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 told to me by my friend Peter Paul Markin about a corner boy from back in his old North Adamsville neighborhood 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. 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. Let Markin tell the tale his way and you will see that it exactly fits the series and the times, the times of the Vietnam two roads. The sign to place this one under, easy; the road not taken.
1. The Road Not Taken