Only once have I traveled somewhere in order to work … the summer I was 21 years old I went to Alaska to work the canneries. Did a little sightseeing with a cousin in Anchorage then hitchhiked to Kenai and lived in a tent city near the canneries. Lately I’ve found myself in discussions, mostly on Twitter travel chat groups, about the people we meet and the stories we uncover as travelers, and the different realities we are introduced to and/or gain insights into. The first time I really had this type of experience was in Kenai, where a group of Vietnam veterans lived in the same tent city as I did, and this experience remains terribly close to my heart, even if it breaks it just a little. Here’s a little ditty about these folks:
Rich was old-fashioned, but I didn’t know it. He left bottles of wine outside my tent, and I would wait to drink them until he came to visit. He left freshly cleaned fish for me to fry on my stove (a metal grate I found from a portable, round hibachi barbeque, set on top of three legs made by stacking water-filled beer cans two-high over my small fire pit). He picked me up oftentimes in the morning and take me to McDonald’s for breakfast. After I always ordered sausage egg McMuffins, he began just bringing the McMuffins to me, and we’d sit in his van and eat. He told me I looked nice after I bought a new outfit at the mall in town with one of my paychecks. He took me out to lunch at a really nice restaurant in Kenai. I thought it was just because we got along so well, laughed at the same things, that I listened to all his ideas of inventions he had in mind, that he had some money and a paternal heart. You see, he was precisely twice my age. He was a man; I was just a cannery girl with a Cheshire-cat smile.
The other ex-soldiers who lived in the tent city were overt in flirting, but they never once stepped over the line to do anything impolite. “Hey, you look so pretty,” they’d say when I walked by. “Hey, we’ll do anything you ask.” And they did.
They had a plastic 10-gallon bucket in their camp (for what purpose I have no idea). The four of them slept inside walls of black plastic taped to trees and among countless beer cans. You literally waded through Ham’s Light in their camp, waded through their veteran’s checks. Each of them would eventually tell me in some conversation, if not several, that their failed lives in the woods in a Salvation Army sleeping bag were built by the Vietnam War. This was the life our country had handed them. And they looked at me like some small flower in a hopeless patch of strangling weeds. So they turned this 10-gallon bucket upside down and bade me sit. “You are Queen,” they told me. Whoever I pointed to did whatever I commanded. I knew all they wanted to do was drink and smoke and laugh, forget that they were alive. So that’s what I made them do: “Two drinks for you; you walk around like a chicken; you two shotgun a beer.”
And so we passed the time together in the hazy light of the midnight sun.
The one who hardly spoke told me a ghost story one night. One that really happened to him. He looked hard at my face as he spoke. He was measuring his words against my eyes and my mouth. I didn’t realize it at the time, but each word he said uncovered a part of him until at the end of the story he was left completely vulnerable, standing naked with his story — he and the ghost on the boat out at sea. This was the one thing he had to say, this one incredible story. I don’t think he wanted to share the story so much as he wanted to judge me. When I asked him a question about the story, he flew up into a rage and leaped at me like an animal. I froze like prey. His friends pushed him away into the bushes. “You don’t believe me!” he cried. But the thing is, I did.
The blond-haired plump one, he held on to enough money to feed his dog and keep gas in a rusted hull of a car. Every time he got a veteran’s check, he’d spend two nights in a hotel room before he came back to the tent city. He asked the desk clerk for two keys, and he gave one to me. “Come visit, Sissy. Come stay the night with me.” He’d raise his eyebrows and wink.
I never did, but one day I drove him in his car on an errand, for he was drunk even by his own standards. As we puttered along, he threw empty beer cans one by one out the window. Soon enough a siren cut through the sound of the engine, flashing lights tailed us, and we were charged with littering. Or rather, my friend was. The sheriff made him get out of the car and walk back along the highway and pick up all the cans. I volunteered to help, but the officer wouldn’t let me. I think he knew it would be fruitless to fine my friend, so for half an hour the law and I shot the breeze together while this plump little figure staggered along the roadside putting beer cans, rocks and other things he mistook for cans into the bag the officer had provided. He handed the full bag to me, then to an imaginary person, and finally to the sheriff. Then we continued on our way. That night as Queen, I made my littering friend pick up all the beer cans at his camp, and I took them down to the dumpster at the cannery. If he wasn’t so sweet on me he would have killed me.
But Rich was strong enough to swim through the alcohol while his friends drowned. He came to the tent city to hang out with his buddies, but then he returned to a house, a good car, a decent job on a trawler. He had a daughter who was 17. I often caught him looking at me thoughtfully and I’d ask him what invention he was cooking up.
One night he picked me up in the van. We went to the liquor store and bought a 6-pak. He said he was taking me to see the beluga whales. We drove to the beach with our usual conversation material. But as we left our footprints in the sand, we left our words with them. I scanned the choppy waters in earnest, and drew in a quick breath like a hiccup with each whale sighting. Then Rich said into the silence between us, “Could I hold your hand?”
He said it like a small child asking for a toy he desperately wants. I suddenly understood the preceding silence. I suddenly understood the whole previous two months. I was laid flat. I felt so silly for my dim wits, so ridiculous, like a cartoon character crushed by a piano, my teeth dangling in my mouth like black and white ivory keys. I wanted to dive into the ocean and swim away with the whales.
His hand was thick and warm. It was twice as old as mine. As our palms touched, our lines of destiny crisscrossing each other, I lost my sight. I was led down the beach by this hand, this unfathomable hand that fished in the day and twitched with the dreams of war at night, that remembered the feel of a trigger.
“Can I kiss you?” was the next thing he said to me. I winced. Every moment that had ever passed between us wilted and drained away at our feet until we were left standing in mid-air; there was nothing between us but this one moment, and one word that my mouth had to say. Wave after wave fell upon the sand, crawled up toward our feet and fell back in the undertow.
I felt my teeth and my tongue turn to chalk; I don’t know how I spoke. But I drew out the answer in hopes of dulling the point. “I don’t think so.”