(Author’s Note: This is an original novella I wrote a few years ago. – Dave Stancliff)
Prologue: 1976 Humboldt County, California
When he woke up his arms ached. He was lying on his stomach somewhere in a dark place. A basement? Minutes crawled by as his brain attempted to clear the fog clinging to it since he opened his eyes.
Dawning awareness. His fingers dug into dirt. Soft, wet, smelly. Odor of decay. Not buried in it. Lying on it. His body pressed up against it. His arm muscles were spastic snakes, stilling his movements. He waited for them to settle down.
Alive. In pain, but alive. What happened? He raised his head slightly and felt a gentle breeze. His eyes, growing accustomed to the darkness, revealed he was under a house. He had no idea whose house. He could just make out some porch steps. Irregular rows of lattice-work lined the house perimeter. There were several broken openings.
What was he doing here? The thought paralyzed him. No memory at all. There had to be a reason why he was under this house. Who was he hiding from? More important, who was he? He didn’t even know his name. Or, how long he’d been lying there. More pain. Bright lights went off behind his eyes like slivers of lightning. His head sank back onto the cold earth. Throbbing. Suddenly a thunderous roar and muzzle flash, and his hip exploded in pain!
“I’ve got you now you son of a bitch!” A voice roared. He rolled over, off the wounded hip, and wondered what terrible thing he must have done to deserve an ending like this?
Chapter 1 – Freedom
Rafter Rabago barely managed to get his diploma from Covina High School in 1968, surprising friends, family, and the school’s entire faculty. Some of his detractors said he shouldn’t have graduated, based on the time he missed. His commonly known distain for the whole process of education had pushed more than one teacher to the limit.
He was never interested in organized school sports. His physical education coaches constantly tried to get him to play football, basketball, or to wrestle. The reason? He was probably the most gifted athlete in the school. Except he didn’t want to be an athlete. A jock. It drove his PE coaches crazy to watch him dribble the basketball around others and to slam dunk it with apparent ease during PE class.
When it came to football he could pass, defend, and receive the ball effortlessly. He was faster and more agile than any student in the school. At six-feet, and 180 pounds by his senior year, he was a force few physically challenged. In his physical education tests he did more pushups, sit-ups, chin-ups, and pull-ups than anyone on the varsity football squad. He set school records in all of them. He was faster than anyone on the school’s track team, and tied the fastest 100 meters record in the school’s history as his PE coach clocked him in awe.
With all his physical gifts, Rafter should have been groomed as a professional athlete. The coaches daydreamed about his potential. Friends didn’t ask why he didn’t participate in sports. They knew why. He didn’t like the discipline. Didn’t like the idea of being told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.
Rafter was not a good student either. That discipline thing was a problem in the classroom as he sometimes did have trouble focusing on the lessons. The teacher’s words sometimes sounded like angry bees in his head and his attention wandered off to other subjects.
As could be expected, this lack of attention hadn’t gone unnoticed by his teachers since
the first day of his first grade class. His eyes gave him away, staring into space. Or, his other extreme; Class Clown. Getting laughs while earning Ds in Mathematics and English. Some of the contorted faces he made caused teachers to grin in spite of themselves. He was a natural clown. A rubber face. A teller of off-color jokes when adults weren’t nearby.
Despite being a poor student and a non-jock with a perfect record of never having made the honor roll in 12 years of basic education, Rafter was popular. People liked being around him because he exuded a certain air of adventure. Of discovery. And his sense of humor was a hit, especially when it came to getting girl friends.
Rafter was not what you’d call a good looking guy. You know, like Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise. Truth be told, he was very average looking with a pudgy nose and lips too full for his thin face. His mouse brown hair never looked combed, and was always borderline too long according to school regulations. One ear was lower than the other.
His golden brown eyes, topped with dark brown eyebrows, were the most intense feature of his face. His moods were reflected in them like serene twin lakes, or stormy seas, depending upon the moment. His voice was a husky baritone that carried well. It could sooth or terrify.
And what of his home life? Pretty boring actually. Mom and Dad both worked while he was growing up. Frank, a dentist, and Madeline, a bank clerk, were both active in community organizations. Rafter had a succession of babysitters until he was ten, at which time he declared his independence and right to be home alone while they were out doing their things. That was fine with his parents. It saved them money.
Speaking of “saved,” no one in the Rabago household went to church. It was never discussed. Rafter remained blissfully doctrine free throughout his childhood. The world around him talked about God and he formed a vague opinion of the omniscient Spirit from what he heard.
There were many times, during his school years, that God was mentioned. The Pledge of Allegiance, and songs like “God Bless America” were commonplace. Rafter saw and heard references to God in court houses, schools, and public buildings. Personally, Rafter did not know the God everyone referred to.
Talking with friends who did attend various churches gave him little insights into God. His over-all impression was of a wrathful supreme being who did not tolerate sinners (anyone who didn’t believe in him) and who had a long list of what was good and bad. That list was summarized in the Ten Commandments laid down in God’s Bible.
He did see an upside to a God who loved him no matter what he did. The idea of a loving Supreme Being sparked a longing in his lonely heart. He really wanted to be loved by someone. He longed to experience the magical feeling poets and singers conveyed when describing love.
He never told people about this longing. It was his secret between him and God…if God existed.
He didn’t have brothers or sisters. This was never explained. Not that it mattered. It was obvious early on his parents weren’t thrilled to have even one child. Listening to them late at night, when they thought he was asleep, he discovered at an early age that he was an unexpected surprise. Not a happy surprise either. No, he heard words like “mistake,” and “regret,” when they talked about his birth.
Even his name isolated him. Who else had a name like Rafter? No one he read or heard about bore his unusual first name. In bits and pieces of conversation between his parents over the years, he discovered the name Rafter was the Irish variant of Raferty.
His mother’s brother, Raferty O’Brian, a private in the Marines, was killed in World War II at Omaha Beach on D-Day. They decided on Rafter before he was born. If he had been a girl, his name would have been Shirley.
One thing was for sure. He hated the name. Especially when he found out that a group of turkeys was called a rafter! His classmates used this knowledge to mock him. He discovered his best defense was to roll with the laughs, and even walk and talk like a turkey for more laughs.
Rafter never let his parents know he knew how they really felt about him. He just stayed out of their way, caused a minimum of fuss around the house, and became a first class survivor. After he figured things out at age seven, he played the game to perfection.
He thought of them as Frank and Madeline. Not as Mom and Dad. Home was in name only. He never felt “at home.” Never felt ties to the place where he grew up. He slept and ate there. That was it.
He knew when to pick his battles and when to retreat. Catch them at the right time, when they were feeling guilty about their mutual lack of interest in him, and he got what he wanted. From a BB Gun to a Davy Crockett coonskin hat, he more or less got what he wanted with that strategy.
Rafter wouldn’t have been so lonely at home if his parents had let him have a dog. That was out of the question. When they gave him a laundry list of reasons why he couldn’t have one, he stared into space, pretending he was on another planet. Communication in the Rabago household was often strained. He grew up silently envying everyone he knew who had a dog. He loved animals of all kinds, and promised himself that one day, when he was on his own, he would get one. Picking the best breed was one of his favorite day dreams.
With the end of his formal education upon him, Rafter could honestly say he had no plans. College wasn’t a consideration. Up to this point he hadn’t had to worry about money. His parents bought whatever he needed. Food, clothes, toys, a weekly allowance; no problem. A roof over his head in a quiet middle class neighborhood. Check. It was all free. That was about to change. The independence he desired required getting a job and a place of his own. Oh, yeah. And a car.
When it was Rafter’s turn, he stepped up to the podium and accepted his diploma (it was a phony, you got the real one when you turned in your cap and gown) from Principal Sanderson. Family and friends in the front row of the auditorium waved happily as he strolled down the steps with a big smile. He waved the false diploma at them and followed the other students to the chairs provided for graduates.
Afterward, there was a Graduation Party at his house and relatives he hadn’t seen in years attended. He zombie-walked through the rituals, cutting the cake, opening cards and presents, and smiling. Lots of “Thank yous,” to people he barely knew. Lots of advice on what to do, also from people he barely knew.
Alone in his room that night, he added up the money inside the cards. It came to a staggering $2,240! He’d never seen so much money. All in hundreds and twenties like he had robbed a store or something. The biggest cash gift came from Frank and Madeline. A thousand dollars (ten $100 dollar bills) were stuffed into an envelope with a card that said, “Congratulations Graduate. To a wonderful son on his Graduation Day. Best of luck, Mom and Dad.”
The next morning, Rafter phoned his best friend Lenny, who had a Ford Mustang, and got a ride to “Angelo’s Used Cars” on Alosta Avenue. There were forty-two cars to choose from on the lot. He took his time and examined every one of them, occasionally asking questions.
He finally selected a bright red 1963 convertible Chevrolet Impala SS. Its jet smooth styling and powerful V-8, 409 cubic-inch engine with 360 horsepower made his heart jump with excitement and anticipation.
The car sported bucket seats and a shift console. There wasn’t a scratch on the body and the interior was like new. Someone had installed an eight-track cassette player just beneath the radio, and two Craig Pioneer 10” speakers in every door panel, and the rear window area.
The bargaining began. The salesman, who was actually Angelo, a short squat Italian with shiny pointed loafers and green silk tie, said the price was $1,400 out-the-door. Rafter got up, didn’t say a thing, and walked out of the office towards a waiting Lenny who was cleaning the windshield of his Mustang.
Angelo caught up to him. “Hey! Wait a minute, kid!” Rafter stopped and slowly turned around. “How were you planning on paying for the car?”
A calculated moment of silence. “Cash.”
Angelo’s eyes momentarily lit up.
“I see…maybe we can knock off a hundred. What do you say?”
Rafter should have been the salesman. Once again, he hesitated then countered, “I’ll give you $1,000 for it. Right now.”
Angelo gasped like a fish out of water and staggered backward a few feet.
“I gotta get at least $1,200, or I’m losing money,” he wailed.
Rafter thought about the drifter in “Hang ’em High” and imagined he could hear the Italian backround music that made Clint Eastwood’s “spaghetti westerns” so popular.
“I’ll give you $1,000. Take it or leave it.”
The sun beat down. It was pushing 93 degrees and Angelo hadn’t made a sale in three days. “You’re robbing me. Come on inside. There’s some paperwork we have to fill out before I give you the keys.”
It was high noon and Rafter had won the shoot-out.
Days later he found a one-bedroom apartment in Huntington Beach a mile from the ocean. It was furnished with a futon and a rickety wooden end table that supported a 19” Black & White television complete with a telescoping antenna. On good days, it worked well enough to get all three television stations.
The curtains were a dirty beige with a chicken foot design. The kitchen was a nook in one corner, with an electric plate, a small sink, two small cupboards made from cheap pine but stained a dark mahogany, and a table with dual chrome legs, big enough for two. Two chrome legged chairs with red vinyl seats, complimented the modest arrangement.
Rafter thought it was great. His first home. No long term lease either. Rent was due every month. Miss the rent payment one month and you got kicked out. It was really a temporary way station for single young men and women. It was meant as a place to sleep, sometimes eat, and to shave and bathe. The location was its greatest asset.
He could walk to the beach easily from his apartment. His mailing address was Apt. 4A, 2377 Ocean View Drive, Huntington Beach. He got a phone. A standard black rotary phone, but special because it was his first. Everything was special because he was a free man living near the beach. He spent days walking around the neighborhood, getting to know the area.
Months slipped by like the steady surf at the beach he enjoyed so much. Lenny, who worked Monday though Friday at a car parts warehouse, usually came by on weekends and they got drunk and chased women. He could have gone on like that forever but his money was running low and he had to find a job.
The newspaper was full of ads for unskilled laborers like Rafter. He applied at a plastic factory in La Mirada and got a job loading box cars with boxes of plastic products ranging from cups to plates.
They taught him how to drive a forklift so he could pick up pallets of boxes and supply himself as he filled a box car every shift. The warehouse was huge. Others like him worked at bay doors open to the railroad tracks and the hungry box cars. When it rained, the metal ramp to the box car was slippery and he had to watch every step as he carried the heavy boxes and neatly stacked them to the ceiling inside.
For two months the blood vessels in both arms and his chest looked like red spider web tattoos, until he finally got into lifting shape. He slowly adjusted to his new routine and became comfortable with it despite the physical demand.
Working the graveyard shift, he soon became a night owl. It was hell on his social life at first, but he wasn’t looking for a lasting relationship anyway. After a year, he had a half dozen friends at work, both male and female. They did the lunch thing at 3:00 a.m. every morning and shared life’s defeats and victories over warmed up leftovers, sandwiches, and snack goodies.
One of his female friends, LeAnn, was married to an abusive husband, and the other, Tina, was a single mom. Gary, Cole, and Lee were all single, and Ron was married with two children. Twins. The men enjoyed going to basketball, football, and baseball games. The five of them enjoyed playing basketball and formed a team. They called themselves the “Hoop Heads” and played other pickup teams at local gyms that offered open nights for hoopsters.
They were his inner circle. Tina and Rafter dated several times, but the sexual attraction wasn’t there for either of them. Their relationship settled into a platonic one based upon trust. Sometimes when Tina came to his apartment for a drink she got drunk and he made her stay on his futon. He slept on the floor without grumbling. Her safety was more important than ruining a friendship.
It was an easy, free flowing life, and predictable. Some might say boring. He seldom strayed outside his routine. He laid around on the beach during his days off, if
the weather was good, watching the pretty girls in bikinis. No desire to travel troubled his
mind. No dreams of being rich. He was content to put his years in with a company and to retire with a small pension and Social Security. He didn’t expect a gold watch, knowing he’d never stand out as employee of the month, year, or decade. Knowing he’d never turn in a money-saving tip to the suggestion box. Just an average Joe getting by.
If he didn’t like the job, or got fired, he could easily find another one. There was no shortage of manufacturing jobs in Southern California in 1968. There was no shortage of any kind of jobs when he graduated. Jobs for college grads, service jobs, and manufacturing jobs, were all abundant. Full time or part time.
He could have picked something more adventuresome to do with his life. He might have been a world record breaker in sports with his natural talents. An inspiration to average-looking humble guys everywhere. Or a seeker of truth with a college degree in Philosophy. A champion for the downtrodden.
Fate held a different future for him. One day Rafter checked his mailbox and found a draft notice! Uncle Sam had sent him an invitation he couldn’t deny. It arrived one year and three months after he graduated from high school and said he had three days to report to a processing center in Los Angeles for a physical. He stared at it while the sun suddenly hid behind gathering clouds in the sky. His steps were heavy as he slowly walked back to his apartment. The Army. He was going to be a soldier. His country wanted him. He was in trouble now!
That night he watched the six o’clock follies on the news, as soldiers charged through the rice paddies chasing little men and women in black silk suits with funny conical straw hats. The TV anchor man droned on about 234 enemy causalities and two wounded soldiers in the Valley of the Jars, which had been an enemy stronghold, but wasn’t any longer. There was no word about when the war in Vietnam would come to an end.
Chapter 2 – Army Training
Basic training happened by the sea, at Ft. Ord, the U.S. Army’s Training Center for Infantry in California. It was named after Major General Edward Cresap Ord, who served with Fremont’s Army in the early days of California.
Rafter and his fellow trainees in Company B, 1st Battalion, 1st Brigade, ran along the beach in the morning fog every day. They ran all over the base. Everywhere they went they ran. They sang as they ran. They moaned while running miles in full gear with their heavy M-14 rifles at port arms. They ran through obstacle courses. They ran carrying a buddy on their back. They ran in their dreams like dogs sometimes do.
Every morning they woke to infuriated drill instructors telling them to get their maggoty asses off their racks. The tension got worse every step of the way. Every day.
“You maggots have five minutes to enjoy Uncle Sam’s food. Then you better get out of here!” roared a drill instructor, as he strolled between the long tables during a typical breakfast. Scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, all disappeared down 140 gullets in record time each morning. Then it was time to run.
The trainees learned new skills every day. How to properly use a bayonet. How to get a linoleum floor squeaky clean with a toothbrush. How to sight your M-14. How to say – and act out a mime pointing at their rifle and their genitals, “This is my rifle, this is my gun. One is for shooting and one is for fun!” whenever they made the mistake of calling their rifle a “gun.”
On the firing range, metal barrels with fires burning inside of them, stood ready as each trainee blackened the sight of his rifle before trudging through beach sand to the shooting range.
Targets down range. Pissed off drill instructors screaming at trainees who missed whole targets. Their bullets screaming off in another, undetermined direction while range masters shook their heads sadly at the thought of sending lousy marksmen to Vietnam.
They would surely die if they couldn’t shoot better than that. A good grunt was a good shot. A dead grunt was the one who couldn’t hit the side of a barn. Charlie, their opponent in Vietnam, was a damn good shot, the drill instructors assured the trainees, hoping to motivate them.
Instead, it scared some so badly they panicked and fired blindly. The nearly bald trainees, mostly 19 and 20 year-olds, were clueless about what was happening in Vietnam. Some were still in shock at being drafted and were only thinking of ways to get out before someone put them on a plane to that bad place.
Rafter was blessed with a good eye and steady aim. He turned out to be one of three trainees in the entire company who earned an Expert Marksmanship rating. His platoon drill instructor, Sgt. Christenson, was pleased with him. It made a platoon sergeant look good to have one of the best shots in the company. It also made him look good that Rafter had the highest physical training scores in the company.
The downside, for Sgt. Christenson, was Rafter’s lack of respect for authority. Little things like saying “Drill Sgt! Yes Drill Sgt!” instead of “Okay Sarge” prevented him from being an ideal soldier. Sgt. Christenson stayed awake nights wondering what it would take to straighten him out? He lost a lot of sleep pondering that puzzle.
Rafter continued to do stupid things like whispering, laughing, and farting in formation. Infractions so dire that he was forced to spend hours doing push-ups, kitchen patrol, extra laps, and cleaning toilets with a tooth brush.
It bothered Sgt. Christenson that Rafter had the potential to be a Sgt. York or an Audie Murphy and didn‘t appreciate it. He could be the next hero for his generation. It bothered Sgt. Christenson that a chance of a lifetime was passing him by because of Rafter’s lousy attitude and lack of respect for his superior officers.
To be known as Rafter’s mentor, when he stood before the president of the United States and received the Medal of Honor, would have been a crowning achievement. Such a waste of grand thoughts. In his heart, he knew Rafter would be lucky not to get a dishonorable discharge for his rebellious ways.
When he thought about the situation long enough, he’d seek Rafter out after regular training hours, and make him do push-ups until he got tired of watching.
Graduation Day. Everyone in the company, except Rafter, proudly paraded before a grand stand full of relatives and friends, wearing their new Class A uniforms with private stripes. Martial music blared. The sun glared. Rafter shined pots and pans in the company kitchen and butchered the lyrics to “Come Together“ by the Beatles.
His failure to pass a final inspection infuriated the company commander, Captain Miles, who had planned to present him with his Expert Marksman Badge and tell the audience how he set a new record at the base range. Perfection. But no. The idiot’s locker looked like a bomb had exploded in it, and when reprimanded Rafter shot off his mouth, “Well what are you going to do? Send me to Vietnam?”
So it came to pass that Rafter’s shooting record was silently entered into the base history books by a bored corporal that afternoon. Orders were cut, and he was sent to Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, a base fondly called “Fort Lost in the Woods” by former graduates who had braved the Big Piney River and woods during night navigation courses and other outside activities. It was especially challenging in the winter.
Rafter arrived in early October 1969, for his advanced individual training (AIT). He was assigned to AIT Bravo Company, 3rd Platoon, 2nd Battalion. The clerk told him to go to supply and get his winter duds. He walked outside, stuck out his tongue to catch the gently falling snow flakes, and went in search of the supply building.
What a different look his new home had. In basic training they had concrete bays, three levels high and lined up in endless rows. Here, the barracks were old vintage wooden buildings used during WW I, with pot-bellied stoves at one end that required a “fire watch” by one of the trainees every night. This was treated the same as being a sentry in a war zone and falling asleep meant big trouble.
The overall effect was depressing for Rafter at first. Perhaps it was the slate gray skies threatening snow or the dilapidated wooden buildings. It could have been a sense of being far from civilization, surrounded by trees in a place so unlike Southern California it was like landing on the moon.
Rafter noted the drill instructors didn’t seem as pissed off as the ones in basic training. They still shouted at the top of their lungs, but not as often. The Army decided to introduce the M-16 and other trainees like Rafter who had qualified with the M-14, had to requalify with the new lighter weapon.
It reminded Rafter of a toy. When one of the guys in his squad, Jason Henry, said the stock was made by Mattel Toy Company, Rafter wasn’t surprised. It was quite a shock going from a heavy wooden stock to a light plastic stock that could shattered if you did what you were taught in basic. That is, diving to the ground for safety, using the stock to break your fall. The Mattel stock would shatter with a good body slam like that.
This time, Rafter didn’t get a perfect rifle score. He missed a few. It might have been because he was shooting prone in a pile of snow at white pop-up targets during a snow storm. Or because he had trouble paying attention because of his frostbitten feet.
In any event, he still qualified as an Expert Marksman. With this eagle-eye ability, he should have been sent to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina to train with an infantry unit and become a sniper, but a pissed off Captain Miles at Ft. Ord instructed a bored Army clerk to send him to Ft. Leonard Wood to become a combat engineer.
There he could learn to drive heavy equipment, build bridges, roads, fire bases in hostile places, and mine sweep vital roads. Combat engineers were in big demand in Vietnam. To top it off, he would train in the harsh Missouri winter. As good a revenge as any.
One day the Company Commander, Captain Elias Thorton, asked Rafter if he’d be interested in boxing? The base held weekly “smokers” or boxing matches, and representatives from the companies fought for the glory and whatever perks they could get. Rafter had never boxed before. Never laced on a pair of gloves. Never hit a speed bag, or heavy bag. He liked watching Muhammad Ali. He told the captain that. The captain said he would train him if he was interested, and the company really needed a heavyweight. Rafter, who’d thrived on Army food, had gained an astounding twenty pounds and now weighed 200 lbs. Right at the weight limit for heavies.
Rafter bluntly asked, “What’s in it for me?” The captain smiled and assured him of special eating privileges (steak every day), no kitchen duty, no fire watches, and a weekend pass once a month to the nearby town of Waynesville, where prostitutes gave military discounts. They shook hands in agreement, a decidedly unmilitary thing to do.
Why did the captain want him to box if he knew Rafter had no experience? Hard to understand unless you knew Captain Thorton. He fancied himself as the trainer for the next Heavyweight Champion of the World. He never stopped looking for prospects. Every training cycle he looked over the men’s records in search of a champion. He literally drooled the day he saw Rafter’s physical test scores. Rafter could be a diamond in the rough. And he was the right man to polish this powerful kid into a champion. All this soldier had to do was listen to him.
Rafter’s first fight was as ugly as it was instructive. With just two weeks of training in the gym he thought he could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. His favorite fighter was Muhammad Ali.
Didn’t happen. His opponent used Rafter’s head for a punching bag for two rounds before he realized it was time to get serious. Halfway through the third and final round, Rafter pushed his shorter opponent back against the ropes and hit him with a solid right, breaking his jaw and sending him to the canvas, effectively ending the fight.
His opponent was one of the toughest heavies on the base and had never been knocked down, let alone out. The crowd broke into cheers, knocked back their beers, and started talking about Rafter as being the next Post Champion.
He fought six more opponents before his chance at the current base champion, Alex Harmon from Columbus, Ohio. They were messy bouts. He got hit a lot. Probably too much, but he always ended up knocking out his opponent. No decisions. His wins were undisputed acts of raw power and little technique. His left ear looked like a wrestler’s might after a long career. His nose was broken twice and looked pudgier than ever by the time he earned the right to fight Alex Harmon.
The big fight. Money was bet. Unit pride flared. Captain Thorton genuinely didn’t want to see Rafter get hurt, but he needed to see if there was a future for him. Knowing if Alex punched him in the head as much as his other opponents did, Rafter would go down like a sack of potatoes, he worked out a plan for him.
“Tie him up and don’t stand back and try to exchange punches,” he instructed. “Batter him inside. Keep your head on his chest and throw body blows.”
Rafter slipped off his warmup robe and shadow boxed around the tiny locker room. “I think I could, Cap,” he offered.
“You could what? No! Now listen to me, this guy was a Golden Glove champion in Cleveland, Ohio last year. He’s already a member of the regular Army boxing team, and these bouts are just warm-ups for him. His people say he’ll probably qualify for the Olympics.”
Rafter stopped and looked at him. “You do want me to win, don’t you?”
“Of course, I’m just telling you the best way to fight him, okay? Do your work inside. Keep punching in close. Mix in some uppercuts. Solar plexus punches will bring his guard down. Wear him out so he can’t dance around and hit you in the chops. The guy could drop a bull if he gets a clean shot. But if you work on him, punish him, stay close and use your strength, you can win.”
Did Rafter take the Captains’ good advice seriously? Of course not. The moment the bell rang he stood toe-to-toe and within one minute and twenty-two seconds he was
looking up from the canvas, surprised he got there but aware of someone counting:
“Two..three…four…five…six…seven” Rafter got to his knees. “Eight, nine..” Rafter got up. The ref held his gloves up and looked into his still unfocused eyes and shouted “Fight!”
Alex stepped up and unloaded another combination on him. Rafter took it mostly on his gloves. An animal instinct took over and he reached out and pulled a startled Alex toward him and head-butted his tormentor! Bright red blood spurted from the gash on Alex’s forehead and he backed up in stunned shock.
The gym was impossibly silent for a few seconds. The earth stood still. Then pandemonium broke out. Rafter, his blood up, closed in on Alex and punched him with jackhammers to the body and head.
All six-feet four inches and 245 pounds once destined to be a champion was a broken man within a minute. Alex would require three facial surgeries after his mauling. As he sank to the canvas the referee pulled Rafter away. Alex’s corner men jumped into the ring roaring for revenge! Chaos broke out in the rowdy audience. Beer cans flew.
Captain Thorton’s dream was as shattered as Alex’s face. Rafter was, of course, disqualified and Alex declared the winner. Like it mattered. Neither man would ever box again. Rafter was lucky to have the Captain in his corner that night as some of Alex’s friends, who dearly wanted revenge for their champion’s beating, might have evened the score. He became an instant Bravo Company legend. His boxing career was over. Rafter had to settle back into the regular training drudgery like tying knots and learning how to sweep for mines with big, heavy metal detectors that emitted painfully loud screeches at the hint of something metal. Captain Thorton, temporarily stymied in his search for a champion, waited patiently for the new cycle to begin.
Rafter knew he’d end up in Vietnam. Drill instructors since basic made sure he knew. The training cadre at Ft. Lost-in-the-Woods knew that most of the men were bound for Southeast Asia. There was a real need for combat engineers there. The cadre made sure not to get too close to the soon-to-be-condemned men. They didn’t want to know when they died, or how they died. They became jaded for their own sanity. It was much easier that way.
Chapter 3 – Vietnam
Rafter’s first plane trip was from California to Missouri when he reported to AIT. The second took him back to California with a one week leave to get his affairs in order before going to Vietnam. His third was the trip to Long Bien Air Force Base in Vietnam.
Before he left, he visited his parents. It was an awkward visit. They didn’t really know how to show they loved him, and he was pretty sure they didn’t. They let him use their garage to store his stuff, which amounted to three boxes of mostly clothes and tennis shoes. He parked his red 1963 convertible Chevrolet Impala SS at the side of the house and put a tarp over it.
A handshake with Frank. A peck on the cheek for Madeline. Murmers of “write” drifted after him as he climbed into Lenny’s Mustang. Next stop Los Angeles Airport. Before he got on the plane, Lenny cautioned him to be careful and said, “Don’t play John Wayne over there.” Rafter suspected it was the best advice he could have received.
The first thing Rafter noticed, after getting off the air conditioned plane, was the
incredible heat. It was a living thing. It shimmered. He was instantly bathed in sweat.
He stood dazed on the tarmac, sweat spreading from his armpits, while others disembarked from the civilian passenger plane. Finally he moved towards the main airport terminal and followed the others inside.
The “Night of the Living Dead,” reeled through his head, as everyone seemed zombie-like in their movements. Moving slowly in the heat and stench. The stench of the unwashed. The stench from overloaded trash cans with flies dive-bombing the contents. His nostrils quivered in disgust.
He reached a window after standing in a line for an hour. They gave him his orders and said someone would come out and get him. Not when. Just that someone would come after him. He found his two duffel bags, hauled them to a corner of the waiting room and sat on the concrete floor. There were no empty benches. He idly wondered if he would serve out his tour waiting for someone to get him.
His biggest immediate problem was food. There didn’t seem to be any place to buy any. No local vendors. Just a bunch of guys hanging around waiting for rides under this one big roof.
It sure wasn’t what he expected. He wasn’t sure what he really expected, but he thought someone should have been passing out weapons and cigarettes the moment they landed.
There was nothing dramatic about his first day in Vietnam. Actually it was kind of
boring if he didn’t think about the possibility of getting shot by unseen snipers in the jungle. If he didn’t worry about vipers while wading through rice paddies. If he didn’t think about a “Bouncing Betty” popping up and blowing his knee caps off.
Everything considered, hanging around in what must have been a safe area because they
didn’t need weapons, didn’t seem so bad. All things must end, or at least change, and eight hours later someone with a microphone called his name.
A three-quarter ton pickup truck with a canvas top gave Rafter and four other new
guys a ride to their new home in Phouc Binh. The driver, a grizzly vet with a Peace sign on his helmet and a doobie drooping from his thin lips, had no words of advice for the new guys. It was actually below his station, as someone who was so short in country (he was knee high to an ant short), to speak with such raw troops. They had a lot to learn. But not from him. When the truck stopped, he got out and walked away. A thin spidery man popped out of a hooch that had a sign declaring, “Company Clerk.”
“Over here newbies!” he called out.
Hours later the new men were settled in their own hooch. Each had been issued a cot, a wooden chest, one combination padlock, a pillow that could have passed for a brick, and a scratchy OD green blanket. They brought the rest of their supplies with them in the duffle bags. All five were assigned to bunker guard duty that night. They were instructed to check out their weapons at the armory when it was time to report.
That night, a truck took the newbies out to the bunker line and dropped them off, one-by-one at bunkers. Waiting for each of them was a tired, bored, or stoned guard sitting on the top of the sandbag bunker with a 50-caliber machine gun. Rafter scuttled up to the top and greeted the occupant.
“How ya doing? My name is Rafter Rabago.”
“Well, I’m being polite and introducing myself. Isn’t that the way things are done here?”
“Where are you from, boy?”
“I’m not a boy. I’m from California. Where are you from, smart ass?”
“Texas, and I sure don’t take shit from surfer boys so don’t mess with me. I’m going down below now, and don’t even think about waking me up unless Victor Charles is coming through the wire with bad intentions.”
“Lousy dreams cowboy!”
Rafter checked out the 50’s action and pointed it towards the rows of rolled razor barbwire. The ground leading up to the barbwire was stripped bare for a hundred yards. He could just make out tree tops in the distance. Claymore mines were carefully positioned for maximum effect. The only things moving were the clouds that slunk along the stygian skies like sappers. Look at them long enough and you could see things. Shapes. Faces. Odd things. Rafter imagined an enemy crawling around nearby looking for a G.I. to kill.
He recalled a humorous song on the radio back home about the 7th Cavalry being ambushed, “Please Mr. Custer, I don’t want to go,” went the lyrics, “There’s a Redskin out there waiting to take my hairrrr…” It didn’t sound so funny to him now. It sounded desperate. A plea to live. No matter how high the singer’s voice, it ceased being funny as Rafter stared towards a jungle that was home to his newfound enemy; the North Vietnamese regulars and the Viet Cong.
He knew they lived in tunnels that went on for miles. They were out there, just beyond the 100-yard perimeter – or possibly below him right now – plotting to kill the foreign devils invading their country. This stand off had been going on for years. He was just a small cog inserted into the machinery of the overall madness. His thoughts were interrupted an hour later when the whole bunker line suddenly came alive with
machine gun fire!
He scrambled behind the .50 caliber and squeezed off rounds in short bursts, wondering if a wave of sappers was going to engulf him. He didn’t see anything, but kept firing until the bunker line went silent. Then he went down the wooden ladder from his perch and pulled the Pancho door curtain aside.
“Hey Texas! You better get up fast! We were just attacked and Charlie could still come back!”
The bleary-eyed Texan, whose name was Beau Clayton, hocked a lugie in his direction and growled, “Damn newbie! That was just a mad-minute! Every night at a different time the whole bunker line opens up to remind Victor Charles we are awake and mean business. Now get the hell out of here!”
Feeling sheepish, Rafter went back topside and sat down next to the still warm .50 caliber. He wondered why no one had warned him of this nightly practice. It seemed everyone was out for themselves, and new guys didn’t get any breaks.
In the morning he saw a dead boar tangled up in the barbwire. His first kill. And it was a pig. Beau, who was up and smoking a cigarette saw the pig and immediately gave Rafter a nickname: Pig Killer. When the jeep came around to relieve them they weren’t talking.
Because he was a new guy, he got the shit jobs around the base. Literally. He had to burn shit in a barrel with JP-4 (jet fuel) that sent up oily black clouds. He wore a green bandana wrapped around his face, but could still taste the oily sludge polluting the air. Another job was to pull out, with a metal hooked rod, the cut-off 50 gallon barrels from beneath the latrine. He spent his first week in country inhaling shitty fumes and having the shits, from the daily quinine he had to take to fight malaria. The company medic told him it would take a month or two before his body got used to it. Meanwhile, he was advised to “live with it.”
There were other adjustments to make. The first time he went to the latrine he was shocked when, while he was doing his business, a young Vietnamese domestic worker came in, dropped her black silk pants, and plopped down on the seat beside him. Culture shock. She thought nothing of it. He was embarrassed and didn’t know what to say when she rattled off something in Vietnamese and smiled at him while wiping herself.
“Your not in Kansas anymore, Toto,” he reminded himself, and smiled back at her.
The food was universally lousy at the mess hall. The cooks were a surly lot. The head cook, Sgt. Batson, had a face full of pimples about ready to burst and a temper nurtured by eight months in county serving grunts who constantly complained about his cooking.
Rafter was assigned to a squad of combat engineers. The squad was at the beck and call of Alpha Company which meted out their missions. They were attached to infantry units to sweep roads, look for booby traps in villages, build firebases in the middle of hostile jungles, and hooches in established base camps. They also laid pipelines and paved dirt roads with sticky black tar to keep the dust down.
There were nine men in Rafter’s squad. Their leader, Sgt. Borgalac, was an alcoholic with three years in Country. He kept re-upping rather than go back to the states. Two of the men were from California, Chandler and Gonzales; Goodson from Alabama, Montalvo from Puerto Rico, Enriquez from New York, Fernandez from Florida, and Elliason from Kansas. Rafter was a replacement for a man picked off by a sniper while driving an earthmover to build a firebase in the middle of the Ashau Valley. The old timer was Sgt. Borgalac. The next-in-line, with seven months in country, was Goodson, who had the most experience in disabling mines.
With the exception of Sgt. Borgalac, everyone in the squad smoked marijuana and/or opium. Montalvo was also hooked on heroin. The squad had a radio that went everywhere with them. They traveled (when possible) in a small convoy of two 20-ton trucks that broke down so often a mechanic was assigned to them on every mission.
Rock music, via Armed Forces Radio, blared from the open rear bed of the truck. Chandler kept his guitar in a trailer pulled by one of the trucks, unless he was playing it. This was not what one would call a gung ho squad.
Sgt. Borgalac aside, you had a group of misfits intent on going home in one piece regardless of the price. They spent a lot of time arguing about things “back in the world” but presented a united front if criticized by someone from the outside.
Rafter’s first combat mission was almost his last. The squad was assisting in a search and destroy mission at a village reported to have VC operating from it, when a hidden bomb went off in a hooch he was about to enter with a grunt from the 1st Brigade, 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized).
Parts of the soldier who preceded them filled the air with a red blur and flying pieces
of meat. Rafter’s ears rang and the world went silent as the blast knocked him over. Minutes passed before he was able to slowly sit up. He wiped his face and his hand came away with the blood of the unfortunate soldier. He looked at the grunt sitting up near him, holding the side of his head as blood spurted out where he once had an ear. He appeared calm. Eyes glazed.
When the others gathered around, the medic patched up the wounded grunt, and Sgt. Borgalac examined Rafter.
“Are.. you… all right?”
Rafter nodded. Minutes passed while his concerned squad leader babbled on. The ringing began to go away and he heard, “Damned dinks use our…” Then Rafter vomited. Afterward he was able to hear. Men screaming at each other. Frightened villagers wailing in terror. Old men. Women. Children. Choppers overhead. The medic came over after treating the earless soldier, and examined Rafter.
“How ya feeling?
“Good, that means you’ll make it. Gonna give you a headache for a couple of days. Here, take one of these when it hurts too much.” He handed Rafter a tiny plastic baggie with four white pills in it. “Painkillers,” he explained. Later, when the chaos settled down, Goodson and Montalvo carried Rafter on a stretcher to the back of their 20-ton truck. Goodson cautioned him to take it easy and rest.
Three days later, when they got back to Phouc Binh, Sgt. Borgalac sent Rafter to see a
doctor at Long Bien Airforce Base for a check up. The doctor, an Air Force captain who had nothing but distain for lowly grunts, looked him over and declared him fit as a fiddle. “You’re fine,” he assured Rafter, who still had headaches, and sent him back to his unit.
Right about that time, Rafter started smoking marijuana. Fernandez always had
doobies rolled up and ready to go. He kept them in a handy plastic cigarette case. One front pocket held the doobies. The other his Kool cigarettes. One day, when they had some rare downtime on base, Fernandez offered Rafter a hit from his doobie. Without a second thought Rafter accepted it, took a big toke, and coughed for nearly a minute! This greatly amused Fernandez, who asked if he ever tried pot before?
“No,” Rafter gasped.
“How can that be? You’re from California aren’t you?”
“Well shit. I thought all you California boys smoked weed. Here, have another hit and don‘t take so much in this time. Try to hold it in like you do with a cigarette.”
“I don’t smoke cigarettes.”
“I know that, ass. Just suck it in and hold it as long as you can.”
The process took two hours and two doobies were smoked down to tiny roaches before Rafter mumbled, “I think I’m stoned,” and promptly fell asleep where they were relaxing outside the hooch.
In the following days Rafter found refuge in the high quality Nam weed. When smoking with the squad, their favorite place was an old Buddist graveyard near the base, where he found a sense of inner peace and belonging. The boom box took them “back to the world” with hits from Credence Clearwater and Jimi Hendrix. The men bonded by telling stories about their lives back home. It was a place and time away from the war that swirled around them.
Chapter 4 – Hell
Things were cushy for about a month. All the squad had to do was go out at the crack of dawn and sweep for mines along 10 miles of Highway 1. Yes, there were mines, often buried beneath steaming piles of water buffalo dung, a tactic literally designed to make their removal a shitty experience. G.I.s didn’t like probing through the stinky excrement and Victor Charles knew that. They did it however, cursing the entire Vietnamese people for making them suffer this discomfort. It was almost a boring routine, if it weren’t for the possibility of ambush.
Two squads of south Vietnamese soldiers, ARVNs, came along at first to provide security. This arrangement lasted one week until a lone sniper shot at them and scattered the ARVNs like chickens on slaughter day. After that episode the squad demanded, and got, Americans to provide security. It was actually a good deal for the grunts because they got the rest of the day and night off, as did Rafter’s squad. In the big picture this was a low risk mission with good benefits.
Then disturbing rumors started circulating around the company. Some of its members were to be involved in an invasion of Cambodia. Real hard core stuff. On May 1st, Rafter’s squad was sent to hook up with U.S./ARVN forces near the small town of Snoul in Cambodia’s Fish Hook area. Rafter’s squad was to help clean out an enormous underground cache in a place dubbed “The City” by proud G.I.s. Sgt. Borgalac explained that the cache belonged to the NVA who were used sanctuaries like this in Cambodia because, up until now, Americans weren’t allowed to cross the border.
In his boozy assessment of things, “The political winds changed and Cambodia’s ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who wouldn’t let Americans into his country, was ousted in a coup recently. The new guy, Marshall Lon Nol, asked Nixon to send troops in to chase off the Communists. And here we are.”
This seemingly inside knowledge impressed everyone in the squad. Their leader might be an alcoholic, but by God he knew the score when it came to this war. He was also an expert on the race situation in country. The “Brothers, or Bloods” as African Americans were called then, were okay if you weren’t a redneck or a “lifer.”
Blacks tended to stick together because they were treated like second class citizens at home, and they saw that more of them were in combat positions than the white boys. To further their solidarity, they used special handshakes called the dap that could take minutes to complete.
The dap had different variations. An elaborate synchronized ritual of slapping hands and bumping arms, it was awesome to watch. Some depended upon what part of the U.S. the “dapper” came from, and they also had universal daps that served them overseas.
There were other pearls of wisdom Sgt. Borgalac, who claimed he wasn’t a lifer, passed on to his men. For example, there was a certain ettiquette involved when “fragging” an officer became necessary. First there was a warning. A fragmentation grenade with the pin still in it was placed in the officer’s hooch. This was done to discourage stupid shit things like making the men walk on established trails that could be counted on to be ambush worthy. If the officer persisted in endangering their lives on every mission, they took the next step.
The pin came off the fragmentation gernade and it was rolled into the hooch while they slept. Sometimes, depending upon the severity of their stupidity, it was necessary to “cap” them and say it was an enemy sniper while on patrol. This is how things were done in Vietnam in 1970. This system produced officers afraid to follow orders that were unpopular with their men.
As the months passed, Rafter evolved. No longer a wide-eyed newbie, he became a hard-ass grunt determined to survive his time in Country, regardless. He shed pounds like water dripping off a monkey’s head. He smelled like one too, most of the time. His skin no longer looked lily white. His tan combined with a constant covering of reddish dirt made him look like a native American with red hair.
He learned to think nothing of relieving himself wherever he was. The Vietnamese habit of doing that was a strong influence. He wore a boonie hat with a Peace sign badge on the side. His dark blue granny glasses assured he was “out of uniform” according to the lifers, and that was why he wore them.
When lifers got after him for not saluting, or wearing non-regulation sun glasses, he waved his medical profile (nowhere in the wording did it say what kind of sun glasses had to be worn) at them and taunted, “What are you going to do? Send me to Vietnam?” He smoked pot whenever he could get away with it and developed a taste for opium oil smeared on his doobies.
In July, his squad was attached to a group of Marines building a fire base in the middle
of nowhere, otherwise known as The Song Ve Valley. They filled sandbags and built bunkers under the blazing sun for two days. Then at night all hell broke loose as a full-sized battalion of NVA regulars assaulted the base!
The obsidian sky was filled with red and green tracers and rocket flashes. Little figures of fury swarmed over the partially constructed fire base, shooting at everything in sight. They swarmed over the area like black ants. Rafter rolled out of his cot, grabbed his M-16, and greeted two NVA grunts who stuck their heads in his bunker with a stream of bullets.
Madness reigned. He heard shouts and screams of pain. As he looked around he saw the radio man talking frantically into his radio, right up to the moment his face disappeared in a red mist! He saw Goodson wrestling with one of the enemy. He plunged a knife into the North Vietnamese’s chest. Goodson stood up and looked surprised when red holes suddenly stitched a line across his body. Rafter shot his killer and ran blindly into the chaos.
Overhead, American jet fighters bore down on the embattled fire base’s perimeter with guns roaring and streams of deadly napalm. It was a scene straight from hell, as the fighting was hand-to-hand. The small company of Marines and Rafter’s squad were sustaining major causalities.
He saw Fernandez trying to pull Enriquez to safety by his arm while firing his M-16 at an oncoming group of NVA. When the clip was empty he and Enriquez were engulfed by dark bodies savagely bayoneting them.
The barrel of Rafter’s M-16 purpled and finally his weapon wouldn’t fire. He threw it down and ran. In the confusion he found the engineer trailer and opened the door. Inside
he saw a machete, sledge hammers, an ax, and rolls of detonation cord. Chandler’s guitar was propped up in one corner. “He’ll never play it again,” Rafter thought with a wave of crazy grief. He grabbed the machete and ran.
The fighting continued through the early morning hours. The shots and screams were more sporadic as it slowly became light outside. Then an eerie silence settled over the valley. Even the beasts of the jungle were still.
A pink and orange sunrise in the east. Bodies covered the hill like Autumn leaves. Rafter, hidden in a shallow depression beneath the body of a dead Marine, peered out and looked around. The stench of death and gun powder assaulted his nostrils.
Drops of rain fell. Slowly at first, but within minutes the clouds opened up and poured out their contents upon the carnage below as if to clean the earth of such abominations. Warily he crawled out from his gruesome hidey hole and stood up. It was hard to see anything as the rain poured down. He still stood in the same spot when the rain stopped twenty minutes later. The humidity was nearly unbearable. He watched steam rise from the bodies around him like souls escaping to a more peaceful place.
Look closer. Bodies missing legs and arms sprouting out of the mud and slime. Bodies that were nothing more than ragged dolls twisted into impossible positions. There were no NVA dead to be seen. It was as though a ghost battalion had struck and disappeared in the deadly hours of the night. It was the vengeance of the Eastern Gods of War for daring to invade their ancient country. Men fought and died with no witness to describe their last desperate moments.
No troop of Cavalry arrived at the last minute with bugles blowing and M-16s firing. Only the Gods of war had watched and they were pleased with the carnage.
Blood flowed down the hill mixed with rainwater. Rafter realized he’d have to move. He couldn’t just stand there and wait for something to happen. Nothing good would come his way here. This was Indian territory and he was an interloper.
He went from body to body looking for a weapon. The NVA ghosts had apparently seized all of them. Taken them underground into a tunnel complex more intricate than the catacombs of hell. Spoils of war. Guerrilla war.
Just as he was about to give up, he spotted Sgt. Borgalac slumped against a crumpled bunker. His eyes were open. On his lap, in his still hand, he held a .45 Army automatic. The rain had washed his face and the gash that split his forehead open was livid. White skull fragments were exposed. His body was riddled with bullet wounds.
Rafter imagined he went down taking some of the enemy with him, like Jim Bowie in the Alamo. The .45 was empty. He carefully unbuckled his squad leader’s utility belt with it’s canvas ammo pouches and hunting knife in a green metal sheath. His canteen hung on it, too. Rafter opened it knowing what would be inside. Booze. Just what he needed. He took a generous swig and gasped. Sgt. Borgalac liked the good stuff. Scotch, and not the watered-down kind either.
It warmed Rafter’s guts as the glow crept downward. The canteen was half full. He took it, the knife, and the ammo pouches off the web belt and put them on his. He took the pack of Kools in his shirt pocket, despite the fact he didn’t smoke cigarettes.
He stared down at his dead squad leader, trying to understand his emotions. He felt bad for the Sergeant, but was relieved it wasn’t him sitting there staring into space with his head cleaved wide open. Sorrow? He wasn’t sure. The rest of his squad was also out there. Dead meat. Maggot fodder. Victims of the whims of war. He sighed, picked up the machete he‘d laid down, and started walking.
No tears fell. He knew he had to make a decision now if he was going to live. Carrying the now loaded .45, he set off in the direction of the rising sun. It didn’t matter that he had no idea where he was. It was necessary to put one foot in front of the other and see where they might take him.
He left the clearing on the hill without looking back. There was nothing there for him. He plunged into the dense jungle, where dim rays of sunlight struggled through the thick canopy. He wandered there for a week, surviving on insects, two chocolate bars, and small animals before he broke out into flat land and with no trees. There was no cooking his prey. He ate what he could catch raw.
Gentle rolling hills could be seen in the distance. Rafter was talking to himself now and when he saw the new terrain, he shook his head. “No place to hide,” he complained to the mosquito on his hand as he slapped it. “Not much choice,” he told the gentle morning breeze. “It’ll be a race to see who finds me” he thought. “Yes, that’s true, but there is no other alternative,” he assured himself loudly.
He vaguely remembered a movie about a white man captured by an African
tribe. They striped him naked and gave him a fifteen minute head start. Then they went after him with spears. As luck would have it, he was a bad ass and managed to kill each one of his pursuers as they caught up to him. It looked like he was going to make it when he suddenly spotted some baboons around the hills.
What followed was a primeval display of man versus beast. The white man, now burned to a crisp, used rocks and sticks to beat off one baboon challenger after another. Finally, after days of putting up a stout defense he was weakened by loss of blood, no water, and no food. A particularly large baboon who’d been watching the whole affair came forward and shouted angrily at him.
The man sneered back in defiance, teeth bared like the baboon, and swore at the simian. The attack was short and deadly. The baboon ripped open the weakened man’s throat with it’s sharp fangs. Standing over the body, it beat its chest and roared in victory.
“Well you can forget about that, Charlie!” Rafter swore out loud. He had no intention of dying. As time went on he wasn’t always sure if he was awake or dreaming. Everything seemed surreal to him. At times, he was sure all he had to do was open his eyes and this nightmare would be over. He saw things, strange shapes, out of the corner of his eye as he plodded on.
Rafter found himself calling on a God he didn’t know. He pleaded with God to save him. To deliver him from his enemies. He talked out loud and suspected God didn’t listen to him because he was a sinner and not worth redeeming.
Chapter 5 – Hero
Days later, when the pilot and door gunner of a Huey spotted Rafter they weren’t sure if he was Vietnamese or American. They flew in for a closer look. Rafter, hearing the helicopter’s rotors, shouted in excitement, “Hey! I’m an American! Look at me! Look at me!” He jumped up and down waving his arms crazily when he spotted the Huey. The pilot turned to his co-pilot and said, “This appears to be this guy’s lucky day.”
They took him back to Phouc Binh. The medic there sent him to a doctor and a psychiatrist at Long Bien Air Force Base. The doctor proclaimed him healthy and fit to return to the field. The psychiatrist recommended he be held out of the field for 30 days, and then have further evaluation.
The company commander said Rafter would get a medal soon and assigned him to a new squad. Three days later the squad went to repair an airfield next to an established base in Hue.
The squad sergeant, Sgt. Loudry, was a lanky scarecrow from Arizona who chain-smoked Marlboros. He wasn’t much of a talker, and his squad didn’t like him at all. There were three newbies in the squad; Minder from Minnesota, Edwards from New Jersey, and Farrell from Missouri.
The rest, Hansen from Oregon, Landry from Washington, Kuehnert from Ohio, Fetz from Rhode Island, and Gaffey from New York, had been together since they arrived in Country earlier. They were salty enough, but all felt like newbies around Rafter.
He had a streak of white hair down the center of his head and looked much older than
his 20 years. They all knew his story. Hell, he was rapidly becoming a legend around battalion.
Surviving for ten days in Indian country was no mean feat. Being the only survivor of an overrun firebase placed him high on the food chain of macho and bad-assed grunts. To their disappointment, he didn’t talk with them. He responded to direct questions with terse replies.
One day, while the squad was taking a break for lunch, Hansen from Oregon came to where Rafter was sitting by the wheel well of a 20-ton truck. “Want a toke?” he asked, offering him a doobie. Rafter stared at him for a moment then reached out and took the doobie without saying a word.
Within a week they became friends. Rafter found he needed to talk to someone about his experiences in the jungle. Hansen was a good listener and always had weed available. They labored beneath the relentless sun for two weeks before their mission was accomplished. Then it was back to Phouc Binh.
Back to the comparative safety of their company area. Back to doing menial chores around the base, pulling bunker guard and kitchen duty. Days of rain and mud, and absolute boredom. Three old John Wayne movies were shown repeatedly on a sheet stretched between two trees near the Company Clerk’s hooch.
A basketball rim nailed to a tree. A dirt court that was uneven. A smooth basketball that constantly needed to be pumped up. Lonely grunts writing letters in their spare time hoping “Jodie” hadn’t run off with their high school sweethearts. The heartbreak of mail call when no mail came.
One day Rafter couldn’t stand it any longer and found Hansen in the motor pool shooting the shit with one of the mechanics who was also from Oregon.
“Ever been to Saigon?”
Hansen looked at him and smiled. “No…I guess I haven’t.”
“That jeep right there looks like it’ll take us. What do you say?”
Hansen and the amused mechanic were impressed by his nonchalance. “We could get in some big trouble,” Hansen said.
“What’s the worst thing that can happen to you? You’re already in Vietnam.”
The logic appealed to Hansen. He jumped into the driver’s seat and said, “It don’t mean nuthin..let’s go.” The mechanic waved as they sped off in a cloud of dust.
Chapter 6 – Saigon
Saigon. Once called the “Paris of the Orient” by the French. Prostitutes standing in front of a brothel called “The Flowers” on Tu Do Street. Teen-age cao bois hanging around street corners smoking cigarettes and staring down G.I.s with sullen hatred.
A traffic jam; American trucks, jeeps, cyclos, motorcycles, and pedicabs crowded on Cong Ly Street waiting for a light to change. Elegant French-style homes that border on Vietnamese slum districts. Stately French architecture, on tree-lined streets, boulevards, splendid hotels and villas, and cozy cafes.
A culture in transition. In long rows of sidewalk stalls Saigonese black market dealers openly displayed hair spray, watered-down Scotch, cartons of cigarettes, and all sorts of wares from America. They also offered marijuana, heroin, cocaine, opium, amphetamines, and LSD. Urban drug dealers had fancy drug parlors, or “shooting galleries,” where soldiers could snort cocaine or “mainline” heroin.
Let’s not forget Saigon’s infamous “skag bars” where a G.I. could order heroin stirred into his beer. A population of three million people striving to survive under a corrupt government. Into this mass of human madness, introduce Rafter and Hansen.
Their first stop was The Papillon Bar on Tu Do Street. It was sandwiched between movie houses featuring the latest Hollywood films, cafes, other bars, restaurants, discotheques, steam baths, and massage parlors that were thin covers for brothels.
Saigon had a prosperous air about it. It was hard to remember that the country was at
war. They both ordered beer and watched two scantily clad “go-go” girls dance on a tiny stage.
Rafter was moody and barely sipped at his beer. Hansen was in a party mood, gulping his beer down thirstily and flirting with the waitresses who doubled as prostitutes. Creedence Clearwater’s “Bad Moon Rising” blared from unseen speakers.
There were two other Americans at the bar, Air Force officers. They both were well on the way to being smashed and laughed so loud it was hard to ignore them. G.I.s and sailors sat at tables near the dancers, whooping in drunken delight.
“What do you do for entertainment in Oregon?” Rafter asked above Tom Fogerty’s voice.
“Probably the same things you did in California. Chase women, watch football on Sundays, get drunk on Friday nights, and work 40 hours a week.”
“I think I’m going to get laid,” Rafter said.
“This is the place to do it, partner.”
“Yo baby-san! How much for number one boom boom?”
One of the waitresses approached him smiling. “For you, twenty dolla. Special rate. I love you lots.”
“That seems reasonable,” Rafter agreed. He left his unfinished beer and followed her to a back room. Hansen’s voice trailed after him, “ You get em tiger!”
Hansen ordered another beer while waiting for his buddy. The sounds of “Proud Mary,” filled the bar as he drank. Ten minutes passed and he felt dizzy. Beer had never affected him this way before. Small alarm bells went off in his head. Something was wrong. The room was spinning. He shakily tried to stand and crumbled back onto the stool. The last thing he saw was a Vietnamese teen-age boy glaring at him from two feet away. “This can’t be good” he thought, and passed out.
Rafter and the prostitute entered a dimly lit room with a single bed and a nightstand. Incense burned and the sweet smell of patchouli thickened the air. She was all business. After stripping off her clothes, she positioned herself on the bed and bit into an apple from the bamboo night stand.
Her face was a cross between boredom and anticipation. Anticipation of what, Rafter wondered? His shit meter sent signals as he sat on the lone chair and started to unlace his boots. Minutes passed as he slowly slipped off his uniform shirt, t-shirt, and trousers. He felt funny. Not happy funny. Like maybe he was a little tired.
The prostitute meanwhile droned on, “C’mon G.I. You make me horny. I love you lots…” She was halfway through the apple and getting antsy. “What’s matter G.I.? You don’t like me? I numba one boom boom girl here. Everyone like me.”
He barely heard her words. A coldness came over him. He flashed on the firebase littered with bodies. Sgt. Borgalac’s sightless eyes and split skull. He was somewhere between remembering that horror and the present when a VC burst into the room, firing a pistol!
The VC must have thought Rafter would be on the bed. Rounds peppered near the screaming prostitute. Rafter sprang up from the chair and lunged across the room, knocking the smaller man down. Rafter wrestled the pistol away, but a K-Bar knife suddenly appeared in the VC’s other hand. They rolled on the floor and the sharp blade deeply scored Rafter’s cheek. Bright red blood spattered them both as they fought on in silence.
It was over as quickly as it started when Rafter crushed the man’s trachea with a chop from the edge of his hand. He took the knife from the dying man and plunged it into his chest several times. Snarling like an animal he screamed at the terrified prostitute, “You numba 10 VC!”
She scrambled off the bed loudly denying the accusation, and tried to run past him. He reached out and grabbed her arm. “You numba 10 VC” he repeated and snapped her neck. In full rage, he plunged out into the hall and howled Hansen’s name.
Pandemonium in the bar. People ran out the front door. Screams. Shots. M.P.s stormed in waving night sticks. No Hansen. Rafter turned and went back the way he had come, searching for an exit. He found one that led into an alley lined with trash cans and stinking garbage.
Sprawled on the ground, minus his ears, eyes, and genitals. Hansen’s naked body lay in a growing pool of blood. Rafter screamed in horror and ran headlong down the twisting alley. A crack of thunder shook the sky. Then a torrential downpour drenched him as he lunged like a senseless animal into the cruel night.
Chapter 7 – Going Home
Barry Sloan was an Army deserter. A grunt who came out of the jungle one day and vowed never to return. It was his fourth year of living in Saigon as a successful entrepreneur. He didn’t worry too much about being caught. He was one of an estimated community of thousands of Americans who deserted and lived full lives in Saigon.
Most lived very well in the black market culture. American dollars could, and did, get you anything you desired. Barry lived in a modest little house with two female “maids” who were sisters. They cooked, cleaned, and obeyed his every wish. He was pulling down $50,000 a month selling watered-down Scotch, and running three bars.
Barry was an early riser, sometimes going down to the bars before it was light. He liked the silence before daybreak. When he came to the back door of Go-Go Land, he noticed someone odd sitting next to the overflowing trash cans. An American with no shirt, pants, or boots, and a bloody cheek. He appeared to be asleep, but when Barry unlocked the door, his eyes opened and he croaked, “Can you help me?”
After his initial shock, Barry asked, “What happened?”
“Does it matter?” Rafter asked.
“No. No, it don’t mean nuthin. Can you stand up?”
Rafter rose and took a stiff step towards him.
“C’mon inside and I’ll see what I can do for you.”
Rafter didn’t like the life of a fugitive. He felt out of place in this Eastern version of the wild, wild, West. After two days with Barry he decided to leave. The scar on his left cheek was healing thanks to a Vietnamese doctor who happily took twenty dollars American money for his work.
American money was the hottest thing on the black market. Marines, soldiers, and sailors were issued Military Payment Certificates (MPC) when they came in country so American greenbacks couldn’t be used by the enemy.
Rafter, who caught on to the value of American money his first month in country, had an arrangement with his best friend Lenny to send him two hundred dollars every month, which he repaid with interest. So Rafter had some options when he bid Barry goodbye. He should be able to buy a ride if he couldn’t catch one for free. He wasn’t going to turn himself in to the M.P.s. His short stay in Saigon had taught him that most of the M.P.s were on the take, and enjoyed beating the shit out of AWOLS.
“Are you ever going back to the states?” Rafter asked Barry before leaving.
“I might, someday. Depends on how long this gravy train runs, my friend. What of you?
What will you do now?”
“I think I’ll go back to my unit. See what happens there. Thanks again for everything.”
The rain stopped as Rafter walked out and down the steamy street to meet his fate.
His company commander was conflicted. Rafter Rabago was supposed to get a Bronze Star next week in a company ceremony. The general would attend and say some words to the troops. And Rafter Rabago had been AWOL. When Rafter showed up at his hooch and reported for duty, his first instinct was to call the M.P.s. Some sly part of his brain prevented that, and he considered the situation.
“Listen up shit-for-brains. I’m going to cover for you. The Company Clerk will have to cover for you too. Records will have to disappear. Can I count on you to stay out of trouble for your last four months here?”
“Why aren’t I reassured by your reply?”
“You’re supposed to be a hero. Can’t you at least act like one and not do something
stupid until you DEROS?”
“Get the hell out of my hooch. Oh yeah…sorry to hear about Hansen. Do you know what happened?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I wasn’t there when he was murdered.”
“What happened to your ugly mug? Where did that scar come from?”
“Gook jumped me.” “And you killed him?”
“When you were AWOL?”
“No, that’s not how it happened. You got that scar from fighting valiantly at the fire base. That’s why you’re going to get a Purple Heart. All good heroes have Purple Hearts, Rabago. Your lucky battalion wants a hero for morale. Now get out of here and get some sleep.”
The company stood at attention as General Steele recounted Rafter Rebago’s dire circumstances on Hill 442. Rabago’s squad was in the front row; Kuehnert, Landry, Fetz, and Gaffey grinned happily as they watched Rafter try to stand steady. He was stoned out of his mind from an opium doobie they shared thirty minutes before the ceremony started. The general droned on. Rafter’s body swayed gently back and forth in a timeless rhythm. He had a moronic grin on his face when the general finally pinned the Bronze Star for Bravery on him.
His Purple Heart wasn’t approved yet, but was in the works. That would be another ceremony. The general turned to Rafter and saluted him. Rafter, who suddenly seemed aware of what was happening, stepped back into mid air while bringing his arm up for a return salute and fell unceremoniously off the raised grandstand!
His squad leader, Sgt. Loudry, didn’t like Rafter. He should have got into a lot of trouble. That pissed the Sergeant off. He was careful not to get into a fight because he suspected Rafter could beat him to a pulp. He’d seen Rafter working shirtless and the muscles in his arms and chest writhed like pent-up snakes. No. He was smarter than that.
He just looked for opportunities to make Rafter look bad. And he wasn’t picky. Almost anything sufficed. His attitude toward Rafter puzzled the newbies, Minder, Edwards, and Farrell. They were clueless, like most newbies, about the inner workings of the company. They hadn’t learned where all the bodies were buried, so to speak.
The rest of the squad, Kuehnert, Landry, Fetz, and Gaffey, knew the score and didn’t care. Everyone said, “It don’t mean nuthin.” That was the grunts motto.
They were glad Rafter didn’t end up in Long Bien jail for going AWOL. One of their own had put one over on the lifers. It was something to be savored. Their estimation of Rafter raised. He could kick ass, take names, and get away with nearly anything. He was the stuff of legends. They still grieved Hansen’s horrible demise, but were amazed at Rafter’s good luck.
Rafter seldom talked to people anymore. He wandered the company area at odd hours talking to himself, but no one bothered him about it. He slowly went from hero to hermit. He stopped taking showers and wore the same fatigues everyday.
He no longer ate at the mess hall, preferring to eat LURP meals that he boiled in his
helmet. He took up cigarettes and always had one hanging precariously on his lower lip. They went well with the ready-rolled doobies in his other shirt pocket.
No amount of shit jobs seemed to bother Rafter. He didn’t snap at Sgt. Loundry’s bait,
much to the Sergeant’s chagrin. After two weeks of steady shit-throwing, Sgt. Loudry woke up one night in his hooch with a gift on his chest.
It was a fragmentation grenade with the pin still in it. He’d been in country long enough to understand its meaning and decided it was smarter to leave
Rafter alone. The son of a bitch was ripped so often he’d probably end up hurting himself, Sgt. Loudry hoped. He was getting too short in country for trouble like this. So the vendetta ended.
Four months later, Edwards and Farrell were elected to clean Rafter. It was time for him to go back to the world. His beard and long scraggily hair would have to go. He’d been living a hermit’s life on base with practically no interaction with the other men. He was often heard talking to himself. The bored company clerk marked him present at formations he never attended. Rafter was special.
The trouble the captain went through to get him that Purple Heart confirmed it. No one bothered him. Sometimes the Company Clerk would search for him and find him curled up sleeping during the day. Rafter roamed the compound at night like a phantom on a mission.
Edwards and Farrell had a job finding him. Then they had to cut his beard and hair.
Luckily, Rafter had lost weight and was rail thin from poor nutrition. His struggles were easily overcome by the two determined and healthy grunts. Finally they hauled him to the outside shower, soaped him up and left him standing for five minutes under a steady cascade of cold water.
With the help of the Company Clerk they found him a summer class A uniform
for the trip home. They packed his two duffle bags and made sure he had no drugs in
them. They knew he wouldn’t get past one inspection with dope inside, even if he didn’t know it. Gathering up his papers, they took him to Long Bien Air Force base to await his flight on the Freedom Bird.
They envied him and wished they could go with him. They also wondered what would happen to him when he got back to the world. Who would to look after him? When the time came, they led Rafter to the plane and he boarded without incident. Just before he ducked inside he turned and waved at them unsurely. They gave him the peace sign and waved back.
The engines roared. The plane taxied slowly down the field. When it was airborne a cheer went up from the men inside. Rafter shivered beneath the blanket the pretty stewardess had provided. Air conditioning. A nearly forgotten luxury.
He wondered where he could find some pot or hash when he got back to the world. He vaguely knew he would arrive in Los Angeles and have a week’s leave before he had to report to Ft. McArthur in San Pedro. He was also aware that he was broke. Almost broke. He had enough change to make a phone call. Welcome home.
Chapter 8 – 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 Volkswagen 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.
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 IIs 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 heros 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.”
Chapter 9 – Back on the Streets
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 an art deco theme, 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.”
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 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.
Chapter 10 – A New Start
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. That Smiley said they had a lot of work 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 him 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.
Chapter 11 – Planting
On a brisk late April day, Smiley announced the last frost was over and they could start planting. It was still early in the morning and steam rose off their cups of coffee. Jenny served wooden bowls of oatmeal flavored with brown sugar, and slices of buttered bread.
Spring. Robins and Larks trading insults with sparrows. Patches of fog still clung to
the thickly forested area that surrounded the humble homestead. Clean fresh air. The smell of wood smoke from the fire pit the three figures huddled around. An hour passed as they ate breakfast and talked about the weather.
Finally, Smiley stood up, and stretched his lanky six-foot four frame and declared, “It’s time to go. I want to show you the spots I picked and it’s going to take most of the day to check them out.”
Rafter smoothly uncoiled from his folding chair ready to go. Grabbing a pre-packed ruck sack, Smiley set off toward the rising sun. Rafter, who wore an Army surplus web belt with canteen and knife, grabbed his ruck sack, and followed.
Jenny watched the men disappear into the forest and wondered exactly how far along she was? She knew she had missed her period prior to hooking up with Smiley, and
they had only been together two months. He wasn’t aware she was pregnant, but she had to tell him soon.
Thanks to the loose flowing dresses with pants underneath, her belly was well hidden. She couldn’t keep hiding it though. Luckily, he wasn’t as interested in having sex since Rafter arrived. He was always busy and exhausted from the day’s labors.
All three slept in the tiny trailer; Jenny and Smiley on the small bed, and Rafter on the
other side of the room on a wood and canvas WW II Army cot. The men stayed up late every night talking and smoking weed so she could go to bed and fall asleep before Smiley joined her. He seldom woke her. Now her belly was getting too big to ignore and she knew it was time to see a doctor and find out how things were going.
That meant she was would to have to tell Smiley she was with child. Remembering Sonny’s reaction to this news, she was concerned. But Smiley was different. They were best friends and lovers. She decided to say it was his baby. Who’d ever know but her?
Yes, the more she thought about it, the more comfortable she became with the idea. There was a risk she misread him and he would be upset with the announcement, but it was worth a try. She sensed a goodness in him.
There were no other options in Jenny McQueen’s life. Her family didn’t understand her. For them the final straw was when she was arrested while protesting against the Vietnam war. Her wealthy and very conservative parents were appalled. After posting her bail they told her she was going to go to college and stop acting silly. It wasn’t that she didn’t have good grades. She could have done very well if she had wanted to go to college. She didn’t, and told her parents.
They said, “As long as you live under this roof you’ll do as we say.” So she packed a suitcase that night and left the next day, choosing to leave a note rather than have a face-to-face confrontation. She still loved them, but she was her own person and they’d just have to accept it. She was 18 years-old after all.
So Jenny hitch-hiked to San Francisco and lived in a commune. She lost her virginity to a hippie named Sonny who had long blond hair, blue eyes, and played base guitar. Things were good with them until she missed her period and told him about it. He got uptight and accused her of trying to “tie him down” and really “bumming him out.” With the cards down, she took the hint, packed her suitcase, and moved out of the apartment building they shared with numerous other musicians and hippies. She wanted to get away from the whole scene.
She had an aunt living in Ferndale who would welcome Jenny if she showed up on her doorstep. Her Aunt Susan was a free spirit and the family black sheep. Jenny had been to Humboldt County several times to visit her during summer vacations and loved her dearly. Aunt Susan was quirky and funny. She lived alone, and had never married. She was an artist, and good enough one to make a comfortable living at her craft. The Victorian home she lived in was perfectly in a row of similarly preserved Victorians and Queen Annes. Each yard was manicured with loving care. The colors contrasted beautifully and visitors came year around to take pictures of these homes.
How did she meet Smiley? During the North Country Fair in Arcata, a college
town north of Eureka. This annual event brought out hippies, tourists, college students, loggers, and fishermen from throughout the county. Vendors sold everything from fish tacos to handmade scarves and sweaters. There were herbs, fresh vegetables, and ornamental plants for sale. Jugglers intermingled with the mass of humanity packed into the downtown plaza.
Loud music blared from speakers positioned around a local band playing a Jazz tune at one end of the Arcata Plaza. Belly dancers and a parade of people dressed in wild costumes, undulated around the square, which featured a bronze statue of President William McKinley in the center. Smiley followed the parade, dancing along happily.
Jenny was sitting on a small bench watching the revelers when she saw him. What was it about his red hair and blue eyes that turned her on? She flashed on Sonny’s blond hair and blue eyes and cringed, wondering how long it would take before she started to show. She’d decided to keep the baby and was at peace with her decision.
Then she watched Smiley do his lanky Big Bird dance moves, long hair flying behind him. He offered his doobie to a young woman. She took a hit and passed it on to another dancer. Forgetting about the doobie, Smiley danced on blissfully unaware of how silly he looked to any “straights“ who might be watching.
The center of town rose to a nearby hill where Humboldt State University seemed to peer down benevolently upon the festivities. After a while Jenny got up and slowly walked to her aunt’s purple VW Bus parked next to the Post Office. She was lonely. She saw Smiley bending over the hood of a black Ford King Cab pickup truck across the street and her heart skipped.
“Hey!” He called out to her. “Have you got jumper cables?”
Chapter 12 – New Lives
The men went from one pre-selected spot to the next with Smiley showing Rafter the reasons they were picked. It was a hot, exhausting hike up and down steep mountainside. They finally sat by a creek in the late afternoon and took a break before heading home. Smiley lit up a doobie and passed it to Rafter.
“Here’s the thing, man. We still need some supplies and I don’t have enough cash to get them. Rafter accepted the doobie, took a long draw, and passed it back.
“No problem. We’re partners, right? I still have almost $300. What do we need?”
Smiley pulled a crumbled piece of paper out of his wallet. “We’re going to need at
least two shovels, two picks or pickaxes, another ruck sack for hauling stuff, fence wire, some knives, pliers, an ax or bow saw, heavy-duty garbage bags, rope, liquid fish fertilizer, blooming mixture, soil additives like vermiculite, mulch, or some commercial mixture, bone meal, and some peat moss.”
“I have no idea how much that adds up to, but we can find out, I suppose.”
“It’ll be close because we still have to buy seeds or cuttings too,” Smiley assured him.
They sat silently for some time watching the water sparkle under the sun. Both men were feeling mellow, each with his private dreams drifting to another place.
“Wait until we have to haul stuff,” Smiley said, breaking the spell. “We’re
going to work our asses off, bro!”
“Don’t mean nuthin,” Rafter replied.
“Right on bro! It don’t mean nuthin…”
Jenny was waiting for them when they got back. She’d prepared a simple meal and made sugar cookies for desert. Rafter didn’t know if it was his imagination, but Jenny looked more beautiful than usual. There was a glow to her features.
Smiley sensed something too. He had fallen in love with her in a very short period of time and sometimes it troubled him. He’d become attuned to her moods and knew she was nervous now. He wasn’t sure why.
They ate dinner and enjoyed small talk for about an hour before Jenny decided the time was right. She stood up. “Smiley?’
He looked away from Rafter who had been talking with him. “Yes?”
“Could you come in the trailer for a moment? There’s something I want to show you.”
Puzzled, Smiley got up from his folding chair, glanced at Rafter with a look of surprise, shrugged his shoulders, and followed her inside.
“I’m pregnant,” Jenny lifted her blouse, exposing her belly. Her stomach showed a noticeable bulge.
Smiley was speechless. Time stood still. He had never known his father, always a sore subject. Now he was going to be one. Then, as if his brain suddenly made the connection, he blurted out, “We’re going to have a baby?”
Jenny knew it was going to be okay. “Yes,” she said, matching his excitement, “We’re going to have a baby!”
“Wow! I can’t believe it! I’m going to be a Dad!” He threw open the trailer door.
“I heard! Congratulations to both of you!”
“I’m going to be a Dad…”
The men opened a bottle of Jack Daniel and celebrated. Jenny, who was felt sick, went to bed early. The men exchanged stories throughout the night, their laughter startling the family of skunks who lived in the nearly finished drying shed. A coyote howled at the full moon. A female black bear and her two cubs ambled nearby, carefully avoiding the noisy humans and their fire.
The earth moved, shifting on silent gears, and when morning light chased the remnants of the night away, it revealed the two men, passed out on the ground beside the now cold fire pit.
Back breaking days followed. Despite being in good shape, both men were exhausted
at the end of each day. The got up at dawn and worked until there was no light. Hauling
supplies to the gardens proved to be a test of determination. They cleared the bed areas and prepared the soil, hacking away with their picks and shovels, removing roots and rocks from the beds.
Afterward, they mixed in soil additives. A typical bed was 6 feet by 10 feet. A half bale of peat moss was scattered over it, 10 pounds of bone meal and 15 bags,
weighing 40 pounds each, of commercial manure. All those supplies had to be hauled in on their backs for the six gardens.
Rafter was a good student and paid close attention as Smiley fenced off a bed. He ran
the thin wire around the bed and explained deer would usually be deterred by it. “Nothing’s perfect, but it’s worth the effort.”
The water system was the most time-consuming chore of all. They ran hundreds
of feet of plastic hose from the creeks to water the sites. Each creek had to be dammed to hold water for the thirsty plants. They got cuttings from Rick at a generous price, and bought 125 of them culled from his mother plants. Twenty-five for each garden. Once prepared, the cuttings were transferred to their new homes.
The ball of soil around the roots of each cutting had to be carefully planted in a baseball-sized hole in the garden soil. More back breaking, tedious work.
The work didn’t stop there. It was necessary to constantly check on the gardens to see they were properly watered and adding liquid fish if they needed more fertilizer.
“You see how the larger leaves are turning yellow and the smaller leaves are still green?” Smiley asked one day.
“The problem is Nitrogen deficiency. Remember what I recommended for it?”
“Let’s see…oh yeah! I should add nitrate of soda or an organic fertilizer.”
“Right on bro! Now add some and we’ll check out the rest of the girls.”
The fencing had to be maintained and they had to deal with deer and other wildlife on their rounds. Despite the passage of frost, it was cold enough to make every task a little more challenging.
But as the days turned to weeks it warmed up. They shared carrying a 12-gauge shotgun for protection. Hours grudgingly slid by as they worked side-by-side, silent in their own thoughts.
When they took breaks, they talked about their experiences in the Nam. Both were against the war, for different reasons. Smiley had no regrets about what he did in Vietnam. Rafter did. The thing they shared was the desire to live a simple life with the least amount of rules.
Peace and love were something to be embraced. Make love not war. Soon, they knew a lot about each other. More than ever they became brothers. They had their differences, but respected each other enough to live with them.
One day, during a break in their activities, Smiley talked about his fear of becoming a father. “Never had one, bro. Never celebrated Father’s Day. Barely knew my mother, who ran off with a drifter when I was six years old. My father’s brother, Uncle Tony, raised me.”
“What happened to your Dad?”
“He was shot during an argument in a bar. He was unarmed. His killer emptied his six-shot Smith and Wesson revolver into him, finished off his whiskey and walked outside never to be seen again.”
“The cops never caught him?”
“Nope. But my Uncle Tony did. He loved my Dad, even though he didn’t approve of his wild ways with whiskey and women. He tracked Daddy’s murderer to a little shit hole
town in Nevada and emptied his shotgun into him as he stumbled out of a bar. That case is still unsolved today.”
“Sorry to hear about your Dad.”
“Don’t mean nuthin…I was better off being raised by my uncle. He wasn’t always getting into trouble and he owned land. He told me many times I was better off, and would have a chance of making it in the world because of his guidance. He and my Aunt Dora were religious folk and spent a lot of time reading the Bible to me.”
“That’s hard for me to imagine. There was no religion in my house growing up.”
“Sometimes I think we had a little too much. I always felt like I had to redeem myself for my father’s exploits.” Smiley slowly got up. Break time was over.
After the big announcement, Jenny drove to Ferndale the next day to visit her Aunt Susan. She found her cutting roses in the front yard. She wore a floppy straw hat and a pair of bibbed overalls with a bright pink blouse peeking out. A loving embrace.
She led Jenny inside for a glass of tea. Mortimer, Aunt Susan’s Siamese cat, followed them, winding in and out of their legs. Hours later, after a few phone calls, Aunt Susan set Jenny up with a doctor. Over steaming Mango tea, the women talked.
Nothing shocked her aunt, and Jenny realized she always had her to fall back on. She hadn’t fully realized that until now.
“Do you love him?” Aunt Susan asked, offering a slice of fresh pound cake.
“I think so. I wish I knew for absolutely sure. He’s such a kind and funny man. He’s looking forward to the baby’s arrival.”
“It’s good that he’s supportive, dear. I’m a little troubled that you don’t seem sure you love him, but that can change in time. When are you going to tell your parents?”
Jenny choked on a crumb of the pound cake. Clearing her voice she replied, “Not
anytime soon. Maybe after the baby arrives.”
“Any talk of marriage?”
“No. The subject hasn’t come up,” she admitted.
“That’s all right darling. Just know that you can count on me.”
Feeling less lonely on the drive home, Jenny settled into her pregnancy with a loving determination to have a healthy child.
Chapter 13 – Rick
Out of sheer exhaustion, Rafter missed the fresh bear sign. For some time now, the men had been aware of several black bears in the vicinity and avoided them as much as possible. He was leaving the last garden of the day when two black bear cubs crossed his path.
Startled, he turned in time to see an enraged blur of a she bear hurtling toward him! The protective mother bruin knocked him down. Paws of fury slashed at him. Teeth bared, she snarled, as he kicked and tried to push her away. Suddenly a rock hit her snout and she roared in terrified surprise.
Instantly breaking off the engagement, she scrambled away as another rock hit her in the head. This unexpected attack confused her and she quickly ambled into the nearby
“You okay?” Smiley approached Rafter, who was unsteadily trying to stand
“That damn bear tried to kill me. Why didn’t you shoot it? You have the shotgun.”
“What would have happened to those two cubs without their mama?” Smiley asked.
“Oh well…silly-assed me! I thought I was more important to you than some black
“Don’t get your panties in a bunch, bro. I’ve been around bears all my life and have used the rock method before instead of killing them. She was just teaching you a lesson
for getting too close to her cubs.”
“I’ll be damned. Where’s this compassion coming from? Aren’t you the same guy who collected ears off of your kills in the Nam? I’m surprised by your protective attitude toward wildlife.”
“I grew up in the country. You learn some things that’s all. Animals have never been my enemy. The gooks were. Let me see your arm. Looks like she nipped you.”
“Damn straight! And look at these claw marks.”
“You’ll live. She wasn’t rabid. Just protecting her cubs. We’re almost home and Jenny can take care of it for you when we get there.”
Growing up, Jenny wanted to be a nurse. Her parents said she should strive to be a physican. “You make more money as a doctor,” her mother patiently explained to her when she was in third grade.
It was always like that. She wanted one thing and her parents wanted another for her. They tried to map out her life and she resented it. By the time she hit junior high, she acted out and got in trouble, mortifying her mother, who was the President of the local PTA. They didn’t seem to understand she had a mind of her own.
Checking Rafter’s wounds to be sure they were clean, she smeared on an antibiotic jell and carefully wrapped them in gauze. “The bite mark was the deepest, but it should be okay,” Jenny told him. She gathered up her materials and headed for the trailer.
“Damn,” Smiley cracked. “You look like some war hero or something all bandaged up like that.”
The next day Smiley took Rafter to Rick’s ranch. They walked along animal trails that led over hills and out into a flat area. Smiley’s ranch bordered Rick’s 320 acres. Smiley led him to a sweat lodge next to a cabin and said this was where Rick was waiting for them.
“Rick’s a funny guy, bro. He may have taken too many trips in his day, but he’s got a heart of gold. We became good friends during the last couple of years. He’s a Nam vet like us. Just go with the flow of the conversation and be yourself.”
Sweat poured down the men’s semi-naked bodies. Rafter and Smiley braced themselves as Rick added more water to the stones in the center of the sweat lodge. The skunky smell of marijuana mingled with their musky sweat. They passed the long peace pipe Rick had carved years before. His eyes rested on the two men as he considered what to say.
Rick took daily sweats and was used to the intense heat. Rafter found it hard to breath at first. Smiley had a year’s experience in sweat lodge meetings and was comfortable. Rick claimed the practice renewed his spirit, and it made him more willing to talk with people. To share experiences. To impart his gems of hard-earned wisdom. To listen to others.
“Nearly time to consider harvesting,” he said.
“It’s true,” Smiley replied. “That’s why we’re here today.”
“Questions on what to do?” Rick asked.
“No. You taught me well. I’m, we’re, here to find out if you know people who would buy our weed?”
Rick pulled on his long salt and pepper beard with little beads entwined in it, as he considered the request. “I want to see you bros do well. Us Vietnam vets need to stick
together. I do know of possible buyers. My connect is another bro in Southern California. We were stationed together in the Nam back in ‘68. He’s a Mex, but he’s one of us. His people don’t particularly like gringos, but we’ve been able to work around that little detail so far.
“The important thing about him is that he’s a pipeline to cash because he has connections with Mexican gangs who have lots of money to spend. They have no
problem coming up with large amounts of cash in small bills. You just have to be careful dealing with these guys. They’re macho little suckers, and their egos are easily bruised.”
“Does that mean you’ll give us your connection?” Rafter wondered.
“No way. You’ll probably meet him, but he’s got friends that could work with you guys. I think I can arrange that.”
“Am I right in estimating that our 125 plants will produce 125 pounds?” Smiley asked.
“Pretty much. You’re still not out of the doghouse when it comes time for harvesting. Things could happen. Mold. Mildew. They’re seldom a problem in this higher altitude, however. Sometimes intruders destroy, or steal, your gardens.”
“What’s the market on pounds?” Smiley asked.
“I’m locked into $1,000 a pound this season,” Rick calmly answered.
“Holy crap! That’s a lot of money!” Rafter said. “How about us? Should we ask that much?”
“Absolutely. You’re selling one of the best hybrid strains around, my Grand Daddy Purp. We need to stay together on the pricing. Not too many people have it yet. It’s strictly stone city, bro. This stuff rivals the pot we had in the Nam. It makes their crappy Mex weed look sick with it’s stems and seeds. You will be offering nothing but buds. Fresh, well-cured buds. The best the Humboldt County has to offer.”
I like the sound of that,” said Rafter. “I can’t imagine splitting $125,000 for just nine months’ work.”
The conversation died down and the three men sat sweating, deep in their thoughts. Rick finally motioned that it was time to leave the crude sweat lodge. Outside, a slight breeze carried a chill in the air. It was early October and the harvest was only weeks away.
Rafter and Smiley got dressed. Rick watched the two men trudge up his private gravel road to where their truck was parked. He was a little man, at 5-foot, seven-inches, and older than they were. Their size didn’t intimidate him at all. He was use to dealing with larger men.
They claimed he had “little man” syndrome and that was why he was such a scrappy guy. He recognized they had “big man” syndrome and mistakenly thought their size gave them an advantage in all situations. It was a stupid stereotype that more than one person had found untrue when it came to dealing with Rick.
Long odds only challenged him. As one of eight children born to a dirt poor family, he learned early in life that anyone wanting to succeed must be willing to sacrifice. Being a survivor meant you had to be clever, fast, and fearless where he grew up in the Arizona desert. Every day was hard, hot, and soul-sucking for the McNeese family. When Rick turned 18 he signed up for the Army. It was his only means of escaping the dreary hardscrabble hell he was raised in. There was talk at the time of Americans fighting in some faraway South Asian land called Vietnam. That didn’t bother Rick. Anything was better than his life in that miserable
Rick was saved from combat in Vietnam because he was a great mechanic. The Army took advantage (a rare occurrence) of his skill with vehicles and put him in the motor pool. He spent his days fixing the engines of trucks and jeeps. His nights were spent partying at the NCO club.
He managed to get involved in the black market after meeting his Sp/6 Oscar Flores. The two men were rebels at heart and quickly discovered they made a good team at buying, and selling black market goods. They built up considerable stashes of illegal greenbacks after two tours in Vietnam.
Oscar went home first and Rick sent him their loot hidden in souvenirs. They were brothers so Rick didn’t hesitate to send their accumulated wealth. It added up to nearly a half million dollars. More money than either man had ever dreamed of making before going overseas.
When Rick came home, he met Oscar in South LA. Oscar gave him a backpack filled with $250,000 in cash. They were both established and vowed to stay in touch. They were bros after all.
When Rick went north and fell in love with Humboldt County he bought the land where he now lived. He got the proper permits and built a sturdy little house. He paid for amenities like a well, a septic system, and a huge gasoline-powered generator for electricity. He went with the best of everything. After a while his money began run low and that was when he learned how to grow marijuana for profit. His eastern neighbors were a group of hippies living in a commune. They grew all their own food and pot. He made friends with the group, many of whom were former “Diggers” from San Francisco, and soon learned how to grow marijuana.
When his first crop was ready for market, he called Oscar, who agreed to buy it. After smoking Rick’s Grand Daddy Perp he was sold. It was better than anything else he could get. It took a while to negotiate the price, as both men were crafty bargainers.
They finally settled on $800 a pound. That was the first crop. The next year, the second crop went for $900 a pound. This year, Rick was asking $1,000 a pound. Not bad for a dirt poor boy who dropped out of high school and had to pass a GED test to get into the Army.
Rick knew he would need help when he started out and decided to try a temporary partnership. The temporary partner would get one-third of one season’s profits and learn how to properly grow, harvest, and cure bud for production. Every year he took a new partner, after interviewing numerous candidates who were looking for a living in the woods. They had to be hardy. The work was exhausting and called for a huge
He also hired people to help him harvest and trim the plants. His system worked beautifully, and Rick flourished as a pot farmer. He tended to give preference to other Vietnam veterans, out of loyalty. When Smiley showed up, Rick liked his sense of humor and apparent desire to work hard and get ahead. It was an easy working relationship and the men enjoyed each other’s company.
Rick, who learned from his neighbors which mushrooms were safe to eat, had a habit of tripping on the psilocybin ones, and he always had some on hand. He listened to their voices, as Rafter and Smiley disappeared into the tree line on the trail. After a couple of minutes he turned his attention to a shriveled specimen from his fanny pack, and thoughtfully chewed it.
Chapter 14 – Sundance
Early October. Jenny’s water broke as she was hanging some clothes on the line next to the trailer. Smiley was in town picking up supplies. Rafter was working on
final improvements in the drying shed. Anticipating the coming harvest, he was whistling when he heard Jenny cry out in pain. He threw down his hammer and ran outside to see her bent over next to the trailer.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, concern written on his face.
“Ba…baby’s coming…..” she said in between rapid breaths.
Rafter knew nothing about delivering babies. His heart hammered his ribs, but he tried to sound calm, “Jenny…let’s go inside the trailer. Can you move?”
She nodded, her face scrunched up in pain. Holding her arm awkwardly, he guided her slowly up the steps into the trailer. Once inside, he led her to the bed. She sat down awkwardly, her back against the headboard, embryonic fluids leaking down her legs. “Boil water,” she said, surprised at how calm her voice sounded.
Rafter filled up a large kettle with water and put it on the propane camp stove on the makeshift kitchen counter. As he waited for it to boil, he studied her face and was relieved to see no apparent panic. She pointed to a stack of baby blankets and cloth diapers neatly folded on her tiny dresser. In between contractions, she said, “We’ll need those.”
After a few minutes, Jenny got up from the bed and walked across the room. She steadied herself against the wall when the next wave of contractions hit. Rafter watched
helplessly. She straightened up when the contractions stopped and started walking again.
Puzzled, Rafter asked “What are you doing? Shouldn’t you lie down or something?” He was clearly out of his element and didn’t know what to expect. Jenny understood that and said, “Walking…moving around…is good. Makes things happen faster.”
Relieved, Rafter turned to the boiling water and asked what to do next. She pointed at a stack of white hand towels, doubled over and grunted, then told him to boil four of them. One at a time. Then put them in the green mixing bowl next to the coffee pot. Once that task was complete he turned to her awaiting further instructions.
“Will you light those two candles?” She pointed to the top of the kitchen cupboard. “Aromatherapy will help me relax. I learned that in my child birth classes.”
Things went pretty well for nearly eight hours, then started turning ugly. Jenny called this sudden change “transition,” cursing men in general. One moment she felt sick, shaky, and cold, and huddled under the bed’s covers. The next, she threw the covers back and hurled abusive language at Rafter. She’d wept, apologized, then suddenly snarled like a tigress. Her eyes lit with anger and the desire for vengeance on the perpetrator of her pain.
Rafter was horrified and didn’t know what to think. Was this normal? She was like a female Jekyll and Hyde. He was able to calm her with foot and neck massages now and then, but for the most part, he feared for his life! He had no idea that sweet Jenny knew words like that. He’d never heard her swear before. Or threaten physical harm with such gusto.
Then Jenny settled down and began to push. This went on for nearly an hour before a
healthy-looking baby boy popped into Rafter’s sterilized hands. As instructed, Rafter carefully held his slippery charge and cleared his airway. He was rewarded with a scream of indignation as the baby took his first breath.
Jenny managed to smile as he handed her the howling, wrinkled, red-faced newcomer. She quickly guided the baby to her waiting nipple. He latched on instantly, and she closed her eyes in utter exhaustion.
Following her instructions, Rafter cut and clamped the umbilical cord and waited for the placenta. When it emerged he gathered it up and put in in the glass jar she had placed beside her bed.. She told him she had plans for the placenta, which creeped him out a little, but he complied.
After helping Jenny clean up, Rafter slipped outside and lit up a doobie. He was still shaking from the experience. He’d witnessed many deaths in Vietnam. He had blood on his hands and couldn’t forget it. Now he’d experienced something life affirming. Redeeming.
He’d witnessed the birth of a new soul. It humbled him. Something in him stirred when he thought about that moment when he held the baby, willing him to breath. A door opened in his heart, and this un-named baby boy stepped in.
More than one thing changed for Jenny that day. The earth shifted slightly. She had a son. She also found herself feeling very close to Rafter. Their shared experience had thrilled them both. Somehow Rafter didn’t look sinister any more. The thought gave her a warm feeling.
Then she remembered Smiley. She realized she was committed to him, and she
had convinced him this was their child. There could be no thoughts about a romantic relationship with Rafter. He was just a good friend. It had to stay that way.
Meanwhile, Smiley was sleeping in the drunk tank at the Eureka County jail. He’d had too much to drink, and made a fool of himself, and been arrested for public intoxication. His truck was impounded by the police.
Jenny and Rafter had no idea what had happened to him, and without a phone or means of transportation, they were helpless to find out. It wasn’t until Rick stopped in his jeep the next day, that they could get Jenny and the baby into town and have a doctor look at them.
They took Jenny and the baby to the Arcata Open Door Clinic. Then they searched for Smiley. It was Rick who thought of checking the Eureka County jail. In a twist of timing, Smiley was released when they stopped by and they ran into each other outside the
County Court House. When informed he had a son, Smiley shouted in joy, “C’mon bros! Drinks are on me!”
They named the baby Sundance Dan McQueen-Holt. Jenny and Sundance stayed with her aunt in Ferndale for a month until the men were done with the harvest.
The harvest was a grueling process. They used machetes to hack the limbs off with the buds, leaving the stalks intact in the ground. The stinky bundles were hauled by hand to a pickup truck. Depending upon the terrain, they drove the truck as close to each garden as possible, in order to ease their workload. They worked till the last rays of light fled into the night. For days they hacked and chopped. They worked by lantern light each night in the drying shed, draping the heavy limbs over ropes strung the length of the shed. Air slits with wire screens were cut in all four walls for ventilation. Because they had no electricity, they couldn’t employ oscillating fans like Rick used in his drying shed.
The limbs had to be rotated regularly and watched closely for any signs of mold. If some appeared, the limb had to be thrown out so it didn’t spread to the healthy buds. It was a labor intensive process, but vital if they hoped to properly cure the buds.
As they worked, they talked about things. Sundance was a favorite topic for Rafter. Smiley wondered if the baby’s fine blond hair would eventually turn red like his? Rafter responded with a joke: “The less he looks like his daddy the better! Hopefully, he’ll take after Jenny.” Smiley reminded him that Sundance was a boy and really shouldn’t look too much like his Mom.
This new person made them both examine their lives. Smiley had moments of panic as he thought about the responsibility attached to fatherhood. He kept waiting for his heart to flip flop over his son and was saddened when it didn’t. The initial glow of being a father was wearing off. Meanwhile, Rafter acted like a babbling idiot around the baby and went out of his way to play with him at every opportunity.
Drying completed, the long-awaited day to trim their product arrived. They trimmed every waking moment and carefully bagged the buds in plastic turkey bags. Each bag held one pound. The number of bags grew. The men talked and dreamed. Jenny nursed the baby and watched them work; prepared to give them food or drink at a moments’ notice. Days slipped by in a haze of smoke and conversation.
Chapter 15 – Flashbacks and Connections
One day, as Rafter was talking a walk, a VC stepped out from behind a tree and leveled an AK 47 at him! Rafter pulled his shotgun off his shoulder and fired at the black clad Viet Cong! The loud boom echoed through the trees and birds scattered in startled surprise. The noise brought Rafter back to the present.
He stood still, holding the shotgun at port arms, and tried to slow his breathing. It had happened again. The flashbacks seemed to occur more often lately for no good reason. What was happening to him?
He had talked about them with Smiley several times. Smiley didn’t seem to have this problem and he never talked about having nightmares. Still, it was helpful to talk with someone who could understand, and who had also undergone many life-and-death moments in Vietnam. Once Smiley suggested he was just overtired and having “daymares.”
The big day finally arrived. The sun was setting in the distant mountains and an owl swooped down over the drying shed in search of prey. Smiley squeezed a medium-sized bud between his thumb and forefinger. It rebounded slightly when he released it. The
smell was skunky and pungent.
He handed the bud to Rafter who tore off a bit and packed it in a wooden pipe Smiley had carved. He handed the pipe and Zippo lighter to Jenny who had returned to the homestead the day before, toting a chubby and happy Sundance.
She lit it, took a hit, and passed it to Smiley. Both men watched her exhale and waited
for her response. “Wow…I didn‘t know weed could pack a punch like this!” she exclaimed. By the time the pot was burned to ashes the trio were babbling happily and flames from the pit fire made shadows dance across the dirt and into the nearby treeline.
Mama Bruin and her two cubs came to a halt when they saw the fire. Nothing but trouble there. She herded her rambunctious cubs off in a safer direction. There was no telling what those man things would do next. As she ambled away she thought, “There goes the neighborhood.”
You didn’t just walk into Juan Rivera’s neighborhood unless you had a damn good reason. He ran an 18th Street gang that was part of one of the largest street gangs in America. It got its start in the 1960s near 18th Street and Union Avenue in downtown Los Angeles.
Rivera was born in Los Angeles and was awarded more respect than those from other areas. Gangs generally functioned independently, but would join forces when combating rival gangs or law enforcement. Their street colors were blue and white.
When Rivera’s younger brother Alvaro got out of the Army, Juan quickly found a place for him in the organization. Alvaro presented him with a wild plan to make money that intrigued Juan. He had a connection, a close friend from Vietnam, who had been his partner in the black market trade there. They had smuggled $500,000 in cash out of Vietnam and split the money when they both were home.
This friend, a gringo, was so trustworthy he sent all their greenbacks to Alvaro to hold until he came back from Vietnam. He had big conjones and ideas. His latest was selling
marijuana that he grew up in Northern California. When Alvaro sampled it he was impressed and told Juan it would be easy to sell at a premium.
“It would have no trouble competing with the Panama Red, Columbian Gold, Thai Sticks, Vietnamese weed, or anything else on the market. And the price is right,” Alvaro assured his brother. As an added attraction, the seller wouldn’t waste their money on stems and seeds that normally came with a pot purchase. They’d get sticky buds dripping with THC.
The result of that arrangment was several years of fat profits for all concerned. Everything went smoothly after each harvest and the 18th Street Gang soon had a reputation for the best pot around. Rick and Alvaro met once a year to transact business, at a different location each time. There was no need to be in contact the rest of the year.
This year was going to be different. Rick had called Alvaro before their annual meeting date on November 22nd and asked for a earlier meeting on neutral ground. They decided to meet in Stockton at a Denny’s restaurant.
The two men sipped their coffee in companionable silence after finishing breakfast. Alvaro finally broke the spell, “So what’s up bro? Why this meeting?”
“Got a favor to ask you,” Rick said.
“This ought to be interesting.”
“I’ve got two friends, Nam vets, who are my neighbors and in the same business as I am. They’re cool. We watch out for each other up on the mountain. They’re just starting out. This year is their first harvest. They’re growing the same strain as mine, Grand Daddy Perp, so you know it’s excellent.”
“Sounds like competition for you my friend,” Alvaro observed.
“Not the way I’m thinking. I’m hoping you will provide my friends with a
link to your homies in another city. A person, like yourself, with push, who can make things happen.”
“I’ve got friends all over the state,” Alvaro bragged. “Do you have any place in mind?”
“I was thinking Porterville. It’s nowhere near your operation and closer to my friends.”
“Porterville is a good pick. I know some guys in Sureno gangs there. Let’s see, there’s Loco Park, the Brown Surenos, Barrio Sur Trece, Campos Locos, and the Original Buster Killers…oh wait! My cousin Jesus Fernandez runs Loco Park now. He might be interested in doing business with you.”
“The question is, can my friends trust your cousin? You and I are bros with a history or we wouldn’t have anything to do with one another. Would there be any accountability?”
“Depends on what you mean.”
“What if Jesus decides to rip my friends off when they show up with a 125 pounds of high grade pot? How could this be prevented?”
“Jesus listens to me. If I tell him to treat you fair, he will. I’ll tell him about my profits from this wonder weed.”
“Forgive me bro, but I need more assurance than that. Would it be possible for you to be there when their deal goes down?”
“I have to hand it to you bro. You think things through. I’ll do it, but you know me, I’d
like a small slice the pie for my trouble.”
“I understand and respect that. How about each side, your cousin and my friends, kick in
a commission for you? Say $5,000 each? That would be $10,000 for a few minutes work. How does that sound?”
“I would have to sell my cousin on that, but it shouldn’t be too hard. He’d be making so much money it wouldn’t matter. Seeing as how I’m family, he’ll know this connection will be righteous. Blood matters in these things.”
“Sounds like a plan, then?”
“I’ll call you next week. I need some time to visit in Porterville. I have other family members there too.”
“Sounds good bro.”
Outside, before they got into their cars, the two men slowly dapped. Fists bumping, hands sliding up and down while elbows clashed slightly in a complex pattern only they understood.
An observer pulling a newspaper out of a rack near them paused and watched curiously. A short white man with long brown hair bound with a black bandana, wearing torn jeans and a black Mickey Mouse t-shirt; and a Mexican with jet black hair combed back in a duck tail, wearing brown baggy pants and a long-sleeved checkered shirt. Apparently their slapping and gentle punching was some kind of ritual. Now that was something the observer didn’t see everyday. He’d have to tell his wife about it when he got home.
Chapter 16 – Christmas and Harvest
Christmas 1973. Smiley, Jenny, Sundance, and Rafter inside the trailer. A small live
spruce in a pot, decorated with tinsel and tiny silver star ornaments stood next to Rafter’s cot. The room was warm, thanks to propane. It was snowing outside. They sipped Jack
Daniels and opened presents. Sundance, still wearing an elves hat, slept in his crib. He was a sound sleeper and they didn’t have to whisper for fear of waking him.
The trio tried to adjust to the piles of money on the bed. After paying a $5,000 commission they had $120,000! They were elated to see so much money laid out before them in $100, $50,$20, $10, and $5 bills.
It was the most money Rafter and Jenny had ever seen in one place. Smiley had seen Rick’s payoff the year he worked for him. It amounted to $500,000 and came in a suitcase. Still, seeing their money in piles by denominations was awesome. It was proof they could make a living growing marijuana.
It meant they could continue to live on the mountain and pursue a peaceful way of life on their own terms. They all felt strongly about their personal freedom. They divided the money as agreed, Rafter got half, and Smiley and Jenny the other half.
“Toast!” Smiley said, holding up his glass – a mason jar. “To another successful season as farmers!”
They touched glasses and repeated, “To another successful season as farmers!”
“I have a proposal for next season’s profits,” Rafter said.
“What?” Jenny inquired.
“I think we should divide them three ways next time. I feel guilty about getting so much and you two having to split the same amount. We’re all partners, aren’t we? Jenny will be as just as busy as we will, if not more so because she’ll be taking care of Sundance too. I’d feel better if we split it three ways. What do you guys say?”
Smiley immediately raised his glass, “Bravo Rafter! Gotta hand it to you bro…you’re a
good man! I agree. Let’s split it in three.”
“I don’t know what to say.” Jenny blushed furiously. Her face felt hot. “Thanks.”
“Today we celebrate. Tomorrow we can make some decisions about upgrading our living quarters,” Smiley suggested.
Getting permits to build was a drawn out process that required going to several
locations and dealing with bureaucrats. Rafter hated going to the court house, which stood next to the county prison, and to the County Planning Department a few miles away. He couldn’t expect Smiley to take care of everything. So he went along and let Smiley do most of the talking.
Smiley didn’t seem to mind haggling with people and always maintained his smile. Rafter secretly would get pissed off at a clerk’s stupidity and his heartbeat would increase. He also grew more uncomfortable around groups of people. He sat with his back to the wall when they ate in restaurants.
His sense of being on guard was heightened in public situations in spite of himself. The hell of it was Rafter didn’t know why he felt that way. He seldom found something humorous, despite Smiley’s constant jokes and funny observations.
Rafter found himself forcing a smile at times. His old rubber face was now a rigid sculpture with a scar. All he wanted was to go back to the mountain and spend
time in the woods. His only joy was Sundance. He was glad he had found Smiley and realized he would never have made this kind of money in a factory. Just the thought of being trapped inside four walls, eight hours a day, made him sick. What would have happened if Smiley and Jenny hadn’t picked him up that day? Where would he be now? The realization that he probably would have been homeless sobered him. Smiley and Jenny had become his best friends. They all respected each other’s space and enjoyed being together.
“Tracers and screams. Fernandez tried to pull Enriquez to safety by his arm while firing his M-16. They were engulfed by black bodies savagely bayoneting them…Sgt. Borgalac stared sightlessly into the night…his head cleaved wide open…suddenly he sat up looked at Rafter and demanded his Scotch!”
Sweat poured down Rafter’s face as he gasped and woke up from the nightmare. He lay there with heart beating fast, adrenaline coursing through his body like acid, and wondered when the nightmares would go away.
After Sundance was born, Jenny started thinking about marriage. She was afraid to approach the subject with Smiley, as much as she loved him. The idea of being rejected at any level was too painful to contemplate. The idea of getting married never passed through Smiley’s head.
Rafter wondered if they would marry someday, but since they never talked about the subject he assumed neither was interested in matrimony. Even when Smiley talked about “his son” marriage didn’t come up. Sundance’s birth affected Rafter deeply.
For reasons he didn’t understand, bringing Sundance into the world had changed him. Life seemed to suddenly have a purpose. The miracle of birth was a stark contrast to the deaths that continually reoccurred in his nightmares. He felt he’d been given a chance to redeem himself. His heart easily made room for this new person in his life.
Alternative lifestyles were becoming the norm in parts of Humboldt County. The
“back to earthers” invaded the hills to escape San Francisco’s failed hippie paradise, and they weren’t the only ones who fled to the backwoods to escape urban madness. Vietnam veterans seeking distance from those who hated and feared them in the cities found rural living suitable. Most of them hated and distrusted the government that had sent them to
Southeast Asia to die for no good reason.
They were survivors who found themselves outcasts in society. Men like Smiley and Rafter. Each had a story, but the common denominator was distrust of government. Any government. So when a chance came to make money illegally, on their own terms, they took it.
Other Vietnam veterans came to southern Humboldt County with the “back to earthers” and adopted their communal lifestyle. They learned to grow fruit and
vegetables. They raised bees, goats, cows, and pigs. Many built crude shelters that were never approved by any planning department or county commissionaires.
The rare Vietnam veteran visionaries like Smiley and Rick, prided themselves on building safe compounds with secure perimeters. That meant they worked with the “man” so their structures wouldn’t be torn down by anal authorities.
The plan was to become totally self-sufficient, and still have some conveniences. Big generators were the key to softer living. Smiley and Rafter copied Rick’s idea and installed solar panels on the roof of their new three-bedroom house. Solar power was still in it’s fledgling stage, but people did obtain solar panels, often secondhand.
Smiley and Rafter dug out the foundation and paid a local contractor, another Vietnam veteran, Justin Stillwater, to pour it. Stillwater also helped them frame the house. The Redwood plank walls and the cedar and pine floors were milled at Rick’s ranch. His portable mill often came in handy.
The Redwood tree came from Smiley’s land. It was highly unlikely anyone would notice. It wasn’t an ancient Redwood, but still stood 80-feet tall. The cedar and coastal pine also came from Smiley’s property. This helped keep construction costs down.
When they finished the house, a true labor of love, they invited Rick, his girlfriend, the 10 members of the commune near Rick’s property, and their contractor friend Justin over for a house-warming celebration.
Several members of the commune played instruments and they partied through the night, smoking weed, drinking booze, and dropping LSD. The big open living room easily accommodated the visitors. Little Sundance slept through most of the night and only woke once for a quick feeding and change.
Chapter 17 – Hidden feelings
September 1975. Smiley and Rafter sat near the wood stove in their new home. They were both dirty and tired from the day’s labor in the woods. Their camouflage shirts and pants still had mud clinging to them. Rafter still wore his boonie hat. Smiley’s hat hung from his neck, down his back.
Jenny was making dinner in the kitchen. Two-and-a-half year old Sundance ran through the house with a truck in one hand and a race car in the other, making high pitched machine noises. His Mario Andretti t-shirt was on backward and he was barefoot. His long blond hair flowed down his back as he raced from room-to-room in noisy glee. Following closely behind him was Rafter’s new puppy, a Pug named Mogli. A 4 ft. by 8 ft. safe stood in one corner of the room.. In it, stacks of money from the last two harvests, almost three million dollars, were divided into thirds. Each third was in a leather suitcase with a combination lock. There were also two Winchester repeating rifles, and the ammunition for them.
Several pieces of valuable jewelry belonging to Jenny were in a gilded box with silver pot leaves adorning the four sides. A gold watch lined with tiny but perfect diamonds, nestled next to it. A gold necklace with a ruby pendant, and matching ear rings completed the set.
“So what do you think? Four more weeks?” Rafter asked Smiley.
“Sounds about right. We’ll call Jesus after the harvest. This year let’s call him on
November 28 and arrange the meet. He was pretty eager to get his hands on our bud last Nov. 21st. Making him wait another week ought to give us another ace-in-the-hole when we discuss price.”
“I’m thinking we could bump it up two hundred a pound this season. My friend Lenny has been keeping me up on the street prices for quality weed and our buddy Jesus is making a killing,” Rafter said.
Smiley pulled out a wooden pipe from one shirt pocket and reached into the other for a plastic baggie of bud. Carefully selecting a sticky nugget he pressed it into the
pipe bowl. His Zippo lit the pungent ingredients. After taking a deep hit, he passed the pipe to Rafter.
Rafter took a toke, and Smiley said, “We got $1,500 per pound last season and I did
kinda feel like we gave it away. I’ve heard our bud is the biggest seller in Porterville and the Loco Park gang has a growing reputation. If you know what I mean.”
Rafter passed the pipe back and nodded, “Yeah. They’re apparently showing off their
wealth in cars and jewelry lately. Other gangs are envious of Loco Park’s good fortune.”
Smiley exhaled a cloud of smoke that drifted lazily across the room. “Everything points to $1,700 a pound then, bro. So be it.”
Jenny called, “Dinner’s ready! Where’s Sundance?”
Just then, Sundance raced into the living room and tackled Rafter’s leg! They played for a minute before Rafter picked him up and carried him into the dining room, squealing with delight. “I want ice cream!” Sundance demanded.
Jenny was happy. Sundance was her main source of happiness. She loved Smiley and Rafter. One as a lover, the other as a brother. She loved her beautiful house with its double gables and a front porch made out of redwood.
She was proud of the pretty white picket fence around the foundation, hiding the fact that the house was on piers and had a crawl space beneath it. She enjoyed all the electrical devices in the house that made her life easier. All possible because of their newest and biggest generator.
Jenny loved the spectacular scenery surrounding the house from the large picture windows. She smelled the fresh air. Her parents had got over the shock of her having a baby out of wedlock and actually grew to love their grandchild. Aunt Susan was her confident and best friend. She could buy anything she wanted. She’d say, “What more could a girl ask for?” And that was the problem.
Despite pushing her feelings for Rafter into a hidden space in her mind, she thought
about him at odd moments. Wondered what it would be like to be with him? Somehow her love for him was breaking through her barrier of daily denial and changing from the kind for a brother to something entirely different.
He made her heart and stomach flitter unexpectedly, even when Smiley was nearby. He seemed to like the things she liked, unlike Smiley who was mostly interested in having sex.
She and Smiley seldom talked anymore. Smiley was always too busy. Or drinking booze. Rafter, who was just as busy, found time to talk with her and play with Sundance. Smiley’s father instinct appeared sparse if existent. He certainly didn’t have enough patience to deal with a rambunctious two-and-a-half year-old. Even his own two-and-half year old. The two never seemed to have made a connection.
Rafter and Sundance, on the other hand, were as close as father and son. Sundance followed him around like a faithful hound dog. Rafter always seemed to be there for Sundance’s firsts. When he walked. When he talked and said Da Da to him. When he fell for the first time and scuffed his knees.
Smiley didn’t see their bond as anything unusual. He would correct the baby, and point at himself and say “Da Da.” The thing was, Smiley didn’t enjoy doing things with Sundance. He had no patience with him. To himself, Smiley admitted he had little or no interest in Sundance. He didn’t know why. He tried at times, but his efforts always came off flat and awkward. It made him feel guilty.
Rafter certainly didn’t appear interested in Jenny as a lover and seemed content with
their platonic relationship. Jenny spent her days and nights conflicted.
Chapter 18 – Shoot Out
The diner was empty except for the four men who sat at the rear table. The waiter in the small Mom & Pop diner poured out four cups of coffee. Two of the men were Hispanic and sported heavy gold chains dangling from their open madras shirts. One blue and the other brown.
Their shoulder length jet black hair was combed back and looked carved into place. One wore a diamond earring. When standing, you could see the sharp center pleats in their baggy brown trousers. They wore Italian designer shoes that reflected the light.
Sitting across from them were two tall thin white men. Neither wore jewelry. Both had long hair pulled back in ponytails and wore bright multi-colored Hawaiian shirts and jeans. They wore hand crafted logger boots. Smiley’s baseball cap had a Smiley face on it. Rafter wore a brown felt fedora. He also wore a pair of blue-tinted circular sunglasses, despite the muted lighting in the diner.
They ordered breakfast and casually ate, sharing small talk. None of them wanted to appear in a hurry. That wouldn’t have been cool. After three years of being partners Rick and Oscar had developed rituals for negotiation day. An hour passed before Oscar opened the negotiations. “How was your season?” he politely asked.
“We had challenges. The weather was good. The quality is top shelf,” Smiley assured
“How much do you have for me?” Jesus blurted out. The others looked at him with disapproval.
“Hey Homie…where’s your manners?” Oscar asked.
Jesus reluctantly apologized. “What’s the pound price this season?”
“Everything considered, we believe $1,700 per pound is reasonable. Especially with the
reputation our buds are making down south.”
“What the hell? I paid $1,500 last year! That’s a two hundred dollar increase!” Jesus sputtered angerly.
“What’s the matter with you homie? This is business. Prices change according to the market. You’re embarrassing me,” Oscar growled menacingly.
Tension filled the air. Rafter and Smiley shifted in their seats. Jesus stared at Smiley. Oscar scowled at Jesus. A minute passed in sullen silence. Finally Jesus spoke, “All right. $1,700 per pound. How much do you have?”
A sigh of relief escaped Oscar who knew his hotheaded cousin could be an ass. He wondered for the thousandth time how Jesus had managed to take control of the Loco Park gang. He could be dangerously unpredictable.
“We have 125 pounds dried and cured,” Smiley said, staring steadily into Jesus’s eyes. Neither man had taken his eyes off the other since the flare up.
“Good…then I need to know when and where the transaction will be,” Jesus replied, returning the stare.
“Two days from now. Here’s a map to the shopping center where we’ll meet in Willets,” Smiley said. He pulled out a folded piece of paper from his top pocket and
handed it to Jesus. “We’ll meet at 10 p.m.”
“We’ll see you then, my friends.” Oscar stood up. “I’ll get the tab.”
Two days later.
It’s was dark and the lights in the middle of the parking lot caused car and people shadows that stretched toward the supermarket and across the small strip of stores. It was warm and people wore shorts and tee shirts. A black King Cab pickup truck was parked in the center of the lot. Two men sat inside impatiently waiting. The radio played, “Money” by Pink Floyd.
“Money, it’s a gas – grab that cash with both hands – and make a stash…”
“We never brought weapons before, Smiley. Why now?”
“Listen bro…like I told you before, I have instincts that some people don’t. It’s why I survived out in the jungle. I wouldn’t be surprised if our pal Jesus decides this is the day to end our partnership and reap the profits from our labors.”
“If you really believe that, maybe we should call this transaction off. Talk with Oscar and let him know your concerns.”
“Okay…let me put it this way. We really need to sell our weed. I’m not 100 per cent sure he’ll try anything. I’m feeling the need for caution. There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?”
“No. But borrowing Rick’s 9 mm seems like an abundance of caution.”
“Bear with me bro…everything’s probably going to be fine. I just feel the need for an
A black Riviera pulled up next to them. Then a black Ford Econoline van pulled up on
the other side. The van’s side door opened. Both doors on the Riveria opened and two men got out. Jesus and a stranger with two brief cases. Smiley immediately suspected foul play when Oscar wasn’t there, but opened his door and stepped out. Rafter opened his door and walked around to unlock the truck’s camper.
The stranger set the two brief cases down on the cement.
“Where’s Oscar?” Smiley calmly asked.
“He got sick and asked Jorge to come in his place. They’re homies,” Jesus said.
Rafter unlocked the camper. Then he came around the side of the truck where Smiley was, stopped a few feet back, and waited to see what would happen next.
Unseen by either party, a homeless man blended in the outer shadows. He shambled along, wrapped in a dark blanket. His street instincts were pure and when he saw the black pickup, the Van, and the Riviera in the center of the parking lot, he stopped. His eyes focused on the emerging figures. He slipped further into the shadows behind a stall of shopping carts.
He was young and his hearing was good. So was his eyesight. His name was
Smokey. Not his real name, but his street name. Normally he had a hand-rolled cigarette hanging out of his mouth. He was a stoner who depended upon his friends to get him high. Now he perked up his ears and listened:
“No phone call. That seems odd to…” Smiley broke off mid sentence as Jorge reached under his long-sleeved blue checkered shirt for a gun!
Smiley was faster and shot Jorge in the head before he cleared his .38 revolver. Jesus fired a quick shot in Smiley’s direction and jumped inside the Riveria. Smiley rolled on the ground towards the car.
The car’s engine started. Smiley rose, took aim and fired three quick shots into the driver’s side. Two struck Jesus in the head and he pitched sidewise striking the horn which blared angrily as the engine raced.
The van door slammed closed and it came to life, screeching across the parking lot towards the main highway. It’s occupants obviously didn’t want to continue the fight. Rafter, who hit the deck when the shooting started, got up and ran to Smiley, who grabbed the brief cases. “Are you all right, bro?” Rafter asked.
“We have to move fast. Let’s get out of here.”
The car horn blared away. Smokey stared. He had never seen someone get killed before. This was so out of his normal existence he was stunned. Shocked. He couldn’t move, even when the Van’s lights hit him and it looked like the driver was going to barrel into him!
Then the pickup truck passed and Smokey stared at the passenger and driver. He
got an especially good look at the passenger just before they turned onto the road.
Rafter and Smiley peeled out toward the highway heading north. Rafter drove. Smiley opened one of the brief cases and swore, “It’s full of newspapers! The sons of bitches!” he roared.
The incident was a game-changer. Smiley had killed two men and was paranoid about the law catching up to him so he stayed drunk. Rafter worried about witnesses, but a week after the shootout it became apparent the law had no solid leads.
The shooting was sensationalized in newspapers across the country. Two known gangsters shot by an unknown person or persons. No leads. Authorities baffled. No trace of drugs found. No large wads of cash concealed in the Riviera. The two hand guns the gangsters used were clean of identification and provided no clues. It would go on to be the story of the year in Willets; “Who shot the gangsters?”
Chapter 19 – Break Down
The ramifications of the shoot-out came to them a week later when Rick stopped by in his camouflaged Jeep.
“That was a really bad scene bros…what happened?” he asked without the usual amenities like “hello,” or dapping.
“They set us up, Rick,” Smiley scowled.
“Your friend Oscar wasn’t there bro…” Rafter said, as if that were explanation enough.
“Where’s my 9 mm?” Rick asked.
“I took it apart and threw the pieces into the Eel River,” Smiley said. “I’ll buy you
“I mainly wanted to know that no one else would find it,” Rick explained. “Might have caused me some trouble.”
“Now what?” Rafter asked.
“I don’t know. I’ve been trying to contact Oscar and he’s not returning my calls. That’s not a good sign. One of the guys you killed was his relative. A cousin or something.”
“Yeah, I know. Jesus had it in for me though. What else could I do? I was defending myself. If I hadn’t borrowed your gun, I wouldn’t be here now. That’s a fact.”
“What I want to know is why wasn’t Oscar with him? That broke our agreement,” Rafter asked.
“I hear you bro…I just don’t have the answer right now. All I can say is, lay low and don’t leave the homestead for a while. Get rid of your truck. Buy a new one. I’ll do what I can to find out what happened. Just be glad you live up on this mountain. You don’t have to worry about your neighbors ratting you out,” Rick reasoned.
They talked for nearly an hour before dapping and parting.
Jenny was hysterical when she heard what happened. She clutched Sundance to her chest and stayed in her room for several days. She couldn’t bear to talk with either of them. Smiley had killed two men!
He was up front about it and expected her to understand. She didn’t. The whole business of growing pot had taken a deadly turn and she didn’t like it. The killings upset her world. She never expected anything this horrible would come from gardening.
They were just farmers. Not gangsters. She’d worried about the money connection from the start. It was a necessary evil, they assured her. They would make sure there was no trouble. Rick’s connection was tight. It was just business.
Sure. A business that went bad. Now death was a by-product of their hard work and peaceful existence. The real world interrupted their happy little haven. Now the stink of sticky buds came with the stink of death. The two would be associated in her mind now.
She knew what Smiley had done in the Nam. She forgave that and wrote it off as doing his duty. This was different. The man she thought she knew was still very much a killer under his smiling mask. He was more complex than she realized. It didn’t surprise her that Rafter wasn’t involved in the shoot out. That he didn’t kill anyone. He was a Vietnam veteran too, and had faced what Smiley did, but no blood was on his hands this time.
Rafter often shared his regrets with her about the people he had killed overseas. Smiley
never showed any remorse for what happened in the Nam. It bothered her at times, but she knew people reacted differently to stressful situations. How had it come to this?
When Rick finally reached Oscar on the telephone, the first thing out of his mouth was, “What happened? Where were you?”
“Easy bro…I’m dealing with a lot of angry home boys right now. They want to find your friends really bad. Some are asking me to sever ties with you, my friend. I wasn’t there because Jesus called and said it was postponed for a day. He lied to me.”
“Sever ties with me?”
“They’re your friends and right now my homies want blood. One white boy would be as good as another. Especially since you know them. We have to stop doing business bro. There’s no way around it.”
“Can’t say I’m happy about this, but I know you’re right. Maybe someday down the line we’ll meet again and have a bottle of Jack Daniels.”
“And smoke some of your loco weed too,” Oscar added.
The phone line went dead. Rick looked around his living room as if searching for something. The walls were bare. The room was sparsely furnished. The wooden rocker he sat in. A small brown couch. An end table. He was comfortable with the Spartan look.
He felt a sense of loss at this parting that went beyond financial. They had some good times back in the Nam. He’d never forget them. Now he had to deal with this new reality; he didn’t have a buyer for this year’s crop.
Rafter and Smiley decided they had to reach out and do some sales work if they hoped to get rid of their 125 pounds of pot. Rafter called Lenny, who was now a junior at Cal State Fullerton, and offered him a way to make some serious money. Lenny realized he had a built-in customer base at the college and selling top-of-the-line weed would make him a quick profit.
Rafter started him with one pound and he advised Lenny to bag it up into ounces, and quarter-ounces, to sell. He gave Lenny the pound on a Friday morning. By Sunday, Lenny called to say he had sold it all and could he have two more pounds? In three months Lenny sold 25 pounds.
Smiley was busy too. He hooked up with some Hell’s Angels and successfully sold them 50 pounds before sensing they were going to rip him off on their next transaction. He was a survivor after all, and his instincts were as sharp as a Samurai Sword made by the fabled master Amakuni, who created the first one. The last thing he wanted was another shoot out. After two months of dealing with the Stockton Chapter of the Hell’s Angels he decided it was time to move on.
Rafter and Smiley agreed there would be no crop that season. They still had 50 pounds left over and it would require more sales efforts. The time for planting was passing. Secretly Rafter was happy with their new arrangement. They’d made a ridiculous profit already. He didn’t need more.
He had three full suitcases of money totaling over a one and a half million dollars in small bills. It was enough for a lifetime. After they sold the rest, he planned to tell Smiley he wasn’t interested in growing more.
He knew it would mean leaving Jenny and Sundance. Perhaps that would be the best thing to do, despite the fact that he loved them both. She was Smiley’s woman. They didn’t have to be legally as far as he was concerned. They had a child together, and he didn’t want to come between them.
Still he would sorely miss them both. He admitted to himself he loved her more than was safe. He didn’t want to cause trouble. He had no right. They had taken him in and treated him like an equal. He couldn’t betray either of them, no matter how much he desired Jenny and wanted to be with her and Sundance as a family.
The easiest thing was to continue to funnel pounds to Lenny, who had branched out considerably. Rafter spent more time in Southern California, saying it was necessary to monitor Lenny’s progress. He finally leased a furnished apartment in Fullerton that allowed animals, and bought a new burgundy Chevrolet Monte Carlo.
He spent most of his time in the apartment with Mogli, listening to music and staying high. Lenny sold the rest of their weed. Then one day Rafter was back in the jungle! He was cooking eggs and suddenly he was running through elephant grass so tall he couldn’t see where he was going!
As the days turned to weeks, Rafter went outside less and less. Lenny stopped by once a week to give him money and report on his progress. He never stayed long. Rafter’s moods troubled him.
A black veil settled upon Rafter’s soul and nightmares nagged his nights. It had been a while since they bothered him so often and they had never been as intense as now. His days became hazy. Unclear. A challenge to reality. He experienced flashbacks, forgetting where he was.
One day Lenny stopped by and got the scare of his life. Driving along the 605 Freeway. Lenny couldn’t believe how much money he was making. He couldn’t wait to tell Rafter he’d sold the last of his weed. He was concerned about where to get more. This was the last of Rafter and Smiley’s crop. He knew Rafter had connections up north, and hoped he could supply him a new source. Lenny got out of his Mustang, grabbed the brown leather suitcase full of money, and headed for Rafter’s ground floor apartment.
It was a warm June night and a full moon glowed in the heavens. Lenny knocked on the door, despite having a key. He heard movement inside. A dog barked excitedly. Seconds pass into a minute. Then two. Finally Lenny pulled out his key and inserted it. He didn’t want to be outside too long with all that money. He opened the door. The only illumination in the room was a lava lamp. It cast an eerie red glow on Rafter who was huddled in a corner, snarling like an animal! Mogli barked at Lenny and
charged him, nipping at his ankles. He meant to protect Rafter at all costs. Lenny was horrified.
He’s had never experienced anything like it in his young life. He froze after taking two steps into the room. The suitcase slipped from his fingers. Fear tickled his guts. Rafter’s eyes were pinpoints and his front teeth bared like a wolf‘s. Time stood still. Minutes passed and the only sound in the room was Lenny’s rapid breathing and an occasional grunt from Rafter. Mogli stopped barking and retreated to Rafter’s side.
“Rafter…it’s me, man. Lenny.”
The silence was stifling. Rafter stopped grunting. Sobs replaced the grunts.
“Rafter…listen to me, man. It’s Lenny. Everything’s okay.”
“No,” was Rafter’s suddenly strong reply, “Nothing is okay.”
Chapter 20 – Rehab and Smokey
Jenny watched Sundance play with his trucks in the dirt outside the drying shed. Nothing was okay with her life anymore. With Rafter gone, she felt lonely, despite having
Sundance for company. Smiley was seldom around these days. He was always busy with something in town. Usually getting drunk.
He’d bought a new pick-up truck, a Ford of course, and got a custom paint job in Eureka by a well-known local artist. It changed colors as the light hit it from different angles. Stylized Redwoods and scenes from the north coast graced both sides and the hood. The
chrome front and rear bumpers gleamed in the sun.
Without Rafter to talk with, Smiley wasn’t interested in hanging around the house. Jenny had been acting funny ever since she found out he had killed the two gangbangers. They didn’t seem to have anything to talk about anymore. They only had sex once, and she was cold and unresponsive. He took the hint and started going to a strip club in Eureka called the “Tip-Top” Club where he paid for lap dances and more.
As for Sundance, Smiley resented the way the boy acted lately. Like he was afraid of him or something. Smiley didn’t think he was that harsh and decided Jenny was making him a wimp. They argued about Sundance’s upbringing every time they saw one another.
He wished Rafter would come back, but knew that he was a patient in the Long Beach Veterans Hospital. Lenny, like the true friend he was, had talked him into going there to get help, and promised to take care of Mogli.
At first, they put Rafter in a section eight ward with drooling idiots and gave him medications that made him dopey during the day and knocked him out at night. He might have remained a permanent resident if it weren’t for one young psychiatrist who took an interest in his case.
Dr. Elgin Ward was on the frontlines of studies about combat veterans psychology.
He had formed a Veterans “Rap Group” where they could talk about their experiences in the Nam and after they came home. He had the help of the Vietnam Veterans Working Group, recently founded by Dr. Chaim Shatan. Rafter was invited to attend.
This relatively new approach to treating combat veterans had it’s roots in the Vietnam Veterans Against the War “rap groups” where veterans discussed all aspects of the war, including their disillusionment with the government.
Rafter learned he had “Post-Vietnam Syndrome,” a term coined by Dr. Shatan in an article on the Op-ed page of the New York Times. He stayed at the VA Hospital for three months, before they discharged him and encouraged him to hook up with a veterans group to get continued help.
He was taught to recognize triggers. Things that set him off. To stay in the “here and now.” Count to ten. All kinds of self defense mechanisms were offered in the rap group by other combat veterans.
Lenny waited for him outside the hospital, standing next to his Mustang and smoking a cigarette. He wore a tie-dye t-shirt and was growing a scraggly beard. They embraced and got in the car.
“Your place. I need to get my car.”
“Sounds like a plan. Hey listen man. Are you going to keep bossing weed?”
“No. I’m not sure what I’m going to do yet. Why?”
“Well…I kinda got used to those bucks flowing in from your sweet herb. I sure wouldn’t
mind a Humboldt connection, if you happen to know anyone.”
Thinking about Rick, Rafter said, “I might know someone who’d be interested. Let me look into it.” When they got to Lenny’s house Rafter declined to stay any longer than it took to grab a duffle bag of clothes and Mogli. He got into his car and pointing it north…toward Humboldt County. He left his money with Lenny, the only person in the world Rafter really trusted.
The money suitcases did have combination locks, in case Lenny went a little crazy and tried to “borrow” some. Rafter already had a couple of reasons to go back up to Humboldt. Now he could add another one: talk to Rick about selling his weed to Lenny.
Smokey’s luck seemed to turn sour ever since he saw the shooting in the grocery store parking lot in Willets. He got involved in an unsavory deal, a rip-off actually, and it became necessary for him to leave town.
It took three days of hitchhiking to get to Eureka where his brother lived. When he arrived, Joseph was less than thrilled to see him. They had parted ways many years earlier when Smokey stole his brother’s coin and stamp collection to get money for his heroin habit. That habit ended in three years of court-appointed drug rehab, after he was busted buying black tar heroin.
When he got out of the program, Joseph still didn’t want anything to do with him so Smokey – whose real name was John Winterton – went south, eventually ending up in Willits. He was no longer welcome there. He hoped after all these years, his brother would forgive him enough to let him stay until he could work out other arrangements.
He was tired of living on the streets and planned to look for a legitimate job, as repulsive as the thought was. He’d learned a few things in rehab, and one of them was how to utilize the local social services system.
This time Joseph was receptive to helping him out, after they talked for a couple of hours. Joseph’s life was going very well, and he felt expansive. Perhaps his
little brother really was ready to take charge of his life. So, he agreed to let Smokey stay until he could find other lodging. There were rules of course.
Smokey signed up with the Employment Development Department in downtown Eureka and attended classes designed to help him find a job. It seemed he was on a straight and narrow path, until two weeks later, Smokey saw Smiley stagger out of a bar!
At first, he was shocked and almost turned and ran. This was the shooter. The guy who blazed away in the Willits parking lot. Then he remembered Smiley didn’t look his way that fateful night. As far as Smiley knew, there were no witnesses. Smokey was a complete stranger to the shooter. A fly on the wall. A flea on the ground. Invisible.
Only fear of the police had kept Smokey from telling what he witnessed when it happened. He had followed the story for weeks afterward. Now, it came back to him in a rush as he stepped aside to let Smiley stagger by him.
Smiley was singing, his words so slurred, they were unintelligible. No doubt about it. This was the man he saw that night in the parking lot. The man who shot those gangsters and got away with it. Until now.
Old habits die hard. Smokey thought he wanted to change the direction of his life. He thought he was ready to go straight. To blend in with so-called normal people, and not be looked down upon as scum. But he had a larcenous gene that wouldn’t allow that. If he could make easy money, why work a nine-to-five job? If he were able to get enough cash to, say start a business, that would be great. What could he do?
He didn’t want to get involved in a situation which required violence on his part. That wasn’t his style. What if he blackmailed the shooter who had just stumbled by him, drunk as an English Lord? The only glitch was, did the shooter have money? He’d have to find out if his hastily formed plan was to work.
Without further thought, he fell in behind Smiley as he swayed along the sidewalk bellowing happily. When he got into the fancy painted pickup, Smokey knew there was at least a chance the guy had some money. The artwork was obliviously custom done.
It would take investigating and luck to find out if blackmailing would work, but it gave him a goal. One much more appealing than earning money honestly.
It meant he’d have to go to that bar, and others, daily if he hoped to see the man again. If he did, he planned to befriend him and get the vital information.
It would take work, constant vigilance, and patience, but he decided it was worth the possible payoff. Smokey watched the colorful pickup weave unsteadily in and out of traffic heading north on Hwy. 101 and sucked in a deep breath. He hadn’t been this excited in years!
Chapter 21 – Back To Humboldt
A feeing of peace came over Rafter as he drove up Highway 36 and drew closer to Jenny and Smiley’s place. He cruised on the winding road, soaking in the redwoods and spectacular views. His memory carried him back to the first time he had come there. Little did he know then how much it would change his life.
This was where he truly felt at home. Being away for nearly five months had seemed like a lifetime. He slowed down in anticipation of the turn. There it was. A non-descript dirt road with a locked gate about 50 yards in. If you weren’t looking for it, you’d pass it by.
He turned in, unlocked the gate, drove through and locked the gate behind him. When he pulled up in front of the house, the first thing he saw was Sundance, kicking a soccer ball in front of the drying shed. He stopped and got out of the car. Sundance was so absorbed in chasing the ball he hadn’t noticed Rafter. He kicked the ball against the side of the shed, spun around to get the rebound, and saw Rafter.
With a happy cry he ran to him. “Unca Raffer!” Rafter picked him up and tossed him in the air. Mogli bounded out of the car and danced around them, barking happily.
Jenny stepped out the front door onto the porch when she heard the commotion. She saw Rafter twirl Sundance around like a rag doll. Her heart skipped a beat. She was so happy to see him, she ran out into the yard to greet him. He looked around, saw Jenny coming and shouted, “I missed you guys!”
Then she was hugging him. Rafter put Sundance down and hugged her back. Neither said anything for a minute, holding the embrace, lost in thoughts not to be voiced out loud. She stepped back and looked at him.
Rafter had put on weight and looked healthier than when she last seen him. His long hair was tied in a ponytail and he had a well-trimmed beard that didn‘t hide his scar. The white slash in his hair had expanded to a wide swath that divided the top of his head. He still had a haunted look in his golden brown eyes and they shifted nervously as she studied him.
“Where’s Smiley?” Rafter asked.
“In town. He went to pick up some supplies for the house. C’mon inside and I’ll get
you a cold beer.”
Sundance laughed when Mogli licked his face and then wrapped himself around Rafter’s leg as he attempted to follow Jenny in. He clung to it with each step, laughing with unrestrained joy. He had missed Rafter and wasn’t going to let him go.
Chapter 22 – Smokey Plots
Smiley’s new found friend thanked him for the beer and whiskey chaser. They drank slowly, savoring the atmosphere. The semi-dark bar vibrated with the sounds of the three-piece band playing a country ballad. The floating haze of cigarette smoke hung like smog above the Budweiser light fixture on the sole pool table.
A cacophony of voices muffled the music, adding to the chaos. Smiley was ploughed. His friend seemed to be buzzing too. What was his name? Oh yeah, Smokey. It rhymed with Smiley which delighted him for some obscure reason.
Smokey had been mining him for information since they started drinking four hours earlier. Thus far he knew Smiley lived on a big tract of land inherited from his uncle. He had all the amenities a person could wish for; a big house, barn (he said drying shed at one point which Smokey noted), a big-assed generator, a vegetable garden, a sexy “old lady” and a young son (he mentioned his age once, but Smokey didn’t catch it).
Tonight, Smokey was trying to find out exactly where Smiley lived. He needed an address. It was so much easier to blackmail a person if you knew their address. So far, only references to Highway 36 past Hydesville had come up, which were helpful, but not
what Smokey needed.
After several “chance meetings” in bars, Smokey had discovered he could out drink Smiley, who got smashed fairly easily. His patience was paying off. Perhaps the most important information gleaned – Smiley did have a lot of money. He bragged about it the second time they drank together.
From what Smokey could piece together, Smiley and a partner grew pot and sold it down south. After several successful seasons they were rich. “Just like growing money trees,” he assured Smokey. Finding Smiley was the chance of a lifetime and he meant to cash in at the first opportunity.
“Hey waitress!” Smiley shouted in the din. “We’re drying up over here! We need beer!”
Like an oasis in a mirage, a waitress appeared with another pitcher of beer. She recognized Smiley as a regular. The guy he was drinking with was a newcomer to the bar. This was his second time. Both times, he came with “The Smile Man,” as she called Smiley. She idly wondered what Smiley was doing with the ratty-looking little man? He reminded her of a weasel
“Anything else?” she asked Smiley, taking the empty pitcher off the table.
“Thas all for now sweeeetheart,” he slurred.
Smokey filled their glasses. Smiley raised an arm, beer mug sloshing, and declared a toast, “To cold beer and hot women!”
“Hear, hear… Smokey agreed.
In the background, Johnny Cash was singing, “I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down, livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town. I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime, but still is there because he’s a victim of the times…” from his hit song “Man in Black.”
They stayed until the bar closed.
Chapter 23 – The Last Grow
Smiley was happy to see Rafter the next day. The two spent a whole night smoking weed, sipping Jack Daniels, and talking. They re-hashed good times and then the talk turned to business.
“It’s too late in the year to start a crop now, but we can look for garden locations. I was thinking about adding more plants for this harvest. What do you think?”
It was a touchy moment and Rafter, despite being high, took his time before answering. He wanted to break the news that he was no longer interested in growing pot as gently as possible.
“ I’m not sure. I’m still kinda messed up in the head. I’m not sure I want to get into something that heavy again.”
“Heavy? What’s that? Growing weed is heavy now! What’s the matter with you bro?”
“Growing ain’t heavy. Selling the finished product is…”
“Awww shit! Are you still sniveling about those two dumb-ass gang bangers who tried to rip us off?”
“Does kinda bother me…”
“C’mon. Been there, done that. Capping those two scum bags was no different than capping Charlie in the Nam.”
“That was the Nam, bro. No rules there. There are rules here in the world. Not shooting people one of them.”
“You’re messed up in the head all right. Where’s this coming from? Don’t you like being rich?”
“I do. That’s just the point. I’m rich now. I’ve got more money than I would have made in a lifetime, working in factories. The question is, when is it enough? Another million? Two, three more seasons? I just can’t see taking the risk any more.”
“I’ll be damned! What about me? I need to make some money? Between what I lost in Las Vegas last month and paying household expenses, I’m nearing the end of my funds.”
“I didn’t know you lost money in Vegas and you were in a tight position, okay?” Rafter said with concern. “I owe you for all you’ve done for me. How about I stay for another season, and then if you want to keep growing, you’ll have time to find another partner?”
“That’s my bro! Here, take another hit.”
Jenny watched Sundance twirl around in the mud, naked as a Jaybird, and shrieking
happily. His chubby body was covered in reddish clay. With his golden ringlets (Jenny had resisted cutting his hair thus far) he looked like a cherub in a Botticelli painting. The Florentine Renaissance master could have used him for a model.
The sky was gray and they were enjoying a break in the rain. She loved watching Sundance play with Mogli. He was a happy boy and had no trouble entertaining himself. She didn’t know what she would have done without him. He was her reason to live. The deteriorating relationship with Smiley made her sad.
One day they got into a loud argument and Jenny let it slip that Sundance wasn’t his son. That was the final turning point in their relationship. Secretly, Smiley was glad the boy wasn’t his. He didn’t let her know that, and called her a convincing liar.
After that, he lost all interest in her. He was gone so often, she quit making regular meals and just snacked when she and Sundance were hungry. No more pretense. She was forced to consider her, and Sundance’s, future.
Watching Sundance’s innocent face made Jenny yearn for another life. One with love in it. Seeing Rafter again made her realize how much she thought about him. How, in her heart, she held a special place for him. She saw how he aged in those months away. He was wounded. She understood that. His spirit was suffering. He had a gentle soul in a large body, wrestling with invisible demons.
Knowing he would stay with them for another year thrilled her. The thought of having his company again made her heart skip a beat. She was aware Smiley had talked him into staying to help harvest another crop.
Instinctively, she knew he didn’t want to be involved in what could be a risky venture. He was feeling so vulnerable. Somehow, Smiley had talked him into it. She wondered what he had said to Rafter to get him to stay?
It didn’t matter. She was glad to have him nearby again. When the year was up, she might be ready to decide what she wanted to do with her life. Money was no problem. She had plenty.
Chapter 24 – Smokey Gets a Job
A three-piece Western band filled the bar with pulsating sound so strong, people appeared to be mimes doing routines. Smoke hung in lazy clouds in the dimly lit bar. Small round tables seated four people, and they were all full. Every seat at the bar was taken. People stood or wandered around, happily gulping beer in prodigious quanities.
Smiley sat in the chair Smokey had reserved for him. He was winded, having danced
for twenty minutes with a young woman whose long golden hair flowed down to her buttocks. She finally had to leave, but not before giving him a big sloppy kiss. Smiley picked up his now warm mug of beer and sloshed it down in one long gulp. After letting out a loud belch, he turned to Smokey, who patiently sat next to him.
“What the hell? Can’t dance?” he asked Smokey.
“Not really. Not without looking funny.” Smokey thought what an idiot Smiley looked, lurching around the room.
“Dancing is good for you. Having fun is good for you. Don’t you think, Stinky?”
Without betraying annoyance at the new nickname Smokey said, “Sure…sure, I agree with that. It’s just that I can’t find a full time job. Things haven‘t been too fun for me lately.”
“Job…you need a job. What do you do?”
“I’m strictly unskilled labor, man. I never went to college or anything like that. I’ve had some pretty rough times the last few years and I’m trying to get enough money to have my own place.”
“Hey, Hot cheeks! How about a couple more beers?” Smiley roared at a passing
waitress who scribbled on a note pad and kept moving through the crowded room.
“You smoke pot, don’t you Stinky?”
Only a slight twitch of the left eye hinted at Smokey’s irritation. “I’ve been turning on for years now,” he smoothly replied.
“Tell you what, let me talk with my partner. I may have work for you. Full time work and all the weed you can smoke. How about that?”
Smokey was stunned. Blackmail was still on the table, but this fascinating offer jolted him. It was full of promise. Suddenly fate smiled down on him. “Smokey lad, the worm is turning and things are going your way,” a voice in his head said. He beamed his biggest smile, a thin slash across his angular face, and tried not too show too much excitement. But he was thrilled!
“Thank you man! I don’t know what to say…”
“No problem. Are you a hard worker?”
“I’ll work until I drop if that’s what you mean.”
It is. You’ll work your ass off if it’s okay with my partner. Hey! Over here Hotcakes! That’s right!” Smiley stood up waving a twenty dollar bill at the approaching waitress. She put two frosty mugs of beer on their table and took the twenty.
“Keep the change, honey. I just love helping out a working girl!”
The waitress, a petite brunette Lesbian, showed Smiley her best fake smile. She couldn’t stand loudmouth males like him, but his money made him easier to tolerate. She moved on to the next table where another man was waving an empty beer mug.
Chapter 25 – Rafter and Rick
Rick felt close to the earth. His breath blew between the trees in rainbow spirals, sending secret messages to the birds nested there. At times the very air pulsated with life as Brother Sun looked down upon him. The colors were so intense he had to squint and he saw angels hovering in the redwoods. Magic mushrooms and morning meditation. A daily routine that separated him from reality as he sought universal truths.
Interrupting this morning routine, Rafter, patiently pursued him through the
forest. Finally, Rick’s body stopped vibrating with self discovery and he acknowledged Rafter’s presence.
“Wuz up bro?”
Rafter studied him for a moment, noting his beard was longer and whiter these days. His once open countenance was clouded with suspicion and his eyes danced with feverish light. Bags under both unfocused eyes. He looked like a weary wizard struggling with reality. Still, a bright, needle thin spot of intelligence burned in those eyes.
“Not much. Thought I’d stop by. I’m back in this neck of the woods again.”
“Didn’t know you left…”
“I did. For a while. Spent some time at a VA hospital down south and had my head examined.”
Rick stared past him as he added, “I was in something they call a rap group with other Vietnam veterans and we talked about our experiences in the Nam.”
Rick stirred and his eyes landed on Rafter like birds of prey.
“What was that like?”
“It was okay. Kinda nice to talk about some things around people who have been there and done that.”
“Did you compare body counts?”
“We talked about killing the enemy. The psychs talked about us being the enemy. Invading their country and all.”
“You didn’t glory in your kills and pat each other on the back?”
“Hell no. Why would you say that?”
“Lot’s of Viet vets do that. Like Smiley. I don’t believe in killing. I didn’t kill any Vietnamese when I was over there. Killing is killing. Mother earth weeps when we irrigate her with innocent blood. Killing is bad Karma. Did you know that?”
“I wouldn’t doubt it, man…”
“There’s just no call to kill. Smiley killed those two Mexicans and nothing has been the
same since. What am I supposed to do with my last crop? Been sitting nearly seven months out in the barn.”
“Well…I have an idea. Do you want to hear it?”
“I’m really open to enlightenment right now bro.”
“Got a friend, not just any friend, but one who went to high school with me and is like a brother. I trust him with my life and money. He’s a college student at Fullerton State University and recently he moved a lot of pounds for me.”
“Interesting…did you see that?”
“Thought I saw someone moving across the ridge.” Rick pointed. “That’s my land. I better know him. It better be one of my neighbors.”
Rafter waited while Rick studied the ridge. His paranoia showed. He was jumpier than the last time Rafter visited. Finally, after muttering something under his breath, Rick turned back to Rafter. “You’re a good man. If you trust him I do.”
“How do you feel about meeting him? I want Lenny, that’s his name, to come up here to your place and get an appreciation for what’s involved. He’s a shewd guy with a good imagination and just enough common sense not to get caught. You two could have a long working relationship.”
“Bring him up. He can stay here a few days. It’ll give me a chance to size him up. Here, would you like a piece of this?” he asked, pulling another shroom from his fanny pack.
“I’ll pass right now, bro. I’ve got things to do. And …thanks Rick, you won’t regret it.”
Chapter 26 – Lenny Arrives
Lenny landed in what he thought was paradise, the Eureka/Arcata Airport located in McKinleyville. Rafter waited for him on the tarmac in a little fenced in area beside the small terminal. It was still early, 9 a.m., and Rafter held a cup of coffee and waved to get Lenny’s attention.
The small plane that brought Lenny held 25 people, counting the pilot and one stewardess. Rafter had called it a “puddle-jumper” when he described it during their phone conversation. Lenny was the last person off. He held a small handbag over his head to ward off the light mist coming down. The skies were gray as lead with sulky clouds over the nearby ocean.
Fog clung to the tarmac and briefly obscured the passengers as they approached the chain-link fence. Rafter spotted Lenny as Lenny lowered his bag.
Lenny saw Rafter and was relieved he wasn’t late. He hoped Rafter was still doing okay mentally, but after seeing his breakdown, he couldn’t be sure what to expect. He knew he was taking a chance. This whole affair was big time and could get him prison time. Still, he would enjoy making money in quantities he had never dreamed of. The intrigue was also a head rush.
“Hey…how was your flight?”
“Yeah, sometimes it is. Just like life.”
“Going philosopher on me buddy? It’s good to see you. You’re as ugly as ever!”
“Well…I work at it you know. C’mon let’s get your bag. I borrowed Smiley’s pickup. Wait till you see it! Wait till you see Rick’s place. It‘ll really blow your mind. Welcome to Humboldt County.”
Rick wore a forest green cape loosely tied at the throat, a tie-dyed long-sleeved
shirt and a pair of baggy brown pants with homemade pockets stitched with thin leather strips.
Rafter had tried to prepare Lenny for Rick, but you could only say so much. Who knew what Rick would wear or say? No man could possibly document the madness that was his normal day. Still he came across as a man of religion and wisdom with insights divinely inspired by his beloved shrooms. His long white beard and hair made Rick look like a holy man from another time.
He waved his oak staff at them in greeting as they approached.
“You weren’t kidding,” Lenny whispered.
“Have you come to see my sticky, stinky, rewards of hard labor from Mother Earth?” Rick asked.
“You got it, bro!” Rafter laughed, hugged him, and they dapped furiously. “This here’s my best friend Lenny.”
“The ‘what should be’ never did exist, but people keep trying to live up to it. There is no ‘what should be,’ there is only what is,” Rick greeted him. “Do you know who said that?”
“I’m afraid I don’t,” Lenny confessed.
“Lenny Bruce! Lenny…meet Lenny! I’m Rick and I’ll be your host today,” he chortled happily. “Are you experienced?” He fished a shriveled shroom from his leather fanny pack.
Rafter smiled as Lenny accepted a piece from Rick. It looked like they were off to a good start.
Chapter 27 – The Waiting Game
Growing up, there always seemed to be rules. Smokey always got sick of them. He could go along with any program up to a point, but rules were made to be broken in his world. That was all he knew. It wasn’t like a little voice told him to be bad. Or cruel. Or mean. He was who he was, and that person would never be a boy scout.
People thought he was a weak, stupid little man with no will power, but they couldn’t see his inside his head. He was really very clever. Little things, like morals, never troubled him. He was a creative thinker who didn’t need to read books to be smart.
Just because he never graduated from high school didn’t make him an idiot. He had to
leave early. There was no choice. It was run away from home or die. People didn’t understand that. Even his dear brother didn’t understand that. He was too busy being sanctimonious and popular in school when Smokey ran away.
As Smokey sprayed fertilizer on the pot garden, he shivered in anticipation. It wasn’t because of the rain. That didn’t bother him. He was used to it. After years on the streets, rain was part of his life. It was miserable, but not unbearable. Smiley said they were having a wetter than usual year, but that didn’t bother him.
After five months of back-breaking work, Smokey was in the best shape of his life. In another four months he’d be harvesting high grade weed. Hundreds of pounds of weed. They talked about getting at least $1,700 a pound for it like it was nothing! One thing was for sure; he would soon be a very rich man.
He could only guess at how much money the three of them already had in that gigantic safe in the back room of the main house. Yes, he knew all about it. Had for weeks now. It seemed all three of them had keys to that safe. When the time was right, he’d get the keys from one of them. He didn’t know which one yet, for sure. More than likely it would be the weakest. Jenny.
Smokey was smart enough to know this would be a one-time thing. He’d never get a chance like it again in this lifetime. If he played his cards right, he’d end up with enough money to leave the country and start a new life somewhere else. Like Mexico. He always liked warm weather. That was the ticket. He’d go to Acapulco. He’d have beer and tequila all day in his adobe house, and a pretty little senorita to warm his bed at night.
There was one thing he kept in mind at all times; he was dealing with two Vietnam veterans who saw combat and killed people. Smiley had gone from Viet Cong to gangsters without a second thought. Smokey must never forget that. He didn’t stand a chance of winning any kind of fair fight with either of them.
His plan called for stealth. Not violence. No shootout at the OK Corral. He’d leave that approach to the Dirty Harry’s of the world. Not him. He’d steal the money and run like a rabbit. No tough stuff. Patience would pay off. He’d know when the time came to make his move.
Meanwhile, he planned to work hard and try not to say anything stupid. That was a challenge, especially when he and Smiley were drinking Jack Daniels. They both tended to drink until happily plastered. Smokey never drank as much as Smiley, however. Sometimes when it was just the two of them, Smokey tried to plant seeds of discord between the partners. He’d hinted that Rafter had eyes for Jenny. Smokey hadn’t taken the bait yet, and staunchly defended his best friend. Even though his feelings for Jenny had changed, he still felt proprietary toward her. Almost like a good luck charm.
Rafter seldom drank with them, and didn’t seem to enjoy it when he did. They all smoked pot at every opportunity. This was a real plus for Smokey, who after all, was just a stoner at heart.
During the months when the men tended to the gardens in the hills, Jenny only saw them briefly each day. Once in the early morning, and once late in the day. Sometimes one of them would come back to the house to get something they needed. Or if they had to go into town on business.
She would have been bored to death if not for Sundance and his spirited personality. He seldom sat in one place for long. He was always on the move, even when watching TV. He’d squirm around on the couch or chair like an eel looking for a meal. His favorite position was upside down. He liked doing hand stands on the living room furniture.
Jenny didn’t like the look in Smokey’s eyes. His skinny arms and legs were too long for his short bulky torso and made him look like Golem from the Lord of the Rings. It didn’t help that he was prematurely bald with ragged tufts of brown hair stiffly jutting from his uneven skull.
His beady rat-black eyes never stopped swiveling in his head. His beard was thin and
scraggly, a series of wispy, uneven patches on leathery cheeks caused by long hours of exposure to the elements. A wart on his right cheek sprouted two thick black hairs.
He wore a pair of faded jeans and a black Led Zeppelin T-Shirt that read “Stairway To Heaven“ on the back. Her skin crawled when he lightly shook her hand with his clammy one after Smiley introduced him.
Rafter accepted this new person into their midst without question. He tried not to judge Smokey by his looks and listened carefully as Smiley introduced him. Hopefully, things would work out with this new guy and Smiley would have a partner when Rafter departed.
He was surprised at Smokey’s firm grip when they shook hands. Smokey was stronger than he looked. Smokey put on his best behavior and tried to charm everyone with his lopsided toothy grin. He gave Jenny the creeps, and that was that.
Sundance, who normally came up to newcomers readily, was wary of Smokey, and hid behind his mother’s tie-dyed dress when Smokey bent to shake his hand. The clincher was when Mogli, the world’s friendliest dog, growled and took up a position next to Sundance.
It was agreed that Smokey would stay in the drying shed. Smiley led him to an area with a cot, footlocker, and a three-paneled screen for privacy. A folding table and a lantern sat next to the cot. There was a space heater and stack of blankets for warmth. It was a working man’s place to sleep and nothing more. He would eat his meals in the house with the others.
Even with her entertaining son always at her side, Jenny experienced loneliness that made her sad. She felt her life was on hold, waiting for others to do their things, and her sense of solitude was so great at times she wept for no apparent reason.
Her heart knew why she wasn’t happy. She didn’t have a best friend and lover anymore. Smiley had stopped seeking sex from her and seemed content to lead another life entirely. She knew he was having sex with others, because she knew his strong libido. They didn’t talk about the subject.
Meanwhile, she had to slow her heartbeat every time she saw Rafter. He was always so kind and respectful. So good with Sundance. So fun to be with. So warm and understanding. She wanted so much to go into his room at night and comfort him when he moaned during his nightmares. They had started again when they began planting five months ago.
She couldn’t help but fantasize what life would be like if she and Rafter were a couple. He would want to marry her, she was sure. But he was loyal to his friend Smiley and kept a safe distance. She wondered why life had to be so complicated.
Chapter 28 – Smokey Makes His Move
Sgt. Borgalac kept asking Rafter for his canteen of Scotch. His shattered face gleamed wetly under the full
moon’s light. Sprawled out on the ground, without ears, eyes, and
genitals, Hansen lay in a growing pool of blood in the middle of an alley. Suddenly he sat up and pointed at Rafter. “Where were you buddy? I didn’t stand a chance?”
Rafter screamed so hard he fell out of bed! But he didn’t come to his senses. Still wrapped in his nightmare, he got up off the hardwood floor and lunged across the room. He began swinging his arms and making contact with walls and a lamp on the dresser, which he sent flying off into the dark room.
The shattering lamp woke Sundance and he immediately began to cry. Jenny jumped out of bed and ran to Sundance’s room. Her mother’s instinct blindly led her to him. She held him close. A wail of anguish startled her, until she realized it came from Rafter’s room.
Out in the drying shed, Smiley and Smokey were working on their second bottle of Jack Daniels. As usual, Smiley wasn’t holding his liquor as well as Smokey. He was nearly blind drunk. Smokey had drunk more than usual and was feeling reckless. Maybe it was because he felt so physically strong. Maybe it was because he hadn’t been laid in months.
“So you see the way she looks at him?” Smokey asked.
“What the hell are you talking about? The way who looks at who?”
Too drunk to back down, Smokey went on, ’Jenny of course. Your old lady. She gives
Rafter that look a lot.”
“Look a lot?”
“You know what I mean. That look. Where you want someone to have sex with you.”
“Sex? Who? You mean Rafter and Jenny? I told you before they’re just friends.”
“Hell yes. Are you blind or what? I bet she’s been doing him when you’re not around for years now. They must have been laughing out loud behind your back all along. Hell, I’ll bet Sundance is his kid!”
“The hell you say…”
“Listen…I didn’t want to bring this up again, but your partner has been plowing your ground for years.”
Smiley stood up and shook his head as if to clear it. Then he raised the bottle of Jack Daniels and took a hearty slug. “We’ll see about that,” he said, slurring the words. He stumbled towards the main house.
Jenny was so proud of Sundance. Once she explained to him that Rafter was having a bad nightmare, he settled back down in his bed. Then she was able to go into Rafter’s room and check on him.
He was leaning against the wall, head down and sobbing, when she came into his room. Without thinking, she went up to him, wrapped her arms around him, and gave him a hug. He kept sobbing. She held him close and felt his terrified heart beating in his chest.
Smiley walked into the room! Snarling like an animal he awkwardly lunged across the room and barreled into them! Jenny fell backward and Rafter wobbled around, but kept his feet. They embraced like two enraged bears and thrashed around the room. Rafter bigger and stronger, broke loose and threw a combination of punches that knocked Smiley down and nearly out.
He’d never been hit so hard in his life! His jaw felt like it was broken and he was
sucking air between what he was sure were broken ribs. Unable to stand, he waited for more punishment. Rafter staggered around the room throwing his arms around like windmills. They hit the wall, the chest of drawers and paddled at the air furiously. Then Smiley saw the blank sleepwalker eyes and knew what was going on in a flash of understanding.
Rafter was having one of his damn nightmares!
He stopped and sagged against a wall. Jenny came up to him and hugged him. Smiley was suddenly sober as he looked at the panting, tortured soul before him and realized his mistake. Jenny was between them, facing Rafter, softly speaking words of understanding and assurance. She looked over her shoulder once at Smiley and saw that he understood what really was happening.
Jenny knew he was drunk again and spending too much time with that snake Smokey. She instinctively knew Smokey was to blame for this incident. She felt no pity for Smiley, and wasn‘t concerned about his injuries. She had stopped feeling anything good about him a long time ago.
Clutching his side, Smiley got up and walked out of the room burning with shame at his stupidity. He went straight to the drying shed to see Smokey. Despite the pain in his ribs and jaw, he kicked Smokey’s ass around the shed almostly leisurely, inflicting pain and then taking a swig from a bottle of Jack Daniels, before continuing the beat down. It lasted for an hour before Smiley passed out drunk. He should have tied Smokey up or run him off the property. It was too late for that. Smiley was deep in his drunken sleep when the shotgun roared.
He was lying on his stomach and his back was suddenly turned into a bloody mess! Smokey looked down at the ragged flesh and the growing pool of blood and felt a warm rush in his loins.
Something had snapped inside him after the beating. For the first time in his life he was ready to take someone else’s life. He’d known where Smiley kept the old 12- gauge shotgun in the drying shed, the one they sometimes let him use when they were out tending the gardens. The beating had sent him over the edge. He got the 12-gauge, shot Smiley, and turned his attention to the house.
He could barely walk, he was so sore. His eyes were so swollen and he had to squint through slits to see. After shooting Smiley, he grabbed a pocket full of shells and hobbled toward the main house.
Jenny couldn’t stop Rafter from leaving the house. His hallicinations had taken over and he was somewhere in Southeast Asia running from an invisible enemy. She didn’t follow him out of the house because of Sundance.
She heard a shotgun blast outside. Reacting instantly, she ran to grab Sundance. Next she ran to her room and grabbed the .38 caliber Smith & Wesson she kept in the dresser drawer beside her bed. She slipped it into the pocket of her robe and ran to the back door. Mogli followed them.
The adrenaline pouring through Smokey’s system was better than the best Meth he’d ever had. It made heroin look tame. He could see how people got addicted to this pleasurable rush that came when you killed someone. Shooting Smiley had turned his monster loose, and now he stalked the others with eager anticipation. His time had come.
Jenny took Sundance and Mogli to the “hideout.” It was a concealed bunker the three partners had built for protection a couple of years ago. If you didn’t know it was there, you’d pass the hideout because it was well camouflaged. There were cots and camping gear stashed inside. Several folding chairs stood next to them. A complex air exchange and duct system was cleverly concealed from the outside.
There were boxes of C-rations and plastic jugs of water in the bunker, along with a battery radio, a 20 gallon tank of propane for the camp stove, and stacks of magazines to read. There were three battery powered lanterns and a box of flares. A small round wooden table sat in the center of the room.
She was starting to doubt herself for running to the bunker when she heard Smokey’s voice, “Hey! Don’t be shy! It’s just me…come on out! I just want to play with you guys. Don’t you like to play games Sundance?” Jenny put a hand over Mogli’s mouth, but he didn’t resist. It was like he understood he had to be quiet.
Smokey couldn’t see where they were and was hoping they hadn’t gone too far. That they were still within range of his voice. He didn’t feel like chasing them right now. He was feeling the effects of the beating. It was still dark out and he needed something for the pain.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be back in a little while,” he called at the treeline where he supposed
they had disappeared. He still had one more thing to attend to before hunting Jenny and her brat down. That crazy bastard Rafter was roaming around somewhere.
He went back to the main house and started up the steps to the front door. He heard a moan. He froze and listened closely. There it was again! Someone was under the house and it had to be Rafter. He backtracked and looked at the wooden skirting surrounding the house.
It became a game. He got down on all fours, crept up to the intricate lattice work and peeked under the house. “Come out, come out wherever you are!” he called.
At first there was no sound and he wondered if he’d imagined the groan? Then he heard it! Another groan. He saw movement from that direction, “I’ve got you now, you son of a bitch!” he shouted, firing the shotgun!
Rafter howled in pain when the shot struck his hip! He was still in the clutches of his hallucinations and didn’t know who he was. He was stuck between reality and the mother of all nightmares. He had no idea who would want to shoot him. Only his survival instincts could help him now. He didn’t move despite the horrendous pain and slowed his breathing.
Smokey, who pumped another shell into the breech, peered through the wood work and saw Rafter’s outline clearly against the first rays of morning light. He wasn’t moving. Damn! This killing stuff was fun! He had no idea how easy it was. Who would have thought? He wondered if there was any beer in the house? He was thirsty.
Rafter heard footsteps above him and knew his attacker was inside the house. Animal instinct told him he had to move now. To get help. He was bleeding profusely. Ignoring the pain, he crawled to an opening in the lattice work and pulled himself through onto the wet grass.
He stopped crawling once and looked at the sunrise heralding a new day with shades of pink and orange at the skyline. Memories stirred. Names rattled around in his head. Lenny. Rick. Jenny. Who were they? Then instinct took over again and he crawled toward the tree line.
Jenny knew she couldn’t stay in the hideout forever. By now, she suspected Smokey had shot Smiley. She tried not to think about him dead. She had no idea where Rafter was, or if he was still alive. She had heard another shot hours ago and suspected Smokey had shot him too. That 12-gauge made a distinct sound. She prayed Rafter wasn’t dead. It just wouldn’t be fair. There was so much she wanted to say to him.
Sundance agreed it wouldn’t be fair when she shared her thoughts with him. With four-year old wisdom, he assured her everything was going to be all right, and he would look out for her. She smiled at him and thought he looked like a little angel with his golden locks. Then she slipped her hand into her robe pocket and held the pistol for reassurance.
Chapter 29 – Death in the Redwoods
Rick knew something was wrong when Rafter didn’t show up for the morning sweat. He was over an hour late. Not like Rafter. It was a special sweat, too. Lenny’s first, and he needed Rafter’s guidance. After smoking a joint with Lenny, Rick shared his concerns and they agreed to go to Smiley’s house and see what was going on.
Once Rafter was in a heavily forested spot surrounding with brush he stopped crawling through the old growth redwood. He leaned his head back against a tree and looked up and thought he saw infinity before passing out from loss of blood.
Jenny cautiously led Sundance out of the hideout and toward Rick’s ranch. She didn’t know where else to go. They’d gone a short way when she noticed something strange; bloody drag marks on the ground. She was no woodsman, but after several years of walking around these hills she had learned to recognize animal sign. And blood trails!
All her senses went into overdrive as she carefully followed the blood-speckled drag marks. Minutes passed before she found Rafter. A shaft of sunlight broke through the canopy overhead and illuminated his pale face. She feared she was too late and had to fight back tears as she knelt down and felt his neck for a pulse.
He was alive, but barely. Then she saw the gunshot wound to his thigh. The lower half of his body was soaked with his lifeblood. She felt his thigh until she found a gaping hole still seeping blood. She tore pieces of cloth from his t-shirt to tie above the wounded area to staunch the bleeding, and to plug the hole.
Sundance watched with wide eyes and softly called out Rafter’s name. Tears ran down his chubby cheeks as he watched Jenny work. He loved Rafter. He knew his Mommy did too. Rafter had to be okay. If only he would wake up!
Smokey walked slowly. His whole body hurt and it pissed him off. He had just finished drinking a six pack of Budweiser to keep his buzz going. It was daylight outside and time to finish off this little drama. He would have to get the safe key before he killed Jenny, and thought he could manage that by threatening Sundance. What chance did a woman and a child have against him? They couldn’t have far. He expected to find them soon. He cradled the shotgun in
one arm like the hunters he saw on TV. Maybe he’d take up hunting after he resettled in Mexico. Of course, it would never be as pleasurable as this hunting expedition. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. No doubt about. He probably should take pictures of the dead to prove he was a bad ass dude, so when he got older and his memory wasn’t as sharp, he could look at them.
That made him chuckle. He entered the forest. He’d had time to think about it. This was the way to the ranch where their crazy friend Rick lived and he knew Jenny would try to get help. He knew the way. He’d gone with Smiley and Rafter to visit the crazy coot several times. A crude trail wound through the hills right to Rick’ s house. Even a city boy like Smokey could find it again.
There was one other important thing Smokey knew. A concealed bunker he had discovered in his wanderings. One day he saw Smiley disappear into a thicket with a bag and return shortly thereafter empty handed. Being clever and curious, Smokey investigated and, after hours of looking he discovered the bunkers location. He had kept that knowledge to himself .
Now, as he walked through the forest he grew serious and listened closely. They were out here somewhere and he was going to find them. There was still a lot for him to do. He
had to dispose of all the bodies for starters. He went to the bunker first. They weren’t there.
It was almost anti-climatic when he found them. Jenny was tending to Rafter’s wound when he stepped off the trail at the sound of Sundance’s voice. He was surprised to see Rafter after shooting him under the house. Apparently he hadn’t finished the job. What kind of man killer was he, anyway?
“Well, look what we have here.” He mocked them casually waving the 12-
gauge. “Two star-crossed lovers. Looks like lover boy has had it, but I can’t write him off yet. He’s a durable bastard. I’ll take care of him shortly. You and I have some talking to do first. Where’s your key to the safe?”
“Who said I have one?” Jenny stalled.
“Don’t try that with me, girlie. Playing stupid is going to get your son hurt.” He reached out, grabbed Sundance’s arm, and pulled him away from her. Sundance cried out in terror. At the same time Rafter opened his eyes and weakly called out Sundance’s name!
“It’s time for ‘The Price Is Right’ Jenny and if you don’t give me that key your brat is dead!”
“No! Stop! Here it is!” she cried. She pulled a golden chain from her neck with the key dangling from it. “Please! Here!” she pleaded and threw it to him. He lowered the shotgun, Sundance, and deftly caught the chain and key in mid air. Sundance took the opportunity to scamper to Jenny and clutch her leg.
“That was sure easy, Jenny. Just to show my appreciation, I’ll kill you before I kill your brat. You know, so you won’t have to see me make cottage cheese out of him! This really has been a great experience but…”
The zing of a Winchester is recognizable to gun aficionados. One barked three times and Smokey staggered around like a puppet whose strings had been cut loose. Blood blossomed on his back and he clutched his chest. The shotgun slipped from his nerveless fingers to the forest floor and he sunk down groaning.
Smiley spit a gob of phlegm at Smokey’s still twitching body and stood there with his Winchester. His left arm hung loosely by his side. He watched Smokey die, gurgling in his own blood, with contempt.
In the distance they heard the roar of Rick’s Jeep. As it came closer, they could hear Lenny calling Rafter’s name. Rafter, whose head was nestled in Jenny’s lap, looked up at Smiley and weakly asked, “What took you so long to get here, bro?”
Chapter 30 – Dr. Harold West
It fell on Jenny to care for the two wounded men. She managed to get them into the back seats of the crew-cab with help from Rick and Lenny.
She put Sundance’s in the front. Mogli rode between them. It was a bumpy road and the men groaned in spite of themselves. Sundance was silent. Something unusual for him. Normally a chatter box, he had trouble saying what was going on in his head. He’d seen a man die violently. His world had changed. It was no longer safe and he was afraid. Mogli, who normally would have been yapping playfully, seemed to pick up the mood and lay quietly on the seat.
Jenny’s true character came to the fore as she took charge and maintained her calm.
“We need a story,” she said.
Smiley agreed out loud, but Rafter merely nodded, drifting in and out of consciousness.
“How about a hunting accident?” Smiley ventured.
“How would that work?” Jenny asked.
“We can say that while deer hunting Rafter and I were directly across from each other at one point – by accident of course – and both shot at the same buck.”
“I don’t know. You have a .30 -.30 Winchester and Rafter was hit by a 12-gage shotgun. There’s a big difference in the wounds.”
“We can say I had the shotgun and Rafter had the Winchester.”
“What about your wound? You were hit by a shotgun too.”
“We both had shotguns?”
“For hunting deer?”
“Well hell Jenny, I’m trying…”
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to give you a hard time Smiley, but we need a plausible story for the authorities. Hospitals always report gun wounds.”
“Wait a minute? Why go to a hospital? Nothing but questions there. I know a doctor in Garberville who has his own practice. He’s a friend. A fellow Nam vet. I bet he’d help us out.”
“Okay…where does he live?”
It was light outside when they pulled up in front of a small house in a tree-lined neighborhood off the main drag of Garberville. A sign hung on a stand in the middle of the well-trimmed lawn, “Dr. Harold West.” That was all the information on it. No hours or days. The dark green letters stood out sharply on the white backround.
Jenny reached back and gently shook Rafter, who had dozed off. Smiley stared at the front door of the house, his expression unreadable.
“I’ll take it from here,” he said.
The loss of blood was taking it’s toll. Smiley had trouble standing after he got out of the truck. He tried to clear his head and recall all he knew about Dr. Harold West. He was content to have a small practice with one secretary. He was secretive and had few friends. Smiley was lucky to be one of the chosen few.
He had been a Marine, stationed in a hospital in De Nang. During the 1968 Tet Offensive. Viet Cong fighters broke into the hospital and slaughtered 18 bed-ridden men. He personally helped fight off the attackers and killed two of them.
Smiley met him at a friend’s house, a grower, and they hit it off. Harold, whose soft voice was relaxing, was the complete opposite of Smiley, whose voice reverberated loudly in any room. Rumors were that Harold often treated people outside of the law. He gave “private practice” a new meaning by never advertising and seldom taking regular patients.
Smiley steadied himself against the wood door frame and knocked. Noticing a buzzer, he pushed it too. He heard a rustling inside and suddenly the front door
opened. Harold asked, “What happened Smiley?
“Need help. My friend too. Bad scene. No cops.”
Harold’s eyes, wide with surprise, suddenly blinked. His expression became guarded. Then he looked at Smiley’s side and all the blood. A silent decision was made.
“Get in here quick. I don’t have any patients today. What about your friend?”
“Outside in the pickup truck.”
“Go into the bathroom and wait for me. I’ll be right back.”
Outside Harold saw the pickup and its three occupants. Not just one friend in need. He broke out in a sweat and walked up to the driver’s side.
“Smiley said someone else is hurt,” he said without an introduction.
Jenny gave him a weak smile and opened the door.
“In the back seat.”
Harold looked in on Rafter and saw blood from the waist down. His head hung low, chin on chest, and his breathing was rapid and irregular.
“Can you help me get him inside?”
Together they got Rafter to his feet. He came to, blinked his eyes and groaned in pain. Despite his misery, he was aware of a new person in the picture and a strange house. They managed to hold him up, and they struggled inside. Jenny went back to fetch Sundance and Mogli.
Chapter 31 – Clean Up
Rick and Lenny worked silently and steadily, deepening the hole which would receive Smokey’s remains. Lenny felt as though he had stepped into a horror movie. Part of his brain screamed, “I’m burying a dead man! A bloody and bloated dead man! How can this be happening?”
When the hole reached a depth of four feet, they stopped. They lifted the body and tossed it into the grave. They took a break for a few minutes before filling in the hole. Violent death was a new experience for Lenny. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and stared down at the crumpled body. Rick, who’d seen the handiwork of war, was unfazed by the deadly turn of events.
Suddenly Rick spoke, “This asshole is why you have to be careful,” he warned.
Lenny was surprised at Rick’s outburst and nodded his head, timidly agreeing to whatever Rick meant.
“It was a bad call, bringing that shifty-eyed bastard on to help. I was surprised when Smiley told me about him. He hardly knew the jerk! I predicted trouble. I sure hate it when I’m right like this,” Rick said.
Without another word, Rick picked up a shovel and tossed it to Lenny, who was regretting his involvement in the cover up. They filled the hole with dark rich earth and tamped it down with their boots. Then they picked up nearby leaves and twigs and scattered them over the earth. Rick relieved himself on the grave site in a final show of distain.
As they drove back to Rick’s place, both men were silent, buried in their thoughts. Rick’s normal paranoia was grew with every mile. Visions of law enforcement officers searching the mountain for Smokey danced through his fevered brain like imps in hell. How far would they look? Would they come looking for him at all?
Lenny tried to re-normalize his world. It was shaken badly. He had become accessory to murder when he helped bury Smokey. The thought tortured him. He didn’t mind being on the other side of the law when it came to selling pot, but this new development was more than he ever bargained for. He glanced at Rick lean face. A blank slate. Whatever was going on behind those dark eyes was carefully concealed.
When they finally pulled up the house, Rick broke the silence. “Just how fast can you move my pot?”
Chapter 32 – Raid
A month passed as Rafter and Smiley recovered from their wounds. Jenny kept things moving. She cleaned the house and made their meals. She came up with little odd jobs that both men could handle in their weakened conditions.
Sundance chased Mogli around the yard in the waning light of the day. In the drying shed, Rafter and Smiley recounted the pounds of pot. Each was wrapped in plastic and tagged with a number.
“That’s 174 pounds right?” Smiley asked.
“We can’t count on your buddy Lenny to help us get rid of these because he’s too busy bossing Rick’s smoke. Looks like you and I have to play salesman again.”
“There it is. I’m think of selling mine out-of-state. I’m also thinking of moving out of the state. The magic of Humboldt County is gone for me. I need to escape these new ghosts we’ve created,” Rafter said.
“So when do you plan on making your move?” Smiley asked.
“Soon. Not quite sure when, but soon…”
Rafter straightened up and stretched as he stacked the last pound on the pallet. He limped over to the side door and stopped for a moment. “Are you coming?” he asked Smiley. Suddenly both men froze.
Every combat veteran knows the whopping sound the UH- 1 Gunship-Transport Huey helicopter makes. They brought you down in the middle of hell and were there when it was time to go back. The sound of the rotor blades caused a different reaction in the two men. Smiley listened intently, weighing options, and wondering who was going to visit them. He was outwardly calm and calculating.
In Rafter’s head he was in one of a dozen slicks, each carrying 11 men, flying over the Song Ve Valley. His squad was aboard one of the helicopters. The Hueys dropped, one by one, down to an open area between stretches of jungle. They didn’t know it, but they were landing on a hornet’s nest.
Rafter’s eyes glazed over and Smiley heard him shout, “Hey! I’m an American! Look at me! Look at me!” He raised his arms to the sky pleading to be picked up. Smiley wasn’t sure what to do with him. It was obvious he was having another flashback. The whopping sounds got louder.
On the other side of the mountain Rick stopped watering his plants and looked up at
the rapidly darkening sky. His sharp old eyes spotted movements on the dim horizon, then his ears picked up the familiar whopping sound. He sighed. Part of him had expected this day to come. The day when the government made its move.
“Probably DEA…” he told Lenny, who was watching him tend the plants. A blank look came over Lenny’s face and he looked up into the sky. “What the hell?” he replied.
“Here comes trouble. C’mon. Follow me, we haven’t got much time.”
The two men ran headlong towards the house. Rick moved surprisingly fast. Faster than Lenny had ever seen him move. Rick was more a mystery than ever.
Leading the way, Rick burst through the front door and ran to his room in the rear of the house. Lenny stopped in the living room and listened to the increasingly loud noise overhead. His normally pale face was now chalk white. Who was coming? He hadn’t clearly heard what Rick said.
Rick reappeared holding two M-16s and two bandoleers with extra clips of ammunition. He casually tossed a bandoleer to Lenny, who stood petrified in the middle of the room. Smiling broadly, he asked, Have you ever fired a rifle? Lenny’s head swiveled from side to side as he tried to speak. His mouth felt stuffed with cotton.
“Don’t worry about it, my man, these things are really easy to use.”
He offered him one of the M-16s. Woodenly, Lenny reached out and took it, surprised at how light it was. He couldn’t seem to form words.
Rick studied him for a moment.
“Well, it’s up to you partner. I’m going out and defend my crops from these invaders. These people shoot and then ask questions. Government sanctioned killers. DEA. I’ve heard rumors for over a year that a task force was forming. Looks like they’re ready to play. I’m outa here…”
Lenny dropped the M-16. Lucky for him, it wasn’t loaded. He threw the bandoleer down and looked around for a place to hide in the house. He told himself that if he survived this situation he was done with selling pot. The whole scene had turned into a major bummer.
Back at Smiley’s drying shed Rafter suddenly came to himself. He realized the helicopters meant trouble right now and hobbled as fast as he could on his bum hip to the house. Jenny stood at the front door looking skyward.
“Get Sundance and Mogli! Quick! To the bunker!” he shouted. Jenny instantly responded and went back inside the house. Rafter followed as best as he could. Jenny found Mogli and took him in her arms. Sundance ran to her and they went out the back door. Rafter stopped just outside the house and looked around. Where had Smiley gone? What was he doing? No time to find out. The tree tops bent under the force of the helicopter blades. He turned and followed Jenny into the trees.
Smiley threw the last gas can aside and took out a book of matches. He’d saturated the barn – with their precious marijuana – in gasoline. He paused before throwing the match and thought about the money the weed represented. Gone now.
There was no other choice. If they didn’t find his pot they couldn’t bust him and take
his land away. Or his freedom. He lit a match and let it fall on the pile of hay in the center of the barn. Took a few more steps and struck another match, and another…
Rick watched the first of the two helicopters land near his Jeep. They were both black with no markings. The men who poured out of them wore black and had DEA stenciled on their armored vests. Inside the house, Lenny was terrified. He jumped out a side window and ran towards the nearest trees. He wondered what the popping sounds were.
The first two off the helicopter spun around, clutched their shattered helmets and fell. Rick’s .33 caliber hunting rifle used bullets with 250 grains of gunpowder. Enough to stop a charging Rhino, or shatter a plastic helmet like it wasn’t there.
The remaining six agents scattered. Rick withheld his fire while they poured hundreds of rounds in his direction. The Redwood tree he was hiding behind gave him great protection. Rick might not have been a combat veteran, but he grew up hunting and was a crack shot.
Five hundred yards away, to the south, Lenny lay down on his stomach in some dense ferns near the stump of an old Redwood tree. He figured out what the popping sounds were when he saw the muzzle flashes and a stream of red tracers stitching the growing darkness. He began to pray in earnest.
Rick retreated on his belly, snaking through ferns and thick undergrowth, until he was 50 yards south of his original position. He took up a sitting position in a strand of young spruce pines and waited.
He didn’t have to wait long. The agents also moved about and two had him spotted. They fired in his direction as he squeezed off a shot. One of the agents dropped his weapon and fell forward. Rick took two slugs in his chest and rolled over.
He couldn’t feel his fingers or move but he was still breathing. He was on his back and saw the stars between the giant trees surrounding them. A smile broke out on his face. He tried to say something to the men who gathered around him, pointing their weapons.
Time stood still as a rivulet of blood dripped from the corner of his mouth. He croaked once. One of the agents leaned over as if to hear his last words. Then one word came out, clear and strong, “Pig!” The sound of gunfire filled the night.
Hyper alert Lenny heard him speak. It sounded like “Pig.” Then more gunfire. It was more than he could bear. He curled up into a ball in the dense vegetation and prayed no one would find him. He fell asleep from sheer exhaustion after several hours of pure terror.
Chapter 32 – New Starts
Kalispell, Montana – Rafter, Jenny, Sundance, and Mogli settled in for another winter of snow-oriented activities including snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and touring. A year had passed since the raid and not one word from Smiley.
Thanks to Jenny’s aunt Susan, they had found a place far away from Humboldt County. An old boyfriend of hers had agreed to sell his luxury lodge in Kalispell. They wouldn’t be giving up anything in the scenic beauty department, he assured Jenny and Rafter.
They lived close to Glacier National Park which contained a particularly rich biological diversity of plant and animal species. Their new neighborhood was 10,000 foot peaks, alpine meadows, lakes and streams, and nearly 50 glaciers. Getting used to the temperatures proved to be a challenge at first.
Money was no object. Most of Jenny’s money from their grows had been in three banks. She did lose some cash and all of her jewelry to whoever took their house safe in the raid. Rafter was in even better financial shape. Trusty Lenny had put his cash in two safe deposit boxes. When he called a week after the raid Lenny answered his home phone in southern California. He’d escaped and swore off selling pot. He was concentrating on his grades in college. He’d managed to save enough money to pay his way through college to a masters degree in business, if he so desired.
“You know they killed Rick,” Rafter told him.
“Yeah. I read the story. It’s one of the many reasons why I’m going legit, Rafter. I’d advise you to do the same.”
“No problem there. I promised Jenny to walk the straight and narrow when we move.”
Rafter had called from Jenny‘s Aunt Susan’s house in Ferndale. After the call, he drove to Lenny’s house in a car rented by Jenny’s aunt. It took eleven hours, with two stops for gas.
The two old friends drank a bottle of 19-year old scotch and talked about old times for hours.
“You’re going to stay in touch with me, aren’t you?” Lenny asked, refilling Rafter’s shot class.
“Of course. It’s not like I have all that many friends,” Rafter chided. “Seriously, you’re like a brother to me. I plan on having many good times ahead.”
The next day they went to the safe deposit boxes and emptied them. They hugged. Rafter got in his rented car and promised to stay in touch. He thought about seeing his parents, then decided against it. Perhaps another time. It would take eleven hours of driving to get back to Humboldt County and he was eager to start his new life.
Two days later Jenny and he bought a brand new Ford F-350 King cab and headed for Montana. Despite all the terrible things that had happened, Jenny was happy. She was with Rafter and that was all that mattered. Nine months after moving into their new home he asked her to marry him.
Lenny and Aunt Susan came to witness their union. It was held in a small church just outside of the Kalispell city limits. Lenny got a surprise phone call before he left for Montana.
Snow blanketed the ground outside the picturesque little church with it’s old fashioned steeple and bell. It was a picture right from a post card. The stained glass windows glowed in the afternoon sun, lighting the interior of the church.
Only three trucks and one car were parked in the church parking lot. Suddenly another truck approached and turned into the parking lot. The driver jumped out and ran for the front door.
It was warm inside the church and Sundance, with Mogli patiently sitting on his lap, sat in the first pew. As the ceremony was about to begin, the preacher asked, “Is there anyone here who objects to this marriage?”
Suddenly, the church door burst open and a tall, red bearded man with blue eyes hurried down the aisle. The preacher stopped short and watched him with a wary eye. All eyes turned to him as he approached the altar.
“I’m in time, right?” Smiley said with a stern look.
The tense silence that followed was palpable. The preacher, an older man with a long white beard, looked at Rafter and then Smiley, trying to gauge the situation.
Jenny looked at Rafter and then Smiley. Rafter watched Smiley intently, searching for an expression that would tip off his mood.
The silence was finally broken, Smiley asked, “Can I be the best man?”