I was out drinking beers with a friend last night, sitting on the patio of a local brewery in the cold April air and waxing poetic about the many pleasures of living in a mid-sized city with lots of good local culture and a downtown that is thriving and healthy and non-corporate. Indeed, there are only maybe one or two establishments downtown that are parts of larger chains.
In any case we were talking about something – I think the topic drifted to guns somehow (my friend’s brother is a gunsmith) – and a guy standing nearby burst out in a loud guffaw and approached us. Right away I could tell that he was a transient – or at least a traveler. Maybe a hobo (the train cuts through town about a block from where we were sitting.) He wasn’t dirty but he had that way about him. There’s lots of bums here for some reason even though it’s very cold all winter and not really a great place to be homeless. I think the first thing he said to us was:
“There’s a special place reserved in heaven for the warriors, and it’s LOUD. And Hell is just a hot L-Z.”
“Hell yeah,” my friend said, smiling.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
He took an instant liking to Ben because he was the one talking about guns I suppose. I don’t own any guns and I don’t know much about them. I’m a Montana native raised by bookish, collegiate types with no interest in firearms. I felt a little like Jack Kerouac, the perennial observer, while the conversation unfolded near me but not really with me.
“Benjamin?” the traveler said. “The tribe of Benjamin? The most vicious tribe of Israel. Benjamin – the hungry wolves.” His voice was loud and sharp and clear. He wasn’t drunk, or at least not very.
The words came quickly, though, hard to follow. He pulled up a chair and sat down. The wind had died down but it was still cold out. I could see my breath. We forgot to ask his name.
He was a deeply faithful Christian with a penchant for stringing together cuss words in long, ragged sentences; an ex-junkie with one of the broadest military vocabularies I’ve ever heard; a foul-mouthed patriot who equated fiercely this nation’s greatness with its military might. “You send in the marines and it’s fucking over. It’s fucking done.”
I sipped beer and listened. Vietnam flowed into Alaska; a plane ride with a “huge motherfucking black Muslim” with two bags of assault rifles that “they didn’t even know about” meandered into a story about an Indian “head-hunter” – another big motherfucker – who now plays guitar in some backwoods Alaskan dive; the head-hunter-turned-musician had personally killed over seventy Vietnamese.
Now we’re in Cambodia, now China. Back to Vietnam. Chopper pilots zeroe in on Vietnamese women and children. There is something gleeful in his tone that is frightening and sad all at once.
Horny teenagers smoked pot and shot heroin before diving back into the shit. It was like suddenly being confronted with one of our saddest, most absurd national stereotypes: the crazy Vietnam vet rambling on and on about the gooks and the girls, the guns and the drugs. Better run through the jungle.
Stereotypes are always true to some degree, after all, but this guy wasn’t crazy. I thought he was at first but I was wrong. He was just a teenage kid thrown into an awful war half way across the world who had met death too soon. Haunted is a better word. Those wide, gleaming eyes – lit by memories still very real, very visceral – were the eyes of a man still haunted.
I wished over and over again that I had a video camera – or even a tape recorder. He was rail thin with wispy gray hair and a deeply lined face. “I drank myself down to 130 lbs in Alaska,” he told us. In the weird blue-white lights on the patio his face was wraith-like. He wore a tattered US Marine Corps baseball cap, though his clothes were clean enough. He was no beggar. He had a job waiting across town, he told us. This guy was going to pay him cash. He’d be back here Saturday night with a hundred bucks if there was anything we could do for him now. He’d pay us back. This winter his camp out of town had collapsed beneath the snow but his notes and his Bible hadn’t been damaged.
“We’re so fucking proud of you guys,” he told us. “You’re what made Vietnam worth it.”
“Tony Blair, you know, the British Prime Minister, said there are only two people who have ever shed their blood for the world. Jesus Christ and the American fucking soldier. No other country on the fucking earth has shed their blood for the world.”
This is what it means when you hear about someone who talks at you rather than with you. I didn’t say a single word. Ben only got in a few. It was okay. Some people don’t have anyone to talk with. They forget how.
We learned names of people in Alaska we could contact if we ever needed anything – if shit hit the fan. He could make a phone call and get a thousand dollars, guns, whatever. “We have rocket launchers. We have fucking tanks,” he said. “Fucking tanks.” He fidgeted, focusing always on Ben while I sat and listened. He’d stand up and walk away as if to leave and then wander back with another story.
“We’re so fucking proud of you guys,” he told us. “I don’t care if you’re draft dodgers. If I ever go back to Canada they’ll have me arrested. If they ever pardoned me I’d have dual citizenship.” He’d been up all night and all day drinking coffee. I think he was tweaking, though. Meth is easy to get around here. It’s easy to get anywhere. And it’s even easier to spot. The tragedy of it all was palpable; it hung like cigarette smoke in the air around us. It stung our eyes. How can we ask these men – these boys – to go fight in Vietnam and Afghanistan and Iraq and then let them crumble into these skeletons, subsumed with memory, haunted, addicted and alone? Where is the justice in this? How can we pile together a defense budget well over half a trillion dollars and not find some way to care properly for our veterans? How can we abandon the very people who fight and die for us? Why, after all these decades, is this still an unresolved issue? The VA estimates that on any given night there are 154,000 homeless veterans in this country. Almost half of these have mental health problems and/or drug abuse problems.
“We’re so fucking proud of you.”
I suppose this is the sort of guy people snicker at when they walk by. It’s easy to roll your eyes at a stereotype.
“I’m sorry,” he told us. “I don’t mean to bother you.”
And then he left after bumming a cigarette and what little cash we had. He’d pay us back Saturday night. He was getting paid by a guy, cash money. “I’ll be back here with a hundred dollars and if I’m drinking whiskey I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry brother,” Ben said. “You’ve paid your debt.”
And then we finished our beers and paid and went home to our quiet, cozy houses; our wives; our our own quieter ghosts – the sort you can keep in boxes and take out only when you need them – with this new shade shuffling along beside us, kicking around at the back of our minds. That’s where we keep our national heroes, after all, when don’t need them anymore.