Chapter 1: Retirement, Sort Of
Following John McCain's inauguration we flew home and spent about a week at Hereford decompressing. I also watched the dismantling of the elaborate security screen we had around the place. Most of the security and commo trailers were hauled out, along with the heavy weapons and anti-aircraft systems (Stinger teams). Then we decided that the Bahamas were a lot warmer than Maryland in January and went there for another month or so. We no longer had a Navy destroyer hanging around, but still rated a Coast Guard cutter. The last week of February I was feeling a little bored and we flew home and made a call to Georgetown University Hospital.
That's where I was having my knee replacement surgery done. Before I left office I'd had Doctor Tubb research the procedure, and Doctor Richard Shawshank of Georgetown was perfectly capable of doing the surgery. Even Suzie weighed in, long distance, and agreed. I knew that if I ignored her advice and something bad happened, I would never hear the end of it! Regardless, it was truly amazing. I went in that morning at the crack of dawn, went through surgical prep, and was on the table by 8:30. The amazing part? That evening, after I came fully awake from the anesthesia, they had me up on my feet and walking around the room and a few feet up and down the hall. I was home a couple of days later.
Home, in this case, was the house in Georgetown. We kicked Charlie and Megan out of the converted library and moved into it; they moved to the master suite upstairs. Marilyn and I stayed downstairs while I went through my rehab. Marilyn and Megan conferred on the upcoming wedding, now with a date in September, and I gave Charlie the benefit of my years of wisdom, which basically consisted of doing what the women told him to do and keeping his mouth shut otherwise.
After I was officially released from rehabilitation and therapy I added walking to my regular exercise routine. After a few weeks, I was able to begin jogging, at least for short distances. I couldn't believe how much better my leg felt! If I'd known I would feel this good, I would have done it years before! It was also somewhat depressing to find out how out of shape I was. I had a fair bit of upper body strength, but running builds stamina, and it was going to take some work to get back up to my old self. I glossed over the fact that my old self was from thirty years ago.
I also decided that I might as well help the new President with his new agenda. His State of the Union speech had been fairly workmanlike, but nothing spectacular. I wasn't complaining, though. The only one of mine which had been memorable had been my first, following 9-11, when I had to give the most uplifting message possible to a nation still reeling in shock from the Al Qaeda attacks. The others? Boring as hell!
John had several themes to his speech. Most of them were simply extensions of existing policies, a third term of Buckman policy regardless of whatever gibberish he had spouted about new plans and not being a third term. One new idea was a new national health care plan. He spoke about how one in six Americans was lacking in health care, of children dying, of mothers having to choose between working to feed their children and treating their own cancer, of patients being denied coverage because of preexisting conditions, and of insurance policies not worth the paper they were printed on. He pressed that we could do better.
Maybe I could assist. I had access to a couple of high-powered lobbying firms, and I knew the head of the Republican National Committee, an outfit that was in charge of dispersing campaign funds to potentially recalcitrant politicians. I made a few phone calls and met with a few people the last week of March. We met at the house on 30th Street. Frank Stouffer, Marty Adrianopolis, Mindy Geisinger, Michael Steele, and Brewster McRiley came, and Marilyn played hostess. The big question was that if I was going to get involved in politics behind the scenes, what was the best way to do so? I already had a couple of lobbying outfits, even if we kept the secret that I funded them (and Mike and Brewster didn't have a need-to-know). Instead we settled on a think tank, a separate research operation that could do opinion surveys, legislative analysis, and cost-benefit studies. We could hire some PhDs and MBAs, and put together a blue-ribbon board to front to the public.
Bill Clinton had done something similar, and was calling his outfit the Clinton Global Initiative. I wasn't as worried about the rest of the planet except as it impacted on America. We called ours the American Impact Project. Mindy would begin working for them as soon as the lawyers put it together, and in the meantime she would begin scouting for office space. Ultimately she would come back to work for me as my personal assistant, otherwise known as 'Carl's Boss, ' which amused both her and Marilyn. We tossed around some names for the board, picking moderates, both Republican and Democrats, and developed a list of names that I would personally contact. A few had been in my Cabinet, a few had been in Congress or the Senate and had gotten out, and a few more were simply people who we all knew. The odds were that most people would want to join; it was a low risk, high reward option with not a lot of work involved. The first person I would call would be Colin Powell.
I wasn't terribly surprised when John McCain called me a couple of days later and asked me to drop by. Washington is a company town, and there was no way I was going to meet with a bunch of Republican movers and shakers without him hearing about it. You do not say no to the President when he asks you to meet him. I went out and got a haircut and trimmed my beard, and the next morning I put on a good suit and went to the White House.
Interestingly, already present in his office was Condoleeza Rice, who had been my Secretary of State, and was still John's. John's request was simple. Now that I was un-retired, he wanted me to go to work for him as a Special Envoy to the Middle East. I filled him in on the plans for the AIP, and he agreed to my continuing that as well. I would now simply need to be at a first remove from it, so I called Mindy from his office and gave her a few details, specifying me as a non-executive figurehead. Everybody knew this was total bullshit, but it would meet any legal requirements. Otherwise, I told him I would be honored.
Since I was back at work for the government, we had to reinstitute my blind trust. For years my investments had been held in a blind trust, handled by a trustee who was part of the Buckman Group and who didn't report to me, but I had still controlled it for the entire time. As soon as I was out of office, I took back control of my portfolio, and sent the trustee back to work for Jake Eisenstein and the Buckman Group. Now I had to set it up all over again – what a major pain in the balls! I had just gotten set up to legally look at my business again, and now I had to reverse course.
The Buckman Group had changed immensely since I had left to become a Congressman. At that time it was simply the Buckman Group, the private equity and venture capital outfit we had founded when I got out of the Army. That was still around, but it was much, much more these days. The first major offshoot was Marquardt/Buckman Investments (offices in Palo Alto and Austin) which invested in high tech and Silicon Valley, and was just getting underway when I was leaving. Another business was Commodity Exchange Traders (offices in Chicago) which invested in a large number of commodities. This was, in some ways, a return to my roots, since my initial fortune was from trading (admittedly with foreknowledge) in oil and silver.
The most recent major business was Buckman Future Energy, headquartered in Houston, which invested in wind, solar, and the drilling boom going on in America. We invested, as always, in equities in new and existing companies in the business. Want to build a wind farm in Texas? We'll buy a percentage. Looking to expand your solar installation business in California? Call us. Building a fracking operation in Pennsylvania or an oil pipeline in North Dakota? Ditto. For the first time in decades, the United States was becoming a net exporter of energy, not a net importer, and the effects on the economy were tremendous. Most importantly, economies of scale were finally kicking in and solar and wind power were becoming economically competitive. Natural gas was displacing coal as the fuel of choice on new power plants and coal-fired plants were being converted or shut down in droves, improving air quality and reducing carbon emissions. Much of this resulted from groundwork begun in my administration.
Shortly after I had left office, I invited myself to a meeting with Jake Eisenstein and we had come to a pleasant agreement. I had zero interest in running the company again, but a seat on the board for the majority shareholder was not out of line. Likewise, I did want a small office suite for when I was at home and needed to do paperwork out of the house. In general, I left Jake to do his thing, and he had really done well at it. He was now worth about $750 million in his own right, and I was worth at least $25 billion! I couldn't really complain about how he had run the company. We did a joint interview with Fortune explaining my limited return to business and my confidence in Jake's operation.
I managed to do a single board meeting before John McCain roped me back into public life. Like I said, a pain in the balls!
That weekend my impending nomination was leaked in time for it to be discussed on the Sunday talk shows. Several previous instances were noted where former Presidents were used for special diplomatic missions, but this would be the first which was long term and formal. One interesting question was whether I would need Senate confirmation for the position. The jury was out on this. The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations is responsible for all State Department appointments, including all ambassadorships. Otherwise, the requirement for Senate confirmation was delightfully vague, as was the job itself.
"Are you really going to have to get the Senate to approve you?", asked Marilyn.
"Won't that be fun? Screw the Senate! I'll just do the job and let them complain.", I replied.
Monday morning Marilyn and I went over to the White House for the announcement. I waited in the Map Room, out of the way and out of reach of any reporters, but Marilyn was invited upstairs and chatted with Cindy McCain for several minutes. After a bit Cindy brought her back and we all went over to the Oval Office, where we met with the President and the Secretary of State. After John's Press Secretary did his usual briefing, he announced that the President would be speaking, and we all trooped into the Press Room. Cindy and Marilyn went over to one side where two chairs were waiting for them out of the line of the cameras, and John went to the podium with me and Condi to one side in the background.
John started by describing the wonderful work I had already done in the Middle East brokering peaceful relations and defensive treaties with various countries, and then segued into his desire that I continue as his personal representative to the nations in the region. Condi Rice then spoke for a few minutes about the wonderful relationship we'd had in previous years, and her belief that this would continue in the future. After that, I stepped to the podium and thanked them both for the immense trust they were placing in me, and my promise not to let them down. Blah, blah, blah, yadda, yadda, yadda. I doubted more than 15 seconds would make it to the news that night, other than the rather unusual fact that it was being done at all.
I thought that was it, but John had a sly smile on his face, and I wondered what he was up to. After I finished speaking, he returned to the podium, and announced, "Carl Buckman is not the only person we are here to congratulate today. Shortly after the election, as then President Buckman began planning his retirement, most everybody else in the West Wing began placing bets on when he would get bored and decide to come back to work. We actually had a pool going, and with today's announcement, we can officially declare the winner of the pool!" He pulled an envelope out of his jacket and held it up. "And the winner, at ten weeks and six days, is Alison Carver!"
I just rolled my eyes and slapped my face while the room exploded in laughter. Alison was one of the more junior secretaries in the Communications Office, and she must have been waiting out in the hallway. I heard a loud "Woo hoo!" and she scampered in and John handed her the envelope with a laugh.
I went back to the podium and gave Alison an appropriate scowl and finger-wagging, which made her laugh, and she scooted off to the side to say hello to Marilyn. "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!", I said into the microphone. I then had to answer several questions about it all. Did I know about the pool? "Yes." Was Mrs. Buckman aware of the pool? "Yes." Did she join the pool? "Yes." What did she pick? At that I gave a mystified look and turned to Marilyn. She reported 'Eight weeks', which wasn't heard by anybody, and I had to repeat it into the microphone. At that we called it quits. We headed back down the hall, and I gave Alison a hug good-bye. I knew that while the announcement of me as a Special Envoy might not make it to the news that night, gambling in the White House certainly would!
A Special Envoy reports directly to the President. That isn't something that ambassadors do. Technically an ambassador 'extraordinary and plenipotentiary' is the direct representative of his or her sovereign, but the reality is somewhat different. Ambassadors actually report up a chain of command to the Secretary of State. The President can deal with them directly, at the risk of pissing off his Secretary of State, but chains of command are usually in place for a reason. I had only dealt directly with my ambassadors twice, first with Bismarck Myrick during the Monrovian Rescue, and then later with several of our ambassadors during the Kurdish War, and even then it had only been done with the Secretary of State in the room or on conference call with me. On the other hand, I had no such restrictions when I talked to Special Envoys, and Bismarck Myrick hadn't been my only such when I named him as the Special Envoy to Kurdistan and Turkey.
The job of Special Envoy is wonderfully ill-defined. It was as much as the President wanted to make of it. My mission would be to simply travel in the region, speak to the various leaders I already knew, consult with him, Condi, and the local ambassadors, and provide a private means for discussion between President McCain and the locals. Privately, he wanted me to keep a lid on things over there, and make sure all the children played nice. How I did it, he would leave that to me – within reason. I understood his meaning. If things worked out, he looked good, but if things turned to shit he would blame me. I would make my first trip in a week's time.
When I left office, I decided to upgrade my plane. I had been using a G-IV since 1990, and despite the fact that it was lovingly maintained, it was definitely getting long in the tooth. I needed a new plane, and something larger, faster, and with longer range. I basically traded it in on a brand new Gulfstream 650, the newest version of the venerable jet. It flew at damn near the speed of sound for 7,000 miles carrying a dozen-and-a-half people, and was considered the Cadillac of private jets. Now, as Special Envoy, if I didn't want to fly a government jet I had a personal plane that was even nicer. (Technically, the planes belonged to Executive Charters, the charter company the Buckman Group owned a piece of. Since I had funded most of the investment personally and had first right to fly, it was for all intents and purposes my airplane.)
I spent the remainder of the week preparing for the trip, and in setting up the American Impact Project. One of things we needed to do was to start finding some staff and some of those PhDs and MBAs to do research and studies. My suggestion was finding some underemployed academics who wouldn't mind some research money.
Condi Rice sent me over an assistant for my trips overseas. This was a bit of a mixed blessing. I still had my Top Secret clearance, and as the ex-President I still received a daily briefing from a National Intelligence Officer. Mindy still had a clearance from her time in federal service, but I was going to need a body man, and one with an appropriate security clearance. That isn't something one can find with an ad in the Help Wanted section. Condi provided the assistant, a young man named Brad Wilkins. Unsaid was the fact that Brad would be reporting back to State whatever I was up to and whoever I met with. I was going to have to either work with that restriction or find a way around him. Defense sent me over an 'assistant' too, a major named Jim Culliver, so they could learn what I was up to also.
Marilyn, Brad, and Jim joined me for my first trip overseas as Special Envoy, and I hit all the favorite spots – Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Kuwait, and Kurdistan. We also flew into Oman and the United Arab Emirates, neither of which I had been to before. Unlike my trips as President, I didn't set out with an agenda, and spent several days in each country, meeting not just the leaders, but also some of the second-tier ministerial people, and building my Rolodex up. I told everybody that I planned to be back in the region in another month to meet with people again.
By the time I got home, Mindy had a tentative staff going with AIP, and I met with them and finalized some plans and signed papers and we had a black tie gala at the Kennedy Center to formally announce everything. Our charter was wonderfully vague, and sounded both pompous and grandiose, just the tone we were aiming for. Secretly, I had plans for using our research people to look into two specific areas. The easy one would be immigration. John wanted to update and tweak some of the immigration laws, since the last time we did that was when I rammed through George Bush's DREAM Act. We could do some economics research in support of some changes.
The tougher sell would be some form of health care reform. I remembered Hillary's disaster back in the '90s, and the problems Obamacare caused when I was on my first go. I knew two things. First, the Republicans would riot in the streets before allowing some form of Democratic proposal to go through. The only way it would work was if the Republicans came up with something. Second, the main reason it became disastrous was that the Dems wanted gigantic all-in-one omnibus wonder-bills, whether they worked or not. What would pass, however, were much smaller bills, pieces of a larger program. Perhaps one bill on curbing insurance company abuses, another aimed solely at hospital charges, another at added exchanges or options for purchase. The smaller bills had much higher chances of being pushed through, and if there were legal challenges, it wouldn't necessarily kill the entire program.
AIP could help in two ways. First, crank up the researchers and show how good and bad health care impacted the economy, and how the various improvements would save money in the long run, etc. Everybody had their own private think tanks on both sides of the aisle, and this just gave us more talking points on the Sunday news shows. Second, we could use a stealth campaign of embarrassment on the Congressmen and Senators who opposed reform. How, you ask? Ever heard of Doctors Without Borders, where volunteer physicians and nurses visit foreign countries and set up clinics for poverty-stricken people? They volunteer their time, and supplies are usually donated by countries or medical or pharmaceutical companies. So, if Congressman Obstinate is being a jackass, maybe we set up a volunteer clinic in the poorest school in his district. Run it for a weekend and invite every television station in the area to come by and shoot footage. Meanwhile, this doctor or that nurse could go on camera to report how all these problems would be solved if only we had some form of health care reform. I could guarantee that if we did that a few times, Congressman Obstinate would change his tune! With any luck, we could bury AIP's involvement nice and deep and out of sight.
As the saying goes, politics ain't beanbag!
I spent the rest of the spring and summer overseeing AIP and traveling back and forth to the Middle East. Marilyn spent some time doing family matters, specifically getting Charlie and Megan married. The wedding would be in Elkhorn, Megan's hometown, and we flew out to see her family one weekend. John Pulaski was a successful lawyer, and was certainly able to pay for the wedding, but I insisted he allow me to pay for a portion for the hassles my attendance created. Specifically, as an ex-President and Special Envoy, I still had a sizable security contingent and requirements. It wasn't Megan's fault that her boyfriend's father needed Secret Service protection and all the disruption that entailed. The wedding would be at the local church, and the reception would be at a very nice country club. Otherwise we simply hung out for the weekend. Marilyn promised to help Barbara, who accepted of course. I told John not to be so thankful, and Marilyn slugged me in the arm.
The wedding was scheduled for the first weekend in September, and August was busy. Marilyn skipped out on my Middle Eastern trips for a couple of months, to help and/or hinder her family. Leaving aside the wedding, Charlie and Megan were moving out of the house in Georgetown and into a nice split-level they had bought in Laurel. I had told my son several times that if he thought he was old enough to get married, he was old enough to live on his own. Laurel worked out, since it was halfway between Washington and Baltimore, making it only a half hour's drive for Megan to the McRiley office and only a half hour's drive for Charlie to get to Baltimore Washington International.
Charlie looked as if he had reinvented himself yet again, this time as an announcer-commentator for ESPN. He had graduated from the motocross circuit to pretty much any oddball or dangerous sport. He still did motocross, but was now doing grand prix motorcycle, tractor pulls, extreme skiing and snowboarding, and a few other sports that looked either weird or insane. He would hook up with some local expert in the sport, which is how he got started. Most weekends he would be flying off somewhere, and then come back on the redeye Sunday night, racking up some serious frequent flyer miles. Weekdays he would work out of their studio and office in D.C.
Marilyn also had time to bug her daughters. Molly was with NASA at Goddard, working nights on a doctorate in engineering at College Park, and was quite happily married to Bucky. Marilyn occasionally spent the night in their spare bedroom. She also took a couple of trips up to Princeton to see Holly and see how she was doing. Marilyn didn't think Holly and Jerry were doing so great in the romance department. They were arguing about a number of different things, especially post graduation plans, which had them heading in opposite directions. I still thought he looked like a bum. Both girls would be in the wedding party, as were both of Megan's brothers, with various friends rounding out the group. I promised to be back in plenty of time for the nuptials.
The wedding went just fine, and Charlie and Megan borrowed the 650 for their honeymoon, but they didn't go to Hougomont. Now that I was no longer the President, my children didn't qualify for Secret Service protection, which suited them all just fine. However, as an ex-President, I still got protection, even if at a lower level, as did my residences. Charlie and Megan flew to Jackson Hole and spent a week at a very private resort ranch. I wondered about the weather in Wyoming in the fall, but was assured the days were nice and warm, though the nights were chilly enough to require snuggling. Megan giggled at that, and Charlie simply smiled.
The strangest thing that happened that fall was my birthday. November 5 was a Thursday, and Marilyn and I had spent the night before in Washington. Strangely, that morning, my wife told me that John McCain wanted me to come over for a few minutes. Normally he called me or my office with that sort of request. We went over to see him at 10:00. He greeted us both in the Oval Office, and had a very curious smile on his face. "I understand congratulations are in order, Carl. It's your birthday. How old are you?"
"Thank you, John. I'm 54. Why?" Something was going on. Marilyn was starting to grin.
"How's the knee?"
"Just fine. Thank you for asking."
"Working good? No pain? Able to exercise?", he pressed.
"Yes, just fine. I ran four miles this morning. Why? What's going on?", I replied.
"Marilyn was telling me that ever since you had your knee replaced you've been telling her that you were in as good a shape as when you were a paratrooper. I remember you saying something like that a few times, too, although you did say at the time that you couldn't run anymore."
"Uh, huh.", I answered slowly. "What are you two up to?!"
The President didn't answer me, but he did push a button on his phone and said, "Please send in my guests. Thank you."
I turned my head towards the door and a Secret Service agent opened it and ushered in two of the largest soldiers I had ever seen in my life. I didn't think they made uniforms that big, so they must have taken two sets and sewn them together! One was a sergeant major and one was a master sergeant, and both were in digital camo with Ranger tabs. They approached and came to attention.
"Gentlemen, at ease, please.", said John. I looked at him and he continued. "This young man has stated on numerous occasions that he thinks he is in such good shape that he could be a paratrooper again. I am not personally convinced of this, and neither is his beloved bride. For the next week he belongs to you. Bring him back, dead or alive. I'll leave the details up to you!"
I stared in disbelief at the others. "Excuse me?!"
"I figure this would be a good way to shut you up.", laughed my wife. "You'll love it! You're just a frustrated battery commander, you've told me that a million times."
"Thirty years ago!"
"Never say die, Carl.", replied McCain. "Are you up for the challenge, or are you never going to say it again?"
"This time next week I am going to parachute onto the South Lawn and you can all kiss my rosy red ass!", I replied. I glanced over at the two sergeants; they were looking at me like a pair of foxes with a key to the hen house. I turned back to my wife. "My birthday present is a week running around in the hills of Georgia? You don't want to know what you are getting next year!" She simply laughed.
"Gentlemen, he is all yours. Recruit Buckman, enjoy yourself!", added John.
In massive disbelief, I stood up and faced the two sergeants. They both gave an evil laugh, and saluted, and then escorted me from the Oval Office. From there we were driven over to Andrews, where a nondescript government turboprop was waiting to shuttle us off to Fort Benning, which was where the Rangers were based. Once we got out of the White House, they eased up a bit on me and gave me the agenda. Basically, once we reported in, I would be given a quick physical, be issued some boots and gear, and then do some quick training with a Ranger company. Once they were assured I wasn't going to keel over and die on them, which would be considered very bad publicity-wise, I would get a refresher course on jumping out of airplanes, and join in with a couple of jumps. In the vast amount of spare time this would allow, they also planned to have me participate in whatever else struck their fancy. At this point the evil laughs began again. My regular security detachment was left behind at Andrews.
Oh, brother! My wife was going to be my ex-wife when I got out of this!
It proved ... interesting. That was the least I could say to describe the next week. Other useful adjectives included exhausting, painful, non-stop, and illuminating. Throw in exhausting a few more times. Once I got to Benning I met with the colonel commanding the 75th Ranger Regiment, who then turned me over to the 3rd Ranger Battalion, who in turn gave me to Bravo Company. Every person I met seemed younger than the last, and they all looked younger than my children. It was pretty obvious by now that this must have been in the works for months! Everybody seemed to know why I was there, and I saw an awful lot of evil grins as they processed me through. The physical went fine, but the doctor insisted I wrap my knees with about a mile of Ace bandage. I received a full set of DCU uniforms, but without any rank badges; I had magically transformed from the Commander in Chief to a buck private! I was also provided with a set of birth control glasses, so this thing must have been in the works for weeks, if not months. I would be bunking with a young captain in a BOQ, the Bachelor Officer Quarters, and I suspected he was there to keep an eye on me and perform CPR as needed.
Friday was my first full day there, and I think they started somewhere around 0001. Thank God I was in decent shape going in, because I would have surely died otherwise. Running all over creation, calisthenics, a pleasant jog around an obstacle course, and then we got to do it all over again with rucksacks on. Sergeants yelled at us constantly, and I will forever treasure the phrase, "Perhaps the Recruit's performance will improve if he drops and gives me twenty!" If only the Recruit was still the Commander in Chief! Oh, and we kept going at all hours of the day, since Rangers fought all the time. Rangers lead the way! This particular Ranger was tail-end Charlie; he wasn't leading anybody!
I did not get any respite for the weekend, since it seemed Bravo Company had been primed and prepped for me. Amusingly, though, they concentrated on combat skills on Saturday and Sunday, and I held my own. I might have been the slowest guy at physical training, but I was still a crack shot with a pistol, and adequate with a rifle. Now I had to learn to fire an M-4 carbine and a Berretta 9 mm, but the M-4 had similar characteristics to the M-16 I had learned before, and I had occasionally fired the Berretta up at the range at Camp David. What really surprised them was hand-to-hand combat. I had been practicing martial arts at a relatively high level for 40 years, and more than one young Ranger found himself sitting in the sand wondering what in the hell had just happened to him. I even took the opportunity to teach them a little Krav Maga, and invited a couple of the kids to come at me with sheathed knifes. I put one down hard and took the knife away from the other and put it to his throat. After that, though, to celebrate my triumph, we all ran around some more, and I damn near collapsed all over again. One thing I noticed was that at least a couple of times a day a senior officer would show up and talk to the company commander, probably to make sure I hadn't secretly died on them.
Monday morning I went over to the Jump School area and was given a very quick and personal refresher course on jumping. This was the only part I was actually nervous about; a bad landing was how I fucked up my knee in the first place. Otherwise, the lessons brought forth memories that came rushing back, of hooking up the static line and standing in the door. I spent Tuesday practicing everything about jumping (and running all around, since it wasn't a good idea to let recruits get bored!) and I actually made a couple of jumps on Wednesday. It seemed as if I still was as graceful as a ruptured duck, but I made it to the ground in one piece.
Thursday it got very amusing. Since I hadn't died up to that point, there was exceedingly cautious optimism that Recruit Buckman would last another day. By now what was happening had made the news, and Fort Benning opened its gates and allowed cameras and reporters in. We got footage of me running and me fighting and me jumping, along with the young guys who didn't need an oxygen tank and a few extra pints of blood to make it through. I even did a few interviews, though I was sitting down at the time. By then I was too tired to stand.
Q: "How are you feeling?"
A: (Smiling) "I am beat! I am way too old for this! I don't know how these kids can do this!"
Q: "Is it true that your wife arranged this as a birthday present?"
A: "That would be my ex-wife you are referring to. Yes, she did, and if I ever escape from here she is in big trouble!"
Q: "What gave her the idea?"
A: "Me and my big mouth! For years after I left the Army because of my bad knee, I would tell her that I still met all the other requirements for being a paratrooper, and then, after I got a new knee, she decided on some payback. She could have just told me to shut up and saved us all a lot of trouble!"
Q: "And you can't quit now."
A: "I'd never hear the end of it!"
There were a lot of laughs at all of this, but then there was an interesting question, and I gave a fairly serious answer.
Q: "Could you have done the real Ranger School?"
A: "Now? Not a chance! Thirty years ago? Yeah, sure. I was young, tough, and cocky. If I had the opportunity, I would have either passed or died trying. The thing is, I probably wouldn't have gotten the chance. These guys are infantry, hard-core light infantry. I was artillery, and I really liked being in the artillery. I probably wouldn't have ever gone to Ranger School."
At that point another damn sergeant yelled for all of us, especially "the recruit", to get our butts off the ground and get moving again. Off we went for more fun and games!
Bravo Company took all of this with a great sense of humor, and the kids helped me a lot. They could have been assholes about the famous guy trying to be tough like them, but they didn't. I might not have been a real Ranger, but they didn't seem to hold it against me.
Friday was my 'graduation' and that was going to be a daytime Hollywood jump onto Fryar Drop Zone, where we were informed that cameras and reporters and other unspecified dignitaries were waiting for us. That was good. On the nights before we would jump they let us sleep about six hours. Before that it was maybe four. I woke to find that my uniform had been changed to that of a captain, with a Ranger tab sewn on the shoulder right above the patch for the 82 nd Airborne.
I found the captain commanding the company and quietly told him that I appreciated the gesture, but I sure hadn't qualified for the tab. He smiled and shook his head. "You earned it, sir. Most of these guys didn't think you'd make it past last Friday, let alone to today. I think you're right. If you had done this back in the day, you'd have made it."
"Or died trying."
"It counts either way, Captain. Now, get dressed. I am told there are camera crews waiting to watch you land. A bunch of politicians, too, I heard."
I laughed at that. "Oh, you are so naïve! They are waiting to see my chute fail! The politicians, too!"
"Rangers lead the way, sir!"
I laughed again. "Straight into a hole in the ground!"
I headed out to a delicious and nutritious breakfast of MREs (you just keep repeating, delicious-and-nutritious, delicious-and-nutritious, over and over until you believe it) with the rest of the men, and then we got prepped and headed over to Lawson Army Airfield, where we put on our jump gear, but not our camouflage face paint. "There's going to be lots of cameras and they want to see your lovely smiling faces!", we were told. On cue, everybody turned to look at me, and I just sighed and rolled my eyes. Then we waddled off to a C-130 and soared into the wild blue yonder.
We circled around Fryar for the longest time, and finally heard from the Air Force loadmaster that we were waiting for all the visitors and attendees to show up. "Face it, Captain, you're news! You'll get to watch this on television tonight."
"Sergeant, I plan on being asleep tonight. I might wake up next week."
He just laughed at that. About ten minutes later he signaled to the jumpmaster, who began issuing orders for all of us to get ready. We all stood and adjusted everything, and performed the ever critical ball check. Your chute straps go between your legs, and the absolutely worst thing that could happen was if you got your balls wedged up in the straps. Most paratroopers would rather get shot than have that happen! Everybody checks their own balls, but then we always check the gear for whoever is next to us. I was going to be the first out the door, so I checked the guy behind me, and both he and the jumpmaster checked me. Straight out of the book. Finally I was ordered, 'STANDBY', which earned me a blast of very cold wind in the face as I stood at the open door. Then the light changed from red to green, and he yelled, 'GO!' and I was out the door.
From everything I could see, the guy driving the Herky Bird had us spot on, and the winds seemed negligible. A quick glance backward showed a steady line of chutes billowing open, and then I faced forward and concentrated on a decent landing and not breaking my ass on my last day. I hit the ground and did the proper roll, and then popped to my feet and began collecting my chute. Once that was under control, I looked around. Everybody seemed to have made it to the ground, and I wasn't hearing any calls of 'MEDIC!', and over at the edge of the drop zone the spectator bleachers were packed.
We all managed to collect ourselves in the center of the drop zone, and stripped off our jump gear, which went into a couple of trucks that drove out to meet us. Then we all congratulated ourselves on surviving, and I thanked everybody, and shook a lot of hands. Then we all hiked over to the bleachers, where everybody cheered us. They had a small platform set up in front of it, with some chairs there, and some dignitaries. I really couldn't tell, but I had a sneaking suspicion my wife would be there, waiting on me, along with a bunch of generals.
As we headed towards the bleachers, around me I began to hear a lot of laughter, and a lot of the kids began congratulating me on not dying on them. I simply shook my head in embarrassment. I was too damn old for this foolishness, and I promised myself to never open my fat yap again.
As we went across the field, a young corporal came alongside and asked, "Captain, could I get a picture with you."
"Sure, Corporal. Somebody over there must have a camera."
"Cool! My grandfather has a picture of him meeting General Eisenhower the day before they jumped on D-Day. This would be really cool to show him!"
"Your grandfather jumped into Normandy?", I asked.
"Damn, those were some tough bastards! Still, he met a general. I'm just a retired captain these days."
"You're both Presidents!"
I had to laugh at that. "Well, let's go see what kind of foolishness they have going on, and then we can get your picture. I'll be the guy on the ground sleeping."
Everybody around us was laughing at that, but as we approached the platform, a loud murmur started. Then I heard a sergeant with good eyesight exclaim, "Holy shit! It's the President!" I looked over at him, and he was pointing. "Not you, sir! It's President McCain!"
I looked over and could now clearly see Marilyn standing next to somebody who looked a lot like my boss. "Great! I get to have a heart attack in front of my wife and my boss, and probably on national television!" I looked over at the corporal whose grandfather had jumped into Normandy. "Hang around, Corporal. You can show your grandfather a photo of you with two Presidents. That will beat his one."
"Awesome.", I laughed. We all marched over to the platform and took position in ranks, with me in my designated slot in the back. I had earned that by my performance on the obstacle course. Let's just say that I finished, and leave it at that.
The first speaker was the commanding general of the XVIII Airborne Corps, who looked around at us, and then glanced over at the President and said something to him out of range of the microphone. Then he turned back to us and asked, "First things first, is Captain Buckman here, or did we lose him somewhere along the way?" There was a lot of laughter at that, and I held up my hand and smiled sheepishly. The general said, "Well, there is somebody up here with a lot more rank than me who wants you front and center, Captain."
I moved around the ranks and was motioned towards the stairs to the platform. I figured he was referring to the President, but it turned out Marilyn was waiting, and when I climbed up the stairs she wrapped me in a tight hug that got a lot of cheers from the men. I disentangled myself and shook hands with the others. I noticed that Cindy McCain was seated next to Marilyn's seat, and I waved to her. At that both the general, the commander of the 75 th, and the President made a few remarks about the wonders of the Rangers, and how they were able to cope with all sorts of disasters and burdens – like me! Great! Then I was asked to speak.
"First, let me say that this has been the most amazing week of my life. When Marilyn and the President told me what my birthday present was going to be, I simply didn't believe it. The chance to go back to when I was a kid, and do it all over again, that really is a dream come true. I want to thank everybody who had anything to do with this, but most especially I want to thank the men of Bravo Company for putting up with me. Now you guys can throw away the oxygen tanks and defibrillators you've been carrying around all week. You may all trust that I will never, ever, EVER, say again how I think I can still be a paratrooper!"
That got a fair bit of laughter. I also said a few other nice things about them and their capabilities, figuring this might end up on the news that evening, and the Rangers really are excellent infantry.
"Finally, I'd like to thank the two people who managed to set this all in motion, Marilyn Buckman and John McCain. I don't know how I will ever repay the kindness you have shown me, but you should trust that it will be repaid, in spades! Cindy, I happen to know a certain Navy captain who is just dying to repeat a parachute ride he once took, so I am buying him an ejection seat for his next birthday. And Marilyn, Marilyn, Marilyn ... I just don't know how I am going to thank you, but I'll think of something!"
John McCain gave a look of horror at the mention of an ejection seat but our wives simply laughed, as did everybody else. Afterwards, I shook everybody's hand again, and then John and I went down to the ground and I introduced him and we took pictures with a lot of the guys, including that corporal.
I took a truck ride back with the men to the barracks for a quick shower and to grab whatever gear was mine, which wasn't much. Then I was taken over to Lawson and caught a lift back to D.C. in Air Force One. I slept the entire flight.
I did see some of this on the news that evening and the Sunday talk shows that weekend. Most of the networks treated this with a fair bit of humor. Several commentators called me the 'most personally lethal President since... ' and then argued over how far back we had to go to find another killer politician. Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt were mentioned. One amusing moment came when Fox interviewed a few of the Rangers who had been in the company, and one was quoted as calling me, 'As mean as a snake and twice as nasty!', which was considered high praise among the Rangers. On the other hand, MSNBC did an interview with James Carville, the long time attack dog for the Clintons, who denounced it as ' ... a multi-million-dollar publicity stunt for a couple of plutocrats. If John McCain and Carl Buckman want to play soldier, they can buy their own armies, and not waste taxpayer dollars using America's soldiers!' If that wasn't a declaration of war by Hillary Clinton, in preparation for 2012, I didn't know what was.
I took a week's vacation after we got home, and Marilyn, Stormy, and I flew down to Hougomont so I could lie around and goof off. I did start repaying Marilyn back for the stunt she had pulled, but she didn't seem to mind the punishment. Now that the Secret Service was no longer hanging around the house (they were stationed at the entrance and at each end of the property) Marilyn was able to work on her all-over tan without worrying we would be interrupted. I concentrated on applying sun block as needed. It reminded me of times back when we were in our twenties.
I made one more Middle Eastern trip before Christmas and then came home. Christmas was at Hereford, and the kids came home. Holly came without Jerry, and the bloom was definitely off that rose. Marilyn told me later that he had moved out when the lease was up on their apartment. Good riddance, Mister Spicoli.
I got my revenge on Marilyn right after the New Year. I told her we were taking a small vacation and it was a surprise. We flew out to Los Angeles and took a limo to a place called the California Health and Longevity Institute. When Marilyn asked if this was a resort, I smiled and said "Sort of." She wasn't smiling five minutes later, when we were ushered into an office and she discovered the place was a 'fat farm, ' a spa that specialized in helping very wealthy people shed a few pounds. They promised an all vegetarian, all natural, all organic, no alcohol, no drugs, stay with lots of healthy exercise. My wife stewed at me, and I just looked innocent and replied, "You told me you wanted to lose five pounds." That earned me a quiet shriek and a glare, so I simply smiled and left. I spent the week in California meeting some friends and driving the golf cart while they played bad golf.
To be fair, Marilyn wasn't really fat. She had gained a few pounds over the years, and didn't exercise enough, but the top and bottom measurements were still bigger than the middle, and she wasn't suffering from the myriad weight-related health problems she had on our first go. She would never be what anybody would call svelte, but I preferred a lady with a little padding, some cushion for the pushin' as they say. On the first go by this time we had both been well over two hundred pounds. These days I ran about 195 and she ran about 145, and a very nice 145 it was, too!
I returned a week later and was happy with the result. In addition to being an appropriate revenge, my wife had shed the five pounds, gotten a new haircut, done the pampered spa treatment, and picked up some new items for the wardrobe. Of course, the first thing we did was go out to a steakhouse and get a real meal and a few drinks. After that, she punished me quite differently back at the hotel. It was a very interesting night!