The radio pulled in KCBS San Francisco, despite the missing antenna it could get strong stations in the city. The networks were calling the national election results. Carter was done early. I liked Jimmuh, Billy Beer, Miss Lillian and all the warm southern sincerity. Throughout the nation a defeat of epic proportions was occurring. State by state Democrats were falling like Redcoats at the Battle of New Orleans.
The streets of Richmond in the afternoon light were dusty, disorderly. The magic edge of the asphalt glistening night had faded into dull. I was uncomfortable and disconcerted by the appearance of the CBI detectives. The wheel of the awkward car seemed harder to turn. The constant clutch use in the agitated traffic was becoming more of an effort with each gear shift.
With relief I saw Chin’s Chinese in blue letters over hand-painted mustard yellow. The place had formerly been an outlet of that singularly California phenomenon, the dead burger chain. From what was visible under the brushed yellow this one may have been something called the Astral Burger, another ill-fated entry in the burger wars of the 1960s.
Californians had put down the beef patties and were streaming in for fish and chips. I stepped into the angular glass vestibule of the old burger joint; one of those places where you wouldn’t be too surprised to meet George Jetson, wife Jane or his boy Ellroy. The benefactor’s take-one box sat on a squat cigarette machine, six slots for Kools. The box was half full. I filled it with dream tickets and wondered what Chin needed with me if he wasn’t out of tickets.
The place had that deep fried heavy smell highlighted by hints of Pine-Sol. The floor was a black and white checkered grooved slick spot worn by greasy mops and the antsy feet of the twisty teens, baked dopers and dog-tired losers shuffling up for fish and chips and Astral Burgers (“Make mine plain,” some of the stoners would say).
What’s so funny about that?
A vaguely familiar raspy voice called my name from the stainless steel bowels. “Mr. Walters,” he said in an indeterminate Asian accent. A roughhewn man of about forty wearing a stained apron with a cigarette dangling from his lips bounded over the counter. He came to me with his hand extended and a wide grin on his face. I was surprised to see that Chin was actually Park Kim.
Park, who was Korean, worked at the convenience store back east where I pulled a few shifts a week to supplement the income from the writing agency. He was proud of two things: his family and his service in the army of the Republic of Korea - The ROK Army. ROK Army! he would say in the prideful voice that one usually hears about favorite sports teams.
He told me stories about his terms in the ROK Army! fighting the Communists alongside the heroic Americans in Vietnam. Frankly, such enthusiasm for that lost cause was refreshing. This was a point of view that was not often discussed - there were people in the world that appreciated our involvement.
I told Park about my opposition to the war and my many and ultimately successful maneuvers to avoid service. We formed a sort of mutual appreciation on the subject. He was not unaware that there was a large number of Americans that felt like me, and I could certainly understand why a person raised in the shadow of an aggressor would feel the way he did. He felt free to ply his tales.
I knew enough of Nam lore to know that the ROK Army! and ROK marines were the “baddest motherfuckers in Country”. There was evidence that the Viet Cong and NVA avoided the areas assigned to the Koreans. Park was a lieutenant and had no problem wasting commies. The marines were known for their tenacity and iron discipline as they fought with or without weapons. He never went into particulars about how and what was done, but what he lacked in details was made up by his obvious delight in vanquishing what to him was a very real foe.
Maybe he liked me because of my honesty in telling him I had maneuvered out of service or because I held in disdain the customers who treated him like he was deaf and stupid. This man had stood shoulder to shoulder with their army and they dismissed him like a dog. I handled the morons while he did the support duties - arranging one dollar bills into rock hard ramrod straight stacks of fifty, shooing the pimple-faces away from the beer door ,and lining up the returnable bottles of soda into brand name battalions each bottle facing forward in neat rows with caps hovering over the ice like the dress berets of the ROK Blue Dragons on parade day.
There is a reverence for the fighting and the fighters that is shared by all involved whether they fight or oppose. The lack of respect and cheap opinions by those not involved physically or mentally is the hardest to accept. What is missing is the sense of honor.
Park was a proud man of great honor. He was the proudest of his family. They were gathered around a table set up in the backroom of the fish joint. on a griddle simmered a great pot of kimchi, the national dish of Korea. In another pan burbled a garlic reeking fish stew. I prayed that I would not be asked to partake.
Because it was mid-afternoon Chin was able to step away from the fryers and talk. A one year-old boy played with a ball in a corner of the kitchen; occasionally the little guy would toddle up to me and give me the ball. He squealed with laughter when I rolled it back to the corner.
I remembered when the tyke was born. An excited Park brought the swaddled babe up to the store. He waved me out to the old sedan. “Look Mr. Damon.” A thirtyish wan woman I took to be his wife was holding the child in the backseat. Park sat in front with an older woman, the wife’s mother I gathered. They were on there way home from the hospital and Park wanted to show me his son. I leaned into the vehicle. I nodded to the two woman. I glanced at the sleeping boy. I pulled my head out quickly; I guessed from the hot garlic collective breath in the car that they had stopped off or brought along some of that same malodorous gumbo on the grill.
Park was glad to see me. He was happy with his restaurant. I didn’t know how to ask how he knew I was in town. After all, his presence seemed to fit in with the rest of the carnival of coincidences that I had encountered in California.
A customer arrived and ordered. He was an old man with a hawk nose and greasy long hair. He hunched over his plastic basket of wax-papered chow with his bug eyes watching the family over the steel counter. He shouted randomly; his grizzled tones echoed off the glass and stainless steel. His outcries were generally positive gibberish like Praise Jesus!, Hallelujah! and Coconut Oil! Park took the comments as compliments on the grub. I wondered if the coot had reverse Tourette’s Syndrome.
Though I enjoyed Park’s effusive company I was still a little worn down by the barrage of odd occurrences. I bade the little family farewell and climbed into the Dodge for the trip back to The City.
Darkness descended over the Bay as I drove the Aspen over the battleship gray Oakland Bay Bridge. The elections results were coming in from around the country. It was a sad litany of defeat for men that I had admired; Frank Church, Gaylord Nelson, George McGovern among them.
On the San Francisco side the interstate widens to eight rushing lanes. I was in a middle track when the cars in front of me came to a abrupt stop. I plowed into a station wagon as a sports car crammed into my rear bumper. At the time the network was calling the Indiana senatorial race. Birch Bayh had lost his seat. Of course, I thought. Perfect.
I stumbled from the car in an accident daze and milled around the stacked vehicles with some of the others as “suicide machines” rocketed by us. The driver in the little vehicle leaned out and yelled, “get out of the road before you get hit. Move these cars.” I snapped to and guided the still operable car to the next exit, did the glum info exchange (5 cars in the thing, no one hurt), guided the wounded Dodge through the Mission and on up Market.
Ted had said the dream would never die, but this night was a wake. A new day was upon the nation and it felt like a putsch. But the good don’t go down without swinging back. I decided to attack my problems and sort them out and if that meant in all this ridiculousness I had to find a man’s killer that that’s what I intended to do.