Wednesday, March 20, 2013

When The Wolfbayne Blooms

A very dear, longtime friend of mine passed away recently. He made me promise, in the last week of his life, to tell his story. My oldest daughter,Crystal, has been battling cancer for the last seven months, and our time has been full. She's in remission now; things have slowed a little, so it's time for me to honor my promise.

We first met over a quarter of a century ago, under less than ideal circumstances. If anyone had suggested at that time that we would become as close as we did over the years, no one would have believed it. The fact that we did is a testament to him and his willingness to have a forgiving heart. Every relationship has its ups and downs; we certainly had ours. Still, the only reason we had one at all was because of him. Please remember that as I tell his story.

I've struggled with how best to tell his story. He didn't want his name used; not to protect himself, but his family. Most of what will follow are things that he wanted to be able to tell them, but couldn't. However, he knew that his experience was far from unique. In fact, he knew that thousands of men from our generation shared a very similar story. His hope was that, in telling his story, warts and all, other families might find some of the peace and closure that he wanted his own family to have. What follows will not be pretty, or told in a manner that paints him as a saint. That was his call. "."Tell it straight."

I'll do my best.

Even a man who is pure in heart
and says his prayers by night
May become a wolf
When the Wolf Bane blooms
and the Autumn moon is bright

He wasn't the world's best husband or father. The truth is, he was abusive to his wife and children: not just emotionally, but physically as well. 99% of the men I have known that were like that were bullies, and every bully that I've ever known was a coward. My time as a Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff had only strengthened that point of view. There was, however, that other 1%. That small minority shared one common element: they were all deeply scarred men, full of self loathing for their past, and for their actions against the very ones they loved most. They all had been wounded so badly, so deeply, that the wound simply would not heal. I would discover that he fell into that 1%.

It was two years into our relationship before we became friends. The friendship started on an overture by him that was so astounding, so out of character for him, that his wife didn't believe me at first when I told her about it. It took his family a while to really believe that it was true. Again, as I told you earlier, it was a testament to his character, not mine, that we became friends. What he did was something that no bully would ever do. It was my first glimpse into the real man. The wounded man.

He started to change after that, as if that act had been the initial chip at a glacier that had surrounded his heart. The real change happened a couple of years later. The crucible was the birth of his first grandchild, followed in a matter of just a couple of years by two more. One grandchild from each of his children. He began to mellow. He allowed those grandchildren to do things with him that no one ever thought he would allow. It was like watching a scarred older bear allowing the cubs to chew on him and swat him with their paws. Things he had never had the patience with his own children to allow, he now seemed to welcome...even enjoy. Now, don't get me wrong. He could still be an asshole, especially with his wife. But even their relationship seemed to improve. Her love for him had always been apparent: his far less so. During this period, however, it showed through at times, even in public, in ways that surprised those closest to him. He could still be verbally snippy with her, but even those outbursts seemed to lack their past cruelty. Those were some good years for my friend. Then tragedy hit.

A senseless act of violence and betrayal perpetrated against he and his wife. The old him would have gone after the violators. Hunted them down and killed them. I even offered to go with him. He no longer would, or could. He took his family and moved to a new town. He started to withdraw, not just from life and those around him, but from himself. At first he confined himself to their small town. Then, he would only go to certain places within that town, the circle drawing ever tighter. Eventually he wouldn't even leave his own home. He became a recluse. And, with each step inward he took, the more of the old him came back to the surface. His poor wife bore the brunt of it. I rarely saw much of it when I came to visit; but the tension and anger hung in the house like a poisonous fog. I didn't know what to do for my friend, or his family. He wasn't the type to just open up, let alone talk about his problems. Yet I knew that part of what I saw when I looked at him was a reflection of myself: the same kind of wounds and scars, the same kind of anger and self loathing. Could there be any hope for me down the road if there was no hope for him?

If God has given me any gifts, which I know is questionable, one of them might be the ability to see deep pain in others, and find a way to reach out to them. It is not a gift I ever asked for or wanted, but we don' get to choose our gifts.  A car would have been nice. Maybe a gift card. Cash is always good too. Just kidding, Lord.

A few years ago, while I was out visiting my friend, the door appeared for me to knock on. We were sitting in his room, as we usually did, watching TV and talking. His lovely wife brought in his dinner, and he immediately began to chastise her for the portion size, or something else equally stupid. The look on her face, the abruptness with which he stopped, told a story in itself. The pain in her eyes...anyway, she turned and left the room. He didn't touch the food. Just stared straight ahead, his eyes eventually dropping. His shoulders slumped, and I could feel the self hatred coming off of him like heat from a blast furnace. I said a quick prayer, then assumed my role as God's ventriloquist dummy.

I started talking about my time on the job.  General things. He was a Vietnam Vet, and I knew he could relate to at least some of my experiences. The farther I went in the talk, the more personal things I began to tell. I eventually started telling him things that I've told no living person. I only have a couple of stories from my time on the job that I do tell. Most people find them dark; quite a few visibly squirm and shrink away during the telling. They're not pretty. Those stories, however, are the good ones. The others I never tell. But, I was telling him. And, he was listening. No judgements. No comments. He didn't shy away. Just sat there and listened.

His wife came back in an hour or so later. He hadn't touched his food. She took the plate away in silence. It was time for me to go. He didn't say anything. We shook hands, like always, and I left. I felt like a fool driving home. Not an unusual feeling for me, especially when I let God do the talking. I had seen no results. No evidence of change. Nothing. I went home in despair.

Nothing was different the next time I went out. Or, the time after that. I didn't bring it up again. Neither did he. I don't remember how much time passed. How many visits. Five...maybe six. Then, on one of those visits, after we were alone in his room, he asked me a series of questions:
How had I dealt with those experiences? Why wasn't I more violent? Why wasn't I more of a mean asshole to my family? It was like the ensuing months had never passed and I had just finished telling him my story.

I reminded him of how badly I had treated my family for a few years. He dismissed that with a wave of his hand. "You had nerve damage and chronic pain then," he said. "Besides, you snapped out of it. How do you deal with what you saw? How do you deal with what you did? With who you were?" I didn't answer him right away. I knew he was asking for more than just an answer to my problems...he was looking for hope.

Anyone who is bitten by a Werewolf,
and survives
Is doomed to become a Werewolf himself

That's actually the first thing I said to him. I reminded him that the anti-hero of the old Wolf Man movie didn't start out as a bad guy. He was just a normal guy. A good guy. Minding his own business. He wasn't looking for trouble that night. He heard somebody in danger and ran to their aid. Tried to save their life. Got torn up for his trouble. There was no way for him to know that he was dealing with a monster. No way to know that fighting that monster would turn him into one. Bad kind of monster to become too. The kind of monster that goes after the very people he loves the most. That's some messed up shit. I told him that I had come to view my circumstances that way. Bad thing was, my monster didn't wait for a full moon to come out. He could leap out of his cage at any time. Anywhere. Against anybody. The more that I fought to contain him when I was outside my home, the more tired I would become by the time I got back. Fatigue makes cowards of us all. As soon as I would relax, let my guard down just a bit, out he would come. Right at my wife and kids.

Fuck me.

I knew I had to find a way to try and control it. That's why I still worked out. Hit the bag. When those didn't work, I'd go for a walk, crippled legs, bad back, nerve damage and all. Just get out and get away. If I was going to hurt someone, I decided, it wasn't going to be my family.

Sometimes, to my shame, I did.

He asked me then how I'd finally gotten rid of it. I laughed. I told him you never get rid of it. You pray and ask God for help. Every day. Because, it never goes away. It never goes to sleep. Hell, it never even lies down. It paces back and forth in the cage I've made for it. Growling. Howling. Watching with blood filled eyes and dripping mouth for just the slightest opening. The hint of my guard going down. One moment of loss of control. Then all hell breaks loose, and everything I've worked for, every day of good is wiped away. And, getting him back in his cage gets harder every time.

We sat there for a few minutes, neither one of us speaking. I could see his wheels turning, digesting what I'd said. Then he told me a story. A very long, very dark story. I'm going to give you the condensed version here...

It was back in the mid sixties. The Vietnam War was escalating and I'd had a few buddies come back from there on leave. The stories they told were bad. It didn't sound like the place anybody in their right mind wanted to go. The draft was ramping up, and everyone knew if you got drafted, odds were a hundred to one you were going in the Army as a grunt and getting shipped straight over there. So, a few of my buddies and I decided to enlist. You had to serve longer if you did, but you got to pick which branch of the service you joined. We picked the Navy. Seemed like the smart pick back then. I mean, what kind of Navy did the Vietnamese have? Even if you got stationed over there, you'd probably be on a ship a hundred miles off of the coast. Not in country. Not in the jungles. Not humping on the front lines.

Bad call.

We had to take a bunch of tests. I found out later I scored pretty high on some of them. I started getting pulled out for meetings during basic. Officers asking me all kinds of questions. I had to sign a lot of papers. Highly classified stuff. Sworn to secrecy. Never allowed to talk about any of it to anyone. Prison or worse if I did. I got shipped to ONI after basic. Naval Intelligence. Got briefed for my job. I was going to be on a PBR. Patrol Boat, River. They called it the brown river Navy. I was going in country. Deep. I was to report on everything I saw and heard. And, my boat would occasionally pick up and drop off people. I was to report on everything they said and did. Sometimes follow them for a while after we dropped them off. I would be debriefed at the end of each mission. So much for being out of the fire zones.

Every mission was hairy. Firefights. Always looking over my shoulder. I figured if they had me watching others, they probably had somebody watching me. I got really paranoid. Some of our crew would get wounded and be replaced. I was suspicious of everyone. The people we picked up weren't always Americans. Accents from everywhere. None of them looked like military personnel. Following some of them into a random village up river was nasty. Sometimes we were in Cambodia. We weren't supposed to be there. All I wanted to do was survive.

One of our crew was short timing. Almost done with his tour. They pulled him off at our next time back and replaced him with a guy I'll call "Bob". He was just one of those kind of guys you just like right off the get go. Good guy. Funny. Always telling stories. He was the first person I let my guard down with. We got pretty tight over the next few weeks. Shared a lot about our backgrounds. Our families. He was just a great guy. It was good to have a buddy. To not be alone anymore

We were on a Mark I PBR. It runs by sucking water in and shooting it out the back. The pump was actually made by Jacuzzi. No shit. Jacuzzi. Let us run in real shallow water. We could turn on a dime too. It took the VC a while to figure out how to really fuck with them. But they did. We started getting reports of other PBRs getting ambushed. The VC would dump loads of straw in the river. That straw would get sucked into the Jacuzzi pump and foul it. Freeze it up. Then you were screwed. Dead in the water. The boat would float a little down river where the VC had set up. Then they'd tear the boat to pieces. Sitting ducks man. It was a bad deal.

All of the boats had grenade launchers. We had a Honeywell MK 18 mounted on the stern. It fired 40 mil grenades. You had to hand crank it. We unbolted ours and moved it up to the bow. The idea was, you kept your eyes peeled for any sign of straw. First even hint of it, you reversed the engines. Backed up. Then you'd start cranking those honeys out up ahead on both sides of the river. Just blow the shit out of both sides as far up as you could. Then we'd get out some poles we started carrying. Push the straw to the sides and go up real slow. We'd get up to the ambush site and find dozens, sometimes more, of dead VC. Blown 'em to hell. Any of them that survived booked it the hell out of there. Worked pretty good. For a while. But those fuckin' VCs. They...they fought dirty man.

We were rollin' up river. Saw the straw. Started cranking out the grenades. Both sides. Got up to the ambush spot. No VCs. But, they'd tied a bunch of villagers to the trees by the banks of the river. We'd blown them all to hell. Innocent people. Happened right before we were due to go back to base. Quietest trip back I'd ever been on. Nobody said a word. The images of those dead villagers...We got back. I went to my Intelligence briefing. Nobody knew what to make of my report. See, we knew which villages were friendly to us, and which weren't. It had been one of their own villages. Who the fuck does shit like that? Other reports were coming in. Some of the villagers at other hot spots had been screaming before the boats got there. The order was: listen for screams. No screams, you fired. Screams you didn't. We went back out. It worked...for a while.

We come up on the straw again. Stop and listen. Nothing. Grenades away. Cruise up river. Dead villagers everywhere. We recon the dead. They'd cut their tongues out. Tied 'em to trees and cut their tongues out. Couple of days later, we get a screamer. We don't fire. Cruise up. Villagers tied to the trees. VC open fire on us from behind them in the jungle. We've got to shoot through them. I pick up the Honeywell and run to the stern as the boat turns. We're firing like...I start cranking 'em out and we book it out. We got shot up pretty bad. Two of our crew got hit. We limped back to base.

Intel briefing again. Not just Navy either. Everybody has got someone there. No one knows what to do. How do you fight an enemy like this? Someone who'll sacrifice their own civilians? There's a bird colonel there. Pacing back and forth. Goes off on a rant. "Fuck'em. Fuck'em all to hell. We've got the ordinance. Let's bomb those little fuckers back to the stone age. Fuck that. Let's bomb them off the face of the planet. No more selective bombing. No more going after the same god damn sights over and over. Bomb it all. I know the Chinese are sending men. Fuck them too. Our boys are getting fucked over. Let's just fucking do it!" The room got quiet. Pin drop quiet. One of the faceless civilians finally broke the silence. "We can't do that, and you know it. We all have our orders. Our jobs to do. We aren't here to win."  That bird colonel looked around the room. Waiting for someone of a higher rank to say something. No one did. They wouldn't even look him in the eye. He pointed a finger at the bureaucrat. "Fuck you. And god damn the rest of you." Then he stormed out.

That did it for me. I went and found "Bob". Talked to him first. Then we waited at our boat for the rest of our crew. We came to a group decision: from now on, we were shooting, screamers or not. We were going to do our best to make sure we all went home, and fuck everybody else. Then we headed out.

My friend had been glancing back and forth at me while he'd been talking up to that point. Now he had stopped. He took of his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Set the glasses down. Stared straight ahead. He seemed to be struggling with whether to go on. I didn't say a word. Just waited. He put his hands together on his knees. Interlocked his fingers. The knuckles were sticking out like white walnuts. His body shuddered, and he took a deep breath. Then he went on, still staring at something I couldn't see...

We'd been out about a week. It had been quiet. No action at all. Then...the straw again. No sound. I cranked out the grenades. We waited. Slow cruise up river. The silence was broken by a single cry. Sounded like a child. A young child. Took everything we had to not hump it faster, but we didn't. We came to a clearing. Dead villagers everywhere. Or, parts of them anyway. A few were still hanging from the ropes that tied them to the trees. Then we saw him. There was a baby in a sling that hung off of the neck of a dead woman tied to a tree. She was a bloody mess. Somehow, the shrapnel had missed her baby. He was crying.His plaintive wail echoed along the banks. "Bob" hopped off of the boat in spite of my telling him not too, and headed for the baby. The hackles were up on the back of my neck, and I didn't know why. Something was wrong...I could feel it. The rest of us waited on the boat. "Bob" got to the baby. Gently pulled the sling over the dead woman's head, and turned back towards us. His face was beaming. It was like redemption for him, for all of us. He started back at a trot. That's when I saw it...

At first I thought it was a vine that had gotten stuck to the cloth of the sling. There were leaves on it. But it didn't fall off. And, the leaves disappeared. Just a long wire trailing back toward the tree. I started screaming. He just kept trotting back, looking at the baby. I jumped off of the boat and ran at him, waving my arms and hollering at the top of my lungs. Then something caught my vision back behind him. It was the woman. The one the baby had been slung on. Her head had popped up and she was watching "Bob" and I. Measuring the distance. Their was something in her hands. The wire was hooked to it. Her eyes locked on mine and she twisted the detonator in her hands.

I was still about twenty feet from "Bob" when he and the baby exploded. Felt like a giant, hot hand picked me up and threw me backwards toward the boat. Took me a minute to get my senses back. I was sitting half in and half out of the river. Couldn't hear anything but a loud ringing in my ears. I looked back up the beach toward the trees. The woman was gone. Part of one of "Bob's" legs was still there, sticking up from his boot. The rest of him was gone. I tried to get up. Couldn't. My guys tried to get me back on the boat  I shook them off. I started crawling, looking for his dog tags. Something was dripping off of my face and arms. Blood and tissue. Figured I was wounded. Crawled down to the river's edge to clean up. None of it was from me. I was covered in pieces of "Bob" and the baby.Never did find the dog tags. They loaded me up and we took off.

That was the only time I was glad I was in Intel. I could keep track of the people from that village. A few months later, a few of them were captured. They thought the woman might be one of them. I volunteered to go check it out. Deep in country. The scouts lead me into this village. The prisoners are tied to polls next to some pig pens. I check 'em out. See the woman. Pull her head up. It's her. I get to ask some questions. She never takes her eyes off of me. Black, cold and empty as a tomb. One of the questions is how she could do that to a baby. She tells them it was hers. "Bullshit", I say.  Three of the others confirm it was. The South Vietnamese Officer in charge tells me it's my call on what to do with them.

I leave the village a week later.

I still, to this day, feel like they're all over me. I wash and wash and wash...never feel clean.

My tour was finally up a while later. Came home. People spitting on me and my buddies. Calling us all of these vile, filthy things. Movie stars and others posing for pictures with the VC. Me, I've got "Bob" and that baby on me...and every time I look in the mirror, I see that woman's eyes. Dead, lifeless, empty eyes...and I wonder: are they her eyes, or mine?

He told me more that day. Over the years, he told me a lot more. Never planned, at least on my part. He'd just start talking about one of them out of the blue when we were alone. I've never told anyone those other stories. Never will. They're worse.

He was an avowed atheist when we met. Used to be confrontational with me about my views. We'd go back and forth on things like string theory, membranes, many worlds. You get the idea. His views started to change after that first talk, at least when it was just he and I. More of an agnostic. I had a heart attack a little over three years ago. Made me realize that I had still been doing a piss poor job with my own monster. I tried to work even harder at controlling it. We talked about that too, on some of the visits. He loved watching shows like "Ancient Aliens", and "Through the Wormhole". I always made sure I was caught up on them before going for a visit, because I knew that he'd want to discuss them. He started talking about God. How he believed that only a fool would think that all of this just happened. A full one hundred eighty degrees from where he'd been before.

He got really sick about the time I had my heart attack. He didn't think he was going to make it then. He made me promise then to tell his story after he died. When he thankfully didn't, I put it way on the back burner. I thought that maybe he forgot about it.

One of the biggest breakthroughs came about a year ago. He had shut himself off from his sisters and their families. One of his nephews made a huge overture, and came up to see him. That opened the door for others to come. The young man who did that did more than he'll ever know. It allowed my friend to reconnect with people that he loved dearly. The fault was never theirs, anymore than it was his wonderful wife's fault when he was abusive to her, or his children's fault when he was cruel to them. He knew it too. That guilt: his meanness and cruelty to those he loved the most, was what ate at him even more than the memories that followed him home from the war. You can blame him. You can say he was weak, or cowardly in not asking all of them for forgiveness while he was alive...but you can never call him anything as bad as what he called himself. He hated himself for what he had done. For what he allowed himself to become. He simply didn't have the strength to do it. Judge him at your own peril.

I didn't get to see him very much the last six months or so of his life. Like I said earlier, my daughter Crystal was battling cancer. We almost lost her a number of times. Her still being here, and doing well is a miracle from God. In fact, that was one of the things my friend called her. His miracle. He also called her his hero.His inability to come to see her in the hospital, or on the few occasions she was home, tore him apart. He knew he couldn't handle seeing her that way. His wife told me later that when she gave him updates on Crystal he would cry. He loved her very much.

His wife called me early one morning. He wasn't doing well at all. He was refusing, as always, to go to the hospital. She asked me to come out. She had somehow managed to get him to go in the ambulance. It was pulling away when I arrived at the house. She and I went, along with some of his children. He and I were alone for a short while in the ER. He was amazingly calm about everything. I think, in some ways, he was almost relieved. He made me promise then to help look out for his wife. He had left a collection of items that he wanted her to sell, in the hopes it would help take care of her. He told me he wanted her to travel. Have some fun. He knew he had been a chain around her ankle for a very long time. He hoped that she would finally be able to have some freedom. I told him I'd do my best, but we were a long way from that. "Bullshit, Chris", he told me. "I'm short timing." I think it was the next day we found out for sure how bad the cancer was. A few months, they said. Maybe more with treatment.

I came out the day after that. He was being released to go home. I was alone in the hospital room with my friend and his wife. She told him she had moved his room to the one closer to the bathroom, and he went off. All of the vile, hateful words...I asked his wife, rather forcefully, to leave us alone for a few. She did. He went on for a minute more, ranting. Then the fire went out of his eyes. "I know she means well. She wants everything to be easier for me through the end, but I'm not going to be here long enough for it to matter. I told them I'd do the treatments, but I lied. I'm not. Please don't tell anyone. I'll stall as long as I can, but I don't think I'll have to do it for very long." Then he asked me if I remembered my promise from two years ago. "Start getting it ready. You'll be writing it soon." Then I talked to him for a while. The content of that conversation I will probably take with me to my grave.

We had a nice ride home, the three of us. Stopped for a little while and looked around at things he hadn't seen for some time. He didn't go into the new room when we first got back. Just sat out in the kitchen. He'd promised me he was going to try his best to not be his usual asshole self when he did go in, and he was trying his best. He and his wonderful wife finally went in and sat down on matching recliners. We all talked for a short time, then he asked if I'd make a roast, mashed potatoes and gravy to bring out during the weekend. It was one of his favorite meals. So I said sure, told him I loved him, and gave him a kiss on the cheek. They were holding hands when I left.

My whole family went with me that weekend. He asked about each one, and was grateful that they all came. He spoke to each one alone. Told Crystal she was his hero. His wife brought him a plate of the dinner we'd brought. I thought it was too much. I cringed inside, waiting for him to go off on her as he had so many times in the past. Not one word. He finished the whole plate. I went in alone later. He told me again not to forget. He told all of us he loved us when we left. His wife called the next day to say they made sliders out of the left over roast, and that he'd eaten every bite. When she called the very next day, it was to tell me that he was gone. Almost one week to the day that he first went to the hospital.

I've struggled for weeks over writing this. He was adamant that it wasn't to be a pity party for him, or an excuse. He didn't feel that there was any excuse for how he'd treated his family. But, he had wanted them to know some of what was behind it. He wanted them to know he was sorry. That any problems they'd had were totally his fault, not theirs. He also wanted others to hear his story. He knew that it wasn't unique. Over two million men and women served during that war. Many of them came home to lead productive lives. Many of them didn't. Many of them ended up out in the woods, alone. In mental hospitals. On the streets. Homeless. Forgotten. He wanted their families to know that they all had their own stories. Some of them worse than his. Not everyone can deal with the bite of the monster. You can't possibly know how well you would do, until you've been bit. The monster isn't the Vietnamese. It isn't the armed forces. The monster is the powers that be, who think nothing of sacrificing the lives of others for their own personal gain; whether that sacrifice is planned and played out in a foreign country, or in the streets of the inner cities of our own country.

Our talks about God, and the security of God's Grace I won't discuss here except for this: he didn't believe he deserved to go to heaven. I told him that if deserve determined it, I would be going to hell. I'm not going there, and I made sure he knew that he wasn't either. I know, at the end, he finally believed me.

I'll close now with the same thing I closed his and my initial talk about our inner monsters with. Perhaps you know, or have known, someone like my friend. If so, say this last thing for them. Forgive them. Give them, and yourself, peace.

The way you walked was thorny
Through no fault of your own
But, as the rain enters the soil
The river enters the sea:
So tears too run to their predestined end
Your suffering is over. May God grant you peace now, my friend

At the end of those old werewolf movies, the hero, in death, returns to his original self. I can see my friend now: his hair and beard long, a smile creasing his tan, handsome face. He is sitting with loved ones and friends, his only hopes that others can learn from his failures...and that his wife and family can forgive him and find their own peace.

I'll see you soon buddy. I love you.



Neil Smith said...

I would love it if you'd pick this blog up again...

Anonymous said...

Excellent blog you have here.. It's difficult to find high-quality writing like yours nowadays.
I honestly appreciate people like you! Take care!!


About Me

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Christopher Blake is a loving husband...devoted father...minister...crippled more than a little rough around the edges...