Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Fire Next Time, Part II

In Part I of “The Fire Next Time” I wrote of one instance involving fire that was warm and fuzzy and two that could have ended badly.  In Part II I will share three more stories; one which ended badly, one which could have ended badly but did not, and one that left me scratching my head.  My first story, the one that ended badly, is the story of Hank Snell.

All of us kids loved to play with fire when I was young, and some of us were more inquisitive and adventurous than others.  I don’t know who it was that first learned about holding a lit cigarette lighter in front of a can of hairspray to create a serviceable blowtorch, but it wasn’t long before everyone was doing it.  In no time at all spider webs and model towns made out of popsicle sticks and plastic model airplanes and automobiles belonging to siblings were being incinerated by a horde of little fire starters who were imitating Carrie White decades before Steven King wrote a novel with that incendiary young lady’s first name for a title.

Anywhere, at any time of the day or night in my neighborhood of East San Diego, one might see a jet of flame piercing the air, making an alley or the Park or somebody’s back yard when their parents were away at work look like flares erupting from a Saudi refinery.  When I look back on the kids that I hung out with in my neighborhood, it’s a wonder that nobody ever got torched by an errant eruption on the part of a careless associate.  Hank was the one exception to that history however, and it was Hank himself who turned out to be his own worst enemy.

In the course of time we all grew tired of the buzz that we achieved by lighting up our San Diego neighborhood with Spray Net and Aqua Net blowtorches.  Something had to be thought up to take that trick to the next level and, sure enough, somebody did.

I don’t really know who that somebody was.  Maybe that person saw a circus act on television – I’m not aware of a real circus, other than my neighborhood of course – coming to San Diego.  Maybe they saw a sideshow at the County Fair featuring a human flamethrower.  I know that I saw a sword swallower and a fire eater there, so a flamethrower is possible.  In any case an evolution of the hairspray trick was needed and a cadre of intrepid teens in our neighborhood, which included Hank Snell, stepped up to the plate.

The new trick went like this.  A person would get a mouthful of rubbing alcohol, light their Zippo cigarette lighter, and blow the flammable liquid through the pilot light to create a human blowtorch.  The trick was sometimes successful but oftentimes it was not, so an improvement was made right away.  That improvement came in the form of taking in a mouthful of lighter fluid and then repeating the established steps.

The result was electric!  On every attempt, the highly flammable lighter fluid would blaze into an impressive bloom of flame as it was ejected forcefully through the lit Zippo.  Several kids found the courage to do this trick, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that several kids simply lost what few marbles that they had left.  Either way, it was an awesome display and none had a more spectacular delivery than did Hank.

Maybe he was just full of more hot air than were the rest of us, or maybe he tricked us and employed gasoline in his act.  I don’t know, but Hank could create a fireball that looked a lot like “The Gadget” which was exploded at Trinity in New Mexico in 1945, just before it’s two siblings were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But all good plans have a fatal flaw.  Hank’s fatal flaw was that he failed to take into account the wind.  Therefore, one fine day he was demonstrating his oral pyrotechnic prowess to a group of friends and blew his blowtorch straight into the wind.  The wind returned the favor and blew the flames right back into Hank’s face.

Hank got cooked like a deep fried turkey, or at least he looked that way.  Eyebrows and eyelashes were gone, but luckily the skin of his face did not burn into the dermal layers.  He looked plenty well done however, so his friends helped Hank to get home and then bailed out as soon as his parents took him off of their hands.  They had no interest in waiting around and having to answer embarrassing questions.  Hank was transported to a small hospital on El Cajon Boulevard; Hillside Hospital, I think it was, but I’m not sure about that one.  There he was treated with state of the art aid and, on the next day, received visitors.

I wasn’t with that group, but a friend of mine was.  He told me that Hank looked like the Mummy with all of his dressings, and that patches of red and blistered skin, all slathered in some sort of shiny salve, was visible.  Maybe a blister or two was dozing something for good measure.  I can’t testify to the truth of this account, but the story went on to tell of Bill Killman, one of the biggest, meanest and craziest kids in the neighborhood, passing out at his first sight of Hank’s face, and cracking his head open on the foot of Hank’s hospital bed.  I have heard that story from enough sources to believe that it is probably true.

On another occasion I experienced an episode that could have gone bad but somehow didn’t.  Jeff Brained and I were fooling around with matches close to the wall of the garage behind his house.  Jeff lived in the middle house of the three that were tucked in between the church on the corner of 44th and Wightman and the Park.  When they build the Park, or the Highland and Landis Recreational Center as official types preferred to call it, they took out most of the houses on that block, and Jeff lived in one of the few that remained.

I don’t remember what we were burning; it could have been just about anything.  The problem was that we didn’t find a place to burn that was sufficiently far from the weeds which had grown up after the scanty rain of spring and summer, and were now a foot or more tall and dry as a bone.  Predictably, the fire got into the weeds and was soon spreading towards the garage and the alley behind it.

Jeff and I were not very different from most of the other kids that we knew; that is, a couple of tacos short of a combo plate.  But soon even we could see that the situation was getting entirely our of hand.  We began to try to stamp out the flames, but with zero success.  Then we tried to kick an area free of weeds between the fire and the garage and weed-choked alley (which did not run the entire length of the block, and was therefore little used and thick with weeds), but that too was a futile endeavor.

At this time something happened to me for the first, but not the last, time.  On occasions of extreme stress I would sometimes sort of lose touch with reality.  I would go onto some sort of auto pilot, and while I still functioned in a normal manner at those times I would simply lose the memory of what had transpired.  This happened once or twice again in my teens, a few times in Vietnam and a few times in the first years after I returned to San Diego and civilian life.  It’s weird, and it hasn’t happened again for a long time now, but it happened the first time in Jeff’s back yard.

I think that Jeff ran and got the garden hose while I continued to thrash away at the flames, but I don’t really know that for sure.  One moment I was imagining the garage and perhaps more than that going up in flames, and the next I was standing in a patch of blackened soil, the fire thoroughly out.  I know that I had kept stamping at the fire because my tennis shoes were sort of melted and my jeans were blackened and singed.  Beyond that I didn’t then and still don’t know what happened.  If I ever run into Jeff I’ll have to ask him.

The final story of this round of tales took place in my own back yard.  I was probably twelve years old and, as I often did, I had a small fire burning in the middle of our back yard.  Now, I may not have been the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but I knew how to keep a safe fire.  Well, my own back yard at least.  Anyway, I had a small fire going and I was sitting on a big chunk of wood and tending my blaze while I daydreamed of pleasant things.  I still do that, by the way.

At some point the sound of sirens from a fire engine broke into my consciousness, and I began to think of putting out my little fire and riding my bicycle to what certainly must be a bigger show.  I scanned the horizon for smoke but saw none, so I resumed paying attention to my fire and my daydreams.

The siren grew louder and at last I decided that something seriously exciting was happening nearby.  Once again I looked all around for smoke, and once again I found none.  Getting back to my fire and my daydreams however was now out of the question.  The sound of the siren grew until it seemed like it was very nearly on top of me.  There was a good reason for that; it very nearly WAS on top of me.

The siren was turned off and moments later three gigantic firemen in full uniforms, with boots and thick clothes and those big, wide-brimmed fireman helmets on top of huge heads with scowling faces, came thundering around the corner of the house, burst into my back yard, came to a dead stop, and then looked around for the fire.

The only fire was my little affair, hardly big enough to cook a hot dog over it.  I stood by the fire, stunned and stupefied, looking for all the world like I had no idea what was happening.  This, no doubt, was because in fact I had no idea what was happening.

“Where’s the fire” one of the firemen asked me.  I looked around, hoping that a neighbor’s house was burning.  Alas, all that I could see, besides every kid that I knew running from the Park and lining my back fence, pointing at me and beginning to laugh, was my little Boy Scout blaze.

Pointing at my weak flames, I told him “I guess that’s all the fire that there is around here.”

Fifty seven years after the fact I can still remember the look of disgust on the fireman’s face.  “Well” he said.  “We got called to put out a fire, so let’s put out a fire.”

They brought a hose into the yard; not one of those big canvas affairs, but rather a smaller rubber hose which nevertheless had a good deal of pressure.  The fireman pointed the brass nozzle at my fire, pulled a lever, and blasted my little blaze out of existence.

Later, when my mother got home from work, she quickly figured out that our next door neighbor was the party who ratted me out.  She was a little bit odd under the best of circumstances, and she virtually never operated under the best of circumstances.  She was certain that I would eventually burn the neighborhood down.  I suppose that I might have gotten a little ash on her laundry once or twice, so that didn’t help things much.  My brother was in the house at the time, and he said that she was looking out from a bedroom window as the firemen ran up our driveway.  He said that she had a smirk on her face.

Which brings me to the end of Part II of this account of my early love affair with fire.  In Part III I will share two or three more stories that revolved around fire, and then put the topic to rest.

The Cobra

We who work in the medical field know that we may deal with unpleasant realities on any given day.  People don’t usually come to the doctors’ offices or clinics or hospitals to prove that everything is right in their world.  In fact, most of the time the reverse is true.  As a result of this hard truth, we medical workers develop an odd sense of humor in order to deal with the stress, much in the same manner as law enforcement agents or military personnel or others doing those jobs that most people wouldn’t want to do.  Some call it ‘gallows humor,’ and I suppose that is as good a description of it as any other.

But underlying that humor, we medical workers remember that we’re working on flesh-and-blood people; people who have lives and histories, families and connections and, probably most important, simple human worth.  We will work like fiends possessed in order to snatch a patient back from the grip of death, and if death has just been dealt too strong a hand we will sometimes cry and pound our fist against a wall when The Reaper wins the table.

It is with all of that in mind that I will now share a story from my medical career of over forty years.  I have no intention of making light of a person’s health crisis, and will refrain from stating the patient in my story’s age, medical diagnosis (which I never knew anyway), location, or anything else that could possibly identify this person or cause harm or pain to him or any living relative or acquaintance.  This is meant simply as a bit of humor; the humor that I and many who do work like mine use in order to keep our sanity.

This story is entitled ‘The Cobra,’ and it is with reference to the spitting cobra that is found in Africa and Southeast Asia.  It began when I was called to perform an ultrasound study of the abdomen on a patient in the Intensive Care Unit at a hospital where I worked years ago.  As usual, I loaded gel and linen on top of my ultrasound machine and pushed it to the room where the patient lay.

Outside the door was a cart with gowns and masks and bonnets which are usually provided when the patient has some disease such as MRSA, Clostridium difficile, E. Coli, or any other such highly communicable disease.  As I was gowning up, the patient’s nurse came by and I asked her “What nasty bug am I protecting myself from today?”

“Oh” she replied.  “He doesn’t have any infectious disease that we know of.”

I looked at the cart and bright yellow gown that I was wearing and then asked the nurse “Then why am I wearing all of this?”

“He spits” she said.

“Pardon me?”

“The patient spits.  It’s a neurological thing.  We don’t even know if he’s aware that he’s doing it.  He isn’t aiming, as far as we can tell, and you’ll only get hit if you stray into his line of fire.  He just spits constantly, so this is for your protection.”

I had never heard of any such thing, and so with a mix of caution and doubt I pushed my machine into the patient’s room and set up to go to work on the right side of the bed.  I quickly sized up the situation.  The floor was indeed a swamp of spit.  His bedding had recently been changed, so there was only a general dampness to the sheets and blanket that covered him.  His head was turned to the left, so I plugged in my machine, pulled up my chair, lowered the blanket and raised his gown, and then began to scan according to my abdomen protocol.

“Left lobe of the liver; four pictures in the transverse plane, including the portal vein.  Now three views in sagittal, trying to capture the caudate lobe framed by the left lobe and the inferior vena cava.”

Just about as I snapped that last picture The Cobra, which name I gave to the patient as a part of the coping mechanism that I have explained above, began to slowly move his head from his left to his right, where I was sitting.  “Pffft!  Pffft!  Pffft!”  “Oh crud” I thought.  “They’re right!  He’s spitting and he’s turning toward me!”  

In Vietnam I had seen things coming my way; things that I had little or no ability to prevent.  In such circumstances I had to focus on survival, and so it was on this day.  “Think, Durden.  Think fast!”

The Cobra’s face passed the 90 degree mark and his liquid missiles were beginning to arc onto the right half of his bed.  My peril was undeniable and my reason nearly failed me.  At the last minute however inspiration broke through and took charge of the situation.

“Look” I said, pointing to the wall near the left side of his bed.  “What’s that?”

Gradually, by microscopic increments like slow motion on barbiturates, The Cobra’s head stopped its starboard progress and reversed course, and like a supertanker making a U-turn he began to roll his head to port in order to investigate whatever it was that I was pointing at, spitting all the while like a fireboat at a Fourth of July celebration.

I resumed my exam with a new sense of urgency.  Pancreas: Bam! Done!  Aorta: Bam! Done! Gallbladder: Well, sort of like a Bam!  Those things just take a little more time.  Then on to the right lobe of the liver, with many segments and structures, veins and ducts and such to evaluate.  The liver will slow you down, and time was not on my side.  Sure enough, before my last liver image was taken the fount of saliva began to once again track back to the right.  This time, however, I felt like I had a handle on the situation; it was that or I was cutting the exam short.

“Look” I said again, and with greater urgency this time, just in case he was catching on to me.  “What’s that?”  Again I pointed to the left and again, after almost getting my outstretched right hand spat upon, his head returned to a leftward arc, dousing that side of the bed, the floor, and the wall with a saliva rain.

Now I knew that I had this one in the bag.  I finished the liver and right kidney and began to shut down my machine.  This process didn’t take long and before The Cobra could turn to anoint the right side of the room I was outside, peeling off my isolation gear safe and dry and feeling pretty good about myself.

“How did you manage that?” asked a nurse as I snugly dropped my dry gown and gloves into the appropriate receptacle.

“Manage what?” I asked, being a confirmed and determined smartass.

“How did you stay dry?  Nobody else has done that.”

“Hey, no problem” I replied.  “Desperate times, desperate measures.  I used a decoy.”

I left the nurse scratching her head as I descended to our department to develop my film and show a pretty good study to the radiologist.

Walking the Dog

“Here I am, at the start of my hike up Dog Mountain. I got here at six thirty in the morning in order to beat the throng. I’m told that crowds begin to converge on this trail early, and the only way to get a parking spot at the trailhead is to beat the rush. It looks like I managed to do that. There’s a dozen or so cars here and all of them are empty. People must already be on the trail.

I guess I’ll get on the trail too. Rumor has it that it is a very difficult climb to the top of the mountain. There was one woman who said that it is not so bad as people say, but she’s an animal who could run to Albuquerque just to get a bowl of green chili stew and then run back before the evening rush hour, so I’m not putting to much stock by her description of it. Well, here goes.

 

Phew! It’s been only ‘up’ ever since the first step! And I really mean UP. The trail is not very wide and it is easily a forty five degree slope going up one side of it and a forty five degree downslope on the other. I have taken frequent rest stops, leaning on a walking stick that I made out of a young maple tree that was growing just across the backyard fence in my neighbor’s yard. He doesn’t care, and I hate having maples grow so close to my house. Their seeds and leaves clog my gutters, and the shade encourages moss growth on my roof. Yes, it serves much better as a walking stick; keeps me vertical when walking on the loose rock and helps me to propel myself forward and upward.

I was surprised by the number of people who passed me by. It’s not that I’m a mountain goat or anything like that. Heck, I’m 69 years old and I’m amazed that I’m this far up the hill in the first place. No, it’s the raw number of hikers that surprises me. Where do they all come from? Is anybody left in Portland or Vancouver? By ones and in groups they stream past me, and I step aside to let them pass. Actually, I appreciate the rest.

I haven’t gotten out of the trees yet, but I’ve found a wide spot in the trail where I can sit down on a log, drink some water, eat a handful of trail mix, and appreciate the fresh forest air and the silence. Well, sort of appreciate the silence. The tinnitus that sings constantly in my ears prevents me from enjoying true silence. I cannot hear the cars on Highway 14 far below me however, and if a train has chugged by on the tracks that run along the Columbia River, I didn’t hear it. Only the birds, the occasional rustlings of what I presume to be small animals in the undergrowth, and the breeze blowing through the trees which surround me make any noise at all. And those are soothing noises, so that’s all right with me.

I’ve seen some wood anemones growing among the vegetation between the trees. At least, that’s what I think they are. They’re delicate little white flowers. I’m told that there are many, many more flowers further up the trail. I think I’ll get up now and go have a look-see.

 

Oh, good Lord! This stinking trail really does just go up. The leg of the hike that I just finished was a longer version of the first one, but I’ve finally found a proper place to take a breather. I’ve come out of the trees and found a cluster of boulders on an open spur of the hillside. A young couple was leaving as I arrived, so I have a sweet little spot to sit on with a magnificent view of the river rolling to the west.

I’ve got no idea how high I am but I’m looking down at the tops of some hills, and a barge on the river looks pretty small. There is a train on the Oregon side of the river that looks like one of those really little model trains; what are they? I think they may be H O gauge. I don’t remember. But it’s really small.

My legs are burning pretty good, but it’s a nice burn. The quads, which I know is actually a group of four muscles in each thigh, have not worked like this for a very long time; not since before the heart attack and surgery that I had three years ago. I’m happy to have made it this far, and if it doesn’t get any worse I should make it to the top in pretty good shape. My hip joints can get a little balky sometimes, but so far so good.

There is a profusion of yellow flowers that completely surrounds me. They grow straight up the hillside behind me, and straight down the hillside in front of me. They are quite beautiful but I have to confess a bit of disappointment. Long ago my brother and I were traveling through Arizona in the springtime and we pulled off to the side of a very rural two lane road, literally somewhere south of the middle of nowhere, to sleep for the night.

When we woke up the next morning we found ourselves surrounded by a riot of flowers of all shapes and colors. It reminded me of the room that the river of chocolate flowed through in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. You know, Willy Wonka. The Gene Wilder version. I’ve never seen anything like that before or since. I kinda thought that I might see something like that here, but I didn’t.

Well, time to pick it up. I’ve chugged down some more water and trail mix, and a couple of chunks of bison for a little protein. My legs are still tired but I think I have a little more left in them. Here goes.

 

Oh, man. I’m whipped! The last leg was insane! Most of the grade was steep, as it has been since I first set foot on the trail, except for one section about two thirds of the way through it. That one was steeper. And there were no switchbacks on that leg. It was a beast, and that’s what I called it: The Beast. The damned thing just went up. And up. And up. There were a few trees growing next to the trail that I could lean against in order to let other hikers pass by, or simply because I couldn’t take another step without rest.

I thought several times about cashing in my chips on The Beast. I mean, I’m not trying to prove anything here. Or am I? I have to admit that there’s a little pride at work here. I really want to say that I’ve mastered Dog Mountain, and this may be my last chance to do it. But first I had to master The Beast, so I’d rest and walk, rest and walk, rest and walk.

About two hundred yards down the trail from where I now sit I broke out of the trees and onto a vast sweep of the mountainside that was thick with a carpet of the ubiquitous yellow flowers. I took one picture of the hillside that included a tree, for the vertical perspective, and the horizon for the horizontal. The angle is easy to see, and it’s mind blowing. I’m now seated on a chunk of concrete on another small level area. Someone said that the chunk was a remnant of a Forest Service observation platform, and I guess it probably was. But how on earth did they ever get the materials up here?

More water, more rest, more bison and trail mix. The view is positively stunning. I am well above many of the hills and mountains in the Columbia River Gorge and the river itself is a blue ribbon running far below me. The sun has climbed in the sky and has grown rather warm, and I’m glad for my hat with a broad brim and a flap down the back of the neck, and also for the big, poofy long-sleeved hippy shirt that a friend made for me. My skin has been damaged by the years that I spent trying to put a tan on skin that refused to be tanned. I don’t do that any more.

The breeze is very pleasant. It flows up from under my shirt and out through the open neck and the long poofy sleeves, cooling me down and helping me to prepare for what I’m told is the last leg before the summit. The worse is over, some of the other hikers say. I certainly hope so.

 

Ah, the top! Indeed, the last leg was easier than The Beast, and otherwise quite doable. The only problem was that I am nearly spent from my earlier exertions. Man, am I tired! But here I am, on a rather small knob on the top of Dog Mountain. The summit is jammed with people, many of whom look as if they have just been out for a Sunday stroll. That somehow just seems to be wrong. I’m pretty sure that I would be exhilarated if I wasn’t exhausted. But the view from up here is beyond belief, and also beyond my pathetic ability to describe it.

The top of a very good-sized hill adjacent to the River is seen far below me. The Wind River meanders through its valley on it’s way to join the Columbia several miles to the west. You can feel the elevation, see almost all the way to Portland, over fifty miles away, and smell only the clean air blowing either up or down the Gorge. It’s hard to say exactly which way it’s blowing because of the swirls and eddies it makes as it curls around hills and mountains and bends in the mighty Gorge.

The best part of this has been that I have not experienced one iota of chest pain, and no more shortness of breath than one would expect for any other sixty-nine year old. Or a thirty-nine year old, for that matter. I’ve put my rebuilt ticker to the test, and it looks like my surgeon’s work is holding up just fine. I don’t take that for granted. Not one little bit. God and Dr. Martin have given me a few more years to run at peak performance. I’m thankful to both and determined to make the most of it.

 

Hah! Back at the trailhead. I’ve just made a seamless push to get from the peak to the parking lot, and at last I’m here. Downhill is almost as demanding as uphill. Almost. In fact, it can be more hazardous. I slipped in one pile of loose rock and fell right on my tush. I could feel my hip begin to tighten up immediately, and that made me nervous. It loosened up however, and the trip down was somewhat easier than the one up. The path back down is longer than the one that I took up, so the grade was easier, and that was a bonus as I see it.

And now it’s time to drive home, although a beer and a burger in Stevenson sounds good too. I may be sore as the dickens tomorrow but I won’t really care. From this day forward I will be able to truthfully say that I walked the Dog, and that makes it all worth it.

The Garden, Epilogue

Charlie stood in front of the church, waiting for his bride to walk down the aisle toward him.  Spread out before him in the sanctuary of House of Grace Church in downtown Vancouver was a small crowd of well-wishers who came to witness the union of Charlie and Carolyn Hamer.  Charlie looked out over the crowd and marveled at the number of people who he now called friends, and with whom he shared life on a level of intimacy that he could never have imagined for the first forty five years of his life.

He could see Maureen and Carl seated to his right, in the groom’s half of the room.  Maureen was radiant, and now wore Carl’s engagement ring.  Jack was preparing himself to play the bride’s procession at the piano that sat on the right hand side of the stage.  He smiled and nodded at his father, who beamed back at him.

LuAnn, Jason and Tank were in the back row.  Jason still wasn’t coming any closer to a church service than that, so the others sat with him.  Rachael and her fiancé, Manny Baca and his small herd, Lester and Frank from the construction crew and others were there.  Billy and Dom and Father Krempke were seated in the front row.

And then there was Carolyn.  She wore a gown of soft yellow with a white veil, and to Charlie it looked like the sun had come out in the back of the church.  She looked at Charlie as Jack began to play, and beamed toward him pure love and joy.  He could hardly believe that he deserved this, and beamed the same back to her.

Carolyn walked slowly forward, mounted the steps and took her place next to him.  They faced Pastor Saunders, who began the ceremony.  Charlie held her hands, repeated his vows and accepted hers.  Then, as the pastor asked for the ring with which Charlie would seal his end of the bargain, he heard a fart that had to register at least eight on the Richter Scale.  Pastor Saunders looked shocked, but Charlie and Carolyn had to suppress a laugh.  He leaned toward Carolyn’s ear and whispered “looks like Walt finally made it.”

An Odd Day At The Beach

It was a gray day in San Diego, which means that it was somewhere between January and June.  The year was 1970 and I had been home from the Army for about seven months, which was long enough for my hair to increase from sub-military length (they threatened to not let me leave Vietnam unless my hair was short enough.  I made certain that it was) to somewhere around my collar.  My beard, which I had dreamed of for years, was a sparse and raggedy affair hanging miserably off of my chin, but by God, at last I had one.

Benson “Benny” Beck and I were posted up at the south end of the La Jolla Shores beach, by the end of the street which ran in front of the 7-11 store.  We had gathered driftwood from all along the beach and had a nice little fire going in a hole that we had dug in the sand where a concrete pad made a ninety degree angle from a wall.  The 7-11 was close enough to provide sunflower seeds and donuts and six packs of Budweiser, and we were doing our part to make sure that their business was successful.

Benny and I hung around together a lot during that first year back from the War.  He had arrived home about two weeks before I did, and I went to his parent’s house on my first evening back in San Diego.  We did nearly everything together that first year, with everything consisting mostly of drinking beer, smoking weed, eating pizza from Nicolosi’s, Pernicano’s, and Sorrento’s, all of which were located on El Cajon Boulevard.  Occasionally we would diversify and eat hot dogs from Der Weinerschnitzel on College Avenue (or ‘Der Tumorschnitzel,’ as we called it) or burritos from some nasty little joint on El Cajon Boulevard between Euclid and 54th.  Strangely, Benny never gained a pound.  I, on the other hand, ballooned to over 200 pounds from my svelte post-Army 132.

We went to the mountains.  We went to the desert.  We went to the bar owned by Dave “Monk” Callabretta’s dad, and on that day we went to the beach in La Jolla.

There was no thought in either of our heads about going into the water.  I guess one could say that there was rarely any thought in either of our heads one way or the other, but that’s a different story.  Anyway, in lieu of bathing in the frigid waters off of the Shores – yes, in the winter they are just plain frigid – we sat back, opened packages of snacks and bottles of beer, and maintained the warm fire while we talked about – – – everything.  And nothing in particular.  And it was while I was pontificating about nothing important that Benny pointed out to sea and said “What is that?”

I looked to where he was pointing and saw nothing at first.  “Ain’t nothing there” I said.  “You’re tripping.”

“What’s the matter?  Ain’t you got eyes?” he asked.  “Look over there.”

Benny pointed to an object about one hundred meters off of the beach.  I squinted at the waves and at last perceived a dark object just barely protruding above the water  “Looks like a piece of wood” I said.  “Or a seal.”

The object was moving toward us and soon was joined by another similar object, and then another.  We watched, speculating on the nature of what we were seeing, until the objects came close enough for us to see that they were the heads of divers in wet suits.

As they approached the shore they rose up out of the water and we could see that they were carrying one of their number, or at least helping him to struggle out of the water.  In no time the divers spotted us and, more important, our fire, and made a beeline to where we were seated.

“What’s wrong?” Benny called out to them as they approached.  “Can we help?”

“Our friend here got cold” one of them replied.  “His suit failed and he’s got some hypothermia going on.  Can we sit by your fire for a while?”

“Sure” I said.  “Help yourself.  We’ll go dig up some more wood for you.”

The divers sat their friend in the sand in front of the fire, propped up against the concrete pad.  Benny and I didn’t take long to find more wood and we built the fire up a little more to help the cold diver recover.  We chatted with those guys for a while until the diver in distress claimed that he was warming up.  One of his friends volunteered to stay with him while the others resumed their dive and returned to wherever their cars were parked.  They would then return to pick them up.

Benny and I shared our beer with them and kept the fire going until a car appeared at the end of the street that runs by the 7-11 store, right where we were waiting.  They climbed into that car and disappeared.

After a few more beers we walked along the beach back to the La Jolla Shores parking area, which was almost empty on that gray, murky day.  Probably, we were going to grab some pizza, or a hot dog.  Who the divers were and where they went to I haven’t a clue.

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.