A Vietnam Vet

My sister-in-law is dealing with Hurricane Harvey and the flooding. While nowhere near as devastating, I was reminded of the first flood I went through after moving to the woods. Which reminded me of the first Vietnam vet I met.

Flooding in this area hits hard and fast. Whitewater rivers are forced between canyons and boulders and drop steeply, unlike the farming area where I grew up. There, the water rises slowly and spreads out, and sticks around. A whitewater flood takes trees and houses and roads, and then drops fast.

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Someone’s trailer a couple days after a flood

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Our road after a flood widened it

This first one flooded the road I lived on. The road is two lanes through the forest with no shoulders and just big trees up to the edges. It was night as I came home and out there it’s pitch black at night. No streetlights or house lights. Just my headlights in the little Subaru Justy, reflecting off moving water.

I got out of the car to see if I could tell how deep the water was, or if I could make it across. There were tree branches floating in the reflected light. As I stood there in the dark, a big man came out of the trees and stepped up beside me.

“I don’t think you’re going to make it,” he said.

I seem to remember being frozen, probably not even breathing.

“But I’ll go across and check for you.”

And off he went, wading through the moving water, followed by a dog that also came out of the trees.

On the other side, he raised a flashlight, waving me forward, and disappeared back into the trees. I drove across slowly, with water sloshing up high on the car, knees shaking, wondering if that had really just happened.

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The river on a calm summer day. See those rocks in the back? They’re underwater in a flood.

He lived rough somewhere in the woods during those years. I regularly came across him, with his dog Katie, when I’d be out walking old logging roads or trails. He’d materialize from the trees, share my company for a bit, and then fade away.

Most times he was in this world. But occasionally something would send him back there, back into that war. One time it was a small airplane flying over. He told me not to be worried, that it wouldn’t stand up against his anti-aircraft missiles, and pulled out this huge old revolver.

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The logging road where the revolver was pulled.

Living off-grid at the time, we had an outhouse. Since I was the only one living there, and the views of mountains and ridge were beautiful, I rarely shut the door.

Until the day, out walking with him, and he told me he’d found an old trail that crossed the ridge above my place, and how he could see our whole place from up there.

I closed the door after that.

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The ridge. The outhouse was on the other side of the cabin.

 

Eventually, someone got Veteran’s Affairs involved, and he was set up with counseling and resources, and even a little house in a nearby town. I missed him stepping out of the woods and walking with me.

One day, a couple years later, I was ‘down below’ at a grocery store and here he was, still big and bushy-bearded, pushing a cart. I saw people looking sideways at this man. I saw how they sidled away from him when he came right up to me and said ‘do you know me?’.

Of course I knew him. I gave him a big hug, asked after Katie, who was elderly and waiting in his friend’s car. I asked about his little house, which he thought was okay most of the time. But some days, he said, he had to get out into the woods.

I left, wondering if he’d found someone else to walk with out there, or if he remained in solitude with his past.

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Laughter

I know I need to do some posts about the craft of writing, but I heard some laughing yesterday. My son and I were grocery shopping. Oddly enough, this is something that he and I enjoy doing together. We have continuous debates as we shop. This one was a question a friend had posed – does silence equal consent? But I’m not thinking serious debates at the moment; I’m thinking about that laughter.

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As we came through the freezer section, I heard full-on, unrestrained belly laughter from a little boy. And I heard a man saying, in a thick Southern accent, ‘oh no, we’re gonna crash!’. Sure enough, here was a dad pushing a cart with a toddler in the seat. I had to laugh right along with them. I told the man that my son and I used to do the same thing, then pointed to my ‘little toddler’ who was hucking a heavy bag of dog food for me. The man said, in that lovely accent, ‘Big guy, helpin’ his mama’.

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The brief episode, besides being fun, got me wondering when we lose that freedom to let loose with laughter out in public. Children seem so unrestrained in their joy. Do we laugh like that, even at home? Do we, as adults, find the same joy in little things?

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Personally, my husband is the only one who can make me laugh until the tears come and the stomach muscles ache. Most people see the gruff, sometimes scruffy guy who doesn’t like being around people. But at home? He makes me laugh.

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I’m sure part of this lack of unrestrained happiness is training. As we get older we absorb all those messages to be quiet, to sit still, to not be disruptive out in public. Another part is that as we age, life is no longer full of new discoveries. I get all that. But I miss the free-flowing laughter.

The episode at the store also got me thinking about laughter in writing. The ways to describe laughing until you ache and can’t breathe versus softer giggles, or the smile on the outside when you’re laughing on the inside. I do that, by the way, when online. Something will be funny but I’ll only laugh on the inside. I have a co-worker that has no shame – who’ll laugh out loud at something she sees on Facebook. Do I get annoyed, feel interrupted, think she’s being disruptive? No. I get up, go see what she’s laughing at, and then laugh, too. Maybe not the cut-loose and let the laugh rip, but I’m still having fun.

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The co-worker and her daughter meeting their first Irish Wolfhound

I want children to keep laughing and remind us to do the same. I want to remember how it was when everything was never-before-seen and still full of magic.

And by the way, my son laughed at the store, too. He told me he remembered those times in the shopping cart, and how his dad would make the cart wobble, or sometimes let the cart float free for a few seconds. So at least we keep the memories even when we have learned to be more restrained in public.

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I couldn’t, though, get my son to agree to get back in the cart to see if he still fit.

Arthur, Sorka Barclay Lake