Return To The Real World, Part IV

I don’t know what exactly the flight crew could do to make my flight more comfortable than they were already doing.  Except for getting me to Travis Air Force Base sooner, that is.  Other than that I only needed my seat, and occasional cup of coffee to help me stay awake, and anything that I could dream up to occupy my mind.  Outside the window I could see a vast expanse of landscape carpeted with thick forest, jagged mountains protruding skyward above the treelike and lakes and rivers sparkling like jewels on a green velvet table.  I imagined myself fishing, trapping, and maybe panning for gold down there, although you could fit what I knew about fishing, trapping and panning for gold in one of the cups that the flight attendants brought my coffee in.  Or maybe half of that cup.

After an hour or two my new neighbor nudged me in the shoulder, breaking into my almost hypnotic trance just as I was about to shoot a moose and provide my wilderness cabin with meat and other necessary products for the next six months.  “Hey buddy” he began.  “Where you going to when we land?”  “I stared at him stupidly for a moment, and then pulled myself completely back into the here and now.  “I’m getting out at Oakland” I told him.  “I extended an extra eight months in ‘Nam so that I could get the three month early out.  How about you?”  “I’m going on to Fort Hood” he replied.  “I’ve got another ten months to go.”  “Fort Hood!” I grunted with a look of disdain.  “I volunteered for Vietnam to get out of Fort Hood” I told him, and he laughed.  “Yeah, I heard from some of the guys in the 11th Armored that it was an armpit.  I only have ten months to go though.  I can stand anything for that long.  Oh, my name’s Clayton Mildenburg.”  He stuck out his hand and I grasped it.  “I’m Glenn Durden.  I’m going home to San Diego the second that I get finished processing out at Oakland.”

“San Diego!” Clayton exclaimed.  “I want to go there!  ‘Two girls for ev–ry boy’ he began to sing the lyrics to Jan and Dean’s song ‘Surf City’.  Is it really like that?”  “Well” I began, “Yes and no.  We have great beaches and a lot of people surf—”  “Do you surf?” Clayton interjected.  “No, not with a surfboard.  I do a lot of body surfing but could never afford a surfboard.  Damned things are expensive!  And my father never let me work when I was a kid.  ‘When you get straight A’s I’ll know that you have enough spare time to work’ I growled in a gruff voice imitating my father.  “Well, I never got straight A’s, crooked A’s or any other type of A’s very much, so no work and no money.  I’m buying a board as soon as I get home though.  Gotta make up for lost time.”

Clayton seemed dazzled by the thought of bronzed bodies riding waves and partying on the beach all night long with that delicious two-to-one ratio that Jan and Dean had sung about, and the soldier and bullshit artist in me couldn’t resist playing along with it.  I filled his head with tales of my irresistible attractiveness among the surfer girls and how not two but three of them would be waiting to pick me up at Lindbergh Field in San Diego when I arrived, no matter what the time of day or night.  The truth, of course, was that an Anchorite monk living in a cave in the Egyptian desert would have more chance of three girls waiting to pick him up if he got lost and stumbled into an oasis somewhere than I had of three girls, or any for that matter, waiting to pick me up at Lindbergh Field or anywhere else in the world.  Clayton didn’t know that however, and it made a great story, so I shipped that and a whole lot of other bull his way.

“So what are you going to do when you get out?” I asked Clayton, finding talking with him more interesting than I thought that it would be.  Clayton didn’t take a moment to respond “I don’t have any idea.  My dad owns a radio and appliance business in Grand Junction, Colorado.  He was on the ground crew for the bombers that flew from England on bombing raids over Germany in World War II, and he was really good at fixing anything.  So, he started fixing things back home and then started selling them.  He’s done really good, I guess.  We have a pretty nice house in town, everybody likes him and my mom.  They’re members in good standing at Gethsemane Methodist Church and the Elks Club and blah, blah, blah.  And I’m not putting them down.  I love my folks.  I just don’t want to be my folks.

You see, Grand Junction is only one of the wider wide spots in the road.  There’s a little hospital and a nice downtown, and the trains come through and pick up stuff raised and grown around there and then take it somewhere else.  Well, I want to go to that somewhere else.  I volunteered for the Army and I volunteered for Vietnam too.  I just wanted to see other places and do more than fix television sets and sell washing machines.”

“I know what you mean” I said.  “When I got out of high school I had no idea what to do next.  I didn’t even know how you went about looking for a job and I just couldn’t see me doing anything in particular.  One of my best friends started going to school to become a cop, but I knew that I would never do anything like that.  A lot of other guys got jobs at the aircraft plant or shipyards, but I’m no good with tools and I couldn’t fix shit.  Thing is, I still really don’t know what I’m going to do.  My dad’s a teacher, and so I might go to school and learn how to do that.  I wasn’t great in school, but I can do pretty good in classes that I like and can survive the ones that I don’t, so maybe I’ll go to school and become a teacher.  Anyway, the G.I. Bill will cover me for four years, so I might as well give it a try.”

“Not me man” Clayton responded.  “I never did like school, and they didn’t like me much either.  I’ve never really done well with authority.  See this clean sleeve?”  Clayton pointed to a shoulder that was devoid of any stripes or patches denoting rank.  “Four months ago I was sitting at a base camp in the Central Highlands.  We were supporting the 173rd Airborne but there was nothing in particular going on then.  I was driving a jeep for our battalion commander but he choppered up to Kontum for some kind of meeting, which I knew meant that he was going to drink some good whiskey and get laid.  ‘Why should he have all the fun?’ I asked myself.  So I fired up his jeep and drove it to Pleiku, where I got drunk and laid too.  And that’s where the MP’s found me the next morning and drove me back to our base camp.  The Old Man was thoroughly pissed, and threatened to do all sorts of evil shit to me.  I just asked myself ‘What’re they going to do, send me to Vietnam?’  All I ended up with was two weeks on the shit detail and busted down to private.”  At this point I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.  “Was it worth it?” I asked.  Clayton laughed too.  “Every damned bit of it.”

We talked on for much of the rest of the flight, sharing stories and no doubt snowballing each other with equal amounts of bullshit tales and blatant lies.  It therefore came as something of a surprise when the pilot announced that we were beginning our approach to Travis, advised that we buckle our seatbelt, and then dropped the nose down toward that patch of concrete and asphalt midway between San Francisco and Sacramento, California.  We all felt the tension mount as the ground rushed up toward us, and we held our breath as the wheels touched the ground and then raced like a bullet along the runway, slowing down bit by bit until it taxied up to a parking area away from the terminal.

After an interminable wait the door cracked open and the warm spring air of Northern California flooded into the cabin.  We jostled and shoved like grade school kids in a fire drill, trying to get off of that plane as quickly as possible and touch the ground in what finally felt like home to many of us.  I came down the ramp and, at the bottom, got down on my hands and knees and kissed that dirty concrete surface, as did many other guys.

I felt like I was in an alternate universe.  Looking out across the airport I could see some guys driving fuel trucks and others baggage-haulers, while others were bringing up the buses that would take us the fifty miles or so to Oakland Army Terminal.  None of them seemed to be aware of how extraordinary these jobs of theirs were; how amazing it was that none of them would be shot at that day, and that no siren in the night would call them out of their beds to squat in a bunker or muddy ditch waiting for the mortars to stop falling and see if they would be followed by an attack.  Still feeling disconnected, I climbed onto one of the busses that had rolled up to us and stopped.  The driver was irritable and obviously in a hurry for us to get on his bus, probably so that he could get back to Oakland and then home to his full refrigerator and warm, soft bed.  I wondered if one of the other guys would punch him in the head, but we all just wanted to get on with it and ignored him with prejudice as best we could.

The bus was filled with excited chatter as the convoy started up and then rolled down the interstate towards Oakland.  Many of the guys on my bus were getting out of the Army, and the others were anticipating leaves of up to a month before they had to report to a new duty station.  The buses rolled first across the flat Central Valley terrain and then passed through low hills which opened at last onto the ring of communities which surrounded the San Francisco Bay.  The waters, when we could see them, glittered in the late afternoon sun, and lights were beginning to appear in some buildings.

But most of the time we couldn’t see the Bay.  Instead, the buildings of Richmond and Berkeley and Oakland filled our view, and that was all right with me.  This was very nearly home; just a few more hours to go.  We slowed down, exited the freeway, wound through a couple of streets and then entered the Oakland Army Terminal.

“All right you men, listen up.”  An NCO had appeared at the front of the bus and began to get us sorted out.  “All of you who will be discharged from this facility will report to Bay ‘C’ to the right of the main entrance within the building if front of you.  Those of you who are being reassigned will form up in that area to the right of the lead bus.  You will be marched to the mess hall and then shown to your quarters for the evening.  You will be told in the mess hall what to expect during your stay in Oakland, which will be brief.  You men who are to be discharged will be given access to the mess hall once your process is underway.  There will be time during the process for you to eat.  We will get you finished with the process as quickly as we can.  Now, let’s get moving smartly so that we can all go home.”

That worked for me.  I entered the big building that the NCO had indicated and checked in with a clerk with a clipboard who pointed out a set of risers where I was to go and wait to be called.  I ended up in a group of about fifty men and we all sat down to await the next step, and wait is exactly what we did.  Slowly; painfully slowly, our names began to be called, and when they were called we shuffled into another room, only to pick up our duffle bags, sign a form, and then return with the bags to our seats.

At length however, five guys were called and disappeared down a hallway, dragging their duffle bags behind them.  The “duffle bag drag” was a legendary maneuver in the Army when I was there.  Those guys went slowly from station to station where they would sign papers declaring their intention to leave active duty, their declaration that they had returned all government issue property, an acknowledgement of severance pay and acceptance of the amount, and so on.  The process was glacial, and it was at this time that we broke off in groups to get a quick meal of spaghetti with some sort of red sauce and garlic bread, with all of the black coffee that I could drink.  I wanted to stay awake for the last push to freedom.

I returned to my seat quickly after my meal, stopping to buy a four pack of cigars from a vendor in the main lobby of the building on the way back.  I lit one when I sat down and my neighbor on the risers bummed one from me.  I had just began to enjoy it when a Specialist came through a door and bawled out “Jenkins!  Carter!  Grafton!  Mingerton!  Durden!”

Hot damn!  I stubbed out the cigar on the riser and formed up with the other four guys.  We were led down the hall to a row of seats where four of us sat down.  Jenkins went through a door, and I never saw him again.  Twenty minutes later it was Carter’s turn, and so on.  It was past ten o’clock when my name was called and I began the process which I could not believe took so long.  Something would be ‘explained’ but I didn’t really hear it, and when they shoved a paper towards me I would sign that I understood and agreed to everything that was on it.  Then on to the next station.  “Crap” I thought.  “I’m not getting out of here until midnight.”

Wrong.  After the fifth station, where I felt like I was hearing the same bureaucratic bullshit and signing the same stinking papers over and over again, the clerk informed me “That’s it.  We’re closing down at 2300 (11:00 PM).  We will re-open at 0700 tomorrow.  “You. Have. Got. To. Be. Shitting. Me!” I shouted.  “You do!  You have to be!”  “I’m sorry man” the clerk replied.  “I don’t make the rules.”  I’d heard enough of that damned line for one day.  “So what am I supposed to do until 0700?” I asked.  “Well, if I was you I’d stay close to here, but what you do is your own business.”

I really did want to hit the bastard.  Hit him and choke him.  It had been a long eight hour day for him and he was tired, poor baby.  I had no idea how many hours I’d been up and I was a little bit tired too.  Fortunately however I was cautious enough to not do anything that would get me thrown into jail, and so with a heartfelt curse I dragged my duffle bag back to the risers where I began this final part of the journey.  I regained my old seat and threw the bag down next to me, determined to spend the rest of night right where I then sat.

I couldn’t find the stub of my first cigar so I lit up the third one.  All but a few lights went out while I sat on that riser, smoking my cigar and alternating my thoughts between what the guys might be doing back in Vietnam, what my family and friends might be doing in San Diego, and what I wanted to do to that snide-ass clerk.  I got another cup of coffee from a stainless steel urn on a table in the corner of the room but it tasted like shit, so I returned to my riser and smoked the cigar down to a nub.  I drowned the cigar butt in my undrunk cup of coffee and put it back on the table.

Eight hours of quiet and darkness.  There was no way that I would stay awake for that, so I dug an old set of fatigues out of my bag and used them as a pillow.  Then, stretching out on the step of the riser and yielding to the inevitable, I fell into a deep but not especially restful sleep.

Camping in Wonderland, Part II

     My love of camping was born and nurtured within my family when I was a child.  Equipped with a mix of commercial, military surplus and homemade gear we would set up camp mostly at a public campground in the Laguna Mountains east of San Diego.  We came to know every inch of that campground as if it was our own back yard, and even with that familiarity we still loved every hike, every dip in the river, every slide on the wet rocks by the falls, every day and every night that we spent there.

     When I graduated from high school in 1966 my President had plans concerning my immediate future, and within two months of my graduation I was a soldier in the U.S. Army and doing more camping out than I liked.  In California, in Texas, and in Vietnam I enjoyed multiple opportunities to live close to nature, all the while dreaming of getting back into nature without a drill instructor or a first sergeant yelling in my face or an enemy soldier shooting at me.  That opportunity arrived in late 1969 after I had finished my tour of duty and was discharged from the Army, a free man once again.

     Shortly after my return to San Diego my oldest friend, Wes, proposed that we backpack into the Sierra Nevada Mountains to a place called Minaret Lake.  Wes showed me a book which contained many hikes in that area and they all were appealing.  The hike to Minaret Lake drew us to it mostly because the trailhead began at Devil’s Postpile, a busy area where it would probably be most safe to park a car for several days, and because the eight mile walk with a gain of over two thousand feet of elevation made us confident that we would encounter nobody who wasn’t out there for the same reason that we were.

     Preparations began for our trip, and for me they began at zero.  I had almost no backpacking gear and what little I did have was left over from a short and unsuccessful experience with the boy scouts.  We were all a bunch of misfits in my neighborhood and did not comport well with the boy scout mold at all.  With some of the money with which the Army sent me on my way I purchased a lightweight backpack, an Army surplus mummy bag for sleeping, a one man tent and other accoutrement.  We planned to spend five days at our camp, and so freeze dried and other dry and instant food products would also have to be carried in.  When we were ready my pack didn’t feel very much lighter than a full pack in the Army did.

     I arose early and drove to Wes’ house, where we added his gear to mine and began the day long drive to Devil’s Postpile.  Our route took us east of Los Angeles and out across the Mojave Desert.  I have always loved the desert and this was a very enjoyable part of the trip for me.  Speeding on northward we entered the Owens Valley, a dry valley now that most of its water has been siphoned off to supply that precious resource to Los Angeles and environs.  The locals are still quite irritated about that.  We drove through Lone Pine and Bishop, where we stopped to get a meal and a few other last-minute items, and then finished our drive in the parking lot at the Postpile.  We parked close to the ranger station, hoping for more security for my car.

     We slept in the car that evening; the big bench seats front and back that were common in cars of that vintage made pretty good beds, even for a couple of six-footers who had to fold themselves up a little in order to fit.  At first light the next morning we crawled off of our car seats, walked around a bit to work the kinks out of our cramped muscles, secured our packs onto our backs and set out on the trail which led to Minaret Lake.

     The trail was mostly broad and easy to follow, and Wes and I chatted as we walked along through the conifers.  It was easy to talk even though we started at about 7,500 feet above sea level, as we were young and in pretty good physical shape.  The gain in elevation for the whole trip was about 2,300 feet but the grade was easy at first.  Soon however we broke out of the thick conifer forest and began to pass through more sparse growth.  At one point, as we neared a broad valley where the creek which we were paralleling broadened out into a marshy area with no definite banks or borders, Wes and I somehow lost the trail and began following what looked like it might be a trail which led south of the valley and up a rocky and pine covered hillside.  After twenty or thirty minutes of struggling up that false track we realized that we were way off course and returned to the valley floor.  There we promptly regained our trail and continued across the cattail-covered valley to begin climbing again on the other side.

     By this time Wes and I had ceased to talk much.  The trail was beginning to climb more sharply now and although we were eating trail mix and hard candy our energy was being sapped by the grade and the altitude.  All along from the beginning of the hike I had enjoyed the view of the majestic mountains, with jagged splinters of rock which jutted a thousand feet into the sky after which Minaret Lake was named, and Minaret Creek which bubbled and splashed down the mountainside nearly always within our view.  As we began the final few miles towards our destination I began to focus more on simply getting up the next hill, breathing, and putting one foot in front of the other.

     At length we came to the last half-mile or so of our hike, which also happened to be the most steep.  We dug into that climb with determination in order to put this ordeal behind us.  I remember counting cadence in my mind as I walked; one-two-three-FOUR, one-two-three-FOUR.  My feet kept moving, rising and falling with my mental calling of the numbers.  The effect was hypnotic and soon my feet and the count were all that existed.  This went on for what seemed like an hour but in fact was much less than that, and soon the trail began to flatten out and I marched over the last rise to catch my first glimpse of the breathtaking jewel that is Minaret Lake.

     The lake lies in an upland valley at the base of a mountain range which includes several rocky spires which rise up sharply into the clear sky of the Sierras.  Somebody many years ago thought that they resembled the tall, thin buildings which tower over Muslim cities and towns from which mosque officials call the faithful to prayer.  I confess that I did not see that resemblance at all, but the other guy saw these mountains first so he got to name them.  The lake itself is the bluest blue imaginable, taking up much of it’s valley.  Grasses cover the dry portions of the valley with occasional evergreens stretching skyward, and softly rounded boulders seemed to have shouldered their way through the soil to show above ground a tiny glimpse of their true bulk, much like an iceberg shows itself in arctic waters.  It is quite possibly the most beautiful place that I have ever seen.

     But that is not what I thought when I first saw it.  The exertion, the altitude, and perhaps a little dehydration combined to force me to sit down on the first rock I could find and try not to throw up.  Wes was similarly affected, but recovered a bit more quickly than me, so he shortly went off to scout for a good campsite while I continued to convalesce.  From my boulder I looked back at the terrain across which we had traversed on our assent to the lake.  I could clearly see the gain in elevation that we had recently made, which made me feel better about not feeling so good as I sat on my rock in the sun.  

     The ground sloped steadily to the east while mountains of bald, rounded rock rose up to the north and northeast.  It is said that those mountains were smoothed off by the action of glaciers during the last ice age.  I suppose that is true, but I don’t know; I wasn’t there then.  Regardless of how they were formed their massive solidity communicated strength and permanence, but their soft roundedness also suggested welcome, although I am certain that there was danger enough for the foolhardy in those peaks.  At least, that’s what it said to me.

     To the west rose up a cliff which was probably 800 feet high.  This rock feature traveled from southwest to northwest and provided a back wall for the valley of the lake.  the cliff was steep but not sheer, and Wes and I would soon be scaling it, but more on that later.  The southern boundary of our valley was the massive body of the Minarets, into which the previously mentioned cliffs merged.  The totality of this panoramic view was breathtaking and I could hardly believe that I was in this place, although the shakiness in my knees served to remind me that it was quite true.

     After catching my breath and regaining some strength I rose up from my rock and shouldered my pack.  I could see where Wes was pitching his tent and angled around a bay of the lake to gain that spot.  A good spot it was, between the lake and a stream flowing into it, on good dry ground and close to but not under a lone tree.  I pitched my tent beside Wes’ and we made a fire pit out of stones and a wire grate which we brought for that purpose.  Our food was placed in a bag which we hoisted into the tree.  I don’t know if bears hang out at 9,800 feet, but Wes and I had not interest in being surprised.

     With the hike over and camp made we sat with our backs against the tree.   Wes was facing the Minarets and I the rounded mountains to the north.  We didn’t speak much at first, as we were struck with the power and beauty of the place. I can remember reflecting on how only a couple of months before this moment I was squatting under a metal roof on the tarmac of Bien Hoa Air Force Base hoping to not catch a last minute bullet or rocket before flying home after two surreal years in Vietnam.  The regimented life of a soldier, the threat of death at any moment from a bullet going so fast that you don’t hear it, the alcohol and drugs that I used to self-medicate against the stress of Vietnam and the strangeness of returning home to a country which seemed to either scorn me or be embarrassed by me, and mostly preferred to pretend as if I wasn’t there at all.

     All of that baggage seemed to slough off of me as I sat in the tranquil cleanness of that vast mountain landscape.  The lake, the rocks, the streams, the mountains; none of them cared where I had been or what I had done.  They did not care that I was there, but neither did they reject me.  I was there as my own agent, as much a part of that scene as a fish in the lake or squirrel in the tree or marmot in the rocky cliff above us.  I was welcome to come and take my chances like every other living thing there, with the prize being a peace that I had not felt in years or perhaps at any time in my life.  I thought to myself “Not a bad way to start a trip”.

Road Trip, Part VI

I felt lonely for the first few miles after Ben parted company with me to rejoin his people at Laguna, but before long my mind returned to the patterns of the previous day; ranging far and wide in space and time.  The road was somewhat broken, as construction of the future Interstate 40 was underway and I would be sometimes hemmed in tightly by construction barrels and sometimes had to wait as eastbound traffic used a single lane, followed by westbound traffic when our turn came.  The delay was annoying but it allowed me to appreciate the harsh beauty which surrounded me.  The red cliffs on the north side of the road looked as if they belonged on Mars, and the jagged, broken black rock of the Malpais, a vast volcanic extrusion which occurred eons ago and yet still only sported tenacious and ragged shrubs and other hardy plants which grew in cracks and depressions in the rock where a little windblown dust had gathered in sufficient quantity to support life.

By the time I got to Grants I had broken free of the construction and was sailing once again on good and open road.  I stopped to get fuel and check my transmission fluid, which was low but no worse than before.  Near the gas station was a tiny hut which sold burgers, burritos, fries, and not much else.  I ordered a cheeseburger and found that it was even hotter than my breakfast burrito had been.  I gobbled that down and washed it down with an RC Cola, and then returned to the road.  On the very outskirts of Grants I saw two more hitchhikers and, since I greatly missed Ben’s company, I pulled over and indicated for them to climb in.  I no longer remember their names so I’ll call them Tom and Jerry.  They were returning home from some school east of New Mexico and one was going to Flagstaff while the other was going to Prescott.  Once again, this was not exactly the route I had been planning to take, but I could drop them off right at their destination at no inconvenience to myself.

Tom and Jerry were likable guys who were very grateful for the ride.  We talked of our homes and their school experiences, and mine in Vietnam.  The miles flew behind us.  Soon we drove through Gallup, on the eastern edge of New Mexico, and then we began to cross the high, flat countryside of northern Arizona.  That part of Arizona is very much unlike the arid land of the southern part of the state, or the lands further north near the borders with New Mexico, Colorado and Utah.  There were shallow ponds, or perhaps small lakes, with high grass growing as far as I could see.

As we approached Holbrook, one of the railroad towns that run across the West, I had a bright idea.  Tom was twenty years old like me, but Jerry was twenty one.  i pulled into the parking lot of a small grocery store and provided Jerry with the funds to buy a couple six packs and some snacks, which he gladly did.  Soon we were back on the road and enjoying ourselves even more than we had been before.  Winslow rolled behind us and in another hour we were in Flagstaff.  Jerry got out in the downtown area and said that he would like to walk the rest of the way home.  I was beginning to wonder about this walking home thing.  Prescott was an hour further down the road to the south, and Tom let me take him to his door.  I was offered the hospitality of his family but I was by now wanting very much to get home.  We waved and I was alone again and pointing the Mercury towards Phoenix and, beyond that, home.

The road from Prescott to Phoenix back then was a gently winding and steady drop from the evergreen-dotted high country to the low desert.  As I drew nearer to Phoenix the vegetation grew more and more scrubby and sparse while the land became drier and more rocky and the air like a blast furnace.  Driving through Phoenix was like swimming in a volcano, and as I turned first west to Glendale and then south to Gila Bend it got even hotter.  There is a story told about this low desert country.  At Yuma, which was in my path, there once was a prison.  A prisoner who had lived many years in one of the cells there died and, being a very bad man, naturally went to hell.  After a short while he petitioned the Devil to let him send a message back to earth, to which request Old Scratch surprisingly agreed.  His message was simple:  “Send my blankets”.

Turning west at Gila Bend I was now on a straight line for home.  Across the farmland of Dateland, Tacna, Dome and Azteca I flew, stopping only in Azteca for gas, fluid and a restroom break.  It was in the restroom at that gas station that I saw a sign that has stuck with me for all these years:  “We aim to please.  You aim too, please”.  It was now mid afternoon and hot as hell, but I had visions of home dancing in my head.  Since I was now driving straight west the sun was beaming in my windshield and roasting my knuckles on the steering wheel.  I had to take turns; first one hand and then the other.  The windows were rolled down and the scorching wind swirled around the growing fuzz on my head and face.  Occasionally I would rest my elbow on the drivers’ side door, but quickly the flaming sun would begin to cook my pathetically pale skin and I would withdraw a slightly more pink arm back inside the safety of the car.

Soon I climbed a low pass through an outcropping of jagged, sun-blasted hills and descended into the town of Yuma, of the shivering bad guy in hell fame.  A long, long line of traffic lights; the entire town seemed to be strung out along the east-west axis of U.S. Highway 80, finally gave way to the bridge over the Colorado River, the state checkpoint to keep out fruits and vegetables which could harbor pests injurious to California’s agricultural industry, and I was at last barreling across the sand dunes and sage-and-greasewood-and- cactus covered desert floor of the Imperial Valley.

The climb up the east side of the Laguna Mountains was a wonderful thing.  Each thousand feet that I rose brought the temperature down further and further from hellish to miserable to hot, until finally I achieved comfortable at the top of the grade.  Watching the temperature gauge on the Mercury’s dashboard gave me a few moments of heartburn as the extra effort of propelling a ton of vehicle and passenger up the steep, winding, 4,000 foot grade made the engine overheating more than a dim possibility, a prospect which was attested to by the rather large number of cars pulled over in turnouts provided with large barrels of water by the State Division of Highways to grant succor to those who had to drop out and cool off before continuing up the grade.  The needle climbed into the “HOT” range but never made it to “TOAST”, and almost the moment that I rose up over the crest and began to wind my way westward across a level valley north of Jacumba the needle began to dip back down to its usual resting place.

I wanted to keep going but needed one more gas stop in Pine Valley, where I was to be married one day eight years later.  The transmission fluid was not leaking any worse than before and I felt relieved to know that a phone call and a couple hours’ wait for my dad to arrive with a tow bar was the worst thing that could happen now.  I got a burger and fries, this one cooler than molten lead, from a little place next to the only motel in Pine Valley, and ate it as I resumed my journey west.

A couple of miles west of Pine Vally I mounted a gentle hill that marked the last high point between me and home.  Descanso slipped by and then Alpine, the town with a tavern that has a huge oak tree growing right through the center of the building.  Flinn Springs, El Cajon, and finally back to the incipient Interstate 8.  No more than five miles after that I was pulling up in front of the home that I grew up in.  I turned the motor off and sat there for a few minutes, listening to the ‘ting, ting, ting’ of the motor cooling down.  It had been a long and arduous drive for both of us, and my admiration for that car grew as I thought back over the last 36 hours.  It was about eight o’clock, just before the last fading of light in San Diego in the summer.  I emerged from the car and walked up to the front door.  I hadn’t called ahead, so i rang the doorbell.  it was Dad who came to the door and he was surprised to see me home so soon.  He opened the door as Mom came from a room in the back of the house to see what was going on.  I said “Hi”, and gave them both a big hug, just like the hugs I had been given at the campground at Wind Cave.  It was the hug that I should have given them a couple of weeks ago when I returned from two years of war.  It was the coming home that mattered, like Bens.