As I rolled my converted golf cart into the combination country club, mobile home park and RV resort a rusty 1986 van gurgled past me.
I looked out of place, pushing my cart with my backpack and propane heater in the place where my golf clubs should’ve gone but he, the bedraggled, bearded Vietnam Vet – his hat proclaimed that loudly – looked out of place, and time, and out of sorts, even at a passing glance.
This was a stranger: this was someone who tests the empathy of everyone he brushes by.
I had wondered how people would respond to me as, unshaven and overburdened I passed through the small towns of America. But I knew how they would respond to him.
I officially checked in, received my illustrated map, made my way past the showers and bathrooms, the pool and laundromat– there for registered guests only – and to tent site 140 and saw that, fittingly, we were neighbors.
The drivers door was open, his full frail figure in view if dimly, but that I would come to realize was likely as far as he would ever venture out into the society of the RV park; the well heeled retirees with their second or third homes pulling trailers, many from the northern states and Canada, with fat motorcycles or small cars or dune buggies or boats.
Still he was not hesitant to speak to me, to guess by my appearance that I was on foot and, after I revealed my full plans, that his new neighbor was, he said, “crazier than me.”
We really weren’t that far apart.
$15 a night doesn’t get you the motorcycle or the boat but it does get you a home for the night: his the van, mine the tent.
He was a Vietnam Vet and though I missed the draft by two years my father, at 50, did a yearlong tour.
We were also both afloat, barely, in the mud of social security.
As we talked – though half of what he said was unintelligible to me and half of my responses went unheard by him (so many of his systems were clogged and crimped or rusted shut) – I think we both began to see each other.
He was obviously in poor health. No, that doesn’t come close to describing his condition. His ailments were epic. Odysseus may have taken on cyclops and sirens and the gods themselves but Hawkeye’s journey home was far more perilous.
His voice was a scab. On his left temple there was a horrendous blemish, a tumor, a growth: it’s hard to describe it accurately because it was difficult to look directly upon. He kept it in the shadows.
His yellowed fingers gripped a cigarette that seemed to have the upper hand; it slowly, malevolently, was inhaling him.
But in other ways he was charming: he was kind to me, concerned for me. He laughed inoffensively at the situation I had entered voluntarily- my long walk – and offered me, if I heard him correctly, “a couple of eggs and coffee,” the next morning before I left.
Is it callous to say that at the prospect of sharing a meal with him I thought of Papillon, of Steve McQueen sharing the leper’s cigar?
But then, as I put up my tent, he disappeared into that dark van. It was only 3 in the afternoon but I didn’t hear a sound from him the rest of the day or through the night, and when I climbed out of my tent early the next morning there were no eggs or coffee waiting.
I took advantage of the hour: the only guests stirring were vacationers with actual golf clubs walking to the first tee. In an otherwise empty bathroom I showered, shaved, changed clothes: something not expected of a cross country walker.
I came back to site 140 and there was still no sign of life from the van so, after taking down the tent and packing up most of my things I paused to dine on a half-eaten bag of “Antioxidant Mix:” almonds, sunflower seeds and dried cranberries.
My mouth trudged through that meal until, thankfully, I was interrupted by a bicyclist: was her name Sylvia? She had seen me from across the way, from her recreational vehicle and had been moved by my meager breakfast. As she finished her morning cycle she turned in to my site and announced that her husband had made one too many pancakes that morning, “would I like one?”
I’ve been on the road less than a month but I have learned at least one important lesson: whenever someone offers you something free, say yes!
A moment later she returned with – in one hand a plate with an LP of a pancake a half inch thick and covered with butter and – in the other, maple syrup and homemade jam.
Had she ever done the same for Hawkeye? Maybe.
When I finished I took the plate, jam and syrup and returned them and when I came back to my picnic table Hawkeye had reappeared, and was once again in the drivers seat, the door still closed.
I went to the check-in area, which as is the case in many of these parks, served also as a general store and gift shop, and bought 2 cups of coffee. I filled a third cup with dry creamer, packets of sugar and a spoon.
I walked up to his window, and knocked softly, gesturing with the coffee. I think perhaps that the window didnt work because he opened the door instead.
It was a perfunctory exchange at first: Would he like a cup of coffee? How did he take his coffee? What was that ungodly hole on the side of his face?
A spider bite, Hawkeye said – I had not asked him out loud but he knew, up close that question arose on it’s own, adding that the doctors at the veterans hospital wanted to biopsy it: “expected me to come back in a day or two for the results. Fuck that! I drove 3000 miles in the last month, to this the veterans hospital and that, to the Social Security office, back-and-forth. I’m not going back.”
Up close I could see the detail of the “spider bite.” It looked as if he had been branded with a silver dollar-sized iron, or as if a small red, fleshy donut had been affixed to his cheek and then nibbled at. I really can’t describe it. Up close I could also see that his right eye must have been pretty much useless: there was no eye to see, instead a collection of pea-sized yellow spheres filled the space and bulged from under his eyelid. Glaucoma? And then there was his belly: he looked to be carrying twins at least and at the bottom what I took to be a hernia protruded.
And yet he sought to advise me. He joined the chorus of those arguing against crossing the desert at this time of year. He asked me If I was carrying a gun: ”You should!” He offered me what he said was a 40-year old leather jacket that was stowed somewhere inside the van. He offered me a package of orange peanut butter crackers. I accepted the crackers.
There wasn’t much of a conversation: hints of a wild youth, a brief account of a wounded comrade, a wistful and then dismissive description of his Rhode Island hometown, Smithfield I thought I heard, and a brother or was it friend he had not seen in years…
He left the park before me, heading to the Social Security office again, he said.
“Come on Maybelline,” he was speaking to his van, “start for me.”
Maybelline wheezed and coughed, then wheezed and coughed again, all the time Hawkeye slapping at the gas pedal with his foot and turning the key.
The second time around Maybelline wheezed and coughed and then convulsed into combustion not unlike, I thought to myself, Hawkeye likely rises in the morning.
Then proceeding me out of the park as he had proceeded me in Maybelline gurgled and groaned and lurched out of view.
I blinked. Had he been real? Was he a spectre sent to this comfortable combination marina, country club and RV park to chasten me, remind me of my mission?
‘Do you feel,’ I am supposed to ask residents of the communities I pass through, ‘that this is your hometown?’ I didn’t have to ask.
No, he was all too real, homeless, magnificent. Who among us could have withstood for a moment any one of the ailments he endured daily? Did I mention the color of the skin on his legs?
We like to talk about bravery. ‘Thank you for your service,’ has become an almost involuntary reply to the sight of any member of the military. My father, 95 years old, hero of the “Hump”, navigator in the Berlin airlift, a Vietnam Vet as well: was he as brave as this veteran?
And what has Hawkeye received as a reward for his service, his bravery, his resilience: disdain, fear, detached doctors, indifferent bureaucrats, the comraderie of the disavowed.
I hear people say they believe most of the homeless are taking advantage of the system. I hear people say that it is more profitable to be on welfare than to work for a living. But look in to Hawkeyes’ eye, his one functioning eye and tell me we can’t do a better job of caring for our brothers and sisters?
We can do better.