I was stoic on the ride to the airport. It had nothing to do with emotional control; it was strictly a survival mechanism. While it had taken me some nine years to learn it, keeping my mouth shut was the smartest thing I learned to do when my wife and I fought. We never parted particularly well. All of my time in the Marine Corps, nine plus years, more than a fair number of departures – not one of them pleasant.
At Dulles, I left without saying more than a brief goodbye. Seething would be an understatement. I was not good at holding my tongue nor letting go of an argument. A short temper and a big mouth do not a successful combination make.
I watched our minivan accelerate out into the flow of traffic from Dulles while I stood there. I turned, shouldered my bag, and dragged my carry-on behind me into the airport.
Dulles to Chicago. A two-and-a-half-hour layover. I found an airport barber shop for a haircut. I called home from a pay phone and made up. It seemed trivial now that we were a thousand miles apart.
Chicago to Narita. The flight was cramped, the food tolerable, my circadian rhythms a wreck. As we descended over Tokyo Bay, I looked out my window when the wing dipped down. I watched the fog slide over the chord – the width – of the wing.
A flash and suddenly I was back at flight school, upside down and hanging in the seat straps, the parachute cutting into my collarbone, doing precision aerobatics in the T-34C Turbo-Mentor – a jet-engine, propeller-driven aircraft, affectionately known by students as the Tor-Mentor. We were inverted and I was trying to pull through the bottom of a Split-S when I caught the condensation on the wing out of the corner of my eye as I tried to pull harder on the stick, but the G-forces worked against me.
The maneuver started at about 8,000 feet with the aircraft straight and level. Flip upside down with an aileron roll, and then pull the stick back into your lap, and keep pulling through until the aircraft is straight and level again, some 1000 or so feet lower. Except something was wrong. The control forces were incredible, I was wrestling with the stick trying to pull through and the altimeter was unwinding like a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
“Lieutenant Saran,” my on-wing instructor, Lieutenant Tim King, United States Navy, began in his thick Georgia drawl, “why might we be descendin’ so fast?” He was laconic even as we plummeted out of the sky, upside-down. The way he spoke over the inter-cockpit communication system, or ICS, I could just see him buffing his nails while I searched frantically for the problem. The vertical speed indicator was way too fast and the canopy filled with the sight of the green and brown farmland of Alabama rushing up at us. I looked out the side again and saw the wing flexing and condensation, a wisp, rushed over it.
Then it hit me. I reacted as I spoke.
“ . . . That happens,” I began, as my hands manipulated the controls, while I talked, “when one is dumb enough to have the power still at full throttle, rather than at idle,” I finished as I pulled the power control lever to flight idle and our descent immediately slowed and the forces on the stick became bearable. We scooped out at 5,000 feet, much lower than we should have, but in plenty of time. I felt the sweat roll down my face. I was an idiot.
“A cheap lesson,” King said to no one. “You’ll never make that mistake again, will you.” It was an observation, not a question. I just shook my head from side-to-side; I knew he could see my head from where he sat from behind me.
I looked out again and my eyes came back to the present, the moisture dancing on the wing, the lights of Tokyo and the bay beyond it. The pilot said something in Japanese and I put my tray table up. I stretched as much as I could in a coach, window seat.
Because of typical military travel booking problems, I had to take a train from Narita Airport in Tokyo to Haneda Airport some thirty miles away, on the other side of Tokyo Bay. I had about two hours to get there by train. It would be close. One of the airports, I couldn’t remember which came first, had been built as a modern upgrade, to supplement the other, older airport, and alleviate congestion, not unlike Chicago’s airports or Washington, D.C. Of course, like those two cities, all the two airports did was eventually make more traffic. Now instead of one very crowded airport, Tokyo had two very crowded airports.
I looked at my watch. I had already switched it to Tokyo time – Okinawa time – but my body was still on Eastern Standard. I got my train ticket and moved through the ever-efficient Japanese airport and transit system. Downstairs, I managed to find my way onto the right train, but I wasn’t positive and had that uncertain feeling that I might be headed the wrong way. A young Japanese man, my own age, attempted to help me, but he spoke less English than I spoke Japanese – which was quite a feat considering that my Japanese vocabulary consisted solely of counting to twenty from my days in traditional Japanese martial arts and the ability to say “left,” “right,” and “straight.” Somehow we managed to make ourselves understood by pointing, nodding, and bowing. He was kind enough to get off the train at my stop, indicate for me to follow, and then manage to say “next hea-yuh” pointing at the ground and then motioning toward the direction where the next trains would come. He hopped back onto his own train just before the doors closed and bowed slightly to me. I smiled and bowed back as the train slid away.
I missed my flight from Haneda to Okinawa by fifteen minutes, but “no plob-rem” the impeccably polite, young lady assured me. I had a ticket in hand for the next flight to Naha, Okinawa, in an hour. LaGuardia this was not.
I hoped Justin would wait for me at Naha. I wouldn’t arrive until almost 2330, 11:30 p.m., local time. He was already on-island. He had flown in from Camp Pendleton, California, his new duty station after finishing his one-year unaccompanied tour. He had gotten Stonewall and Arroyo’s cases stayed after the stay had issued in David Ponder’s case.
I thought about Stonewall and Arroyo, still on Okinawa, abandoned by their units for some seven or eight months after the rest of their battalion had returned to the States. I knew they were going to be staying for some more time, too, at the brig at Camp Hansen. I had petitioned the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, the highest military appeals court, to issue another stay and overturn the Navy-Marine Corps Court’s decision. I filed it on December 19, 2000. It was January 6, 2001. I wondered if I had one more rabbit in the hat, but it didn’t feel like it. If not, Jason Stonewall, Vittolino Arroyo, and David Ponder were going to be going to jail. It caused a physical reaction in me.
I stepped off of the airplane, breezed through baggage claim, and Justin was standing with his arms folded across his chest. He looked at his watch and tapped it, while smiling.
“Sorry, man, missed my connection in Tokyo,” I spoke as I approached. He took my garment bag out of my hand, shook with the other, and we patted each other on the back.
“How are ya?” he asked, laughing. “Welcome to hell.” I chuckled. Justin had not enjoyed Okinawa.
“I see you’ve been soaking up the sun in Southern California,” I commented.
“Dude.” He said as we walked out the front door into the humid Okinawa night. Even in January, it was still warm enough for short-sleeves. Okinawa was on the same line of latitude as the Bahamas.
“You slept yet?” I asked.
“No. Does it show that bad?”
“Bags – no, luggage under your eyes, my friend.” He smiled. We dropped my things into the back of a small, white Toyota. He hung my uniform in the back seat.
“I talked to Stonewall and Arroyo, already.”
“Really? How are they?” It was a dumb question. They knew just as well as we did they were going to jail unless we pulled off another miracle.
“Philosophical.” Justin answered. “Resolved.” He started the car and pulled up to the booth to pay for the parking.
“Here is your fake money,” Justin said politely in English as he handed the Japanese man at the gate a thousand-yen bill.
“Arigato gozai-mas,” the man responded, giving Justin his change. I tried not to laugh.
“Arigato.” Justin replied and pulled away.
We moved out of the airport into downtown Naha. I watched the familiar neon float by from the shops along Highway 58. The highway was one of two major roads, one on each side of the island, along with the Okinawa Expressway – one of the most expensive toll roads in creation – running almost down the center, through the mountains that cut the long, narrow island into eastern and western halves.
We were silent for a while, the wind and the sounds of the city coming in the half-opened windows. I rubbed my face. I couldn’t tell if I was sleepy or if my body was just waking up.
“Ya know, Hites once said to me that the military justice system works. He said he never had an innocent guy get convicted.” Justin nodded his head in response. “I used to believe that,” I said. Justin didn’t respond.
“I don’t know if I ever told you that at my law school we had a former Marine teach a comparative law class on the military and civilian criminal justice systems.” I turned to him so he could keep his eyes on the road.
“I don’t think you did.” Justin flipped on his blinker and sped into the right lane, the high-speed lane in Okinawa, while we drove on the opposite side of the road. The driver’s side was on the right. It didn’t even affect me, as I had only left there three or four months ago.
“Anyway, he was a Marine attorney and a partner at a firm in Portland, Maine. My thesis was that the military justice system is better than the civilian system because you can’t separate a system of justice from the society from which it comes. I proposed that because military society was filled with such honorable people, you wind up with a more fair system.” Justin laughed out loud, surprising me.
“Rethinking that yet?” He chuckled and it hit me that maybe I was too naïve to be a lawyer. Justin and I were the same age. Despite my seven more years on active duty, I had more illusions about the Marine Corps than he did. At that moment, I began to think that maybe he was better emotionally equipped than I was for this job.
“I’m fucking tired,” I said and slumped down in my seat. I looked at my watch. Almost midnight. Ten in the morning on the East Coast.
“We’re in court tomorrow at nine,” he said.
“I know,” I sighed. “I know.” I considered whether I should sleep or just tough it out through the night. I needed to prepare for court, but I had neither the mental nor physical wherewithal to do it. I had an urge at that moment like I never had before, to simply quit, say fuck it, I’m done, and take up an entirely different career. To leave the Marine Corps and just… begin a new life. But quitting wasn’t an option and my clients’ liberty depended on me, so I leaned my head against the window and tried to grab a catnap before we got to the Bachelor Officer’s Quarters.