Previously I was telling you about Ross McDowell, the barracks genius in the first open-bay barracks I ever lived in. Ross did not fit the image that usually forms when you hear “genius.” Far from it. He was active and muscular, though there could be a lazy, dreamy quality about him at times.
In fact, there were times when he looked downright sleepy in the middle of the day.
After I knew Ross for a while I found out where that sleepy look came from, along with a sallow completion that went with it. Turned out he had a thyroid deficiency. When I found out about it I asked him why he didn’t just go over to the base hospital and have them prescribe something for it.
A big grin spread across his face. “I will. I’ll take care of it — in a few years.”
“In a few years?” I asked. “Why?”
He chuckled. “Tell you about it sometime.”
And that was that. I knew there was no use asking him again. When Ross had something to say he said it. When he had nothing to say, that’s what he said — nothing. Anyway, we were good friends and I knew he would let me in on it when the time came, which he eventually did. I’ll let you in on it too — in a minute.
Anyway, as I told you in my last column, Ross was the person everyone in the squadron came to when an argument needed to be settled. If Ross knew the answer he’d say so. If he didn’t know it he always said the same thing. “I don’t know.” Maybe that’s why everyone trusted him. He didn’t offer his opinions as facts.
The best part, though, was when Ross decided to say something without being asked about it. It never failed. Every time that happened, Johnny, I ended up laughing myself silly.
Which brings us to the Ross-mobile. It was, if I remember the year correctly, a 1946 Chevy convertible. Nice little car in its day, I suppose, but literally beaten to death. It was a nice shade of light blue — once — but by the time I saw it, it had so many dents and bangs it should have been black and blue. I don’t think it had been washed since the day it rolled off the assembly line either, and the convertible top, although it didn’t leak, it should have.
The Ross-mobile ran well, though. There were some cold days up there on Cape Cod where we were stationed, and the Ross-mobile was the one car we could always depend on. Summer or winter, rain or shine, it started right up. Many others didn’t.
Ross was a fisherman. If he wasn’t on duty or in the barracks you could bet he was out on the dunes doing a little surf casting.
It always amazed me when I watched Ross casting. Cape Cod juts out into the ocean and so receives some fair sized waves. I’ve seen them cresting eight feet high before they crashed down on the beach. Ross would wait, holding his rod ready as a wave receded. Then he would dash after it, stop as the next wave reared up, whip his rod forward, cast, turn, and run like a maniac up the sloping sand as an eight-foot-high wave broke and pursued him.
He made a decent profit with his fishing too. He went after striped bass, which might run from 25 to 35 pounds apiece. The marketplace down in Buzzards Bay paid him something like 25 cents a pound for them. For a guy whose Air Force pay was $50 a month, two or three stripers could bring in a nice piece of cash for running around all day and having a great time.
One day the guys told me about something I wish I had been there to see.
They were lolling against the Ross-mobile, which Ross had parked on the beach a hundred feet above the point the waves stopped. Ross, dressed in sloppy jeans and T-shirt, was doing his thing. Another car, a sleek looking, black, 1951 Mercury, had been parked on the sand, closer to the place where the breaking waves ended their run. Obviously having arrived in the Mercury, three resplendently outfitted fishermen were surf casting beside Rod in his sloppy jeans. The difference was that Rod was catching fish.
The troops noticed Ross walk over to one of the men from the Mercury and say something. What he said they didn’t hear, but the man just waved him off.
Ross kept on fishing for a while, but then he turned, stared at the Mercury for a minute, came back to the Ross-mobile, took his rod apart, and said they were leaving.
“How come we’re going so early?” someone asked him.
“Tide’s coming in. I don’t want to watch what’s about to happen. Not from up close anyway.”
They jumped in, and off they went to a little diner. After finishing lunch they thought Ross would drive back to the base, but he didn’t. He drove back to the dune overlooking the beach.
“Look,” he said, pointing.
There were the three men from the Mercury, all running around in circles.
They had some kind of rope attached to the back bumper of the Mercury and were all hauling away at it, but to no avail. The water was already halfway up its front door and getting deeper every minute as each new breaking wave drew it farther and farther into the water. The troops watched in horror for 10 minutes as a brand new car slowly disappeared into the sea.
“Told them,” Ross said quietly. “Told them to back it up.”
When the troops heard that, they told me, they almost wet themselves laughing. On the way back to the base Ross explained. “If the waves come up high enough to wash halfway up your front wheels it’s all over. The water cuts the sand out from under the wheels and drops your car on its chassis.
Once that happens nothing short of a big tow truck can save it. The sea will just take it out. No way to stop it.”
That same night Ross told me why he didn’t get his thyroid problem taken care of. “Alimony. Got another two years to run. If I get it fixed, get ambitious, and make a buck she’ll just come after me for every nickel I make. Same reason I don’t polish up the Ross-mobile. Looks so bad she doesn’t want it.”
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. The man was a genius. Except for one thing.
How come he wasn’t smart enough to take me along that day?