A Time to Toughen Up
Thomas Calabrese –Eleanor’s Café was located on Buccaneer Beach in Oceanside California. Eleanor Vistarino was the widow of retired Marine, Eddie Vistarino, who died 10 years ago from a heart attack. The décor of beachside café was casual and the walls were decorated with military memorabilia going back to the World War II. The food was excellent and it catered to the breakfast and lunch crowd, closing at 3p.m. daily.
While it was opened to everyone, it was a favorite hang-out of veterans. There would be times when young surfers would be socializing with combat veterans. Eleanor was a hands-on owner, working alongside Benny the head cook or serving food with waitresses, Lisa and Catlin. It was a friendly and welcoming environment. During the pandemic when many businesses were forced to close because of state mandated lockdowns, Eleanor’s Café survived because of the loyalty of Marines and other military personnel. Eleanor put up the sign, Closed until Further Notice, and her regular customers would come in through the back door.
Simon Tunney was a retired Marine Colonel, widower and an extremely successful businessman who lived in Carlsbad. He loved the small café and even though he had a cook at home, Simon began eating at Eleanor’s at least three times of a week and never left less than $100 for his meal even if it only cost a few dollars. He was the kind of man who put his money where his loyalties were. Many other military personnel also did what they could to help during the difficult period. Eleanor was eternally grateful for their generosity, but her loyal patrons never made a big deal about it. Good people don’t expect anything in return for doing the right thing.
When the economy started getting back to normal and customers began returning for the wholesome and delicious food, the regulars still met every Saturday at 11a.m. It wasn’t a set appointment, more like one of those casual, no pressure kind of things. The guys knew that somebody they knew would be there. One Saturday, six regulars would be joking and laughing while sitting at their regular tables. The next weekend, maybe only two would show up and they would be quietly having their breakfast. This was a sanctuary to these men, not one that they wanted all the time, but liked knowing it was there when they needed a little old fashion bonding and some emotional grounding.
There was this one morning when three Marines, two Army veterans and one Navy Seal were eating breakfast and three armed men came walking in, brandishing their firearms. One of them ordered, “Put your valuables, money and cellphones on the tables and you won’t get hurt.” The man turned to Eleanor and demanded, “Empty out the cash drawer and you might live to tell your grandchildren about this day.”
Johnny Gant was a former Recon Marine who had been medically discharged four years earlier after being shot three times in the right leg while on patrol in Afghanistan. He was a seasoned combat veteran and extremely proficient in Taekwondo, Muay Thai and Krav Maga, three disciplines of martial arts. Johnny took another bite of his French toast then told his companions. “I got this.”
“Are you sure you don’t want some help?” Ray Nicholas.
Johnny smiled. “There’s only three of them.”
Even though he went through months of physical rehabilitation and trained to build up his leg muscles, Johnny still walked with a slight limp. He walked up to the three men and made them an offer. “This is a local hangout and we regulars don’t like being robbed. I know this is California and you might have gotten Oceanside confused with San Francisco or Los Angeles. We like our laws around here and when the police aren’t around, we do our civic duty.”
“A do-gooder, John Q. Citizen is in attendance.” The man laughed as he pressed the barrel of his Glock 17 against the forehead of Johnny Gant. “I don’t care what you like and what you think you’re going to do, but every breath you take is a gift from me.” The other two men saw the humor in the situation and snickered.
In a split second, Johnny grabbed the man’s wrist, snapped it like a dried twig and took the pistol. The other men panicked and fired hitting their cohort in crime instead of Johnny and killed him. The former Marine calmly returned fire and the other two criminals went down. One was killed and the other was seriously wounded.
When Officers Brian Paulson and Alan Ferrell of the Oceanside Police Department arrived at the eatery, they took statements from the patrons. Officer Ferrell commented with disgust. “The Los Angeles District Attorney declined to press charges against these three and since their release, they’ve been on a crime spree up and down the coast.”
Eleanor called out. “I bet they wished they knew that veterans were in here before they chose this place. I declare their reign of terror officially over.”
One of the former Marines in attendance was Bill Olsen, a retired Oceanside Police detective. He called out to the police officers that he knew. “Self-defense all the way.” and knew exactly what to say to protect Johnny from any legal issues. “Mister Gant feared for his own safety and the safety of others in the establishment. He reacted like any good and reasonable American would have. In California, Mr. Gant has the right to stand his ground and protect himself without retreating. He also has the right to confront and engage his attackers until the imminent danger against him no longer exists. In simpler terms, he did not have to try to escape harm by running away or remaining passive.”
Officer Paulson replied. “Sounds good to me…that’s the way we’ll write it up.”
As the officers left, Eleanor called to them. “See you soon.”
“On my next day off, take care, Eleanor.” Officer Ferrell said.
Eleanor responded. “Stay safe and thank you for your service.”
Most of the veterans were older guys from the Vietnam War era and a barrel full of experiences, some military and some civilian. In life, it’s not so much what happens to you, but how you react to it. Like Ray Nichols, a former Army Ranger likes to say. “You only have to succeed one more time than you fail.”
The dynamics of the situation were probably no different that it is at thousands of places around the country at any given time. Guys get together to blow off some steam, vent and share a few laughs then get back to the routine that they called their lives.
Greg Whittington was a former helicopter pilot and prisoner of war with enough nightmares to fill a dozen lifetimes, but you could never tell from his positive outlook on life and motto for life. “Take your job seriously, but never take yourself seriously.”
Steve ‘Duke’ Garchar was a fun-loving guy who had his share of medical issues, including surviving cancer and several heart surgeries. He entered the café and someone called out, “How you feeling, Duke?”
Duke responded, “Pain is my reminder that I’m still alive and you guys are my reminder that pain don’t matter.”
Most of the regulars at Eleanor’s didn’t socialize outside their usual meeting place, fearing that they might mess up the ambiance of the situation from over-familiarization. Sometimes a veteran would be gone for a few Saturdays and then show up and he would pick up right where he left off. If you were a sensitive fellow and needed someone to tell you how wonderful and special you are, Eleanor’s Café was not the place for you. A veteran couldn’t ask for a better group of friends, but this was not the place for touchy feely therapy.
Several years passed, a few guys passed on and others would take their place. While the regulars reminisced about their fallen comrades, they never failed to stay in the moment at the same time. It was a delicate balancing act that the veterans performed with expertise.
Joe Browning remembered deceased Mike’ Ratso’ Roggins. “I remember one time we were on the pier and all of a sudden, he hands me his wallet and wristwatch, climbs up on the railing and jumps off. I said to myself, what the hell! Ratso goes under the water for about 30 seconds and I think maybe he drowned. He pops his head up like a cork and starts yelling at me to follow him.”
Ray asked, “Did you jump?”
“I thought about it, but I was holding his wallet and had my stuff. I didn’t want to ask some stranger to take care of it for me then if he stole it, I’d have to go to all that trouble of getting things replaced.”
Frank Rizzo interjected, “Next time you feel like jumping off, call me, I’ll hold your valuables.”
“Did Ratso get in any trouble?” Billy Donahue inquired.
“The lifeguards called the police and they were ready to give him a citation. He told them he was a veteran with PTSD and had a flashback so he dived for cover and next thing he knew he was in the water. The cops looked at his VA medical card and suggested he see his doctor as soon as he could.”
Steve Griffith was a former Air Force pararescueman and he showed up one Saturday with Aston Walden, a veteran who served in the Coast Guard for five years. Allen was in his early forties, not exactly a young man, but considerably younger than the Vietnam War era veterans.
Simon called out, “Who’s your sidekick?”
“Aston Walden, I met him at the VA Clinic in Oceanside. He’s new to the area so I invited him to join us…got a problem with that?”
“No problem…any friend of yours is less than an acquaintance to me,” Simon smiled.
“It’s nice to meet you, Aston Martin,” Ray said.
Aston Walden corrected him, “It’s Aston Walden.”
Joe joked, “Aston Walden, Aston Martin…close enough for government work.”
“How do you like your orange juice…shaken or stirred?” Greg said.
Aston looked confused. “What does that mean?”
“James Bond drives an Aston Martin and he likes his orange juice shaken not stirred.”
“Oh,” Aston replied.
Simon said, “I don’t think he gets your sense of humor.”
“It’s an acquired taste,” Greg answered.
“Most of the time, it’s just tasteless,” Joe teased.
Aston sat down, picked up the menu and carefully read the list of food items and asked, “Anybody got a suggestion?”
Eleanor heard the question and walked over. “You look like a spinach and mushroom omelet with Swiss cheese kind of guy.”
Ray joked, “He looks more like chipped beef on toast to me.”
Over the next few months, Aston showed up several times to the Saturday get-togethers. None of the regulars could figure out why because he didn’t really interact with the other veterans and made no effort to get know them and had no sense of humor. Aston would eat his breakfast and patiently wait for just the right opportunity to make a comment. He was extremely proficient at diverting any subject back to him. Aston could put a negative slant to anything and his long list of grievances included his unhappy childhood, dysfunctional teenage years and his military experiences.
Finally, after his patience wore thin, Greg asked Aston after another one of his ‘woe is me’ sessions. “You’re a trauma dumper.”
Aston immediately became defensive, “What is that?”
“I did some research and this is what I found out.” Greg pulled out a piece of paper and read, “Trauma dumping is a term used to describe intense oversharing, which can leave everyone involved feeling more distressed and helpless. People who trauma dump or “over-emote” find it hard to process, filter, and regulate emotions, especially when their threat brain gets involved.”
Aston stormed out of the eatery in distress. Steve found an emotional Ashton a few hundred yards down the beach, looking out to sea and asked, “You alright?”
Aston replied, “No I’m not, but why should you care?”
Steve responded angrily, “You’re an idiot. Do you think that you’re the only one with problems? This isn’t a therapy session and we’re not your captive audience. Your terminal venting is a worn out act. You want our opinions, you got it, but you’ve got to either toughen up or lighten up because we’re not changing. I’ll see you when I see you or I’ll never see you again.” Steve walked off without waiting for a reply.
Three Saturdays passed without Aston, but on the fourth he showed up and he was welcomed back without question.
Billy called out, “007 is in the house!”
“It’s good to see you,” Eleanor added.
Aston smiled. “It’s good to see you too.”
Simon made an announcement, “You probably heard about the superyacht that was taken from Russian oligarch, Suleiman Kerimov. I served with Jim Chesboro in the Corps. He’s currently in charge of the Asset Forfeiture Management Staff in San Diego. He’s retiring in a couple weeks and asked me if I wanted to watch the fireworks display from the yacht. He said I could bring some people with me. The boat is 345 feet long so there’s plenty of room.”
Ray asked. “Is that allowed?”
“Probably not, but like I said, he’s retiring and by the time they get around to disciplining him, he’ll be long gone. Besides if I know Jim like I think I do, he’s got his ducks in a row. He’s got more on his supervisors than they’ll ever have on him. I think he’s going to combine his going away party with the 4th celebration. Counting his military time, he’s got 45 years of distinguished service,” Simon continued.
Billy said, “It’s not so much about the fireworks for me, but I’ve never seen a superyacht before, so count me in. How many people did he say you could bring?”
“Ten, since I’m going alone so that leaves 9 more people that can go. No more …no less. I’m not going to pick, that’s up to you.”
Eleanor suggested. “How about a lottery?” She cut up some paper until she had 15 pieces and numbered each one. She folded them so the numbers could not be seen and placed them in a bowl. “One through nine go and the others are out of luck…fair enough?” Eleanor walked around to each veteran and they pulled out one piece of paper and unfolded it to expose the number they selected
Suleiman Kerimov was in China negotiating a multi-billion dollar energy deal for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin when he received word about the seizure from the Captain of his vessel. He was beyond angry, he was enraged. It wasn’t just the $345 million that he spent, it was more about the five years it took to build it. Kerimov knew he’d never go through that painstaking process again. He was realistic enough to know that he would never get his beloved Amadea back, but he could make sure that nobody else ever got the opportunity to enjoy her.
He made contact with the Sinaloa Cartel and offered $25 million and several lucrative deals if they destroyed the Amadea that was currently docked in San Diego. The cartel accepted the offer and began preparation for their mission.
The superyacht had five decks of various sizes, a helicopter pad, swimming pool, theatre, fitness center and a commercial kitchen that would be the envy of any restaurant. By the time the veterans from Oceanside arrived at the San Diego Harbor, there were already several hundred people aboard the superyacht and enjoying themselves.
Ray suggested, “When they put this up for auction, we should all chip in and buy it. We’ll anchor it off-shore from Eleanor’s. It’s big enough for all of us to live on.”
Aston interceded with some pertinent information. “They say that the best way to estimate the yearly costs of operating a super yacht is take its purchase prize and divide by ten. So if this boat cost 400 million, then it will take about 40 to 45 million dollars to keep it operational yearly.”
Jim Chesboro met with Simon and the others veterans as they boarded the vessel. “Welcome Simon, glad you could make it.”
Simon introduced his fellow veterans and Jim suggested,” I’ll give you a tour.”
While the veterans were below deck, the attack against the yacht by the professional mercenaries hired by the Sinaloa Cartel took place. A dozen men were carrying explosive charges and another ten were heavily armed. They easily took control of the vessel and held the partygoers on deck hostage.
After hearing gunshots and hearing the attackers order everyone to lie down, Simon asked his comrades, “We’ve don’t have much time…fight or surrender?”
Aston answered. “Fight.”
Ray quickly added. “We need to find a place to hide.”
Two guys crawled under the bed, several more went into a closet and the rest found concealment behind furniture. They did this just in time because three armed men quickly looked inside the large bedroom and moved on.
When it was clear, the men came out. Greg said, “They’re armed and we’re not…any suggestions?”
Aston suggested. “We might be able to find some weapons in the galley.”
“Good idea,” Ray agreed.
Steve added. “Something tells me that this is going to be a 4th of July to remember.”
Greg Whittington said, “It’s not what happens to you, it’s how you react that matter…right Aston?”
Aston was bursting with pride that he was with these men at this particular time. “Affirmative!”
When the men reached the galley of the yacht, they began searching through the drawers and cabinets for anything that they could use as weapons. Aston found two drawers filled with El Capitan Cutlery, some of the most expensive knives in the world. He called out, “We might be able to use these.”
Ray grabbed several of them and joked. “You know what they say, never bring a knife to a gunfight.”
Joe Browning grabbed two long bladed knives. “Maverick said it’s not the plane, it’s the pilot, I say, it’s not the weapon, it’s the man holding it.”
Aston encouraged his comrades with a famous quote, “Daniel Joseph Daly was a United States Marine and one of only nineteen men including seven Marines to have received the Medal of Honor twice. Daly is said to have yelled, “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” to the men in his company prior to charging the Germans during the Battle of Belleau Wood.”
Simon smiled. “Can’t argue with that philosophy.”
The veterans knew that they probably wouldn’t survive the battle, but that did not deter them. In fact it incentivized them. Johnny Gant took a deep breath and added. “Better men than us have died for less.”
At this particular time, there is no other place in the world that Aston would rather be. The veterans ambushed several mercenaries and appropriated their weapons. The elaborate fireworks display provided the perfect background for the intense firefight that took place on the deck of the Amadea. The veterans found the explosive charges and threw them overboard where they exploded harmlessly underwater.
Several weeks later, the surviving veterans were meeting at Eleanor’s Café. The eulogy was brief and poignant. Simon said it best when he spoke about their fallen friends. He raised his glass of orange juice to propose a toast. Joe, Aston, Steve and Ray did the same. “You did what needed to be done and God will not forget.” The survivors clicked glasses.
Eleanor walked over with tears in her eyes. “What can I get you?”
Aston composed himself and mumbled, “Vegetarian omelet, please.”
“No whine?” Eleanor quipped.
Steve responded for his friend. “Not anymore…there’s a time to toughen up and a time to lighten up and Aston’s ‘man-up’ clock has been reset.” Steve placed his hand on his comrade’s shoulder as a gesture of friendship and respect.”
Happy 4th of July, and remember that no matter how bad things may get, you can take solace in the fact that there will always be men and women in this country who will do the right thing, regardless of the risks.
– Work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance
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