Monday, May 6, 2013

Saigon 1967 Chapter Final: Some Sort of Closure

The bond that had been created between Jack and me with that first hunting trip had continued to persist over time. It had endured through Vietnam, through our final post-Vietnam military assignments and into the early days of our return to civilian life. I worked for IBM; Jack went to law school. I was in Portland; Jack was at the University of Idaho. I never knew whether it was true or not, but Jack claimed that a D grade he had gotten from Sister Justitia had nearly disqualified him from entrance to law school. If nothing else, Jack was a teller of tales.

That bond had continued to assert itself in the form of trips that involved going to places that were somewhere distant and somewhere difficult to get to. As often as the hunting seasons allowed it these expeditions took the form of bird hunting trips. When we had both still been in the military, and I had lived in Omaha, we had taken Blitz and had gone out into the cornfields in search of pheasants. It was not in season. We couldn’t shoot them. We just wanted to introduce Blitz - a few months old German Shorthair puppy – to his life’s work. As we had settled into the routines of our civilian lives we had gone back to hunting in Eastern Oregon. Jack had had the luxury of a student’s schedule, so even though Moscow was farther from eastern Oregon than was Portland, he could balance the equation by leaving earlier in the day than my ostensive eight to five schedule allowed. By choosing a rendezvous point on Interstate 80 the right distance from Portland and Moscow, we could both arrive at roughly the same time and proceed with festivities. That rendezvous point was a place masquerading as a town; its name was Rufus. In earlier times Rufus had had some significance to the railroad. Since the significance of the railroad had long since faded, Rufus’ significance in the times that Jack and I met there had also faded. But it was just the right distance and time from Portland and Moscow.

And there was the Rufus Tavern.

The Rufus Tavern had salt of the earth bartenders and servers and had very good, greasy and inexpensive hamburgers. It also featured other items such as steaks, but hamburgers were our chosen fare. It also had beer on tap. The typical Friday night rendezvous consisted of our mutual arrival in Rufus around six in the evening – I left work early – taking Blitz for a walk and telling each other how smart we were for a half hour or so and then, having lodged Blitz in his place in the passenger side foot well of the car, going into the Rufus Tavern for some beer and hamburgers. Later we left Jack’s car at “the Rufus” and went down the road to the John Day Arm boat ramp and camping area. It may not have really been a camping area, but we made it one. I had a Mercury station wagon, which, with the back seats put down had room for two sleeping bags. And Blitz just squinted sleepily at us from the passenger side foot well and went back to sleep. The balance of those weekends from Saturday morning to Sunday sundown we hunted at the various places we had found between Wasco, Moro and Grass Valley. Those were the names of a string of vestigial towns in the upland wheat fields on the plateau above the Columbia River and above Rufus. There were some motels and one hotel up there, so we stayed in them, rather than sleeping in the car. Jack always negotiated for a lower than advertised rate every time, just as he had once successfully negotiated our taxi ride to Nha Bey on toward sundown one afternoon in Saigon.

Once we stayed in the Hotel. It was in Wasco. It was run by two very old women. It was my first experience with time travel. They had electricity, but somehow it seemed as if kerosene lanterns lighted the place with the old women tottering around up and down the stairs with candles in brass holders. It was probably an illusion but it was one I was never able to shake. Blitz liked it a lot and the women liked him so everything went well but we said good-by after one night and the breakfast they provided. We were never to return. We were more the 1920’s vintage motor court sort of hunters rather than the 1850’s hotel type. But staying in that hotel had been a good thing to have done once.

Over time this routine had morphed and been modified. We ranged farther afield and met in places farther from Portland and closer to Idaho. We had discovered the Willow Creek drainage. We had gotten to know the haunt of every covey of quail from Heppner Junction to Heppner. One of the best places we had discovered was a ghost town. Strung along highway 74 between its junction with Interstate 80 and Heppner were little towns in progressive stages of death: Cecil, Ione, Morgan and Lexington. One of these, Morgan, had actually succeeded in dying. But it had the largest covey of quail in the area. There were no “no trespassing” signs. There were no fences. The skeleton of the town was just off of highway 74. It consisted of a few wood frame once-had-been-commercial buildings long since abandoned and positioned along what appeared to have been the main street through town. Based on these remains, which, though weathered and gray, were not falling down, and which were not accompanied by other less well preserved buildings, it appeared as if Morgan had never been very big. An odd, almost wild west gunfighter feeling accompanied us each time Jack and Blitz and I worked the covey and shot some birds, and ultimately, moved on to other locations.

We had gotten all the way to Heppner in one of our early expeditions along Willow Creek and, since it had been late in the day, and since Heppner was deep enough into the mountains to preclude any quail, pheasant, chukkar or Hungarian partridge hunting, we called it a day and stayed the night. We stayed in the Hotel Heppner. Unlike the hotel in Wasco, the Hotel in Heppner didn’t seem like it was a character in a horror movie. It seemed like a hotel from the genuine Wild West. The town itself, although small, was alive with activity. It was a completely antithetical experience to walking the street of Morgan. But since it was barren of bird hunting opportunities we never went back.

But the rest of the Willow Creek drainage kept bringing us back. We stayed in motels on the freeway in Heppner Junction, retracing our way back down highway 74 at the end of Saturday, and re-entering the valley Sunday morning only to go back to Heppner Junction where we parted ways after sundown on Sunday. But back and forth had increasingly seemed like a waste of time and gasoline.

After some time and analysis an alternate plan had presented itself.

I had by that time accumulated a fairly complete complement of camping equipment, including two fold-up aluminum cots, a White Stag wall tent and a Coleman lantern and a Coleman stove with an accompanying cast aluminum grill with slide on stainless steel wire racks which were designed to raise a steak just off the grill allowing the fat and smoke when the grill was hot enough to be forced back into the meat giving it a char grilled flavor.

By this time we noticed that not far from downtown Morgan there was a place where a gravel road was intersected by another gravel road and that this intersection had resulted in a rather large flat chunk of sage brush grown land. It was far enough from highway 74, which was by no means busy in its own right, that the gravel road gave access to and created a beautiful little piece of campable ground. All one needed to do was drive into the little island between the gravel roads, park, and pitch. The gravel road going backwards from the direction of the camping island crossed highway 74 and became the main street of Morgan.

So late on one Friday afternoon we drove into the island, pitched the tent, unfolded the cots, put the stove on one of the coolers and the lantern on the other and set up house for the weekend.

We grilled a two-pound top sirloin, had some beer, made a salad, had some post dinner scotch and went to bed asking ourselves why we hadn’t thought of camping in the island long ago.

After bacon, eggs and Texas toast the next morning we went hunting. We had made the decision to put off going after the covey in Morgan until later in the day, partially due to the fact that being on location and not needing to drive back and forth to and from the Junction had given us a lot more time to explore for new opportunities. And the fact that our lodging place was just up the street from the Morgan covey had seemed to make a late afternoon sweep through the town to be the best sort of schedule.

So it was well past mid day when we got back to hunt in Morgan.

We had been in the process of working the covey with a few shots and some success when we were suddenly confronted by two rancher type guys.

They were well our seniors in age and had the verging-on-corpulent-but-not-quite air of prosperity that is common to the species. We hadn’t seen them when we entered the town, which made me wonder where they had been prior to appearing, and why they were there in an abandoned town which had little to offer other than a covey of quail.

And they were not armed.

“What do you boys think you’re doing?” one of them said.

“Bird hunting,” I said, congratulating myself on my calmness and brevity.

“This is private property,” said the other.

“No signs,” said Jack.

“Don’t need any,” said the first.

“Actually you do,” said Jack.

And he began to elaborate with a tightly reasoned legal case based on his already surprising knowledge of common law, property law, the law of the west and, probably, the law according to Zane Gray. None of this appeared to impress our two apparently about-to-be adversaries.

“You boys got anything to do with that tent over on the land by Morgan Road?” one of them said.

“It’s ours,” I said.

“That’s private property too,” said the second.

“It’s not posted either,” said Jack.

And then he began to elaborate on our legal case based on his understanding of roadway rights of way and abandoned or undeveloped pieces of land adjacent to public unimproved roadways.

Again there was little noticeable effect on our adversaries. The only result was that when Jack stopped talking silence reigned.

There was silence and – something. There was silence and something that felt vaguely familiar, if feeling was what was actually going on.

“But it must be feeling,” I thought. “I can’t smell anything, except almost. I can’t hear anything, although it seems as if I should be hearing something.”

But there was only silence, the passage of time and – something.

All of this, from the start of the silence and my thinking about the nature of the something had taken seconds, although whatever the something was had made it feel like a long time – minutes maybe. The absurdity of two old unarmed, almost pot-bellied men standing in the middle of a deserted street in a deserted town and taking a belligerent tone and attitude with two younger armed men – and men they didn’t know from a hole in the wall – was just beginning to creep upon me when I realized what was familiar about the situation.

The air was almost statically charged with a tension and a sense of imminent action; it was identical to what I had felt that day in the taxi on the way to Nha Bey.

I looked at Jack to get some sort of feeling about what he was thinking. The whole situation was still ticking forward in silence wrapped in tension and wrapped in a sense of immediately imminent action that was so heavy it should have been warping the air into waves.

It was still only seconds into the silence. As Jack looked back at me an odd expression fleetingly crossed his face. It was exactly the expression I had seen in that taxi the day we had quickly discussed how we were going to kill the driver when he got back into the taxi. He was fingering the safety on his gun. And then he sort of started, as if awakened abruptly.

“We’ll clear out,” he said.

“Good,” one of them said.

And we did.

And we never went back to the Willow Creek drainage.

I would never know, except deep down, how close we had come to dealing out mayhem that late autumn afternoon.

This is all that I have to say about Saigon 1967.

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