In the first installment of this series of sketches space provided courtesy of my old 1960s yellow brick road magical mystery tour merry prankster fellow traveler, Peter Paul Markin, I mentioned, in grabbing an old Bruce Springsteen CD compilation from 1998 to download into my iPod, that I had come across a song that stopped me in my tracks, Brothers Under The Bridge. I had not listened to or thought about that song for a long time but it brought back many memories from the late 1970s when I did a series of articles for the now defunct East Bay Eye (Frisco town, California East Bay, naturally) on the fate of some troubled Vietnam veterans who, for one reason or another, could not come to grips with “going back to the real world” and took, like those a Great Depression generation or two before them, to the “jungle”-the hobo, bum, tramp camps located along the abandoned railroad sidings, the ravines and crevices, and under the bridges of California, mainly down in Los Angeles, and created their own “society.”
The editor of the East Bay Eye, Owen Anderson, gave me that long ago assignment after I had done a smaller series for the paper on the treatment, the poor treatment, of Vietnam veterans by the Veterans Administration in San Francisco and in the course of that series had found out about this band of brothers roaming the countryside trying to do the best they could, but mainly trying to keep themselves in one piece. My qualifications for the assignment other than empathy, since I had not been in the military during the Vietnam War period, were based simply on the fact that back East I had been involved, along with several other radicals, in running an anti-war GI coffeehouse near Fort Devens in Massachusetts and another down near Fort Dix in New Jersey. During that period I had run into many soldiers of my 1960s generation who had clued me in on the psychic cost of the war so I had a running start.
After making connections with some Vietnam Veterans Against The War (VVAW) guys down in L.A. who knew where to point me I was on my way. I gathered many stories, published some of them in the Eye, and put the rest in my helter-skelter files. A while back, after having no success in retrieving the old Eye archives, I went up into my attic and rummaged through what was left of those early files. I could find no newsprint articles that I had written but I did find a batch of notes, specifically notes from stories that I didn’t file because the Eye went under before I could round them into shape.
The ground rules of those long ago stories was that I would basically let the guy I was talking to give his spiel, spill what he wanted the world to hear, and I would write it up without too much editing (mainly for foul language). I, like with the others in this current series, have reconstructed this story as best I can although at this far remove it is hard to get the feel of the voice and how things were said.
Not every guy I interviewed, came across, swapped lies with, or just snatched some midnight phrase out of the air from was from hunger. Most were, yes, in one way or another but some, and the one I am recalling in this sketch from 1979 fits this description, had no real desire to advertise their own hunger but just wanted to get something off their chest about some lost buddy, or some event they had witnessed, or some story that had stuck with them. I have presented enough of these sketches both back in the day and here to not make a generalization about what a guy might be hiding in the deep recesses of his mind.
Some wanted to give a blow by blow description of every firefight (and every hut torched) they were involved in, others wanted to blank out ‘Nam completely and talk of before or after times, or talk about the fate of some buddy, some ‘Nam buddy, who maybe made it back the “real world” but got catch up with stuff he couldn’t handle, or got caught up in some stuff himself that he couldn’t handle, couldn’t handle because his whole blessed life pointed the other way. Pete Allen’s life story fit that latter description, the couldn’t handle part. He just kind of drifted around the West Coast (after spending a little time back home in the East) after he got out of the service, got caught up with some wrong gees, did too much dope and a little time and landed in the “jungle,” the one they set up in Segundo near the arroyo where I met him.
What makes his story different from others, almost uniquely different in some respects, is that he wanted to tell a story that had haunted him for a while that was told to him when he first started frequenting the jungles back east a little in Gallup, New Mexico at the huge jungle camp (which got bigger, much bigger during Native American Inter-Tribals in August) near the old Southern Pacific sidings back in 1973. There he befriended (or was befriended by) an old Mex hobo, Felipe, who had been on the road for almost forty years after the events he related. Felipe had seen good times, bad times, and worse times but no matter what he told his story, the story of his encounter with the legendary Mexican bandit chief , El Lobo back in the 1930s (who even I had heard of when I went south of the border for various, ah, things, okay). Pete felt in respect for his friendship with Felipe that he had to relate the story, to continue Felipe’s work. Why it haunted him (and maybe haunted Felipe too, these things are hard to figure) was whether he too should think twice before pursuing any stuff of dreams that he might have had. Good point. I like to finish up these introductions by placing these sketches under a particular sign; no question Pete’s sign was that of the stuff that dreams are made of.
After a couple of small incidents, incidents that if left to fester would have led to gun play between Burl and Tim no question in their then current state, nothing in the real world really something about the food and how it tasted funny ( a reflection of Felipe, and his culinary skill, if nothing else but fuel for their feud) magnified out in the hills the Old Geezer declared they had been out long enough and it would be best to go back to civilization, divvy up the profits and each head their separate ways. Strangely, or maybe not so strangely, Burl and Tim bucked the idea at first wanting pan forever, when the geezer mentioned stray banditos out in the hills who if they found out some gringos were afoot might come and do them all in. That got the boys’ attention and so they broke camp, started heading back. A couple of days out they ran into a couple of stray banditos, fought them off, and began to hunker down on security. Three or four days later coming out of a narrow canyon they were confronted by a bandito force of about twenty desperados, some with they look of career bandits about them, others who looked like the remnants of Pancho Villa’s various armies now free-lancing with whoever paid and fed them.
The leader, a serious guy named El Lobo, a legend in the Mexico night just behind Villa and Zapata in the local hill pantheon and a name known even in places like Tampico and Vera Cruz, known and dreaded by Felipe one he spoke his name, who between spits, told the gringo trio (he did not direct anything, in anger or calm, toward Felipe) that he knew, knew so don’t lie to him, that they had gold and that he wanted half of it to let them go. The three parlayed. Tim and Burl, strung out on gold like men strung out on some unattainable woman, were for fighting it out and moving on quickly, the old man wiser and ready to take half of something, gold something, rather than a hail of lead was ready for compromise. He finally talked them into it, although the arguments were heated and the vagrant smell of gun powder was just below the surface. He called over to El Lobo, rendered the collective decision, went to the pack mule saddle bags, got the goods, passed El Lobo his share, and then went back and joined up with Tim and Burl.