Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
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It was a cold, clear night when Ernie and I set out in the truck. The moon was up, a moon you could see through, like Kleenex. The wind rushed through the rolled-down window and brushed its cold wrist against my cheek. Ernie exhaled smoke slowly, through his nostrils, and it was swept away from his face. I could smell the whiskey on him and the odor of sweat. In his jacket he looked bulkier than ever, and unbreakable, like a redwood stump left over from the loggers. I was holding his rifle--a Savage 30-06, to which was clamped a 3X to 9X variable scope. It was as heavy as rocks. When I pushed the rifle on fire there was a red spot on the safety. My heart beat faster every time I saw that crimson slot flash before my eyes. It was late, but I was wide awake, excited. I had a feeling that something important was about to happen, that this would be a evening that would stay with me forever.
"You ready with that gun?" Ernie asked.
"Not a little nervous about shooting a deer?"
"Well, you should be. Hunting is serious. It should never come easy. A man never kills something without good reason. You understand?"
"I think so. But I'm not afraid to kill a deer."
"I'm not saying you are, or that you should be. The deer has to die so that we can eat. That's good enough reason. But you should feel something before you kill an animal. It's a feeling you should have. It comes from inside of you and it's like saying you're sorry. But not with words. It's like saying that if it weren't for food, you wouldn't be doing this. Hunting is serious. Only a fool sees it any other way."
"Yessir," I said, but I still wasn't quite sure what he meant.
We passed a field that bordered the road and a big lit-up house. The house lights made the field beyond seem darker. The dark forest beyond the field seemed like breath drawn back. A few miles further down the highway Ernie slowed down and hooked a right off the blacktop onto a narrow, twisting road. The truck went strumming over a cattle guard, and soon we were climbing switch backs up a ridge of as yet unlogged second-growth redwoods. The higher we climbed, the slower the pickup crawled, its shocks squeaking, its gearbox grinding.
"You know," Ernie said, "even if we don't get a deer tonight, it's still good to be out here. Good to get away from the house... and the old lady." He winked at me and pulled a bottle of whiskey out from behind the seat. "That's what the woods are all about," he said, drinking with a swooping gesture of the arm and head, elbow stuck far out. The determined long swallow of a real drinker. "It's where the women don't want to go."
We drove for a few more miles before we came around a tree-shrouded bend, into a small clearing. Suddenly, Ernie stopped the truck. "Look," he whispered, "down in the bottom in that draw."
At first I could see nothing but shadow and darkness. Then I saw it--a deer. It was watching us carefully, perfect in the moment of fine innocence and wonder. One large ear turned slowly toward us. Its black nose quivered with each breath.
"I see it," I whispered back, since I did not want anything to be ruined because of what I said or did.
"Okay, son," he said. "Go ahead. Take your shot."
At first I thought I had misunderstood him. But then he reached over and twisted the handle on my door, quietly, so as not to spook the deer. I could hardly believe it.. He was going to let me have the first shot. I got out of the truck, slowly. The air was sharp-toothed; it bit my cheeks, nipped my chin. My hands were numb from the cold venom of countless bites. Suddenly, I was alone with the deer in a forest of green that seemed to cry out for rich red, and I didn't have time to think.
"Aim for the chest," Ernie said. "That's the killing spot." I nodded and brought the gun up to my shoulder, trying to line up the cross hairs. My pounding heart drove the sight in circles around the doe's heart. A branch snapped. Through the scope I saw the deer look up, ears high and straining. It was about to bound away. I squeezed the trigger. I remember distinctly the report of the gun and the flash of the muzzle. The deer seemed to sink into the ground, hind legs first, head raised as if to cry out. Then, still straining to keep its head high, as if that alone would save it, the deer collapsed in the high grass.
"Good shot," Ernie cried, clapping me on the back. "You got her." For a second I was dazed, not quite understanding what had happened. Then I grabbed the flashlight and sprinted to the place where the deer had stood. The animal lay on its side in the grass, one leg twitching. Its eyes were open, but it looked like they were looking in instead of out. Little pieces of dust were blowing up from its mouth.
"It's still breathing," I said, my words instantly translated into warm gouts of steam.
Ernie pulled out his knife, the blade shining in the light. "Watch how I do this," he said, "because next time you have to field dress your own animal." He reached down, put one arm around the deer's neck, raised his pocketknife and stabbed it into the jugular vein. Thick red blood poured out all over his hands. It kept coming. There was a lot of it. When there was no further struggle, Ernie removed his jacket and shirt and got busy. Working quickly, he split the hind tendons, threaded them with a heavy branch, and hoisted the animal to the low limb of a nearby tree. Then he made the first long incision through the hair and skin, careful not to break the peritoneum. He ran the incision from the breast to the tail, worked the skin back with his fingers before making the second cut through the warm membrane, and cut and the steamy innards rolled out unbroken, onto the ground.
When Ernie was done, he rose and painfully stretched. I remember him standing there, stripped to the waist, covered with blood, telling me important things, like how to be careful with the bladder, and to never let the hair touch the meat. But perhaps the most important thing he told me--made me feel--was that a man does not back away from doing whatever is necessary, no matter how unpleasant.
In my junior year of high school I learned to drive. It was in Ernie's '59 Chevy pickup. One afternoon, he said, "Here, take the keys and go up the P.L. line." I had sat beside him many times, holding the wheel. Driving wouldn't be that hard, I thought. I got in behind the wheel and started the truck. The interior smelled strongly of sun-warmed leather and gasoline fumes. The broken speedometer registered a petrified twenty-five. Rain streaks and crushed insects blurred the windshield, of which one section was shattered in a bursting-star pattern. The pickup wasn't much to look at, but it ran good. I put it in gear and pulled away from the house.
The P.L. line was a logging road that went between Pacific Lumber Company land to the south and the river to the north. That day I drove with courage and no skill. The Chevy pulled to the left and right, and I oversteered to compensate, trying to manage all those things, clutch, brake, wheel and shift knob. Somehow, I made it down the road without incident. When I got to the intersection of the main highway, I turned around and headed back. I was smiling from ear to ear. I had conquered the world. I knew that the two wheels of my Schwinn bicycle would no longer be enough to satisfy my wanderlust.
One morning, not long after that, I decided to take the truck for another drive. Pulling out of the driveway I was abruptly halted by a fence post. I went back in the house and found Ernie in the kitchen having a morning cigarette.
"What's wrong?" he asked, his green eyes searching my troubled face.
"I creased the fender," I managed to say.
"I creased the fender." He looked puzzled and followed me out to the garage. There he solemnly inspected the damage. I awaited his wrath.
Instead he said, "Don't worry. I was planning on having that old truck painted anyway." Thus did I find acceptance of my mistakes, as well as love and recognition, and as I grew up I learned that I must give to others what had been given to me. Ernie taught me that. He taught me a lot of things before it was over.
A week later the clouds closed over our family again. Ernie began to drink heavily. He was now drinking every day, spinning out of control like a car without breaks or steering. I wanted to tell him I was worried, worried about us, and even more worried about him. I was afraid he was killing himself. But how do you say those things to someone you respect so deeply?
One Friday evening he didn't come home from work. My mother stood by the kitchen window for hours, anxiously looking for his pickup. It was just after midnight when the police finally called. Ernie had been in an accident. He was in the hospital. The officer said Ernie had been driving like a blind man and was so messed up on whiskey, he must have been pretty near blind at that. He had hit a power pole and been ejected from his pickup. In my mind I saw the truck smashed deliberately into a telephone pole. What shocked me as much as anything was realizing suddenly that I'd expected it. My mother and I rushed to the hospital.
Ernie was lucky. He had totaled his pickup, but he suffered only a slight concussion, a few broken ribs and some bruised muscles. He would be okay. However, as soon as his injuries were mended, he would be sent back to jail. On top of that, there was an eight-hundred dollar fine to pay. This was high drama for our family. We didn't have that kind of money. And with Ernie not working, where would we get it?
"What's going to happen to us? my mother cried. "My God." But God wasn't having any of it. He had long ago washed his hands of our family.
The next few months were a constant struggle for us, a fight to survive. My mother went back to work at the mill. I got a job after school changing irrigation pipe for a rancher. All of the money we made went to paying off the fine. Twice a week we went to the county jail to visit Ernie. My mother felt it was important that we spend as much time as we could together, as a family. And so we did. But even this did not help, because the family we set out to imitate did not really exist; a family as troubled as ours would never have dreamed of spending time together.
After Ernie had served his time in jail, the judge ordered him to attend AA meetings with the other human ships wrecked up on the rocks which border the sea of alcohol. The meetings didn't help--nothing seemed to help. Ernie went right back to drinking, never precisely remembering the bouts of drunkenness, his mind drawing a merciful curtain over each one as soon as it was over.
"How bad was it?" he would ask the morning after. It was always that way when he was in the grip of alcohol. Even when he was conscious, he never seemed to exactly be inside of himself. Much of the time he seemed to be floating above his own head, like a helium-filled balloon. "How much trouble did I get into?"
Then, high school graduation... and boyhood was over. I was seventeen. A new path lay ahead, not through the woods, but to the military, and to a country about which I knew little. American men were fighting a war, and Marine Corps recruiters descended on our high school like a locust. They marched about straight and tall in their khaki uniforms, their trousers holding a lethal crease, their shirts adorned with the ribbons of countless exotic battles. During those final weeks of school, the recruiters came into our classrooms where they extolled the virtues of fighting for democracy, and spoke of honor and glory and the pride that came with being an American Fighting Man. The Marines gathered a loyal following among the youth of our town. And why not? After all, the Marines were the toughest, the best. They were proving it in a place called Vietnam.
The war found its way into our home each evening at about dinner time. In the course of a meal we would witness an intense ground battle in Dong-Ha, or a high altitude bombing raid, or the napalming of some village with an equally strange name. And all the soldiers looked so young. The basic ingredients of the Sixties--drugs, rock 'n' roll and the war--all came together on the television screen in some dark alchemy: teenagers at war. For me, the war seemed to be more about coming of age than about combat. Vietnam took on a mystical importance, eating its away like acid into my brain. I saw myself in a uniform with medals on my chest-a man who drove headlong to his death without even changing my expression. The Marines would be a heroic challenge against which I could test my manhood. Many of my friends had already signed up. If I waited much longer, the war would be over.
Ernie's attitude toward my plan was a strange mixture of pride and faint alarm. He knew that I wasn't college material--my grades were indifferent to poor. My test scores for general aptitude showed that I wasn't very apt at anything--but he didn't want me in the Marines. Ernie had been fifteen years old when he enlisted in the Navy. He had watched the Marines storm the beaches of Iwo Jima, and had seen them fall like dominoes under Japanese fire until the sands were carpeted with bodies. Ernie was patriotic, but he could see sending me off to Vietnam in a Marine uniform. Fighting for your country was one thing; dying for it, another.
"Go into the Navy," he told me. "The Navy will teach you a decent trade."
"But I want to be a part of the real war," I said. "I want to win ribbons!" I had developed a keen desire for the insignias of honor, such as the decorations the Marine recruiters sported on their uniforms. Ernie walked into the bedroom. From the corner of a bedroom closet he withdrew a handful of small blue boxes and laid them on the bed. When the medals had been removed from their dusty containers and laid out on the table for inspection, I was rendered speechless. The medals were beautiful.
"Where did you get them?" I asked. I hadn't known that Ernie was a war hero. He had never talked about the war. That night I got the whole story. He was a veteran of WWII, a Navy man who had known the horror of having a ship sunk out from under him--twice. The first ship, the U.S.S. Bismark Sea, was hit in broad daylight and most of the men were rescued before the vessel had time to slip to the bottom.
The second ship was the one that gave him nightmares.
The U.S.S. Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser, was sunk by two Japanese torpedoes shortly after transporting components of the atomic bomb to the island of Tinian. The ship sunk within minutes, along with 400 of its crew. The Indianapolis had been observing radio silence, so no one other than the crew of the Japanese submarine knew their location. For five days, 797 men were stranded with little more than life jackets. By the time they were rescued only 317 men remained. Some had died of exhaustion, exposure and wounds inflicted when the ship was hit. Others were victims of shark attacks. For five days the waters around the men remained a constant crimson. The sharks fed nonstop, day and night, darting into their dwindling numbers with speed and fury, ripping at dangling limbs with savage hunger. Ernie was one of the lucky ones, he survived the harrowing ordeal. 880 other sailors weren't as lucky.
Ernie spent the remainder of that evening going over exciting sea battles and hair-raising kamikaze attacks. He assured me that if I joined the Navy I would see plenty of action. I could also pick up a useful trade for when I eventually got out of the service. The Marines, on the other hand, would take me nowhere in the race for bread and butter. "And one more thing... "Ernie pointed out with a sly wink. "Women go crazy over a man in a sailor uniform." That did it. That sold me on becoming a sailor. So, during the giddy days of John F. Kennedy's New Frontier I patriotically enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Such were the decisions that shaped young lives during those impressionable years.
I discovered that I hated the Navy. It was a dispassionate and cold machine. I went to Vietnam, but I saw little action. Yet Ernie had been right about one thing--I was safe in the Navy. For a full year our ship cruised in the Gulf of Tonkin, watching the coast, shooting down any enemy plane that dared to venture too close. Not once in that year did anyone return fire. With the Marines it was a more deadly game. Foot soldiers became men in Vietnam. Men became dead, zipped up in green vinyl bags, shipped home and buried with a twenty-one-gun salute.
The war went by in a blur and, like most of the 2.6 million Americans who served in Vietnam, after I had served my time I came home. When I saw Ernie again, I was shocked. In my absence, a heart attack had taken its toll on him. His weight was down to 125 pounds. His hair was thinning, his complexion sallow. His quick grace had slowed to measured, halting steps intermittently punctuated by coughing breathlessness. He had lost his luminous glow. It was fading out of him by slow degrees until there would be no more of it. Ernie was dying, and it scared and enraged me. It seemed to me that when a person went it should be a quick thing. His heart was doing more than killing him; it was degrading him, demeaning him. But nothing, I found, not even a failing heart, could keep Ernie down.
That first week home I decided to go fishing. A storm had blown down from the north, whistling in as suddenly as a gunslinger's draw and with all-out fury. The storm brought with it the first winter rain. I was elated, for fresh rain meant fresh steelhead. That evening when I pulled on my rain slicker, Ernie struggled out of his recliner.
"I'm coming along," he said.
"No, you're not," my mother told him. "You're too sick to go out." Ernie's face took on a new expression, of determination and willpower, something that firmed his chin and put fire back into his eyes.
"This might be my last chance to get a fish," he said, struggling to catch his breath. "I'm sure as hell not going to pass it up because I'm sick."
"Listen to the weather," I said. Rain pawed loudly on the roof. It chattered at the windows and streamed against the walls, its fingers weeping to get in.
"I don't give a damn about the weather," he said, "I'm coming along." Ernie wanted to fish. Weak as he was, it meant a great deal to him. He was going fishing, and that was that.
It was raining hard as we drove toward the river, a vertical downpour from a churning, blurry sky. Our headlights raked the stormy sky. Windshield wipers brushed the rain in a rhythmic bright wrap. We reached the river and parked. Ernie finished his cigarette, drawing the abrasive smoke in deeply with a reverse whistle. Then he climbed out of the truck, stiffly, and headed toward the river with flashlight and pitchfork in hand. I followed along behind. Rain was plucking leaves from the trees and turning stone gullies into streams. I had to breathe through my mouth to keep rain from my nose. I watched Ernie struggle along the path, in little sudden gasps, like the desperate heaves of a bird caught in the chimney. At one point he stopped and leaned heavily on the pitchfork.
"Do you hurt?" I asked, crouching beside him.
He had little breath for speaking, and shook his head no.
"Sure you don't want to go back home?"
A vigorous headshake again. We continued on.
A few hundred yard down the trail we eased over a bank to the soft sand of the river bar. Ernie was having trouble; his legs didn't want to respond smoothly to his mind's commands. They seemed as old and as flickering as ancient light bulbs. From his coat pocket he produced a pint of whiskey. He uncapped the bottle and drank in long swallows. There was less than half a bottle remaining after his unbroken guzzle.
"You got to stay as wet on the inside as you are on the outside, so you won't warp," he said.
By the time we reached the river, the rain had let up and leveled out to it's usual winter pace, not so much a rain as a dreamy smear of blue gray that wiped over the land instead of falling on it. The water was swift and dark, you could hear the rocks moving under it with a muffled, blocky sound. Ernie took a cigarette out of his shirt pocket and turned out of the wind to light it.
"I hope we don't get a wet ass and no fish," he said.
With my flashlight, I scanned the water and found nothing. Then, I pointed the light to the broad tailout of a pool and whistled softly at what I saw.
"Look, there they are," I said.
"Lordy, lordy," Ernie said, and a smile brightened his face. "I bet there's at least a hundred fish out there." The steelhead were lying stock still, their backs out of the water. Though seemingly motionless, every so often one of them would shoot up to the far end of the pool, its tail finning against the current, like riverweed.
Ernie upended the bottle again and the muscles of his throat worked in rapid convulsions. Then he grabbed the pitchfork and waded out into the water. "Let's get busy," he said. Ten yards from where he waded a steelhead swirled. A few steps, a quick jab, and the fish was impaled on the end of his pitchfork, fighting vigorously.
"Damn thing must go twelve, fourteen pounds," he puffed, holding the fish high in the air.
"It's a beauty," I said.
"Hoooeeee, I feel good!" He threw back his head an howled like a dog cutting a hot trail. Silent lightning zigzagged miles away, followed by a crawling thunder roll. The storm was moving away.
Thirty minutes later the rain had ceased completely. The moon found holes in the clouds with skilled agility, making the river glisten with frost. Ernie and I continued to fish. Owls were flying that night, shrieking to start their prey. A whipoorwill, off somewhere in the woods, sounded almost unbearably poignant. Ernie finished one pint of whiskey and started another. He wiped his forehead and watched the sweat drip from the ends of his fingers.
"Boy, that's pure bourbon whiskey running off my hand."
The wind flicked my hair and cooled my scalp. I experienced a rowdy euphoria and a sudden love for the night; for the wind smelling of river, of countryside, and of Ernie. We laughed at the sight of one another. Nothing funny had happened. It was just that kind of night, the kind that should never end.
But, eventually, it did come to an end. Ernie was worn out. It became an effort for him to even lift his feet. "Let's head home," he said. "I think my bones have turned to lead." I put the fish on a rope stringer and hoisted them to my shoulder. We stumbled back toward the truck, slowed by the weight of the fish. On the way, Ernie stopped many times to rest or to bubble the whiskey bottle.
"Let's sit down a minute," he said. "I'm so tired I almost fell ass over cowcatcher there." He did not sit each time as much as he collapsed. A little grunt escaped his throat, the sound of a man who has suddenly lost all his wind. "This has been a damn good night of fishing. Sure looking forward to that warm bed." He was drunk enough so some of the words were slurring now, and the thoughts slid into each other too.
"Come on," I said, helping him up. He felt like a bundle of twigs in my arms. He tried to put his arm around my shoulder but the fish between us made it difficult. We both looked clumsy--I for trying to help, and he for trying to thank me. This fishing trip, I thought, frightened--this will be the final one. He won't last another month. At that moment I felt the weight of important things to say. But I said nothing, for if I let my attention turn inward even for a second I would begin to tremble and the tears would not stay back. The wind blew from the north and I shivered as it touched on my cheek. I was worried for Ernie and all the human discord swirling around me in a time and place I could not understand.
Ernie died two weeks later. It was no surprise, except for the fact that death always comes as a surprise, the great finality of it. During his last days he was heavily sedated and rarely said anything. On the night of his death I had a dream. In my dream, he came back and was at the foot of my bed, smiling and telling me it was good, this darkness, this place he had gone. He left before I could tell him the things I wanted to say. I wanted to thank him for being my father, for helping me over the unfamiliar ground between child and man. I wanted to tell him that he could look back and say without blinking that he did right by me, his son. But more than anything, I wanted to tell him how much I loved him.
I'll never forget Ernie, or the many wonderful things he taught me. He thought he was only taking me hunting and fishing, but he made a permanent work of art in my head, a light memory in the mist, the coffee, the shivering, the waiting for the big one.
I'm still waiting, Dad. Still shivering.
Timothy Martin is employed as a heating and ventilation engineer at Humbolt State University. He is president of Six Rivers Running Club, and has a running column in the Times--Standard in Eureka. He's been published in Road Rider, Easy Rider, True Love, The Racer West, North Coat View, True Story, Running Times, Runner-Triathlete News and a variety of poetry journals.