Road Trip, Part V

Morning began to make its appearance at Wind Cave National Park and I did my best to ignore it.  I awoke several times and several times I buried my head in my blankets and returned to the bliss of dreamless sleep.  Probably I just didn’t want to face the fact that this would be the last day of my vacation and sleeping was as good a way to ignore that prospect as any other that I could think of.  Not that I ever needed much of a reason to sleep late; I have never been a morning person and until the day I die I never will be.  At last, however, consciousness cautiously returned to me and this time it was accompanied by the smell of coffee.  That was all that was required to make consciousness stick around this time.

Brad had brewed the coffee before Ginny had crawled out from under her blankets, so we sat at the camp table and sipped from our cups while doing what most brothers do everywhere, I think.  We spoke of everything and nothing, and just enjoyed the closeness of a relationship that is unlike any other; not better, just different.  I am certain that sisters experience something very much like it, but different in its own way.  We emptied the pot and set another on to perc, sipping the final few swallows and enjoying the quietness of the campground on a midweek morning.

Ginny rolled out of the camper just as the percolating bubbles in the second pot turned a rich brown and poured herself a cup.  She joined us on the bench seat of the table and mostly listened to our rambling conversation, adding a bit here or there whenever we stopped to take a breath or a sip.  The chatter slowly died away and finally we were all three staring glumly into our cups.  It was Ginny who finally took the bull by the horns.  “I guess I’d better get breakfast going.  You’re going to want to make some distance today” she said.  “I think I’m just going to plow through all the way” I replied.  “I want to get this leak business off of my back”.  Ginny told me that I was crazy but Brad knew what I was thinking.  When we were young and would accompany our parents on their vacations back to the South (they were no vacations for us), Dad would pack at night and leave San Diego at about two in the morning.  He would then proceed to drive non-stop until we reached central Texas, or about thirty six hours.  After eating and sleeping he would wake us up early again and do the same thing until we pulled into Georgia.  Dad wanted to make the most of his month.  Brad knew that I was about to do the same thing.

Ginny just shook her head and went about the business of preparing the ham and eggs and potatoes we had picked up in Rapid City on our way back from Phillip the day before.  She crammed as much into the skillets as they would hold, and we soon sat down to a substantial breakfast.  After slowly eating my share I offered to help clean up, but Brad knew that I had to quit procrastinating and get started.  He helped me pack my gear, which took all of about five minutes, and then we stood mutely looking at one another.

“Well, I’d better get this show on the road” I said, and Brad agreed and stepped forward to give me a big hug.  Hugging had become popular in California while I was away and I still wasn’t used to it.  I gave it my best shot however and then shook his hand in the familiar old way.  Then Ginny stepped up to give me a hug as well.  This seemed really weird, as hugging my brother’s wife was something I just wouldn’t dream of doing.  Ginny sensed my awkwardness and just hugged me harder, then stepped back and laughed at my reddening face.  We all chuckled for a moment and then I knew that the time had come.  I climbed into my leaking metal stallion, fired it up, gave a last wave, and pointed the nose of that Mercury down the lane towards the highway and home.

Away from home, actually.  The straightest, flattest route to San Diego led east and north, back through Rapid City, then north around the Black Hills to lead, Wyoming, and then south, straight as an arrow.  I gassed up in Rapid City and topped off the transmission fluid, and then crawled from stoplight to stoplight until the north end of town gave way to the endless plains.  As I rolled along at just five miles per hour over the speed limit my mind ranged freely, thinking about Chief and Strawberry, Alex and Rob who were still in Vietnam.  I thought about Diane, the girl who I thought was the prettiest in the neighborhood when I was younger and who was now an adult and still the prettiest girl in the neighborhood, and a friend.  I wondered if anything more might ever come of that.  College, a job, things I enjoyed during my childhood and childhood hurts that had never been addressed also took their turn on the stage of my mind.  Bullies whom I finally punched out.  Put-downs that I finally turned the tables on with a well-placed rejoinder.  What it would be like to be a hero; what it was like to be the goat.

This running mental drama of what had been, now was, and might yet be played on as I passed through Lead and began the long southward leg of my return.  Lead, Wyoming, is such a spectacular town that I have completely forgotten what it looked like.  That shouldn’t be held against lead however.  I was on a mission to get home before the Mercury puked a wad of rings and gears in the middle of the road and died in a cloud of blue smoke.  As I drove steadily southward I recalled a game which I used to play on our long trips to Georgia and Kentucky.  I would estimate the miles to some physical feature on the horizon and see how close I could come to the correct guess.  Five, eight, sometimes ten miles would be gobbled up in that manner.  A form of hypnosis set in and it was almost a surprise when I rolled into Cheyenne Wyoming, to gas up, top off the transmission, buy a soda and some chips, and resume my journey south.

Shortly after leaving Cheyenne I crossed the border into Colorado.  That crossing felt good; it felt like progress was being made.  Colorado shares a border with Arizona, which shares a border with California.  It was like I was almost home already!  Well, not really.  The highway continued on and on, across the grasslands of Colorado with the Rocky Mountains rising up on my right and the endless plains extending out in every other direction.  I grew weary of my estimation game and my mental activity slowed to what was necessary to keep the car at seventy miles per hour and pointed in the right direction.  Fort Collins, Denver, and finally, as the day was slipping into evening, I pulled into a parking space in front of a Denny’s in Colorado Springs.

I had been hungry for a while but was loathe to stop.  San Diego was still an enormous distance to the west and south and I wanted very much to get there.  The stomach makes its demands known however, so into the Denny’s I went.  My legs were a little shaky as I emerged from the car and I went straight to the restroom, mostly to stretch those cramped limbs and splash some water on my face.  I sat at the counter and ordered a patty melt with fries and coffee.  I don’t really remember ordering that particular dish, but that’s all I ever ordered at Denny’s, so it’s a good bet that that was exactly what I ordered.  I ate quickly, as I usually do anyways, and paid ahead of time so that I could simply get up and leave when I was through.  As I exited the restaurant I saw that the sun had set below the mountains to the west.  The Rockies are a very high range of mountains however so I knew that I would have a good bit of light left in the day.  I also knew that darkness would inexorably arrive and that I was faced with the long, lonely night and the duel with sleepiness that would begin in the not-too-distant future.  I fired up the Mercury, addressed my fuel and fluid needs, and once again headed south.

The monotony of the featureless drive put me once again in a reverie.  Occasional radio reception broke the silence, but usually it was country and western which I decidedly did not like.  I would hang on it, and local news too, for any kind of blessed diversion, but eventually it would crackle into static-y silence.  Soon I would once again be alone with my thoughts and the increasing darkness.  The darkness was finally complete somewhere between Pueblo and Trinidad.

I was not too tired but knew that I would be struggling in a few hours.  The nearness of the border between New Mexico and Colorado was calling.  I knew that a good many hours after I crossed that border I would would finally turn west, and that thought gave me a boost of energy.  I played with the radio dial and tried to keep my mind clear.  At some point close to midnight I thought I picked up Wolfman Jack a few miles north of Raton Pass, but it faded quickly and I finally just turned the radio off.

At last, the border!  “Welcome to New Mexico”.  The yellow sun with the red rays emanating from it that is the New Mexico emblem warmed my heart as I sailed through Raton Pass towards the town also called Raton.  I pulled into that town, which was mostly fast asleep at that hour, to get gas and top off the transmission and fill a thermos with coffee.  It was going to be a long night.  I drove a short way through town and finally turned onto the southbound lanes of the highway.  And that’s where I saw Ben.

Ben was standing by the side of the road with a small bag at his feet and his thumb stuck out.  Hitchhiking was common in those days and serial murderers were not, so I pulled over to give Ben a ride.  He climbed into the passenger side, said “thanks”, and closed the door.  That was it.  “Where’r you going” I asked.  “Laguna” was his one-word reply.  “Laguna Mountains”  I asked, it being the only Laguna anything which came immediately to mind.  “Laguna Pueblo” he said.  It turned out that the way home for him lay south to Albuquerque, then about forty miles west.  I had intended to drive to Los Cruces and turn west there, but I could turn at Albuquerque just as well and agreed on the spot to do just that.

We talked a little as we barreled through the northern New Mexico darkness; through country I would later come to know well and love even more than well in future years.  Actually it was mostly me that talked, but Ben did share a little of himself.  He was from Laguna Pueblo, a Native American tribe which has existed for hundreds and perhaps even a thousand years or more, depending upon which anthropologist you ask.  Ben said that they had been there forever, and I suppose he was as much an expert on Laguna history as anyone.  Ben was in the Army and stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado.  He was going home to participate in some holy days at the Pueblo.  “I would invite you to enjoy my family’s hospitality” he said, “but these particular ceremonies are closed to all but the Laguna”  I thanked him for the thought, but explained that I was in a bit of a hurry to get home myself.

It was about two in the morning and we were approaching Las Vegas when a thought occurred to me.  “You drive” I asked?  “Sure.  You want me to take a turn”?  I jumped on that offer and we soon pulled into a gas station on the northern outskirts of town.  The gas wasn’t that low but I topped it off and the transmission fluid too, and then climbed into the passenger seat as Ben took the wheel.  Ben pulled back onto the road and I leaned into the corner where the seat back met the door window and, like any ex soldier who learned to catch sleep whenever the opportunity presented, I was soon out like a light.

The lights came back on when Ben pulled into the town of Bernalillo north of Albuquerque for gas.  I saw that the new day was making a strong showing behind the Sandia Mountains to the east.  We took on gas and I checked the transmission.  It had dropped considerably since the last stop.  I asked Ben if he would let me buy him breakfast for letting me sleep, but he insisted on buying breakfast for me for giving him a ride.  Bernalillo is not excessively far from Laguna and Ben was familiar with the place.  He knew where a hole-in-the-wall takeout place was and  ordered a couple of breakfast burritos there, something I had never heard of before, and we were soon on our way again.  “I told them to go easy on you” he said.  I had no idea what he was talking about until I bit into my burrito and began to chew.  And sweat.  The spicy sauce lit my mouth and insides on fire but it was a strangely pleasant burn.  “You stay here long enough and you can eat it a lot hotter than that” he said, laughing at the changes of color that were going on in my face.  He didn’t tell me that my breakfast would be even hotter coming out than it was going in.

We were hardly finished with our burritos before we turned west in central Albuquerque and began the last leg of Ben’s journey. Soon we were climbing onto the high mesa west of the city, crossing the Rio Puerco and at last came to the turnoff which led to Laguna Pueblo.  Ben pulled over and set the handbrake.  I looked up the dirt road which stretched out from the passenger side window and followed it with my eyes as it meandered away up small hills and around gullies, sometimes disappearing around a curve, and always reappearing higher up as it climbed the hill upon which Laguna Pueblo is perched.

Laguna Pueblo is a collection of adobe structures, mostly brown and mostly multistory, with hardly a right angle to be found anywhere in the community.  Even from where I sat I could see that the buildings were not planned on a geometric basis, unless the geometrician had indulged in way too much alcohol before planning this town.  The whole place seemed like it was stuck to the crown and upper sides of that hill with a thin cement and could begin to ooze down the hillside at any moment.  The fact is that the Pueblo has been in that location for at least four hundred years and probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.  I couldn’t see any people moving about but there was no doubt that the community was already a hive of activity, getting ready for the ceremonies and festivities to which Ben alluded.

“I could give you a ride up the hill” I offered.  “No thanks.  I walked away from home and I want to walk back into it.”  I vaguely understood what Ben was saying.  I shook his hand and wished him well, and then I was back on the road headed west.  I felt moved by Ben’s approach to his homecoming.  it was more to him than “Hi Mom, I’m home”.  Ben was rejoining a community which spanned centuries and generations.  He was returning to resume, for a short while, a role that only he could play, and the community would be more whole because of it.  How Ben had left mattered, and how he returned mattered too.  I thought about all of this as I sped west on the asphalt ribbon which threaded its way between red rock mesas and the lonely train tracks and decided that I, too, should make it matter when I walked back into my home.

 

Road Trip, Part IV

Next morning we were up early because we looked forward to a long day of exploring.  Brad was up and had the coffee going before much more than a hazy zone of gray began eating into the carpet of stars over against the eastern horizon, signifying the advance of the sun from its nocturnal hiding place.  I have never liked rising early and to this day consider it an affront that most of the world likes to get going before ten in the morning.  Good coffee made with water from a snow-melt driven stream and the prospect of exploring new territory were, however, inducement enough to pry me from my cozy cot.  I huddled close to the fire to sip my hot, black liquid incentive mostly in silence while Brad puttered around the camp putting things in place for Ginny’s anticipated appearance. Ginny was not long in emerging.  She looked even more pretty than she usually did on this morning; a fact which I ascribed to her love of the mountains the joy at having a basket full of clean clothes, and having taken a shower the evening before.  Ginny was on full-auto when she got out of the camper; all business about getting breakfast on the table and getting back on the road.  Brad made sausage patties while I peeled potatoes.  Ginny heated up the skillets and set the camp table, and soon we had a decent breakfast before us.  Brad and I could eat a truckload of sausage and eggs and potatoes each, so we significantly toned down our intake due to our smallish cooking utensils which were tailored to fit on the Coleman camp stove.  Brad and I cleaned up while Ginny bagged up chips and nuts and other snacks to nibble on while we drove.  The sun was just peeking over the horizon when we all piled into the Mercury to begin our day’s exploring. All of us were primed to see ‘bufflers’.  None of us had ever seen such a creature although all of us had read about them.  At that time bison were just beginning to be shepherded back from the edge of extinction, and so it was a rare opportunity to see one in the wild.  Brad drove so that Ginny and I could devote ourselves exclusively to seeking our almost mythic quarry.  The bison were not immediately forthcoming however.  We craned our necks to see around every curve in the road, but all there was to see was the beautiful scenery of the Black Hills.  Poor us!  Once Brad hollered out “Bufflers!”  Ginny and I looked quickly towards where Brad was pointing but it turned out that Brad was only pointing towards a group of generously-sized tourists.  Ginny hit Brad on the arm but smiled at his joke, and it was as their horseplay was going on that we rolled around a curve and found ourselves nearly face to face with a small herd of bison. I don’t believe there were more than twenty five or thirty of them, but just one would have been breathtaking enough.  The beast closest to us must have been a male, as he towered over the four or five animals nearest to him.  Short horns emerged from a thick, shaggy  carpet of curly brown fur that covered that patriarch of the plains.  We stopped to get a better look and were glad that a fence separated us from him.  The bison’s huge head hung low, hunched between great shoulders in the front of his massive body, which was highlighted by a huge hump which rose up from his back just behind the neck.  It is said that a male bison can weigh up to two thousand pounds, and I believe that this placidly grazing giant weighed every pound of that. I stared at this wonderful creature and thought of the horrifying travesty which nearly led to the extinction of his kind.  American and European ‘sportsmen’ and ‘hunters’ cut those animals down by the hundreds of thousands every year until they were nearly gone from the earth.  Partly this was for their hides or because their bones, collected after the animals rotted on the plains, were ground into fertilizer; partly it was to clear the land of competition for cattle being raised for the eastern market, and partly it was to deny sustenance to the North American Indians who were being subjected to the same project of extinction as was the bison.  My stomach was churning as I looked at that king of the prairie, just as it is churning now by simply remembering the glory of that old fellow and the immoral obscenity that his near extinction represents.  I believe that we still owe a measure of restitution to the bison for the evil that was visited upon them, and to those who depended upon them as well. More pleasant were my thoughts of the Native Americans who really did hunt the bison and used every part of him but the deep grunt that is his voice.  It is hard to imagine riding on horseback into a stampeding herd of hundreds if not thousands of one and two thousand pound animals running at forty miles per hour with no more than a bow and arrows to bring them down.  Even more impressive is the knowledge that before the Spanish introduced horses into the plains these hunts were conducted on foot.  That is not an experience that I would like to ever have to participate in! We watched for a long while as the star of the show grunted softly and chewed the sweet spring grass that was deep on the plains floor, but eventually climbed back into the Mercury and soon were speeding along to our next stop; the Badlands of South Dakota.  Everyone who has ever read a drugstore western paperback novel knows about the Badlands.  They are a maze of canyons winding through a deeply eroded landscape which is barren, sporting only occasional scrubby growth which not even a goat would find palatable.  Infrequent springs of water pop up in these inhospitable ravines and box canyons, and the Native Americans and hardier Anglo Americans knew which ones were bitter and non-potable alkali pools and which would support life.  A small band of Indians or an outlaw or two on the run could hole up in there for a good long while, while the cavalry or a posse would either give up the chase or die of thirst lost in the labyrinth of the Badlands. We drove through on the upland rim of the badlands and would walk on the tops of spurs which would jut out into the tortured hills and valleys.  From observation sites we could look out over the mile after mile of white, chalky terrain, and occasionally hike down a steep trail into the depths of the Badlands.  We never did see a spring, alkali or otherwise, and the area seemed to be devoid of life although the plaques and information boards at the observation sites assured us that life maintained a fragile toehold even in that God-forsaken geography. After a couple of hours of enjoying the Badlands our stomachs began to growl, reminding us of the relatively small breakfast we had enjoyed many hours earlier.  The nearest town to the Badlands is Phillip, South Dakota, and to Phillip we drove in order to find some good country cooking, and that is exactly what we did find.  Even forty five years later I remember the open face roast beef sandwich that I was served; at least half of a cow on a slab of bread with enough mashed potatoes to ski down, all covered with at least a bucketful of rich brown gravy.  I know I gained three pounds in one sitting. Brad and I plowed through the feast that we had been given and even petite Ginny did justice to her portion, and as I sipped the last of my Coke and Ginny and Brad their tea and coffee the pretty young waitress, a college student on summer break, brought us the ticket for the meal and smiled her nicest smile.  Brad reached to take the ticket before I could get it, something we do to this day, and noticed that there was something written on the back.  Peering closely he saw that it was the name and phone number of the waitress.  I thought it odd that she should do that, with Brad obviously sitting next to Ginny opposite myself in that booth, but then I didn’t give it too much thought beyond that.  Brad always was able to navigate relationships with the fairer sex and I was most assuredly not, so I was accustomed to seeing things like that happen. I was always extremely shy when I was young and a bit of that remains to this day, although my friends might not normally be able to see it.  I could not bring myself to indicate to a girl that I had a romantic interest in her lest she decline my advance, which would produce in me the same heart pain that another person might feel at the breakup of a mature relationship, not that I had any idea what such a relationship or breakup would feel like since I had never experienced either.  Still, I knew that it would be paralyzingly painful and as much as I wanted to try, I could never seem to work up the courage to do so until my sixteenth year.  I was in the eleventh grade when I summoned the courage to ask a girl to go with me to a dance.  To my delight and astonishment she said “Yes”.  We hung out together that night and a true boyfriend/girlfriend relationship bloomed.  I loved that time. Patty, a delightful girl from San Diego who had just returned from Texas, where she had lived for a while with relatives, had a soft Texas drawl and was, I thought, the prettiest girl in the world.  For the next couple of months we went to parties or movies or to dinner, and whenever possible made out in the isolated darkness atop the hill in the Del Cerro neighborhood of San Diego. After a couple of months however Patty’s interest in me waned and seemed to orient towards Walter, my best friend, whom she met at a party with me.  Walter was a good friend and would not reciprocate her affections, but it was clear in spite of my attempts to reverse the tide that Patty no longer cared to be in a romantic relationship with me.  It was like a hot knife had been plunged deep into my gut.  I would not attempt any such relationship again for another six years.  The upshot of this sad story is that the possibility that this vital information regarding the pretty young waitress in Phillip, South Dakota, might be intended for me was in my mind such a remote possibility that it did not register on my radar at all.  It was many years later, while daydreaming on a lazy afternoon, that the truth of that event exploded into my mind.  I couldn’t have been more clueless on that day if I had been a rock.  I tried to snatch the ticket away from Brad but he eluded my grasp, and I settled for leaving the tip, or ‘picking up the table’ as we call it.  I am certain that the pretty young waitress was convinced that she had met the biggest loser in the western United States, and, romantically speaking at least, she was right. We had intended to go on to the capitol of South Dakota at Pierre, but at the edge of Phillip we stopped again for gas and again the transmission fluid was low, and this time a little bit lower than it had dropped before.  Brad said that it was still not a problem, but I was beginning to be sensible of the fourteen hundred miles which separated my leaking Mercury from the mechanics I knew and trusted in San Diego.  We decided to cut the day short and return to Wind Cave.  I bought a case of transmission fluid and the special long-necked funnel needed to insert it into where it was supposed to go and we took the straightest route we could find back to our camp in the Black Hills. That evening, as we smoked a couple of joints and quaffed a six pack or two after dinner, I shared my intention to rise early the next morning and begin my journey back to San Diego.  Brad insisted on accompanying me but I insisted with equal or greater force that he and Ginny should continue on their vacation.  They had planned this trip long before I returned from Vietnam and I reasoned that if I survived two years of war I could probably manage a solitary trip back to San Diego.  Brad finally agreed and I know that Ginny, whom I was growing to like very much, was worried for me but glad that their trip would continue.  We had only eaten soup and sandwiches that evening as it would take a four month hibernation to properly digest the inexcusable piles of food that we had slammed down for lunch, and we bedded down after showers to enjoy our last night together on this road trip.

Goodbye, Mr. Phelps

I read in the news today that Fred Phelps, founder of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, is close to death.  Westboro Baptist, if you have not heard of them, is extremely opposed to homosexual people and anyone else who varies from the heterosexual norm.  I looked at their website and discovered not only that “God Hates Fags” but also “God Hates Islam”, “God Hates The Media”, “Jews Killed Jesus”, etc., etc.  Reading their homepage I was reminded of a quote, I believe it was by Anne Lamotte, that goes “It’s a sure sign that you have created God in your own image when he hates the same people that you do”.  If Anne didn’t actually say that, it sounds like something that she would have.  I believe that Wesboro Baptist is as clear an example of that quote as can possibly be found.  My intention in writing this article is not to bash Westboro however.  As much as it pains me to see the word ‘church’ llnked with the positions and actions of that group of people I will have to let a complete rejection and denunciation of same await another day.  Westboro founder Fred Phelps is near death, and I am writing to grieve that fact.

What was that?  How can I mourn the passing of such a perversion of the Christian faith?  Don’t I know that Fred Phelps and his followers picket at funerals for fallen American servicemen, condemning their service to a “fag loving nation” and celebrating the fact that they were killed?  Yes, I know all of that.  I have been told that they are a very small congregation and make the majority of their income by provoking outraged mourners into punching them out and then suing them.  It is very unlikely that I will be relocating to Topeka any time soon and applying for membership at Westboro Baptist Church.  I’m certain that I don’t know the half of their positions and activities and that I would be in danger of losing my breakfast if I did.  Nevertheless, I still read of the predicted demise of Mr. Phelps in the near future and I mourn.

Death, you see, is not natural.  Death is much more of a perversion of nature than is anything or anyone targeted by the Westboro bunch.  Death was not created at the same time that life was.  Life and the universe and everything in the universe was created and it was declared to be good; very good in fact.  It was not until sin corrupted humankind that death entered into the universe; that death became the reality that has now attained a level of certainty that is equal to that of taxation.  Death is the foundation of a universe which is still awaiting restoration by it’s Creator, and I cannot bring myself to rejoice over any evidence that rebellion still rules and restoration and reconciliation are not yet accomplished.

Mr. Phelps is a person created in the imago Dei, the image of God.  God had a plan for Mr. Phelps that would have blessed him greatly, and that through him the world would have been blessed greatly too.  Mr. Phelps did not follow that plan and the world has suffered for it, but the fact remains that within the core being of Mr. Phelps there is a man made to love God and love his neighbor; a man who loves peace, kindness, forgiveness, gentleness and humility among other godly virtues.  For reasons I don’t know Mr. Phelps was bent and twisted into a person filled instead nearly to the top with hate and unforgiveness, strife and pride.

But before I pick up and throw the first stone I must examine myself.  Do I hate?  Yes, I do.  Do I lust and have I, as Jimmy Carter once famously put it, “committed adultery in my heart”?  Again, the answer is yes.  Have I lied?  Cheated?  Gossiped?  Slandered?  Uh-huh, all of the above.  That being the case, how can I measure up to the qualification that “He who is without sin cast the first stone”?  I can oppose everything that Mr. Phelps seems to have stood for, but I cannot with a clear conscience celebrate his or anyone else’s death.

Mr. Phelps is very certain that a small number of people, mostly just like him, are going to ‘get in’ to heaven.  Fags and ‘Fag Enablers’ are just a few of the vast bulk of humanity who will not ‘get in’ because God hates them.  The news that will come as a shock to Mr. Phelps is that God is not hate, and God does not hate.  1 John 4:8 says “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love”.  Love and hate can no more coexist than can light and dark, matter and antimatter, the Seahawks and the 49rs.  God very much loves Fags, Muslims, people described by The N Word, and even white trash like me.  Of course, that’s a blade that cuts both ways.  God loves Mr. Phelps too.  It seems that nobody is destined to be happy here.

So Mr. Phelps now lies on his deathbed, afflicted with some unknown disease and preparing to meet his God.  All of this was not supposed to happen.  Mr. Phelps was never supposed to die.  Mr Phelps was not supposed to hate and lead others into hatred.  Mr Phelps was not supposed to cause anguish and grief among the objects of his hatred.  In short, Mr Phelps was a beautiful creature made in the image of God and loved by God who was twisted into a monstrosity by sin and will soon die an unnatural (they all are) death.  And for that I grieve.

Road Trip, Part III

Once again the sun rose up out of the vastness of the Nebraska plains to flood its warming light over Ash Hollow.  On this particular morning however it rose up by itself, at least as far as we were concerned.  The distance remaining between us and our first real destination, Wind Cave National Park, was not all that great so we felt justified in sleeping in.  I had been awake but lying on my cot for a short while when I heard the camper door creak open and Brad poked his head out to see if I was stirring.  I stuck a hand out from under my blankets to signal that I was awake and Brad’s head retreated into the camper.  I climbed up off of my cot and once again put on yesterday’s shirt.  In a few minutes Brad reemerged with our wire contraption and we stirred a fire back up from the embers of the previous night’s blaze.  A pot of coffee was quickly brewed.

Brad and I sat in lawn chairs which we had left out since the night before and yakked softly while we sipped our strong black coffee.  The mosquitos were mercifully fewer than they had been the last evening and the sun quickly took the chill of the night off of the air in the shade underneath the cottonwood trees.  The spring grass was reaching skyward on the rolling hills which surround the Hollow and the smell of fertile nature was a perfume which will make a traveller giddy if he will only stop long enough to smell it.  Ginny came crawling out dressed but sleepy-eyed as we put the second pot of coffee on to percolate.  I asked if she wanted for me to cook again but she shook her head and made some lame excuse about how I didn’t do eggs right and cooked my potatoes with the skins still on and blah blah blah.  Brad laughed and said “I suppose you think we should eat at a restaurant this morning.”  “I didn’t say that” Ginny protested.  “I just think I want things made the right way today.”  Ginny gave me a sly wink which I uncharacteristically caught onto right away.  “I don’t have any objection to eating at a restaurant today” I replied.  “It may be the only way that I can have a meal without burnt toast”.  Ginny’s mouth dropped open and she lobbed a potato at me – not to hard though – which I caught and lobbed back at her.  We both laughed at the same time and Brad said “OK, I can see which way this is going.  Let’s saddle up and see what we can find in town”.

Saddle up we did and within a few miles we crossed the North Platte River and entered the beautiful prairie town of Oshkosh, Nebraska.  We found a little cafe just off of Highway 385 with a sign over it with big black letters on a white field that simply said “EAT’.  How does one turn down an invitation such as that?  We pulled into parking spaces right in front of the cafe, which meant that either the breakfast rush was over or this was a terrible place to EAT.  We didn’t really care either way and pulled open the big front door.  Inside was the usual counter, a main dining room with about ten tables and a side room with seven or eight tables more. In a corner of the side room sat a group of four old men with plaid shirts, bolo ties, and the brown, leathery skin of people who have worked their entire lives wresting a living out of a fertile soil but a fickle environment that will bless your hard work one year but lay waste to that effort the next year with a late frost or too much or too little rain or any of a depressingly long list of calamities endemic to the life of a farmer or rancher.  We were certain that they were solving all of the local problems and a good many of the world’s too.

Brad and I took our places in a booth right next to the front window while Ginny went straight to the bathroom to clean up a little before eating.  Brad and I would take our turns when Ginny rejoined us.  We ordered coffee, which turned out to be better than anything we could brew in camp, and then ordered our breakfasts.  Ginny had already told Brad what she wanted so that we could keep things moving.  I had my usual breakfast of kings:  scrambled eggs, patty sausage, hash browned potatoes with two bowls of country gravy and four pieces of toast.  I had been out of the Army for a little over two weeks at this point and was already beginning to add weight to the 132 pounds that I brought home from Vietnam.  I have no idea what Brad and Ginny ate; I was much too focused on my own small mountain of grease which went quickly and effortlessly down the hatch.  Every morsel of it.

We settled up with the waitress and returned to our vehicles.  The plan had been to get a campsite at Wind Cave and then go and do laundry in Rapid City, but we decided instead to do the laundry in Oshkosh, so we found a laundromat and set our clothes and their sheets and blankets to sloshing and spinning and drying while we took turns walking in downtown Oshkosh.  My turn was first and I fell in love with the place.  Old buildings built at the end of the nineteenth or beginning of the twentieth centuries lined Main Street.  The buildings were mostly brick and sported dates of construction on a cornerstone or the keystone of an arch.  Big front windows showed off the merchandise for sale within; bicycles in the bicycle store, dresses in the dress store; rakes and shovels and a thousand other things of like nature in the hardware store.  My mind drifted away to many of the books which I had read while dodging work at Fort Hood which were set in such places; “Dandelion Wine”, “Something Wicked This Way Comes”,” Winesburg, Ohio” to name a few.  I walked slowly down one side of the street gazing into windows and sometimes ducking inside a doorway into a store which seemed to smell of its years of existence, and it was more of a comfortable smell of friendliness and familiarity than it was just the musty smell of passing years.

The warming sunshine on my face as I meandered down the street had a soporific effect and I was as much sleepwalking as not when I nearly stepped in front of traffic at the crossroads in the middle of town.  The traffic light hung from its cables over the middle of the intersection and continuously blinked red in each direction.  Coming to my senses, I wondered why they didn’t just put a stop sign on each corner.  Maybe the light gave them flexibility, just in case they wanted to control traffic some day like their bigger cousins to the south in Cheyenne or East in Omaha.  Stop signs would be cheaper and do just as good a job.  Thoughts along those lines began to lull my brain back to sleep, and I only returned to the land of the lucid when I ran out of Oshkosh, Nebraska.

Businesses had turned into residences and churches and soon I was looking out over the green and sunlit rolling hills of the western Nebraska prairie.  I crossed the street to begin my return to the heart of town.  It was probably the last week of school because there were no older children to be seen.  There was one large black dog whom I was keeping my eye on, but he was an old fellow lounging in the sunshine on a front porch who had other things to worry about than a gangly tourist walking in front of his territory.  The old boy raised his head and launched a desultory “woof” in my direction, as if to satisfy some minimal demand of his guard dog duties, and then went back to dreaming of chasing birds and running with little boys and perhaps accosting an occasional mailman or two. He made me think of the old guys solving world problems over coffee back at the EAT restaurant.

I began to pick up my step a little bit because it would soon be my turn to tend the laundry while Brad and Ginny explored the town.  There was not a throng on the streets but it was far from unoccupied.  Mostly there were women, some of them with very young children parking at a diagonal in front of the store they intended to patronize, but some pedestrians who probably lived nearby and were enjoying their warm late spring walk.  A few men would pass into and out of the hardware store and auto supply.  My thoughts ran to how idyllic this scene appeared, while at the same time I knew that surface appearances can be most deceiving.  Being inhabited by human beings Oshkosh certainly shared the same tangled relationships “enjoyed” by people everywhere else, but the uncomplicated look of that small American town at least gave the appearance of a more peaceful life than the one I had known up to that point and, now that I think of it, have known ever since.

I returned to the laundromat with the book I had been reading back in new Mexico, I still think it was Carlos Castaneda, and took up my post while Brad and Ginny began their tour of the town.  The building was empty except for one customer at the far end and the attendant.  I was content to read and stay within myself until the last load of wash finished and I found that I was a couple of quarters shy of enough to engage the dryer.  The attendant gave me change for a couple of dollar bills and after thumbing the quarters into the slots of the dryers I resumed my reading.  Brad and Ginny returned just before the last dryer, the one with their blankets, was finished.  When that process was complete we folded and packed our laundry away in our respective vehicles and drove on to a store to replace a few items and restock our beer supply.  Afterward we pulled into a service station before resuming our journey northward.  Once again our service guy checked our air and fluids and whatnot, and once again my automatic transmission fluid was low.  This fact drew the attention of Brad who crawled under my Mercury to take a look.  Sure enough, the ATF was slowly dripping out from somewhere in my transmission.  The leak wasn’t enormous, but would need to be monitored for the rest of the trip.

The low, gentle hills continued to roll past as we headed north and west and after a short while began to bunch up, first into foothills and then into the great, pine-clad range of the Black Hills.  After three and a half days of desert and plains the rugged mountains with their high, cool valleys and the scent of evergreen on the gentle breeze was a welcome change.  I knew that there were bison, or “bufflers” as we jokingly called them, in the park and I looked for them as we rounded every turn.  I didn’t see even one that day and before long we turned into the narrow lane which led to the campground at Wind Cave.

We paid our couple of dollars for a camping permit at the log ranger shack which sat in the middle of the lane with traffic splitting and going around it on each side.  A short way down the lane we crossed a bridge over a full and fast moving creek.  On the other side of the bridge we turned left and quickly found campsite number 76.  The first thing that we noticed was that the bathroom and showers was only about forty yards away; a welcome sight to three people with a lot of road on them.  We put our food in the latched wooden pantry except for what needed to remain in the cooler.  My cot was set up and the lawn chairs brought out and soon we had a proper camp.  We took a long walk, threading in between the other campsites and tramping up and down trails on the fringes of the inhabited area.  Eventually we felt like we had sufficiently loosened up stiff and cramped muscles and joints and returned to our camp.

After cooking some dinner we grabbed clean clothes, towels and soap, and headed for the showers where we spent a good deal of time scrubbing ourselves down.  It felt good to be fresh and clean.  Brad was tired and went to bed shortly, but Ginny and I went to an area where logs for seating had been placed in concentric semicircles and a ranger lit a large fire, which slowly burned  while he gave a talk on the geology, fauna and flora or Wind Cave and the Black Hills.  Afterwards we returned to our camp, said our goodnights, and I crawled onto my cot.  It was a good deal cooler at Wind Cave than it had been at lower elevations and I awoke at some point in the night huddled and shivering.  After rising and putting on my long johns and a sweatshirt I returned to my cot and blankets.  Soon I was toasty once again and slept like the dead for the rest of the night.

Road Trip, Part II

I awoke the next morning shortly after the sun began to eat away at the darkness on the eastern horizon.  Some mornings are like that; your eyes snap open and no matter how much your body wants to return to the regenerative oblivion of slumber your mind says “Enough!  Get out of bed and do something”.  So I arose from my cot and looked around to see what I could do.  The answer was “darned near nothing”.  I had slept in my jeans and so it was a small matter to get dressed.  After banging the heals of my athletic shoes a few times on the hard packed dirt surface of the turnout to dislodge any scorpions or centipedes which might have taken up residence there overnight I put them on and then pulled on the shirt which I had worn yesterday.  Once we finished breakfast I would heat a large pan of water and Brad and I would scrub our armpits in an attempt to get the worst of the stink off of us.  We would then take a leisurely stroll, possibly in search of the celebrated potash mine, while Ginny took her turn.  That was an hour or two in the future however, and just now I was wide awake at around five in the morning with nothing to do.  My solution to a problem like this was to take a walk.

I have always enjoyed walking.  It is good exercise and it gives me an opportunity to daydream.  Whenever I take a long walk I always defeat my enemies, win the girl, outsmart the smart alek genius, and, oh, did I say ‘get the girl’?  Six or seven miles was a mere saunter for me when I was a young man and I can knock out six or seven miles to this day, albeit with sore legs and blistered feet for my efforts.  On that day however I only went a mile or so down the road and then came back.  I was hoping that Brad and Ginny would be up so that I could tell them that I found the dirt road which led to the potash mine.  They weren’t up however so I found one of my books, “The Teachings of Don Juan” I think it was, and began to read.  I had not finished the first page before the camper door creaked open and a bleary-eyed Brad poked his head outside to see if I was up.  I made a snide remark about slackers and Brad chuckled at the irony.  He was always the early bird and I the sluggard of the family.  Brad crawled out of the camper, moving carefully so as to not awaken Ginny, and with him came the wire contraption and the necessary equipment to brew a pot of coffee.  We had a box of wood in my trunk but I took a short walk into the roadside vegetation to see if I could find any dried brush or other wood which we could use instead.  Best to keep our emergency supply intact.  I did find enough large, dry branches and stumps to builld a fire under the inverted ‘U’ shaped structure and get some coffee boiling.  In fifteen minutes’ time we were sitting on my cot with steaming mugs of coffee, two of the happiest people on earth.

Brad and I were always close.  As very young kids we had the usual ruckuses and rows that any brothers have but Brad, who was several years older than me, never gave me the licking that he could have and that I frequently deserved.  Later, we tended to cover for each other in a home where our father could be a mercurial and frightening man.  Brad got himself kicked out of high school so that he could go to the continuation school, or “hard guy high” as we called it, where he could apply himself and amass sufficient credits for graduation much faster than he could at a conventional school, so he could then join the Army in order to get out of our home.

When Brad returned home three years later he was a man while I was still a boy, but we grew closer still.  Shortly after Brad returned we took a walk one day and a few blocks from our house we stopped in at a tiny burger restaurant on El Cajon Boulevard, where he offered to buy me a cup of coffee.  I had never drank a cup of coffee before but the romance of the idea seemed wonderful to me and I accepted the offer.  Coffee is an acquired taste and I did not like the bitter drink one bit, but walking down Chamoune Avenue with my very grown up brother and drinking coffee as we walked made me feel different than I had felt only thirty minutes before; not grown up really, but not a kid anymore either.

So we sat in the cool of the morning and talked of the three years that I had been gone and what I had done and what he had done while I was gone.  We compared Army experiences and Brad spoke of college.  I had tried to take a college English class at my base camp in Vietnam but a little thing called the Tet Offensive broke out and I didn’t think of college again.  Brad and I drained the first pot of coffee and he suggested that he brew another.  I countered with a proposal that if he would bring out the stove and cooler I would cook breakfast while he got Ginny up and moving.  The sun was bulging up over the eastern horizon and I was getting a little bit anxious to see some more country.  The plan sounded good to Brad and soon I had sausage and eggs sizzling in the pans and a fresh pot of Joe ready for action.  Ginny was already stirring when we got started so before much time had passed we were well fed, sort of cleaned up, and churning down the highway, past the road towards the potash mines, and heading toward Clovis New Mexico.

In Clovis we stopped at a small grocery store and gas station to fill up our tanks and resupply our cooler.  We went into the store first to see what was to be had.  Bacon, sausage, eggs, bread, deli meats, various snacks, all could be found in abundance.  What was not there was beer.  Brad and I could drink great volumes of the stuff and we had already done that on this trip.  We were not what one would call role models and more than a few beers were consumed as we rolled down the road.  The sad thing is that this was not at all uncommon and the police frequently let the offenders off with a lecture and confiscation of their liquor when they were caught in the act.  Even as late as 1977 I was able to purchase a six pack at a drive-through window in New Mexico.

“Where do you keep your beer” I asked the clerk.  “Ixyp jzzipf cmhrzuss wkob” I might as well have said.  The girl stared at me like I was a Martian speaking Klingon.  Come to think of it, Roswell is not so far from Clovis; maybe she had seen and heard a Martian or two before.  Anyway, she replied “we don’t sell beer here on Sunday” and looked at me as if any idiot should know that fact.  “Really” I exclaimed.  I’d never heard of such a thing.  “Can I buy some over in Texas?”  “Maybe, but I doubt it.  I don’t know much about Texas.”  “I do” I said.  “I volunteered for Vietnam to get out of Texas.”  New Mexicans do not care much for Texas, so she smiled at that.

“Where are y’all from” she asked.  “San Diego” Brad replied.  “Oh, I have a cousin who went out to Los Angeles a few years ago.  It was awful.  There was crime everywhere and nobody was friendly and she never felt safe until she came back here”.  “That’s funny” I replied.  “We grew up there and have never been mugged, never been robbed, never been threatened, and have loads of friends and go just about anywhere we want and feel as safe there as anywhere else”.  That was just the tiniest bit of an exaggeration but I didn’t feel like letting that trashing of my home state slide.  The girl looked taken aback and we paid our bill and wished her our hardiest “have a groovy day”as we walked out the door.

Stashing our purchases we pulled into the service station to gas up.  They called those places ‘service stations’ in those days because you actually did get service there.  In addition to your gas you got your windshield cleaned of all of its bug splatters, tire pressure checked, oil, radiator water and other fluids checked.  We had just serviced our vehicles before pulling out of San Diego so I was a little surprised to be told that the transmission fluid level was a bit low.  The attendant showed me the dip stick and there was no doubt about it, so I had him top it off and afterward we paid for our gas and etc., used the bathrooms there, and soon after that we were rolling east, woefully short of beer, and plunging across the state line into Texas.

Returning to Texas put a shiver down my spine, for I was not lying when I told the store clerk that I volunteered for Vietnam to get out of Texas.  It was the only transfer request that was guaranteed to be approved.  In retrospect I don’t suppose that Texas is much better or worse than any other state, but being a kid coming from the beaches of Southern California I couldn’t imagine being anyplace worse at that time.  Fort Hood was an armpit, as most Army forts are, and when one set foot off of the fort one became an instant target for punk Texas kids who delighted in jumping on and beating up soldiers.  Not at all unlike punk San Diego kids ganging up on sailors, but I did not at that point have the advantage of perspective.  As a result of my aversion to fighting for my life just to experience something other than Army life, I tended to stay on the post for the protection that it offered, even if it greatly limited my opportunities for any kind of entertainment.

My unit at Fort Hood was technically a supply company, but in fact we didn’t really supply anything other than bodies for nasty work details all over the fort.  “The Second Armor needs to have latrines hauled in from the field”, or “You, you and you, go to the Post Commander’s house and mow and trim his yard (and don’t you dare look at his daughter who will do her best to get your attention)”, and so on.  We would awaken, dress, fall into formation to be counted and inspected, dismissed to have breakfast and then to return to our barracks to await our detail for the day.  Unless, of course, they couldn’t find you.

We were not actually ordered to sit in our barracks and wait for orders to go on these details, an Army failing which I cannot explain to this day, so many guys would go to the day room to smoke cigarettes and shoot pool.  Others would hang out at a nearby snack bar eating burgers, drinking cokes, thumbing nickles and quarters into the juke box and getting nabbed by Sergeant Smalley.  I was not to be so easily snared.  No more than two blocks further away from our barracks than the snack bar was the small branch of the post library system.  This little building was air conditioned and had a nice collection of books, and the enlisted man running that branch could order in anything that was in their system and it would arrive within a day or two of my asking for it.  Sort of like a weird prototype of Amazon.com.   There were nice easy chairs with ottomans to put my feet up on and a water cooler and a bathroom.  I virtually moved in.

Sergeant Smalley prided himself on being able to find every soldier under his authority and nabbing him for some crummy little detail somewhere on the post, but only got me once when I got careless.  This gave me a good deal of pride and status with my friends, who began to call me “Weasel”.  Sergeant Smalley would give me hell during inspection, try to follow me from the mess hall and in many other ways try to crack my code.  But Sergeant Smalley was not a great reader; heck, I don’t even know if Sergeant Smalley could read at all.  In any case, it never occurred to Sergeant Smalley to look in the library, and that’s where I spent the majority of my time in the summer of 1967.  I am divulging this information now partly for the love of telling the story, but just a little in the hope that Sergeant Smalley has learned to read and will stumble across this tale.  I suppose he deserves to know at last where I was hiding.

So into Texas we went, and stopped for a snack just outside of Hereford.  The area is as flat as a tabletop and everywhere there were pastures with cows in them or pastures being watered and allowed to grow the lush grass that the cows would be feeding on soon.  We lingered for a little while but the monotony impelled us to fly north Dalhart, in the Texas panhandle.  “In Dalhart” the Clovis store clerk told us “you might be able to buy some beer,” so to Dalhart we fled, but our quest was in vain.  Discouraged, we continued north until we crossed into Colorado.

The southwest corner of Colorado is like the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma; flat as a board, and we drove through the featureless flatlands for a while until we determined that one pace to stop for lunch was as good as another.  The little Datsun puled off the road and parked on the shoulder as far from the almost non-existent traffic as it could get, with me right behind.  Ginny pulled out a small, low, collapsable table to make sandwiches on while Brad got the stove burning so that we could heat up some soup.  We opened a couple of beers and passed the time of day while Ginny put the finishing touches on our lunch.  The company was good, the lawn chairs fit our fannies just fine and the prospect of a good lunch completely distracted our attention from the clouds that were gathering and boiling up to the highest heavens right over our heads.  Our first clue that something might be desperately wrong arrived in the form of a flash of lightening which seemed like it landed just on the other side of the car from us.  The thunderclap which almost bowled us out of our chairs was virtually simultaneous with the flash, and the smell of ozone was sharp in the air.  Then came the first great, fat drop of rain that splashed against my head, then the second, the third…and then the heavens opened up.

We grabbed our sandwiches and dived into the camper, wet shoes and all.  Ginny was not impressed with the muddy streaks on her blankets and sheets but there was nothing that we could do about that.  We ate our sandwiches while the thunder and lightening boomed and flashed and the rain came down with a violence that I can hardly describe.  Brad looked out the window at the soggy groceries left sitting on the table which was in danger of floating away in the water which was rising along the roadside where we parked.  The Coleman stove was filling up with water, with some of the water leaking out through small holes in the sides.  We knew that the stove would need to be broken down completely and cleaned and dried before it would work again, which we had hoped would be that evening  After no more than fifteen or twenty minutes of this soaking the storm cell floated off to the west to bestow its watery blessing on other more grateful recipients, and we emerged to clean up the mess, asses the damage, and return to our journey north to a formal campsite on the Platte River near Ogallala, Nebraska, where we planned to stay.

The fabled flatness of the Great Plains in the middle of the United States is in some places extremely accurate.  Much of the Plains is not uniformly flat however, and I found myself actually drawn to the tree lined streams in low valleys and the gently rolling hills that pop up as you leave one county and drive into another.  The terrain became more broken and irregular as we headed north and it was late afternoon when we arrived at the campground near Ogallala.  Ginny had hoped we would arrive early enough to put her soiled blankets and sheets into a washing machine at a laundromat, but we were too late for that.  Instead, we found a space close to the river and started to pull our camping gear out of ur vehicles.  We didn’t even have time to unfold my cot however before we realized that the mosquito population here was a hundred times worse that it was at Martinez Lake.

The little pests moved in clouds, and it was impossible to swat one biting devil on your leg without having two devils biting you somewhere else.  I quickly had several bloody patches on my exposed skin where I had slapped the miserable bugs and I wondered if it was my blood or somebody else’.  Other campers seemed oblivious to the attack and I suppose they had some kind of nuclear waste-based repellant on their bodies.  We had no such protection and without a moment’s debate we threw our gear back into the truck and car and headled north.

Ash hollow was the next place that we could find on the map where we could camp for the night.  It was a stopping point on the old Oregon Trail because the water and trees offered a respite from the arid and shadeless miles between St. Joe, Missouri, and the Rocky Mountains.  Of course, the presence of water also guaranteed the presence of mosquitos as well, and this fear was borne out although not to the extent of what we now called “Skeeter Davis Park” in honor of a country and pop singer of that name who had a song out at that time.  We could tell that Ash Hollow was a beautiful place with rocky hills and trees and a nice little stream which moved too quickly to allow the kind of mosquito swarms that infested the slow moving Platte, but we got in too late to see it very well.  We were at the end of a very long day and just wanted to eat and unwind.

Brad had completely disassembled the Coleman stove and cleaned and dried it, and our first order of business was to see if we would be cooking with gas or wood.  Gas it was, as the Coleman lit off with the first match.  Ginny cooked up some burgers and green beans from supplies we picked up on our way out of Ogallala and soon we were well fed, enjoying the last of our beers, and passing a doobie or two between the three of us.

The mosquitos, as I mentioned earlier, were less of a menace than at Skeeter Davis but still very much present.  To address that problem we placed green branches on our campfire and sat in the smoke.  Additionally I wrapped a towel around my head and face so that I looked like a Taureg nomad from the western Sahara.  The plan worked pretty good.  While we were enjoying the evening we heard gunshots far away to the west.  Hunters, we suspected, and thought nothing more about it.  We were experiencing a good, mellow buzz underneath the Nebraska stars, finishing the last of our beers and passing another doobie, and talking about the route we would take on the morrow to reach our ultimate destination; Wind Cave National Park in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota.  That’s when John Wayne walked into our camp.

We were vaguely aware of a car pulling up just outside of our view in the very dark night but thought it belonged to other campers.  It was, in fact, a law enforcement officer of some kind.  We thought possibly a game warden, but all possibilities were on the table. All we knew for certain was that he had a uniform, a badge, and a very large sidearm on his hip.  Brad put the joint under his shoe and pressed his foot as firmly against the ground as he could without looking suspicious, although how a guy sitting next to a guy who looked like a Taureg in western Nebraska could look anything but suspicious is awfully hard to imagine.

This man exuded complete confidence in his capability to deal with whatever challenges might come his way.  His six foot one or two height and what I would guess to be two hundred or two hundred and ten pounds were well proportioned and there was not a visible ounce of fat on him.  More impressive was his demeanor; absolute control and confidence.  As he approached three stoned travelers with beers in their hands, one of who’s head was wrapped up in a towel, he said “Good evening folks.  How are y’all doing this evening?”  We recovered quickly and my recent military experience had left me prepared to deal with authority reflexively.  “We’re doing fine tonight sir.  Can we offer you a cup of coffee or a bite to eat?”  There was a little coffee in the pot left over from our dinner which we hadn’t touched in the last hour, which was close enough to the fire to have kept warm.  “No thank you.  Have you heard any gunshots this evening?”  Rooster Cogburn couldn’t have cared less about the joint which he almost certainly knew was resting under Brad’s right foot.  He was attending to other business.  “Yes sir” I answered.  “About twenty or thirty minutes ago.  They seemed to be coming from up that way.”  I pointed west, where we thought we had heard the gunshots.  J.B. Book hitched up his belt a little and said “Thank you.  You folks have a good evening” and returned to his car.  Lights on, he proceeded to drive slowly up the dirt road – more like a path, really – leading west to where the suspected poachers were just about to be paid a visit by Big Jake. Please forgive this writer for all of the John Wayne character allusions, but they seemed appropriate at the time and we certainly indulged each one of them as we resurrected the stomped-on joint and finished it up.  Brad, Ginny and I agreed that we did not want to be in the probable poachers’ shoes.

The time quickly came to put out the fire and settle in for a good night’s rest.  We would arrive at our destination early the next day and looked forward to getting a campsite and a shower, and then going to town to wash clothes, buy food, and of course acquire more beer.  We planned to stay there for a few days before moving on to who knew where.  That was the plan, anyway.

The One Thing Christians Should Stop Saying

This is a beautifully written and well thought out post. I wish I had written it:-)

The Accidental Missionary

*Writers note:  After reading your comments, I have been moved to revise the following piece.  In a post where the main point is to encourage others to be aware of how our choice of words can get in the way of conveying our true intent, I realize the irony that my choosing to refer to my lack of understanding of God’s purpose as “dumb luck” caused some folks to miss the meaning of the post itself.  Silly me.  While people may still disagree, I think this slightly revised version better captures my honest intent.

I was on the phone with a good friend the other day.  After covering important topics, like disparaging each other’s mothers and retelling semi-factual tales from our college days, our conversation turned to the mundane.

“So, how’s work going?” he asked.

For those of you who don’t know, I make money by teaching leadership skills and…

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