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ARTFUL TOM, A MEMOIR
by Thomas Hoving
Kindle Users: Click here for plain text copy

10. GOOD AND BAD LIEUTENANT

Nancy recovered rapidly, thank God. On the way to Camp Pendleton, I drove with Whiskey from New York to Raton, New Mexico, and Nancy took the plane. We stayed with Nancy’s Vassar roommate, Debbie Ostertag, and her husband, Ed, an Episcopal minister with a relaxed attitude about religion. We played around for nearly a week, hiking, riding donkeys into the spectacular hills and having many drinks as we gazed at the canopy of stars every southwestern night, chatting about the world, the cosmos, and God.

Nancy was a believer; I a skeptic. But I had the sense then and ever since to keep quiet about my doubts. When I am asked about my thoughts on the Almighty and religion, I breezily say that, being a descendant of Tom Paine (this may not be accurate since my family was Payne not Paine, although in the 18th century both spellings were often used) and after reading his Age of Reason, I have been attracted to his energetic dismantling of both the Old and New Testaments.

Back then, I called myself a Gnostic-Deist and was suspicious of organized Christianity, which I reckoned had brought about as much cruelty as benevolence. I believed in some original creative force (the Big Bang theory had me half convinced of that) and that Christ had lived. But I respected only those marvelous words about love and peace attributed to Christ (but written long after his death) and I disbelieved the miracles and the bodily resurrection. I thought the Apocalypse and its chatter about Christ as terrible avenger bringing endless destruction at the Last Judgment was cockamamie. Even back then, I was disdainful of the Christian faith’s hatred towards the Jews. My favorite Christian apologist was Tertullian, who had written in the second century, "I am a stranger and afraid, in a world I never made." That was me in a nutshell.

After Taos we drove to California along Route 66 (the high-speed Interstate highway system didn’t exist then). We found it exhilarating to watch the rural American landscape whiz by, seeing the signs for the next snake museum and the Burma-Shave signs. The tops was one I spotted outside Grants, New Mexico:

"DINAH DOESN’T
TREAT HIM RIGHT
BUT IF
HE’D SHAVE
DINAH-MITE!

We bedded down in rustic, modest cabins -- deliberately in one called Dew-Drop-Inn -- and occasionally selected eating joints in the shape of a giant chicken or had a double scoop at a three-story-high ice-cream cone.

At the California border we were stopped at an elaborate checkpoint -- for a second we thought we’d have to show passports. It turned out to be a state agricultural de-bugging station. Once sprayed, we entered the Promised Land.

And Promised Land it turned out to be. My regiment was squared away; my battalion Colonel was straightforward and balanced, my company Captain was mature and forgiving, unlike his straight-laced executive officer, a "Section-Eight" I thought, who instantly saw me as something to harass. I was assigned to lead an amphibious tractor platoon and my sergeant, Staff Sergeant Ricardo Peralta, a stubby, smiling Hispanic with a bubbling chuckle and a way of driving the men hard but in a way they never resented, liked me immediately. That was because I had decided to do everything myself that enlisted men were called upon to do -- standing guard duty even when I wasn’t Officer of the Day and always digging my own foxholes.

We found a standard two-bedroom white stucco and red-tile-roof house in the village of San Clemente. The beach was close and every evening we’d stroll down to body surf. The rage was to take the mattress covers from the barracks bunks, wet them, run down the beach filling them with air, tie them off and ta-da, amazingly delicate surfing machines that would be lifted by even the tiniest wave. I also learned how to body surf, using flippers and cupping my hands at my crotch and steering with my shoulders. Soon, I was riding in thunderous waves and laughing when I was seriously boiled. My love for body surfing almost killed me later on.

We met a host of new friends in San Clemente and partying was virtually non-stop. Don and Susie Dwight showed up. And I recall with special fondness Dick and Judy Borda, the first California-born folks we’d ever met, and treasure his fabulous sense of humor and her wit, especially when she would describe the differences between the various California "tribes" -- those from the Valley, L. A. and the "blessed North where I was born."

The best animal we’ve ever had entered our lives in San Clemente. Nancy was leaving choir practice one evening when a tiger cat kitten kept following her to the car. She’d take the little guy back to where he’d started and three times he followed her -- a real salesman. On the fourth follow, she took him in.

We named him Beelzebub and he was with us until he reached eighteen years. Beez would sleep on Whiskey’s stomach. He adored getting into bags and could be taken anywhere with us - once into the Beverly Hills Hotel when we stayed with my sister one raucous weekend. At a motel in the middle of the desert on our way back East, Beez jumped out of the car and disappeared, only to be sitting placidly at our door in the morning when we were ready to go. When we lived in lower Manhattan, Beez vanished. A week later I happened to drive home by Washington Square Park and there he was limping on a badly wounded front leg. I called his name and he hobbled over and jumped in. When we moved to the Upper East Side to an apartment house with a doorman, Beez would descend the back stairs, "ask," the doorman to let him out on Lexington and 73rd Street, then after his stroll would mew to come back in.

It was thrilling to lead a platoon of forty-eight men and eight tractors. I discovered I was talented with machinery and soon mastered the complex care and feeding of the sluggish, balky tractors. These were the World War II types used in the Pacific in the last years of island hopping and they acted like overweight dinosaurs with bad attitudes. On land they could manage fifteen miles an hour, clanking and screeching like drunken banshees. After a mile half of them had broken down; in the water they made three miles an hour and seemed incapable of being steered.

Sergeant Peralta taught me how to maneuver one at sea and how to land it in the surf. The trick was when the bow started to bump on the sand to race the engines. Then, hopefully before flipping over, the churning tracks would pull the vehicle upright and we’d grind our way up the beach. When we got a bad wave, the engines would always die and we’d start to sink -- I always managed to slip out a hatch.

One of the key men in the platoon was the bulldozer operator. Each platoon had a huge Caterpillar rig to haul away the wounded tractors. The bulldozer also carved out and smoothed the sand where the machines were lined up on the beach. I had the specialist teach me the subtleties of bulldozing and in several months I became an expert.

Every month we had a three-day war excursion with the Navy. We’d chug the entire battalion of tractors to LSTs, back them up the steep open bows of the vessels, which looked like thirsty animals with their tongues hanging into the water, and would discharge out tractors for landings on camp Pendleton beaches, which stretched for thirty miles. We’d do it three times a day.

Sergeant Peralta exulted when he went to sea, for he was the finest thief in the regiment. After every Navy exercise he’d proudly display the loot he had lifted. Once it was a hundred gallons of baby-blue paint, which was the color used by the Navy to paint its ammunition lockers and which became our official interior décor. Another time it was windbreakers for every corporal and sergeant in our platoon. There’d be weaponry, too -- 45-caliber pistols, a couple of Carbines or Navy Seal knives of wicked shapes. When I left Pendleton to go to the Shore Patrol in San Diego, Peralta and the platoon presented me with a searchlight a foot in diameter ignited by two wet cell batteries.

With the Korean War no longer raging, our Colonel decided that vigorous competition in sports was necessary to keep the battalion morale sharp. Because of my long, thin build I was asked to pick and coach the six-man long-distance running team for Regimental games.

"Can I pick ‘em empirically, sir?"

"Meaning?"

"Let me run the whole battalion down the beach until I have six men standing."

"Granted."

Next morning some 500 Marines with 40-pound packs, steel helmets, rifles and two canteens started to run behind me north along Camp Pendleton’s thirty-mile beach. I led them on the four-inch-deep loose sand. About ten miles out only a half dozen men were still with me. That was the team. I had to laugh when one Pfc. asked, "Permission to run back, sir," remembering what I had done to Sergeant Sinclair.

We jogged all the way back, passing the rest of the battalion trudging slowly to the barracks, while Navy corpsmen treated the hundred or so who had dropped out. I almost croaked and could barely walk for a week. We won the regimental cross-country championship and the Colonel put a letter of praise into my file.

My exalted standing didn’t last long. My platoon was ordered to go into the "Boonies" for a long-range patrol to practice laying out fields of fire, using real .30 and .50 caliber ammunition and real mortar shells. One morning I sliced my wrist badly opening a razor-sharp mortar shell canister and had to come back in the platoon jeep to get stitches. On returning, the oil drain plug of the jeep unaccountably fell out and we lost both the oil and also the jeep engine. When I rejoined my platoon I found that one of the tractors had hung up on a garbage run. I got our bulldozer and drove it several miles out to the exercise and dug the tractor out. Then I drove the dozer back and secured the operation. My captain wrote me up favorably for my leadership in "saving" the tractor but the executive officer informed me that he was going to write me up for courts martial for having destroyed the platoon jeep.

I couldn’t persuade him to back off. He muttered something about me being a wise shit, having gone to college and having studied art. I was screwed because he was a pissed-off, up-through-the-ranks asshole who reveled in the idea of bringing down a non-career Marine. At that dismal moment I knew, even if I wasn’t court-martialed, this guy would manage somehow to sully my record and that I would never have a decent career in the Corps. I was bitter and spilled out a load of bile to Nancy.

"You wouldn’t make a good career type," she mused. "You’re too independent."

After that I had even more respect for the ability of my straight-shooting spouse to hit the nail on the head and I gave up any lingering hopes of becoming a career officer.

I appealed to the Colonel asking, "How can I be such a good and bad Lieutenant at the same time?"

"Nothing will come of it. Maybe you don’t know that you non-regulars will be processed out early, so you’ll be out of the Corps very soon. I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll write you an excellent fitness report. You will be assigned to Shore Patrol in downtown ’Dago.’ Do several months with that then back home. By the way, polish your belt buckle."

We had a mammoth going-away party with our San Clemente friends and moved into a modest one-story housing development in "Dago" on the outskirts of town near a dump and a parking area for concrete trucks. Nancy took a job with the San Diego Union selling classified ads. Although we had fewer friends -- only Donsy was around -- it was nice not having to commute the two hours each day from San Clemente to Pendleton and back.

In those years San Diego was a sleepy Navy and Marine Corps town. The beaches, especially the miles of private Marine Corps beaches, were gorgeous. The country surrounding the city was breathtaking and we would drive to the eastern mountains, especially when they were garbed in snow. We also made trips to Mexico and once on return through Customs I recall my pretty wife bawling like a baby because two large bottles of rum had been confiscated and poured down a drain -- we had failed to read the regulations on how many bottles one could bring back. We liked La Jolla, a secluded, sparsely built-up village, and went frequently for drinks and dinner to a hotel constructed on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific. It had an underground bar with large circular windows looking out to sea. One night we watched a wave recede, leaving behind a baby seal on the beach that peered up quizzically at us, as intrigued by us as we were with him.

I returned to art and began to take copious photographs of the environment immediately around our cramped apartment. I became fixated by a series of huge cement trucks arrayed in a parking lot nearby. I tried to make them into various abstract forms -- with little success. That artsy exercise might have been flawed but at least I was able to record the goings-on of my little family and have innumerable pictures of Beez playing and of Whiskey, whose tail I used to dust off the lamps.

We bought ourselves a most eccentric car and adored it. Renault had opened a showroom in San Diego and what caught our fancy was the most illogical, impractical vehicle for the USA ever sold -- the tiny Quattre Cheveaux, a four door with a sun roof and rear engine -- smaller than the Volkswagen Beetle. This spirited little green machine with turn signals that flapped like small arms attained a top speed of perhaps 60 miles an hour on the flat and maybe 40 up hills.

Shore Patrol headquarters was in a one-story neo-classic building near the docks and consisted of three offices, a barracks, four cells and a large drunk tank, which had a tile floor and padded walls. Every morning a sailor turned on a fire hose to clean the vomit and excrement off the interior of the tank and off the unfortunates who had slept the night in our luxurious digs. I remember clearly the sign posted on the outside of the cells -- "Never touch a prisoner. Never speak to a prisoner. Never abuse or harm a prisoner."

One of my duties was to drive to Tijuana every Monday and pick up errant sailors and Marines who had been arrested for drunkenness. The sad looks on their young faces suggested that maybe they’d all become born-again teetotalers -- for a week at least.

One morning I got a call from a bar saying that a "drunken, suicidal and/or homicidal" Marine with a knife was threatening to kill everyone in sight. I rushed to the joint and spotted him in the back of the foul-smelling dive waving what looked like a machete. The navy shore patrolman with me whispered, "Shoot the bastard."

But I took out my .45, ambled close to him, casually showed him my pistol and outlined what he’d suffer when I took him down which I was going to do in three minutes unless he handed over the knife -- handle first.

In a matter of minutes the guy started crying and gave up the knife. I muddled the paperwork so that he’d get only a reprimand. When he found out my identity he thanked me with a sweet, rather sophisticated note.

One late night I was riding the night shift with the California Highway Patrol and we came across a naked man strolling unevenly north. He blurted out that he was a full Admiral and that he’d had maybe one drink too many and had decided to park his car and walk it off. He was naked because he wanted to sober up. We found his car and there was his neatly folded uniform with four rows of ribbons including the Navy Cross -- he was a real hero.

We took him to Shore Patrol where I neglected to fill in the arrest papers and put him on a cot in my office. When he awakened he said not a word to me.

A day later the senior chief on the West Coast came to see me. "He appreciates your mature discretion. Just name it."

"My executive officer in tractors still wants to court-martial me for a stupid reason," I said and named the man.

"I’ll look into that. Need any supplies for yourself? I am also in charge of all supplies out here."

"One of those neat tank jackets and, yes, I need some sports white socks."

The jacket and three dozen socks were delivered the next day. I also got the word that my vindictive executive officer was to be assigned to the cold weather camp at Pickle Meadows for a spell.

In March my sister called at three in the morning. My mother was near death. She had awakened in the middle of the night, had gone into the kitchen, turned on the stove to make something, but a wisp of her nightgown ignited. In a flash a fire roared over her body. Her then lover tried to roll her in a rug but it was too late. The doctor at Lenox Hill called Petie, who rushed to the hospital. "Peter" Hoving was burned over eighty percent of her body and since the nerve ends had gone, she was, thankfully, in no pain. But there was no chance that she’d survive. Her limbs and body were suspended above the bed like a puppet’s. I got to New York as soon as I could but she had died before I got there.

A close friend helped Petie and her husband Buddy through the crisis. He suggested that they hide as many antiques as they could since the IRS was after every penny my mother had. So, my sister hauled away the John Trumbull and John Opie portraits and much of the Lowestoft, plus as many pieces of old silver as they could manage and hid them in Petie’s apartment on 96th Street. Buddy Durand’s mother happened to be an expert on silver and she stripped the drawers of all the truly valuable items. At the auction months later, seeing a knife go for a thousand dollars, she muttered, "Damn, I missed that one!"

The auction proceeds all went to pay off the taxes which Mary Osgood Field had never paid in order to take her beloved kids to Edgartown for all those summers. Apparently she never understood she had to pay income taxes on her alimony from my father. Petie and I felt, hell, it was worth it. Our only regret was that my sister hadn’t been able to conceal the Duncan Fyfe dining room table and twelve chairs.

I wept at the funeral at Saint James church. I loved my soft, forgiving, permissive mother. I was profoundly distressed because I had learned how sad her life had been at the end. I found out that she had been supplied with uppers and downers from a number of physicians who didn’t know what the others were prescribing. Her life ended in a merciless pendulum swinging from catatonic sleep to jangled wakefulness, each state more and more like the other.

I was bowled over to hear when the will was read that I would receive the income from the Thomas Pearsall Field Trust, which in 1954 amounted to a princely $5,000 a year. 

I told my wife, "She once mentioned to me about some hidden fund or other. That’s going to be our ‘fuck-you’ money. With it we’ll always avoid the poor house and will never have to suck up to anyone in our lives."


This is chapter 10 of Artful Tom, A Memoir, which is being posted in full in Artnet Magazine. For the complete book to date, click here.


THOMAS HOVING is author of Master Pieces: The Curator’s Game (2005). He is former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He can be reached at Send Email



 



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