Veterans: Our Unforgotten Heroes | Guest Column
October 29, 2009 · Updated 1:44 PM
By RD LARSON
I know something. I'm going to tell you what it is.
When friends that I knew — boys and men, and some girls — went off to Vietnam, it changed my life. Cousins, brothers of friends, and strangers — they disappeared in ones and twos. After a time, the whole scene of life in my world was changed.
I knew where they were and what was happening from the news. Sometimes from letters. I knew what some people said and what some people did about the war. But to me, the soldiers were members of my group, my clan, my tribe of young people.
Some years ago in California, my husband and I met a homeless man. This man's name was Larry and he had a mule called Pearl. He was homeless and begging for a drink. I wanted to help Larry and my husband, knowing me, agreed to fund my cause.
Larry needed a full meal first of all, I thought. So we got him to clean-up a bit at a gas station. Then we took him for a steak dinner. He drank five glasses of milk. Two desserts. Not much interested in salad.
He told me he hadn't slept inside of a building for 20 years. We took him to an inexpensive motel and got him a room but when we went with him up to the door, he panicked. He threw the bag of toiletries on the floor and stormed out. He said he'd sleep at the fairgrounds so we took him there. But that wouldn't do. We went back to town and untied Pearl from the post at home of people we knew. Larry said he couldn't sleep without Pearl. So with my husband driving and Larry, Pearl and I walking, we went to the fairgrounds which wasn't far. We left Larry there with his bedroll and his mule.
The next morning I showed up and took him to Denny's for a giant breakfast of five eggs and many pancakes and much bacon. I asked him about not being able to sleep inside.
Larry said he couldn't sleep inside because every time that he did he heard the guns and the bombs in 'Nam. He heard his friends screaming. Sometimes he heard them crying for their mothers, their girlfriends or just for home. He said he drank to forget about it and would I please give him enough money for a bottle? I told him I wish he would get sober but he told me to shut up. So I did. I wasn't in charge of him.
I left him at the Mexican restaurant with Pearl tied to an old scrubby willow tree. I went to the grocery story and bought some stuff for him to eat. Stuff like beef jerky, potato chips, and cookies – yeah, real healthy stuff, but he was so thin that all I could think of was feeding him. I bought him a plate of enchiladas and beans that he ate right outside with Pearl.
That night, my husband and I went back up to town (this was in the California Gold Country) and took Larry for another steak dinner. He didn't eat quite as much. But Larry drank another five glasses of milk. He told us how he lived by gold panning and, how as a guide, he took city people up the river to pan for gold. He said he didn't make much but it made do for him.
Again, Larry, Pearl and I walked to the fairgrounds, only this time the manager wouldn't let Pearl stay because she could open the stall and walk out. I told him I would tie it and he just said, “No can do, Mrs. Larson.”
It was dark by now so I ran up the hill to friends I didn't know too well. They were an old couple, both just getting by. They said I could tie Pearl but tie her tight as they didn't want her in their garden. Larry tied her tight and I checked – it was knotted.
Larry and I walked back to the fairgrounds and we told him good night. He pulled a bottle of wine out of his bag and offered us a drink. We said "no thanks" and again I told him he shouldn't drink. And again he said he didn't want any nightmares about 'Nam.
We went home. My husband said he didn't think Larry wanted help. I told him I had to help him. It would be like helping friends I had known that had gone of to war, to Vietnam, like my brother, like my father had gone to WWII and his father before him to WWI. I felt I had to do something. Something so Larry would feel better, have a better life.
We went home. At six o'clock in the morning, the old man who was letting Pearl stay called me. I was terrified she'd eaten their garden and we'd have to pay for it. But that wasn't it. She had run away. I got dressed and got up there just as it was getting light. I went in to where Larry was sleeping. Pearl was in the stall with him, just standing. I wanted to go in but she cocked her rear hoof at me, showing a big fanny. When she turned her eye toward me and showed her teeth, I knew I'd better not wake up Larry.
I waited until I heard him coughing. Then I called to him. “Hey, Larry, it's me.”
“Hello there, Mrs. Larson,” he said. “I gotta talk to you.”
He came out and stood there, cramming his old battered hat down on his head over and over again. I stood there, hoping I would get a defining moment, a chance to make a change in Larry's life.
“I thank you kindly for all that you done for me, but, you see, Pearl's all I got and I can't stand staying in any more houses or anything. I got to be up the mountain; got to sleep outside. It's the only way I can stand what happened in the war.”
I started to cry, knowing I could never help him to have a normal life after what he had seen in 'Nam. He patted my arm and said, “That's just the way the cookie crumbles.”
It made me laugh through the tears. We hugged and said good-bye. I watched him in the dewy morning walking down the hill toward the river he knew and loved. Pearl was a better friend to him than I could be. She just accepted him, as he was, with his wounds and sorrows.
Now there are so many veterans, lost and found, that the whole world is again changed just as it had been altered in previous wars.
The thing I know and the thing I want to tell you is this:
I want us to give them love. I want us to give them respect. I want us to help them as much as we can. As much as they CAN let us. Because they are OUR HEROES. Now and forever, veterans from all wars.
— RD Larson is an author living on San Juan Island. Her books include "Mama Tried to Raise a Lady," "Sorrow's Field," "Doors: Five Stories of Strong Women," "Marion Riles, Soft-boiled Detective" (available at www.fictionwise.com, a Barnes & Noble Co.), and the recently released "Evil Angel," available at www.fictionwise.com as a download, Amazon.com and Griffin Bay Bookstore as a paperback.