Thomas Calabrese — Colonel John McCandles was retiring from the United States Marine Corps on April 2nd, 2018. This also happens to be the first year since 1956 that Easter falls on April Fools’ Day, which is also happened to John’s birthday.
Cathy McCandles had everything planned for a combination birthday and retirement party on Sunday afternoon after the family attended Easter church services. The event would take place in the San Luis Rey Officers’ housing area on Camp Pendleton. Cathy hired a company to come in and barbecue meat, fish and chicken and another caterer would handle the side dishes and provide the servers. Brigadier General Kevin J. Killea, Commanding Officer, Camp Pendleton and Marine Corps Installations West would also be in attendance and he gave Cathy permission to tell the party rental company to set up the chairs and tables for 100 guests on the street outside the McCandles’ government quarters.
The family had a lot to be thankful for; Colonel John McCandles was a highly decorated Marine who survived eleven deployments while being wounded six times in combat. On one hand, it had been a long 30 years in the Corps, but it also seemed to John and Cathy that it went by in the blink of an eye. They had three children; Ben, the oldest worked in Reno as a civil engineer for the state of Nevada. John Jr. was a sophomore at Southern Methodist University on a baseball scholarship and Shannon was a senior at El Camino High School. Both boys would be coming in for the celebration.
Colonel McCandles last command was with the Marine Corps Joint Terrorism Unit where he worked extensively with Marine Corps Reconnaissance, US Army Special Forces and the Navy Special Warfare Command. He recently returned from active duty contingency operations with Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT) in the Far East.
His previous assignments include Plans and Operations Officer- Latin America, Marine FPEP-Liaison Officer to Argentina, Counter-Narcotics and Counter-Terrorism Officer – Brazil, Coalition Forces Team Leader during combat operations in the middle-east, Recon Company Commander, Company Executive Officer, Infantry Officer and a wide-variety of assignments including task forces, NCIS Foreign Counter Intelligence Investigations, AT-FP Officer, overseas advisory and staff billets. He had extensive experience in joint commands and was instrumental in the organization of a number of tactical teams in Europe, Latin America, Middle East and Africa.
John was on the fast track to becoming a Brigadier General and he would have stayed in the Corps and probably risen to the rank of Four Star General, if his former Commanding Officer retired Lieutenant General Dan McConagle had not offered him a lucrative contract as Vice President in charge of tactical operations and training for an international security company. Orion MSF (Multiple Strike Forces) specialized in covert and rescue operations and their clients included the U.S. Government, foreign countries and international corporations.
In the year 2005 when Captain McCandles was on assignment in Israel with several other Marine Corps officers when the subject of cars came up, “I would like to come across a 1968 Ford Mustang 390GT 2+2 Fastback.”
“The Bullitt Mustang,” Lieutenant Bill Harris commented, “Good choice, I think I’d go with the Dodge 440 Magnum, it’s a little bit faster in the quarter mile.”
“You know a lot about cars?” John McCandles asked.
“My uncle has a company that furnishes cars for the movies and also restores them for rich people. He’s got a big shop in Culver City and when we get back to Pendleton, we’ll take a ride up there and I’ll introduce you.”
“I’ll hold you to that,” John replied.
When John and Bill got back from their assignment, they took a drive to Frank Woodson’s auto business in Los Angeles. The man was a former Marine and Vietnam War Veteran, who was happy to help out another Marine, “Sooner or later, I’ll come across a 1968 Mustang and when I do, you’ll be the first one I call.”
“Thank you, sir, I appreciate that,” John responded.
When John told his wife about his desire to purchase a restored Mustang, her reply was, “If you want to do it and you think it’s a good deal then go for it.”
Cathy McCandles knew what kind of man that her husband was and the sacrifices that he made for family and country. He would never make a foolish or reckless decision, so if he wanted a car, he had her 100 per cent support, after all he earned it.
Frank Woodson found the same model as the ‘Bullitt Mustang’ and stripped it down to the chassis and replaced the parts with newer more advance automotive technology while restoring the exterior to its previous pristine showroom condition. It cost John McCandles forty thousand dollars and that was with the significant military discount that Frank Woodson gave him. It was worth every penny and three years later John was offered twice what he paid for it.
In the year 2017, John received another offer of 250,000 dollars from a wealthy collector, but he loved that Mustang and didn’t need the money so he rejected the offer. He wanted to leave the iconic vehicle to one of his children; the problem with that plan was which one was going to get it.
One of John’s previous units had finishing training at Twentynine-Palms before deploying to Afghanistan so he decided to drive from Camp Pendleton on Saturday to see some of his old friends and return that afternoon at 1600 hours. He wanted to be back at Pendleton before dark so he could get a good night’s sleep before the festivities on Sunday because it was going to be a long day.
John was up at 0400 hours and was in the garage when Cathy walked in, “Getting ready to leave?”
“Yeah, shouldn’t be much traffic at this time of the morning,” John replied as he took the car cover off the Mustang.
“Are you taking Eleanor?”
Eleanor was the name that John gave the Forest Green Mustang and it was no coincidence that it was Cathy’s middle name.
“I’ve haven’t had her out in a while, thought this would be a good opportunity to put some highway miles on the engine.”
“You’ve put 30 years in the Corps and I got you back in one piece, so be damn careful out there. I don’t to lose you to a traffic accident now,” Cathy warned in her sternest voice.
“Affirmative on that, “
John kissed Cathy on the cheek, “I’ll call you when I get there.”
“I’ll be expecting it.”
The drive was smooth and John felt the power of the Mustang’s motor every time he pressed down on the accelerator. He was tempted to unleash Eleanor, but he promised his wife that he would be careful, but he hedged his bet. Every so often when he found an isolated area, John redlined the motor for a half mile then eased off and stayed at the speed limit for the next ten miles.
Colonel McCandles had lunch with Lt. Colonel Ryan Mitchell and Major Alex Bradford at the Brass and Rockers Club when he got to Twentynine Palms, “I wish I could make your retirement party, but they have us restricted to base until we fly out on Monday,” Lt. Colonel Mitchell said.
“It’s no big deal I don’t mind coming down to see you, besides I needed a good excuse to take Eleanor out.”
“How does it feel to be a former Marine?” Major Bradford asked.
“Don’t kick me out the door just yet, I still got some leave on the books,” John smiled.
Time went by quickly and before John knew it, it was 1530 hours, “I told my wife I’d be home before dark so I’d better get on the road soon.”
Major Bradford motioned to the waitress, who brought out a large cake with a bunch of lit candles on it. The writing on the cake read; Happy Birthday and Happy Retirement.
“You didn’t think that we would forget your birthday?” Lt. Colonel Mitchell smiled.
“I wish everybody would, but thanks for thinking about me, I appreciate it,” John was obviously touched by his friends’ thoughtfulness.
The cake was cut and everybody in the club got a slice before John went outside to leave.
“We know the drill, send me an e-mail or give me a call when you get situated,” John said, extended his hand and shook hands with his comrades, “Stay safe Marines.”
Major Bradford tapped the top the Mustang, “Get him home safe, Eleanor.”
John left the base then realized he should have gotten gas, no big deal he thought, he’d fill up at the Flying J truck stop. While filling up at the pump, two customized Porsche 911 GT2 RS’s came racing in and pulled up to the adjacent pumps. Two Chinese men were in each vehicle, they got out and walked over to John and his Mustang, “Nice car, how much?” one man asked and looked inside the passenger window while the other three men checked out the vehicle.
“How much what?” John asked
“For the car, I want to buy it?” The man clarified his statement, “Let me see the engine.”
“It’s not for sale,” John answered.
“Are you sure?” A second man interjected, “I can pay you a lot of money for it.”
“Thanks anyway,” John replaced the hose nozzle, got in and drove over to the building. He went inside to use the men’s room and just as he was leaving, the four Chinese men came in and blocked his exit.
“You’re in my way,” John said politely.
The first Chinese man pulled out a pistol, “You should have taken my offer, now I’ll just take your car for free.”
The second Chinese man also pulled out a pistol and pointed it at John’s forehead, “The keys.”
“Don’t do this,” John warned.
“The keys,” The man repeated much more strongly this time.
John slowly reached into his pocket and handed the keys to the first Chinese man. He said something to the other two Chinese men and left with the second man.
“You got my keys, what’s next?” John asked.
The two Chinese men pulled out knives from their pockets and flipped open the four inch blades and brandished them, “ You die,” The third Chinese man grinned malevolently.
When a station attendant tried to enter the restroom, the Chinese men momentarily diverted their attention and slammed the door shut. That was all that John McCandles needed, he disarmed the man by snapping his forearm between his hands then took the knife and stabbed both Chinese men; one through the heart and the other one in the throat in less than a second.
The station attendant was remarkably calm when he entered and looked down at the dead bodies, “I’ll take care of these guys, you got good timing, trash pick-up is in a few hours. We can talk after I put them in the dumpster.”
John walked outside to confirm his suspicions that Eleanor was gone and felt sick to his stomach. If there was any good news, it was that the Porsche of the dead Chinese men was left behind. The station attendant approached John then called out to a young man, “Willie, I’m going to take a break, keep an eye on everything.”
John followed the station attendant, a Hispanic man in his mid-forties to a small house that was located behind a truck stop, “First Sergeant Omar Martinez, retired Marine and I assume that you have some military training from the way that you handled yourself back there.”
John looked at the walls that were filled with Marine memorabilia, “John McCandles, active duty, at least for a few more days.”
Omar’s face broke into a big smile, “Colonel John McCandles! It is my pleasure to meet you sir. I like to keep track of what’s going on in the Corps so I know who you are. I was in the…”
“Sorry First Sergeant Martinez,” John interrupted, “but as much as I would to share war stories, I should rush to get my car back.”
“Roger that, sir,” Omar nodded, “Mission first.”
“What do you know about these men?” John asked.
“I became partners in this truck stop with an old guy about fifteen years ago after I got out of the Corps. He was an old Korean veteran who hated the cold so much after being at Frozen Chosin Reservoir, so he moved to the desert.
He passed away about six years ago and I took over full ownership. I can deal with the heat, but what I really love is the isolation out here. It must be my anti-social nature.”
“That’s nice to know.” John commented as he tried to not look impatient.
“About five years, I start seeing these Chinese dudes around the area. They are Triad, just in case, you didn’t guess that already.”
“I saw their tattoos,” John answered.
“My assessment is that they are working with the Mexican cartels; drugs, human trafficking and when the situation presents itself, high end cars. Over the years, dead bodies have been found in the desert and their expensive cars were gone. You got lucky that they tried to hijack you here instead of out on some desolate stretch of highway. I guess they figured your vehicle was worth the risks.”
“I have a tracker mounted on the chassis; I can assess it through a mobile app?” John stated.
“You might know where to go, but you don’t know what to expect once you get there.”
“I’ll figure it out,” John replied.
”About nine months, I got a call that a car was broken down about forty miles from here. When I got there with my tow truck, two Chinese guys were standing next to a bright red Ferrari. They paid me five hundred dollars to tow it.”
“And you remember where you took it?” John asked.
“Much better than that, I remember what’s inside the gate,” Omar replied, “Of course you can always call the police.”
“Take too long, by the time I went through proper channels and they did their standard investigations, Eleanor would be long gone.”
“Who’s Eleanor?” Omar asked.
“That’s what I call my car. It has a lot of sentimental value to me and the family.”
“Let’s go, Colonel” Omar said.
“I’m not asking you to go with me,” John said
“You don’t have to, I’m volunteering. You need help and I’ve got valuable Intel. We’re Marines, this is what we do for our brothers. Besides, I consider it a personal insult that they decided to bring their hijacking business on to my property and try to kill a Marine.”
“I told my wife I’d be home before nightfall so I’d better call her and tell her that I’m going to be late.”
“Roger that, Colonel,” Omar said enthusiastically, “While you’re doing that, I’ll get our gear ready for the mission,” then left the room.
John called his wife on his cellphone, “I got some bad news, I had some car trouble.”
“Anything serious?” Cathy asked.
“I hope not, there’s a former Marine who’s helping me sort things out. It looks like I won’t be back for church services, so you should go with the kids without me.”
“Are you sure that everything is alright?” Cathy inquired.
“Minor glitch in an otherwise flawless plan,” John answered, “I’m going to have to adapt and overcome, but I’ll get it done.”
“Are you going to make it back for the celebration?”
“That’s my plan, the sooner I get this taken care of, the sooner I’ll back home.”
“Take care, I love you,” Cathy said.
“I love you too,” John said.
Back at the McCandles’, Shannon overheard her mother’s phone conversation, “Was that Dad?”
“Yes,” Cathy answered.
“It’s hard to tell with your dad, he could be in a middle of a firefight and tell you everything is fine,” Cathy said.
“I don’t know how you do it,” Shannon smiled, “Being a military daughter is tough enough.”
“First thing that I do is remind myself that your dad is one of the very best at being a warrior and a man who knows how to take care of himself. I also don’t ask too many questions and last and most important of all, I say a prayer while keeping my fingers crossed.”
When Omar returned, he was carrying two assault rifles, two Glock semi-automatic pistols, a grenade launcher, bullet resistance vests, night vision goggles and ample ammunition for all the weapons.
“I’m impressed, First Sergeant,” John said.
“I read an article in Leatherneck Magazine where you once said, ‘It’s better to have the equipment and not need it, than to need it and not have it.”
The two men loaded their arsenal into the back of the Porsche and left the truckstop. John followed the GPS on his phone as they drove down the dark desert highway.
The two Chinese men were sitting in the living room of a large mansion with ten other men, “They should have been back by now,” The First Chinese Man said, “Have you tried to reach them?”
“My calls are going straight to voicemail,” The Second Chinese Man answered.
“Send some men back to the truckstop and see what happened.”
There were several loud explosions and before anybody in the room had a chance to do anything, John and Omar burst through the door and shot everyone in the room before they could reach for their weapons. They found Eleanor parked in a large metal building with a dozen other stolen vehicles and millions of dollars of illegal narcotics.
“I have a friend in the Highway Patrol, I’ll give him a call,” Omar offered, “Why don’t you take Eleanor and I’ll handle it from here.”
“One more thing, First Sergeant…”John got in his beloved car and headed back to Camp Pendleton.
It was fourteen hundred hours on Easter Sunday and everybody had arrived for the celebration, except for one person. John was looking down the road when his wife approached, “You alright?”
“I’m fine, I was just expecting someone,” John was obviously disappointed.
As John and Cathy walked back to the serving table, he heard a voice call out, “Colonel McCandles!”
Where John turned around, he saw First Sergeant Omar Martinez smiling at him, “I told you I’d be here.”
“This is Omar Martinez, the former Marine who helped me with Eleanor,” John grinned boyishly.
“Why is it that I have the feeling that there’s something that you’re not telling me?” Cathy asked, it was a rhetorical question and she didn’t really expect an answer.
“Let’s not spoil a good Easter Party with inconsequential and trivial details,” John put his arm around his wife’s waist and pulled her close and then placed his other hand on Omar’s shoulder. The party beckoned their attendance and the trio heeded the call of duty.
Colonel John McCandles may have been born on April 1st, but he was Nobody’s Fool.”
This is a work of fiction and the product of the author’s imagination.