He is the reason I carry a pocket voice-recorder at all times.
In the three days I knew him, Ray showed up every day wearing suspenders over a short-sleeve collared shirt; the same Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) sweat-stained ball cap; an American Legion cotton face-mask for COVID-19 precautions; and a pair of glorious coke-bottle glasses with one lens twice as thick as the other—which was already twice as thick than any I had seen before.
He stood at a height of five feet eight inches, legs bowed, and touted an all-American, red-white Bud Light beer belly. Ray not only sounds like a caricature—but he was one in every sense of the word.
And if you are wondering why I am describing him in the past tense, well, it’s because there's a decent chance the man could now be dead.
I met Ray in April of this year, 2021, after working together—if you could call it that. You see, in my latest line of work, part of the gig involves traveling often; and, in this particular instance, I had gotten a call to head up north, traveling through Bakersfield up the dirt-ridden agricultural belt of central California, to arrive in a little armpit town by the name of Ivanhoe, population 4,198.
My work since February has had to do with COVID-19 vaccination sites. Every week I get a phone call telling me where to go. Sometimes I have a few day’s notice; other times, I receive the call in the afternoon, and I am on a plane first thing the next morning. From there, the story is typically the same. I arrive to a city and locate the specific site venue as allocated by the county or the state. There I meet the point of contact—i.e. the person with the keys to the venue. In Ivanhoe, this person was Ray.
For each of the three mornings I spent in Ivanhoe, I arrived to the site location and called Ray to come let me inside.
“Hell-o?” He would say, separating hell— from —o with a plop of his tongue.
“Hey, Ray. I’m here at the site.”
“Okie doke. On my way.”
And that’s the gist of that. No more than thirty-seconds later would I see Ray rounding the corner in his old, mustard Chevy Cheyenne truck which was decorated with stickers like a soldier's uniform: “Don’t Tread On Me”; “Semper Fi”; an American flag with the words “Honoring American Veterans”.
I talked to Ray quite a bit during my stay. Every time he had something to say he felt was extra juicy, he would lean in close to me, pull down his American Legion face mask, and whisper—even when we were the only two people in the building.
“There’s no way I could afford to have eye operations,” he said to me on the second morning.
“And I said [to the military], ‘Hey, look, you guys pay for these eye operations, and then I don’t have to send in to have new prescriptions to be done every year, or every other year. You’re saving money hand-over-fist cause they cost three, four-hundred bucks a pop. It’s cheaper for everybody all around.’”
He leaned toward me and whispered, “So they decided to go ahead and do it.”
Once his were eyes fixed, Ray had his sights set on a grand adventure. His plan was to have his brother take him into the mountains, nowhere in particular, and drop him off with only three days of supplies. If he were still alive, his brother would pick him back up and take him home to his mustard truck.
“That’ll be good,” I said. “Three days is perfect.”
“No,” he said. “Thirty days.”
I asked him what he meant. He explained that, yes, he was going out with three days rations, but after those ran out he would enter survival mode, to hunt and live off the land.
“I’m taking three days food, water and clothing,” he said.
“And I’m taking my pistol with a hundred rounds. I use a forty-five with hollow points and, as long as you remember: one shot, one kill. One shot, you get people’s attention. If you shoot again, they’re gonna pinpoint where you’re at.
Now, even if you don’t kill it, you’re still gonna have to follow the blood trail because you can’t leave a wounded animal out there. Once you kill it, you skin it—cut it up, use whatever you want; don’t waste the food. Dry it out. Add a little bit of salt, set it in the sun, you know, and let it dry out so you beef it—if you wanna call it that.
“You can smoke it and use whatever—let’s say leftovers, if you can. And all the guts and everything—you want to dig a hole and bury it because you don’t want the animals—and you don’t do it near where you got your bivouac, because the animals will smell that blood and they’ll come over there looking. And if they’re hungry enough, they’ll attack you, too. So you have to be careful.”
At this point, I wanted more than anything to ask this man who could barely see, hear, or walk, if he were actually serious. He sure seemed like it, but it was also bat shit crazy talk.
However, the more he went on, the more I began to recognize the cracks which revealed a more depressing side of the story.
I realized he could very well be sharing words that were better to be told to a therapist, and not a writer with a recorder. I felt I was hearing Ray's long, lost dream of redeeming the image of his former self; and this was his final fantasy about playing soldier one last time.
“I’ll be in one spot for two or three days, and then I’ll move someplace else. I don’t want people getting used to me being out there”.
“Will you bring a tent?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “If you find a nice cave, as long as you burn it out on the inside and then do the same thing to the ground—cause you gotta remember: you got ticks and you got fleas. The animals use those caves to sleep in, too. Just in case there’s any scorpions or anything like that, you wanna make sure you heat it up. Try to get those animals out of there.
“And then you dig a little hole in the ground. Put some, you know, some brush in there and you heat up a fire—get it going real good—put a bunch of rocks in there. You dump them inside; you don’t want them so that they burn anything, but you want them so they’re nice and warm while you’re sleeping. Then you put another layer down, put your sleeping bag on top of that, and it keeps you warm all-night long. You can keep the fire going if you want to, you know, but you want to use—we were always told to use roots from trees and stuff because when they burn they don’t give off a whole lotta smoke.
“The best time for a fire is late at night,” he explained. “Or early in the morning, because there’s haze and everything—but people may smell it, but they won’t be able to pinpoint where it’s at. And if you do any cooking, make sure you clean up because the animals will smell that, too, and that will draw them in.”
He leaned in for the whisper.
“You have to mark your territory. Yeah. So, you put the tree here, and the tree over there, and a tree over there, and you pee on it. And you can walk back and forth. The animals come and they smell that. Usually they’ll back off, but you’re letting them know, ‘Hey, there’s a human being out there.’ And if that don’t work, then you might have to fight. Depends on the animals, whether they’re really hungry, or not. But if you see any babies out there—don’t mess with the babies because the momma is out there somewhere, and she will attack to defend her babies. Well, same thing with women nowadays, you know, they’ll fight like hell to protect their kids. Same thing with the animals. Only, they got claws and teeth and they don’t hesitate to use them.”
“Are you taking a cell phone?” I asked.
“Nope. Just a little crank-up radio,” he said. “Just for the emergency weather reports.
“Now I’d like to have a barrel—I could change that damn pistol into a rifle real quick, but it’s against the law in California. You can’t order the barrel, okay? Or the classic butt stop that you attach to the pistol. It’s illegal to ship it into California. And that’s illegal. It goes against the Dick Act of June 28  which says you can buy any weapon, any size magazine, any caliber, so long as you can buy it. You’re not a felon, you can buy it. As long as it can be seen when being carried.
“And,” he continued, “It is against the law for them to enforce you to register your weapon. They can do a background check, but they cannot prevent you from any weapon or any size magazine—auto or fully-auto. If they try to force you to register your weapon—technically, if you got a good lawyer, you can take them to court and sue them. It’s against the law, and this law supersedes any bill or any law that they pass preventing you from carry.”
“According to them,” he said, “Anybody that forces you to register your weapon—regardless of office—will be arrested. Will. be. arrested. Fined, and put in prison. Any policeman, any gun dealer, any officer of the court or any government official, okay, regardless of office, they will be arrested. I haven’t seen that happen yet. It don’t make sense.”
“No, that doesn’t,” I said.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “But that’s one thing—that if I could get me a damn automatic shotgun. I like the one that has the drum. You can get a hundred round drum on the shotgun and I want to get the Borg Rounds because they’re little square ones like this—” He said and showed me with his fingers.
“You ever see Star Trek? The borg ships that they use?”
“I’m unfamiliar,” I admitted.
“Okay, well, it’s their version of—the Borg is a—let’s say, human-machine hybrid, okay? And so, basically, it’s harder than hell to kill them. But the Borg ship is a square box. So, imagine two of those next to each other. When they first hit, they break up immediately, and they go [into the body, creating] a square about that,” he said, again showing me with his fingers.
“As soon as it hits the skin it breaks up [and] spreads even more than a hollow point. So it’s gonna go in and it’s gonna take a hell of a lot of meat coming out the backside. Because what it does—you have to be careful when you shoot somebody. You can use regular rounds, I mean, you know, solid shot or beans or whatever, and rock salt. But I like Borg round because it’s got stopping power.
“In the old days, a lot of guys had shotguns because people were afraid of them. Because it did more damage. But if you have hollow points—and I got three specials, just in case; but I don’t put them in unless I absolutely think I need them. Doesn’t matter where it hits you. Even if you don’t die right away, you will die. Because the speciality that I’ve fixed up, and like I say, that’s only in case of emergency situations.
“But if I got ten guys against me, I got ten rounds. As long as I can fire one round at each one, I know I’m okay. But if I have to fire two shots, you know, that’s not good. Because then you have to drop the damn magazine and put the other one in real quick and lock-and-load before the other guys get to you. And if they got their own weapons, they come at you with a knife or a club or something—hey, that’s threatening my life; I have right to defend myself,” he said.
“As long as they don’t come up within striking distance, I have no problem with them being there, but now, I’m okay with people coming up next to me.”
The longer Ray talked, the further he got from the mountains near Ivanhoe, and closer to the mountains he most likely knew as a young soldier.
“Every once in a while,” he said, “Somebody will grab me and I’ll reach out and grab their damn arm and get ready to flip em over. I’m not that bad anymore. I still look on top of the buildings, and around bushes and trees and cars and stuff like that.
“And backfires—every once in a while that will shake me up, but it don’t scare me like it used to. I used to drop down and roll over thinking somebody was shooting at me. And then I got used to it. But it’s just weird, you know, you don’t remember everything but you remember enough to keep yourself from getting killed. But I enjoyed it. As long as you don’t talk religion or politics,” he said, “The other people from other countries—you get along great.”
I asked him where he had been stationed.
“I was in Okinawa, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Thailand. Man, it was beautiful over there. And some of the food…outrageous.”
I mentioned to him my time in Vietnam.
“Well, they told me I might have been contaminated with Agent Orange,” Ray said.
“And I say, ‘Wait a minute. I was never in the country.’
They says 'You don’t have to be.'
I says, ‘Wait a minute. What? Explain this to me.’
They say, 'Well, we found out because of the contamination from Agent Orange—all you gotta do is touch the damn stuff or breathe it in, and you’re contaminated.'
I say, ‘Well, how do you know?’
They say, 'Well, the makeup from the ground over there—the chemical makeup—changes the ground to orange.' I said, ‘Oh?’
“They say, ‘Those containers that you guys had coming back…full of weapons?’
I said, ‘Yeah, we had mud and blood, and dead animals and dead leaves and some money and equipment that didn’t belong to us; I mean, you know, seven eighty-two gear: helmets, partridge belts, canteens, you know, ponchos…that kind of stuff.’
“He says, ‘Yeah, well if any of that stuff was contaminated, you weren’t wearing gloves, were you? Or a mask?’
“I said, ‘No. Nobody told us we had to.’
“Said, 'Well, all you gotta do is breathe that dirt in or touch anything that was contaminated—it soaks directly into your skin; you’re contaminated.’
“I said, ‘How do you prove it?’
“He said, ‘Well, through our tests, 99.9% of the people come down class-2 diabetic.’
“I say, ‘I wasn’t a class-2 diabetic until 2010.’
“Says 'Well, it affects people different.’
“Nobody in my family was a diabetic.”
“[He] says, ‘Something else…’
“I say, ‘Now what?’
“He says, ‘Well, you get like, uh, pimples on your arms and your shoulders and your legs? Sometimes it’s real bad and sometimes it clears up and it goes away?’
“And I said, ‘Yeah, well I had that after I come home from Okinawa the first time, but I didn’t—I was 17 and a half, 18 when I got back over here. I didn’t know. I thought it was just normal puberty.’
“He says, ‘No. You could have been contaminated.’
“So now, I gotta fight the military on that one,” he said to me. “But because Trump passed that Bluewater Deal, technically you didn’t have to be in country, but you still could have been contaminated—like the guys on ships. Well, even though they didn’t actually make it into the war zone itself, anybody coming in from in-country and landing on the ship, you touch them or interact with them—any of their equipment could have been contaminated: clothing, boots, whatever. All you gotta do is touch it or breathe it in—you’re contaminated.
“I didn’t know,” Ray said to me.
“Hell, we had eight or nine guys handling armory; nobody told us. But, it’s just something else I gotta worry about."
At this point, Ray reached his limit and he stopped talking for the first time in twenty minutes. His eyes had become sad, cast off into some far corner of the room, surely viewing the images of the past he just described.
I felt sorry I ever opened the can of worms. And we did not speak of anything other than work the rest of the time we were together.
I'd like to think I learned a lot from Ray, even though most of it wasn't pretty. To be sure, I got a firsthand account of the it looks like to be an American war veteran rusting away, half-forgotten and trapped in a tiny, desert town with nothing to do but unlock doors and beg the country he defended for a new pair of glasses.
I try to convince myself that the chance of Ray undertaking his proposed mountain journey was probably next to zero. But there’s something romantic about imagining Ray in his suspenders and VFW hat—no longer wearing coke-bottle glasses because his eyes have been fixed—sitting in a cleared-out cave, listening to reports of an incoming storm on his little crank-up radio, with the reflection of a small camp fire dancing in his ice-blue, war-sharpened eyes.
In that image, I know Ray is alive.