navy cocktail dress

Reader beware. The following story is from a period in my life in which I am not very proud. Women readers might be offended.

There I was, shivering alongside a highway somewhere between Rosarita Beach and Tijuana, trying to keep speeding cars from colliding with the brand new, shiny red 1969 Dodge Challenger that sat disabled in the middle of the road. I was shivering because it gets cold at night during winter in Baja California and I was only wearing a light jacket and, I must admit, I wondered if banditos were lurking in the surrounding hills, just waiting to come down and rob and murder this gringo interloper. Speeding cars zipped by, sometimes barely missing the disabled Challenger. One pickup truck, with passengers in the bed of the truck slowed to a stop and a man called out, “Accidente?” I replied in my best Spanish, “Si! Accidente!” Then the truck went on its way with no further comment.

How did I get into this predicament? Well, let’s go back a few years. I have mentioned that as a lad I was very shy and insecure about meeting girls, and later, young women. I was in high school when I found a book entitled, “How to Pick Up Girls.” I read it, but found it to be of little use. Mostly the author wrote about good hygiene and self-confidence, something you don’t develop reading a book. I had done pretty well meeting girls at high school and college dances, but as a newly minted Seaman in Uncle Sam’s navy, I had lost most of my confidence. I was in San Diego, California; a town chock-full of sailors and Marines, with not a lot of eligible females to go around. And, it was during the Vietnam era when military men were mostly shunned (except in Portland, Oregon. But that’s another story). And I had no car! What was I supposed to do if I met a woman, take her on a date on a city bus?

In early 1969 I got a letter from my girlfriend back home. She had decided to become a hippie and was involved with some guy named “Dolphin.” It was pretty obvious that she had been dropping LSD. I was deeply hurt and sent her a very short, curt letter in response. I have come to regret what I said in that letter, but as I said, I was deeply hurt.

I hit the bars a lot, but quickly learned that the bars in downtown San Diego were not good meeting places for singles. I did make friends with a bartender and cocktail waitress in one of the places I frequented downtown. I picked up a newspaper during lunch at the Anti-Submarine Warfare School one day and read where the cocktail waitress had been busted for prostitution and the bartender for solicitation. I had no idea!

There was a bar across the street from the ASW School. I think it was called The Lost Knight. Some of us from the personnel office at ASW used to go there for lunch and beers. Pretty nice place, unlike the dives downtown. At night there’d be live music and dancing, but the men always outnumbered the women by a big margin. I had been promoted to petty officer third class and transferred to the USS Nereus, a submarine tender, which was tied up at the submarine piers at Point Loma. I still didn’t have a car, but it was only a short bus ride to the Lost Knight and I spent a lot of evenings there drowning my sorrows. I often got dressed up in a sport coat or suit and tie when I went on liberty, unlike most sailors and Marines. Because of that, I was later hired to be a “doorman,” checking IDs at the Lost Knight. But that came much later.

One evening I noticed an attractive young woman at the bar by herself. Several guys had made a run at her without success. She wouldn’t dance with any of them. I decided to try something that wasn’t in the book, “How to Pick Up Girls.” I bought her a drink and then ignored her. I guess that got her curiosity up, because when I finally did get around to asking her to dance, she accepted. Her name was Taina and she and her sister shared an apartment in San Diego, but only occupied it during weekends. They were both lieutenants in the U.S. Air Force. Nurses, who were stationed near Riverside, California. Taina drove me back to the submarine base later that night and we began dating. I really liked her, but she had a sadness about her. I learned that her sister was blackmailing her about something. Later, I kind of figured out that she had had an abortion and the sister threatened to tell their parents about it if Taina didn’t do what her sister wanted. We drifted apart after a few weeks, but I did see her several months later briefly after she had been promoted to captain and was being released from active duty. I don’t know, but I have a feeling that she had returned to the Lost Knight in hopes she’d catch me there and let me know she was returning home to Long Island. navy cocktail dress

The night before I saw Taina for the last time, I had rented a motel room for myself next door to the bar, just to get away from the ship for a night. There was live music and dancing I noticed a pleasingly plump blonde sitting at the bar fending off the advances of myriad sailors. I thought to myself, it worked once, so let’s see what happens. I bought her a drink and then ignored her for a while. Curiosity, thy name is woman. I finally ambled over to where she was sitting and asked her to dance. She accepted. Her name was Sue and she owned a fabric store in downtown San Diego. As the bar closed, I asked if she’d like to come to my room. It was only a short walk to the motel, but she insisted in driving us there in her little sports car.

Sue spent the night with me, and as she left the next morning she gave me a funny look. I realized later that I hadn’t asked for her phone number. I kicked myself over and over about that faux pas, but there was nothing to be done about it. I was still learning about the “niceties” of meeting strange women in bars. After all, I was still just a 24-year-old hick from Sedro-Woolley, Washington.

Then, a few weeks later, I was back perched on a bar stool at the Lost Knight listening to the music, when who should appear but Sue. This time I didn’t buy her a drink and ignore her. I apologized for not asking for her phone number and we danced. Later, she asked if I wanted to see her brand new car, a gift from her rich daddy. It was a brand new 1969 Dodge Challenger, bright red in color. She asked if I wanted to go for a ride and I accepted. She started driving east on one of the freeways and asked if I knew where we were going. I said I wasn’t sure, but it looked like we were headed toward Lemon Grove, the only place I was familiar with outside San Diego proper. She said I was close, but we weren’t going quite that far. She pulled into the parking lot of a nice apartment complex and then guided me up to her apartment. I spent many weekends in that apartment over the next year or so.

Sue and her brother owned and operated fabric stores in San Diego and Los Angeles. Sue managed the store in San Diego. She was also quite a seamstress. She made a nice mohair jacket for me, a pair of slacks and several pullover shirts. She drove me back to the submarine piers every Monday morning when I didn’t have weekend duty. Her dad gave me a very expensive sport jacket to wear to his grandson’s bar mitzvah party.

I found out that Sue’s family was connected to the mob – the mafia. Sue mentioned on several occasions that if she ever caught me with another woman, she could have me “rubbed out.” One time she and a girlfriend went to Las Vegas to see Elvis. They didn’t have reserved tickets for the show and Sue tried to bribe a guy taking tickets to let them in. He told her, no way! The show was sold out. She then invoked her father’s name and his attitude immediately changed. He showed Sue and her friend to seats right at the edge of the stage. No charge!

Now this brings us to the beginning of this chapter. Sue’s dad was a millionaire and the owner of the Rosarita Beach Hotel, a luxury hotel on the beach about 30 miles south of San Diego in Baja. She wanted me to meet her dad, so she drove us in her shiny new Dodge Challenger down to the hotel. We had dinner and drinks. I really don’t remember much about Sue’s father, even though I met him on several occasions. He was suffering from cancer and seemed to be somewhat frail. He had been a millionaire twice before and lost it all, but now he was once again a very rich man. Even though he owned the hotel and resided there, he was not Mexican.

On our way back to San Diego that night, Sue was driving pretty fast. After all, if you have a muscle car you should exercise it, right? After all, the cops didn’t patrol that highway at night. Sue thought the car could clear that big rock lying there in the middle of her lane, so she didn’t even swerve to avoid it. WHAM! The car stopped dead in its tracks! Right there in the middle of nowhere Baja California!

Sue flagged down a pickup that was headed back toward Rosarita Beach and offered the old man driving it ten dollars to drive her back to the hotel. I was to stay and try to keep other speeding cars from colliding with it.

After what was probably the longest hour of my life, Sue arrived in an older sedan, followed by a tow truck. Her dad had made one phone call for the tow and loaned her his car to get us back to San Diego. The look on the Shore Patrol guys manning the gate at the sub piers the next Monday morning was priceless. Here was a sailor being driven back to his ship by a blonde in a car with Mexican license plates. The infamous Tijuana was just a few miles south, after all. Maybe the SP was thinking, “That must be some bad hombre.”

Sue and I lasted about a year or so as a couple. We parted amicably. I called her once months after our breakup just to find out how she was doing. She had suffered from some kind of intestinal problems while we were together. Her dad had sent her to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota and they put her on a strict diet and she was feeling pretty good.

Oh, about the shiny red 1969 Dodge Challenger? Sue got it back in good working order a week or so after the “accidente.” I’m no mechanic, but I think she badly damaged the front axle. I drove it once, but I never felt comfortable behind the wheel. I had driven my mother’s ’68 Dodge Charger and it felt comfortable, but I only drove that Challenger one time.

Now that I was no longer in danger of being “rubbed out” by mafia hit-men did I go back to buying strange women in bars a drink and then ignoring them? Nah, no need. I soon met a young woman on a blind date set up by one of my Nereus shipmates. Turns out she was the daughter of a don in the Mexican mafia in Mexico City. La eMe. But that’s another story.