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Contentment Is A Good Choice- Thomas Calabrese

By   /  February 4, 2024  /  10 Comments

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The Pawn King

Thomas Calabrese -Gunnery Sergeant Alex King had served twenty-one years in the Marine Corps and his last deployment was a great motivating factor in helping him decide that it was time to finally call it a career. He lost several of his men when an enemy drone hit his unit’s isolated outpost in Southeast Syria. The Marines were not allowed to take any offensive action against terrorists in the area for fear that it might escalate the conflict and this was an invitation for disaster. The United States made numerous public statements that they didn’t want a war with Iran and mullahs in Tehran knew they could push and antagonize the current administration because after the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan. America just did not have the stomach for another war.

This military strategy was severely flawed and the financial aspects of this half-hearted mission were extremely wasteful. The Americans were firing multi-million dollar missiles at inexpensive explosive drones that were barely worth twenty-five thousand dollars. After their base ran out of missiles because of budgetary restraints and logistic problems, Gunnery Sergeant King’s unit was left defenseless. Since every military outpost in the region had sustained attacks by Iranian proxy forces, all the commanders were clamoring for more missiles and additional defensive measures.

Alex was convinced that the most logical way to eliminate the threat was to send a strong and clear message to Iran. Wouldn’t it make more sense to stop the people from sending the drones to the battlefield than waste money and risk lives by trying to shoot them down after they were fired? If that was not going to happen, why not just leave the area. Leadership had forgotten what General Patton once told his men and a cardinal rule of combat, ‘It’s not your job to die for your country, it’s your job to make the other S.O.B. die for his.’

After the tragic incident, the Defense Department shifted into damage control and fabricated the excuse that it was the Marines’ negligence that caused the deaths. The official statement was that they confused their own surveillance drone with a terrorist attack drone. The bureaucrat spokesman promised, “We will immediately institute new policies and training for military personnel in drone identification.”

When his unit returned to Camp Pendleton, Alex’s commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Eric Kelly faced disciplinary actions for the incident even though he wasn’t even in the area at the time. Alex could not let this stand so he went to see Major General Andrew O’Neill who warned him,” Remember what happened to Lt. Colonel Stuart Scheller when he criticized the administration for the Afghanistan withdrawal?”

            “Yes sir, I do, sir” Alex responded.

            “He was kicked out of the Corps. You contradict or criticize this administration and they’ll destroy your career,” General O’Neill warned, “They are very vindictive.”

Alex laughed, “Since when do Marines run from a fight? The major difference between Scheller and me is that he had seventeen years of service and I got twenty-one. I’ve already put my retirement paperwork in and I’ll be civilian before they can retaliate.”

I respect you, sir so that’s why I’m giving you a heads up on what I’m going to do. If the Corps decides to pursue disciplinary actions, I’m going to tell the media how we were left without defensive safeguards, but if Colonel Kelly is left alone then I’ll fade away like a bad memory.”

            “That sounds like a threat to me.” General O’Neill surmised.

            “Threat, pledge, promise…define it as you wish, sir,” Alex said.

            “I’ll kick your offer upstairs,” General O’Neill said, “You’re a good Marine, the Corps could use a lot more men like you.”

            “Better men than me have served and better men than me have given more,” Alex said, I’d have to violate my code of conduct if I turned my back on Colonel Kelly, and I won’t do that. Semper fi, sir,” Alex walked out.

While Alex promised not to go to the media if the charges were dropped against his commanding officer, he made no such vow to not inform his fallen brothers’ families on how they died. It was a radically different story than the one that the administration was peddling.

Lucius King was Alex’s great-uncle, a former Marine and Vietnam War veteran. After returning from Southeast Asia, Lucius stayed around Oceanside and got a job doing carpentry. As the years passed, he began buying property in partnership with two other men. They started a construction company and began renovating rundown apartment buildings and small houses. From there they ventured into property management and commercial real estate. Eventually Lucius used his share of the profits to invest in businesses around the area.

After Alex left the Corps, Lucius offered him, “Come work with me and even if you don’t want a job, you can hang out and enjoy yourself until you can find out what you want to do. This isn’t a handout, this is more about me than it is about you.”

            “How is that?” Alex asked.

Lucius explained, “My son was in the Marines and died on October 16th, 1990 when his fighter jet crashed during Operation Desert Shield. My wife passed away nine years ago and my daughter and grandchildren live in Carson City, Nevada. I have my friends and I try to keep busy, but I still get lonesome sometimes. It would be nice to have family nearby, especially someone with similar core values and experiences.”

Alex quipped, “I’m not that nice a guy and I bet that in a few days, you’ll be ready to kick me down the road, but until that time I’m honored and grateful to accept your invitation”   

            “You have done your due diligence and officially warned me, but I’m still going to have to find out for myself how bad you really are,” Lucius embraced his nephew.

One of the many commercial properties that Lucius owned was located on South Coast Highway near the Oceanside Transit Center. Inside the two story building was a holistic healing center, Chinese restaurant, pawn shop and hardware store with three apartments above them.

Lucius was an astute businessman, an excellent judge of character and knew how to reward ambitious individuals for their efforts while also expanding his own portfolio. He offered the owners very large discounts on their commercial rent in exchange for a minority share of their businesses. This allowed them to keep their overhead low without fear of rent increases and focus their attention on being successful.  He also made sure that any business that he had a financial interest in received the best possible deals from suppliers. 

One of his favorite economic principles was, “It’s not about how much money we make, it’s how much that we get to keep that counts.”  Lucius’ reputation was built over several decades in the area and his business ventures brought millions of dollars into the local economy. He contributed generously to law enforcement, veterans’ organizations, animal rescue and wildlife sanctuaries. People came to realize that if they wanted something done right or in a hurry, they knew who to come to. Lucius was an expert at putting deals together and. it wasn’t unusual for the mayor, city council or county supervisors to contact him before enacting any new ordnances for his advice and sometimes even his approval.

There was a homeless issue in Oceanside and city officials asked for Lucius’ assistance in dealing with it.  He generously offered one of his empty warehouses as a shelter, “Give me a couple weeks to get it ready.”  He had portable toilets and showers brought in and got former Marine Benny Galvin a homeless veteran who hung out by the Veterans’ Center on Mission Avenue to oversee the facility.

Lucius gave Benny strict instructions, “I don’t mind helping out, but I need your assistance.  You have to enforce regulations; first of all I want my place kept clean at all times, which means routine police calls. There will be with an enforced curfew because I don’t want people coming in and out at all hours of the night disturbing the neighbors.  In the mornings, you’ll give people a cart, trash bags and assign them an area within a ten block radius of the warehouse to pick up trash. That will be their way of giving something back to the city. I’ll have some food brought in on a regular basis and contact some charities to see if they want to help out. You tell the homeless that if they want a safe and warm place to stay than these are my rules. I’ll shut it down in a heartbeat if they don’t comply. Make it work and it stays open…it’s on you.”

 Benny quivered, “Why pick me, there’s people more qualified than me.”

            “I’m offering you an opportunity to help yourself and others at the same time, “Lucius said simply.

            “I can’t handle this much responsibility,” Benny whined.

            “Of course you can handle it… I’m an expert at reading people and I’m not wrong about your capabilities. There’s a lot of work to do…are you in or out?” Lucius said.

            “I’m in,” Benny sighed.

It wasn’t long before Benny Galvin became the number one advocate for homeless veterans in San Diego County. For his selfless efforts, Lucius gave the former Marine a rent free apartment, a vehicle to drive and a weekly salary, “As long as you’re helping our fellow veterans, I’ll be there for you.”

            “I won’t let you down,” Benny responded with tears in his eyes.

Lucius put his hand on Benny’s shoulder, “You haven’t so far and I don’t expect that to change.”

‘Never let your compassion or your outrage get in the way of your common sense.’ That fatherly advice had served Lucius well throughout his life and it was time to implement that philosophy again. This would be his last attempt to solve his dilemma that nagged him for years. If it didn’t work, Lucius would begin the tedious and painful process of liquidating his assets and adding the proceeds to the trust fund that he set up for his daughter and grandchildren. He didn’t want to tell Alex what he was doing because whatever his nephew decided to do had to be his own choice without any pressure or promises of financial compensation. Alex needed to have the right temperament for the job because this was as much about people then it was about business.

Alex had been staying at his uncle’s beachfront home in the St. Malo community on South Pacific Street in Oceanside. Lucius proceeded with the first part of the test, “I’m want to purchase another home and give it to you as a token of my appreciation for your service.”

Alex immediately refused, “Don’t do that.”

            “Why?” Lucius responded.

            “Because I haven’t done anything to earn it. In fact I should be leaving the area,” Alex said.

            “Don’t do that, I need you to stay. I have a small one bedroom furnished apartment above the pawn shop. It’s vacant, clean and functional and you would be doing me a favor by being there. There’s been an increase in crime in the area and I’m going to have to hire additional security, but it would be cheaper if you were on site. I’m not asking to you to make a long term commitment…just until I can get things under control. ”

            “If it you helps you out then I’m all in,” Alex responded.  

Three days later, Lucius came by to see how Alex was doing and saw the former Marine in the parking lot picking up trash and sweeping the sidewalk and said, “I’ve got a janitorial crew that does this.”

            “If something needs to be done, I don’t see any reason to wait for someone else to do it,” Alex said nonchalantly.

            “You make a good point…take a ride with me,” Lucius was impressed by Alex philosophy.

Lucius and Alex drove to a Vietnamese restaurant on Pier View Way. When they entered, “Lucius suggested, “Find a seat, I want to talk to the owners. I won’t be long.”

Tim and Connie Tan were tenants of Lucius and also were his friends. He saw Connie in the kitchen and told her, “I’m testing a potential employee and I need a favor.”

Connie smiled, “What do you want me to do?”

A few minutes later after Lucius returned to the booth, Connie walked by and dropped her tray of dishes. She bent down to pick them up and Alex immediately got to help her.  Lucius said, “Where are you going?”

            “To help.”

            “They got people to do that,” Lucius said, “Sit back down.”

            “With all due respect…nobody asked you,” Alex responded curtly.

Alex walked over and helped Connie pick up the dishes and when he glanced over his shoulder, he saw his uncle smiling.

 After returning to the booth, Alex sat quietly for a few minutes before asking, “When does the test end?”

            “Excuse me…what did you say?” Lucius replied.

            “You’re evaluating me. You already have enough security on your payroll and didn’t need me to watch your building and the lady at the restaurant telegraphed her actions,” Alex commented, “One more thing…you also wanted to see what my answer would be when you offered me a house.”

            “I apologize for my deviousness. I underestimated your powers of observation, but there’s too much at stake for me not to be sure about you.”

            “Next time you want to know something, don’t play games, just ask me. You’ve got my word that I’ll tell you the truth?” Alex said.

            “I’ll remember that in the future,” Lucius said, “I hope I didn’t cross a line that can’t be uncrossed.”

            “You didn’t,” Alex smiled.

Two months passed and Lucius completed the paperwork with his attorneys for the smooth transition of leadership of King Enterprises over to his nephew when he decided to retire or if he passed away unexpectedly. Lucius was at peace now knowing that all his hard work would not go to waste, but most important of all, his people would be protected by a good and honorable man.

Alex was in the pawn shop one morning when an old woman came in with a wine bottle and walked up to the counter, “This a family heirloom and I want to sell it.”

Herbie, the grizzled old man who had been working at the pawn shop for 15 years looked at the bottle and grumbled, “This ain’t worth anything.”

Alex walked over and looked at it, “How much do you want for it?”

The woman flashed a smile and her eyes sparkled like diamonds, “I was asking $100, but for you I’ll take $50.”

The clerk strongly disagreed, “That bottle might be worth 25 cents at the recycling center.”

            “Do we have deal?” The mysterious woman asked.

Alex pulled out his money and peeled off 3 twenty dollar bills, “You can keep the other ten.”

            “Your generosity will be rewarded, kind sir, Semper Fi, Marine,” The woman left the shop, turned left and disappeared down the street.

Herbie commented, “You might have made the worst deal in the history of this pawn shop.”

            “Who said I bought it for the pawn shop…I thought it would look good in my apartment,” Alex responded.

            “You are definitely related to Lucius…every time he’s in here, he can’t say no to any down and outer either,” Herbie added, “I could fill a dumpster with the useless things that he’s bought over the years.”

            “You know what they say, one man’s treasure is Herbie’s trash,” Alex smiled.

In the middle of the night, Alex heard a sound in the kitchen and got up from bed to investigate. He turned on the light and the saw the wine bottle rocking back and forth. He picked it up and a puff of smoke shot out and filled the room. When the haze cleared, a man in combat clothing was standing there. He smiled and said, “I am the genie of warriors past and I am here to grant you one wish.”

Alex looked closer at the dark haired man and said, “You look a lot like John Basilone, legendary warfighter.”

The man smiled, “Everybody needs a good job…even dead Marines. You don’t look surprised to see me.”

            “I am a little, but I adapt quickly to unique situations,” Alex said.

            “Wealth, power, fame, strength, invincibility…name it and it’s yours.”

Alex replied, “I’ll take contentment.”

            “Contentment…that’s the first time I’ve heard that one, “John Basilone said, “What is that exactly?”

            “It is a long lasting stable sense of peace, tranquility with a keen sense of awareness combined with a consistent ambition to be better and do more,” Alex said, “At least that’s my definition.”

            “If that’s what you want, you got it,” John Basilone waved his hand and disappeared.

When Alex awakened the next morning, his first thought was how realistic the dream he had the night before was. He opened the window and could smell the salt air and the scent of jasmine in the air. Alex felt his heart beating and the blood pumping through his veins and when he walked into the living room, he saw the wine bottle was a different location from where he originally placed it.

Later that day, Alex stopped off at Leslie’s Flower Shop to pick up an arrangement for his apartment. She was one of the tenants of his uncle so he had a cordial relationship with her. He saw that she was upset and her eyes were red from crying so he asked, “What’s wrong?”

Leslie sobbed, “My daughter went to Israel to visit her friend. I received word last night from the State Department that she has been taken hostage by terrorists.”

That night, Alex went over to his uncle’s home and said, “I’m going to need some time off. I have something to deal with.”

            “What’s going on?” Lucius asked.

Alex answered, “Leslie the flower shop owner’s daughter has taken hostage while she was in Israel. I’m going get her back…or die trying.”

            “Whatever you need, don’t hesitate to ask,” Lucius said.

            “I’m going to need a significant amount of cash to put a team together.”

            “No problem…first priority is to get the girl home,” Lucius emphasized.

Accompanied by six Marines and four Navy Seals, Alex arrived in Syria. The strike team conducted a precise mission and were able to rescue Leslie’s daughter and ten other hostages.  They annihilated the kidnappers which were Iranian mercenaries and the team and hostages were out of the country before the American government even knew they were there.

Arriving back in Oceanside, Alex noticed something very unusual when he entered his apartment. The once empty bottle was now filled with wine. He looked at a label that wasn’t there before, and saw these words, Basilone Vineyards, Valhalla Valley. Alex wasn’t much of a drinker, but out of curiosity he poured himself a glass. It was the best thing that he had ever tasted so he had another one. While sitting on the couch, he heard a knock at the door. When he opened it, he saw Colonel Kelly standing there, “Colonel, this is a surprise…come in.”

After entering, Colonel Kelly said, “General O’Neill told me what you did for me.”

            “How’s he doing?” Alex asked.

            “He’s retiring, that’s why he decided to tell me about you standing up for me.”

            “You would have done the same for me,” Alex shrugged.

            “I’m sorry that you had to end your career because of me,” Colonel Kelly said.

            “Don’t be…things worked out better than I could have ever hoped for. May I offer you a glass of wine?”

            “Yes, don’t mind if I do,” Colonel Kelly said and after tasting the wine, “This may be the best wine I’ve ever tasted!”

            “My sentiments exactly,” Alex agreed, “Another?”

The two warriors finished the bottle and before he left, Colonel Kelly said, “Thanks again.”

            “Where are you headed to?”

Colonel Kelly answered, “I got a promotion and orders for Lejeune.”

            “You know where I’ll be if you want to stay in touch,” Alex said.

            “Count on it,” Colonel Kelly added, “Semper fi’, Gunny.”

Alex set the empty wine bottle on the kitchen counter and forgot about it. The next morning the bottle was completely full again. From that moment on, every time Alex depleted any portion of the bottle, it magically replenished itself by sunrise of the next day.

This bottle came to symbolize someone very unique. Alex willingly went into harm’s way because it was his sworn duty to do so. He protected the weak, defenseless and needy because it was the righteous thing to do and not because there was something in it for him. Alex adhered to a code of conduct that was equal parts honor, courage and compassion and God kept his bottle full with a taste of heaven.

If the situation ever arises and you are given the option to make just one wish, contentment is a good choice and if you’re ever in Oceanside, keep your eyes open for the former Marine turned real estate mogul. Some called him the ‘The Pawn King’ because of his unique ability to see value in people and things that others overlooked or ignored. 

The End

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10 Comments

  1. Robert says:

    Enjoyed the story. Thanks

  2. Tom says:

    Hmmm…let’s see: USMC, hardship cases, benevolence and good deeds. Oh…and a legendary USMC hero from Guadalcanal, GySgt John Basilone. I gotta find a bottle like that one!

  3. john michels says:

    Really nice story like your feel good stories

  4. Jeremy says:

    I loved the story…very touching and patriotic.

  5. Tony says:

    Mr. Thomas Calabrese has written a block buster of a story this Sunday in for the Vista Press. I do enjoy reading his stories for this one hits home for me and deals with our current events. I would not have liked being the Condolence Officer Officer’s and or NCO’s that had to make the make the notifications to the families of the 3 Army personnel that were killed whiled while severing their county unexpectedly. I watched as as you were returned back to the USA and the President stood by with what looked like Crocodile tears but no water tears down his face, the 1st Lady, and Secretary of Defense Austin in attendance, the proper thing to do. Later on the news the President promise to retaliate for your deaths. I have heard these words before from other Presidents. Mr. President, you said you would not let these deaths without retaliation, not in those exact words. You had some strikes made at some small outposts after telling them the USA was going to strike them? I hope they were not stupid enough to wait around for the USA to strike? They were probably home watching the air show on TV. Even as a child I learned not to telegraph my message. I understand you are trying to avoid a war and that is admirable but they are taking down the USA a little at a time. I have been to war and it is not a piece of cake. But, I have to think back to one President that said the “USA needs to carry a big stick? again, not in so many words. Consider, the element of surprise, and striking back quickly, accurately, and deadly, and aid heavens sake do not give them any more money, secrets aide, technology but do give them a lesson they will remember. Mr. Calabrese I think the Pentagon can use you. My deepest condolences to the families of the military personal that lost their lives in the serving our county. May you Rest in Peace.

  6. wolf says:

    I used to buy the trader Joes 2 buck chuck Like tom I I’ll be looking for Basilone Vineyards, Valhalla wine.

    Leslie’s daughter Gets an A for stupidity.

  7. Steve says:

    A great story, a lot of good fiction mixed in with some timely issues. The incompetence of our government caused the deaths of Marines in Afghanistan and now they have more deaths on their hands with the loss of these soldiers. They have no shame or conscience.

  8. Skip says:

    Loved the story! Keep it up, Brother!

  9. Bart says:

    Good one again.

  10. Tamra Jordan-Brown says:

    Tom, I was bit confused about the genie in the bottle, but overall; it was a very good short story!! Thank you!!!!

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