When I was nine, we moved from Fort Wayne Indiana to Humboldt Tennessee, and my thirty years of wandering in the wilderness began. Humboldt was a small rural town in Gibson County. I was a little guy and not a gregarious kid, so I did not make many friends there.
It was my first year in Jr High that I met Wayne. He was a year or two older than me and among other things, one of the school bullies. He hated black people, N-lovers, and damn Yankees. I made two out of three on his list. Inevitably, he challenged me, and called me out for a fight in the field we crossed going home.
I had never been in a fight. I was young and stupid, but not stupid enough to think I could win a fight with anyone, much less with Wayne. I had never wanted to fight anyone. I was mostly quiet and never violent. I had already been a victim of horrific violence in the form of sexual abuse. I abhorred violence in any form. I knew as word spread around school that there would be a crowd of kids in the field mostly cheering Wayne on as he beat the crap out of me. And I knew I couldn’t avoid it.
I left school as usual and started walking home. Kids started following. I turned off the sidewalk and started down the hill that became the field. I could see Wayne and several other kids already there. When they saw me and those following they began to whoop it up.
I kept walking and as soon as I got within twenty-five yards of Wayne, he started walking towards me. His friends began to fan out and form a circle, and I noticed those following me did the same. The name calling began. Wayne cussing and spitting … telling me just what he thought of me and want he was going to do to me. I was damn near peeing my pants.
When he finally ran out of rants, I calmly said “I don’t want to fight you Wayne. I think you’re wrong, but I got nothing against you.” More screaming and name calling. Then he hit me. I hit the ground. When I got back up, I looked at Wane and asked “Did that make you feel better? I hope so, but I’m still not going to fight with you.” So he hit me again.
That’s the way it went for what seemed a long time, but probably not more than ten minutes. Wayne screaming cussing and knocking me down … me getting back up talking to him calmly and refusing to strike a blow. After a while, the crowd began to fade away. By the time Wayne gave up in disgust it was just the two of us. As he left me beat up, bloody, and hurting but still getting back up, I said to his back “I win!”
I lived in Humboldt for another year and a half, and then we came to Memphis. When I graduated High school, I won the lottery. Then it meant I was going to be drafted. So … I Joined the U. S. Air Force. Basic training, schooling in aircraft munitions, and off to a bomb dump near you. It was in my third year that I got orders for Viet Nam.
I still abhorred violence.
So I went Home on leave before deploying, made a consciences decision not to go, and went AWOL.
Where to hide … oh yeah … Humboldt … I could go out and stay at the Dover’s farm where I had lived every summer for the six years I lived there. That little farmhouse between Gibson and Milan was the only sanctuary I ever found in my wilderness wandering. As I rolled into Humboldt, a certain nostalgia hit me. It felt odd because I hated the place. But I was drawn to drive by our old house, ride thru the cemetery, and hit the main drag.
I stopped at a small diner/beer joint to get a hot dinner and after ordering noticed that Wayne was sitting at the bar, nursing a drink, and looking at me. When he noticed me noticing him he got up, came over, and sat down. It had been eight years since we had laid eyes on each other. We talked for an hour as I ate and he drank. He reminded me of the times he had kicked my butt when we were kids. He hadn’t changed much, though he looked and sounded old. As we left, I shook his hand.
I drove on out to the Dover’s Farm. It was late evening and my visit unannounced. Still I was immediately welcomed in to stay as long as I wanted. Coffee was brewed and I sat around with Mr. Ellis, Mrs. Dover and all eight of their kids. Ted was my age and the others younger. We stayed up way too late talking and laughing before going to bed. Up at sunrise and to work. I stayed for a month.
But I kept thinking about the one fight I really had with Wayne as a kid, and I knew I had to go back. I couldn’t hide out here forever. After about a month I said my goodbyes and came back to Memphis to turn myself in. The military acted like I had simply missed my plane. They gave me a ticket and off I went. When I arrived at Phan Rang Viet Nam, I was given a room in a barracks, Jungle uniforms, and a Job working on the napalm line.
I refused to go to work. When “they” asked me why I wouldn’t go to work, I calmly told them I wasn’t going to fight these people, that I had nothing against them. “They” went into Wayne mode cussing, spitting, and calling me names. They sent me to a shrink, took away all my rank, ninety percent of my paycheck, my freedom to go anywhere out of my squadron area except as ordered, and made me stay in country for my entire year before kicking me out.
I spent that year fighting, but not with the Vietnamese. By the time I left, I had become addicted to heroin, inured to senseless violence, and incapable of trusting anyone. When I stepped off the plane in San Leandro California with one duffel bag and my discharge papers, I said to myself “They won.”
And for the next sixteen years, I was right …