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.
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.
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.
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.
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.