hands extended, camera in tow, stagnant traffic all around us and beyond, full-moon rising, huge, the biggest ever of our time, frame, click!
Frankie was quite the happy mooner. LA Luna. LA Loon? I heard a howl, maybe an owl…No one gave a hoot—a car, maybe.
It was a miracle of sorts. The guiding light was shining on our glowing target, our manger…my car lights, on Golden Corral.
We cheered: FOOD! Priceless. Free.
Downey, CA, in the newest Golden Corral around—four months new. Place was packed. We showed our vet IDs to a couple of older vets working the entrance and they gave us a reminder sticker saying I proudly served. With that, GC employees served the many veterans who answered their call.
We feasted on their incredible buffet. I relived a familiar memory: duly employed once, had habit of eating out, going back home and sleeping in my own bed. I savored this experience, sampling a reminiscent bit of life that appealed to my sentimental palette.
I was crying deep down, but joyful on the outside. The concurrently conflicting sets of emotions kept in special balance. A veteran actor of life-survival and the plateful of trivials it throws at you. An acerbic food fight of life.
Our FREE mission ended. Finally, we reclined and concluded a big, fat sigh of accomplishment. We did it. We left our tips, thanked our waiter, thanked the manager. Said our hellos and goodbyes to the beautiful people we’d met. We boarded Solara one last time as a squad of veterans.
We returned to the Domiciliary just before curfew. Then, lights out. Silhouette of skyscraping treetops played in tranquil view outside my center window. I held a mental picture. New day approaching. Time keeps ticking on us. Stillness prevailed. Sirens rudely interrupted the night and wailed in the distant LA streets.
Our lives and living arrangements renewed.
I recalled Billy’s wife and three young daughters killed by a drunk truck driver; loved ones killed by a terrorist grenade; Brodie and his Gulf Oil War affliction and sufferings; Frankie’s targeted sexual harassment in the Army; Stevie’s mental instability from the Navy… Damn it. It’s just a simple story, gunny. A short trip. For vets only. Who the hell gives a shit about us fucked up veterans?
I took a deep breath. Content, I closed my tired hazel eyes.