What happens when an anti-war activist-turned-fugitive discovers that he must confront his personal demons before he can rejoin the battle against the Vietnam War?
Two-shirt weather. That’s what they called it. In the sunlight, you could work without a coat, but if you toiled in shadow or stopped moving, your hands and feet stiffened up. Pretty soon you were rubbing your palms together and stomping up and down in your boots. Two-shirt weather also meant you damned well better have laid in a supply of firewood for the windswept winters of the Eastern slope.
One bright, two-shirt Saturday, a crowd of Montgomery, Colorado’s citizens drove up onto government land above town. In the interests of laying in a supply of firewood for the winter, a group of us had decided that six saws were better than one.
Flying on coffee and pancakes, a convoy of ancient pickups and flatbeds had left Ed Kellogg’s Peak to Peak Café and climbed into the Roosevelt National Forest. We called it the King’s Forest. I guess that made us Robin Hood and his merry band of men, only there was no Robin Hood in Montgomery, only freaks, old libertarians, left-wing anarchists, and draft dodgers. Besides half of Montgomery’s merry men were women, and a powerful caucus they did make.
* * *
On that two-shirt Saturday, the whole town, or at least anyone who wanted to participate, was up in the King’s Forest, gathering firewood. Even Georgia came along, bringing a brace of gangly youths from her gypsy truckers’ commune. They were happy to pitch in to secure firewood for their encampment. If you didn’t have a truck, if you didn’t have a saw, no matter. Everybody worked, everybody got a share. Not only did we decide together… We consumed together – everything was passed around, from a joint to an open bottle of beer to a roll of roofing paper to a dose of the clap.
The silvery crags of deadwood were easy to spot. They stood out, stark against the new growth around them. Standing dead wood dried slowly in the weather like the wicks of an exposed kerosene lamp. No water collected to soften the cellulose. Until they toppled onto the piney woods floor, they would not decay. Standing dead wood was hard and dry, easy to cut and split. It was perfect for cooking. After it was thrown on the fire, standing dead wood reached maximum temperature quickly, but the dense, tight grain of the high-altitude pine threw off the stored energy of the sun for hours.
That Saturday, we set up a wood-cutting assembly line. Three of us — armed with the ubiquitous red-and-gray German Stihl chain saws that prophesized the end of America’s industrial monopoly — marched through the forest spotting the big snags and cutting them down. An intoxicating aroma arose when the busy blades hit the crystallized pine pitch.
A second wave of chainsaw-wielding citizens followed behind, cleaning the branches off the trunks and bucking the fallen timber into rough, eight-foot lengths that could be humped to the trucks parked in the clearing. Cold air, hot coffee, and whiskey kept us cutting and moving.
I worked ahead of the bucking crew, spotting and felling, inhaling the pine pitch as it rose into the clear air, watching colonies of black ants, logy from the cold, tumble out of the fallen spires that had been their metropoli. I had just knocked down a thick, straight snag about forty feet tall. With no foliage to cushion its fall, the dead log landed with a solid thump and the dry, sharp snap of breaking branches. High on destruction, I stepped over the fallen carcass, revving my chain saw, looking for another target. Penetrating the oily-heat smell of the idling saw, a thin, sweet stench hit my nostrils. I stopped, looked around and…My heart convulsed.
At the far end of the downed and rotting trunk of an ancient Douglas fir, a human body lay face down, pigeon-toed, legs pronated inward from ankle to hip. I shut down the chain saw and stood, frozen in the warm sunlight. I didn’t have to see the face. From the unnatural way the body curved to accommodate the terrain, I knew the spirit had left the frame. He couldn’t have been long dead, this man, his hair tousled boyishly, his arms tucked beneath in awkward discomfort. Tenderness engulfed me. I wanted to take the lifeless form in my arms, to comfort its loneliness. Instead, I stood my distance, feeling my heartbeat quiet down. The sadness passed, replaced by panic.
I backed away from the body and hollered for help.
Reisinger was the first to arrive. Norman came next, looking skeptical. I showed them the body. Jim Kelly and Cheryl came in from another direction. Juicy Brucie turned white as a sheet, said “Jesus,” and looked away. No one moved toward the body. Ruby came looking to see where everybody had gone. In the distance, the sound of the Mad Monk’s chainsaw whooped and hollered its way through another standing dead snag. Barbed Wire Bill joined the circle.
Georgia burst into the clearing but held back. “Who is it?” she asked Ruby, who shrugged, eyes wide with fright.
Norman took a breath, unclenched his hands, and walked gingerly along the backside of the fallen tree until he stood over the body. He bent over, stiff-kneed, hands on his thighs. He looked like an adolescent surveying a dead bird. Finally, he jumped to the ground, squinted at the body from another angle, then looked back at us.
“He’s been shot,” Norman announced. “In the back.”
Eddie moved forward, hands thrust in his jeans, and gave the body a prod with his boot.
“Eddie, don’t!” Cheryl admonished.
“Be good to know who it is,” Eddie reasoned. He pushed harder and the body fell away from the fir snag and rolled face up. A hole the size of a grapefruit had been blown outward from its chest. Dried blood clotted the blues and purples of the corpse’s plaid shirt.
Georgia let out a husky, full-throated scream which she broke quickly by thrusting both pitch-stained hands into her mouth. She collapsed to her knees, moaning, then curled into a fetal position on the ground.
“Jeez,” said Reisinger. “Think she knows the guy?”
The little knot of woodcutters stood in awkward silence, watching her writhe on the sunlit pine needles. Jim kneeled next to her and touched her shoulder.
She tore his hand away.
Malfese broke into the clearing, still carrying his idling chainsaw. “Hey, am I the only guy cuttin’ firewood up here? What’s with you peo. . .“ He stopped, grinning uncomfortably. “What’s going on? We got a problem?”
* * *
Georgia tried to approach the body a second time but could not. Instead she doubled over and broke into another chorus of incoherent sobs.
Reisinger returned with a tarpaulin. We lowered the canvas onto the broken body. Cheryl and Jim took Georgia back to Norman’s truck, where there was another pint of Wild Turkey and a thermos of coffee.
“Who is this guy?” I asked.
“Ask Georgia,” Jim said.
“I don’t think she’s gonna wanna do much talking just yet,” Ruby said.
“We gotta tell somebody,” said Reisinger. “We can’t just leave him here.”
“We can’t move him,” said Eddie. “He’s been shot.”
“It’s against the law,” Norman echoed. “Movin’ a murder victim.”
“We gotta tell the authorities,” Barbed Wire Bill said. It’s funny. The guys who holler loudest about offing the pigs are often the quickest to holler for help when the shit comes down. Bill was one of those guys.
“We better think about that,” Eddie said.
“Why?” asked Cheryl.
“This town is already on the official shit list, ain’t it?” he said.
“Yeah, but this is homicide. This guy didn’t trip on his gun and shoot himself in the back,” Reisinger said.
“But the county pigs?” Malfese questioned. “Get wise.”
“Besides, Georgia knows the guy,” I said. “That wraps it a whole lot tighter. Anything the sheriff wants to throw at us. . . “ I shrugged.
Norman regarded the lump of treated canvas. “He’ll keep for the better part of a day and a night in this weather,” he said. “Then we gotta tell Johnny.”
The sober little crew worked its way back through the forest until Cheryl stopped dead in her tracks. “Y’know. . . the local coyotes probably aren’t going to have much regard for states’ evidence or corpus delecti or whatever that body is to us. To them. . . that guy is just another blue plate special.”
Wordlessly, we retraced our steps, rolled the cold, stiff body up in the tarpaulin and hauled it down to the trucks.
Georgia lay huddled in the corner of the cab of Norman’s truck. I drove her down the mountain. Brucie wanted to go along, but I left him behind. I wanted to be alone with her. I accused myself of taking advantage, but I was fascinated by her -- and the circumstances of her heartbreak. I let the convoy of half-loaded trucks file past us and drove slowly downhill, coasting in second gear.
“We were together. In California,” she muttered, almost angry. “Before I came out here.” In a tired voice, flat with grief and fatigue, Georgia told me the story: They both had been working with the Mobilization to End the War, the Mobe, a conflict-ridden coalition that struggled to keep the nation’s unruly, anarchistic, anti-war groups coordinated and connected.
He wasn’t one of the big politico mucky-mucks, Georgia said, not this guy. He wasn’t a big talker. He operated best behind the scenes, a get-the-job-done kind of a guy who had dropped out of school at Ann Arbor to fight the power. She sighed, some image or memory pushing the wind out of her. He traveled the country, she told me, following the anti-war organizers, moving from campus to crash pad, making sure the hippies and students didn’t fuck things up when it came time to protest. He made sure the permits were in order, that there was food for people, crappers at the demo sites, and that the medics got the training they needed to deal with clubbed heads, torn ears, broken arms, and lacerated limbs. The grinding inevitability of the war and the troop escalation bore down hard on their lives.
I knew what she meant. The same pressures had stretched me thin, pulling me away from Tilly, pushing me into this mountain retreat.
For Georgia and this guy, their time together consisted of caffeinated, 72-hour organizing marathons and non-violence trainings followed by hastily-grabbed, exhausted flops on commune couches and no-budget, cross-country junkets. “He took it too personal,” she explained—the shooting deaths of the Panthers, the continual harassment and arrests, the sabotage of one underground newspaper after another, the discovery that the drip down the hall was a snitch, the friends who got drafted and split for Canada. “He got quiet,” she said. “Quiet and angry. . . grim. It was beginning to mess me up. He never cracked. Never copped to how tired he was, or how scared he was, or anything. He was like a machine, like a Marine, like. . . one of them. He started to piss me off.” She began to cry again. “I got to hate the sight of him. I didn’t want him to touch me. When I knew it was going to get ruined, I told him we needed to change something. We needed to split. To mellow out,” she said. “He wouldn’t.
Looking at my own life now, living alone with two dogs in an old miner’s shack, I couldn’t testify that getting away from it all was the right remedy either. Georgia went on.
" ‘We’re nothing,’ he’d say. ‘You and me. What do our little problems mean, compared to the napalm and the nightmare over there?’ " She stared out the window. “He tried to make me feel bad, but I wouldn’t let him. I told him, if he burnt out, he wouldn’t be any good to anybody. 'The Movement needs us,’ that’s all he would say. Over and over and over again. Shit.”
“What was his name?” I asked.
She snapped around, fixing me in a wet-eyed stare. “Who wants to know?”
“Just curious.” I tried to disarm her anger at my probe. She was already in enough pain. She didn’t need me adding to it. “I don’t need to know his name.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she sighed. “Shit, man. Call him Joe.”
“Okay,” I said. “Joe.”
She licked the tears off her upper lip like a kid. “He’s gone now. But he was gone to me, even then. The fucking Movement needed him. It sure as fuck didn’t need me. The guys made all the decisions. I was just Joe’s old lady.”
The familiarity with which she injected the name into her monolog told me that he really was Joe…Joe somebody.
“They took advantage of him. He did the work, they got the glory. I tried to point that out to him, but he just said ‘it takes all kinds to make a revolution,’ some crap like that. I got disgusted. We went through the usual break-up bummers — threats, crying, all that pain and sadness. And now it all feels so…wasted.”
I drove slowly, giving her time to talk.
“But I didn’t see where it was going. The war was getting more vicious, we were getting burnt out, going crazy. Finally, I didn’t hear from him anymore.” Georgia fell silent. She put her head on her knees, which she had drawn up on the seat beneath her long skirt. She smelled of pine needles and wet, salty flesh. I felt bad for her, but my head was full of questions.
What was this guy doing in a Rocky Mountain forest? Was he looking for her? Was he running away, too? Was it an accident that he was wandering around the same mountains where his former girlfriend had already taken shelter from the war? Where I had taken shelter from the war? I wanted to believe her story. This Joe, he could have been looking for her. Or, it could have been coincidence.
The world was full of cosmic overlap, people splitting and coming together, crossing and re-crossing paths. These collisions weren’t coincidental. They weren’t considered accidents. We were traveling along lines not defined by any map, bonded by the effort to engage or avoid the enemy, to fight the system, to find a new way. Sometimes these collisions were weird or conflict-ridden, or even—as in Georgia’s case—tragic, but they were always significant. We celebrated them as an affirmation of the size, range, and vitality of our community. We reveled in the possibility that there were no coincidences, only the flow of unity. Any moment could be significant. There was no order to it, only the mystery of the universe turned upside down by our own energy and the twin realities of war and the stinking, ever-present karma of a nation that still believed its leaders.
# # #
This story excerpted from the novel A Bowl Full of Nails.