My dad was driving from San Francisco to Barstow one day back in the 40s, when he was flagged down in the Mojave by a women standing next to a broken-down car. This was on State Road 466, which is now California 58, out in the middle of nowhere, no traffic in either direction, north or south. My dad, who was a career Marine, was heading down to the Marine Corps Logistics Base, which the Navy turned over to the Corps in ’42. My dad specialized in equipment maintenance and storage. He’d get the duty, as he put it, and leave us for a couple of days to go down there from time to time.
So he pulled over in front of the disabled car and got out and asked the woman if he could help. The next thing he knew, he was retrieving three large pieces of luggage from the trunk of the woman’s car, which was a Rolls Royce, and putting them in his, and then helping her into the passenger seat. She was smoking a cigarette and coughing uncontrollably, but otherwise looked fresh as a daisy in spite of the fact that the day was hot as hell, according to my dad. He got into the car and plucked the cigarette from between her fingers and flicked it out the window. Of course his old Ford had nothing like air conditioning back then and his uniform was soaked through.
“I like a big man in uniform,” the woman said in an English accent. “Especially a forceful one.”
“You’ve got no business smoking, with a cough like that,” he said. He was an officer by then and it made him disagreeably bossy sometimes, though he never tried that with my mother.
“I’ve got T.B.,” she said. “I just found out. If I didn’t, I’d box your ears for doing what you just did, uniform or no uniform.”
She was feisty as a terrier, according to my dad.
“Are you allowed to smoke?” he said.
The woman snorted.
“I’ve been smoking four packs a day for years,” she said. “I’m allowed to do whatever I allow myself to do… What are you staring at?”
“I’m sorry,” my dad said. “You just look familiar.”
“Ever see Gone with the Wind?”
“My God,” my dad said. He was from the backwoods down south and in no way sophisticated. He’d go to the movies with mom and us, but he wasn’t knowledgeable about Hollywood in any way. Later when I started working in the industry, I’d have to explain everything to him all over again every time I told him something. But everyone knew Gone with the Wind back then.
“You’re Vivien Leigh,” he said.
“What are you doing out here?”
“There’s a man in the desert with a sunshine cure. I read about him in London and decided to come out and try it.”
“It was a sudden impulse. My husband is directing a play at the moment.”
She lit another cigarette, took one drag, and started coughing again.
“I’m also crazy,” she said. “Manic depressive, they tell me.”
I don’t know when the term “bipolar” was coined, but I’m sure that my dad didn’t know what it meant, or what “manic depressive” meant, either.
“What’s that?” he said.
“Sometimes I stay in bed all day. By myself, I mean. That’s when I’m depressed. Other times I stay in bed all day with a man. That’s why they call it manic.”
Being a Marine, my dad must have known a thing or two about the ways of the world, but he always impressed me as a church-going, straight-laced innocent.
“What about your husband?” he said.
“I loved Larry desperately in the 30s. Now I love him like a brother.”
“Does he still love you?”
“Absolutely. But I suppose that one day he’ll wake up and divorce me. I would.”
There followed a silence as they motored down the road through the desert, alone.
“You and Clark Gable made a hell of a couple,” my dad finally said.
“Frankly, I don’t give a damn about Clark Gable. Never did. Shall we have dinner together when we come to a town?”
She scooted over a bit. My dad said that she was a little thing. I looked it up. 5′ 3″ and 32A-23-33. She put her hand down on the seat between them. She was born five months after my mom, so she was three years younger than my dad.
About then, just before they got to Hinkley, they came to a service station that had a tow truck out back, and my dad pulled in.
“Are you sure you want to leave me here?” Vivien asked him.
He told me that he wanted to say no and take her up on supper, or do anything else but put her out, but he knew that he had to report to the base soon and to my mom later, so he just said goodbye and wished her well. As he pulled back onto the highway, he looked back and saw her heading over to the attendant at the pumps, who was wearing a uniform of his own.
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