The Long Climb

I climbed Dog Mountain today.  If I wasn’t so tired I would walk into the back room where my phone is on the charger and look up just how much of an elevation gain Dog Mountain is.  It is less than three thousand feet but more than two thousand, eight hundred.  If you are curious enough to know just how much it is you’ll have to Google it.  I’m just too tired right now to do it for you.

Suffice it to say, it is the most consistently vertical limb that I have ever made!  I have made similar climbs back in the early 1970’s.  The first was on a trail from Devil’s Postpile campground to Minaret Lake.  That lake rests at nine thousand and eight hundred feet above sea level.  I do not know how much elevation is gained from campground to lake and frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.  At nine thousand feet such matters are of small importance.  The fact that you are that high ensures that any incline will beat the stuffing out of you, and the last quarter mile was so steep that I emerged into that high valley so exhausted that I sat down on a large rock in the sun and tried my best not to puke while my friend Warren went on to find a place for us to camp.

Warren and I also picked a trail that led from the floor of the Yosemite Valley up the north wall to the rim.  That monster was a succession of switchbacks that seemed as if they would never end.  In fact, I have no idea if they end or do not.  At some point we said “To hell with it” and returned to the Valley floor.  To our credit, we proceeded up to the east end of the Valley and climbed to an almost paradisiacal camping spot far away from the usual run of Yosemite visitors.

But neither of those climbs, both made when I was twenty one and twenty two years of age, come close to the effort that I put out today just thirty one days shy of my sixty ninth birthday, and three years after having bypass heart surgery.  From the trailhead, only a few feet above the high water mark of the Columbia Rover, I and five friends from my church joined a horde of others in ascending this mid-sized mountain in the Columbia River Gorge.  I made it to the top with my quadriceps, gastrocnemious and soleus muscles screaming, my hamstring and achilles tendons in revolt, and my lungs pulling in air like a bank pulling in home loans in 2008.  But I made it to the top.

This success was the result of a very good surgeon who split my chest open like a spatchcocked chicken and bypassed the plugged coronary arteries which threatened to grease my way to a reunion with Mom and Dad, who passed some years ago, and a bunch of beloved cats.  The ministrations of a number of nurses and phlebotomists and other technical geniuses at that hospital, and an absolutely exceptional naturopath, plus a new devotion to eating mostly meat, vegetables, fruit and good fats, have resulted in my ability to grind up a trail such as I did today.

Also important in that climb, or the ability to make that climb, is the grace of God.  There’s no way that I can account for my ability to make that climb or, what was worse, the descent, without accepting that God has gifted me with the health to do so.  After two years in Vietnam dodging Viet Cong bullets and wading through pools of agent orange, and nearly ten years of civilian life after the military in which my lifestyle can only be described as near-suicidal, and finally after the heart attack and surgery, I climbed up that mountain like a normal guy.  OK, maybe more like an old Hudson in granny gear, but I still got up it, all right?

One could attribute my success to good DNA, expert medical attention, and a careful observation of nutritional and dietary guidelines, and I’m certain that those things played a large part in this day’s success  But I am more inclined to believe that someone who I and a lot of other people call ‘God’ has chosen to give me more time on earth with the ability to get out and live my life in arduous engagements.

This is not to say that those who are not physically able to do what I did today are living lesser lives than mine, or are less loved by the same God who created and cares for them as He does for me.  I am only saying that God has chosen for me to still be able to engage in physical activity and that is all.  I don’t know why I have been given that ability and the next person has not.  I just know, or at the very least believe, that in my case a continuance of the ability to climb grades like Minaret Lake and the north side of Yosemite and Dog Mountain has been granted to me near the end of my seventh decade of life, and I want to publicly thank God and give Him the glory for that gift.

The Garden, Chapter XXI

No dreams of Bertie haunted Charlie’s dreams that night, but echoes of the whiskey that he had consumed the evening before played the devil with his head the next morning.  He lay on the cot face-up, fully dressed still and with the blanket pulled up snugly around his neck.  The chill of the night air had not penetrated his covers enough to disturb his sleep but now, as he lay there waking up, he began to feel the cold.  His mouth felt like cotton balls.  “Must have been snoring and breathing through my mouth” he thought as he rolled onto his side and began to try to work up some saliva with his tongue.

He lay there a few more minutes until he realized that he would not be going back to sleep, and it would be a few more hours before it began to get warm again.  The sun had not yet appeared on the horizon but the light had advanced well past the faint glow of the first evidence of dawn.  “I’ll get a fire going and maybe get some coffee started” he thought, and pushed himself erect.

The fire took only a few minutes to get going and soon a boiling pan of water rested on the iron grate over the blaze.  Charlie had brought a jar of instant coffee which he intended to open momentarily.  Walt, however, emerged bleary eyed from the tent and quickly changed his plan.    “Damn” he said.  “I could hold my liquor a lot better when I was a lot younger.  My mouth’s dryer than a popcorn fart.  Ah, well done, Junior.  You got the water boiling, now Let Papa take over from here.”

Walt pulled a sack from the pantry which contained ground coffee.  He tilted the sack and began to empty some of the contents right into the boiling water.  “Hobo coffee” he explained.  “This is how my Grandpa used to make this stuff.  He lived on a farm a county or two away from Pierre, South Dakota.  Gramps didn’t cotton to change much.  “Worked fine for me when Teddy Roosevelt was president, so I guess it’ll work for me now that that bastard Johnson’s running the circus” I remember him saying.”

Billy emerged from the tent at this time, moving stiffly toward the fire.  It was obvious that the exertions he had made the day before had caused his damaged leg to tighten up.  Sleeping in a bag on a thin foam mat that had been rolled out onto the handpicked campground floor hadn’t helped it any either.  Walt asked Charlie for the bottle containing the last of the whiskey.  “Sorry Walt” Charlie told him.  “That old soldier has passed away.”  He walked to his pack and pulled out a fresh half pint of the same stock.  “We’ll have to open up his little brother.”

“You’re a gentleman and a scholar” Walt told him.   He opened the bottle and said “Hair of the dog” as he took a nip and then thrust the bottle towards Billy.  The young man accepted the bottle and took a nip of his own and then passed it to Charlie.  He accepted the bottle but declined to swallow any.

“It’ll take the edge off” Walt said.

“Naw, I’ll pass for now” Charlie replied.  “Probably put a drop into my coffee.”

In short order the coffee was boiling and Walt removed the pan from the stove.  “It’ll cool in a minute and the grounds will settle.  Most of them anyway.  You boys help yourselves.  I’ve gotta take a dump.  Leave me a little of the coffee, and you can leave me another swallow of that hooch, too.”

Walt walked away toward the bathroom and shower facilities on the far side of the campground.  Charlie waited only a minute or two before he carefully poured a tin cup full of coffee.  Billy extended a stained old mug toward him and Charlie filled that too.

“We’ll leave the dregs for Walt” Billy said.

“He’ll love that” Charlie replied.

“Oh, he won’t mind” Billy said wit a grin.  “You just save him a swallow of that fine, gentleman’s whiskey and all’ll be forgiven.  Say, we could get some breakfast going too.  You up for pulling a little K.P.?”

Charlie took a sip of the coffee, which turned out to be no worse than he got at Leroy’s, and considerably better than he had made for himself at the apartment.  “Dang, this is not bad!  How does he know all of that stuff?  Yeah, let’s cook some grits.”

With Billy taking lead, there was bacon and potatoes frying in two last iron skillets when Walt returned, looking a little better than he had when he left.  Walt eyed the dregs in the coffee pan and said “Thanks a pant load, guys.”

“It’s good for you.  It’s good training” Billy said.

“I should train my boot up your ass” Walt grumped.

Charlie handed the bottle Walt and said “Here.  Train some of this into your cup.”

“At least there’s one shitbird in this outfit that respects his elders” Walt said as he accepted the bottle.  “So what’s on the menu for breakfast?”

The men finally sat down at the thick wood and stone camp table and ate a breakfast that surpassed their previous one in Walla Walla, in quality if not quantity.  Billy put a kettle of water over the fire after Walt made another pan of coffee, and the water heated while they ate.  After finishing their meal and washing up with the hot water they stowed their supplies and began to make a plan.

“How’s the leg holding up?” Charlie asked Billy.

“It’s loosening up OK” Billy replied.  “Felt like I’d trashed it all over again first thing this morning, but it’s feeling pretty good now.”

“You think you can go as far as you did yesterday?”

“Yeah, no sweat.  Farther probably, if you bring that sweet chair.  I was thinking it would be nice to get up on a ridge if we can, where we can get a look at more territory.  Then we can use these.”  Billy reached into his pack and pulled out a set of binoculars.

“Zeiss!  Jeez, Billy.  You steal those from the Army?  I know you didn’t get them on what Uncle Sam was paying you!” Walt declared.

“No, I didn’t steal nothing” Billy protested.  “I prefer to call it ‘midnight requisition.’  Bedsides, they were just laying around, so I decided that the Army didn’t want them anymore.  Man, I thought that I would never get a chance to use these!”

“Well, all right.”  Walt exclaimed.  “Let’s saddle up and get this row on the shoad.”

They separated to get their packs in order.  Charlie took water, high energy snacks and assorted other possible trail necessities.  Walt and Billy did similarly, only they also slipped handguns into holsters that were hidden by their long camouflage shirts.

“What are you guys carrying?” Charlie asked.  “We’re not going out there to shoot anything, you know.”

“I’ve got a .44 Mag.  The most powerful handgun made” Walt said in a gravelly voice, imitating Clint Eastwood in the movie Dirty Harry.  “No, I don’t expect to shoot anything, but you never know when you might surprise a momma bear and her cubs, or a full-grown bear that thinks you look good for dinner.  This cannon might not stop a big one, but it’ll damn sure make him pay for his dinner.”

“I feel like a runt with only this .357 Mag”  Billy added.  “But it’ll give Yogi Bear even more to think about.  Although I think that he’d choke on your unsavory ass.”  He chucked a pine cone at Walt, who batted it out of the air with the back of his hand and reached, as if going for his sidearm.  Billy did likewise and Charlie said “Oh, shit.  I’m in the woods with John Wayne and Marshall Dillon.  God help me!”

“Give your soul to god” Walt said.  “‘Cause your ass belongs to me” and he squared off as if preparing for a duel.

“OK” Charlie said.  “You two are scaring me now.  Let’s get moving; I’ll feel safer out there with the bears.”

All three laughed and began to hike down the same road that they had travelled on the day before.  The sun soon began to rise in the sky, warming the air and beating down on their heads.  The hangover that Charlie thought he might have dodged began to rise with the heat and exertion, and soon he was wishing that he had some aspirin, another swallow of the whiskey, or a head transplant.  “It’ll pass” he muttered to himself more loudly than he thought he had.

“What’s that?” Walt asked.

“Ah, just mu head.  It feels like I’ve got Mel Gibson running away from Tina Turner in it.”

“You’re a wuss” Walt laughed.

“So you’re doing just fine I suppose?” Charlie asked.

“Don’t listen to him” Billy interjected.  “I heard him praying to the porcelain god last night.  He just blew all of his liquor out.  Old Vietnam dudes never could hold their sauce, especially the 173rd.”

“Oh, look who’s talking.  They sent you 25th Div pansies to a country where there ain’t no alcohol ‘cause they knew you couldn’t handle it and fight a real man’s war.”

“Real man’s war, shit!” Billy laughed.  “Half of the people in Vietnam liked you guys.  All of those fuckers in Iraq hated us.  Besides, I got your ‘real man’s war’ hangin’.  You want him, you just come a-sangin’.”

“Holy shit, shut up you two.  Your heads may not feel like they’re about to explode, but mine does.”

“Oh, make no mistake about it” Billy said, and then the two veterans pointed at each other and said in unison “His does too.”

They spoke a little less after that and continued to walk down the road.  Billy rested from time to time, but surprisingly he seemed to be less affected by the exertions today than he had been the day before.  “It’s the trail candy” he explained, showing them a bottle of Tylenol that he had in his pocket.

“Hey, don’t bogart that shit!” Walt said.  “Pass a little of it over to me.”

“I thought your head didn’t hurt” Billy said.

“Fuck that.  I’m sixty nine years old and tromping around in the woods.  My head’s fine, but my body’s hurting.  You need to learn a little respect.”

“You earn it and I’ll give it” Billy said with a smirk as he handed over the pain killer.

“Are you ladies ever going to shut up?” Charlie asked.  “Give me some of those.”  After taking a couple of the tablets and washing them down with some water he pointed to the place about  fifty yards up the road from where they stood.  “You want to go back to the same spot we were at yesterday?”

“No” Billy replied.  I was thinking about trying for that ridge up there.”

He pointed to a low, forested ridge that ran parallel to higher hills on the other side of the valley where they had looked for wildlife the day before.

“That looks like two, maybe three hundred feet” Walt said.  Maybe one and half klicks away.  Are you sure, young man?”

“Yeah, I’m feeling pretty good today.”  He then looked at Charlie and finally admitted “Except for the zombie apocalypse that’s going on between my ears.  I’ll let you know when I feel like I’m approaching my limits.”

“Why Walt!  I do believe that you actually care about Billy, or are my ears deceiving me?” Charlie exclaimed.

“Fuck your ears” Walt shot back.  “I just don’t want to have to carry his heavy ass back.”

“Don’t try to shit a shitter, man” Billy said.  “You’d just leave me out here and you know it.”

“Arggghh!” Charlie groaned.  “Let’s get going!  Only walking seems to shut you two up.”

Walt and Billy both threw pebbles at Charlie and as they prepared to begin talking again they heard a shot in the distance.  “Huh!  Some bastard’s getting an early start” Walt opined.

“Or maybe sighting his piece” Billy offered.

They began walking and in a few minutes heard another shot.  “I just hope they stay wherever they are” Charlie said.  “This camo may not have been the best thing to wear.”

“Shit” Billy replied.  “You could be wearing an orange construction barrel and those crazy bastards would shoot at you anyway.  ‘Bout all we can do is keep our eyes and ears open and our fingers crossed.”

They became more silent as they stepped off of the road and onto the valley floor.  There was no path here and the ground, which looked flat from a distance, was in fact made irregular by clumps of grass, prairie dog holes and occasional rocks that were nearly buried in the valley floor.  The change in terrain offered little challenge to Walt and Charlie, but Billy had to walk carefully,and this slowed them down.  Neither Walt nor Charlie commented on this.  Billy was determined to wring the most out of their experience that he could.  Charlie respected this, and he thought it looked like Walt did too.

After a slow transit of the valley they reached the base of the rise which led to the ridge from which they hoped to get a look at some wildlife.  With Billy’s binoculars they knew that they would see it if it was there.

“I have to take five” Billy said, and Charlie broke out the chair.  He and Walt sat on a fallen tree while billy gave his leg a rest.  They chattered softly while they waited for Billy to recover sufficiently to make the next climb towards the top.

“I can make it up to that ridge” he said.  “The fallen timber will be a problem though.  I don’t step over stuff as good as I used to.  I’ll have to go around things instead of over them.  You guys can go ahead, if you get tired of waiting for me.  Just drop some bread crumbs.”

“Aw, shut up, gimp” Walt said.  “I ain’t leaving nobody behind.  Never did, never will.”

Charlie sat silently and thought about his two companions.  Walt was more than thirty years older than Billy and unrelated, but the two interacted as if they were brothers.  They bickered and insulted each other in ways that would make anybody who didn’t know them worry that a fist fight was imminent.  But the connection between these two men, forged in the fires of hellish combat and tempered by their common struggle to come to grips with a world that couldn’t begin to understand what they had experienced or how hard they must work in order to be able to fit back into that world, was a bond that was stronger than the metal that had ripped through both of their bodies.

Walt had returned to a society where many had spat at him and wished that he would have died in the jungles of Vietnam.  Billy had returned to a new society that politely said “Thank you for your service,” and then quickly forgot that he existed, hurt and struggling to regain his balance.  It’s possible that the second was worse than the first.

Charlie thought of his own struggle; how he had looked upon the battered and lifeless body of his beloved daughter, lost everything that he had, including his will to live, and only stayed alive by the – what, providential? – intervention of a cranky borderline sociopath veteran, a Jewish Christian young woman, an overworked waitress in a downtown greasy spoon restaurant, and a soft-spoken counselor with great kitchen skills and laser beam insights into the heart of the matter.  Charlie felt like he owed these people more than they could ever know.

“All right” Walt finally said as he stood up.  “Let’s get – – – Shit!”

Standing ten feet to the side of Walt was a man in the green and khaki uniform of a game warden, who had moved up on them without making the slightest sound or giving away his presence in any manner.  Walt’s hand instinctively moved towards the weapon that he had concealed under his camo shirt.

“Please don’t do that, sir” the warden said, placing his hand on the butt of his own sidearm.

“What the fuck do you mean, sneaking up on people?” Walt growled at the agent.  The agent replied by simply repeating his request.

“Sir, please move your hand away from your side.”

Billy rose up out of his chair to take a stand beside his friend.  The warden clearly did not like this development and said “I’m going to need for both of you to keep your hands where I can see them, and I’m going to need for you all to sit down on that log.”

“And I’m going to need for you to kiss my ass and telll the world that you like it” replied a thoroughly incensed Walt.  Billy then began to edge off to his right, increasing the distance between him and Walt and making it harder for the warden to cover  both men.

Charlie knew that this was getting way out of control and would, in all likelihood, end badly.  “Walt! Billy!  This guy’s a game warden” he said.  “He’s out here doing his job.”

“I don’t know who the fuck he is and I don’t care who the fuck he is” Walt replied.  “He just sneaks up on us with his hand on his gun.  he can just fuck himself and go wherever the hell he came from, as far as I’m concerned.”

The warden’s face, which already looked hard as flint, seemed to ratchet a notch even tighter.  “What the hell should I do” Charlie asked himself, and then a thought squeezed into his nearly paralyzed mind.

“Wait, everybody.  Just wait one minute, OK?”  He looked at the warden and asked “This is about the shots that we heard, what” – he turned and asked Walt and Billy – “about an hour ago?”

The warden never moved his eyes off Billy and Walt, nor shifted his hand away from the butt of his gun.  He answered, saying “Yes, there were shots reported.  They were reported to be heard somewhere around here.  You are somewhere around here.  That makes me wonder about you.  Makes me want to see your hands clear of your body, too.”

“Walt,” Charlie implored.  “Billy.  You guys have heard a shot or two before.  Where do you think those came from?  For Christ’s sake, you talk military all the time, so military this.  What can you tell the warden about those shots?”

“The two veterans’ attention on the warden seemed to waver just a bit.  Billy looked at Walt and slightly shrugged his shoulders.  “There weren’t this many trees in the whole damned country of Iraq” he said.  “My guess is that way” and he nodded his head toward the left, up an extension of the valley that they had just crossed.

“Plenty of trees in Vietnam” Walt said, keeping his eyes on the warden.  “But you’re right.  To the southwest.  Can’t tell the distance or direction of fire.  Too many echoes in the valley.”

“What type of weapon, Walt?” Charlie asked.  “Could you tell what kind of weapon was being used?”

“Billy answered before Walt could.  “Small caliber, probably a long gun.  That was the first one, anyway.  Couldn’t tell about the second; muffled by something.

The warden saw Charlie’s attempt to engage his friends in something other than a wild west shoot out, and saw his two potential adversaries responding to Charlie’s intervention.  He decided to follow up with his own questions.

“You men military?” he asked.  Walt and Billy nodded in the affirmative.

“Then you know that a warden approaching a party of men who are probably armed in an area where poaching is almost certainly going on will be quiet and cannot afford to be careless, right?”

“Of course that’s right!” Charlie exclaimed.  “The second shot.  That was a hand gun, if I was to make a guess.  A small caliber rifle that will make less noise was used to injury the prey and the coup de grace was administered with a large caliber hand gun.  The sound of that will carry even less distance than the rifle.  That’s how it works, isn’t it warden?”

“That’s about the way of it” said the warden.

“And we’re here with a couple of handguns” Charlie continued.  Guys, it  makes sense.  This man’s only doing his job and trying to not get himself killed in the process.  Don’t you think we should help him do this?  I can’t stand a damned poacher anyway.”

Walt and Billy looked at each other for a moment.  It was Billy who finally said “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”  He looked back at the warden and asked “How do you want to do this?”

The warden did not look like he had relaxed very much.  He began to give instructions to Billy.  “You will carefully lift your shirt.  I will remove your weapon and examine it to see if it has been recently fired.  If that is not the case then I have no further need to impose upon your time and we can all go on about our business.

Billy nodded his assent and reached slowly for the edge of his camp shirt.

“One at a time” instructed the warden.

Charlie could see a ‘fuck you’ formed on Walt’s lips, but to his relief the phrase was not expressed.  Billy slowly raised his shirt and the warden walked carefully over to him and extracted the gun.  He opened the cylinder and saw that it contained a full load of live rounds.  He smelled the weapon and looked for new powder residue.  Billy kept a clean weapon, and it was quickly obvious to the expert eyes of the warden that this weapon had not been recently fired.

“Now you, sir” the warden said to Walt.

“Come on, Walt” Billy said.  “We got this thing all wrong.  Let’s everybody go home happy today, OK?”

Walt relaxed slightly but visibly.  He moved to raise his shirt, a little too quick for the warden’s comfort, and exposed the .44.  The warden repeated the process and determined that this weapon had not been fired either.

“Thank you for your cooperation, gentlemen” he said at last.  “That’s a magnificent weapon you have there, sir” he said to Walt.  “So you say that you heard those shots to the southwest?”

“That’s right” Billy said.  “Isn’t it Walt?  What d’you say, maybe a klick?

“No more’n that” Walt replied.  “And if they’re skinning a buck, they’re probably still there or not far away.”

“More likely a doe, the bastards” Billy said.  “Poachers aren’t usually picky.”

“Well, thank you for your cooperation” the warden said to them.  “I’m sorry for disturbing your day.  I think I’ll see if I can pay our friends a visit now.  Military, eh”  What branch?”

“Army” they answered in unison.

“173rd Airborne” Walt said.  Vietnam.

“25th Div” Billy echoed.  “Mosul, Iraq.”

“2nd Armored” the warden said.  “Tiger Brigade.  Gulf war.”

“The Tiger Brigade!  You boys kicked some serious ass” Billy noted after giving a low whistle.  “Tank warfare.  That would be sweet.  You can see the bastard that’s trying to kill you.”

“It has its ups and downs” the warden said.  “Now, if you’ll excuse me.”

“Would you like a little back-up?” Walt asked.  He was beginning to get a clearer view of what had just happened, and what almost just happened.


“No thank you, gentlemen” he answered.  “I do this thing best when I do it my own way.”  He then turned to walk away but after a few steps stopped and turned back to face the men and said “Since you’re only out here to see the game, I spotted a nice elk bull with a couple of cows off a bit to the north of west.  You climb up that ridge, you should be able to see them if you have a decent set of field glasses.”  Billy held up his Zeiss binoculars.  “Yeah, you should see them just fine with those.  You all have a very nice day now.”

The warden disappeared into the forest and left the three men staring silently.  At last Charlie exhaled loudly and sat back down on the log.  He looked at his hands, which were trembling, and then looked up at the two men who stared silently at him.

“What’s the matter,” he asked.  “Haven’t you ever seen a guy who has nearly shit his pants before?  What the hell’s the matter with you two?  That was a U.S. Fucking Fish and Wildlife guy, or a Washington State Fucking Fish and Wildlife guy, and you wanna play Gunsmoke with him?  Shit!  Even if you win, the President or the Governor or whoever is that guy’s boss will bring the full weight of the establishment on top of your asses, or just take you out here and shoot you and feed you to the fish.”

“When I was in combat some guys really did shit their pants – – -“ Walt began to say, but Charlie cut him off.

“Oh no, man.  I don’t want to hear any more fucking war stories just now, OK?”

Charlie began to shake more violently.  Billy approached him tentatively and knelt down next to him.  “Charlie” he began.  “You’re right.  We screwed up.  That guy came out of nowhere and spooked Walt.  Me too, to tell the truth.  He had a piece on him and seemed to be  threatening us, or it looked that way to both of us.  So we reacted.  Didn’t react well, I guess, but we reacted.  I’m sorry.

Look, this is the load that I’m carrying.  Walt is carrying his own, and I won’t try to describe his.  It’s hard to let it go.  ‘Kill or be killed.’  I know that you’ve heard that phrase.  With us, it means more than it does for others; for people who haven’t been where we’ve been.  It really means that you have to make somebody be dead or they’ll make you be dead.  I’m working hard to put that behind me.  Walt is too.  But it never really goes away.  You try to put that animal in a cage.  I try to put that animal in a cage every day.  But you can’t kill it.  It just won’t die.”

Charlie wrestled to get his shakes under control, and at last he looked at his two friends and said “OK.  I guess I just learned a little about your problems today.  I have my own shit to deal with, like I don’t like to even see the ocean since Stevie died, or see much of anything from my old life.  I guess I didn’t realize how deep your pain runs.  I’m sorry I popped off, but jeez, fellows, next time could you pick on a smaller guy that’s packing only a slingshot?”

“We’ll try” Billy said with the first chuckle that anyone had managed since the confrontation had begun.  “Just for you.  Now, let’s go see if we can find that bull and his harem.”

The three men began to pick their way through the forest obstacles as they made their way up the hill to the ridge.  Walt’s estimate was pretty close, and from a height of about three hundred feet above the valley floor they had a commanding view of that valley in three directions.  Two low ranges of scrub and tree covered hills split that valley into three wide spokes as if of a wheel radiating from a hub that was their place on the west end of the ridge.

Billy was gassed by the time they reached that point.  Charlie quickly opened up the chair for him and he plopped unceremoniously into it and popped a couple of Tylenol tablets into his mouth.

“Don’t take too much of that” Charlie said.  “It’s hard on your liver.”

“Thanks Mom” Billy replied.  “It’s my damned leg that’s my first concern at this present time.  Here” he handed the binoculars to Walt.  “See if you can see anything down there.”

Walt began to scan the valley floor in the direction that the warden said he had seen the elk, but without luck.  He scanned more to the south, looking for the warden, but knew that he wasn’t likely to see him.  “Crafty son of a bitch” he muttered.”

“What’s that?” Charlie asked.

“Oh, nothing.  I was just trying to see which way Ranger Rick was going.  The man knows how to move in the woods pretty good.  That’s impressive, for a Tanker.”

“I’ll bet he grew up here” Billy said, “or somewhere a lot like here.  I followed some tanks in Iraq.  Big suckers.   Bigger than those cracker boxes you followed in The Nam.  The guys pushing those things had steel balls.”

“Yeah, you’re right about that” Walt allowed.  “I hung with the guys from the 11th Armored Cav.  Crazy sons of bitches, and always ready for a fight.”

Charlie was thoroughly tired of hearing war stories by this point in the day, but he didn’t want to complain about it.  He had already chewed his two friends out and didn’t want to continue down that road.  ‘Let me have a peek” he finally said, not being able to think of anything else to say.  Walt handed him the binoculars and Charlie began to scan the valley.

He, too, began by looking for the warden.  That one man was going up the valley somewhere looking for a party of at least one armed man and probably more that was engaged in an illegal activity and would not fare well if he, or they, were caught.  Charlie felt a chill of dread for the warden and a deep admiration for his commitment to his job.  “Godspeed, officer what’s your name” he thought, and then he saw movement out of the right side of his field of view.

“Hey guys” Charlie said, pointing without putting down the glasses.  “A quarter of the way up the side of the first foothill of that mountain with two peaks.”

He passed the glasses quickly to Billy, who found the two peaks and then scanned down to the foothills and found the clearing in the thick woods.  “Yeah!  I see them!  Yeah!  Good eye, Charlie.”

“Gimme an look” pleaded Walt, and Billy passed the glasses over to him.  It took only a minute for Walt to find the clearing and then the elk that had moved fully into it.  “Son of a bitch, ain’t he something?” Walt asked.  “That’s one hell of a bull.  Shit, man, I don’t know if I could shoot his ass; good looking character like that.”

Walt became aware of the silence and put down the binoculars.  Charlie and Billy were looking at him with frank amazement all over their faces.  “What?” he asked.  “What’re you two apes looking at?”

“Why, Walt.  I believe that you are showing compassion” Charlie said.  “I’m not sure I know how to handle that.”

“Don’t get carried away” Walt said.  “I get hungry, I’m shooting him faster than white of rice.”

“Forget that, man” Billy said.  “I just saw you give a shit about something.  What day is this?  Yeah, Seventh of September.  I’m putting this in my journal.”

“You can put it up your ass” Walt growled, and returned to looking through the glasses.

“Hey, come on, Bogie.  Lemme look” Billy said as he picked up a stick and poked Walt in the ribs with it. Walt handed the binoculars to Billy, saying “Here.  Play with these so that you won’t play with yourself.”

Billy studied the clearing off in the distance and made occasional sounds of admiration.  At last he handed the binoculars to Charlie and said “Here.  They’re about out of sight.”

Charlie picked up the animals, which were near an edge of the clearing.  The bull raised his head and bellowed at the cows, who crowded around him and passed into the cover of the forest.  The regal elk gave the area one last close look, and then seemed to look directly back at Charlie over the many hundreds of yards that separated the two species, before moving with a stately grace into the covering forest.  After a minute of staring at where the elk had disappeared, Charlie put down the glasses.

“Son of a bitch” he said.  “I wouldn’t shoot him either.  That guy’s been through the wars, and I wouldn’t be the guy to take him out!”

After giving Billy time to rest, they began to trace their way back down the hill.  the ankle motion necessary to go downhill was harder on Billy than the ascent had been, and by the time that they reached the valley floor he was hobbling badly.

“You going to make it?” Walt asked, and he was not joking this time.

“I’ll make it” Billy replied through gritted teeth.  I just can’t say how long that’ll take me.”

“Well, there’s no hurry” Charlie said.  “You have a seat on that log and let’s have a bit to eat.”  He passed out some energy bars and then pulled out the half pint bottle of whiskey.  “Oh, look what I found” he said. “Maybe this will help things along.”

All three took a pull off of the bottle. Walt handed it back to Charlie, who  stashed it in his pack and they chatted while the snacks and whiskey did their work.  After a short while Billy emerged from his chair, more through determination than being actually prepared for more exertion, and said “Let’s get home.  I think I need some real food.”

It was early evening when the three men returned to camp.  Billy sat in his chair while Walt and Charlie packed away their gear in the back of the van.

“Still no way that I can drive?” Charlie asked.

“Up yours” Walt responded predictably.

“OK.  Let’s get the hell out of hear.”

They drove out of the forest, crossing over gravel and paved roads until they at last gained the state highway that led to the town of Colville.  The Acorn Saloon provided thick steaks and mashed potatoes and gravy and mug after mug of strong coffee.

“We should be home in six hours” Walt said as they paid up and returned to the van with a thermos full of the Acorn’s hot coffee.  “Unless I decide to drive to great little whorehouse that I know about in Yakima”

“Yeah.  Right.  Whatever” Billy said.  “Just get me home first.  Then you can go screw yourself for all I care.”

Walt laughed as he fired his van up and pulled out of the parking lot onto the pavement and then down U.S. Highway 395 toward Spokane, and beyond that back home to Vancouver.

The Garden, Chapter XX

Walt’s van pulled into the Burnt Hills Creek campground at a little past three in the afternoon.  Neither Walt nor Billy felt like sitting in the middle of the bench seat of Charlie’s truck, so it was agreed that Walt’s van took that issue off the table.  Billy and Charlie squabbled like high school students over who would get the front passenger seat and Walt had to settle the issue with a round of Rock, Paper and Scissors.  Charlie’s scissors fell to Billy’s rock, and so he crawled while grumbling good-naturedly into the back seat.

They drove east through the Columbia River Gorge and Walt never stopped talking about any and every topic.  “Can you believe how stupid that bastard Trump is, and how much time he spends golfing?  I thought he said that he was going to drain the swamp  Hell!  He’s the biggest fucking gator IN the swamp.”

“Wait a minute Walt” Billy interrupted.  “I believe that I’ve spent the last three years listening to you rant about Obama.  What’s it going to be here?”

“They’re both liars and thieves, so I’m not being inconsistent.  Didn’t Obammy just take four hundred thousand dollars for schmoozing with a bunch of bankers?”

“Come on, Walt” Billy objected.  Don’t start in on that ‘Obammy’ thing with me, OK?  We’re all pretty loose here but I don’t want to listen to that.  Let’s just leave the race thing out of this, all right?”

“OK, OK.  I didn’t mean to offend your sensitive ears.  You know that skin color doesn’t mean jack shit to me.  I’d vote for Condi Rice in a heartbeat.  That woman’s smarter’n a whip and kicks butt like a linebacker.  You remember when that shithead running Sudan tried to screw with her?”

“She smarter than you, Walt?” Charlie asked, getting in a rare word sideways.

“Don’t get carried away with this” Walt replied with a laugh.  “There’s one or two people as smart as me, I’ll allow, but there ain’t none smarter.  She plays a mean piano, too.”

On and on it went virtually non-stop as the three friends rolled along the broad Columbia River and then left it as they diverted east towards Walla Walla.  Billy had visited that agricultural city in Eastern Washington as a high school wrestler and had fallen in love with it.  “I’m moving here some day when get my shit together” Billy said as they approached the city limits.

“I think you’re shit’s pretty nearly together already” Charlie said.  “You get that program done and whatever license or certification you need and you’re going to do just fine.”

They stopped for lunch at a restaurant on the west side of town.  Although it was at least four times the size of Leroy’s little shoebox cafe, the grease was the same.  The waitresses all seemed to be cut from the same cloth as LuAnn too.  Chatty, good natured and obviously fond of their own cafe’s cooking, they bustled around the room dispensing smiles, country wisdom, and heaping plates of food.

“This stuff’s as good as it gets” Walt said, followed by a satisfied belch that almost echoed across the room.  “So damned greasy you don’t have to waste energy chewing.  It just sort of sli-i-i-des down the old gullet.”

Within the hour they were on the road again, headed toward Spokane and the Colville National Forest north of there.  Walt drove along, just five miles above the speed limit while nursing one of the bottles of Pabst that he had brought along in the cooler that was by his side.

“Shit, Walt.  What’re you doing?” Charlie asked when Walt fished the beer out of the ice and twisted off the cap.  “That is a major bust!”

“No worries” Walt replied.  “I’ve been doing this for fifty years and ain’t been busted yet.”

“Yeah” Charlie countered.  “But it’s one hell of a bust if you do.”

“Luxury tax” was all that Walt said in reply.

“I know” Billy said to Charlie.  “It’s crazy.  But what the hell do you expect?  He’s crazy.”

“Holy shit” was all that Charlie could say.

“We’ll get there” Billy said, in a minimally successful attempt to reassure Charlie.  “I don’t know how the old goat does it, but he does it.”

“The old goat does it because the old goat knows what he can do and what he can’t do, so you children just mind your own business and let Old Walt get you to where you’re going without any more back talk.”

“I don’t suppose there’s any chance that I’d get to drive back” Charlie ventured to guess.

“No chance in hell” was the expected reply.  “My van, I drive.”

They paid for a space at the campground, surprised at how full it was until Walt pointed out that many of the hunters who wold be out in the woods the next weekend were here to scout, same as they were.

“Half of them will be snot-slinging hammered too” he told them.  “It’s probably better that we won’t be out there in the woods with them.  I just might snap and take a few of them out if they got to shooting my way.”

“Yes Walt, I believe that you would” Billy added.  “Thing is, I can’t say that I wouldn’t do the same thing.  I grew to dislike being shot at while I was in Iraq.”

Charlie listened to these two veterans as they talked and began to get a better understanding of the bond that existed between them.  These men had learned to exist and even normalize their lives in some of the worse situations that humans could create.  Walt had found a groove that he could live in and Billy was still in that process, and with all of Walt’s rough edges and Billy’s struggles to bring his mind into focus, Charlie had to admire these deeply wounded men who had met life at such a grinding level and emerged injured but erect.

Charlie’s own struggles had been real and desperate, if of a different nature than Walt’s and Billy’s.  He felt validated though by these men who knew of his circumstances and considered them to be on a level with their own.  The bullets that penetrated his soul were as real as the ones that had torn through Walt’s body, and the two warriors acknowledged that fact.  “I believe that I love these guys” Charlie thought, and then chuckled as he pictured telling them that.  “That’d freak Walt out but good!”

They parked in their space and quickly set up camp.  Billy and Walt would share a tent while Charlie slept on a cot in the open air.  The wooden pantry was soon stocked with food and other supplies and a pile of wood was stacked next to the sone and steel camp stove.  “Probably built by the CCC during the Depression” Walt opined.  “My daddy might have built it.”

Camp duties secured, the three men struck off down a Forest Service road into the wilderness that would be crawling with hunters a week from now.  Charlie carried a pack with water, snacks, and a collapsible chair that was only slightly larger than a rolled-up umbrella but opened into a very comfortable instrument of relaxation.  This was part of his plan for accommodating Billy, who was having trouble dealing with his injured pride more than his injured leg.

“Shit, man” he growled.  “I feel like I’m you grandmother or something.”

“Hey, I told you that I was going to make allowances for your physical capabilities when I suggested this trip” Charlie replied.  “There’s nothing here that wasn’t part of the plan.  What you went through?  I’m just glad that you’re here and only need a chair to rest in from time to time.  Me carrying this chair ain’t nothing compared to what you carried over there.  Ain’t nothing compared to what you’ve carried since you came back, either.  So pipe down and let’s take a walk.”

And so they walked.  Charlie would have loved to go several miles up the road before diverting to the woods, but Billy would never manage that long of a walk.  They rested twice before they reached a mile and a half, and at that point found terrain that would lead them into the woods without requiring much climbing or, what was worse, walking downhill.

They rested two more times before they found an area of brush and trees that made a serviceable blind.  After Charlie set up Billy’s chair, all three made themselves comfortable and then spoke in low tones or not at all as they watched for any sign of wildlife.

This quest met with minimal success.  In the short time that they had before they had to head back to camp a hunting bobcat came into view and a group of mule deer were spotted crossing the valley at a distance in front of them.  No elk showed up to make their day, and soon it was time to begin their return trip if they wanted to get back to camp before dark.

The return took longer because Billy was getting tired and sore.  He chafed at having to stop and rest, but Charlie and Walt paid no attention to the inconvenience of it.  Walt’s chatter would draw Billy out of his mood, and as soon as he felt rested they would continue.  About an hour before sundown they returned to camp, built a fire in the stove and heated up some soup and beans.

Billy sat in his chair and swallowed a couple of Ibuprofen tablets to ease the pain in his damaged leg.  “Why don’t you get some Oxy for that pain, boy?” Walt asked as he threw some freeze dried beef stroganoff into a pot of boiling water.  “That stuff you’re popping won’t do any more than take the edge off of your pain.”

“I did Oxy, Walt.  I liked it too much” Billy replied.  “I could get hooked on that stuff easy as pie.  Nope.  A little pain now is better than a bigger one down the road.”

“What do you think, Charlie?” Walt asked.  “Why should Billy-boy here hurt when he has as good a reason as anybody I know to justify a prescription?”

“Well I don’t know” Charlie replied.  “My hurt the last few years hasn’t been physical, so I wouldn’t know what I was talking about.”

“That hasn’t stopped Walt” Billy said with a smile.

“Screw you” Walt replied.  “Yeah, Charlie, you’re probably right about that.  They make a different medication for your sort of problems.”

As Walt said that he drew a half pint of rotgut bourbon out of his pack, took a swig, then passed it to Charlie who poured some of it into a mug.

“Oh, too good to drink after me, eh?” Walt chided.

“I don’t think you want to catch my HIV” Charlie responded, and passed the bottle to Billy.  He also picked up a mug and said “I don’t want what either one of you skanky characters have” and poured a mugful of his own, then handed the bottle back to Walt.

The three men ate their dinner while sitting in the dark around the glowing remains of their cooking fire.  The sky was clear and a half moon poured pale light down onto them.  Dozens of lanterns glowed in the surrounding camp sites.  It was quiet in the campground.  Dinners had been finished and children mostly put to bed.  As the whiskey was consumed the conversation became oddly more quiet, as the men began to discuss the things that dogged their lives.

“This time next week I’ll be getting ready to hear my boy play the piano” Charlie said.  “You know, I don’t really remember ever hearing him play, other than practicing on the piano that was in our living room.  Hell, I hardly remember even that.  I didn’t think music amounted to much.  ‘Jack has to learn how to make a living’ I told Maureen when she twisted my arm into buying the piano.  ‘Jack is an eight year old boy’ I remember her telling me.  ‘I don’t think he’ll have to carry his own weight just yet.’

“You know what?  Maureen was right  One hundred percent.  I can’t believe what an ass I was.  It’s just that I always believed that since I had to take care of myself from an early age, I should teach Jack to be the same as me.”

“Well” Walt said.  “There’s really no harm in that.  A guy does have to pay his own way after all.  Unless he’s a bottom feeding bum, anyway.  You wanted your boy to become somebody.  There’s no shame in that.”

“Yeah” Charlie replied.  “You’re right.  Partly, anyway.  But I guess I could have let him be a kid for a while.  And I suppose that I could have let him be something other than a little model of me.  If he chose to become a musician or anything else other than a construction worker, where’s the harm in that?  He could be anything that he wanted and he’d still be my boy.  Why the hell didn’t I think that was good enough?

“You’re right about that” Billy said.  “But hey, better late than never, no?  If he grows up reasonably happy and well adjusted, and he has a relationship with his father, I think that could be all that you could hope for.  So what are you going to say to him when you see him?”

Charlie sat glumly in his chair, looking at the dying embers in the stove.  He took another sip of the whiskey and wiped his lips with the back of his hand.  At last he looked up and said “I haven’t got a clue.  Not one damned clue.  I’ve imagined all sorts of scenes; I hug him and tell him that I’m sorry.  I give him a high five and tell him he’s the next Chopin.  I shit my pants and trip over my shoelaces.  Hell, I don’t know what I’ll say to him.  I don’t know what I’ll say to his mother either.”

Walt began to speak, saying ‘Well, you could tell her to get – – -“

Billy held up his hand near Walt’s face.  Walt was surprised by that, and when Billy slowly shook his head signaling ‘no,’ Walt settled silently back into his chair and took another pull on the nearly depleted whiskey bottle.

“I want to tell her that I’m sorry, and not just to make myself feel better.  I really am sorry.   I want to tell her that she deserved better than she got.  I want to tell her that I was too busted up to think straight.  I want to tell her that hurting her and Jack was the last thing that I wanted to do, and it tore me up so bad that I almost killed myself one night on the I-5 Bridge, and only some stupid promise that I’d made to do something for somebody, and maybe some act of a god I don’t even think I believe in, is all that kept me from doing it.”

Charlie sat back deeper into his chair and looked up at the star-strewn sky.  He drained the last of his whiskey, and Billy and Walt sat silently as he collected his thoughts.  At last he finished with “I’m not going to say any of that shit though.  I should, but I won’t.  Not that night, anyway.  I’m going to tell Jack that he played wonderfully, whether he does or not.  I’m going to tell Maureen that it was good to see her, even if seeing her is hard as hell.  And then I’ll just have to play the rest by ear.”

“Charlie looked straight at Billy, and then at Walt.  “This is going to hurt like all the fires of hell, guys, but it has to be done.  And for the first time in my life I’m going to do the hard thing.  And Walt, I’m a little wobbly, so if you would be so kind as to rummage in my pack you’ll find a pint of better stuff than that rat piss you just fed us.”

Walt finished the last few drops in his bottle and walked surprisingly well to the camp table where Charlie’s pack rested.  He dug around and found a bottle with the cap covered in red wax.  “Oh, Mr. High Pockets is sharing his Maker’s Pride.  Well done, Junior.  That’s what I call respecting your elders.”

He handed the bottle to Charlie, who cut through the wax with his pocket knife and pulled the stopper out of the neck of the bottle.  He took a pull of the whiskey and sighed, saying ‘Now that’s a better sort of brew,” and passed the bottle to Billy.

Mugs were forgotten at this point, and the bottle was now passed freely from hand to hand.  “So,” Charlie said.  “You start school in two weeks.  How’re you feeling about that?”

Billy took a slug and passed the bottle.  “I feel like a bowl of Jello” he said.  “Everyone in that classroom will be younger than me and able to do stuff that scares the shit out of me right now.  They’re all just continuing what they already know how to do, while I’ll be trying to remember how to do the school thing.  Or learning how to do it all over again would be more like the truth.”

“You’ll do fine, Billy” Charlie said.  “You’ve already learned the hard stuff in life. Now you’re going to do something a lot easier.  I think you’ll blow everybody in that program away.”

Billy sat silently for a couple of minutes, looking at the stove that was now growing cold.  At last he said “Funny choice of words.  ‘Blown away,’ I mean.  I’ll be the only one in the program who actually was nearly blown away.  There’ll be kids there who are driving nice cars, have cute boyfriends and girlfriends, and who hit the hipster places downtown if they’re old enough.  They know how to be cool.  I know how to clear a building of guys with AK 47s and RPG launchers.  Guys who want to take my ass out.

These kids party and socialize and get laid every other night by somebody new, and I got taken out like a sackful of garbage and placed on the curb by my girlfriend. I joined the Army in order to get killed in battle and couldn’t even do that, and now I’m damaged goods.  Yeah, I’m looking forward to moving on, but it’s not like I’m going to be tiptoeing through the tulips while I do it.  I think that getting home each day after school and unloading on you,” he pointed towards Charlie, “and getting together with you and the other guys,” he now pointed at Walt, “will be the only things that will keep me sane for the next two years.”

The bottle came around to Charlie and he took another sip, while silence reigned over their camp.  After a few minutes Charlie said “Billy, I can’t tell you how it’ll be.  I got no idea.  It might be just like you say it will.  But then again you’ve never done this before, right?  I mean, you’ve never gone into a classroom full of people who’ve never had to make a more important decision than whether they should buy Nike’s or Adidas.

You’ve seen how rough things can really be.  You’ve seen shit exploding all around you.  You’ve seen parts of good guys and parts of bad guys sprayed all over the streets.  Shit, I’ve never seen anything like that!  You’ve had to strap on your gear in the morning, going out and knowing that you or one of your buddies or, shit, maybe all of you won’t be coming back to camp that evening.  Mann, these kids don’t know any of that stuff.  They’ve never had to shoot a kid or a woman before they could explode a bomb vest and kill you and all of your comrades.  Compared to that this will be a cakewalk; a stroll in the park.  Hell, you’re laying around the shack telling me about Chopin and Polish history and Napoleon after seeing the shit that you saw.  You’ll do just fine.

And I don’t think that you should think about the other students at all, really.  Hell, they’ll probably turn out to be decent, normal people, just like us.”  Walt snorted at that idea.  “Hell, man.  They’ll probably have their own good points and their own baggage.  Maybe you’re just seeing images in your mind that you’re getting from movies or gossip magazines.  Those other students are kids who haven’t seen the shit that you have, I’ll wager, but are otherwise not all that different from you,” Charlie pointed at Billy with the neck of the bottle.  He then took a swig and pointed the bottle back toward himself and continued speaking. “Or from me, for that matter.  Now Walt; that’s a different story.”

They chuckled and Charlie handed the bottle to Billy.  Walt, however, didn’t make a sound.  He sat motionless in his chair, a dim figure in the dark.  Charlie and Billy shared laughter and insults and tossed pebbles and twigs at each other, forgetting for the moment that Walt was there with them.  After a few minutes, when Billy passed the jug to Walt, the scarred old veteran cleared his throat and said “I have a story to tell you.”

Charlie continued to joke, but as Billy became silent, Charlie realized that this moment deserved a more restrained attitude.  He quieted down and said “Sorry Walt.  Go ahead.  I’m listening.”

Walt took a chug of bourbon, scarcely reacting to the fiery stuff as it slid down his throat, and began to speak.  “There used to be a guy that I worked with at the school.  He was one annoying bastard, I’ll tell you.  It didn’t matter what story you would tell; he’d always act like he could tell you a better one.  ‘I hit a grand slam in the World Series’ you’d say, and he’d say ‘Well, that’s nothing.  I hit two grand slams.’  Or maybe you’d say I shot down a space ship at Roswell and killed a dozen blood sucking aliens,’ and he’d say ‘That’s nothing.  I shot down the space ship that was carrying Elvis away, and he performed in Las Vegas for 10 more years.’  It didn’t matter what you’d say.  He’d just come back with that goddam ‘That’s nothing.’  Made me want to strangle the son of a bitch.”

Walt took another sip, and even he was visibly impaired by now from all of the alcohol that had been consumed.  “But I have to say, and I feel embarrassed to say it, but your stories are nothing.  You two have had a tough go of it, I’ll grant you that.  It’s the only reason that I’m sitting with you tonight, to tell you the truth.  I ain’t got much time for anybody who hasn’t been kicked in the nuts once or twice by life.

Anyway, you both know that I spent time in The Nam back in the Sixties.  It sucked.  Big time.  Not as bad in some ways as it was for you, Billy.  I mean, a quarter of the people over there liked us, a quarter hated us, and the other half didn’t give a flying fuck one way or the other.  I think that they just about all hated you guys in Iraq.

We needed to get information from the V.C., the same as they needed to get information out of us, so prisoners were a good thing to capture.  Now, we had ROE’s; that is, rules of engagement.  That meant that we weren’t supposed to do all of the ugly shit that they did to us.  I’ll give you three guesses how much attention we paid to our ROE’s, and the first two don’t count.

Well, our G2 guys had their own way of interrogating Charlie.  Oh, that’s what we called the Viet Cong back then.  No reflection on you, Charlie.  Anyway, they would take them up in a chopper and hang them out the door a couple of thousand feet off the deck.  About half of the VC still wouldn’t talk even then, so they pitched their asses out the door.  The other half – the smart half – would talk.  Then about half of them got pitched out the door just on general principle.  You’d look up and it’d be raining Cong, soon to turn from being bad guys to being good guys.

Well, Charlie had his ways of asking questions too.  You’ve all heard about bamboo slivers under the fingernails and all that happy shit.  Well, in the jungle those kinds of things were just thought of as being playful.  It got worse than that.  A lot worse.

We would put some guys in forward listening posts at night.  They would be out there in front of the wire, hunkered down in a hole and trying to be silent and invisible.  If Charlie came sneaking in, trying to catch us by surprise, they would trigger a flare that would alert the guard detail.  Pretty soon a shower of flares would be turning night into day while Huey gunships were turning the jungle into chopped salad with rockets and mini guns.

One night all was quiet, but when a squad went out in the morning to relieve the forward guys they found one of the holes empty.  We sent out patrols trying to pick up his trail, and put Bird Dogs into the air hoping to see Charlie if he got careless, which he seldom did.  He didn’t get careless this time, either.

We figured that Bertie – that was the guy’s name – was just shit out of luck and if he was lucky he’d end up spending the rest of the war in the Hanoi Hilton or some place just like it.  But he wasn’t lucky.  A week later I was on a routine patrol out in the bush.  After a while of being out there the guy walking point came back and said something to our lieutenant.  He looked like he’d seen a ghost, and our lieutenant looked like he wanted to kill someone.

He gave us the order to spread out, and we did.  We walked slowly through the thick brush on either side of the trail.  The guys on the right wing couldn’t see the guy on the left.  After several yards we could see a wide spot in the the trail and in the middle of it was Bertie.

He was tied to a post, and a bamboo cage that fit tight around his neck just under his jaw had been attached over his head.  Inside the cage was a big-ass Vietnamese rat, and it was probably hungry when they put it in there.

Well, most of what could be eaten on Bertie’s head was gone.  It was like a bloody skull on the body of a man we used to know that was tied to that post.  I just stood there flat-footed and stared at what was left of Bertie and that’s when the shit hit the fan.

Charlie had placed Bertie there knowing that we would be knocked off our guard by it, and he blew some real smoke up our asses just as soon as we saw him.  Four guys died right then and there; one of them being our lieutenant.  The rest of us found cover and started blazing away while the radioman called for support.  We couldn’t see Charlie but we knew where he probably was, and started putting fire in the direction of those positions.

It was while this was going on that I looked at Bertie again and I’ll be damned if he didn’t move!  I thought ‘Holy Shit!  He’s still alive!’  Well, that thought chilled me right down to the marrow in my bones.  I sorta forgot about Charlie then; I couldn’t take my eyes off Bertie.

Like, what could they do for him?  They couldn’t grow him a new head.  Even if we got him out alive, he would be a freak who could never walk down a sidewalk again.  Hell, he’d make Freddy Kreuger shit his pants.

Bertie wasn’t a close friend of mine, but we had covered each other’s asses a lot, so I figured that it was time for me to cover Bertie’s one last time.  I was a pretty good shot; not sniper good, but pretty damned good.  I took my time and took good aim, bullets flying all around me and mortars dropping, too.  I squeezed off a round that hit Bertie flush in the chest.  I’m pretty sure that my first shot killed him, but I set up for one more and I put that one right through his bloody skull.

I don’t really remember much more of what happened that day.  We were dropping Willie Peter on them – that’s White Phosphorus – and pouring fire into their positions, like I said, but I don’t know how much effect it was having.  We were dropping one by one and I was thinking that I wouldn’t get out of there alive when the Cobras arrived and began to give them hell from the air.  I guess the Cong, or what was left of them anyway, slipped away through the brush or down into tunnels or something.  Anyway, they were just suddenly gone.

The brass made us walk back to our base camp.  I think they wanted to wear us out a little bit; you know, walk off some of what we’d just seen.  And I suppose it worked, sort of.  We all got a shit, shower and shave when we got back and they gave us a few beers each and told us to stay in our hooches that night. They didn’t want us to go to the EM Club and get properly fucked up and then unload on the first guy who said something wrong to us.

After that, we didn’t take much in the way of prisoners.  The drill was that if Charlie came out of the brush with his hands up and saying ‘Chu Hoi,’ that meant that he wanted to give himself up and we were supposed to take him to G2.  Well, we mostly just wasted the sons of bitches and let them rot where they fell.

Pretty soon the brass figured out that we were too fucked up in the head to keep us together any longer, so they split up our unit and farmed most of us out to other assignments in The Nam.  The guys who were short timers; they just went ahead an shipped them out to isolated areas in the far East where they could try to fix their heads a little before they cut them loose on society back home.  I don’t think that it helped much, though.

I got reassigned to convoy duty, and I told you about that already.  A couple of bullets later I was in a hospital in Vung Tau, then in Japan, and finally home in Seattle.  And that, my friends, is my story.”

Walt took a tug on the bottle and passed it to Charlie, but he didn’t take it.  Billy, who had heard much of the story before, nudged Charlie and said “If you don’t want a drink, pass it over to me.”  Charlie took the bottle and without drinking from it passed it on to Billy.  At last he said “Walt, I wish that you would tell me that you’re bullshitting me.”

Walt shook his head and just said “ Uh uh.”

Charlie looked at Billy and said “I think I need that drink now.”

The bottle was returned to Charlie and this time he took a long drink.  By now all three men were deep in the effects of all of the liquor that they had consumed, but in an odd way it felt as if Walt’s story had pushed them into something that looked like sobriety.

“Gentlemen” Walt said.  “We live in a fucked up world, and there ain’t no two ways about it.”  He looked at Billy and said “You’re young and got help early.  You’ve got a chance to put your shit behind you and make a life for yourself.  Yeah, you’re a gimp and will probably always be one, but you can be a productive gimp.  Might find a woman who’ll put up with your gamey young ass and make a family.

And you,” he pointed towards Charlie, “haven’t left any body parts of yourself in a jungle or a desert somewhere.  You had a bad turn, sure as shit.  But looks like you can come back from it.  Looks that way to me anyway.  You go and see your son.  You tell him you’ve been through hell.  Maybe tell him you know that he’s been through it too.  Heck, maybe your wife’ll take you back, too, if she isn’t riding some other guy by now.

Point is, you both got lives, if you want ‘em.  Billy, you’ve made more progress than I could believe possible, and Charlie, you aren’t the guy I met last spring sniveling in the garden.  Me?  I’m a guy who killed a living skeleton in a place called Hell.  I see that bastard Bertie all the time.  I don’t have to be asleep either.  Been that way since the day it happened and will be until the day I die.”

They sat silently in their chairs after Walt finished speaking.  A third of the bottle remained and Charlie plugged it.  They were through for this night.  Walt at last spoke up with the voice that Charlie was used to hearing.  “Well, I don’t know about you all, but I’ve had enough of such stories for one night.  I’m turning in.”  He rose up out of his chair and walked in a more or less straight line to the tent.  Soon after that Billy was out of his chair; said ‘good night,’ and wobbled after Walt.

Charlie stayed in his chair and soon fell fast asleep.  His alcohol-addled mind was filled with dreams of Carolyn, his dead daughter, Rachael and her black eye, Jack at the piano and a living skeleton tied to a post.  At some point in the night he woke up with a sore neck and left his chair for the more comfortable surface of his cot.  “I’m going to feel like royal shit tomorrow” he thought as he pulled the covers over himself and buried his head in his pillow.  Once again the picture of Bertie tied to a post invaded his mind.  “I feel like royal shit right now.”