Saturday, May 16, 2009

Diner Chats

Were it not for the “Vietnam Veteran” hat he wore, I would have never known he was a vet. Having heard stories here and there about men who, even now, have yet to receive a genuine, unsolicited thank you for their service in Vietnam, I have made it my goal to do my part whenever I encounter one. It’s because I am thankful, and I wish to tell them that although many of their countrymen may have forgotten, we still remember them, and more than most, we know what they’ve endured and how truly devastating their return to the states proved to be. We still owe them for that, and just as many thank you’s as apologies. I walked over, greeted him, extended a hand, and thanked him for his service. He nodded solemnly.

“Were you in the service, too?”

I told him I was, and rattled off the units I served with over the years. He had been with Army Combat Engineers while in Vietnam.

“Actually,” he continued, “I just finished filing some more paperwork with the VA here recently. The local place isn’t helpful, so I went down to Albuquerque where they’re pretty nice. But I haven’t heard anything back since I went there in October. They did a bunch of tests on my knee, screened me for Agent Orange, and also for PSD or whatever they call it. I haven’t gotten the results, though.”

Nor is his case a unique one. By some estimates, the VA is backlogged on processing more than 512,000 veteran claims, many of them from older vets. Perhaps out of guilt for how poorly Vietnam veterans were treated, extensive media coverage of this new conflict, or an aggregation of reasons, OIF and OEF veterans are being pushed to the front of the line at VA facilities – often at the expense of those whose service, though years ago, far exceeded ours. Oddly, however, as he told me this, I caught no trace of anger or frustration in his voice. He seemed resigned to the extensive delays. He shrugged.

“I dunno. They don’t move quickly down there, I know. But I’ve had known a bunch of other guys that tried to get help and were turned away. A lot of them committed suicide. I joined the American Legion in town here to see if they would help me, but they only have about six guys at their post. And they just drink all the time.”

I suggested he join the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), since they had done wonders to expedite my VA filing process.

“I might try that. Maybe the VFW here will help me.” He shrugged again.

I told him how I was embarrassed that OIF/OEF veterans could get rapid claims processing but his generation could not. I also expressed some hope that the VA’s new director and larger budget would help speed up the process for everybody. He didn’t appear terribly hopeful, however. He slowly finished chewing, swallowed, and wiped his mouth.

“Son, I got out of the Army in ’74. We got shit on then, and we get shit on now. I don’t imagine any new director or budget is going to change that. After 35 years, you sorta get used to it.” He went back to his plate of pancakes…

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw All Rights Reserved

Thursday, May 14, 2009

They Remember

Midmorning, the principal announced over the public address system that all classes should adjourn and relocate to the high school auditorium. “We have a special program today.”

The teenagers shut their books, bickered with each other, told jokes, and made their exodus. No doubt they were all going to get in trouble for something they didn’t do.

As they filed into the stadium seating of the auditorium, they immediately quieted. On the stage were a dozen older men, all seated, staring back out into the audience. They were known, mostly: grandfathers and the occasional father. A number wore traditional Navajo jewelry. The turquoise was dazzling against their leathered, sun-darkened skin. They wore their hair long, though it was now graying or completely white, and western-style clothing. Old VFW post hats perched on the heads of two of them, and two more sported ballcaps indicating the military branch of their service. The rest wore t-shirts with military logos. One man, perhaps the youngest of the group, wore a camouflage jacket. They sat in a row on stage and faced the audience quietly. The students, unsure, awkward beneath their gazes and uncomfortable in their stoicism, sat silently and stared back. All of the men were Navajo, or as they prefer it in their original tongue, Diné

An ancient man walked out onto the stage. Stooped and slow moving, he made his way to the single microphone at center stage and paused. He was dressed in full Marine Corps green service alphas, every button shined, his brass buckle polished, and every ribbon and medal stood out starkly against the green fabric over his breast. And there were many of them there, too. His hair, also white, fell over his shoulders and framed a thin, gaunt figure. In a moment, he summoned energy from an unknown internal reservoir and straightened magnificently. He began to speak.

“My name is David Bít’ahnii, and I was code talker. There were approximately 419 of us. We were all Diné recruited by the United States Marine Corps during World War II to provide an unbreakable code to US forces operating in the Pacific. Our language, our oral heritage, unwritten, unrecorded, and at that time spoken by no more than 30 non-Diné in the world, was perfect. The Japanese never deciphered our codes.”

Over the next twenty minutes, mostly with his eyes closed and in a quiet voice, David retold his story to the Diné high schoolers in the auditorium who listened with rapt attention. These were not accounts many had heard before. David was taking them back in time with him as he relived the most pivotal, challenging, and historic period of his life. He shared himself, and without a trace of arrogance. He was humbled and honored to be part of this amazing project, to be among the six Diné code talkers who in the first two days of the Battle for Iwo Jima flawlessly received, transmitted, and deciphered more than 800 top secret messages between commands. He was proud of his people, and of his country, and the Marines. He was humbled to be essential to the security of hundreds of thousands of servicemen in theater. He was proud of the United States. Pulling himself straighter for just a moment, he opened his eyes and stared directly into the audience.

“Thank you for hearing my story.” He turned wearily and walked to the empty seat with the other veterans on the stage. There was no applause.

Five teenage girls walked out and moved to the microphone. The eldest stepped forward.

“I am of the clans Kinlitsonii, and Naasht’ézhí Dine’é, and Hasht’ishnii, and K’aa’ Dine’é. My name is Yanaba Tsetaa’aanii. My grandfather was a code talker. Drawing in a deep breath, she told his story. She told of his birth, his parents, where he grew up, and when he left for the Marines. She told the story of the time he almost was shot through the seat of his pants, and how thankful he was that he didn’t go home with an embarrassing war wound.

She described his character next, and her voice began to shake. “When I was a little girl, he would play with me for hours, and weave me little dolls from the grass in the back yard.” She stopped again, as tears welled in her eyes.

The other four girls stepped forward and huddled closely about her. They spoke softly to her. Two took her hands as she returned to the microphone. In a few more sentences, she finished her story.

“My grandfather was a code talker, and I miss him. You have heard his story.” She stepped back.

One-by-one, the other four girls also spoke of their grandfather, his life, and the fond memories they had of him as children. The gentle man that loved them so immensely, the war hero that occasionally told them stories about the war, leaving out the tragedy and focusing on the successes and the role the Diné played in service to their country. They spoke of missing him and they spoke of celebrating his life. The youngest, finishing her account, closed the presentation beautifully:

“Before you are our fathers and our grandfathers, our heroes, our storytellers, our past, and the progenitors of our future. We will hear their stories, and we will remember. Please stand for our national anthem.”

Walking back to the old code talker, they took his hands and helped him to his feet. The other warriors also stood, and solemnly placed a hand over their hearts. With barely a rustle, the students of Kayenta high school rose as well, and the anthem played. Some of the old men had tears in their eyes.

As the last notes died away, a few hands clapped, and then more, and the whole auditorium shook in applause as the deep notes of traditional drums began to pound in the orchestra pit. A dozen female dancers, attired head-to-toe in ceremonial dresses and regalia ran onto the stage and began to dance. In moments, the aging veterans maneuvered down the steps towards the audience. Lining the front, they grasped the hands of students, and soon formed a circle around the auditorium. The girls helped the code talker down the steps and they, too, joined the circle. As the drums grew louder, they all began to move. Students, dancers, granddaughters, veterans and old code talker in a great ring, they began the dance of peace; and one of celebration, and victory, and remembrance. It was Veterans Day, and there was much to remember.

Thank you, Julie, for telling your story…

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Nation

Monday’s drive through New Mexico and beyond proved difficult for a number of reasons – beginning first with the fact I dropped off Annie and Josh early and the morning, returning me once again to the drudgery of traveling alone. After nearly a thousand miles of their conversations and wit, I was keenly aware of their absence. I dropped them off south of Santa Fe, shoveled down some breakfast, and continued towards the western edge of New Mexico (specifically Gallup).

While there is something attractive about the high desert, buttes, canyons and washes, there is a point at which I, as a tourist, quickly grow tired of it and look forward to other scenery. Usually this is several hours, if not days, before I have moved to another area. From nearly midday to 7PM last night, I was trapped in the high desert. I had also made the mistake of wearing a black shirt, which did nothing but suck in the sunlight all afternoon.

West of Albuquerque, I was hustled – for the first time in quite awhile. Sara Morales was nervously pacing the parking lot of McDonalds when I pulled in. As I stepped out, she briefly explained that her boyfriend was, “being an asshole,” and she needed to call a friend to take her back to Albuquerque…could she have a dollar. To my amazement, I actually had one, so gave it to her. Unlike most hustles, however, she didn’t disappear immediately. She asked where I was from, what I thought of the desert (she declared that it sucks), and why on earth I’d want to visit the southwest.

She is actually from Chihuahua, Mexico, but immigrated north with her family when she was only three. She’s lived in Albuquerque since then. At barely 32, she is about to be a grandmother. She told me how surprised she was that her daughter made the same mistakes that she did. As she walked off and I walked in, she told me to avoid El Paso, Texas at all costs.

“It’s SO windy down there, and desolate.”

She walked off, her long, black hair blowing in the 40mph high desert crosswind.


The remainder of New Mexico was astoundingly disappointing, and as I headed further west, billboards spent less time advertising products and more time telling the reader to show leadership, not let your children drink underage at home, buckle up, don’t beat your wife, don’t beat your kids, etc. Even the ads on the radio had evolved into public service announcements: mostly about identifying if you’re in an abusive relationship. Road signs every couple of miles reminded us to buckle up. Some may have been double-captioned in Navajo, too.

My chosen route from out of New Mexico into Utah carried me through the full length of Navajo Nation land in the northwest corner of the state. Right outside the nation to the south (in Gallup), I was met with higher-than-average gas costs, an ugly bloom of payday loan businesses, pawn shops, and other evidence of economic hardship, mismanagement, and despondence. Then I entered Navajo land and it only grew worse.

Hwy491/Rte666 directly north/south is the only major road connecting northwest New Mexico with Cortez, Colorado. It also travels through what I consider to be the most depressing portion of the country I have yet seen.

At the southern end, another pawn broker occupied sprawling acres. There wasn’t just a building with odd trinkets and valuables; there was another lot across the field (at least 4 acres) full of cars, trucks, and an equal number of horse trailers. They were all available for purchase.

On the nation’s land there is virtually nothing between the southern end and Shiprock, 80 miles to the north. There are scattered trailers and shacks, most of which have the roofs weighted down with a profusion of used tires. At least half are abandoned, and the other half have parking lots full of cars. There was evidence of agriculture at one time, but most fields, still fenced, lay fallow, and all the barns and corrals have long since collapsed. There were a few horses, a few cattle, a dozen sheep, and one llama. All this over 80 miles of high desert ranch land. The fences mostly serve another purpose now: collecting tumbleweeds and trash.

Missionaries may have visited the Navajos at one time, but every evangelical church I saw along the roadsides had since fallen into total dilapidation or was converted to storage for an old car or two. The missionaries were probably chalked up as more white man nonsense and quickly dismissed.

Shiprock itself, the only town in New Mexico Navajo land, is a hillside covered in government shacks (mostly about half the size of a mobile home), government schools, medical centers, and trash. At least half the buildings were abandoned, missing doors, broken windows, etc. People stood around in the vacant parking lots, mostly older women, no doubt only in their 40s or 50s, but looking much older, stooped, and scorched by desert sun. Every place of business besides a single gas station was closed, boarded, and vandalized. US flags were decidedly scarce. I saw one shack proudly flying one next to a stop sign patching a hole in the fence around their yard. There were also several small ones in the graveyard beside the highway, a forgotten little smattering of crosses, trinkets, and sundry fabrics tethered to sticks – surrounded by 2,500 square miles of desolate buttes, high desert, and sparse grasses. There was no evidence of commerce anywhere, or initiative, plentitude, or even hope.

While it sounds extremely insulting, I need to say it: I see more potential, hope, and promise on the IED-ridden streets of Iraq than I do in Navajo country. I drove through the entire area without stopping – intentionally. And I’m now left with a number of questions I want answered. Was this the Navajo natural territory before it was a reservation? Could the US have “assigned” them land any more useless than this vast tract? Does the US think they’re helping the Navajo with subsidized living? What do the Najavo think of living off a government check? What would they say is the purpose for their existence? Do they call this satisfactory living? Why is there more hope (to me) in Iraq than in Navajo country?

I have no answers for any of these questions, and I’m certain that responsibility for this condition lies with lots of parties – most of whom are now dead and gone. I just needed to escape, which I did – onto Ute Indian reservation land in Colorado. Before long, however, I was in Cortez, CO.

Driving through familiar country from Cortez to Durango for the evening, I stopped to pick up another hitchhiker. His name was Albert, and he answered a number of my questions.

Himself a Navajo from Shiprock, he soon turned down the subsidized reservation life and departed for Salt Lake City. I asked him if he missed the reservation at all. “Hell no. Everything’s controlled by the government there. Everything. I don’t like it. You don’t have any freedom. I want to work, I want to earn what I make. America is about doing what you want to do, not having somebody dictate it for you.” He loves his country.

He and a dozen other Native Americans all enlisted in the military in 1971, Albert ending up in the 101st Airborne division, and deployed to Vietnam. A year after his first twelve-month tour, he volunteered for a second. After being dropped into the jungle on one mission, they were all ambushed, where he was hit by enemy fire repeatedly between his knee and hip.

“I thought, ‘this is it. I’m gonna die.’” After his leg gave out and he crawled for awhile, he doesn’t remember much, except waking up in a hospital. He has worn a leg brace ever since and limps slightly. The VA, despite his purple heart, combat injury, honorable discharge, etc, lists him at 50% disabled. I, without a legitimate injury, am rated at 60%, which makes me feel awful.

When Albert was discharged in 1974, he returned to Salt Lake City, stepped off the plane, and was immediately pelted by anti-war demonstrators throwing things and calling him a child-killer.

“I politely saluted, and tried to just walk away, but then I got hit by something. I don’t know what it was, though. But I felt the blood trickling down.” He still carries the scar above his left eye. He showed it to me. Thirty-five years later, he still wonders about the dozen other Native Americans with whom he enlisted. He never saw any of them again.

Albert met his wife, a Canadian Creek, at a Crow festival in Montana. She died in 1996, leaving behind Albert and their five children. Though he rarely has much contact with them, they’re scattered throughout southern California, west slope Colorado, and Utah. He and his children are all devout Mormons. One son, a Marine, is currently in Afghanistan. Albert hasn’t seen him since he enlisted almost four years ago.

“They keep sending you guys to war, Ben. It kills me. And then you come back and get treated awful. It truly hurts me. It hurts my heart.” When he thanked me for my service, I felt even worse. I, and we as a nation, are the ones that owe his generation of warriors.

When the economy took a downward turn a few years ago, Albert’s 401k dropped in value to $84, and he soon found himself living in a shelter in Salt Lake City, but still working. “I WANT to work. That’s why I’m going to Durango. I hear there’s a good bit of work there. Do you get high?”

I told him I did not.

When we arrived in Durango, I asked around, made some phone calls, and eventually found a shelter where Albert could stay for the night. Taking a wrong turn, I ended up at a ex-con halfway house across the street – occupied by the most courteous, friendly lot of 20-something convicts I’ve ever encountered.

The shelter itself is operated by the Volunteers of America, and filled with men of all ages (though mostly older middle-aged). Albert would have taken their last available cot, were it not for the fact he could not pass a breathalyzer test. Very sweetly, the young, single, well-dressed woman working as the shelter counselor explained that he couldn’t stay, but welcomed him to come back in the morning when he had no more alcohol in his system. “I can give you some blankets for the night if you want.” They expected him to simply hack it somewhere in Durango for the night.

“That’s okay. I have a Navajo blanket, and a jacket, too. I’ll be okay.” He asked if I could drive him somewhere he could sleep for the night.

As we walked back outside, an ancient golden retriever wandered up to the building, immediately drawing a crowd of homeless men eager to talk to her and pet her. “Hey there, sweetie. I haven’t seen you around here before. Are you lost?”

The dog loved the attention, and I felt more certain of the safety of the young woman working alone upstairs. These were all good men.

When I dropped Albert off at a nearby city park, he leaned back in the car. “Ben, every time I’ve been hard up, it’s always been grunts [infantry] that’ve helped me out. You guys are all angels. And you’re a sweetheart. You’ve done so much for me.”

Shaking my hand, he heaved his pack onto his shoulder and limped off to find a darkened corner to sleep. Soon thereafter, I found a darkened parking lot and curled up in the back seat of my car to do the same. I’m 29, camping in my car (and complaining about it). Albert, at 56, is nearly as old as my father, far more a veteran than I, and sleeping in the elements. And he has no home, a disinterested family, a war injury, and a lower disability rating than me. I’ve hardly helped him. I’ve successfully passed him off on some other city, some other shelter, and some other person more compassionate than I.

But if a grunt doesn’t know how to help another grunt, how can I expect anybody else to?

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw All Rights Reserved

Monday, May 11, 2009

We Won't Kill You

When I am about the throes of boredom on long trips, usually just as my desperation has reached a crescendo and I am considering pulling over for a nap or to inject espresso directly into my veins, options present themselves.

“We Won’t Kill You” was the sign the two hitchhikers displayed slightly west of Forrest Hills, which in my mind takes the cake for creativity – or I suppose the most elaborate lie. They were no doubt interesting people. With this in mind, I turned around, went back east an exit, and returned to pick them up, right as two others were trying to pick them up as well. All three of us were veterans. One was an older man, a Vietnam vet, the second was a young female Marine leaving quite soon for Iraq, and then I show up in the fray. I, traveling the furthest west, won the competition.

Last year, when in Salt Lake City, I had some fantastic conversations with two Rainbows named Pirate and Pixie, which I have been informed are probably two of the most common names in that crowd. Eight months later, I find myself having similarly fantastic conversations with the polar opposite of the transient community – the Gutter Punks. Though the definitions are somewhat ambiguous, Rainbows are probably best described as hippies of all ages that travel the country attending as many Rainbow gatherings as they can manage. They like to receive stuff, as I best understand it. At the other end of the spectrum are the Gutter Punks, which are just as wayward, but not interested in receiving stuff. They, interestingly, like to DO stuff (well, some of them). They are also often identifiable by their buzz cuts, interest in underground punk bands, and unique vocabulary (which seems reminiscent of English soccer hooligans). At any rate, I have traveled with Annie and Josh since Arkansas, and will be dropping them near Albequerque, New Mexico. I am thankful for their company, and for helping me stay awake.

Both groups hop trains, hitchhike and squat in older buildings, but their ideologies are radically different, and my two new travel companions informed me that Rainbows are to Gutter Punks what Cripps are to Bloods. Rainbows take. Gutter Punks do. Both Annie and Josh recently departed New Orleans, squatting in any number of abandoned houses in the eighth ward, attending concerts, working where necessary, and struggling to avoid arrest for bogus charges like obstructing sidewalks by merely walking on them. Cops, it would seem, have mostly outlawed anybody that even LOOKS vague atypical. Naturally, it impedes their travel as well.

They had intended to quickly hitchhike out of New Orleans, hit a major highway, and head west to visit friends near Santa Fe, but found getting rides difficult in the south. Cops would give them brief rides to county lines and deposit them in the middle of nowhere, or locals would drive them about two miles down the road and simply announce that they needed to get out. If I had to guess, these kind souls felt they were doing their civic duty and getting vagrants out of the community’s back yard. A few, however, had never driven outside of said small communities and no interest in driving further. That task done, they abandoned their passengers and continued. I understand wariness of hitchhikers, but have found the discourtesy they encountered somewhat appalling. One cop was dispatched late at night because, “somebody called in and said they couldn’t tell if it was a male or a female walking down the road.” Somehow this involved detaining them for well over half an hour in the rain.

And so, stuck in remote southern towns and far from truck stops, the pair resorted to creative signs to test which would attract anybody willing to give them rides.

“The South Will Rise Again” seemed to go over well, but instead of stopping, the white folk would drive by honking and cheering, the black folk would speed by laughing at the realization it was a joke, and the older folk would crack their windows, sympathetically hand them money, and quickly drive away. Few rides came, and those that did were extremely short legs that usually deposited them in even worse locations. Forrest Hills, Arkansas is apparently the hometown for the man who founded the Ku Klux Klan. Rides were scarce.

A sign reading “What Would Jesus Do” was also unrewarding. Annie, standing in the MIDDLE of an on-ramp waving this sign, discovered instead what the locals do: roll up all their windows, overtly lock their doors, and drive FAR around her in the middle of the road. “Out of Water,” which was true, also yielded little help. This made three veterans (all Marines) trying to pick them up at the same time all the more comical.

Annie is originally from Bakersfield, California, grew tired of an illustrious career working in a porn store, and chose instead to see some of the country. Josh, a skateboarder from Colorado, also left for his own reasons. Months later, they have no intention of stopping, though both will be returning home for brief visits before continuing. They have often found their luck with hitchhiking much greater in the southwest, which is to their advantage. Both have no interest in visiting the southeast for quite some time. The local populations are simply too hostile.

As for my part in all this, I have learned of a subculture that until two days ago I could not distinguish from nearly any other transient group. I have learned that for all their substance abuse and drug problems, the smarter ones of the bunch (like my passengers) are making every effort to help them clean up and settle into a more sustainable lifestyle. At any rate, none of them intend to do this forever. There are college plans, thoughts of joining the military, and writing endeavors. Zines (small, independent magazines) nationwide track this culture’s progress, review events, restaurants, bands, travel locations, and offer travel tips for how to do it safely, not attract unwanted attention from the local constabulary, and ideally how to do it all without getting arrested. A few bad apples in every bunch continue to land several in jail (appropriately), and the rest disband and move on before they are found guilty by mere association. I remain impressed that people can contentedly get by with so little. But then again, I’m unwilling to forage in a dumpster for food.

I will be dropping Annie and Josh outside of Santa Fe, and continuing my travels west towards the edge of Arizona, where I will turn north and head into Colorado and Utah, eventually Salt Lake City. I have much driving left, but am thankful to have been entertained and accompanied for nearly 1,000 miles. If I am lucky, there will be other hitchhikers in need of rides. If I am luckier still, they will be as enjoyable as the two with whom I will soon part company.

America would be well served to invest a little energy meeting her many characters. The vast majority are worth knowing. I have been privileged to meet two more.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw All Rights Reserved