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.