Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Combat Larry and the Time of the Great Gas Lines

Larry had the Thousand-Yard-Stare. He was the kind of dude that you just knew not to bother.

But Larry was my bud. We worked together at the gas station on Pacific Coast Highway in Corona Del Mar, California. Larry was older than us teenagers. Larry had been in the 'Nam. Larry knew his shit. Customers would come in bitching about some mystery noise or broken whatever and Larry would assume his "you're on point tonight" stance and just amuse himself while some silly civilian would try to get him vibed up. Nothing fazed Larry. Been there done that was an understatement. As it turned out, Larry's combat experience would soon come in handy.

As a teenager, I didn't have any combat experience to get me through the gas rationing crisis. But, I was pretty proud of the fact that one of the only times I had ever seen Larry raise an eyebrow was when me and "Da Boyz" invited him down to hang out while we picked off some 20 footers at night at the Wedge. We had the impression that Larry might have thought that surfers were a sub-species of humans. Larry was a redneck through and through. But after watching a 5 second tube ride Larry changed his tune and gave me the "bro" handshake. He realized that there was no way his combat training and cool under fire could do jack shit for him out in the lineup. I could tell my stock had gone up a notch or two, even if he probably wouldn't share a foxhole with me or trust me to crawl down a VC tunnel on the Ho Chi Mihn trail with him.

We opened the station at 7 am. Right on the money. No earlier. I usually paddled out for a little tube-ride-breakfast and then came in about 15 minutes early so I could wash out the wetsuit and get my little uniform straightened out. 

Larry was big on uniforms. It was a life or death thing for him. He was used to the "yes sir, no sir" thing. It wasn't hard for me to go with the flow of the "neat and orderly uniform" plan once Larry had started working with us. Why not, I figured? It gave you a little leverage with the customers anyway. They didn't treat you quite as bad if you looked like you knew what you were doing. And it helped Larry relax. He got uptight if we started to look too much like grease monkeys.

People didn't impress Larry very much. He had seen too much. The crew at the station knew that when one of those pushy New Yorkers that had just got transferred to California came in to bitch about their car, Larry was the one to handle it. It wasn't more than a couple of weeks into Larry's tenure that some fool made the near-fatal mistake of trying to jab his finger into Larry's chest to make a point about the exorbitant cost of replacing a water pump. I was only about 10 feet away and I still could hardly make out the blur that was Larry throwing some jungle move that looked like a Tai Toshi or something on this poor dude. Wham! That guy flipped upside down and hit the ground with a thud and was out cold! Larry didn't bat an eye. He just cruised back inside the little office with the glass windows looking out on the pump islands and sat down to finish off his coffee lest it might chill a bit. Make a note. Don't ruffle Larry. 

So it came to pass that the Time of the Great Gas Lines came about and Larry was completely unfazed with civilian life back in the world. But to me, our first day of gas rationing was insane. I showed up about 10 minutes before 7 and there was already a line of cars stretching way down Coast Highway towards Laguna. Everybody was pissed! There was honking and swearing all up and down the line. I just about got lynched for trying to maneuver my truck to park at the station because everybody thought I was trying to cut in line. I was a bit nervous as I plucked at my uniform and watched the clock tick towards 7. About 1 minute before, Larry got up and ambled on out to the nearside island and slid the cash drawer into it's place. I was stuck with working the outer island and having to weave my way between irate motorists all day as they barreled up for their chance to load up on magic go-go juice.

Larry's Vee-et-nam stories gave me a pretty good idea of what I was missing over there. From what I could tell, working the morning shift dealing with spoiled American motorists was about as dangerous as going out on night ambush looking for VC.  I figured my odds were getting closer to the proverbial FNG recruit over there in the Nam every day of my combat duty at the gas station during gas rationing. I quickly learned to perch myself up on the island right behind the big huge metal column that supported the roof over the pump islands and that way I could let them hit the column first instead of my legs as they charged forward after waiting for 2 hours or so. 

It was amazing to me all the crazy excuses people came up with for cutting in line. "I'm a doctor," was popular. Yeah right. Everybody is a doctor in Corona Del Mar and Laguna, how do you think they can afford those mansions? Wait your turn.

Some people would just drive up on the center divider with their left tires and go right around everyone and then crank a hard right at the last minute and sneak in between the third or fourth car in the driveway. It reminded me of the drunks and crazy dangerous types in the border line at Tijuana. People that are that crazy are capable of anything. Better to just give them some room.

Somehow I survived those weeks of chaos and mayhem. I was glad when it was over and things mellowed out and we had time to sit in the office and every once in a while Larry would trust me with another true life tale of napalm and dope and Saigon bars, not to mention the graphic descriptions of his buddies getting their faces blown off. 

One of the last weeks that Larry worked with us I remember there was a crazy nasty accident directly in front of the station. The car was speeding and flipped over and over and bodies were scattered all over the street. Everybody within a couple hundred yards just stared, paralyzed. Customers in the station just stopped what they were doing. This degree of blood and guts was beyond the paradigm of the sedate suburbanites. I watched Larry casually put down his dipstick rag and walk out in the street towards a woman lying there bleeding to death. He reached down and flipped her over to assess the situation. You could just tell she was toast as Larry let her flop back down like a rag doll. He just matter of factly moved on to the next victim. We all stared and marveled at his coolness. It was at that moment that I really understood the reality of all of Larry's jungle stories. 

And that's the way it was, back in the last gas rationing crisis. Can't wait for the next one. Maybe I should try to hook up with Larry again, wherever he is, before it gets too ugly in those gas lines and I need some backup.

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