Bernard had had his share of rubbery eggs in the Army during the war, so when he moved into assisted living, late last month, when his wife’s cancer returned, he worried he’d have to find a new favorite meal of the day. That first morning, he entered the cafeteria with a racing heart and clammy palms, and judging by the pained look the Pancake Lady gave him as she plopped the misshapen disks on the plastic plate, he was prepared to accept the worst—and Bernard, a counterintelligence officer, knew a thing or two about reading faces. But the eggs were surprisingly edible, the jacks delectably cakey and moist—almost as good as Esme used to make them. Best of all, though, were the early hours: 0500 on the dot, Monday through Friday. Get there a minute late, however, and a line would have formed down the hall and around the corner, past the Sit and Be Fit studio.
This morning, Bernard was the first shipwrecked sailor to wash up on the shores of Egg Island, but where were the eggs? And why was Rod—a towering, burly, bearded security guard with a metallic rod drilled through his nostrils—manning the grill? Security guards weren’t certified to dispense food items, Bernard presumed. But worse, far worse: he wasn’t wearing a hair net or protective gloves. In other words, not only was he not certified to handle edibles, he was knowingly spreading infectious germs, and in a place like Whistling Pines, he may as well have been wielding an ax and butchering residents.
But Bernard didn’t want to cause a scene, even if Egg Island was egg-less. It was best to keep things moving. The quicker he stocked up on breakfast, the sooner he could vacate the premises and therefore avoid being suckered into attending Prom Night. Though that didn’t mean he was going to settle for pancakes.
“What else you got?”
“Flapjacks and that’s it. What d’you want on them, whipped cream, butter, low-fat ice cream? Long line behind you, sir.”
Indeed there was, and not one single recognizable face. For a moment Bernard thought that Nurse Rath had clobbered him and stuffed him in the back of her Bonneville, driven him to an undisclosed location, which by all appearances looked like the Whistling Pines cafeteria (the same brown tiles, the same fungal stench) but which was a black site filled with trained operatives, all of them incognito, playing a small role in a larger subterfuge, like the Pancake Man. Then he spotted Barton Templeton, and he realized that he was, in fact, inside the actual Whistling Pines cafeteria.
“I don’t want pancakes, thanks but no thanks,” he told the Pancake Man. “I want two eggs sunnyside up, extra-crispy hashbrowns, three strips of bacon, and a sausage patty. Links if that’s all you got.”
“Lemme see what I can scrounge up for ya, mmm-kay, sir?”
Bernard didn’t like being mmm-kayed, but he also didn’t like holding up the line, and because the Pancake Man had already turned and was raiding one of the fridges along the back wall, that was exactly what he was doing. The polite thing would be to turn around and yuck it up, at least say hello to Barton.
“Whatcha got those for? Spying?”
“I got a pair of nocs, too. That’s what I use them for, spying. Who’re you spying on?”
“I’m not spying on anyone, for your information,” Bernard said, finally turning around to face Barton Templeton.
But as he did so, a strange thing happened. Or rather, not strange, since it’d been happening with alarming frequency, ever since Dr. Gasson changed his meds—not strange, but alarming: he couldn’t see even a few inches in front of him. He could make out the general shape of Barton, but other than the blurry and indistinct shape, that was it—and because Barton was afflicted with a mild case of opsoclonus myclonus, dancing-feet syndrome, he couldn’t help but lunge into Bernard, and because of the blurriness, and because Bernard didn’t see it coming, he thought for a moment he was under attack and he backed into the Pancake Man, who was holding a platter on which had been plopped a steaming, plastic-wrapped, vaguely football-shaped object.
“What is it?”
“WHAT IS IT?”
Sometimes at Whistling Pines, if you wanted to be heard you had to shout, and usually, like now, it worked like a charm.
“Breakfast burrito,” said the Pancake Man.
“Does it have egg in it?”
“Sure does. It’s premade but piping hot and with the right amount of ketchup, delish. Careful when unwrapping the plastic wrapping—it’s piping hot!”
“Two? Sorry, no can do.”
“My hands are tied. What can you do? We’re running on a strictly one-breakfast-burrito per-resident rule, sir.”
“That’s just it. The second one is for my wife.”
“I’m bringing her breakfast in bed.”
“Do you have a waiver?”
“A waiver,” said the Pancake Man, growing a bit irritated, which in turn irritated Bernard. “Prior permission to get a second breakfast burrito to-go.”
“I don’t need permission.”
“Sorry, sir, but today you do. We can’t be doling out breakfast burritos left and right to just anyone who wants an extra one—then where’d we be? Out of breakfast burritos, that’s where! And on Prom Night breakfast? That’d be bad business.”
If the normal Pancake Lady were here instead of this impostor, then Bernard wouldn’t be in the predicament he was in, whether he should take the time to argue with this impostor Pancake Man and therefore risk irritating the rest of the breakfast line, or cash in his chips and shuffle off on his merry way, with only the one breakfast burrito, whatever that was. At Whistling Pines, there were so many arcane rules and regulations, it wasn’t worth arguing over any of them, especially with an impostor Pancake Lady Man who wasn’t going to budge, so Bernard decided to take his one breakfast burrito and that’d be that. The truth was, if it wasn’t two eggs sunnyside up, extra-crispy hash browns, three strips of bacon, and a sausage patty, he wasn’t interested. Any other morning, maybe. But this morning if he intended to skip out on Prom Night he’d need an extra boost, and that could be provided only by his standard go-to, the farmer’s breakfast. Also, Esme had grown up downstate outside Pesotum, a farmer’s daughter—if anything could revive her, a farmer’s breakfast could. As for the breakfast burrito, he wasn’t sold yet, but as he made his way over to the Sanka station he decided, whatever spongy gunk was inside, it smelled good and as such it was worth a taste test.
“Easy on the Sanka, soldier. Though I don’t blame you—it takes a big jolt to get me going in the am, too.”
“Hey there, Storty.”
Anytime Bernard ran into Stortford Volt, he immediately pepped up, for starters because Volt, a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot with the 56th Fighter Group of the 8th Army Air Force, was one of the few other World War II veterans residing at Whistling Pines. Aside from Volt, there was Mort Hilter, a Navajo windtalker, and before Bernard and Esme moved in, there was another CIC special agent, who’d been stationed in Berlin so Bernard hadn’t crossed paths with him. According to Volt, there had once been a former Obersturmbannführer with the IV SS Panzer Corps, though Bernard found that hard to believe—a Nazi, in residence at Whistling Pines? Far harder to believe was the dearth of veterans who called Whistling Pines home. In civilian life, Bernard had made a point of keeping in close contact with the soldiers he’d served with overseas, and when as time went by he inevitably drifted out of touch with many of his old war pals, he started attending coffee hours at the local VFW. He liked the camaraderie and the telling of tall tales, most of all his own. In comparison to the vets he’d known at the VFW, Volt was reserved, and it took Bernard upwards of a week to learn even the rudimentary details of his enlistment—upwards of a month to find out he’d been a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot, and that since V-E day he’d flown commercial for Pan Am—but that was one of the things he liked most about Volt. That he was a listener, whereas Bernard was a talker.
“Feeling adventurous this morning,” Bernard said, chinning toward his breakfast burrito.
“I can see that,” said Volt. “Reminds me of the mess hall at Camp Kilmer.”
“Reminds me of the mess hall at Camp Grant.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, Bernard handed over his Army nocs. Even if he was Army Air Force, Volt’d know how to handle Army nocs—and Bernard was happy to show them off to someone who’d appreciate their wear and tear.
“Wish I still had mine,” said Volt.
Handing them back, he gripped Bernard’s shoulder, a glad-to-see-you gesture, and then headed off past Egg Island to the cereal display, a complex artery of tubes and see-thru containers, stocked with corn flakes, shredded wheat, granola, museli, and for the enterprising octogenarians, Volt included, Cap’n Crunch and Fruit Loops. This morning, there was a box of corn flakes, a box of shredded wheat, and that was it. Volt looked crestfallen.
“Hey, at least there’s gurt,” he said matter-of-factly, although if the sludge Volt scooped out of the trough by the cash registers was actually yogurt, Bernard shuddered to think what the first-floor men’s room would be like come Prom Night time.
“We could cruise on over to DonutWorld,” Bernard said. “If your LeBaron isn’t in the shop.”
“No, it’s not in the shop. But no, I don’t have time for DonutWorld this morning,” said Volt. With a mischievous glint in his eyes, he dipped his thumb into the yogurt trough and sampled it. “Got a date, can’t be late, old buddy old pal.”
At first Bernard thought Volt meant that one of his sons or grandsons was en route to take Storty downtown to the public golf course on the lake. Volt, after all, was still fit, and once every month he played a full nine; he’d invited Bernard, and Bernard had deferred, due to Esme’s chemo. But now, with Egg Island egg-less, and with the start of Prom Night mere moments away, why not? All Bernard had to do was figure out a way to invite himself along, and since he couldn’t think of anything couth, he came right out and said it. “Got room for an extra?”
Volt’s laugh was stentorian and abrupt, a world away from his characteristically kindhearted chuckle. “You’d sign up to be a third wheel? Not that I have an actual, physical lady in waiting. It’s more of a social date,” he said. “I’m trying to get out and about more. It’s what Erma would’ve wanted.”
Bernard wasn’t going to argue with him on that count, but then he realized exactly what Volt had up his sleeves. “You’re going to Prom Night?”
“Undecided,” said Volt, though he managed to keep Bernard guessing for a good five minutes, long enough for them to Pay-N-Go—or rather, for Volt to Pay-N-Go. Bernard’s SmartCard didn’t swipe, and a disgruntled cashier he hadn’t seen before but who looked like she could have been related to the Pancake Man had to come over, armed with a portable cash register thingamajig which soon spit out a receipt.
“That’ll be $18.73,” she said with vindictive cheerfulness. “You can pay now or we’ll deduct it from your account, whatever floats your boat.”
“Eighteen dollars and—”
“I heard you,” he said, cutting her off. In fact, he hadn’t heard her, he was so aggravated. Any breakfast that cost over ten dollars was overpriced and bound to be unsatisfying, but here, at Whistling Pines, his home? He forked over thousands upon thousands of dollars a month, for rent and for Esme’s care. What more did they want from him, eighteen measly dollars? Not a whole lot, in the big scheme of things. But that was what irritated Bernard: it was a scheme, and now they may as well be rubbing his face in it.
He was about to return the breakfast burrito—no, he was about to drop it on the floor, and pretend it was an accident, because he didn’t want it, and also because as he stood there it appeared to be moving from within its tortilla casing, but then he remembered that his old war pal Storty Volt was in the vicinity, and he didn’t want Volt to witness such a juvenile hissy fit. He, after all, was a soldier, and no soldier should act out in the presence of another soldier, was the way Bernard looked at it.
But Volt, it turned out, wasn’t in the vicinity. Not realizing that Bernard’s SmartCard didn’t swipe, he waded out into the raucous waters of the cafeteria. Under normal circumstances, Bernard might take offense. He and Volt didn’t get the chance to conversate that often, and here Volt was, leaving Bernard to fend for himself. Then again, if he didn’t defuse this situation soon, someone might take his seat and then he wouldn’t be able to chitchat with Volt at all, and then he’d never find out why he, of all people, was even considering going to Prom Night, and so soon after his wife had passed.
“Here, consider it a donation,” said a gruff, weasely voice Bernard feared could belong to Bea Meadows, Norma Jean Waltron’s second (or third) in command. In fact, it was Jeremiah Sharpe, a thin-armed, thin-faced, fat-lipped man already dressed for prom, in a shiny baby blue tuxedo with ruffles and a tail.
“Mm. That pancake sure looks good.”
“It’s not a pancake,” Bernard pointed out.
“Sure it is, or a ‘johnnycake,’” said Jere Sharpe. In addition to his eccentric fashion sense, Jere Sharpe, who had once actually worked at Midland Ferris for a split minute before becoming a professional nutritionist was known around Whistling Pines for his encyclopedic knowledge of food. Also his tendency to ramble. Also his myopia, which most likely accounted for his thinking the glutinous mass on Bernard’s tray was a pancake, not a breakfast burrito. Because of his fuzzy vision, he dropped his SmartCard into his Cream of Wheat, which in turn caused him to try to retrieve it, which in turn resulted in him almost dumping the Cream of Wheat all over Bernard. Instead, he dumped it all over himself, and his baby blue tux. Contrary to what Bernard would’ve thought from someone fearless enough to wear a baby blue tux at his age (late-seventies, Bernard guessed; at least five years younger than Bernard), Jere Sharpe kept his cool as he began precisely dabbing up the goop. It was a courageous feat of self-restraint, and though Bernard had headed off toward the table Volt’d secured, on the other side of the cafeteria, he turned around and offered his hankie as a gesture of good faith.
“Not to fret, friend, I’ll have it dry-cleaned for you,” said Jere Sharpe, once he’d finished, and though Bernard was disinclined to handle the handkerchief now that it’d been encrusted with Cream of Wheat, he was down to one or two more and so he took it, folded it back up as if it had already been steamed and pressed, and tucked it into his left front pocket, where it belonged.
“Want to sit with us?” he asked, although there was the risk, with Jere Sharpe at the table, that conversation between him and Storty Volt would be held to a minimum, and he still needed to get to the bottom of Volt’s prom plans.
“Did you know the term ‘johnnycake’ comes from an Indian word meaning ‘journey cake,’ and that, as one of the world’s oldest prepared foods, pancakes are also one of the most misunderstood? But what do you expect? Hungarians have palacintas. Indians have the dosai and Italians the cannelloni. Jews have blintzes. Russians have blini. The Dutch eat their pancakes for supper, as do the British. In England, there’s actually ‘Pancake Races,’” said Jere Sharpe, as they approached the table Volt’d secured. “Don’t you have heart trouble, Bernie?”
“I do now,” Bernard said.
“Ha, ha. Very funny. Is that a whole-wheat cake? Sure looks to be.”
The table Volt’d secured was one of the few not draped with shiny tablecloths and topped with decorative centerpieces. In some cases, miniature party boats ringed the centerpieces, filled with brightly colored mints and edibles. A few of the other tables, in fact, had already been set, with three plates stacked one atop another and the silverware polished so that it gleamed in the cafeteria’s fluorescent lighting. All told, the presentation was on par with anything you’d expect from Norma Jean Waltron, although Bernard couldn’t figure out why hors d’oeuvre platters were already being distributed: pigs-in-blankets, Francheezies. Prom Night was still hours away.
“Enjoying your last few minutes?”
“What are you talking about, Jere? Last few minutes—of what?”
Until now Bernard hadn’t considered Jere Sharpe to be the threatening kind. Then again, at Whistling Pines, you never know what anyone was really up to. Though Jere Sharpe appeared to be harmless, Bernard better play it safe. Especially with cutlery lying around, well within arm’s reach.
“I said,” said Jere, enunciating at full volume, “are…you…enjoying…what… remains…of…your…reign?”
Instead of humor Jere Sharpe by responding, Bernard decided to ignore him. Perhaps he’d get the hint.
“As Prom King.”
Perhaps, the longer Bernard ignored Jere, the higher the probability that Jere’d feel uncomfortable, maybe even mad and then, flustered, he’d find another table, leaving Bernard and Volt alone. Normally Bernard ate by himself, reading the sports section or gazing off into the distance, still somewhat lethargic from having stayed up all night, watching over Esme. If Volt weren’t here, he might come right out and say it: Shut the H. up, Jere. Nobody wants to put up with your niggling so early in the morning. But with Volt at the table, he didn’t want to be rude, so if Jere was going to ramble, fine, let him ramble. Bernard was going to talk to his old war pal Storty Volt whether Jere was here and talking, or not.
The problem was that Volt wasn’t talking. And Bernard tried, baiting him with small talk. “Nice jacket,” Bernard said—and got no response from Volt. “Nice day”—again, no response. “Think this’ll be the year?”—still, nothing from Volt, not even a flinch. It was as if Volt were mad at him, staring off into the distance, seething inside, though Bernard hadn’t a clue as to what he’d done. Then Bernard realized, hard to see but now that Bernard had noticed it was unmistakable: his lips were moving, as if Volt was talking to himself. As if he was, actually, praying, silently.
Bernard felt bad that he’d interrupted, but worse that he hadn’t yet said a prayer for his wife. Even if he hadn’t been religious, she was and surely, if she were in fact gone, she’d want him to pray for her. Were Jere Sharpe not here, he might have been tempted to come out and confess, if not to God, then to Volt.
But Jere Sharpe was here, though not for long. The next thing Bernard knew Sharpe shot up and circled around the table twice, before finally crouching behind Storty Volt. Volt remained calm, which in turn helped Jere Sharpe remain calm. A few minutes passed. A small crowd of onlookers gathered. One of the ladies of the Ladies’ Auxiliary—Bea or maybe Edna, it was hard to tell with all the hustle and bustle—also came right over, momentarily pausing the distribution of hors d’oeuvres platters and party-favor boats.
By now Jere Sharpe had regained his composure, and he sat back down in his seat, as if nothing had happened. “Sorry,” he said, spooning what remained of his Cream of Wheat. “Thought I saw a bug.”
“What do you think Cream of Wheat is? Mashed up bugs, among other grains and goodies,” said Volt. “At least the Cream of Wheat here is. Anything in a big vat—stay away, Jere. That’s what I do. If it’s not sealed in a bag, it’s not going onto my tray. I don’t care if it has a name brand or not, or if it’s processed and filled with gelatinized starch. At least it’s quality-controlled.”
“But you’re eating yogurt,” Jere Sharpe pointed out, “which is also in a vat too.”
Storty Volt reached across the table and clapped Jere Sharpe on the shoulder. “You got me there, pal,” he said, then to Bernard, “He got me good. Didn’t he?”
Egg Island might be shuttered, Prom Night might still be hours away, and the gelatinous mass on his plate might or might not be animate, and his wife, too, might or might not be gone—none of that, not even Esme, bothered Bernard now. Now, he was at breakfast, seated next to his friend Storty Volt, and not in Nouméa, and not in Luzon, and not in the old Bilibid prison where the Japs had tortured American GIs, and not on the beach outside Manila, in the foxhole he’d dug with his helmet, next to a dead man with a bullet hole where his eye should be.
“The only bugs here,” he said, laughing along with Volt, “are the bugs planted in your room, Jere.”
Having said that, Bernard worried if, here and now, they were being bugged. It was common knowledge that Whistling Pines had a state-of-the-art video-surveillance system—to ensure residents’ safety and prevent lawsuits, ostensibly. That was what the promotional material mentioned, anyway. Don’t you worry, said one of the mailers mailed to Bernard. We’ll have an eye on your loved ones at every turn. But if the public areas were under video-surveillance, then it was possible, if unlawful, that the apartments would also be bugged, as well. Bernard had checked his and Esme’s unit, and hadn’t found anything. Then again, what with the sophisticated miniaturized bugs they had nowadays, Bernard wouldn’t have been able to detect one even if he came across one. And even if he had found one, so what? Perhaps the phone lines were bugged to ward away aggressive telemarketers, an entirely just and worthy justification for snooping, if you asked Bernard.
“What are we chitchatting about this morning, boys?”
Herb Steven Steves, the former face of Action News 9—what was he doing here? Other than suggestively standing over front and center, bow-legged, with his arms at his hips and his chin jutting out to here. As far as Bernard knew he wasn’t even a Whistling Pines resident. And since Prom Night was invitation-only, then someone must have invited him, though Bernard couldn’t imagine who would do such a thing. Actually, a lot of people: Herb Steven Steves was a celebrity, and not just because of his four-decade stint on Action News 9. Since stepping down from his nightly anchor duties, Steves had gone on to recast himself as a globetrotting war hero—at least, that was what he claimed in his self-published autobiography, A Soldier’s Story: Finding Peace During the Second World War. According to Steves, he’d been a Petty Officer First Class serving aboard the cruiser USS Boise during the Leyte and Luzon landings, when, carrying General Douglas MacArthur, it narrowly missed being torpedoed. As he claimed in his book, he was also onboard the LST which carried General MacArthur ashore—which meant that he and Bernard had crossed paths, because Bernard was part of the four-man sub-detachment sent to greet Mac in Dagupan.
From the moment he read that, Bernard began to discredit everything that Steves claimed. Not remembering Steves that day in Dagupan was one thing. Bernard never forgot a face, and the Steves standing before him now and the Steves he remembered from the nightly news didn’t match up. But it was possible he and Steves had both been with Mac in Dagupan that day, sure. There were only four CIC agents, but Mac came with, it seemed, an entire battalion, and not just soldiers; reporters, too. So, fine. Maybe Steves had been there. Anything was possible. What wasn’t possible, to Bernard, was that someone would go through what Steves had claimed to go through—the battles at sea, the face-to-face with the General—and not once mention it in his postwar, civilian life. He was a newscaster: his job was to report the news, and do it with a smile; and what he’d lived through was news. Not even on Veterans Day had he mentioned his time onboard the USS Boise!
If all that wasn’t bad enough, there was the troubling matter of his age, or lack thereof. He was at least a good decade younger than Bernard, in his early-seventies, tops, which would have made him around twelve when it was time to enlist and as such ineligible to serve onboard the Boise, or any other vessel, for that matter. In fact, as Bernard labored through A Soldier’s Story—and though he cringed with every page he turned, he was determined to read the entire book—his suspicions about Steves’ service piled up, so that when he’d finished he did a little digging at the local VFW and placed a call to the lead investigator into Franklin’s disappearance at sea and turned up that actually a GI named Herbert Steven Steves existed, and he was Bernard’s exact age, eighty-three years young, but he hadn’t served onboard the Boise. Rather, he’d been a Coast Guard Auxiliary Instructor of Safe Boating, based out of Boothbay Harbor, Maine, and the closest he’d come to combat was the onslaught he’d endured in divorce court at the hands of his third wife’s brigade of attorneys.
In other words, Herb Steven Steves was a liar and a fink, and the Distinguished Service Cross pinned to his B-3 shearling leather bomber jacket hadn’t been awarded to him but instead bought on the Internet.
Bernard glanced at Stortford Volt to see if he also wanted to clock Steves in the kisser, but if he did, he played his cards close to his chest. In fact, Volt stood to shake the snake’s hand—a baffling and improbable turn of events, since Volt was a real soldier and Steves a fake one. Shaking the snake’s hand? He may as well have slapped Bernard, and any other veteran he came across, flush in the face. Then again, Volt was Bernard’s old war pal and perhaps he was on a covert strictly need-to-know top secret mission. Because under no foreseeable circumstance would Volt shake hands with a snake like Herb Steven Steves. For now, Bernard had to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“PO1, USS Boise, ’42 to ’45—nice to meet you, solider,” he said to Volt, who said, “56th Fighter Group, 8th Air Force. Pleasure.”
“Could’ve used you in Leyte!”
As Steves leered, so did Storty Volt—as if he wasn’t on a covert top secret mission but actually was open to Herb Steven Steves and therefore to his wartime experience, riddled with lies though it was. As if he not only bought into Herb Steven Steves’ lies, he endorsed them.
“Here’s a funny story. I could tell you a dangerous bloody story of survival, but you all can read about that in my book. Chapter 6, for those of you who’ve read it—and if you haven’t, oh gosh, you SOBs,” said Steves, to laughter. “Right-o, well this one’s about the General himself, General Doug MacArthur, the one and only, who I had the honor of bringing ashore. Right, so as I’m helming the LST— all you non-military folk here, that’s Navy talk for ‘Tank Landing Ship,’ basically your floating tank, if you will—anyhoo, as I’m bringing her in, the General, he sees that the Seabees ashore had bulldozed a pier for us, perfect for a smooth landing. Well, the General said, ‘No, sir, take ’er back out,’ he says to me, ‘Take her back out a bit, Herbie,’ he says. OK, I do as I’m told. He’s the General, for Pete’s sake. But I’m wondering to myself, what’s wrong with that pier? Looks good to me, General, sir. And here’s the kicker. Ready for the kicker? So, once we’re out a bit, the General, ever the showman, grabs a rifle from one of his attendants and jumps overboard. Why, you’re asking? So he can wade ashore on his own power. Guess he didn’t want to step onto dry land. True story.”
Bernard couldn’t believe the BS gushing out of Steves’ tanning-salon-tanned mug, and if Volt wasn’t here, he might stand up and set Steves straight. But Volt was here, still nodding and as such still sanctioning Steves’ story as actual, verifiable fact. And Volt wasn’t the only one happy to sit back and listen to Steves, either. By now a respectable crowd had gathered, residents, residents’ relatives, faces Bernard didn’t recognize, everyone here to get a glimpse of the familiar face from the nightly news, somehow materialized to life from the billboards littering the expressway. Among the faces Bernard did recognize was Rachel Stonington, whose husband, Burt Thomas, had served in V Amphibious Corps. And there was Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Mathews, whose son had died in Vietnam. And there was Carissa Hampstead-Tanner, whose grandson was currently stationed in the Paktika province of Afghanistan. And there was Adam Walsh, US Army, 112th Calvary Regiment. And Jay Struthers, 8th Air Force, 67th Network Warfare Wing. And Theodora Hawkins, whose husband Thomas had piloted the PT-41 torpedo boat around Lake Lanao. And Laurence Edwick Straub, Air Commodore, Royal Air Force, No. 11 Squadron. And even Hillary Woods, whose second husband, a Dutchman, was rumored to have been captured by the Germans during Fall Gelb. All of them veterans or widowed wives of veterans and all of them seemingly OK with the shameless lies that were coming out of Herb Steven Steves’ mouth. How could they? Weren’t they offended? Weren’t they enraged? Bernard was enraged. Why wasn’t Volt enraged? Why wasn’t anyone?
“Don’t just sit there,” he told Volt, quietly so as not to draw attention to himself. “Do something.”
And what did Volt do? Nothing. In fact, he ignored Bernard. As if Bernard, a real soldier just like Volt, weren’t there. As if the only person worth listening to was Herb Steven Steves, a phony.
“Hey,” he said, swatting Volt’s kneecap. This grabbed Volt’s attention, but Volt shrugged and shushed Bernard. Volt—Bernard’s friend—shushed him: something was wrong, very wrong. If Bernard didn’t butt in and soon, things were going to get ugly.
“THAT’S NOT WHAT HAPPENED.”
“Sorry. Did you say something?” said Steves, but instead of waiting for Bernard to respond, he launched into a fresh lie, this one about how sunny it was the day he arrived in Naha under the protection of the 96th Infantry.
“THAT’S NOT WHAT HAPPENED,” Bernard repeated, but this time, when he realized he was shouting he immediately turned the volume down. “You weren’t there. I was there. In fact, with the 214th CIC.”
“Is that so?” said Steves, standing with his arms akimbo, chest puffed out so the Distinguished Service Medal spangled in the punishing cafeteria fluorescents. “It’s always nice to run into a fellow soldier.”
At that, Steves saluted Bernard—but even his salute was sloppy, free-form and mangled.
“THAT’S NOT HOW YOU DO IT!”
As if to taunt him, Steves saluted Bernard once more. This time, his salute was abominable. Carelessly, disrespectfully, he just slapped his hand to his forehead and that was it. Then he smirked—right at Bernard.
Bernard glanced around at everyone, and then at his old war pal Storty Volt. Volt shrugged, acknowledging Steves’ pitiable excuse of a salute. But that was it. He didn’t stand to join Bernard in showing Steves what a proper salute looked like, which to Bernard was tantamount to patting Steves on the back.
“What was your rank?”
“Petty Officer First Class, US Navy.”
“But you were in the Coast Guard—as an Auxiliarist!”
“Sure. I was in the Coast Guard,” said Steves, “and then later on I was in the Navy. PO1, at your service.”
“Let me get this straight,” Bernard said, though actually he already had gotten it straight: Steves was full of it, and that was that. Still, if he was going to embarrass Steves in public, he wanted to take his time and enjoy it. “So. You were in the Coast Guard? Is that what you allege?”
“Yes, I was in the Coast Guard.”
“As an Auxiliarist?”
“As an Auxiliarist, at first, yes.”
“And then you were in the Navy, ranked PO1?”
“Yes, yes that’s right,” said Steves. “Petty Officer First Class, worked my way up from Seaman, in under two years!”
“How about that. But you just admitted you were in the Coast Guard—as an Auxiliarist.”
“I did, indeed. But that’s because I was in the Coast Guard, and then I was in the Navy.”
“And then you were part of Luzon, specifically Lingayen Gulf? I don’t think so. Then what, you’re going to tell me you were in the Battle of Manila?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes.”
“How is that, if, as you say, you were a PO1 and not an infantryman?”
“Were you infantry?”
“That’s beside the point.”
“Answer the question.”
“CIC, 214th Detachment. But I saw combat.”
“Sorry to hear that, but glad you made it out alive,” said Steves, “as did I.”
“How’d you see combat, from the deck of a cruiser?”
“That’s right. If it wasn’t for us, you would’ve been blown to smithereens by the Japs.”
“Fat chance. If you were onboard the Boise as you allege, then you certainly did play an important role in the operation. What was it called?”
“What was what called?”
“Yes, what was it called?”
“Yikes. It’s been a while.”
“It’s been a while for me too, but I still remember it. Remember seizing Lingayen airfield and moving inland toward Manila. Remember the heavy fighting at Fort Stotsenburg—do you remember that?—and Snake Hill—how about that? Didn’t think so. And you don’t remember what the operation was called? Unbelievable,” Bernard said. “But for your information it was Mike. Operation Mike. And now you’re going to contend you were in Manila?”
“And you saw combat.”
“Are you sure you did?”
“What date did you land, allegedly, with Mac?”
“That’s right. Mac. As I said.”
“Gosh, it’s been a while. Early 1945.”
“You sure about that? You don’t sound so sure about that.”
“January, 1945. Sure I’m sure. Won’t forget it till the day I die.”
“What day was it?”
“Gosh. I don’t know. Before the fifteenth, I’d imagine.”
“January ninth or tenth?”
“Really, I don’t recall the date, soldier.”
“Do you remember?”
“Of course I remember. Anyone who was really there wouldn’t forget a day like that,” Bernard said, trying not to smile—he had Steves right where he wanted him, pinned to a wall with his pants down, so to speak. Now, he had to humiliate him. “It was the ninth, or actually, you’re confusing both days. On the ninth, Mac came ashore as you described, bypassed the pier as you described so that he could wade in. But anyone could read about that. Mac was like that. He was a showboat. He wanted to upstage Eisenhower, and that was a perfect opportunity to mug for the cameras. But that day, he wasn’t onboard an LST. He was the next day, the tenth, when he returned. On the ninth, he was onboard a landing craft. There’s a difference, you know. There’s a difference,” he said to everyone else, Volt included; being an Army Air Force man, he might not know. “When did Mac disembark the Boise for good? He over-nighted there for a few nights, which I guess you should know, if you are who you say you are. The thirteenth. That was the day. And how do I remember that? Because I was there.”
By the shocked looks on everyone’s face, most of all Volt’s, Bernard had proven his point. Steves didn’t know what he was talking about, whereas Bernard had verifiable first hand experience. In case, he went on to recount his story of the drive on Manila, under protection of the 1st Calvary and the 37th Division, with the 11th Airborne not too far behind, incoming from the south. Along with a 37th infantryman, Bernard spent nights plus 1 and 2 on White Beach, under constant mortar fire, digging a foxhole down to the water with his helmet. By daybreak plus 3, the GI was dead, shot through an eyeball. Bernard escaped on foot and hotwired a Jeep which he drove back to CIC HQ in Dagupan, meeting up with the C-in-C and the CO, Marvin Goff. Goff had enemy codes captured by the 185th Infantry at Sual and he asked Bernard to take a crack at them. He knew a little Tagalog, Maganda dalaga meaning “pretty girl” and Salamat po meaning “thank you,” and he liasoned with the brothers Warren and Takejiro Higa of the 314th Language Detachment and all together they drove to Binmadey, on the lookout for enemy saboteur. He interrogated the suspected collaborators and because they referred to each other as majors on up he suggested to Goff to refer to them as their made-up ranks, to gain their trust. By now he was a second lieutenant spending nights at the CIC HQ, set up in the palatial mansion of Filipino politico Hilario Mocado. Bodies littered the streets and alleyways of Manila. Some were killed in the crossfire but most had been beheaded and/or raped by the retreating Japs before the US secured the city. By now the Japs had dug themselves in behind the enormous walls of Old Manila, down along the banks of the Pasig River. Ducking gunfire, Bernard and other CIC agents detained enemy saboteurs blocks from the Jap line. One morning, second lieutenant Bernard drove a Jeep down a narrow alleyway probably still studded with live land mines in search of a suspected Jap saboteur who’d been maimed in a firefight on the Allied side of the Old Manila wall, armed with an M18. The Jap saboteur was hiding out in an old lean-to which looked to Bernard to have once been a school, right where the informant had said he’d be. He was young, no older than thirteen, but Bernard approached with caution, the M18 locked and loaded. It was quiet. Even the mortar fire in the distance sounded distant. Far away, dogs barked. Standing over the Jap saboteur, it was clear he’d been maimed in his stomach and had lost a lot of blood. Faintly, the Jap saboteur said something to Bernard in Japanese or possibly Tagalog. Go ahead and kill me, please, or You have no idea what you’re up against. Even if the Jap saboteur wouldn’t make it to the prison on Palawan Island, Bernard at least had to bring him back to HQ and interrogate him. Bernard went to detain the Jap saboteur. The Jap saboteur lunged at Bernard. Bernard shot the Jap in the neck. Whether he’d meant to or needed to he didn’t know but what was done was done. Bernard had never killed anyone before and as a matter of principle he closed the dead Jap saboteur’s eyes and said a prayer for the dead Jap saboteur and his family and then he drove back to HQ as the gunfire picked up in the distance….
Somewhere along the way, his mouth stopped working. The words formed at the tip of his tongue but nothing came out. By the looks of it, everyone, most of all Volt, had stopped paying attention to him. They thought him a fool. He felt like a fool. And he had only himself to blame. First he did a competent and admirable job, discrediting Herb Steven Steves with apparent effortlessness. And then what? Right in the middle of discrediting Steves, when he should have started to hear the faint bugle call of victory, everything went silent. His campaign to show everyone what a fink Steves had come to a humiliating, and premature, end. He wanted to disappear, and that made him think of what happened to Franklin that morning onboard the HMS Princess Marie, and then he no longer wanted to disappear, as Franklin had. Instead, he’d fight to the finish. If he couldn’t prove his point with words, there were still other ways to communicate the extent of Steves’ hoax—and that was what it was, a shameless, insensitive hoax, an insult to veterans everywhere. And if Volt wasn’t going to do anything about it—if Volt’d bought into the hoax, no questions asked—then it was up to Bernard, apparently the only veteran of sound moral standing present, to expose Steves.
Frustrated, angry, embarrassed, for both himself and his former compatriots, he picked up the breakfast burrito, gripping it with both hands. He was vaguely certain he wished he could stop himself but it was too late. Before he knew it, he’d hurled the burrito at Herb Steven Steves. By now waterlogged, the tortilla casing exploded en route but most of the burrito’s innards splattered Steves’ face, stained his bomber jacket. Steves, it seemed, hadn’t expected that, nor had Storty Volt. In fact, nor had Bernard, who while Steves picked burrito goop from his shearling lapel made sure to salute the correct way, with his hand level and his snap crisp. Most important of all were his eyes, which piercingly let Steves know that he, Bernard, had prevailed. He even kicked his heels together, like they teach you in boot camp, before he marched out of the cafeteria.