Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Rafter's Redemption
       By Dave Stancliff
                                                     Chapter Four
                                               Back in the World

      Lenny’s eye shifted from the road momentarily as he watched Rafter inhale the doobie.

     The young man sitting next to him wasn’t the one who left for Vietnam a year ago. This version was thinner. Quieter. His sense of humor gone. There was an air of danger clinging to him as his eyes scanned his surroundings. He seemed to be on the alert for a hidden enemy.

    Lenny had heard stories about guys who returned from Vietnam. Changed. Outcasts from nice society. Paranoid killers ready to flip out and shoot anyone in sight. He looked at his best friend and wondered what Rafter had endured over there. What did he see?
  Lenny’s only reference was the 6:00 o’clock news showing soldiers wading through rice paddies and firing at invisible enemies. There was a surreal quality about them, like  a B-movie with a thin plot. 

   He knew his friend wasn’t back from playing a bit part in a movie. The change in his overall demeanor was no act. He was no actor. In spite of himself, Lenny shivered, and wondered what was happening in Rafter’s head. He had barely said a word since Lenny picked him up. Conversation was strained as Rafter answered questions in short, terse sentences.
   When they got to Lenny’s apartment, shared with his girlfriend Peggy, the sun was going down. Lenny parked his Mustang on the street, as Peggy had her Volkswagon in their parking place next to the apartment.

  As they climbed the stairs to the apartment, Rafter looked back and saw two young Hispanic men in white t-shirts loitering around the front of the apartments near the car. He stopped briefly and stared down at them. They noticed the thin white gringo in uniform glaring at them and moved uneasily away.

  Peggy was a little bird of a woman who stood under five feet and had the high chirping voice of a cartoon character. Lenny introduced her. Rafter said hello and looked uneasy. Sensing his discomfort, Peggy offered to get them beers. They sat on the fold-out couch in the tiny living room while Peggy busied herself in the kitchen. 

  “You know what? There’s a football game on right now.”

  Lenny got up and turned on the television. Rafter barely heard him, because somewhere in the dark recesses of his mind he was listening to the sound of a Huey gunship.
  Lenny drove Rafter to Ft. McArthur, his new duty base, the next day. He turned his 8-track up and they listened to Crosby, Stills & Nash on the way.

  The commanding General at Ft. MacArthur, General Osborn II, leaned back in his swivel chair and glanced at the paperwork laying open on his desk, next to his WW II grenade lighter. He wasn’t sure what to do with the new man, Sp/4 Rambago. He was a Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient and a combat engineer.

  This was not an engineer base. Signal Corps, yes. There was a company of WACS in a big building across from the base’s temporary stockade. 
  WWII barracks housed the 101st MP Unit just south of the stockade.  A mess hall. A small medical complex with a dentist and two full time doctors. A half dozen nurses. One psychiatrist. Two orderlies. 

  More WW II barracks for the men in the Signal Corps and the Honor Guard. Separate quarters for enlisted men and officers. Tiny lawns in front with flowers nurtured by privates.
  What was he supposed to do with Sp/4 Rabago who was an engineer? He was due to report this morning and he still hadn’t decided where to place him. Perhaps he could put him with the honor guard detachment for military burials. 

  He wondered how motivated Sp/4 Rabago was? Was he a man on the way up in the military? Bronze Stars carried a lot of weight in three-star General Osborn’s world. He was sipping his coffee when his orderly came in and announced that Sp/4 Rabago was reporting for duty.
  Minutes later, a thin young man in a crumpled Class-A uniform appeared in the door. He seemed unsure what to do and finally raised a sloppy salute, 

  “ Sp/4 Rabago reporting for duty.”

   The general was stunned. This wasn’t what he expected at all. The man didn’t even have his medals properly displayed! His soft cap was cocked to one side and seemed in danger of slipping off at any moment. A surly scowl lingered on his unshaved jaw. 
  A scar on his left cheek ran from the jaw line to the middle of his nose and gave him a sinister sneer. His bloodshot eyes were sullen golden brown slits. A streak of white hair looked like he had purposely bleached it or something. He casually slumped against the doorway and eyed the general with sullen suspicion.

   “Welcome home, Sp/4 Rabago. I will do all I can to make your last year in this man’s Army comfortable. To that end, I’m assigning you to our honor guard detachment. You are to report to Captain Harrison at Building E. He will get you set up. Do you have any questions?”


   Ignoring this breech of military etiquette, General Osborn II saluted Rafter and dismissed him. Rafter shuffled off looking more like a lithium-laced loony tune than a future member of the Honor Guard. The general was troubled by what he saw. A zombie.

   In his wisdom, he knew something was wrong with Rafter. He didn’t want any trouble in his command. He was due to retire next year and expected an executive position in his uncle’s company. His life was quiet and predictable. The way it should be. 
  Rafter posed an unknown threat to his serene existence and he didn’t like that feeling. He made a note to check on him in a week.

  Captain Blake Harrison knew he had a problem the minute he saw Sp/4 Rafter. He swore under his breath as he thought about the general foisting this off on him. Just what was he supposed to do with this pissed-off individual?
  He’d seen his type plenty of times before. You just didn’t mess with them. Rafter was an even rarer bird with his Bronze Star and Purple Heart. This called for a sensitivity the Captain had seldom needed in his military career.

  “Do you know what an honor guard does Sp/4 Rabago?”


  “It escorts fallen heroes to their final resting place, showing them respect and honor for their great sacrifice to our nation. In order to do this you need to be squared away. Tight. Your uniform must be perfect. Your low quarters polished to a gleaming shine. You march in perfect step, showing the deceased dignity every moment. You fire your rifle in a final salute and bid your fallen brother goodbye. Any questions, Sp/4 Rabago?”


  “Then why do you look like you spent the night in that uniform?”

  “Because I did.”

  “I see. Did you ever see that movie “Cool Hand Luke, with Paul Newman?” 


  “There’s a scene in it when a prison guard suggests that he and Paul Newman, a prisoner, had a “problem communicating.” I don’t want that to be our case.”

  “Are we talking about prisoners or honor guards here Cap?”

  “Okay. You’re a tough guy with an attitude. I don’t like mincing words, that’s for liberals and commies. I’m a straight-shooting kind of guy. Are you going to go along with my program here or should we look for an alternative?”

  “I’m not burying my brothers.”

  “I’ll tell you what, Sp/4 Rabago, why don’t you see Sgt. Anderson. He’s waiting outside, and he’ll assign you to a rack in B Building. You unload your gear and take it easy for the rest of the day. We’ll talk tomorrow after I’ve done some looking around. I think we can arrive at a compromise that will make us both happy. After Sgt. Anderson shows you to your room, he’ll show you where the mess hall is and give you a tour of the base. Dismissed.”

  Without a word Rafter turned and walked out. Captain Harrison sighed, whipped out a Marlboro and lit it with his Zippo. It was a reminder of when he was in Vietnam as a 2nd louie working as a general’s aide. Boy those were the good times, he thought.

  So the year passed without incident until the day Rafter parted ways with Uncle Sam. There were no ceremonies. He went around the base with a list of things to be checked off until he came to the final door. It was the psych’s office. Major North greeted him warmly and signed the piece of paper he offered. 

  “You’re going to be fine now, aren’t you Rafter? It was good talking with you.”

  “Sure Doc. Goodbye.”

  Rafter went home long enough to get his red 1963 convertible Chevrolet Impala SS. It was still there along with three boxes of his personal possessions. He spent one night and ate dinner with his parents.
  Frank kept staring at his scar and Madeline tried to pretend he just returned from a boy scout jamboree. The next morning, he spread out his Class A uniform and it’s medals on his bed and added his Honorable Discharge signed by President Nixon. He was gone before they woke up.

  He had no set destination. No plans beyond filling the gas tank and driving. He mustered out with eight hundred dollars, nearly a year’s back pay, because his records were destroyed in a mortar attack in Vietnam and new ones had to be created. 
  A year with no spending money. He’d have gone crazy at Fort McArthur if Lenny hadn’t come by to visit him on weekends. They went to baseball and basketball games. 

  Now, all that was behind him. No goal. No one trying to kill him. And for the first time in years, his freedom. Now, if he’d could quit having those damn nightmares. Major North kept telling him they wouldn’t go away unless he talked about them and his intrusive thoughts. 

  All Rafter heard was the sound of angry bees. What the hell did the Doc know about Vietnam? He’d never been there. He had no idea of the horrors that lurked there. He went home at night to his sweet little wife and two perfect children, and didn’t have to deal with memories that stalked him like malicious ghosts.

  A week later Rafter picked up two teenaged hippie chicks heading to San Francisco. They had just scored some blond hash from Lebanon and were happy to share it in return for the lift north. He took them straight to Haight-Ashbury and dropped them off. After looking around for several hours he was disgusted by what he saw. 

  There were so many street  people lying and sitting on the sidewalks they were nearly impassable. A person had to be aggressive to avoid panhandlers and stoned hippies offering drugs for a price. 

  Rafter waded through them long enough to know that this seething mass of humanity wasn’t for him. It looked like a bad trip. The only good thing he saw was the availability of his new favorite drug, LSD.
  He bought a large quantity of Owlsley Acid in sugar cubes. He also found good deals on Thai sticks, black hash from Afghanistan, and some Colombian Gold marijuana. He bought boxes of Zig Zag cigarette wrapping papers and a small water pipe. To hold this stash, he purchased a fanny pack decorated with the Jamaican national colors and a picture of Bob Marley. 

   He put the hookah in the trunk with the rest of his worldly processions. He tried apartment living near the Tenderloin district for a month and realized he couldn’t stand to live among so many people. They stressed him out. While the hippie chicks were generally available for sex, they were also usually hooked on drugs, with one foot in another world he didn’t understand. 

  It was just too much, so one day he pointed his red Impala SS north on Highway 101. He’d heard there were very few people up north and groups of hippies were creating new communes in touch with nature, growing their own food and marijuana. They were called “back-to-the-landers” by the mainstream media. 

   These people were escaping the rat race of civilization. Their disillusionment following the so-called Summer Of Love, called for change. When would-be hippies from around the country flooded San Francisco it became a bummer, convincing many of the original flower children to head north to rural areas. To a simpler way of life.

  There were several good reasons why the car didn’t make the turn and rammed into the Redwood tree. The first, and perhaps foremost, that Rafter was peaking on a cube of Owlsley when he hit the first series of tight turns at high speed.

   It didn’t help that he thought he saw a unicorn and swerved to avoid it. He was ejected from his seat like a stuntman fired from a cannon. His landing was amazingly soft as he smacked into grass, ferns, and soft mud and slid to a halt against another Redwood tree.

  The wreck might have been caused by the rain that saturated the ground and ran off into little rivers that flooded the road. Heck, a whole confluence of events conspired against Rafter if you considered why he didn’t make that turn. Or, you could shake your head in awe, as Rafter once again dodged death.

   When he woke up two days later, he was in a little hospital in Garberville. Southern Humboldt County. The nurse squealed in surprise when she saw he was awake and ran off calling for a doctor. Minutes later Doctor Porter and two nurses came into the room. 
  As the nurses fussed with all the equipment he was attached to, Doctor Porter smiled at Rafter and asked how he felt?

   “Fine,” he croaked, suddenly thirsty. 

    “Well…well you had quite a scare, young man. How’s your head feel?” 

    He slowly unwrapped the gauze around it.
  “Yes...it would be, Mr. Rabago. You have a remarkably hard head and I think you’re going to be all right. Is there anyone you want us to call? There were no emergency phone 
numbers in your wallet.”


   “Very well, then. I’m going to take you off these IVs and order you some solid food. I’ll be back tomorrow.”

   “I want to leave now.”

   “Not yet,” the doctor said. “Let’s see how you feel tomorrow, then we’ll talk.”

   They released him the next day. Two surprising things happened. One, he didn’t have to pay for his stay, and two, his fanny pack was recovered with money and drugs intact! He walked out the front door and down the street to a residential section of older wooden houses. He went left for a block, then right and saw he was on the town’s main strip.

   Motels, a walk-in theatre with art deco facade, a restaurant, small stores offering clothing, souvenirs, hardware items, and a supermarket. A new and used car lot at one end of the strip.
   He had a phone number to call for the disposition of his car. From a phone booth outside a café, he called the number. A wrecking yard, 67 miles north, in Eureka. When he described his car, a man said they had what remained of it and he owed them $50.00 towing fee. Rafter assured him he’d pay the bill as soon as he could catch a ride.   
   His course temporarily set, Rafter walked down the street to the freeway entrance. He followed it onto Highway 101 going north. Every now and then he stuck a thumb out halfheartedly, not really expecting a ride. He was pleasantly surprised when a black Ford King Cab pulled over just ahead of him after only 15 minutes. 

  When he got to the side of the pickup, a beautiful young woman in a tie-dye dress over blue jeans, got out and pulled the passenger seat forward so he could get in the back.

  “Where are you going?” she asked.

  He pulled himself up and in.


  “Cool. We are too,” she explained and jumped into the front passenger’s seat. 

  The driver introduced himself as “Smiley,” and extended a long thin arm to Rafter for a handshake. A slight twist while gripping and they both slowly pulled away. A white man’s dap from Vietnam. Rafter looked at him with interest. 

  “Name’s Rafter. When were you in-country?”

  “67-68 Army. Infantry. Bien Hoi.”

  “70 Army. Combat engineer. Phouc Bien.”

  “When did you get out? 

  “A week ago.”

  “No shit.”

  Smiley handed him a doobie and said “Welcome home bro.”

  Rafter took a long hit and passed it back. 

  “No…give it to Jenny,” he nodding toward her. 

  As Rafter passed the doobie he couldn’t help noticing her delicate white hands and long blond hair braided in intricate plaits. She had a pixie face, but an earthy voice and open smile.
  The radio was playing Canned Heat’s “Going up the Country,” and Bob Hite’s voice offered promise, 
  “Well, I’m going where the water tastes like wine…”

  They took him to the wrecking yard, and waited outside while he paid his bill and returned with two paper shopping bags full of clothing he salvaged from the wreck. There was no sign of the hooka in the mangled trunk.

  Serendipity. That’s what happened next. As they drove to the grocery store, they discovered they enjoyed each other’s company. One thing led to another. When Rafter told them he had no place to stay, they insisted he come to their place until he could find one of his own. They had a 160-acre parcel off of Highway 36 with a trailer Jenny explained. 

  They protested when Rafter paid for the groceries, but were thankful. They were low in the cash department and counting pennies. 
  “Serendipity”  Smiley said as if reading his mind, as he put the groceries in the truck. They made another stop and filled three 20-gallon propane containers, and three 5-gallon jerry cans. 

   “We weren’t sure if we had the money to fill these but brought them along anyway,” Smiley explained.

   It took three hours to get to their trailer. Rafter watched the Redwood trees go by with a sense of wonder. He felt a strange kinship with this countryside. It was so vast. So beautiful. 
The drive was smooth going on the two-lane highway, until they turned off the road and came to a locked gate. Then they followed a dirt road that wound into the hills. 
  After half a mile, they came to another gate with a combination padlock. The road split there. They bore to the right and followed the narrow one-lane road up the mountain. 

  At times Smiley shifted down, but kept plodding on. They went another half mile before coming to a final gate. Jenny hopped out and opened it to let Smiley drive inside, closing it when he passed. Home.

  The trailer had seen better days. It was trimmed in rust and the roof was covered with a brown tarp weighted down with piles of boards growing moss. It’s saving grace was the Redwood deck Smiley made from salvaged scraps of wood from friends. It lent the trailer a rustic look that blended in better with it’s beautiful natural surroundings.

  The two steps leading up to the porch were made from slabs of unfinished birds eye burl supported on a bed of bricks. The porch itself was slanted slightly downhill, which  accounted for the wobbly wooden table and two chairs.

  “It’s going to be planting time soon,“ Smiley said a week later.

  Rafter passed back the doobie and looked at the valley spread out below them. He watched a Red-Tailed Hawk suspended in the air currents, then spiraling downward with a purpose. In search of prey.

  Rafter knew what Smiley was talking about, but still asked, “Time to plant what?” 

  Smiley, who sometimes looked like a weasel with his thin angular face and red goatee, read his eyes for a moment to see if he was serious.

  “Pot, what else?”

  “I don’t know anything about growing grass,” Rafter pointed out.

  “I do. You can learn. We can make money,” Smiley assured him.

“Can’t dance,” Rafter said, “but I’m game.”

  They dapped, a slower more intricate shake that bonded them as brothers-in-war. That dap sealed their new partnership as pot farmers. 

  Jenny watched the two men with interest. She enjoyed listening to their conversations. She was curious about Rafter’s history, but never asked questions about it. It would have been a breach of etiquette in their world. She secretly studied his face as they talked excitedly, in an effort to know him better. 

  The streak of white hair at the center of his head and the livid scar on his cheek gave him a sinister appearance. He seldom smiled, which furthered the impression. He was the exact opposite of her Smiley who got his nickname for his broad, inviting grin. Rafter’s golden brown penetrating gaze could be unnerving. He often stared into space.

  Sometimes at night he woke her, making animal-like sounds in his nightmares. When she checked on him at those times, he was bathed in sweat. Sometimes he sobbed so hard she wanted to run over and hold him and tell him it was going to be all right. She didn’t mention that to him. She didn’t want to embarrass him.  
   Wishing them a good night, Jenny retired to the trailer. The two future pot farmers talked late into the night, sitting outside on folding chairs next to the fire pit and smoking weed.
   To Rafter, it promised to be a good life. He knew he couldn’t go back to the rat race and get a job loading boxcars, or serving people at McDonalds. It was so quiet here. So peaceful. They were off the grid. No electricity. They had their own well and a small generator. 

 There was even a septic system behind the trailer. A rare luxury. The only link to the world was the battery radio. They used propane for cooking and heating the small trailer which had a tiny shower and bathroom. 

   They ate a lot of rice and beans. It was a crude setup, but wonderfully liberating. He didn’t have to worry about someone telling him what to do. He could be his own man again.

  The hard work Smiley said they had ahead of them didn’t bother him. He was okay working with his hands and he had a strong back. Jenny was like  a sister and the three of them were agreeable companions. He liked Smiley and admired his grit and knowledge. 
  This land had been given to Smiley by his favorite uncle when he got out of the Army in 1970. It was all he had in the world. 
   The terrain was rugged, and there was only one large flat area where the trailer and the pickup were parked. It was rough country that hosted Redwoods, Madrone trees, Sequoias, Cedar, California Black Oak, Coast Live Oak, California Sycamores, White Alder, Black Cottonwood, Sitka Spruce, Mountain Hemlock, and more.

  Shrubs like Greasewood, Manzanita, Coyote Bush, Lupines, Huckleberries, Currants, and Creosote Bushes thickened the steep hillsides. The uneven terrain was home to black bears, skunks, wild turkeys introduced 100 years ago, mountain lions, coyotes, squirrels, raccoons, foxes, and deer. 
  Rafter was falling in love with it. The contrast between this and living in the city was dramatic. As a city boy, he had grown up in a concrete jungle, seldom exposed to nature’s beauty. Now he felt he’d found his Shangri La. His Lemuria. His Utopia. And it was here in Humboldt County.

  He knew he couldn’t stand to be around a lot of people. The hermit who roamed the base in Vietnam still existed beneath a thin surface. He didn’t want to be part of the insanity city life offered. He wanted peace. He wanted to be away from the maddening din of so-called civilization. Now he was poised for another milestone in his life. It seemed almost too good to be true.  

  Smiley had a year of local experience in outdoor growing. He had worked with another Vietnam veteran, his nearest neighbor, on his pot gardens and learned all the basics of growing and how to properly harvest, cure, and trim his product.

  If he was stumped by something the veteran, Rick McNeese, was always available to give advice. The one thing Smiley needed was a partner with some cash and willingness to work hard, and he felt he found both in Rafter. The drying shed he had started was nearly finished with  Rafter’s help. He was determined that his first crop, their first crop, would be a success.

  Carrying compass and notebook, Smiley had spent the prior summer surveying his land for potential sites. He selected several spots close to creeks. As he was taught, he checked the sun’s path relative to the possible garden spots knowing maximum sun exposure was a critical element in achieving a successful grow. 

  After helping his neighbor harvest his gardens, he felt he had a well-rounded education. Pre-planning was important for success.He learned that in the Army Rangers.

  There were still supplies to be purchased. Smiley whose real name was Dan Holt, grew up in the country near Paradise Valley, California, on his Uncle Tony’s ranch. He was a country boy through and through. He grew up hunting and was a crack shot before going into the Army. He set several training records with the M-14 at Ft. Bragg before his tour of duty in Vietnam.

  The outdoor life appealed to him. He was comfortable with it. He never had any desire to live in the city. When he got out of the Army, a friend told him to look up Rick McNeese, saying they probably had a lot in common. Similar backrounds and all. 

  When he found out the man who raised him, his uncle Tony, had died he was grieve-stricken and didn’t know where to go. Then his cousin, George Hall, gave him his uncle’s will and a letter. A few words of wisdom. An admonition to “man up” and be his own man. A farewell from a hard, but always fair man. Plus a deed to 160 acres of land near Hydesville, off Highway 36 in Humboldt County

  As fate would have it, one of his neighbors was Rick McNeese, who owned 320 acres bordering his land. Smiley took that as a positive sign and the will of the Gods he claimed not to believe in.

Next: Chapter Five - Plants and a Baby - Coming April 23, 2013

No comments:

Post a Comment

Feel free to comment on anything you see and read here. This is an open forum.
Please keep it clean.