This was 1950, maybe the best time there'd been or ever would be in America.
By 1950 the Big War, as men who fought it called World War II, had been over nearly five years, and people again had new cars and jobs, and all the soldiers were long home and going to college on the GI Bill, or apprenticing at their trades and buying those neat little seven thousand dollar houses that Mr. Levitt was putting up, spanking bright with carpeting and washers and dryers, anywhere there was a bit of green lawn. The Germans and the Japanese were finished, and unless the Russians did something stupid, there would never again be a big war, and the United States, rich, powerful, and untouched, would pretty much run the world.
The best of times. Except maybe for a handful of restless men like James T. Cromwell who had no more wars to fight and realized by now just how much they missed the last one.
Cromwell was still a serving Marine and in the spring of 1950 was a recently promoted lieutenant colonel serving as operations officer, or S 3, of the 5th Marines, a famous infantry regiment stationed at Camp Joseph H. Pendleton, on the lovely rock cliffed southern California coast between Los Angeles and San Diego. S 3 was a staff position and no job for a light colonel with ambitions, and Ollie Cromwell hoped, and with reason, soon to command one of the three rifle battalions of the 5th Regiment.
Standing in his way, though unspoken, was an uneasiness about Cromwell on the part of the brass. Because he'd been a Marine Raider, one of Carlson's men, more orthodox Marines regarded Colonel Cromwell with wary and conflicted attitudes. With respect surely, even awe, but also with suspicion. Such men, in a shooting war, had value, being capable of feats of arms. But they were also dangerous likely to get you into trouble, lead you into temptation, into what theologians called "occasions of sin." A Cromwell could raise hell with the enemy and win a fight for you; he might also lose you your command. Ollie was aware of these reservations about him, tried to ignore them and do his job well, and hoped things could work out so that he would soon be commanding troops once more, eventually one of the great Marine regiments.
In the meanwhile he'd been enjoying this lovely house and serving creditably at Pendleton, and, as even Ollie would have to admit, he was living pretty well.
On the first Sunday of June, Cromwell sat on the red tiled patio of his oceanfront bungalow, which was set nicely atop one of the low cliffs at Dana Point, about thirty miles north of Camp Pendleton. Sipping freshly squeezed grapefruit juice and a second cup of black coffee, he went from reading the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times to squinting out at the Pacific Ocean and the slow rollers coming in on a light breeze. He was barefoot and wore faded khaki shorts and a navy wool sweater against the cool morning. Cromwell was now in his mid thirties, a big, suntanned, very fit, square headed man with closely cropped brown hair and a battered claw of a right hand. There were other scars, none of them debilitating or to be embarrassed about: they derived from Colonel Carlson's war, plus a comic opera sword wound suffered up North China fighting bandits after the war. Cromwell's flat nose owed nothing to combat but to his years as a prizefighter.
During the war Cromwell's father had died, leaving his only son a bit of money, which a broker pal and classmate from Regis High School invested for him, and wisely, and on the strength of which, and certainly not on his Marine Corps pay, he could afford to lease a house like this one overlooking the water, and with an admiral's widow living on one side and a Hollywood talent agent on the other, Mr. Bone.
"Hi, Major! I mean, hi, Colonel!"
"Hi, Jay Jay."
"That's swell, being a colonel now."
"Only lieutenant colonel. You don't have to salute."
It was the girl next door, agent Bone's daughter, heading down the narrow cliff trail toward the beach with her surfboard, a big twelve foot board boys used. Cute, rangy kid, potentially a heartbreaker, but also strong, with the long legs and the swimmer's shoulders especially. Jay Jay's father was a power in the movies, and they had a place in Bel Air as well as this beach house at Dana Point. Mr. Bone, when he spoke at all to Cromwell, seemed to be tiptoeing around him, as if Marine officers were menacing or carriers of some exotic disease. The kid attended UCLA, but as far as Ollie could see, she was majoring in surfboards. She didn't tiptoe around him at all and had even gotten him to try her board himself, though he was a beach runner mostly and only occasionally a swimmer and bodysurfer (Prudently close in to the beach). Didn't like sharks. Once, here at Dana Point during a swim, he'd ventured out near the line of breakers, a seal came up under him, gray and sleek and big, and Ollie panicked, thinking it was a shark. Out of pride he didn't share this with his young neighbor as she tried to inculcate the surfer code in him.
The great gaffe in surfing, Jay Jay explained, was "dropping in."
"What's that?" the colonel asked.
"You've caught a wave at the curl, and you're riding it, real nice, and some meat cuts in front of you, underneath. Steals your damned wave, makes you pull up and bail out. That's 'dropping in.'
"And it's a mortal sin," Cromwell remarked, having been taught by Jesuits.
"Yeah, if you think in religious terms, which I don't much," Jay Jay said, "but when they pull that shit on me, I don't pull up. I drive right through 'em. Pile drive them right into the goddamned sand."
"You would have done very well in the Marine Corps," he said thoughtfully.
"Why, thanks, Colonel Cromwell."
He meant it, too. But he'd stick to swimming in close to shore and to runs on the beach.
When Jay Jay headed down the cliff, he watched her go, enjoying the view of her legs and her bottom, and then he went back to his L.A. Times.
There was nothing much in this edition, and Sunday passed quite pleasantly a swim, a run, a Red Sox Yankee game on the radio from Fenway Park and about six he showered and got into gabardine slacks, black and white saddle shoes, and a linen jacket and drove up to Laguna Beach, to a place he liked called the White House, where, before taking a small table for dinner, he had something called a Moscow Mule (vodka and ginger beer) at the bar while the nance of a piano player riffed through his repertory of show tunes. Shrimp cocktail, a steak, a baked potato, and a half bottle of St. Emilion later, Cromwell was back outside waiting for his car, just in time to see the gorgeous southern California day fade as the sun fell toward the Pacific. Way out there, in the line of breakers, he could see the last of the day's surfers, waiting for that final ride, that ninth wave of legend, the ninth wave of a ninth wave that would carry a rider halfway up the dry sand to the cliffs.
Nice, it was all nice here at the beach in southern California.
Cromwell knew there were other great places in the world, for he had been to some of them, but this was pretty good; life was pretty good. He understood that some people thought of him as a loner, perhaps even a lonely man for whom they ought to feel a marginal pity: no wife, no kids, no family.
They were wrong. If you were a Marine, that was one thing you did have. If you were a Marine, you had family.
"Here's your car, Colonel," the attendant called to him, interrupting his reverie.
"Thank you," he said, giving the boy a quarter. The car, too, was pretty nice, a big Buick Roadmaster ragtop, dark blue with a tan canvas top. Ollie got in, turned on the radio and picked up orchestra music he thought might be Artie Shaw, coming from the Mark Hopkins Hotel four hundred miles up the coast in San Francisco, from that big rooftop bar and dining room, the Top of the Mark.
That wasn't bad either, picking up music from the Top, and he hummed along as he drove south fast along Route 101, the loom of hills dark to his left, the Pacific with its last glints of gold and pink in the western sky to his right.
About ten that night, as he sat up in bed reading this new Budd Schulberg novel about Scott Fitzgerald, the phone on his night table rang.
"Cromwell," he said.
"Ollie, it's Lou Tynan." Tynan was the S 1 of the 5th Marines, the adjutant.
"Just a heads up, Ollie. Headquarters Marine Corps will be calling you tomorrow. They need a man for a job overseas. They think you're the guy.'
"What job? And where?"
He wanted to stay with the regiment here and get a command. They wouldn't have to go through headquarters to arrange that.
"Don't know the job. But it's in South Korea is what I hear."
When he put down the phone, Ollie got up and went into the den where he kept his books, and he pulled out a big atlas. He didn't know Korea, had never been there, but it wasn't too soon to start learning.
He fixed a primitive outline of the country in his mind, noting North Korea's long border with that of Communist China and the proximity (only 40 or 50 miles) of the Soviet Union's Siberian frontier. Interesting to note that the South Korean capital city of Seoul was no more than 20 or 25 miles south of the country's artificial dividing line, the 38th Parallel. And that Japan was only 100, 150 miles away.
Then, without agonizing over it, Ollie got back into bed with Budd Schulberg and the ghost of Fitzgerald and read himself to sleep. No tossing, no turning, no nightmares. And when he woke just after six Monday morning, he remembered Tynan's call and the atlas. Was something going on in Korea? Had some ill defined new tension arisen? And was something about to happen along that phony border of theirs that divided the supposedly democratic South from the decidedly Commie North?
Some ten days later Colonel Cromwell was flying west across the Pacific toward Asia and his new job as military attache to our ambassador at Seoul. A promotion? Hardly that. Though he'd been taken aside and told, "We like to have a good man on the ground in chancy places, Cromwell. just to keep the Marine Corps in the picture. In case we have to fight."
And was Korea a chancy place? Was a fight coming?
Oh, Headquarters Marine Corps wouldn't go that far, he was told, but it was worth keeping an eye on. And, on that basis, and being a good soldier hoping for another war, Ollie agreed to take the job.
On Sunday June 25 North Korea invaded the South, a new shooting war was on, and Ollie was in the middle of it, not commanding Marines but baby sitting the American ambassador. Trying like hell not to get him killed or captured on their frantic run south.
Reprinted with permission from St. Martin's Press.